Go Deeper happy hour on the fringe thaddeus phillips

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Thaddeus Phillips (ft. a special guest)

Posted April 2nd, 2021
On the last episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, Producers Circle member Ed Wagner cited Thaddeus Phillips as the prime example of infusing technology and innovation into theatre. This week, Zach sat down with the dynamic artist himself to find out how he’s done the same with his upcoming show, Zoo Motel, presented by Theatre Exile this spring. Listen in to get a glimpse into Thaddeus’ cinematic style of theatre and enjoy a special guest appearance by Tatiana Mallarino as she unpacks her dramaturgical philosophy.

Zach Blackwood: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premier presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Zach Blackwood, an artistic producer here at FringeArts, and today we invite you to pour up a libation and enjoy our conversation with one of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. Today we’re chatting Zoo Motel with co-directors Thaddeus Phillips and Tatiana Mallorino. It’s their newest collaborative work. It’s coming to Philly really soon. We’re going to talk about the innards of that piece, the superhero origin story, you know, the gravitational centers, what’s next for both of them, and how you can stay engaged in the work. Today we’re joined by Thaddeus Phillips.  Thaddeus Phillips is the co-director, designer, and performer of and in Zoo Motel. Thaddeus is known for directing using stage design as a major tool to devise ever shifting scenes and cinematic images that remain purely theatrical. How are you doing, Thaddeus? 

Thaddeus Phillips: I’m doing very well. How are you, Zach?

Zach Blackwood: I’m stunnin’. How is that description of your work? Does that feel right? 

Thaddeus Phillips: I think it’s cool. 

Zach Blackwood: Yeah. I’m excited to talk about this piece. I got a chance to check it out, put my eyeballs on it, and I had so much fun, as I always do. So can we talk a little bit about how this piece came to you? Like, what is the first impulse that you remember, as a creative, that you were like, “Oh, this is a new show, and this is like a new concept for me.” 

Thaddeus Phillips: Well, I think it came from two places. I think last May, New York Theatre Workshop did a studio visit, like a Fireside Chat, where, through Zoom or YouTube or something, they came into my studio and we just talked about theatre and design and stuff, right? And I remember trying to set up the camera in an interesting way so I could make the drawings and things of this kind of project I was thinking of calling ‘Ghost Lights’. And I was trying to get stuff closer to the camera to make it look more interesting than just my floating head in this kind of Zoom—and that was like my first Zoom call anyway. So that kind of challenge, of trying to make that fireside visit visually look cool, made me start to think how could you do something online. And then later, I saw a magician was doing a magic show for only 25 audience members a night, out of a theater in LA, and that made me…something clicked and I was like, “Wait a minute. If I can get the webcam off the computer and free, you know, like a movie camera on a miniature camera crane that can rotate around the space, and have a limited audience, it somehow clicked in my mind that I could do a live theatre show from this studio that wouldn’t be a thing that had a lot of Zoom editing or wouldn’t be a Zoom show per se, with like a floating head with books in the background. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Zach Blackwood: I do. 

Thaddeus Phillips: So those two things, they slowly came together between May and June. The other thing I was missing is…as I put a camera in the middle of the room, I looked at this physical studio that I’m in has balcony windows and it has a bathroom and it’s quite small; and somehow it occurred to me it looked like a motel room. And that actually came from…I was going to name this piece ‘Ghost Lights’, and then a friend of mine was like, “Well, there’s like a hundred thousand pieces called that.” And then so I started to brainstorm a new idea, using the word Zoom, and I came up with this terrible idea called ‘Zoom Motel’ with ‘Z-o-o-m’ but like ‘Zoom’. Then, when I cut them in half and made ‘Zoo Motel’, I was like, “Wait a minute. This could be a motel room. It could be a metaphor for Planet Earth. It’s like a zoo, and we make it like a movie, like a weird 90s movie.” So it’s like that kind of crazy weird funneling of random angles of looking at it got the idea launched. 

