Happy Hour on the Fringe: Suso Phizer, Zoom Reality TV
In this episode we talk to Suso Phizer, who will be presenting and facilitating Zoom Reality TV in this fall’s Fringe Festival. The event explores frustration and loneliness in the COVID era, as participants are invited to explore these emotions through Live Action Role Play. Join Raina and Suso as they discuss Nordic LARP, how group dynamics have shaped Suso’s work, and Love Island! To learn more about Zoom Reality TV and how to participate, visit this link: https://fringearts.com/event/zoom-reality-tv/ To learn more about Suso and how to support, visit her website: https://www.susopomorphizer.org/
Raina Searles: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. Fringe Arts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Raina Searles, Marketing Manager here at Fringe Arts, and I invite you to pour went up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence as we record, the 2020 Fringe Festival lineup has just been announced to the public and on August 14th, which I believe is today, by the time you’re listening to this or after, tickets are on sale to the general public for all of our curated and independent shows, we’ve been utterly amazed at the creativity and adaptability of our artists during the Covid-19 pandemic and we are so excited to be able to share their work with you very, very soon. Today, I am joined by one of our talented independent artists, self-producing in the festival, Suso Phizer presents Zoom Reality TV exploring Covid-era frustration and loneliness through a Nordic style live action role play using Gestalt theater and psychodrama tools. Suso, welcome.
Suso Phizer: Thank you. Hello.
Raina: We’re happy to have you here. One of our first questions for Happy Hour on the Fringe is what are we drinking? It may not be alcohol, but we do like to have a drink for happy hour. I’m having orange juice because I’m having a late breakfast/lunch. I suppose they call that brunch, but are you drinking anything on your end, Suso?
Suso: I’m drinking a big bottle of water. I’m trying to get my lunch down.
Raina: Awesome. So, Suso, I will first just ask, you know, how are you doing? How is it…I don’t know this summer been? Have you gotten outside much? What has that been like for you?
Suso: Like many I think I’m having a unique quarantine Summer. It’s pretty tough. There’s a lot of ups and downs, I’m living with three other people. I’m very fortunate to live with people I love and to feel like it’s a generally supportive environment. But the feeling of being trapped is very real. And I’m also lucky not to have any tragedies in my family. The grief is real. The fear is real. So, yeah, it’s tough.
Raina: Yeah, it’s been quite an interesting time to be living in, and I think like the first few months, there was like… I don’t know, I feel like I felt a really like tangible fear of leaving the house. And I’ve started to break out of that, as I think most people have quite naturally with warmer weather. But like tried to, you know, go for walks and get outdoors to like feel a break from being inside the house and of course, practicing social distancing. But, yeah, it’s been such an interesting summer and very different than definitely any one that I’ve known. Absolutely.
Suso: But yeah, I have been getting outside, thank God, especially in the past few weeks. You just hit a breaking point and you just start going out there.
Raina: Yeah, it’s been tough and something that I want to dive into a little bit more with you, because as I understand it, you know, part of your work and part of your background is working with group dynamics and relationships, which has been very challenged during this time. Can you just tell us a little bit more about your background in social work and how that research has kind of informed your artistic practice?
Suso: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been… I was an artist before I was a social worker. And towards the end of my education in art, I started to get deeper and deeper into research on group dynamics and started to build projects that were designed to investigate the way that group dynamics were playing out in small groups that I was part of at the time and what that reveals about the larger culture. For example, I did a project when I was in grad school looking at the relationship between Temple and the surrounding neighborhood of North Philadelphia and trying to understand that through the experience of being in a group of students and then looking closely at the group dynamics that emerged as we try to work together. And how are those group dynamics sort of mirroring the larger group dynamics of the way that the school interacts with the neighborhood and vice versa? And the histories there. So that research and other projects got me into a group relations, which is a really niche form of pedagogy, that sort of… well, it’s pretty deeply connected to psychodynamic group therapy practices and theory. And there is this art project that I saw by Leigh Ledare that made me… taught me about group relations conferences called The Task. It’s this documentary. Well, it’s not a documentary, but it is documenting a group relations conference. I became obsessed with that form and through that decided to go into social work. So now I’m getting trained in social work and I’m getting…. I’m going to be finished with my degree next year and the kinds of work that we do as social workers… I am constantly learning from the kinds of devices that are used, the kinds of conversations that I’m able to have with clients at agencies and and trying to find ways to bring that work to a larger public through art, in a way.
