Happy Hour on the Fringe: Field-Wide Talks with Tai Verley, Nichole Canuso, and Brenna Geffers
As the 2020 Fringe Festival winds down we bring you this three part special. Artistic Producer Zach Blackwood and Fringe Festival coordinator April Rose are joined by three Philadelphia-based artists from both the independent and curated slates in the 2020 Fringe Festival: Tai Verley, an actor, artist, and Artistic Director of Revolution Shakespeare which presented 154 Revisited During Fringe; Nichole Canuso, choreographer and founder of Nichole Canuso Dance Company, which presented Being/With: Home during Fringe; and Brenna Geffers, a theater maker, director and cofounder of Die-Cast which presented Temporary Occupancy during Fringe. Listen to Zach and April speak to these artists about the transition from live presentation to digital media in the ongoing Coronavirus Pandemic, the nuts and bolts of the development process, what feels different in this new performance environment, and what they plan on taking with them into the future of their practices.
Zack Blackwood: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. Fringe Arts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Zack Blackwood, an artistic producer at Fringe Arts.
April Rose: And I’m April Rose, the Fringe Festival Independent Artist Coordinator.
Zack: And together, we invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. For this episode, we’re joined by artists from both our curated and independent slates in the 2020 Fringe Festival to discuss the transition from live presentation to digital media in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. We’re interested in the nuts and bolts of the development process, as well as what feels different in this new performance environment. We’re lucky enough to be speaking to three Philadelphia-based creators, including Brenna Geffers Tai Verley and Nichole Canuso, all about their processes. What’s worked for them and what they’re taking with them into the future of their practices. April hi.
April: Hi, hi Zach.
Zack: So as we kind of lead into this, I did want to talk really briefly just about us and our work as producers, facilitators and interlocutors for cultural experiences. What’s been different for you in, like the past six months, seven months of working in a new and strange field?
April: Yeah, I will say the big… the biggest difference or the biggest shift in the way that I work since normally, for people who don’t, know my year consists of contacting artists and getting a group of artists together that are going to participate in the festival and then help them by collecting information, help find venues and just kind of usher them through this process. Though the artists that I work with are all self producing their content. So they are the creators of their work. They are the producers of their work. I kind of just gather them all together and make the festival happen in the way that it happens. So the big, big difference for me this year is that I… as much as we are distanced and I’m not engaging with these artists face to face and enjoying their company. I am definitely in far closer communication to all of our artists than I used to be. Whether it be through the weekly two hour long open office hour sessions where I sit on Zoom and people come and join me and ask me questions, or the just various workshops that we’ve held to discuss, like how this is all going to work. I feel like my face time with artists is much greater than usual and my, my inbox obviously is more full than usual. But it is, it’s, I feel much closer to their content because there’s been so many questions about their content and how how it’s going to work and how they’re gonna get it out there. So it’s a little heart warming to be a little closer at a time where we’re not very close. How about you?
Zack: Yeah. I mean, I feel the same way. Like, I’ve been so, so close to these artists. And it’s interesting kind of how much you have to do to make it look like nothing happened to a certain degree. Like my thinking this year has expanded a lot to include all of these different forms and mediums and kind of ways of orienting artists to audience that never felt like things I’d have to know about. I guess what I’m saying is like I am now like a tech wiz in a way that I wasn’t in this time last year. You know, like I know things about setting up settings for broadcasting of live digital media and things like that. So I think it’s been this moment of really absorbing as much of that knowledge as possible for as many platforms as possible, so that when an artist comes to me with a dramaturgical idea or conceit, I can kind of show them how to clear the runway for that idea. You know, like this is the… in this kind of tempest of all these new and kind of unfamiliar platforms. Right. Like, my job is, is to help you to figure out which one works best for you and then also support you in the process of moving the work dramaturgical from a live space to a digital space. So that’s been cool.
Zack: I think the biggest takeaway I have like coming out of this experience is just the the resiliency of art and artists and especially those artists here in Philadelphia. They have really like knocked this one out of the entire park and with no time. And it just it… I feel really, really proud to live in this city right now, to live in this community of artists.
April: Yeah. I mean, through the conversation that I had with the two artists that I was able to interview for this podcast, I realized that some artists were taking work and pivoting it to make it digital. And some artists were creating something wholly new that they had no idea how to you know, how to even start and just creating something from scratch for this time. And so seeing the difference and seeing how much artists were able to either pivot or just reinvent their practice entirely. The work that I had to do this year was very challenging. And I had to completely reinvent the wheel in terms of how I work. But these artists are doing it on their end too… like, do you know what I mean? It’s not like I’m just hosting Zoom webinars and they’re starting from there. They are really reinventing their practices. I think these interviews in these artists really speak for themselves, Zach. So let’s just go ahead and listen to what our artists have to say.
