Go Deeper

Thaddeus Phillips Acts With Recordings

Posted August 18th, 2010

How does a two-week project turn into a four-year puzzle? Ask Thaddeus Phillips. In 2004 he began filming for a new play, ¡EL CONQUISTADOR!, that would blend his live acting with video recordings of famous Colombian telenovela actors. Thaddeus, who is the only live actor in the show, improvised with the soap stars based on a rough outline.

“What’s extraordinary is we worked on the outline for about two weeks, and all the actors that are in the show currently were filmed in two days,” says Thaddeus on the phone from Colombia, where his wife Tatiana Mallorino is from. He and Tatiana worked with her uncle Victor Mallorino—who starred in Colombian versions of Survivor and Desperate Housewives—to create a script from the improvised footage. Thaddeus performed it in 2006 at the New York Theatre Workshop, but says, “Even then we weren’t totally happy.”

After the jump: working with telenovela stars, touring Spain, and Pony Malta.

In 2007 and 2008 they took the show to 11 cities in Spain and developed a finished version. The last performance of ¡EL CONQUISTADOR! took place at what Thaddeus calls “the biggest, most fancy theater in Spain” in the city of Valladolid, serendipitously where Columbus—the original conquistador—is buried. That version will be revived for this year’s Live Arts Festival.

“I think the puzzle’s been solved, and that’s what’s so exciting,” says Thaddeus. “We were able to find the structure—it was actually already there, it just took us forever.” Though the play has been performed in Philadelphia before, Thaddeus recently found a video of that performance in his basement and says, “You can’t compare the shows. The final version became more sophisticated and dramatically stronger with such a better climax through all that development time.”

In the show Thaddeus plays Polonio, a Colombian doorman who dreams of becoming a telenovela star and interacts with the recorded footage of the other actors “calling” him on the apartment building’s security video system. It would be easy to imagine that the telenovela actors, who are all big names in Colombia, would scoff at the idea of moving to a much smaller audience, but Thaddeus says this isn’t the case.

“A lot of them would prefer to do theater, but you just don’t make any money doing theater,” he says. “So for them it’s a very cool artistic project.” Thaddeus describes the actors as “very very funny and very quick.” Their improvisation yielded not only specific character details, like a huffy woman who only drinks Coca Light (Diet Coke in Latin America), but shaped the plot as well.

“One actress was late during filming and another actor kept making jokes about it like, ‘Where the hell is my girlfriend?’ so we made her disappear at someone else’s apartment [in the script]” Thaddeus says. Acting with a continuous hour and fifteen minute video leaves him little flexibility, says Thaddeus. “With a live cast you can just change the damn line five minutes before you open.” But, he says, he mostly knows right when things are going to happen, so his interactions with the recordings look seamless. “It doesn’t feel like a solo show at all. A lot of the time the audience is looking at them, not me.”

The audience will also be looking at the set, a slick recreation of a Colombian apartment lobby. “The richest people live in very hip buildings, so we got a bunch of nice light fixtures,” says Thaddeus. The set was also originally conceived to hold a bunch of Venetian blinds.

“In my mind really cheesy lighting going through Venetian blinds across someone’s face was a soap opera look,” he says. The set is also highly convertible, and transforms throughout the show. “We realized, oh, it could be a swimming pool or the ocean or a shack or a taxi.”

One thing that remains consistent about the set is the English subtitles that scroll across the backdrop—the entire play is in Spanish. Is Thaddeus fluent?

“No, but I have the least amount of lines in the play,” he jokes. “I’m a pretty good actor with languages and I can talk to people in the street [in Colombia]. But I saw The Pillowman“—which is in Spanish—”and I had no idea what was happening.” Polonio’s authenticity comes through in mannerisms unique to Colombian doormen.

“There are a few very cliche phrases that are very common here, so we put those in. [Polonio] loves this malt drink called Pony Malta. All the Colombians who’ve seen in it different cities around the world kinda can’t believe all these very specific details.” Watch closely for an action that Thaddeus says he adopted from doormen he observed in Colombia:

“They’ll take the keys out of their pocket first, and then they’ll put on one arm of their jacket, so the handful of keys pops through the jacket sleeve. Then they open the door with one arm through the jacket and then they put on the other sleeve.”

¡EL CONQUISTADOR! runs from September 8 to 11 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Various times, $25-$30. For tickets, click here.

–Ellen Freeman

Photos courtesy Thaddeus Phillips.