Raina: Awesome. Yeah. No, I think that’s a really interesting pathway into it- that you decided to focus more on the social work side of it and kind of like make that part of your career path, which is really exciting. And so talking a little bit more about what Zoom Reality TV looks like- so this is presented in two parts. And the first part is where you have that experience of creating characters and developing video diaries, and I’m assuming that’s like kind of like the development of the reality TV aspect. And then there will be a screening and discussion that’s open to more members of the public to also watch the end result. Can you talk more about why you decided to set it up that way and what that will look like from both ends?
Suso: Yes. So there’s a lot here.
Raina: We can take it one question at a time.
Suso: So I’ll start by just saying, why did I decide to set it up this way? I’ve been getting really excited about LARP. There’s this whole tradition of Nordic LARP that I had no idea about until like a few months ago. I should have known, I could have known because I participated in one like a year and a half ago. But I didn’t know that that was a category of thing. I thought it was just this very inspired idea by some artists that I was lucky to get to do. And then recently I started digging into it more because I wanted to develop this project similarly to what I had participated in, which was Kristof Trakal and Till Wittwer‘s The Great Success Machine. And so I reached out to them. They sent me all these resources. It turns out this thing, Nordic LARP has been happening since like 1994 or 5, depending who you ask. And every year, ever since 2003, there’s a conference in one of the Nordic countries and they put out a book that’s free online. So if anybody is curious, there’s all these resources and it’s… basically it’s this genre of LARP which most people know LARP as like gnomes and knights like fighting in the woods or something like that. But there is this whole genre that’s much less popular in which the LARP is designed to get deeper into some kind of… It can be as simple as an emotional atmosphere or it might be a political moment that we’re in. Like how do we investigate this from using fiction and roleplaying as a device? So there’s rules. You play it out. It can be anywhere from 15 minutes to several days or longer. And I wanted to try to design a LARP to explore the kinds of emotional landscape that I am experiencing during quarantine and I think many people are. In part because…
Raina: And so are people thinking about… like as they develop fictional characters based on themselves, are they thinking about their own experiences that they’ve had during quarantine?
Suso: Yeah, that’s the idea. There is this concept in LARP called Character Bleed, which in some forms of LARP is seen as a bad thing and in Nordic LARP is more embraced. In which aspects of your actual self are bleeding into the game or bleeding out of the game into the rest of your life. And the idea behind this kind of LARP is that you are purposefully creating this blurry line between the character that you are inhabiting during the game and the character that you’re inhabiting out of the game. But it has this pretty fascinating characteristic where other players and the facilitator don’t necessarily know what aspects of your character are linked to your real self and in what way are they linked to your real self. So there’s this…
Suso: …very impactful difference between roleplaying in the context of therapy or theater, which there’s all these fascinating traditions of role playing in theater that’s based on yourself. Like in Theater of the Oppressed, for example, which I think is really useful technology. It has this difference from LARP because you are exposing yourself. And there is not… there’s not any reason to think that the character that you’re portraying or the scene that you’re portraying is importantly different than yourself. So LARP allows a certain kind of… safety that I’m wanting to explore as a way to skip some steps in how much we’re willing to push ourselves in a online video context with strangers.
Raina: Yeah. Oh that’s so intriguing. I mean, so I mean, even something as simple as, you know, are you inviting or encouraging people to change their name or do you think that people will just use their real names?
Suso: Changing the name is a totally crucial part. I am thinking that people will be invited to choose a different name. And there’s this… many LARPs use a combination of lottery characteristics- like pick some qualities out of a hat, and this is who you are. And some free-writing or improvised characteristics. So that’s part of the anonymity that’s afforded by this style of character building, because we never know whether something… something that is characterizing you during the game is something you were given by chance or something you chose.
Raina: What… actually, I have another question that came to mind while listening to you talk, because I was thinking about this idea that you’re letting your real self bleed into it. And I’m curious if if you’re looking for people to just get as creative as possible. Like if someone tells a story that’s totally separate from their own, you’re like totally open to whatever people present?