April: Hello, everyone, this is April Rose speaking. Right now, I am joined by Tai Verley, a Philadelphia-based actor and artist. She is the artistic director of Revolution Shakespeare, which will be presenting 154 or one hundred and fifty four Revisited as part of the 2020 Fringe Festival. Welcome, Tai.
Tai Verley: Hi there.
April: Hello. Hello. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and maybe give us a little background on Revolution Shakespeare just to cover all the bases?
Tai: Yeah, sure. So as you said, yes, I am a Philadelphia actor, artist, director. I’m all the things I’m a Muppet. I moved here about six years ago from New York City where I was born and raised and basically went to school both for college in Poughkeepsie, New York, at Vassar College. And my graduate degree is from the New School for Drama, which is in Manhattan. And then I moved here six years ago, mostly to stay with my now husband. So, yay, that worked out. And I just fell in love with the theater and the people and basically everything about this city. It’s really amazing. And so I’m not leaving. I’m not going anywhere. And I just love all the collaborators that I’ve met along my journey, one of them being Griffin Stanton-Ameisen, who used to be the artistic director of Revolution Shakespeare. And when he moved to New York, feels like we we switched places, he wanted to give the company to someone who he felt like it would be in good hands. And that just happened to be me. So I took over the company about a year or two ago, year and a half or so ago, and have changed the mission just a little bit. The company was all about creating modern adaptations of Shakespeare, which usually just meant doing the plays in modern clothes in the park, which was Hawthorne Park in South Philly. But with, again, modern sensibility. So no correct pronunciation or RP or English voice speaking, but just our normal American-ish voices. Now the company is trying to do more of a pivot towards actual adaptations, meaning true contemporary works of the… of the pieces, mostly because I feel like as a child, I did not get this amazing Shakespeare knowledge, that everyone else seems to be getting nowadays. And I just felt like if I could find a way of connecting to somehow that high school child in myself or outside of self and the adults who’ve probably felt like this wasn’t for them, I just wanted a way of connecting both the old texts to something newer that they can all understand and understand that the themes are universal. That’s a whole lot. That was a lot for me.
April: Yeah, that was an intro. But no it’s good to have that background on Revolution Shakespeare, because, I mean, it’s a organization that I’ve been aware of since I’ve been in Philadelphia and have engaged with and I liked to hear this sort of history of the pivot. It’s pretty interesting. And I really kind of want to know, I guess, how that pivot applies to this project specifically that you’ve put into the festival. So can you give us a little bit of background on 154 Revisited?
Tai: Absolutely. 154 came from a place of I just miss everybody. I missed people and I missed collaborating with them and hearing their ideas on things and how they were saying the text. And I just wanted to put out as much love as possible. And I, I was reading the sonnets anyway, because another company, Delaware Shakespeare, which is really awesome, is doing these sonnet readings for actors. And I’ve been a part of those and just thought, these are amazing. How come I can’t find a way of translating them so that people can read them or experience them in this whole new way? And then actually a friend who’s a playwright was like, well, I’ll write a adaptation of it. I said really? What if I pay you? And they were like, oh, then I’ll definitely do it. It’s like, oh, OK. So wait. Should I ask other people? And it just sort of became like a little thing that I could ask my friends who I knew who were playwrights to be a part of and then a few of them were like, I think some other people might like doing that. And I went really? It’s just a huge surprise of like, well, if I pay them, will they do it? And It was like. Absolutely. So It just felt like a project that the whole community was just kind of yes anding while we were all sitting in our houses, apartments and wishing that we could connect to each other. So really, it just came from a place of love.
April: That’s very exciting because it’s exciting to hear a project that was created… because it sounds like the project was inspired somewhat by the pandemic and the isolation.
April: So it’s it’s interesting to hear. And it’s like really refreshing to hear a project that came out of this rather than like a project that unfortunately was canceled and had to pivot or had to delay or had to, you know, or like go digital. You know what I mean? It’s exciting to hear that something new came rather than like a like a step back, which I feel like a lot of people are feeling. But can you speak to a little bit or talk to me a little bit about the… as I’m looking at the project, and I’ve looked and I’ve seen so many people in the community like sharing the different sonnet’s and sharing the videos and things. There’s so many people involved and so many local artists involved and artists that I know who are no longer local, but were like Philadelphia performers involved. Can you talk a little bit about the just the process, the creation process at a distance and like distanced collaboration?
