Go Deeper Life Before The Big Bang: Interview with Whit MacLaughlin

Life Before The Big Bang: Interview with Whit MacLaughlin

Posted August 23rd, 2017

Whit MacLaughin is the artistic director of New Paradise Laboratories (NPL), which has been astonishing audiences for years with their remarkably strange and riveting performances. The company is known for their artistic excellence in physical theater, and innovative uses of visuals, sound design, and choreography. The recipient of both Obie and Barrymore awards, MacLaughin helms Hello Blackout! NPL’s newest work, a horror-farce about a family of monsters who live before, throughout, and after the Big Bang. We were so glad to get the chance to ask MacLaughlin about how this production came to be, and how it might illuminate the world around us.

FringeArts: How did the title Hello Blackout! come into being?

Whit MacLaughin: “Blackout” has many meanings, political and otherwise: It’s what a government imposes when it doesn’t want the press to reveal a piece of news. It’s what you do to a window when you want to remain undetected by bombers flying overhead. It’s something that happens when you drink too much or when you faint. It happens in theater to punctuate the end of a scene or play. We have concocted another meaning. It’s what happens when a gust of wind blows out the candle you’re carrying, or when the batteries run out in your flashlight; suddenly, you can’t find your way. A blackout can be funny, infuriating, or frightening. It signifies that moment when you realize, again, that you can’t know what’s waiting for you in the future. Which is pretty much always.

This is in keeping with the basic notion at the heart of this current series of pieces: the world is not set, it continually evolves and changes. This is kind of a huge issue when it comes to live performance. And living in general. How much do you try to plan? How much do you make it all up on the spot? We’ve been studying ways that we try to tell the future: oracles, probability, fortune-tellers, astrology, intuition, algorithms. The fact is, there really isn’t a way to predict what’s to come with any certainty.

This truth has presented itself to us in a forceful way, recently, in our political life. We see the word “unprecedented” all the time to describe our situation.  The question: Is anything truly unprecedented or is everything? We want to make the case that everything is. Like that old Zen saying: you can’t put your hand into the same river twice. We have no choice but to get better at wrestling with unpredictability.  And, possibly, enjoying it. This is at the heart of everything we do at NPL.

FringeArts: What brings NPL back to the Kissimmee family and their adventures in the universe? What are some of the continuations from O Monsters as well as new directions that are being explored?

Whit MacLaughin: O Monsters was where the Kissimmee family first presented itself to us: a set of triplets, their carnivorous mother, and a father who vanished mysteriously some time ago. We thought it might be fun to figure out where they came from, this family of not-quite-human beings. O Monsters took place in a weird version of the present. Hello Blackout! happens in the distant past—actually, before the Big Bang. What a fun question: what was family life like before anything existed? Of course, there’s no answer, it’s like using nonsense to start a story. But that’s what creation myths do: they start with “in the beginning there was not-even-nothing.” It’s an unanswerable riddle. But we’ve challenged ourselves to imagine an answer. Imagining things that happened before there was anything requires us truly to empty our minds.

Our philosopher friend Elie Ayache has proposed a creation myth that uses the financial market as a place to start. He says, “In the beginning there was debt. And then equity came into being and the primordial debt was shared by the whole of creation. And it was good.” I’m not quite certain I know what he means, but I like thinking of the time before there was a world as debt. A hungry absence of pure possibility. It’s almost like imagining an orchestra before the players get there. Music is on the way, but, really there’s not-even-nothing until the musicians arrive with their instruments and begin to tune up. Just a hole hovering over an empty space. In this case, we actually get to have an ensemble of instrumentalists who accompany the ensemble of performers.

Finally, to answer your question about the imaginative origin of the Kissimmees (that you didn’t ask): we were at the table talking about some of these things, and, in the middle of rehearsal, I got a spam call on my phone from Kissimmee, Florida. We took that as a sign.

FringeArts: What are your conversations centering around with your co-creators?

Whit MacLaughin: All the stuff above and how that affects everyday life. At the core of contingency—the idea that the world just makes itself up as it goes along—is everything. Wanting to figure out how to stay alive in a constantly evolving and mutating universe is at the center of everything we talk about these days. Lots of stories. Like the story we heard from the French philosopher dudes about the terrorist shoot up at the Bataclan nightclub, a year ago November. Ayache had a friend who was on his way to hear the Eagles of Death Metal. On the way, got one of those intuitive tingles, and decided not to go. He gave his tickets away. Then he walked with a friend to have dinner. They got pretty far, sat down outdoors to have a meal. A car drove up, and terrorists from the same gang drove up and opened fire, killing the guy and his friend. Definitely not funny. But, maybe “horror-farce.”

FringeArts: Continuing your collaboration with musician/composer Bhob Rainey, how will the music interplay with the action on stage?

Whit MacLaughin: Bhob Rainey is an extraordinary fellow. He reads almost everything, and has great taste in ideas. Plus he’s a fabulous improviser, with a very clear and unusual sense of musical structure. Hanging out with him is a constant riff on big topics. I have always felt that Bhob should/could be writing symphonies. His music is colossal even when scored for just a single instrument. In this case, we had this idea that it’d be fun to find musicians who could stimulate Bhob to even greater heights of sonic experimentation, so he has assembled a unique ensemble, a quintet. They’re some of the finest instrumentalists of alternative timbres in the world. I’ve been to the sessions and am always having my mind blown as this music comes together. There’s not much like it.

Bhob Rainey.

As with O Monsters, Hello Blackout! will start with full pieces of music that we will stage using our patented and unabashedly strange creative methods. There’s a big dollop of chance involved. The musical pieces will stretch and develop and will be performed live. The ensemble is fairly traditional in its instrumentation: violin, viola, cello, stringed bass, and a wild card, bass clarinet. The music is outlandishly fresh and unfamiliar.

FringeArts: What will the setting/stage be like?

Whit MacLaughin: It’s being developed as I write. Matter, as it comes into being in the piece, will have to be flung in all directions, but we can’t have stuff just slam into the very valuable stringed instruments, because everything will get destroyed and people will be hurt. (Remember, O Monsters featured several thousand super-balls.) We also must protect the audience; we’re working on that. There might be an NPL version of a jet engine, or a gigantic slingshot. Plus, I went to Versaille last January for the first time and was very impressed. It’s huuuuge. Perhaps Louis XIV will make an appearance. So something of the French Baroque will probably be included in the world we are inventing.

FringeArts: What is appealing to you about the horror-farce aesthetic of the work?

Whit MacLaughinO man, that’s the easiest question to answer. We’re currently living through a historic moment that reeks of horror-farce. I mean we couldn’t make a tragi-farce, no one would want to see that. It’s not that unusual, really. The Living Dead films have a lot of it but we don’t want to compete on that territory. Nutso-philosophy might be another genre description. Doesn’t mean there won’t be moments of extreme beauty.

Hello Blackout!
New Paradise Laboratories 

The Proscenium Theatre at The Drake
302 South Hicks Street

Sept 5–Sept 17

$29 (general)
$20.30 (member)
$15 (student + 25-and-under)

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O Monsters (screening)
New Paradise Laboratories 

The Proscenium Theatre at The Drake
302 South Hicks Street

Sept 9, 10, 16 + 17

$10 (general)
$7 (member)

Interview by Josh McIlvain, May 2017. Additional text by Isa Siegel. Photos of Hello Blackout! by Plate 3. Photo of Whit MacLaughlin by Jorge Cousineau. Photo of Bhob Rainey by Colin Lentin.