Archive for the ‘Philly arts and culture’ Category

Making Art in 2017: Michaela Shuchman on Airswimming

Posted August 17th, 2017

(Left to right) Michelle Johnson and Michaela Shuchman. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Name: Michaela Shuchman (Performer)

Company: Half Key Theatre Company

Show in 2017 Festival: Airswimming

Past Festival shows: Scarlet Letters with Ross & Diggs

FringeArtsTell us a bit about your show. Where did the concept develop from? What are some questions you are tackling?

Michaela Shuchman: Set in 1920’s Ireland, Airswimming by Charlotte Jones is based on the true story of two women imprisoned in a mental hospital for daring to challenge society’s definition of womanhood. Forgotten by the world, Dora and Persephone come together for one hour each day to clean and find connection. Through sheer force of will, friendship, and a penchant for Doris Day, they redefine their world and resist confinement for over 50 years.

Airswimming explores female identity and friendship at a time in Irish history when mental health and women’s issues converged. Jones takes the imagined circumstances of two real imprisoned women and asks: How do we express and accept ourselves when our freedoms have been taken away? How can finding connection with another person help us better understand ourselves? What does Doris Day have to do with any of this? Airswimming speaks to the desire in all of us to be free from societal constraints, to dance and be weird and wacky with our best friends, and to find meaning in the most unexpected of places. 

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Making Art in 2017: Noa Schnitzer on The Currency of Belief

Posted August 16th, 2017

Noa Schnitzer. Photo by Heather Dawn Sparks.

Name: Noa Schnitzer

Show in 2017 Festival: The Currency of Belief: Trapeze and Spiritual Comedy

FringeArtsTell us a bit about your show. Where did the concept develop from? What are some questions you are tackling?

Noa Schnitzer: I am engaged in exploring the intangible elements that make up the gap between who we are and who we want to be (as a solo entity and as a community). To begin illuminating this gap is to understand where we come from as individuals. In this show, religion and gender are put under my artistic microscope. I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community and decided to stop practicing at the age of 18. Over the years, prayers from this past pop up in my mind and stay with me for days. The fact that 15 years later these prayers have an  involuntary voice in my mind got me thinking about the strength and significance of prayer, practice, and identity in community. In The Currency of Belief, the voice of prayer holds space for the hidden seams in this one life I am exploring, my own. Through these illumination a question arises: is there anything that prayer is not?

FringeArts: How have your interests in or approach to art making changed in the last year? Have you found yourself taking anything new into consideration?

Photo by Abigail Bell, Michelle Bates and Heather Dawn Sparks.

Noa Schnitzer: I am more proactive in reaching out to people that I want to collaborate with. The thing that I always need to practice accepting is that my art is important, and while conventional parameters of success are an amplifier for my ego, I am the main amplifier of my ideas.

FringeArts: Tell us about an instance from 2017 where your interaction with art—either as creator or audience—provided some much needed solace or refuge from outside troubles.

Noa Schnitzer: It was at a Drum Like a Lady jam. LaTreice V. Branson has an amazing life force and it resonates through the community she invites around her. It is both powerful and humbling to feel the undeniable rhythm that everyone in the room was creating. Dance is my language and music, the pen strokes. We have reached a scary time where we need one another and we need the feeling and practice of being connected. The Drum like a Lady community creates this. No matter where a person is in their life the sound of a drum holding a RHYTHM awakens an inner essence.

East Meets West, Old Meets New: The Dreamlike Beauty of Hua Hua Zhang’s Experimental Puppetry

Posted August 16th, 2017

Hua Hua Zhang with a puppet from White Nights

You enter a room and are surrounded by translucent white. There are strange, undulating formations, and a strange, ghostly light filters down from a hidden source. You feel as if you are on the surface of the moon. Welcome to White Nights, the newest production by Hua Hua Zhang of Visual Expressions. Hua Hua has been working in puppetry for over thirty-five years, creating productions that are both unique in their style and dazzling in their beauty. She aims to combine Eastern and Western art in her work, as well as old traditions with contemporary styles. Her work breaks the boundaries that have defined puppetry for generations, combining it with poetry, visual art, dance, theater, and music. White Nights is an experimental work, a series of dreamlike scenes that can be interpreted in a multitude of ways by the audience, all aiming for a path toward peace of mind. There will be a half-an-hour preview of the show during the 2017 FringeArts Festival. The final show will take place in November.