Tai: Yeah, I mean, it basically started with, you have all 154 sonnets written by Shakespeare. And I asked of a couple of playwrights, would they like a random selection? And once a good number of them, let’s say 30 of them out of the 52 playwrights that I hired, had said random assignment was great. Then I just started, I went through a random number selection through the Internet and I just started assigning three sonnets each to everyone. And after I assigned all of the sonnets, I basically said, you have a month. Do whatever you want. I don’t care. I’m here as a resource. And a bunch of them called me, asked me different questions because I have all the lexicons in my office and asked me about themes that they were really excited to talk about. And a few Zoom’s happened. But for the most part, I let them do their thing. I think that because of the pandemic, a lot of people are experiencing a lot of emotions daily. I know I am. And with the civil unrest, too, there’s just a lot going on for our brains, for our hearts. And I didn’t want to pressure people with having just another thing on their mind that was going to cause harm or trauma. And so I just said, do whatever you need to do. If that is in a week, you tell me I’m done and I don’t want feedback. That’s cool, too. I was just happy to hear and see everyone creating. And I basically did the same with the actors that I randomly assigned everyone’s pieces except for the singers, because I knew I needed people who could either play instruments or at least hum a tune. And so that felt more like, oh, this is a piece for an alto singer. Who do I know is an alto? But otherwise everyone else was completely and utterly random. Aside from, again, playwrights had made suggestions for like, this piece is, I need it to be a black cis male. So then I had to find black cis male actors. And that’s fine. But again, I do know a lot of BIPOC artists and it just felt like everyone’s so talented. So I’ll just. First person on my mind. I’m just gonna give this to you. And I know that I can trust you with this. And, yeah, the enormity of the project is just, is what it is, because I wanted everyone in my world, at least in Philadelphia and beyond, cause the whole theater community is hurting right now, to get jobs. Because if I could pay one person’s bill, one bill, that’s like a lot right now.
April: Yeah, no that’s exciting. I mean, like you said, the scale of it is very exciting. And it’s sort of exciting to hear that it was, like that there was some degree of randomness to it because it almost feels like this like pen pal thing. And just like the size of the project and the scope of it just, you know, engaging with so many artists. But it seems sort of like, like it wasn’t, you know, a lot of people going to a lot of meetings and doing a lot of Zoom conferences and things, it sounds like it was just like very honest creative briefs and creative engagement. And then, like, up to the artist, that’s pretty, pretty exciting to hear about that- that part of the process.
Tai: Yeah I didn’t want to be another problem for people. So I like leaned back and that’s hard for me as an actor to not be like, what do you need? What do you need? Do you need something? I’m here. I’m here to help you. And everyone was just kind of like, nope, I got it. Or if they needed something, they did reach out. So I didn’t… I felt like it only brought me closer to all the artists that I asked to do this personally, because then it felt like they were in conversation with me and they were in conversation with the work of this very dead old man. Yeah. We were all just trying to figure it all out together. It was great.
April: Yeah. Can I ask a little bit about if you’ve had, like, past experience with creating content in the digital space? Maybe not in it in the middle of a pandemic. Like has this been a big shift in terms of the way that you work or are you used to? I mean, I know there’s just such a history of, like, in-person performances by the company and by yourself. So just wondering if this was like a completely new experience for you in terms of working in this space.
Tai: Yeah. It was new. I’m still learning things because, you know, there’s technical difficulties or something like… we have an art director, Dan Kontz, who is amazing, and he is our website wizard extraordinaire. And there are times when I go and check on the site and something isn’t working again. And I just, I throw him so many things on a daily basis. Like can you fix this? Because I don’t know how. And he magically makes it all work again. But, yeah, I’ve never done anything like this. I have never done anything in terms of a digital production whatsoever. And it is a learning curve. I will grant that.
April: Yeah. And I think, I mean, I do want to ask about that learning curve and about that pivot in terms of the way that you’re engaging now… you feel engagement with artists and audiences are because you’re someone that I would imagine is so used to that sharing that space and that breath, which is just such an important part of our work as, you know, people who participate in performance art. But how are you feeling about how this is impacting the audience relationship?
Tai: I feel so far away from everyone. I just want to, like, ask every single person, because we do have a spreadsheet that tells us who signed into the project if they’ve given us their their email, thankfully, and either signed up for news, our newsletter or not. But every single email that I see, I’m just like, I wish I could personally reach out and be like, did you like it? Did you like it? But you can’t do that.