Zach Blackwood: Yeah. I mean it’s a really fun cool piece, but it’s very thoughtful and pensive also. Me and Ari before—Ari’s our podcast intern, everybody—were speaking a little bit earlier today about epic poems and, like, the role of like an epic poem. And that’s kind of how the piece feels is like this epic poem about the resilience of life and what unites us as people and the diversity of the earth, and then there’s also super fun magic, like, it’s just so cool. So I want to commend you: I love the piece and I love how big it made Zoom feel. And I know we had spoken about the Voyager Golden Record  like a couple years ago. Do you remember us having some chats about it? 

Thaddeus Phillips: I do. 

Zach Blackwood: Yeah, and that filtered into this piece in such a cool way! And so the Voyager Golden Record is—for those who don’t know—a phonograph record, a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk, that is on the Voyager 1 and 2, and it’s meant to portray the diversity of life and culture on earth to any extraterrestrials who might find it. Why did that inspire you so much and how did that, like, filter its way into this piece, because it says something about endurance and resilience and it’s also a little morbid. 

Thaddeus Phillips: Well that’s a great question because, again, it goes back to design. I’m in my studio here, right? We’re building it during August and September; there’s still quarantine here, and so resources were kind of limited. And I had this really nice record player, and I wanted to play a record during the Zoo Motel, but the table it would play on is black and all the records that I could find were black that we had, and it just didn’t look good; you couldn’t see the record. So I wanted a blue record, and I tried to order one on eBay and it didn’t arrive in time, but then, as I was looking around my studio…because we developed this piece that kind of got delayed for a little bit called Inflatable Space, I had the Golden Record on my shelf. So I was like, “This color, it’s not a black record. It’s gold. It’ll pop out against the black table.” Then I’m like, “Well, wait a minute. This is the goal. This is the ultimate, like, Mojave Phone Booth, which is, you know, a weird thing in Zoo Motel. So because of the color of the record that was in my studio is how it got put in the show. But, of course, when you work in this very open way, opening to intuition and letting ideas fall to your lap or at your feet, that kind of made perfect sense, way more sense than the blue record I was trying to find on eBay, which I think was, like, some kind of salsa music or something. 

Zach Blackwood: Some kind of salsa music, that could have been fun too. So I do want to talk more about your studio. It’s such a huge character in this piece and it kind of expands and, like, undulates to become all these different spaces. Without giving away any magic, what are you doing to, like, prepare yourself to be in that environment? How do you prepare yourself to turn that space into everything it needs to be for you? Like, what are you up to an hour before the show? 

Thaddeus Phillips: Yeah! Cool! Well what we did (a little bit of background), what Steven Dufala and I, the set designer who did A Billion Nights On Earth with me, we wanted to curate the Zoo Motel like a motel room. So what would be the art on the walls? What would be…you know, if we’re like weird hipster motel designers, what would we put in the room, right? And so all the things that you see in the show have been curated as if we’re hotel designers making a really weird motel, so that meant that the space of the studio becomes the motel room exactly like a theater or a film set. It’s basically both. So half hour before the show, like a U.S. equity theatre show, the house manager or stage manager shows up in the Zoom call on full screen, just like they would on stage, and I have to do the presets because I’m the only other one here obviously. So the room gets set. We do a checklist on the presets, get everything in the right place, as if you would in a regular theatre show. All the lighting set for the first scene, and then I leave the room and then I get ready, as if I would backstage in a regular theater. And I have a monitor, just like you would in the green room but it’s another computer, so I can see the audience peeking through the curtain. And then I get ready for certain sound cues, and then when I get the right sound cue, which is a certain part of the crescendo of Bolero, I know when to come in the room. But from that point on it’s essentially exactly like a live theater show from my end as a performer, because it’s a one shot delivered with the cinematics of a film, and so it feels totally normal, like doing theatre; that’s what’s completely bizarre. 

Zach Blackwood: I mean until it’s over, right? And that’s, I think, the really strange part; the audience doesn’t mill around. You do a really good job of making sure that the end of this does not feel abrupt and feels like an exchange, but yeah, how does it feel to finish a show on Zoom again? 