The series of images in White Nights makes use of individual characters, some of them curious, others in love, others lonely. It will take place in the large gallery space of the Asian Arts Initiative. The setting is a giant desert, based on the Chinese poem Night. The audience will sit on the ground, around a small “pool of water,” and will be surrounded by pods that will serve as Chinese lanterns and shadowy silhouettes from Chinese ink paintings, as well as other symbols of a moon and a sun. The puppeteers will perform around the audience, who may interact with their movements. Musicians Bhob Rainy and Gamin Kang will also be present on the space, playing live music and interacting with the narratives. There will be four puppet performers who have been trained in the style developed by Hua Hua. The performers use the stylized movements of traditional Chinese performance, but use the puppets in an entirely different way, showing their entire bodies and moving with their objects. Interactions between the performers and the audience, and between the puppet performers and their puppets, cause constant questioning of their roles: the performer wonders, “Am I manipulating this puppet, or is the puppet manipulating me?” while the audience asks, “Am I watching the show, or am I a part of it?”

Curious Figure at the 27th Annual National Puppetry Conference

The characters in the show find themselves in the middle of a desert, and explore their environment, which changes throughout the show. There is a paper woman, a rose, a fairy, three masked persons, and a lonely “figure,” who has a magical dance with a balloon. These characters are reminiscent of The Little Prince: they are isolated from any recognizable society, however, they are familiar to us. “I don’t want to tell the audience what to believe,” says Hua Hua. “I want each person to interpret it on their own. I think contemporary art needs the audience involved, being a part of the creation, being a part of the journey, connection with their own journey, instead of just me.” Hua Hua creates each of these puppets herself in her home studio. She created the lonely “figure,” who has no name, when she, herself, was feeling lonely, and like many artists, used her craft as a cathartic motion. “The moment I feel that, I do the sculpture. I made the whole figure simple, with just one leg. When I’m making the piece, I don’t realize the origin. Art can release you, and tell you, you have something to show. It’s kind of a ghost—intuition, or instinct.” She follows the character of the puppet that she’s created to build the scene. “Sometimes, when I’m first creating the sculpture, I have no story, but my sculpture tells me the story. If I see, he’s a little sad, I follow the sadness, and I get a sad story.” Another puppet she made appeared as if he was looking for something. “This is the curious puppet, and he is a dreamer. I wanted to explore immigration. We dream. We dream about America, we dream about it being beautiful and creating freedom. He’s so curious. That is where I come in. I’m curious! What does this country look like? What is it like to be an artist, with a freedom of expression?”

While Hua Hua is highly skilled in both the creation and performance of her puppets, she was not able to fully express herself when living in China. “It was very controlling at that time, twenty years ago. I wanted to be an artist, but they assigned me as a performer. I wasn’t even a sculptor, but I wanted to make sculptures and paint.” She was able to make visual art after coming to the United States. She had trained at the Beijing Academy of Performing Arts, but in 1996, joined the University of Connecticut for a Masters of Fine Arts in Puppet Art. At the time, it was the only program of its kind. As a student, she was able to start sculpting and painting, and her professors found that she had an innate talent for making visual art. “I didn’t even know I had it inside of me.” She began creating puppets and developed an individual style, using the entire body to interact with the puppet. Later, she attended a workshop with

Hua Hua in her studio

legendary puppet artist Albrecht Roser. “I wanted to manipulate the puppet, and I wanted to learn how to control it, but he said, ‘Everybody, listen. Sometimes, you have to listen to the puppet, the puppet will tell you.’ It was very spiritual.” His work influenced hers, and she found that after creating a puppet, the goal of the puppet performer is to follow the whims of the character inside that object, rather than manipulating it completely. “I’m performing, but still, I feel it through me. I give the transition for the soul for the object.” Their entire body is often visible, unless occasionally hidden by long sheets of fabric that still move dynamically with the angles of the performer.

