A performance that “drifts” but doesn’t leave you

“Drifting Awake” is a new piece by Estelle Woodward and Jeff Arnal. The performance is an immersive experience spread through The Chocolate Factory’s space (which I found quite fulfilling after making a rare trip to Queens) with soundscape, installation, video, and intent performers (Estelle Woodward and Alison Robinson). The performance uses the whole space, moving the audience between two floors and even the narrow, sloping ramp of a lobby. Some phrases that I wrote during the show, “who else does tai-chi with light and shadow?” “wind instrument resonates the entire room” and “performer stares down dirt after covering extremities in it.” Rather than present my drivel (as evidenced above), I asked Estelle and Jeff a few questions about the creation of this comprehensive show and their vision.

Isabella: Can you explain the origins of “Drifting Awake”?

Estelle: “This was the second time that we have done an installation piece at the Chocolate Factory. We again had the experience of being able to come in and take over the space, in order to create multi-layered installation piece. We were reallyinterested in doing something like that again and we had already talked to Brian (Rogers, director of Chocolate factory) about coming back the next season. At the same time, we went backpacking in the Sequoia and it’s just an amazing experience, where you get to focus on yourself, one another and the environment without other distractions. You’re out in the open, and that’s where we started. We began talking about building different environments that had a relationship to the experiences that we were having on the trip, such as (living) inside a dome, what’s going on inside and outside the dome and what that’s like for an audience member or a performer. On the other hand, the upstairs environment, represents an outdoor, broad expanse. We were working on different altered states of being, states of consciousness, levels of awareness, “awakeness”.

Isabella: I saw a lot of horror film references, In the movement, use of light and video editing…….

Estelle: That’s an interesting association with that particular genre of film because Jeff has a degree in film and his influence comes a lot from the more experimental genre of film. Namely the German expressionist period, which had a “gothic” quality, with extreme shadows, mysterious quality, things not really being what they appear to be.

Isabella: At one point during the downstairs section, I became suddenly aware of your presence, when you actually had been in the room for awhile. Because you were manipulating the orientation of the audience to the performance, how did you remain attentive to their comfort level?

Estelle: “I hope the experience in the dome for the audience feels very gentle and non-confrontational. I picture it as an intimate exchange between myself and the audience, not invading anyone’s space. But it’s a fine line as a performer, (you must be) so careful with your energy, your intention and your focus. You have to be aware of the intensity of your movement. The piece is improvisated; heavily scored, with a very specific structure. Because the material varies each time I do it, and there’s a lot of room within the structure to gauge the energy of the different audiences.”

Isabella: The sound score in this show is so immersive and vital to the creation of the enveloping environment in “Drifting awake”. How did Jeff Arnal approach the sound score?

Estelle: He works a lot with found sounds, exploring the relationship between yourself and your environment, the notion of memeory and unconscious thoguht, which continued the three main concepts of the piece. There was a link between memory and place, so there’s a lot of different sounds that I think people have heard many times, so it calls up a memory for you (from your life). What is the emotional response to that memeory and how does that impact your experience during this show?

Isabella: It constantly amazes me how heightened and attentive an audience can become once they are forced to listen closely and in doing so, focus on their surroundings. The sound was so important in this installation and made the whole experience come together. I really noticed where I was……..

Estelle: We have been collaborating for a really long time and Jeff is a percussionist so a lot of our work has been focused on improvisation, so working in this way, where we are creating sounds scores and combining all these elements, the sound, the environment and the movement, was unique and interesting. The last time we did an installation at the Chocolate Factory, Jeff built a Foley soundstage in the basement, which was used for live radio shows in the 40s. All the performers were upstairs and the percussionists were downstairs doing these sound effects, standing in gravel pits and pouring water. You could see them on monitors creating the live sound score, so this current show was very different from the previous one.

Jeff: I was also aware of the limitations of the space, that you would hear what was going on upstairs while you were downstairs, etc. I also worked with memory, using what you just saw and hearing again what you heard earlier in the show. I used old compositions in collage, similar to the film editing. I did a lot of field recording in the places we had been, specifically Rockaway Beach and the hiking trip in the Sequoias. It really came down to the subject matter, being aware of what’s in our conscious mind and the collective conscious mind. I just collected things over the year that I felt fit into this project.

Isabella: Thank you very much for speaking with me!

%d bloggers like this: