Sarah Maxfield Talks to Andrew Schneider

This discussion with Andrew Schneider about his piece Wow + Flutter originally appeared on Sarah Maxfield’s blog where she regularly investigates contemporary performance through practice, discussion, and critical theory. In addition to writing, Sarah curates THROW, the next installment of which will be at the Chocolate Factory on November 9, 2010. Wow + Flutter premiered at The Chocolate Factory Theater in February, 2010 and included lighting by Christine Shallenberg, sound by Omar Zubair, and directorial consultation by Dan Pettrow.

Sarah Maxfield: Wow + Flutter premiered almost six months ago. What are you still thinking about?

AS: I was really looking forward to coming here and talking about it because every time I talk about it, I understand something more. I was trying to get to some sort of essence of human experience and put that on stage, and say to an audience, “Hey, this is my experience. Do you at all feel in any way similar? Because if you do, then I want to show you this and then afterwards, we can talk about it.” It sounds kind of simplistic.

SM: It sounds very essential.

AS: I’m trying to boil it down to what basic human experience is, and it ends up being the most complex, mind-bending thing in the world, but that’s what it is. Even though the show ends up being really complex, and folds back in on itself, and goes in circles, that’s what human experience is. You realize that trying to convey a really simple idea ends up being a really complex thing.

SM: Yes, but then it feels more genuine to that actual experience. If you distill it down to something super-simple, then it doesn’t feel like the experience of the thing. It feels like a fictionalized version of moving towards an end point, as opposed to this reality that is confusing and complicated.

AS: Every piece is just an extension of the previous one. Your work is a timeline and it continues. It doesn’t stop. Everything that I’m doing draws on the previous thing I’ve done, which in turn has drawn on the previous thing – sometimes literally. I’ll take big chunks of text or certain sections and reformulate them, or re-think why I was interested in them in the first place.

SM: What makes you decide to find stopping points along your continuum of creation, to perform the work you are making? Is it the happenstance of being offered a gig at a certain point, or is it something else?

AS: A lot of pieces grew out of really interesting people saying, “Hey, I’m doing this festival. Do you want to be a part of this festival?” I’d see these festivals as little challenges. How can I make an interesting performance piece within these parameters? That would really help me because suddenly I’m not trying to decide: “out of anything I could ever do in the entire world, what do I want to do?” I have these parameters, and then the things that I’m interested in naturally are just going to come out of it.

SM: What were the parameters for Wow + Flutter? How did that “stopping point” come about?

AS: The basis came from the title of Wow + Flutter, which was a theme that was running throughout my work. “Wow and flutter” as a phenomenon relates to old 78 records: if the hole was off-center, you would get a once-per-revolution distortion of media. I was experimenting with the physical playback of recorded memory, as you have in a hard drive, or a hi-8 tape, or a cassette tape, or a DVD. That is data, but can also be a memory, and you can play that back. Sometimes there are distortions in the media. That’s where it started. Also, I just happened to be reading about particle physics at the time. There were these subtle parallels that were happening for me between recalling memory and quantum mechanics. If you know the state of every particle ever in the entire world, you know everything that has always been, and you can predict anything that will ever happen. I’ve always been interested in time travel and things happening in simultaneous space.

SM: I think a lot of people are working on those concepts right now, to varying degrees of success. With Wow + Flutter, I actually felt the time distortion watching the piece, which was so much fun. You were able to trick me, to misdirect me to look somewhere else, and then you were somehow in this whole other space. It was successful “theater magic,” which is pretty rare. Is that something you were playing with specifically?

AS: That’s why I do theater. That’s why I’m really not all that interested in video, even though that’s what I do for my day job. You can do a lot with video in terms of time distortion and manipulation, but as we consume video, it’s always this linear thing because we’re moving forward in time. A second in our time is a second in video time, so you’re always in lock step with watching the video. But, with theater, you can give people other feelings. That’s something I really strive for: altering a space, or jarring a reality. I’m trying to distort time. It becomes a problem-solving exercise. I want to both go forward in time from this moment on stage and go back in time from this moment on stage and then somehow meet in the middle. Employing video is a way to do that, but also having the dual spaces – the two floors of The Chocolate Factory really allowed me to do that.

SM: I think often artists use technology to be the solution for them, but it’s interesting that while you use technology as a major element of your work, you are trying to solve these “time problems” more theatrically, which I think makes the effect more successful. For example, in the section where you were talking backwards, if you had just had a video going backwards, it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting or mysterious. We wouldn’t have been trying to figure it out in the same way. The video elements you used felt similar to the ways we encounter technology in our normal lives: a television on in the background, a pop-up text message, etc.