April: And I noticed that, like, just the scope of the project engages with so many people that I think almost on a daily basis I’m seeing someone being like, oh, my friend was part of this piece because there’s so many people that it touches. Which I guess like it’s hard because we’re not engaging and, you know, feeling that shared space with audiences. But there is this sort of new thing of being able to engage a much larger group so and being able to see everyday that like someone has posted a new sonnet that they saw that they’re sharing or something like that, is very exciting.
Tai: Yeah, it’s exciting, especially when, like, there are people all the way on the other side of the world who are experiencing it. And sometimes I’m like, oh, it made its way all the way to Korea. Wow. Thank you.
April: Yeah. That is I mean, it is definitely different. And I think like adapting to the ways that we engage with audiences is different. And I will say, you know, we’re just, we have a larger map now. It’s a digital map. It feels different. We’re getting used to it, but it’s a much larger, you know, larger map of who our audiences could be now.
Tai: And I don’t want to get used to it. In a way I’m like very happy for all of the exposure. I’m happy for every single artist that I’ve touched and every single family, therefore, that has watched it or friends. But at the same time, I’m still trying to focus as the artistic director, of like yeah but what does my community need right now? And I don’t want to get used to this. Because who knows what it’s going to be like?
April: Yeah. That leads me to my next question, which is like how this impacts your practice moving forward. Is this a medium that you want to engage in or a sort of template for creation that you want to engage in moving forward? Or is this sort of a response to what’s happening in terms of our isolation? And then you are excited to get back to theater the way that it used to be?
Tai: I mean, I will say I’m, I’m conservative in just that I want to be near people. I miss people. I miss faces and reactions that I can read, aside from having a mask on where everyone’s eyes are either very expressive or not at all. But I do appreciate what I’ve learned in this process, especially about just letting go of just letting people do what they do best. And so I think I’m going to learn a lot of lessons of just how to be a better producer, which is to give as much transparency, as much information. My emails are never short for this project. Oh, please forgive me if anybody got a long e-mail, but I just wanted to make sure everyone knew that I was learning from every single thing that we were doing. And I think that these adaptations, in a way, is exactly the place that the company needs to go. And so if that means I’ve gotten more, like people to just understand that adaptations are amazing, then yeah, let’s do more of this more often.
April: Awesome. And can you tell us Tai, How can we support your work and follow your work and where we can find Revolution Shakespeare?
Tai: Oh just me personally?
April: You personally, Revolution Shakespeare. How can we follow you, support you, all that?
Tai: Oh amazing. Well I’m on all the social media. You can find me, friend me. I’m a muppet. Like I said, I’m pretty much open and happy to chat about anything. My Instagram is Le petit roi, which is the little king. My mom used to call me that. My name Tai does mean king and sunshine. So that’s why that’s out there. But Revolution Shakespeare is also on all the social media is usually at revshakespeare or revshakes, which is also our a.k.a. name and all of the things our website is www.revolutionshakespeare.org not com, .org. And if you want to watch 154 Revisited, you could just go to that Website. We’ve got a lovely little pop up now that pops up when you come to our Website. So you can just click on it. Again, it’s amazing because I didn’t even know you could do it.
April: We’re all learning so much about our Web capabilities these days. All right. Well, thank you so much for joining us and for chatting with us Tai. I am so excited about this project and about all the faces that I see. I feel like I see a new familiar face every day. And I’m just, I’m very excited about the way that you’ve been able to tackle this project in a time that is really challenging for a lot of creators to, you know, get the juices flowing. So thank you so much.
Tai: Absolutely. Thank you.
April: We are now going to play the audio of Sonnet 104 one of the adaptations from 154 Revisited. Sonnet 104 was adapted by David Jacoby and performed by Meg Rumsey Lazersohn. You can experience the performance of sonnet 104, along with all of the other performed adaptations by visiting Revolution Shakespeare.org.