This is where Hua Hua Zhang’s shows become remarkably interdisciplinary. In order to be effective as one of her puppeteers, you must be highly skilled in dance and theater, as well as puppetry. She trains many of the performers that work with her, and is currently training the three that will be in the show. She trained many dancers for a long time, but then found that it was much better to train actors. “The movement is very stylized. You need to make sure you see, you think, you react, and then see again. You have to have both dance, and thought. I was working with theater, and it was a journey.” One of these performers is Elizabeth Weinstein, a Philadelphia-based movement artist, educator, and doula. Another is Travis Daniel Draper, who is trained in physical theater and animation. The third is Jeanne Lyons, who is an interdisciplinary performing artist. Both Jeanne and Travis study at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training, while Elizabeth completed her study at the Headlong Performance Institute. Hua Hua enjoys working with actors like them immensely, who are still relatively new to the world of performance, and are excited about the unique opportunities that puppetry has for the theater.

The production combines all of these elements with original music. Again combining east and west, old and new, the two musicians will play their work live. Bhob Rainey (also composing for the Fringe Festival curated show Hello Blackout!) is a sound designer, who is also an award-winning composer. He uses electronics in much of his music, and will be intertwining these sounds with that of Gamin Kang. Gamin is a South Korean musician, who is one of the most celebrated traditional musicians in her country. She is the yisuja of the Intangible Cultural Asset Number 46 for two instruments, the piri and the daechita. She also plays a Korean oboe called the taepyeongso, and the saengwhang, a very ancient wind instrument. Bhob will perform on the drums at a point in the show, dressed as a demon and surrounded by additional demons. Gamin will be in the Fairy’s Dream scene, interacting with a giant flower. A fourth puppet performer, Chad Williams, will be intertwining his more traditional puppet style into the show. “He has a very standard, American hand-puppet style. I want to experiment by putting it into my Eastern show, and blend them together.” His puppet, however, will be minimalist, and he will be experimenting as well, using his full body to move with the puppet.

Three puppets from White Nights

Hua Hua is constantly working at the edges of these disciplines, and pushing forward the boundaries of puppetry and its potential. “I want to honor the tradition of puppetry as well as take a risk to push the limits of traditional puppetry into the contemporary. Most people see puppet art with a narrow vision,” she says. “Puppetry is considered entertainment for children, that can be performed by anyone.” While she does performances for families, they are much more traditional, and are not at all experimental in the way of her more avant-garde works like White Nights. Puppet art crosses the limitations of time and space, allowing us all to explore the furthest reaches of imagination and opening us to endless creative possibilities.” In order to explore its potential, she says that people must understand that puppetry is all about movement, not just in the hands. She teaches through the stylized performance art of the Chinese theater. “I teach my students that their feet are the connection to the earth, and sending the energy through their body to the puppet, to give a soul of puppet life.” Her puppets are not controlled by strings, or stuck onto poles. Instead, they are sometimes in the forms of masks, or large beings suspended on various sticks. While they look simple in form (albeit complicated in the detail on their faces,) learning the performance to master their technique takes time and practice.

Finding the “soul of the puppet” is the ultimate goal for her puppet performers, again asking themselves if they are controlling the puppet, or if the puppet leads them to move. This ambiguity is what drives much of her work, including the premise of White Nights. She was inspired by an ancient Taoist philosopher, Zhangzi. “He had a dream that he had become a butterfly, and derived pleasure from flying. After he awakened, he asked whether he dreamed he was a butterfly, or if the butterfly was dreaming that he was a man,” she says. “This ambiguity is explored throughout the show by blurring the line between reality and dream.” While her art acts as a meditation on her life experiences, it aims to do the same for anyone watching the show. “The show connects my life experiences and the experiences of others with today’s society, issues, and concerns. It connects with audience members, giving them inspiration to explore their true selves and, hopefully, find balance and inner peace.”