Thaddeus Phillips: Again, it feels just the same. I mean there’s this, you know, we do a quick black. What you guys saw might already be slightly updated, but there’s a tiny black at the last second that gives me a chance to go over to the place where we bow, but it just feels like a normal show. And since it feels so normal for me, the audience is kind of like, “Hey, this is kind of like a normal show.” They clap like a normal show, you know. They don’t have to do the Zoom snap snaps. I guess they turn their mics back on or something. And then we have the backstage tour where we bring everyone backstage with a different camera and show them, you know, if they want some of the way it was done, technically, and just talk back, you know, and that’s kind of helped develop the show a lot as well. 

Zach Blackwood: Yeah, I love this, like, practical approach. It’s so challenging. I don’t know if you follow, there’s an Instagram account…I don’t know if you’re on Instagram, but there’s an Instagram account that’s called anti-cgi that focuses on practical effects in film and, like, its history. It’s really really cool. And I’ve been loving that aesthetic that has always existed in your work, but you kind of like miniaturized it here and also made it more expansive. And I think a lot of that was made more powerful by Steven Dufala’s interiors, but what is it like to collaborate with someone, like, during this quarantine period, especially a set designer, on the construction of an environment? 

Thaddeus Phillips: Yeah, so what we did is, you know, again, we started with curating the room. So when I had the idea for the Mojave Phone Booth, we had to start to develop everything based on the distances between things; snd so, you know, I knew we wanted a painting, but the camera and where the control table was located determined the size of the painting based on the shot. So I would do it in rough paper, and then Steven would start to make it nice, and, again, the useful thing is we could rehearse on Zoom and try things on Zoom. It doesn’t matter if you were downstairs, where Tatiana will direct from, or if you’re in Philadelphia or from wherever, because you’re seeing the same thing. And, in fact, you can’t direct from being in the room because you’re not seeing what the camera’s seeing; you know, it’s very confusing if you’re in the actual room. So, in that way, it was kind of easy to collaborate because he needs to see what it looks like on Zoom or on a camera, not being in here live. But there were some cool things. There’s a miniature part where you see many of the rooms. So Steven built a replica of this room I’m in, which is the design version of the Zoo Motel, from just pictures and measurements that I sent. And, yeah, he just worked in his studio and then would send them to me through a weird cargo company in Miami.

Zach Blackwood: That’s wild! Like, the challenges in making work like this are so expansive and just limiting, but it does not feel that way in the piece at all. It actually feels like…I keep saying this, but Zoom feels so much larger; the stage portal for Zoom, gets expanded so much, by your characterization, as well, in the piece. It builds out, like, this kind of fantasy space, this interstitial space, this haunted motel. Yeah, I’m really excited for people to get to experience this work in Philadelphia, but one thing that’s super cool is that audiences all over the world can kind of interface with each other in some of these Zoom rooms, right? Has that been your experience so far? 

Thaddeus Phillips: Yeah yeah! You know, because it’s so easy for us to just do the show when someone asks us to, we’ve done all kinds of shows now. It’s really crazy. So we’ve had shows where it’s mostly through this theater in Denver, so we’ll have all these people, mostly from Denver, but the thing is when they get the email from the Denver theater, if they are on the email list but they live in Montana or LA, then there they are at the show, which they wouldn’t have been able to see if it was in Denver because they’re no longer in Denver, right? So that’s been really cool, because you have all these people who wouldn’t normally go to the thing because they’re not in the geographical location. And we did a few shows for the festival of Santiago a Mil in Chile in Spanish, and those are really late at night for some reason because Chileans stay up late at night. And these really bizarre shows for these Chilean audiences, they were just really really cool. And then we’ve had shows with very mixed audiences between…like if you do a 2 o’clock show in the United States time zone, that’s a seven o’clock EU show or European show, English show. So you’ll get, like, kids from the States, with these tiny, you know, Latvian serious film artists in the same motel check-in, and so that’s super fun. And I think they really enjoy that too because, like, this is so bizarre, because when we only have 25 people—25  rooms, as it were—a night, it’s a very small audience. 

Zach Blackwood: Well it builds out the mystique of this motel, where all these people are in the same space together and you hear them shouting out, “I’m from Hungary. I’m living in Latvia,” or whatever in the chat. It helps to build out, like, this is a space where we’re all meeting. This is a plain space, like a phase state of connectivity. It’s just super cool and such, like, a people-powered aspect of the dramaturgy of the piece. You’re just very cool, Thaddeus. 