AS: I’ve never made a piece without video unfortunately. I’ve always wanted to, but at the end, I’ve always had to put something in. But, for me, it carries the same weight as anything else on stage: a performance, a sound cue, or a lighting cue. They all take equal weight in creating this whole thing. You can’t allow the video to take too much focus; it can’t totally recede into the background either. Everything has to be total in order to affect that sort of experiential happening within the audience. I don’t think there’s ever a point where I as a creator thought that anyone in the audience would be looking at those TVs for more than two seconds at a time. It was a way to shift the focus from me to the back, or from one side to the other. I was really happy working with Christine and having the fluorescents in front. The original concept for that – and using the space “the long way” – was crash test footage. Everything about crash test footage is super-white and clinical. I knew that look that I wanted. It’s not a surgical theater, but it’s something that’s meant to be viewed in a certain way. And then contrasting that with the blue that Christine came up with – that weird, sinking, nowhere-ish, fish-tank feeling.

SM: The lights were fantastic. That all the elements have equal weight for you was really apparent. It felt like one, cohesive performance object/experience for the audience. Everything was contributing to the same idea, and I think that’s what added to that sense of theater magic. You were talking about using video to direct the audience’s attention. Do you think specifically about directing the audience’s eye, or does that just come naturally out of the way that you’re building material?

AS: It happens as I’m building the material, but it’s not unconscious. I do think about it, but it’s not the driving force behind those decisions. I think form can inform content. Sometimes it’s not about the content. The form can actually tell a story of its own. I don’t know if it’s bad or good, but I won’t even write things down sometimes. I’ll just have all these books around me, or these things in my head, and I just know what I have to do. I’ll record it; I’ll program it in; I’ll put it in a timeline, and that night on stage it will just be in my ear. I’ll just do it, and see what happens. I’m so used to working in Final Cut and assembling things into a timeline. I’m assembling these things from disparate documents together in the timeline to export it and perform that timeline. I don’t like the way I’m saying that.

SM: It seems almost an inversion of most improvisational forms. Typically, for an improvisation, some structure is determined and the content is improvised. You are describing a scenario where the content is set, but the structure is improvised.

AS: I guess so. The material is all there. It’s just about arranging it and structuring it in different ways.

SM: Is that process an intentional method for keeping the material fresh, or is it just a factor of your relatively quick process?

AS: I’m sure if I had a run that was longer than three days, and I really hit on something, that, after a week of running it, I’d be like, “Ok, let’s think about a different way to do this.” But, right now it’s a function of time. Sometimes you’re in a situation where you don’t even know what the right thing to do is until you get in front of an audience. Then you realize what things mean and you have to rearrange it.

SM: I think it also relates to what you were saying about form being content for you. Also, I think your willingness to make shifts after experiencing the piece with an audience contributed to its success. I think an audience can tell when they’re not necessary.

AS: I think that that is something that I just sort of discovered. Dan Pettrow brought the huge revelation. He just said, “Talk to the audience; you have to. You have to make sure I’m understanding.” Before, I really wasn’t doing that. I was more concerned about myself. I was just being self-conscious. He wrangled me into talking to the audience.

SM: As he was working with you on that, did you bring audiences into rehearsal?

AS: I was just talking to him initially, and then he went away for a while. Even though he was away, I always kept that in my mind. The shows that I’ve done before this – I don’t think of them as closed-off, but they really are. I say that I do these live theater things because I want to have this interaction with an audience, and then I end up building a giant table of televisions and technology that I can’t even see over, and just having something in my ear and pressing my head against the TV, in order to communicate with the audience, who are right there, and I could just pull all that stuff down and just talk to them! I’ve tried to invent all these different ways of talking to them so that I can get to them differently, but for this one, I’ve combined all that stuff with just actually talking to them, which really helped me – and the show.

SM: I felt connected to what was happening, and that made me pay attention. I also felt like there was something about the way you worked with pacing – right from the beginning – that made me feel like I was on a ride. If you hadn’t directly spoken to us and engaged us that way, I think it would have felt like we were watching you on a ride, rather than taking the trip along with you.

AS: That’s good to hear. I think when I’m performing I feel like I am on a ride with the audience. I think you’re right: in my other pieces it is that they’re watching me on a ride, and it’s not effective at all.

SM: Going forward, do you think that you’re going to continue with that kind of direct communication, or was that specific to this piece?

AS: I do really have this urge to make a piece without any technology. This next thing is about neurology and limited attention span. I’m reading this book by Nicholas Carr called The Shallows. It’s all about “shallow learning.” Experiments about neurology are finding that, yes, we are less able to concentrate on things in a deep way, and our brains are learning how to learn differently from rich media – from having hypertext and hyperlinks, imbedded video and imbedded audio. People who invented hyperlinks and hypertext thought, “You’re reading an article and then you have this thing that you would click on, and it goes to this other thing. Now there are all these other connections being made, so you must be learning more.” But you’re really not. That cognitive skip, to even make the decision to click the link or not, affects how well you retain things. Physically, you’re brain is changing. You’re learning how to learn differently and the neural pathways are changing. It’s incredible. Our cell phones and IMs and blogs are changing the content of our communication as a whole.

SM: Do you think that you’ll be able to manage to stick with creating a show that is all about technology and hyper-neurology, without including any technology? I want to see that!