Meg Rumsey Lazersohn: I’m so sorry for the interruption, but this is an emergency announcement. Hello. As you may or may not have noticed, we’ve been in quarantine for approximately four months, or years, or weeks. It’s hard to say. We all did what we could to fill the void. For some of you that meant embarking on acts of self-improvement. And to the handful of people who ended up sticking with it. We salute you. Some of us took up hobbies. Others got rid of bad habits. All of us learned to cut our own hair. Most of us have had to make adjustments and compromises and sacrifices. And as we inch closer to the inevitable end to this quarantine, there is something that you should be looking out for. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we are experiencing a phenomenon that is potentially more catastrophic than Covid-19. The medical term is BLS. Bone loss of the soul. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Think of the astronaut coming home from a long sojourn around the moon and finding that months spent in zero gravity has made life back on earth more difficult in their bodies. Now replace bones with soul and the astronaut, with you. BLS differs from person to person in symptoms and factors. For example, BLS occurs when tactile people go months without hugging friends. While for someone who hates hugs BLS is triggered when they go months without telling people how much they hate hugs. While we in the medical community have wildly different stances on all things BLS, we have been able to create a test for it. In a moment, I will administer that test. Answer silently or outloud. It doesn’t matter. We hear you. Here we go. In the past 48 hours, have you done any of the following: smiled, laughed, sighed, reminisced, brushed your teeth, smelled something on purpose, told a dog or cat that you love them, put on shoes, put someone else’s shoes on, put your shoes on someone else’s feet, burped for effect, yawned sincerely, winked and or attempted a joke? True or false: the sun is important. Which phrase do you use more often? It is what it is. Or that’s what she said. How does the thought of having BLS make you feel? I’ll tell you the truth. If you have it, it won’t really affect you. In fact, it can be beneficial in many situations, especially in commerce. How did the last sentence make you feel? What do you think is beautiful? True or false: children are the future. What is your biggest guilty pleasure? Outside of birthdays or holidays, what was the last gift you gave? And why did you give it? Intangible things count. True or false: we’re going to get through this. What was the last promise you made? Intangible things don’t count. True or false: we should get through this. Have any of the following words taken on new definitions in your mind? Civilian, tiger, joy, on we, babies, friendship, regret, peace, past, present, finale, faith, truth, hope, change, green, open, free, justice. Final question. What are you most looking forward to once the gates are open? That’s all. Please wait while we tabulate the results. Beautiful. Just as we thought. Thank you.
Zack: Hi, everyone, this is Zach Blackwood again, and as a reminder, I’m an Artistic Producer at Fringe Arts and we’re right here in the throes of the 2020 Fringe Festival, a live and hybrid digital festival that’s happening here in Philadelphia, but kind of all over. We have participants coming from as far as South Africa to participate this year. And we’re so, so excited. We want to thank all the audiences for joining us. It’s really, really been exciting to see the responses that people have had to this festival so far. We’re so, so excited that we’ve chosen to stick this out with the support of amazing, amazing artists here in Philadelphia. We last spoke to Philadelphia-based dance and performer maker Nichole canuso, so in our July 31st episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. Today, we’re checking back in on her landmark work, Being/With: Home just a few days after its premiere to check in about this tremendous and innovative new work. A guided performance experience that connects to solo audiences by Zoom, Being/With: Home is an embodied exploration of separation, connection and the power of listening. Embracing the objects and memories that populate your own space, you’ll create something new with someone unexpected. Being/With: Home continues through October 3rd. Please welcome back to Happy Hour, Nichole Canuso.
Nichole Canuso: Hello.
Zack: Hi, Nichole. Happy festival. Happy Fringe.
Nichole: Happy Fringe to you.
Zach: So how are you first of all?
Nichole: I’m good. I feel tired and happy. Energized, I guess. Energized by the people that I’m meeting in the shows.
Zack: Well, I just wanted to say congratulations. This is so, so amazing. And I know that this has been such a process to bring this work to people in this new and really, really exciting format. And I’m so stunned with kind of your tenacity through this process, your collaboration with your teams, and always like the immense rigor that you bring to your practice.
Nichole: Thank you.
Zack: So we just had a big premiere, and it’s different than a lot of premieres. You know, like I so wish we all could have been together drinking champagne and talking about the experience. I just wanted to know kind of what this feels like compared to past premiere experiences of yours?
Nichole: Yeah it’s quite different, it’s a bit surreal. This project really embraces the intimacy of getting to know someone one at a time. And I really felt that on the… when opening night closed, I should say, so logging into the opening performance felt really special. It suddenly hit me that we made something that we didn’t plan to make and that we really love. It happened so incrementally in response to the ongoing changes that it wasn’t until opening that I realized we’d really, how much we diverged and made something else. And then there was this thrill of seeing strangers log on and embody the structure that we’d set up for them and the surprise of who was matched with who. We get to follow that surprise right along with them. But logging off that night was pretty strange because opening night is usually this arrival, a threshold you pass into onto the next phase of learning what the performance is. And while that was still true, it’s usually coupled with a celebratory hug or cry or meal. And there was no hug and no meal. So it was strange to be alone in my office right afterwards.