Suso: Mm hmm. Yeah. I think it’s really open ended and I’ll never know how creative somebody got. I might have some guesses based on how they show up, but there’s not gonna be a lot of limits to how much somebody can play with their character. One thing that might orient someone to how they want to play with their characters, some of the themes that the piece is intended to explore… like it’s framed as an opportunity to explore hatred of Zoom, hatred of videoconferencing. It’s framed as an opportunity to explore like melancholia, paranoia, the sensation of watching a consolidation of power, Imaginary futures- like imagining the worst possible future from this moment. And, I guess… I think it’s sort of being framed as an opportunity to deal with the present in a way that you won’t normally get to in your day to day life, because I think we’re in a paradoxical time because many of us who are living with other people, we’re confined together and we’re dealing with all these really negative feelings. But meanwhile, needing to preserve harmony and peace at home, maybe more than ever, so it can be tough to find a context… the peace can feel very fragile at times. And given the framing of the event. I think people might choose to orient their characters to make the most of that.
Raina: Mm hmm. And have you had the chance to workshop this at all, or kind of like… I did know, work in like smaller groups like before? I mean, I guess what I’m really asking is what your rehearsal process has been like since this is entirely audience directed.
Suso: Right. Well, I have plans to do trials with friends. And I’m still currently working out the structure. So there will be some rehearsal process. I mean, a lot of the bill, a lot of the practice, I guess you could say, to prepare for the event is writing because there’s this sort of sci fi setup to the event. And then there’s all these structures that involve writing to help people understand what they’re getting into, and to drive the story along over the course of the two hours. And then there is the type of practice that, yeah, I’m lucky to live with people who are willing to try some things with me. So, I’ll be able to practice all of the ideas and get feedback.
Raina: And In been thinking about part two where you’ll be screening a compilation of that work and opening it up for discussion are you hoping to have the audience lead that discussion or are you going to be facilitating that with the audience performers who participate in the first part?
Suso: Yeah, I’ll be facilitating it, and the audience performers are gonna be invited as special guests to lend their perspective. There’s this dynamic that happens anytime there’s a document where somebody is editing that document and it’s usually not like the people who are in it. So I imagine that there will be feelings about the way that people feel like when they watch themselves and how they’ve been edited. And I want to give a lot of stage to the performers to get to describe or speak on their experience of participating and watching themselves and how that transforms the experience. Because I think a lot of the intention behind the whole reality TV framework is to make the most of the video documentation as a way to totally transform an experience because I think a lot of artists use video documentation as more of an afterthought or sort of almost like an apologetic need, but it has this huge impact on the participants. So I want to… and in a few projects recently I’ve been really curious about what it does to claim the filming as a massive component of the project, something with pros and cons for the participants. And so, yeah, I think that the people who participate in part one will be a big part of part two.
Raina: I am curious about the reality TV component, because I think about shows like The Bachelor and shows like Survivor or something like that, where the narrative… and obviously it’s a very different situation… but where the narrative is told as if these people are all existing cohesively. But in the edit, you know, you get villains, you get, you know, people who can do no wrong. You get people who, you know, reach really high and then fall from grace. And so I’m curious if in the edited version, you’re looking at any of those kind of like stereotypical reality TV editing elements for the final product.
Suso: Yeah. Reality TV is a medium that I find exciting to learn from in terms of all these kinds of devices that you’re talking about that let us enter into the subjectivities of the people participating in many different ways, like the diary, the small group response, like sometimes the online commentary more recently has become a big part of the show. I think of it as a loose framework. I think unlike reality TV shows, where the way that the editing has transformed people’s performance, that’s a very abstract way to say, like the manipulation that happens where people are turned into villains and turned it into like drama queens and characters that are fun to watch. That’s all obscured. Whereas my intention in this project is to make that process visible and something that can be talked about.
Raina: Interesting. And so what would you say are some of your… and we call it high brow and low brow… so what are some of your high brow inspirations, and your low brow inspiration’s? And you can kind of take that however you want to.
Suso: Sure. OK. Let me think about that for a second. I’m not… some of my inspirations I don’t know if they’re high brow or low brow. I guess…
Raina: You can just give them to me and we’ll let the audience decide.