White Nights
Hua Hua Zhang/Visual Expressions

$10 / 30 minutes

Asian Arts Initiative: Dance Studio C
1219 Vine Street

Sept 19 at 7:30pm + 9pm


– Isabella Siegel

Photos: Richard Termine (banner, second photo, and last photo,) Hua Hua Zhang (sixth photo,) and Adam Danoff (all other photos)

Filipino Folkdance, Contemporary Ballet, and Motherhood: Annielille Gavino Kollman’s HERstory

Posted August 11th, 2017

Annielille Gavino Kollman in HERstory

What do you get when you combine modern choreography, folkdance polyrhythms, and a baby? The dances of Annielille Gavino Kollman strive to bring together eastern and western styles, while incorporating many other disciplines, and using a group of dancers diverse in both race and generation. Her newest work, HERstory, is a three-part production that investigates the theme of motherhood and culture, and is supported by the Small But Mighty Art Grant. Originally from the Philippines, Annielille’s dance is about her homeland as a mother, and acts as both a celebration and portrait of the women there as well as around the world. She first learned dance as a folkdancer, and now incorporates the styles from her country into contemporary movements. Much of the work is autobiographical, expressing Annielille’s experience as a mother and as a Filipina woman, but it also includes the backstories of the other dancers, who contribute vibrant rhythms by clapping, stomping, and yelling. It also includes spoken word through poetry written by the dancers and Lenora Howard, film projection by Jasmine Lynea Callis, and music composed by Maya Simonee. The work is powerful, dynamic, and beautiful, telling the story of motherhood in an entirely new way.

Annielille was born in the Philippines, and lived there until coming to New York after college. She attended the Alvin Ailey school of dance in 2000, which was a multicultural dance company, which catered to minorities who were often overlooked in the world of ballet and modern dance. She left the country “on impulse,” but she also left to escape extremely difficult circumstances. She was tired of being silenced as a woman, and of experineces of abuse by men.  “I was too vocal. I think that was the problem for them. I was too strong to be a submissive wife.” She had been dancing since she could remember, and was a highly skilled folkdancer. “It was just a way for me to get out of the country, so I just followed that, because I was good at it. It became cathartic to me, too, so I just kept doing it.”

After studying at Alvin Ailey, she danced around the United States for different companies, touring in Colorado, and then in Texas. Later she moved to Virginia, where she found very little creative dance, and a society that was less accepting of her than they had been in New York. “It was very segregated,” she says. “Being in a place where I saw Confederate flags every day of my life, I started to make art. I became a political artist at first, and more of a performance artist.” She had her daughter, and started teaching her dance. “When I didn’t have an outlet for dance, I started teaching her texture, colors, and letters through dance.” She also started choreographing for a Filipino folk dance group, where she began teaching her folk dances. She moved to Philadelphia two years ago, which was a welcome change. “I liked the grit, and a little bit of a faster pace. I love the row houses, and the little streets, where people can connect easier than in wider, suburban space. I feel more at home in cities like this.” Once in Philadelphia, she started dancing for Kun-Yang Li/Dancers, and soon, creating her own projects.

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Moving Against the Tides with Olive Prince

Posted August 9th, 2017

Olive Prince and Brandie Ou in Silencing the Tides

“In watching the tide and the ocean, I think a lot about how it slowly and suddenly shifts. You have to look at it closely, but it totally changes, from the beginning of tide to the end of tide. And I hope I do that with this space.”