Zack: I felt that way, kind of here in my office, too. My roommate calls it Fringe Command Center, which I think is just an excuse for it to be a little messy, but it’s very strange. I mean, one thing that’s so interesting about this work is that it really does focus in on the really intimate, kind of visceral, real connections that we can make still via the Internet with each other. And I definitely am excited to see that it feels that that’s happening. I’m really interested in how your relationship with your collaborators has grown and changed in the development of this new work, Being/With: Home versus Being/With live. I know that, it’s funny like us talking back in July, feels like it was yesterday, but us first kind of reckoning with making this new work and moving into a digital fashion also feels like it was like years ago at the same time.
Nichole: It’s true. Well, it’s brought us closer for sure. You know, it’s been an opportunity to slow down and reevaluate the trajectory of the project as a whole. And when things first started changing, you know, we really were making sure that everyone was OK on a personal level. I mean, that’s still the priority. But it was heightened, especially in the beginning. So we moved at a pace that could really support that. And that spirit has really been guiding the care that we’re taking with the audiences as well, which is really nice.
Zack: Yeah, we’ve been talking about a little bit of not just like moving at the speed of ability or moving at the speed of potential, but moving at the speed of trust internally and just trying to make sure that, you know as you make decisions here, everyone has a different comfort ability level based on kind of where they sit at. And everyone is affected by this in a different way. And it’s been, yeah, really, really powerful to just use this time to slow down and even just as a staff connect with each other more deeply and more wholly, especially as we’re Zooming with each other from inside of our homes. And you see people kind of in their element to a certain degree. And that’s what this piece is doing. What conversations are you hoping audience members begin to turn over in their heads as they prepare for Being/With: Home?
Nichole: Well, that’s interesting. I would like people to show up ready and open. I feel like the conversations that arrive are so different with each duo. And also, we’ve been teaching these, or leading, I should say, these workshops. Jennifer Turnbull and I have been leading group workshops and the chemistry is completely different with each duet and each group workshop due to the openness that people have been showing up with. They’re just ready to listen to each other and build something as a duo or as a group. And that is what I have been finding so energizing and uplifting for me personally, just watching that happen each day.
Zack: I’m going to let you go soon, but I do just want to know kind of, this process is not what anybody expected, but I found so many things coming out of this, at least in terms of the way I think about digital accessibility. Just so many pieces of insight and points of learning have emerged out of this time for me that I want to take into my practice more broadly. And I wonder if there are any of those that have appeared for you through this time.
Nichole: Well, yeah. I mean, slowing down. Working at the speed of trust, I think should always be at the forefront. And just this, the idea of curiosity and how curiosity is a gift to others being curious about them. But it’s also a gift to yourself that you allow yourself to really pay attention. I think that’s been in our process, but also in the project itself, encouraging people to ask questions and really listen to the answers. I really love being able to gather people from different parts of the world. Being online has allowed us to bring people together who would never otherwise be able to be in the same room. And those conversations and interactions have been really special. So I’m wondering, as we continue to tour this live project, if there would be an online aspect in the lead up each time because it feels like something I don’t want to let go of.
Zack: Well, I mean, I’m just so excited to see where this project goes next. It’s so interesting to think about where we were seven months ago, and to see that this has emerged, this project, that is so vital and so deeply pression and responsive to the time. I’m just very, very excited and just really in awe of you and your work and your practice and really really happy to know you.
Nichole: Awe, I’m happy to know you.
Zack: Well, thank you so much, Nichole. Is there anything else you want to say to audiences at home?
Nichole: I can’t wait to meet you. And take a risk. Try to show you wouldn’t normally try. And thank you Fringe Arts for being so flexible. I feel so… It feels wonderful to have everyone at the festival follow along and take care of the artists. That’s felt really nice.
Zack: Thank you so much, Nichole. And happy festival to you. I can’t believe it, it’s here. 2020, 24th anniversary festival it’s so different than we ever expected. But we are here and that’s really something to be proud of.
Nichole: Here we go.
Zack: Thank you Nichole.
Nichole: All right.
April: Hello, everyone. This is April Rose speaking. Right now, I am joined by Brenna Geffers, a Philadelphia based theater maker and director and community member and a co-founder of Die-Cast. Die-Cast is presenting Temporary Occupancy as part of the 2020 Fringe Festival. Hello, Brenna. Can you introduce yourself, tell us a little bit about Die-Cast and about Temporary Occupancy?
