Go Deeper

The Perfect “Conversation” With Alexis Clements

Posted July 26th, 2010

At the London School of Economics, Alexis Clements, a Brooklyn-based writer, performer, and pamphleteer, studied information theory. Developed by C.E. Shannon in a paper titled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” information theory clarified and encouraged the use of bits for clear communication, and reads (well, the less technical parts, anyway) as something like an exercise in digital semiotics.

“Essentially,” Alexis says, “he was coming up with a theory about how to package the signal in the way that would reduce the possibility of interference the most. All these philosophers glommed onto it and thought it would be really cool to quantify information.”

Often, we think about fields like computer science, information theory, and logic as obtuse and disconnected from day-to-day experience, yet the qualitative ideas that come out of them sometimes have broad influence in how we think about our lives and social structures. So . . .

“I wrote a paper about how it doesn’t work, to try to reduce information to numbers in that way. I wrote my thesis on signal transmission, which is oddly appropriate to this [show].”

In September, Alexis, 30, will head to the 2010 Philly Fringe with her solo performance, Conversation, in tow.

“The main character in the show,” Alexis says, “has a deep social fear—she’s exploring that. She wants to stop being anxious about the things she says. She’s spent all these years figuring out theories about how to have the perfect conversation.

“The deep emotional resonance the things we say have—it’s a funny thing in we human beings. It seems very odd to me that humans have adapted to be more afraid of social interaction than just about anything.”

Alexis wouldn’t tell me quite how, but during the show, audience members will be put on the spot.

“Part of the draw is that afterwards [the character] invites everybody to hang out for wine and snacks. I’m excited about talking to different people in different communities, seeing how different audiences react to being asked to speak up during the show.”

Click “more” to read about how Alexis funds a unique venture like this one (in a unique way).

To get here, and elsewhere, from her home in Brooklyn, Alexis is embracing some less traditional fundraising mechanisms. She hopes to raise $2,500 via Kickstarter, an all-or-nothing online fundraising campaign system created to support small-scale projects. Conversation recently was one of the projects highlighted by Kickstarter’s staff.

“I was looking for a way to avoid having to start a theater company.”

Nonetheless, Alexis says, “It’s exactly the same as most theater companies do. Donors at a certain level get a certain amount of benefits. The venue and the attitude is 21st century—online, interactive, tied into social networking. It’s using the technology as a means of distribution for a traditional fundraising model.

“I have a $100 donation from somebody I don’t even know. [With] traditional fundraising I never would’ve gotten to that person, and she never would’ve found out about my work.”

Such donors receive stickers, postcards, and beginning at the $250 level, dinnerware, seen in action below:

Planning to hit other fringe and alternative arts festivals, Alexis says that she’s modeling the production after band tours, using the plates and postcards not only as premiums for donors, but also as show merchandise.

“There’s a lot of charts in the show, and diagrams,” says Alexis. “It seemed like a great opportunity to just have the show extend beyond—that’s what you want from merch from the band, to keep reliving the show to some extent. “

Her character’s systematic approach to quantifying conversation isn’t all that different from Shannon’s attempts to cut through signal noise, according to Alexis.

“She uses all these diagrams to try to work out the theories,” Alexis says. “The reality is that conversation is not as simple as that. So part of what comes out in the show is that you can’t really just map it out. The conceit of the show is that you can.”

And after one workshop performance, the conceit made its way into a real conversation.

“This one pair of friends were so into some of the ideas in the show,” says Alexis, “they went to a bar afterwards and tried to chart the conversation they were having on a bar napkin. The next day the woman who did that scanned the bar napkin and sent it to me. That’s what every artist hopes for, is that the work isn’t some thing you look at and just walk away from.”

Conversation runs September 9 through 12 at the Philadelphia Ethical Society, 1906 Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. Various evening times. $15.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photos by Hillary Kolos