Olive Prince founded her dance company in 2008, and since then, has been devising, creating, and teaching highly dynamic works of art. Olive Prince Dance (or OPD) works are often site-specific, such as past productions in the Magic Gardens and in the Iron Factory. For this year’s festival, however, the show is held in the Ballroom Philadelphia, and she is working with visual artist Carrie Powell as a conceptual collaborator for the show. Carrie is building a sculpture that will create an entirely new type of space for the dance. The show, called Silencing the Tides, is a work that exists under and around a large sculpture fabricated from clothing. The show is based on the idea of free will, juxtaposed with messages and metaphors from nature. She evokes strong images of the ocean’s tide, many of the ideas growing from the feeling of sand and the changing nature of the waves. The dancers sway between working together as large forces, and breaking out into their own movements. Sometimes calm, sometimes violent, they may break down barriers as if they were bodies of water, or they may escape each other as if they were sand.

Olive and Carrie are close friends, and the idea for Silencing the Tides grew out of conversations they had together last year. “We’re both artists, and we’re both mothers, and we often spend time together with our kids talking about art.” Carrie often writes poetry and creates drawings to go along with the ideas. She started making drawings that looked like piles of laundry. They talked together and started thinking about ideas of free will, as well as the forces of nature. Olive was drawing inspiration from literature she was reading, including “The Things they Carried” by Tim O’Brien:

“They did not submit to the obvious alternative, which was simply to close the eyes and fall. So easy, really. Go limp and tumble to the ground and let the muscles unwind and not speak and not budge till your buddies picked you up and lifted you into the chopper that would roar and dip its nose and carry you off to the world. A mere matter of falling, yet no one ever fell.”

She also brought in pieces of The Venerable Bede, from 703 CE (“The most admirable thing of all is this union of the ocean with the orbit of the Moon…the sea violently covers the coast far and wide…unwittingly drawn up by some breathings of the Moon.”) as well as Johnathan White and Mary Oliver’s short story, “Swoon.” “I had this really strong image of free will,” she says, “and going against the tide, and so we started exploring that.” Eventually the conversation between Olive and Carrie became the basis of the work. These conceptual conversations combining ideas from movement, visual art, poetry, are integral to the creation of new work, and it has become a defined process that they call in-the-round reciprocity.

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The Making of Ghost Rings: Interview with Tina Satter

Posted August 8th, 2017

“There had to be a real patience and generosity on their part. But that kind respect and assuming the best intentions of all involved is always the key to a collaboration as full-on as this was.”

Tina Satter is the artistic director of the Obie-winning theater company Half Straddle. Her work has been described by The New York Times as a “vitalizing blend of coziness and estrangement, weirdness and familiarity.” Her new show, Ghost Rings, coming to the 2017 Fringe Festival, is no exception. Drawing from events of her own life, she uses the format and flow of a pop concert to create a work of theater. On stage the band is made up of two women singers, an additional musician, and Satter herself on drums. Also present are two puppet “Private Inner Beings,” Deer and Seal-y. As the two characters grow up, the show examines their intense relationship, and the oscillating dynamics within deep connections between two people. We had a conversation with Tina Satter about her inspiration for Ghost Rings and the process of putting it together.

FringeArts: Do you remember how the title Ghost Rings came into being? Do you remember where you were?

Tina Satter: Yes, in 2011, I was at a three-day silent writing retreat in upstate New York facilitated by the incredible playwright Erik Ehn. It was through the Pataphysics Playwriting Workshops. I generated some writing there that I’d had no pre-plan for, and it was taking shape in its earliest forms as a conversation between two young women, I didn’t know yet if they were sisters or friends or romantic partners —and in this early writing they were discussing basic things like borrowing a sweater, but then also asking each other dark existential questions—and in that first writing I remember having this thought that there was this kind of candy these girls would eat—I imagined it as pale purple circles and I called the candy Ghost Rings. And then I must have left the retreat titling all that early writing, draft, whatever it was, Ghost Rings, because when we showed the earliest versions of it at CATCH in June 2012, the whole thing was then called Ghost Rings.

FringeArts: Can you discuss the basic creative and narrative starting point for the show?