Thaddeus Phillips: Aw thanks. 

Zach Blackwood: So what conversations do you hope audience members have with one another, you know, after the Zoo Motel. I had a lot of conversations with the person I watched it with, but is there, like…I don’t mean to pigeonhole you into a narrative theatre place of like, “What’s the lesson?” But in a more holistic way, what conversations do you hope people have?

Thaddeus Phillips: Yeah, that’s interesting. I’ve never actually thought about that, so let’s see. We launch all these things in the show, all these different ideas that are somewhat connected, obviously, and then, poetically, we try—I’m glad you picked up on that idea of epic poems—to kind of link them. And we have a kind of dramatic structure, but it gets weird and you’re not sure which layer we’re actually in. Like, a kid from…somewhere—I think he was eight—just raised his hand and said, “Did you mean to mess with my mind so much?” Right? Because I think he was trying to really figure it out. And so I think what, for me, is interesting to leave in the audience’s mind is just those extraordinary details of the things we bring up that we’ve just curated, you know: the Mojave Phone Booth, the other phone booth, the drive-in movie theater (which was kind of been given as more of a highlight), the Golden Record of course, all these old analog devices inside this room. We just spark a poetic imagination to all the ideas we’re throwing out there, because yeah, like you’re saying, it doesn’t have a natural beginning, middle, and end and it was like a drama, right? Like, I’ve had some ‘not really criticisms’ from people being like, “Wait. How does he get out of the room, or, “What happens,” or, “What’s the story?” So I started looking at the story, which is the screenplay book by Robert McKee. I don’t know if you ever heard of that, but it’s like, “How to write a screenplay! And these are the formats! And this is the formula!” Right? And, like, very few pages in that are interesting for what we’re doing, because if we did that then it would just be like a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end. It’s done. You either go ‘Wow!’ or not, but it doesn’t leave any weird mysteries or questions. That’s what I love about working with Steven is these beautiful objects that he’s made, and the way we’ve tried to set them up kind of make it feel more like you can do, like, a museum or a strange music video but that was also a live theatrical event. It does have a beginning, middle, and end to some extent; I mean, there’s the beginning part, then there’s the middle, and then it does end, you know. But that’s kind of really interesting, because I actually never thought about, like, what are people saying to each other after the show. 

Zach Blackwood: Yeah, I mean, we talked a lot about—well, if you’re interested—we talked a lot about just the massive massive diversity of experiences of people on Earth and how the natural diversity and breadth of the Earth is supernatural in itself. It’s completely bizarre. The world that we live on, without any magical realism, is insane. 

Thaddeus Phillips: Right! Exactly! Exactly! I mean, that’s kind of like when we got to the thesis to say, “Look, Zoo Motel is Earth itself,” but then we’ve curated just a very random, small selection of things. But they all point to exactly what you speak of, like, the extraordinary diversity of experience. And there’s a little moment, again, that has made its way back on the show, where we point out the fact, you know, how extraordinarily miraculous it is that we’re even alive, that we’re even here in the first place, and conscious of it, right? And I think that kind of thinking is really important, especially in these situations where we’re like, “Oh my god, everything’s screwed!” But, you know, it depends on how you look at it, because it’s still pretty interesting that we’re here and conscious of it. You know what I mean?

Zach Blackwood: I mean against all odds, right? Wild…

Thaddeus Phillips: Why hey, you guys, I’ve found Tatiana. 

Zach Blackwood: Happy Hour on the Fringe audience, we have a special guest joining us right now: Tatiana Mallarino, co-director of Zoo Motel, who’s previously collaborated with Thaddeus on ¡El Conquistador!, 17 Border Crossings, and The Incredibly Dangerous Astonishing Lucrative and Potentially Completely TRUE Adventures of Barry Seal which was performed at FringeArts in May 2015. Hi Tatiana!

Tatiana Mallarino: Hi. How are you? 

