The easy way to begin an article about Radiohole’s unique scenographic vision—by way of a preview of their newest show, Inflatable Frankenstein, which opens this weekend at the Kitchen (as part of PS 122′s COIL 2013; tickets $20)—would be to make a glib comment about how fitting Frankenstein is as material for the company, who are themselves something of mad scientists of the stage. Over more than a decade of collaboration, the company has developed a distinctive theatrical palette, mixing the subtlety afforded by cutting-edge technology with an aesthetic owed more to Rube Goldberg and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse than the prevailing tendency toward spatial minimalism and video in contemporary performance.
A couple weeks ago, I stopped by the Collapsable Hole in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the company’s long-time home, where co-founder Eric Dyer was working with the crew to put the finishing touches on the elaborate set pieces before loading in to the theater. While Jamie McElhinney was working on the sound-score in one corner, Romanie Harper sat at a work-bench taking an iron to a stack of plastic shopping bags. She was working on one of the show’s central devices—and the company’s latest addition to their scenographic repertoire—plastic inflatables.
“It’s just trying to get away from that thing I’ve been working in,” Dyer explained of the decision to incorporate them, “that I know so well. I wanted to do something I knew nothing about. I knew nothing about inflatables—like air-flows, volumes of air, how to make them.”
That let’s-figure-it-out-as-we-go attitude marks Dyer’s—and the company’s in general—approach to creating the settings for their work. Like most people (at least in my experience) who prove adept at creatively reimagining how to manipulate the stage space, Dyer’s success lies less in formal theatrical training than a diverse background. Like many artists, he told me that “I got sick of theater” in undergrad at Bard College, “so I spent the last couple years of undergrad hanging around the art department making sculpture,” particularly metal-work, which led to his first job in New York City: installing fire escapes.
The longevity of Radiohole, which emerged in the late 1990’s as a vehicle for producing Dyer’s work but which quickly developed into a collaborative effort, owes a great deal to the complementary but contrasting tastes of the core artists, which include Maggie Hoffman and Erin Douglass, as well as associated artists. Although Dyer acknowledges that “the gestalt usually is mine, the big picture,” that the ultimate show is a collaborative effort on numerous levels.
“There’ll be an idea–’We should have this thing,’” Dyer explains. “You know, Maggie will come up with an idea, she’ll talk about it, she’ll grab a mic stand and make it up, and I’ll go and sort of make it a functional object. So it’s mixed in that. But when you boil it down to engineering stuff, it usually comes down to me.”
Each piece thus becomes an aesthetic realization owing to the diverse tastes and interests of the various artists. In particular I was surprised that the distinctly tactile component of Radiohole’s shows—from the materials they use to the sticky messes they make—are in Dyer’s own estimation as much Hoffman’s as his own.
“Maggie for instance is really interested in tactile objects,” he told me. “She wants it to be real. She doesn’t like to act, she doesn’t like to pretend something. And I think she pushes that aspect of the work a lot. I know she does, because sometimes my little minimalist streak will kick in and I’ll be like, ‘I just want one image here.’ And she’ll come back and say, ‘No, but we need a giant turd to fall out of the sky and go splat everywhere!’ And that dialogue goes on between us. It’s really good for me, because aesthetically speaking, that mess isn’t native to me. I’m much more about the clean lines, and I think that sensibility developed at the Wooster Group in the mid-Nineties working on their sets.”
A case in point is the “stations” used in the piece, which have appeared in Radiohole’s work before. Combining the practical necessity of microphones (Radiohole pieces are often loud, and Dyer promised, with a gleeful chuckle, that Inflatable Frankenstein is “going to sound balls. It’s going to be good, it’s going to be loud, and it’s going to hurt”), the “stations” create a concrete playing space for performers within the set. Radiohole doesn’t produce shows that remotely aim for verisimilitude, so establishing such a physical position within the space is core to actually working on the development process, as it provides a functional position for performers to inhabit, and thus emerges as a core aesthetic component of the set.
In Whatever Heaven Allows, Hoffman had a large manipulatable stand with video screens; in Inflatable Frankenstein, both Hoffman and Douglass have stations that serve as “writing machines.” Both are formed from reconfigurations of sewing machines. Hoffman, who explores the role of Mary Shelley, uses one constructed of two Victorian foot-pedal powered pre-electric machines. The spools on the old machines work in tandem to scroll the text she writes across a reflective surface. Douglass’s writing machine is slightly more modern, with the same principle powered by a mid-century electric sewing machine. Douglass explores the character of Claire Clarement, Shelley’s step-sister and the occasional lover of Shelley’s husband Percy (predictably, Inflatable Frankenstein tackles more than just Shelley’s novel).
Both stations also use varying forms of inflatable technology. In fact, I think I saw more a dozen instances of inflatables throughout various set and costume components as Dyer led me around the workspace. The core piece, the actual inflatable Frankenstein’s monster (which they refer to as the “body without organs,” in reference to Deleuze and Guattari), was developed during a residency at EMPAC and has dimensions of more than 20 feet. I mistakenly assumed it was constructed of special material, but Dyer corrected me, informing me it was nothing more than shopping bags ironed together. Introducing me to Harper, who helped build and design the inflatables, he asked her to back up his claim that it was around 500 bags that produce the central inflatable.
“I don’t know,” she admitted, laughing. “I was high that whole week on plastic fumes.”
Dyer shrugged in agreement and told me: “She was just ironing Walmart and Price Chopper bags together.”
The inflatable Frankenstein’s monster, the interior of which also serves as a playing space, takes five electric air pumps around ten minutes to inflate. In fact, at least seven powerful air pumps are used throughout the piece, in addition to a variety of smaller electric and manual ones, which contributes to the sheer volume of the piece. Asked about how the company dealt with the sound of the pumps, Dyer just shrugs it off as another challenge requiring a DIY solution.
“We’ve just incorporated it,” he says. “In fact, at EMPAC I recorded all of them. I recorded them in different ways and mixed that into the soundtracks we’re using. So there’s a lot of this ambient drone sound, and that’s basically almost all fans.”
As for incorporating the ten-minute inflation into the piece, Dyer acknowledges they ultimately just sort of let it play out as it will.
“What’s great about the inflatables is, we were trying to plan how it’s going to happen, like it has to be very specific,” he explained. “And then we realized we were banging our heads against the wall, and we were like, ‘Fuck it. Let’s not have any plan. Let’s just turn the fans on and let it do whatever it does. And it was amazing. It was great. So there’s a certain excitement in that we don’t really know what it’s going to do.”
That’s part of the company’s approach that sets them apart from others, like the Wooster Group, where Dyer worked for several years in the Nineties. In prior conversations, Dyer had told me that the level of perfection and specificity that artists like Liz Lecompte demand is of little interest to him.
“I had a funny conversation with Pavol Liška [of Nature Theater of Oklahoma] about letting go of things,” Dyer continued. “Letting go of control, and letting things happen and accepting whatever it is that does happen. And I think that’s one of our M.O.’s. I mean everything’s scored and scripted—it isn’t anarchy. But we collaborate, so people have to let go of things in that, and sacrifice things. And onstage we set up a situation and let it rip. And it doesn’t always go by the book, but we’re not going to come in for days and days to try to pin every little thing down, because it’s not interesting to me.”