A New Foundation for Growth: An Interview with Niki Cousineau and Scott McPheeters
Niki Cousineau and Scott McPheeters are co-directors of the Philadelphia-based performance company Subcircle. Founded in 1998 by Niki and Jorge Cousineau, for nearly two decades Subcircle’s work has transformed theatrical and site-specific spaces, merging dance, sound, set design, lighting and film, conveying to audience and performer alike an inseparability of performance from environment.
This month they bring their latest piece to FringeArts. HOLD STILL WHILE I FIGURE THIS OUT is a daring experiment in spontaneous creation featuring Niki, Scott, and Christy Lee, with live sound design from Jorge. Each night a previously unseen performance will unfold before audience’s eyes, with most of the movement, sound design, and set construction being created in the moment. Described by thINKingDANCE as “a dance of mild idiosyncrasy, enhanced by the dancers’ subtle balance between logicality and lunacy,” witnessing these artists’ ingenuity from moment to moment is enthralling, entrancing, and giddying all at once. Earlier this year Niki and Scott shared some insight into what it’s taken to create a show that constantly recreates itself.
FringeArts: Do you remember how the title HOLD STILL WHILE I FIGURE THIS OUT came into being?
Niki Cousineau: The title came about during the rehearsal process at the Maas Building. There is a section of the piece where we narrate/interpret what is happening on stage. As I was going through my notebook after a few rehearsals I was looking at some of the texts we generated during these improvisations. One of the things I’d written down was “hold still while i figure this out.” It felt both fitting for the piece, art making, and life.
FringeArts: How has the show evolved from where it started?
Scott McPheeters: The vast majority of material in this work is developed live and in direct relationship to one another. For the year and a half that this piece was being created, we often found ourselves entering the studio in dismay of the state of the world. What had originally been a weekly exploration of various improvisational scores eventually turned into a question: “What if we could start all over from scratch?”
We spent a year and a half essentially studying how to begin again, and how to build upon different proposals of a new foundation for growth. We were fascinated by how quickly entire environments could be constructed from a single source of inspiration and that depending on the day and the source of inspiration, the environments would be completely different.
FringeArts: Can you discuss how the various components, from movement to sound to visuals to text, relate to each other?
Scott McPheeters: Each time we perform the work, it is from scratch. We choose a starting point—usually an image from a book or online along with a piece of text chosen from a book. This informs a movement solo which inspires original text generation. A new audio landscape is developed nightly from sound bites sourced only from the performance space itself. Set design is constructed live to complement or provide contrast to the dance taking place. The most exciting aspect of the work is that everything unfolds for the very first time right in front of you. Through example, we hope to inspire deep listening, reflection, and action.
FringeArts: What have you been discussing most with your collaborators during the creative process and rehearsals?
Niki Cousineau: We’ve talked a lot about the difference of being inside a performance and being a viewer. We’ve worried about whether knowing a piece is largely improvisational is helpful or a hinderance to audience members. Is it fun to figure out the game or do viewers feel outside of it? As we’ve shown this at work in progress showings, this is a question we asked our test audiences. Most liked not knowing. Some think every moment is totally crafted. As a viewer I enjoy trying to figure out the rules. I like thinking, “I wonder how they made this, what was their process like,” etc.
FringeArts: What have you worked on most in fine-tuning the show?
Scott McPheeters: Even though the work of building in the present moment requires an intense amount of focus and energy, there is a relatively peaceable, respectable space we hold for one another that, when attempting to relate to a building of community, seems overly utopian and unrealistic. Also, from the audience perspective, there emerges a predictability of structure that leans toward monotony. To combat this, we started talking about the fact that even when building in the present moment, what we build always exists in relationship to concrete past experiences and memories. We are always moving forward, with the understanding that not everything works out for the best. Each of the failures, disasters, disagreements, successes, and celebrations we have experienced in our lifetime, we carry with us. Therefore, we decided to infuse the work with choreographed movement material set to nostalgic pop songs that works to interrupt the action, trigger past memory, and redirect the action of the work. In the end, the pop-song dances act not only as an obstacle, but also provide a space for thoughts to catch up with actions so that we can reconsider the “why” of what we are doing. As we continue to perform this work, we plan to keep adding to our arsenal of pop-song dances so that we never become too accustomed to the ways in which these “road-blocks” shift our perspective.
FringeArts: Tell us about your barn!
Niki Cousineau: In 2014 we bought a property in Biddeford, Maine with a huge barn and four bedroom house on 9 acres of land. The property includes a large field, some forest and a creek. Pretty dreamy. Our goal is to create an artist retreat center over the next four years and we have begun raising funds to renovate the barn with a beautiful studio that could be used by all types of artists. Biddeford is a small city about 20 minutes south of Portland, on the ocean. For the past half a century, it has been a depressed old mill town, but is now experiencing a rebirth with lots of entrepreneurs, restauranteurs, craft breweries and distilleries taking residence there and opening up businesses. It’s pretty exciting!
We’re having our second barn raiser this week with a return performance by the inimitable Martha Graham Cracker. We can’t wait to share the space with more Philly artists and connect these two communities.
HOLD STILL While I Figure This Out
140 N. Columbus Boulevard
$15 student + 25-and-under
Interview by Josh McIlvain, August 2017.