Zach Blackwood: I’m well! We’ve been talking about the nuts and bolts of building a piece on Zoom, and I really wanted to get your perspective of what it felt like to direct in that environment and to direct Thaddeus in that environment. What were you looking for? How are you kind of working with the stage picture? And we’ve talked a little bit so far about the ways that this is overlapped with film production, so I didn’t know if you wanted to speak to any of that. 

Tatiana Mallarino: Yeah. Well it was interesting, because I would actually connect like I was in a Zoom call in order to see what the audience would see, so that from a technical point of view, but from a practical point of view, we wanted to not lose that connection with the audience. Of course it’s different than in theater, but I think by reducing the number of audience members and making parts of the show interactive, we were able to not lose that connection and make it feel live. So that was a big concern I had while also using, you know, the cool things about actually having a camera. Thaddeus came up with a sort of a camera crane that you would use, kind of like in a movie, but he designed it with an architecture lamp. You know, he’s very technical and his theatre stuff has usually involved a little bit of the techniques and the video and things you use in the cinema, so I kind of let him do his thing up here; that gave me a really good sense of what he was doing with the camera. So we were just playing with it and saying, you know, “That works. That doesn’t work,” so it became its own thing. 

Thaddeus Phillips: I’d like to say, I mean, Tatiana, one of her major contributions was the integration and interpretation of the magic tricks. So when I started working with Steven Cuiffo on the magic design, who’s one of the alum Elephant Room guys, both the original Elephant Room and…what was it? Dust from the stars? 

Zach Blackwood: Dust from the Stars

Thaddeus Phillips: You know, he came up with this ‘map thing’ and this ‘card trick thing’, but it was Tatiana who said, you know, “This is how…if you want to do that trick, you have to integrate it into the dramaturgy and meaning of the piece.” So she actually has the map trick work in a way that a magician would not want it to work, because it reveals it, right, but it makes sense for the piece. And the same thing with the card trick; she was like, “We can’t just do the cart trick. It has to be related, you know, to the audience individually and specifically.” And so the whole thing with the ghost light and the meaning of each individual card that people select, it all came from her. And also the major contribution from her is one of the first rehearsals, again, we developed a lot through improvisation and stuff. I was like, “Okay, well look, let’s start. I have a backpack. I enter the room.” So I enter the room—she’s looking at the monitor—I’m starting to unpack, and she’s like, “Well the first thing that should happen once you enter is the door should disappear.” Right? Because then, otherwise, why would you stay?” So luckily, architecturally, we had a way to make the door of the room disappear, you know, with a guillotine wall and cameras. So in that sense, she’s the one who’s really putting the meaning and the soul behind it. Steven makes it look pretty and I just kind of act and set it up and know how to do crazy shots. 

Zach Blackwood: And Tatiana’s the mysterious entity keeping us all in this motel. 

Thaddeus Phillips: Exactly! 

Tatiana Mallarino: I try. I try. But dramaturgy is like my thing and my concern, and even no matter how visually stunning it is, I like some sort of story. But in this case, it was all so surreal anyway and I didn’t want to also lose that magic. You know, these are surreal times. We are doing the show from our home, after we put to bed our son, and people in their homes are going through surreal times. So it was how to keep that while giving people enough connections and places to stand to make their own connections. Because I think the idea is also that you come out with your own experience of it. 

Zach Blackwood: Stunning. So Thaddeus and Tatiana, thank you both so so much for chatting with us. The piece is a dream, in more ways than one. We’re so so excited to have gotten this chance to speak with you both, and thanks a ton! Looking forward to checking out the Zoo Motel again. 

Thaddeus Phillips: Yeah, thanks, Zach.

Tatiana Mallarino: Thank you. 

Zach Blackwood: You can step into this virtual odyssey that combines interactive live theatre,  cinematic illusions, musical interludes, and magic. Broadcast from a studio apartment in a South American village, Zoo Motel is an interactive show where audience members check into a mysterious motel that’s full of surprises. Thaddeus is going to take his guests on a journey to Spain, Japan, the Mojave Desert, and other parts of the world. One room, endless possibilities. For tickets and more information you can visit that’s ‘t-h-e-a-t-r-e-e-x-i-l-e’ dot org. Don’t miss…Zoo Motel. Thank you listeners for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. Make sure to follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and download the FringeArts app. Thanks guys!