Tina Satter: Well, I had this very early writing of these two girls discussing these banal and existential questions, and in this very early draft they also each had these inner animals – one girl had a Deer who was their corresponding inner animal, and the other had a Seal. [Initially we called these animals “Spirit Animals,” but having come to realize that this was very culturally insensitive, we’ve reconceived of these inner animals of each girl as “Private Inner Beings” that still manifest as Deer and Seal-y]. But I wanted to play with the idea that these weren’t actually cute, cuddly animals—but that they were kind of crass, and direct, and not necessarily mean, but maybe didn’t always offer great advice, that they sort of actually operate like “mean girls” and that the deer in particular wanted to talk about sex and stuff.

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Poetry in the Air: Tangle Movement Arts brings Life Lines to the Fringe

Posted July 26th, 2017

Rebecca Mo Davis in Life Lines

In their seventh consecutive Fringe Festival show, Tangle Movement Arts uses the poetry of aerial dance and acrobatics to express stories of loss. The show is Life Lines, and it blends together circus arts, theater, and live music.  Philadelphia-born Lauren Rile Smith is one of the producers of the show and founders of the company. “Life Lines is a portrait of a community that is recovering from sudden losses,” she says. “It follows the story of three different women who are processing and healing from really unexpected change: one losing a lover, one losing a sense of safety or security, one losing a sense of connection with others.” In line with much of Tangle’s past work, this show is intensely emotional. The artists use their movements as a physical language to express feelings of loss, “like when you literally feel like the ground can’t support you, or that the person who’s holding you will drop you suddenly.”

Lauren grew up in a family of artists. She’s the oldest of four sisters, all artists: one sister is a violist, one is a playwright, and another a glassblower. She had never practiced circus arts – she had been on the track to become a writer. But while studying English at Swarthmore College, Lauren encountered the writings of a dancer and acrobat that guided her in another direction. “I’ve had chronic pain for most of my adult life. She wrote about her body as though it were a companion, a creative project, a creative constraint, something to take care of, and something that took care of her. I was mesmerized by the possibility that really anyone could relate to their body that way, and I thought, I want that.” She began learning the trapeze in 2009, and found that the nature of the exercise, along with becoming stronger, diminished her pain. All at once, she found herself falling in love with the art form of trapeze. “I loved the way it married these concrete visual metaphors with these surreal actions, like spinning upside down.”

With a couple of friends, she started Tangle Movement Arts in 2011, as an all-women group that was barreling head-on into a new and growing contemporary circus arts movement. Their first show, Ampersand, was in the Fringe Festival that year. Since then, they’ve put on two major shows each year, along with smaller pop-up productions in between. Even though she’s from Philly, she found herself thrown into the Philly arts scene in a new way, discovering that it was a vibrant and innovative community. She met many artists that moved Philly specifically to make art. “I’m finding that it’s such a welcoming community, and the different artistic communities have such great overlap.” One of these artists was Megan Gendell, who wrote the words that inspired Lauren back in college and changed the way she viewed her body. (She has since collaborated with Tangle, in past shows Tell it Slant and Points of Light.)

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Cai Guo-Qiang returns to Philadelphia with “Fireflies”

Posted July 24th, 2017

Beginning September 15th and on through October 8th, Fireflies will light up the evenings on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This new outdoors, public artwork by internationally renowned artist Cai Guo-Qiang will consist of dozens of handmade lanterns adorning the sides of pedal operated carts, or “pedicabs.” The lanterns, of all shapes and sizes, will bounce and jostle with the movement of the pedicabs, flickering like fireflies, as operators drive the pedicabs up and down the parkway after dusk. Anyone can ride in one of the twenty-seven pedicabs, for free. The presentation will coincide with Philadelphia’s Parkway 100 Celebration, the 100th anniversary of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. “As art and spectacle,” the artist explains, “the work will be at once grounded, aesthetic, and transcendental. The number 27—as a multiple of nine—recalls the Chinese homophone for eternity and celebrates the longevity of the scenic Parkway.”