Brenna Geffers: Hi, April, thanks for having me here today. So my name is Brenna. I’m a theater maker and a director. I live in South Philly, but I try to work around the country when I can because I love to travel. I am one of the co-founders of Die-Cast, along with Tom Weaver. And we’ve been working together for a long time. And about three years ago we decided that we wanted to have more control over our collaboration’s together and we had some very specific points of view about how we wanted to try to make performance art and theater. So we founded Die-Cast actually, and our very first show was a Fringe show. So Fringe is a really special time for us.
April: Awesome. And give me a little background on Temporary Occupancy. What can we look forward to?
Brenna: So Temporary Occupancy is a digital piece. It exists a-synchronistically, which means you can watch it at any time. It is basically a story of a fictional hotel called Vi Curious, which you are able to reserve boutique encounters like the way you would reserve a hotel room. And so the experience of Temporary Occupancy is selecting the encounter that you’re most interested in reserving. That’s sort of the frame of it.
April: Interesting. Interesting. And so I, one of the reasons I really wanted to talk to you in this context and about your work and about, you know, creating work right now is that I know this isn’t your first digital piece. And I also know Die-Cast creates work that exists in real life and is super immersive. And, you know, we have to move through with our, you know, bodies and, you know, and not on the Internet and with our clicking, you know, but that you’ve you’ve also created digital work in the past. Can you speak a little bit to what a past digital project has looked like?
Brenna: Yeah. We’ve actually done a couple. And we’ve actually used digital work inside some of our live pieces. We’ve had characters, Skype call in, message in, things like that for the audience to interact with. But last year we did a fully digital piece with the Fringe called Mad Deep Dish, which was sort of a choose your own adventure down a conspiracy theory YouTube hole. It had a lot of videos and a lot of chat bots and a lot of options. And it was really fun. It was really great. I think I made the classic video game designer mistake where the first map I built maybe was a little too big. But I had a great time working on it. And it was, it was really exciting. So actually, even before the pandemic, we had been considering creating a digital piece for the Fringe again this year just to see if we could apply some of the things that we had learned and go in different directions and explore more curiosities that we had from from last year. So even without the pandemic, we would still probably have a digital piece happening right now.
April: Yeah. And so that’s like, I wanted to ask you about how this… the pandemic and the distance of it all has affected your creation process. But it sounds like maybe this would have been the process that you took anyway, though I’m sure it affected the work somewhat.
Brenna: Yeah. Originally, Temporary Occupancy was supposed to be a live performance that was part of a live work installation festival down in Miami. So we were planning on building this piece for a single hotel room on Miami Beach. And sort of the piece was actually eight hours long. But the performers, you know, didn’t perform for eight hours all, like they each you know, they had very ethical time slots. But the performance itself would last for eight hours and then, you know, Covid. So we did not fly down to Miami, but we had already started working on some of these characters and some of these stories. So when the pandemic hit and we knew that we weren’t going down to Miami anymore, we started talking about what it might mean for the piece to exist digitally. Now, we have been using… we’ve been like creating work remotely for a while because we have a sort of an ensemble sort of company sort of group of people we really like working with. And so we actually have private Facebook pages that we share our work in. So it’s, you get the prompts, you get videos, you share your exciting research possibilities, you share your ideas all through the Facebook page that we use. So we’ve already, we’re already really comfortable with the idea of creating and working together and not being in the same space because of how we work and because we travel a lot and because some of us arrive… It’s like some of us will go out to Texas to make work and some of the actors will stay home. So we’ll communicate and share work remotely so that we can work more efficiently. So that was also something that was sort of an easy pivot for us, that we just were able to continue working remotely on this piece. So in some ways, it was a really big shift and in some ways it didn’t feel like such a big shift at all.
April: Yeah, it sounds like you kind of were set up for success in a way that some theater makers who specifically rely on sharing space, you know, maybe weren’t able to pivot so easily. But it sounds like you have a lot of experience and probably a lot of knowledge to share in that department for other artists.
Brenna: Well, it’s also funny because, like we do do in-person work mostly. And a lot of the work that we do is very, very high contact. There’s a lot of shared breath. So in some ways, like our work is terrible for a pandemic, because we’re very close to each other, we’re very close to the audience, and we’re breathing a lot. So that’s sort of a future conundrum that we haven’t quite solved yet.
April: Yeah. And so I… you know, you mentioned, like, the sort of the shared space and the audience engagement. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about audience engagement and how the… I mean, I guess we know that the audience engagement with the piece as it’s happening is very different in digital versus in real life. But how has the sort of, I guess, general connection to your audience been, you know, during this pandemic when you can’t have, like, events and hang out and things like that? How has your communication with your following been?