Suso: All right. Well, one of my biggest inspirations was this LARP that I did, Kristof and Till’s, again it was called The Great Success Machine. It was this incredible six hour in-person thing where we… It was a bunch of young artists and we were plunged into a futuristic reality in which we were completely dropped off the face of the map in terms of like not getting any artistic opportunities anymore. And we were invited to explore our feelings of like jealousy and bitterness and desire to be seen throughout the LARP. Another major inspiration that comes to mind, is that what I already mentioned as well, Leigh Ledare’s The Task, which is this art film that documents a group relations conference, so that’s been really guiding my work for a while now- this idea of taking what is traditionally a pedagogy… an experimental pedagogy or a therapy or a… well, yeah, I’ll just stick with pedagogy and therapy- and documenting it, and letting that documentation process transform it. But also, how that can really increase the reach of what’s otherwise a pretty esoteric practice. Psychodrama, Theater of the Oppressed, internal family systems, group relations more generally like… theory by Melanie Klein… (unintelligible). I think these at all qualify as highbrow references… like theory. These are kind of falling under the umbrella of ways that social work has influenced me as an artist. It gives a lot of fascinating language with which to talk about group dynamics that I think a lot of artists are exploring. And, sci fi writers, I don’t know if this is high brow or low brow like Octavia Butler is a big influence for me. She wrote this story called Amnesty that I think about a lot, like as a way to… like the way that she writes it helps me think about writing a future that helps you dig into the complexities of the present in a way that would otherwise maybe be too threatening. Also, N.K. Jemisin, the Broken Earth trilogy and an artist friend of mine, I wonder if they would identify as high brow or low brow… Anna Vandercook, specifically their concept of harmless dancing in which we design… we sort of very intentionally find ways of being together so that we can do anything without causing harm, like explore any feeling, any range of ways of being together without causing harm. Like, what is the work that needs to go into creating that environment? You know, a more obvious, lowbrow like category… Let me just think about that for a second. I think definitely… oh, definitely Love Island– has been an enormous influence for me.
Raina: Have you watched the U.S. version?
Suso: I haven’t. I’ve been so curious to watch it.
Raina: Yeah. I watched… I should say I’ve only really watched the first season of Love Island, which I can only assume was the best. And I like started watching, I think season two and I didn’t like it as much in season two. But I also think I’d gotten like really attached to the season one characters. So it felt like, well, who are these people? Right. But that’s that’s my own thing. But no, that’s… I definitely see that one up there in terms of reality TV.
Suso: Well, it definitely… I mean, you have that feeling at the beginning of every season. It’s not just you. It’s really hard to get reattached. You get so close to them. I’ve loved every season by the end, but at the start, it’s just, who are you?
Raina: Yeah, I’ve also been binge watching The Amazing Race during the quarantine, so I’m on… I actually just heard season 16 last night and in the process I was kind of like, ugh I don’t know about this cast. And then, like, by the end of the episode, I was like, OK what’s gonna happen next?
Suso: It’s a great way to get to know people.
Raina: It is. And like, you know, at first they all run together. And so, like my partner and I will come up with nicknames for all the teams so that we can remember them. And then by the end, like we fall in love and then… I mean more so me than him. But I usually have some sort of emotional response to the end. Whether that’s very upset or as happy as I could imagine I would be- for people that I don’t know, for something that happened many years ago at this point. which actually with that in mind, do you think, you know, beyond the Fringe Festival that there ever might be a part to Zoom Reality TV?
Suso: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the downsides of doing everything over Zoom is that there is a certain attention span limit. I mean, that’s why it’s two hours long. I think a lot of LARPs are way longer, for good reason, because you want to do thorough character development and then you want to form like trusting relationships with some of the other characters and come to know the scene and really immerse yourself. So the thought has crossed my mind that depending how this goes, it might be interesting to continue the story or to do a longer version.
Raina: Yeah, I think I definitely see the therapeutic elements coming out- just kind of reimagining your quarantine, either as it was, or adding things that you wish would have happened, things that you’re glad didn’t happen. But in this fictional world, you get to play out what that might have looked like. And that’s why I imagine people will be really interested in both participating but, you know, pending capacity, like just being able to watch it and maybe hang on until the next time you run a session.
Suso: Right. Yeah, and my hope, too, is that if there are people who find the idea of being documented suspect, or just if that sounds really unpleasant that they can watch it and who knows, maybe they’ll find that there’s something about the experience of… what they imagine to be the experience of participating and then watching yourself participate, that they might be surprised that they would want to participate in the future.
Raina: Mm hmm. Awesome. Well, Suso, you know, how can our listeners support you and support your work?
Suso: Well, that’s a really kind of question. If you are curious about what I’m doing, you can get on my email list and I’m a big fan of doing things for free or for cheap, all of my friends are unable to afford expensive things for the most part. So I think if you just follow me, follow what I’m doing. My website is susopomorphizer.org, my gmail is firstname.lastname@example.org, and yeah follow my work.
Raina: Great. Well, thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe.
Suso: Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it.
Raina: To our listeners. Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and download the Fringe Arts app and you can visit fringearts.com to see our upcoming Fringe Festival programing, including Zoom Reality TV with presentations on September 12th and October 3rd.