Go Deeper

Artist Profile: Madison Cario of SCRAP Performance Group

Posted August 5th, 2009

Madison Cario took a circuitous route to technical production. She joined the Marines and maintained short-range radios before being kicked out of the service for being queer. Having previously studied at the University of Delaware, she headed back to its Newark, Delaware campus. And having grown up partially in New York City and having spent a fair amount of time there, Madison concluded she hated it. So she drifted to the nearest city that wasn’t New York: Philadelphia.

And here, she met her artistic collaborator and future wife, choreographer Myra Bazell.

“I met Myra in 1994 at a performance at Mandell Theater [a venue on the campus of Drexel University in Philadelphia]. Myra spoke while performing. I spent the whole performance figuring out whether it was being said live, talking to the audience, or if it was recorded. It was crucial to me to figure this out. I had to know. What you write, what’s delivered, not delivered, and the mechanics of how it’s delivered are all important.”

As she became increasingly involved in the dance world, she found herself struggling to communicate with technical staff. So: “I taught myself technical theater.”

Together, Madison and Myra comprise SCRAP Performance Group, and have been working together for 15 years. For the past two years, they have been creating TIDE, an ever-evolving work of experimental dance theater and meditation on environmental catastrophe. “Phase I” was performed in the spring of 2008; “Phase II” at last year’s Philly Fringe. The final iteration premieres this fall at the Live Arts Festival.

Myra and Madison work closely together when conceiving their dances, and work in a highly collaborative way with their dancers (see our earlier rehearsal report). For SCRAP, the choreography and stage design co-evolve:

“The first part of intensive rehearsals, I let Myra do her thing. I’m like the audience in Mystery Science Theater 3000. I get to dream separately, then we bring our visions together.”

As the show dates approach, Madison says, “it will be more like ping-pong. You know your partner; you know what’s not going to change. Myra wants a blackout, and I hate blackouts, but I know I’m going to lose this one. But we’ll go back and forth until opening night. In August we’ll start changing what we choose to reveal [with lighting]. It’s amazing the difference between 30 percent and 70 percent in terms of what people feel.”

After the jump: text-driven dance, how Madison rekindled her childhood love of nature, and raising the alarm about environmental destruction without boring audiences.

A 1995 project with Myra at the Iberian Pavilion, now the Hyperion Bank on West Girard Ave., was the first piece Madison co-wrote.

“I’d never worked with anyone,” Madison says. “I was a writer first. You have the dancers, and I was the earrings on the dancers. I wanted it to be text-driven movement.”

As Madison worked to integrate text and dance, she moved to San Francisco. In addition to working with a slew of performing groups and theaters and taking any gig she could to advance her knowledge of technical theater, she also rediscovered her love of the natural environment.

“From 1997 to 2001 I worked with the East Bay Conservation Corps, working with at-risk youth. Before eco-everything,” says Myra, “they were doing real work. Their goal is to get kids out of hood life, into college, and keep them alive.”

Despite her growing involvement in the Bay Area scene, Myra says, “Philadelphia is the kind of place you just can’t seem to leave. There’s a certain Philadelphia kind of movement. One thing Philadelphia did was evening-length works. San Francisco didn’t really have that. I missed seeing the relationships on stage.”

On a trip back to Philadelphia, she reconnected with Laurel Racyka at the Painted Bride Art Center. The Bride had two job openings, a tech position and a production manager position. Madison was only interested in the tech gig; during the interview, Laurel kept pushing the production manager job. Eventually, Madison took it. Now, she’s the director of operations at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Pennsylvania.

While Madison’s technical expertise is extensive, written and spoken text drives much of her work.

“The text we’re hearing [in TIDE] is Suzannah’s story. She told me the story, almost like a vision. She’s a Southern-style mountain woman. All of the text for this piece came out in about 20 minutes.”

TIDE was initially a commission from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, and the first set came about through the all-too-common nexus of fear and necessity.

“The [first scenes of] the show ended up in a box because I was panicking. I didn’t know what venue we’d be in, and I needed parameters after the commission.

“To tell you we had a plan would be a complete lie. We had a burning desire not to feel alone, in a time that’s environmentally scary. Myra and I have a difficult time separating life from creations.”

The second iteration of TIDE took place in 2008 at the Magic Gardens, the same site where, about a year before, Myra and Madison were married. “In the gardens,” Myra says, “we realized that the box was the end of the piece.”

TIDE will be performed this fall in the Ice Box at Crane Arts Center, one of the Festival’s starker venues.

“It’s scary; you’re naked artistically. In the Gardens there are lots of distractions. I made the lighting by hand. I thought it would be awful, so I lit it from LEDs in bottles and glasses.”

Last year, Madison says, they missed their target a bit.

“We didn’t bring everybody with us. We want them to take feeling away. The show is purpose-driven. Aesthetics are the means.” Madison hits her chest over her heart. “Some weren’t feeling it right here.”

Nevertheless, she believes that artists and performances have the potential to be great conveyors of political messages.

“They’re not always confrontational. But you need to realize that what you sweep into the gutter outside of your house will come back into your house.”

Madison is studying for a master’s degree in environmental studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She says her thesis project is “like the mousetrap game, showing people where everything comes from and where it goes. If we go back to local economies, it will be the best thing that ever happened. If we calculated the true price of oranges in winter, of high quality meat . . .

“Baby steps is all I can say. I have to have hope. That’s what our relationship is based on, that’s what SCRAP is based on. We have to believe it can be different.”

Now, Madison is working on creating Myra’s character for the final version of TIDE.

“It’s frightening,” Madison says, “because when you create something, it comes to life. I can’t give away her character because it’s special. The character itself is a duet, a marriage of intense opposites, but there’s nobody besides Myra I trust to pull it off.”

TIDE will be the first time that Myra has been on stage with SCRAP since 2001. Myra’s character will something of a guide to the cataclysm that, to an extent, is the story of TIDE.

“There’s a duet between her character and the audience, and a duet between the character and audience as a unit, and the piece. It’s an obtuse or absurd narrator. What’s happening is what’s already happened. We’re being nice and showing it to you.”

When asked whether she feared the character would mediate the essence of the dance too much, Madison laughs. “Yes, that’s why the text isn’t written yet.”

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photo of Madison by JJ Tiziou; black-and-white photo by Lindsay Browning; rehearsal photos by Mara Miller.