Brenna: Yeah, I mean, I think that actually is one of the trickiest parts, because especially with digital work, you sort of, you put it out there, but you get much less of an echo than you would in live work, you know? With live work we obviously can see very much how the audience is enjoying it, what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, what they’re into and what they’re like, not into. But with digital work, you just sort of send it out there like this little message in a bottle and you don’t necessarily know how people are receiving it. But a bonus to that for us is that because we’ve made work in different states and because some of our audiences are not in Philadelphia, it’s been nice to be able to share work here with them. So, you know, just because we’re not in upstate New York doesn’t mean that some of our friends up in upstate New York who enjoy our work can’t be part of that. So that’s, you know, it’s in some ways we’re more distant from them. But in some ways we’re even closer than we would have been if we were doing this in person.
April: Yeah. And so we’ve talked a little bit about, you know, your past pieces that you’ve created and sort of how the creation of this piece was a little bit informed by your past experience in digital and the way that you engage with your collaborators. But how do you think that this whole, this process and what you’ve learned from this creation process and this engagement process, how do you think this will impact Die-Cast’s pieces moving forward and the work you do in the future?
Brenna: Well, I think that we will continue to use non live elements in our creation process and in our work beyond the pandemic. You know, we had an interest in it beforehand, but now it feels necessary and it feels fun and it feels like another pathway for audiences to engage with the work, which for us is really important, that we want the audience to be able to engage with the work on their terms. And immersive theater is actually… that’s a really tricky question. There is a lot of aspects of traditional immersive work that can be very alienating for audiences psychologically and physically. So being able to provide another entry for them to enjoy the work or to engage with the ideas is exciting. Now, one of the reasons we did a digital piece last year is because I wanted to test out this idea of using chat bots. And the reason why is because I’m hoping to be able to use chat bots in our live work moving forward to sort of… as an aide for audiences while they’re in the work. So, like, basically a live help desk for them. And also to augment the sound. So like there are ways that we’re using these tools that I hope and plan to use in the future as well.
April: Yeah, that sounds really exciting, the idea of, you know, engaging with a work in real life, but then also being able to engage it on a different level. Because I really know what you mean about the alienation of immersive work sometimes because sometimes I just don’t know what to do with myself in a physical space with performers, and using technology in that way sounds really exciting. It’s almost like the thing of when you’re in a bar at a party and you don’t know who to talk to, so you open up your phone and just start clicking through it. It’s like gives you the option to have like a safe, like a safe escape from the physical space.
Brenna: Yeah. Exactly right. And, you know, in our shows, we generally encourage people to… we allow people to take pictures during, because like a lot of times, the design is so beautiful, there’s just this little moment over in the corner that you’re like, I just love that and I want to take a picture of it. And we’re like, yes, please do. And so, like, the more we incorporate the tools that people are actually using in their lives, I think the more fun it is. It’s like, you know, it feels natural. It feels right to not pretend that people don’t have this incredibly useful tool right in their pocket.
April: Yeah, well, I mean, I think it’s important. And I think a lot of artists are trying to like not just sort of like wade through this time, but really apply what they’re learning into the future. So it’s not like, oh, remember that weird year where we did a bunch of stuff how we didn’t want to do it, and now we’re just gonna go back to normal? Like, it’s really exciting how much this seems like an ongoing instead of a stopping point for you, and this piece, and your work at large.
Brenna: I hope so, because I think the last thing anybody wants is for theater to go back to normal sometime in the spring, summer, fall of next year- that we just sort of go back to doing what we were doing. I don’t think anybody, I don’t think anybody wants that so…
April: Yeah, I think you’re probably right. I think it’s a time for innovation. So I just wanted to ask how we can follow you, how we can support your work, how we can support this project, and Die-Cast in general? Can you give us a little plug?
Brenna: Yeah. So you can visit us at www.diecastphilly.org. Please follow us on social media. Facebook is great. So we’re Die-Cast on Facebook and Instagram is our favorite. So diecastphilly on Instagram. And we, we put up pretty good pictures, which is in some ways like one of the biggest challenges for digital theater is like the production photos can be a little less exciting.
April: Oh yeah. A screenshot is not as nice as a photographer showing up to your studio.
Brenna: Yeah, it’s true. It’s like here’s another screenshot. I hope. I hope you like it.
April: Well, thanks so much for talking to us, Brenna. And I’m so excited for this piece and for your pieces moving forward, and I am such a fan of Die-Cast and have attended your pieces in person and online last year.
Brenna: Oh thanks.
April: Yeah. So excited. Great talking to you. And happy Fringe.