"Fallen Blossoms" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009

“Fallen Blossoms” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009

Cai Guo-Qiang is well known for his many highly renowned projects around the world, such as designing the fireworks for the Opening Ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He often works with explosive materials and is an expert in using fireworks to create his art. He previously collaborated with the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2009, with an explosion that became a floating flower blossom made from fire and smoke, part of his “Fallen Blossoms” project (a series of exploding works of art also held at the Fabric Workshop and Museum). He was born in Quanzhou City, in the Fujian Province in China. The lanterns hark back in part to his childhood memories of traditional lantern festivals in his hometown. Cai brings together installation art, drawing, video, and performance art in his work. His work draws upon Eastern philosophy as well as contemporary culture. He wants viewers to engage with the culture and history of location, while contemplating the larger universe, through the site-specific spectacles that he creates.

Dream at Villa Manin Centre for Contemporary Art, Udine, 2008.

This time, Cai is bringing his work to Philadelphia by working with the Association for Public Art, or aPA, which has been active in the city since 1872. Cai is also working with Fung Collaboratives, a group that brings forth both emerging and established artists in intimate and ambitious projects with domestic and international settings. Both organizations work with innovative artists to create public art that is interactive, beautiful, and imbued with the culture and history of its location.

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Big Dance Theater takes on Samuel Pepys: Interview with Annie-B Parson

Posted July 18th, 2017

“In the last few years, what has become important is the uncensored rendering of his bullying, his shame around his behavior and yet his complete lack of awareness of the violence of his actions.”

Annie-B Parson. Photo by Ike Edeani.

From Mark Twain to Euripides, Big Dance Theater is well known for their innovative and unexpected ways of using of literary sources for inspiration. Diligent but whimsical in how they combine the old and the new, they’ve been called “historically promiscuous” by producer David White. In their latest creation, 17c (coming to the 2017 Fringe Festival), co-artistic directors Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar took the diaries of Samuel Pepys as the source of inspiration and investigation in this ensemble work of dance, theater, and music. Throughout 17c, a distinctly feminist voice is interwoven with his words, gathered from the writings of his contemporary, and from a desire to give voice to those who are historically voiceless, most notably Pepys’s wife. We caught up with Annie-B Parson about the inspiration and process of creating 17c.

FringeArts: Do you remember how the title 17c came into being?

Annie–B Parson: The titling of this piece has been an epic story. As the world has changed around us during the two-year span of creating it, the title has changed at least twenty times! Lists and lists of ideas for titles have been generated and circulated; they have ranged from a title which puts pressure on the piece to prove something, to a title that sounds great to see and say, to the simple naming of a fact. On the day the deadline came to title it for the premiere, we liked the simple efficiency of 17c, which supports the formal nature of the material as well. And, as one work is always a response to the work that precedes it, 17c was reactive to our last title, which was cumbersome and obscure.

FringeArts: What first drew you to Pepys as material that might work for the stage?

Annie–B Parson: As someone who is hyper-generative, I am always drawn to others who are also can’t stop making things. Pepys had to write, he was miserable when he missed a day, and this act of getting it down, of recording every little boil on his body, every encounter and feeling around the encounter, made me feel a kinship with him. And, it was amazing when first encountering these diaries, that 350 years ago, dance and theater were so valued. Eureka! I felt vindication in this figure who found dance a worthy daily practice, who valued the dance in theater, and who felt dance would better his standing. And, I loved that this person was so enamored of theater that he would need to quit it from time to time, much like he would quit drinking! I was also drawn to how contemporary he seemed, how trendy, so involved with his clothing, fretting about each outfit—when to wear a new coat, in what situation his new sleeves would have the best effect, etc. This was my first reading of the diaries about ten years ago.


