Behind the Carousel: Q and A with Josh McIlvain on “SLIDESHOW”
Following two successful nights at Chris the Brit’s house, because obviously that’s where you kick off your Fringe Festival productions, Josh McIlvain, late of editing our Festival Guide, takes his SLIDESHOW on the road, stopping at Headlong Studios, WetLand, and Moving Arts of Mount Airy before he’s done. We caught up with him to talk about the show.
Tell me about the show. Justify your existence.
I’ve winnowed down 1,500 slides to 80 per tray, for five carousels. The goal was to make the story through pictures, along with writing a narrative that I tried not to tie too directly to the pictures. I figured out a story with the pictures, and then married them into the script. Then I whittled each carousel down so they’re like chapters. Once I did that, I could see where each chapter could end.
Where did these slides come from?
These slides I bought off eBay.
When my grandmother passed away several years ago and she left an attic full of camera equipment. Old film, Polaroid cameras, slide carousels. All this stuff was really nice, sturdy, well-made. I thought I was only person in family who would be interested in this stuff, and it would be fun to incorporate it in a show in some way. I found a booklet of slides in one of her closets, random vacation house on a lake—maybe from the 1950s, maybe the 1970s. I had no idea where the lake was, or knew anybody in the pictures, and they were kind of boring so I didn’t take them.
What was interesting to me was the disconnection I had from them. So I thought that if I can track these slides down again, I could create a show that’s a fictional account of those slides. Then I thought maybe those slides weren’t good enough, so I started acquiring large caches of other family slides.
These were slides that were in lots of anywhere from 100 to 1000 slides of people’s vacations. I don’t know where the hell they came from, maybe estate sales or something. A couple of them I had to pay like $30! I thought I was going to have to pay $2 for them. I’m using material from each group, but there’s one main one that’s the subject of the piece. I trace this one family from the 1950s through the 1980s. I actually portray somebody in the slides, their child, to tell the story of their lives and my life at the same time.
I didn’t do this on purpose, but it ended up being about that same disconnect I felt with my grandmother’s slides.
Why perform solo this time, and why so many venues?
I’ve wanted to create a solo show for a while so I could tour it, so I could have something where if I’m vacationing or traveling somewhere, I could do a couple shows there. And I wanted to do something different, and this is very mobile. There’s me, a slide projector, and a standalone screen. So it could be done anywhere, and I thought it would be good to take advantage of the Neighborhood Fringe idea. I definitely wanted to do a show out here [in Mount Airy], doing a show at my friend’s house, Arts Parlor, WetLand.
I think I’ll learn a lot from doing it at the Fringe. I knew from the beginning it would be a slide show, and that the audience was there, but not in a theater—we’d be all in the same room together. I knew I was basically in the center of the audience talking over these slides. The one big decision I made was to become a person in the slide show itself. Originally I was thinking of a conceit reconstructing the lives of those in the slides through journals and “research.” But I liked the idea of putting myself into the slides. And it just so happens somebody in the slides kind of looks like me. I like the idea of immediately making the audience buy into the illusion of it, like collapsing time, for them to know that the person who’s giving the slide show is not just a lecturer—he’s got other motivations going on than just showing people something. He’s a little wayward.
The cool thing about the slides is that they look so good. They’re crisp, their color is really lush. And it’s really voyeuristic; it’s weird to look at somewhat intimate pictures of people that never had any intention for this kind of use. There’s something interesting about intimate or social pictures of people from fifty, forty years ago, because it brings an immediacy to them that’s cool.
There’s the sense that my character’s kind of living in the past, or that the past is very much in the present, they’re both very much there. A lot of the actual piece—it’s basically a drama. There’s funny stuff in it, but what it is not is my making fun of the people in the slides. My character makes fun of his parents, people in the slides. But it’s definitely not me riffing off these funny people from the past.
There’s a very interesting thing to me about the aspirational aspect to the slide show. You’re gathering your neighbors, friends, family to your house and basically putting on a show. That’s what struck me about doing a theater piece–everything is already there, it’s a type of show. There’s something interesting in this idea that you show your successes to people, almost like you’re in a movie: showing real slides of yourself in a presentation about your real life that you want to share with your friends and your family. Exploring your kingdom in your format that invites you into this screen, like a movie that puts you in the picture.
What’s really different about this from Facebook or Instagram is the live event in the home. It’s nothing like a concert in the home; I don’t really know of anything that’s really similar to that. I was talking to somebody last night, and I think this basically existed from the late 50s through the mid-80s. The computer image stuff wasn’t really a thing until the mid-1990s or late 1990s. What killed it was video–the video camera took over the slide show. Instead of taking images for slides, they filmed everything on video.
It was the thrill, you could make your own TV–video cameras were a way to see yourself on television, and that was crazy. The slide show was harder to do, and probably more expensive in some ways.
SLIDESHOW September 12 and 13, 7:00 pm
Headlong Studios (formerly Arts Parlor)
1170 S. Broad Street
September 16, 8:00 pm
Independence Seaport Museum Pier
Columbus Boulevard at Dock Street
Pay what you can
September 19 and 20, 8:00 pm
Moving Arts of Mount Airy
6819 Greene Street (at Carpenter Lane)