But in the last few years, what has become important is the uncensored rendering of his bullying, his shame around his behavior and yet his complete lack of awareness of the violence of his actions. The absence of the voice of his wife Bess disturbed me more and more, and I began to suspect that he had burned her diaries, thereby silencing her to history. I searched for a female theatrical voice from that time to balance and testify to a feminism that was occurring then, but has been lost. This led me to the obscure radical feminist writer, Margaret Cavendish. To my delight, Pepys had encountered her a few times on the street, as she was a bit of a bad-girl celeb.

Margaret Cavendish.

FringeArts: What made the other source materials you brought into the show—namely Margaret Cavendish’s play—work for you?

Annie–B Parson: I have always dragged the past into the present, as one cannot exist without the other. David White called the work of Big Dance  “historically promiscuous”—and it’s true. I am not interested in linear reality as such, but in a relational reality, one that is elastic and poetic. I read quite a few women’s plays from that time, hoping to stage a play within a play. Margaret Cavendish’s work leapt out at me for its directness and its politics. Cavenidish’s writing was underground at the time, her plays were “closet plays” meaning there was no intention for them to be produced; as a woman, this was an impossibility. But she sustained a prolific writing life and her work speaks to her radical feminist stance. I feel she is owed many, many productions of her work to right the inequality of exposure, and our rendering is part of that re-balancing. It’s not that different today by the way. We are now seeing a few women playwrights on Broadway, and personally, though my work is produced, I am erased in subtle but systemic ways. I feel a kinship with Cavendish for sure.

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Textbook Definition of Life: Interview with Dan Rothenberg of Pig Iron

Posted July 13th, 2017

“I think the question ‘Does a machine have a perspective?’ is another way of asking the question ‘What is alive and not alive?'”

Brilliant in their innovation and shining in their craft, the Pig Iron Theater Company has earned its accolades for its artistic excellence. The recipient of several Obie awards, the company never fails to amaze in its fresh, interdisciplinary takes on current events and social themes of the human experience. Dan Rothenberg is one of the founders and artistic directors of Pig Iron, producing their newest work, A Period of Animate Existence. This production has amounted to a huge collaboration between actors, musicians, and a number of choirs, culminating in a show about the human experience of climate change, in the form of a symphony. We caught up with Dan to find out about how the idea for this show came about, and what it’s been like to put it all together.

FringeArts: How did the title A Period of Animate Existence come into being?

Dan Rothenberg: Troy Herion proposed this title.  He looked up the word “life” in the dictionary.  It is a textbook definition. We were working with a few different sources of inspiration: Alan Watts, who talks about “the rocks peopling” as a way of imagining the beginnings of life on Earth, and understanding that we organic creatures are made out of exactly the same stuff as inorganic rocks. We looked at Richard Dawkins and “the Selfish Gene,” which talks about humans as big lumbering robots “operated” by genes within us.  This grade-school question: “what’s the difference between alive and not-alive?” remains elusive for both scientists and philosophers, even today.

FringeArts: How did you go about gathering your key collaborators, what were the artistic conversations you were hoping to foster between not just them and Pig Iron, but between each other?

Dan Rothenberg: Some of the collaborators are folks I’ve worked with before for years, like Tyler Micoleau (lights) and Nick Kourtides (sound). These are people I trust who have contributed to some of the Pig Iron work I am most proud of. I am working with the librettists Kate Tarker and Will Eno, and with choreographer Beth Gill, for the first time. We were looking for artists who take on big ideas and who care about form. People who make work in which the form is front and center.  Especially with choreographer Beth Gill, I wanted somebody with a deeply mathematical mind. Someone who sees the poetry in mathematics, since I feel that this piece is about seeing the world in terms of fundamental forces rather than as a set of relationships between people.

FringeArts: What prompted the five movements structure?

Dan Rothenberg: Gustav Mahler said that a symphony must be like the world, containing everything. So the five-movement structure is a symphonic structure. It’s our own “13 ways of looking at a blackbird.” A deliberate effort to get at something that’s too large to get your head around, by coming at it from five very different angles.

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