AS: Half of it I’m doing with technology, and the other half has none. That’s where I’m starting, in a very deliberate fashion. Half of it is pure technology. I’m just going to go at it and try to make the most hyper fucking show I can possibly imagine, and then the other half try to do the same thing without any sort of technology.

SM: You’re describing technology in some ways as a barrier to communication. Do you feel that way about it, or do you see it as both a barrier and a conduit?

AS: Now, I think of it as both. Before, I thought of it as a barrier. I was writing my own stuff, and I was incorporating all this technology, and I didn’t really know why. I didn’t really know what I was talking about when I was saying that cell phones were bad, so I went to the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU to learn about it from the inside, so I could back it up, and find out if there was something to this. Maybe it wasn’t just a vapid technology for technology’s sake. Cut to a year later, and I have a Flickr Pro account and I’m realizing the benefits and the different ways that you can have a narrative, just by looking at somebody’s Flickr stream. Yeah, this does change the way in which I follow this person’s life, or the way I communicate with this person. Although I haven’t talked to them for six months, I know that they just bought a cabin in Vermont and that’s a different relationship with that person than I had in the past. They’re sharing something.

SM: But does it relate to what you were saying about surface learning? You have all this information about all of these people, but it fakes you out into thinking you’re maintaining relationships when in reality you’re just consuming content. Do you think there’s something valuable there that I’m missing?

AS: I think some of it is valuable, but I do feel that that as a form of communication, it does change the content of that communication. As we’re moving away from talking on the telephone, and more to tiny little text messages, obviously we’re not speaking with each other as deeply. The quantity of our conversation is increasing but the quality might not be increasing. It might be decreasing. That’s what I worry about. I haven’t checked my Facebook in a long time. For a while I thought, “Are there possibilities with this for some sort of online performance?”

SM: I had a similar trajectory.

AS: I think people used to be performing their lives rather than living their lives, but Facebook really solidified that. Now you get to broadcast only what you want to broadcast, and if the majority of your interactions on a daily basis are through Facebook, you get to curate that. You get to groom yourself for what other people see. So, you really do get to perform your life.

SM: And edit it.

AS: Yeah. I wrote a lot of stuff in college that was totally autobiographical, and then, I found other people who were writing the things that I was thinking, but writing about them in a more eloquent way than I could ever say them. I have the ability now to quote these people – or steal their text – however you want to say it.

SM: Hyperlink. There’s an interesting hierarchy in the arts about who can steal from whom. Often in performance, we’ll “appropriate” text or music and feel ok about that, but then, when visual art steals from us, we get really mad.

AS: I think it should just all open up.

SM: It seems like that’s the trend, and technology seems to be the reason for that trend. It’s so easy get access to information and intellectual property and share it. If everyone can share everything, then it’s harder to have rights to specific things. What then will become the thing that starts to set people apart? What is the new “talent,” if content doesn’t live with its creator? Does editing/arranging become the skill that is sought-after?

AS: I think you can always tell when something is good. I can appreciate something like “Jaydiohead.” This guy combines two already existing works, Jay-Z and Radiohead, into a new and original thing. That thing didn’t exist before. Its parts did, but now there’s a third thing. There is something very original about it. I think standing on the shoulders of other people is always a good thing. Advancement. You shouldn’t take somebody’s work and claim it as your own, but if you change it enough, and if you truly take and make it something new, I’m all for that.

SM: The potentially exciting thing about what’s happening now is that there’s a real acknowledgement that we’re all pulling from the same pool. We always have been, but we haven’t always acknowledged it with the transparency that we seem to be doing now.

AS: For this show, specifically, I used a bunch of stuff from David Foster Wallace’s short story Good Old Neon from a book called Oblivion. It’s about this guy, who is a fraud, and he can’t stand being a fraud, and he doesn’t have the mental firepower to talk himself out of being fraudulent. So, he decides that the only way to do anything about it is to kill himself, but he doesn’t want to be fraudulent in that final moment either. So there’s this huge thing about fraud, the conception of the modern American male, achievement-oriented success, and suicide. All of those things, I’m very interested in and couldn’t have written about them in any better way than David Foster Wallace did.

SM: Few could.

AS: So, I decided just to take his text and intersperse it through my text. People who didn’t really know David Foster Wallace always guessed that the sections I wrote he wrote and the sections that he wrote I wrote, which was interesting.

SM: Do you feel like you got to have the conversations that you wanted to have with people after the show?

AS: Definitely with this one. I went up to perform a work-in-progress of it in North Adams, Massachusetts. Before my show, in this tiny little gallery on Main Street, USA, it was like a town meeting. There were kids running around eating Saltines. It was very, very community-oriented, and I’m about to go on stage and talk about fucking a different girl every night for three straight months and suicide. I was totally freaking out. I was like, “I can’t do this show. I’m not going to do it. I’m just going to back out.” Then my buddy showed up from Maine to see the show. That was the only reason I did it. I thought, “These people are going to hate me, but at least I will have committed and not let myself down.” I did it. I went all out, and I’ve never had a reaction like that in my life. Everybody stayed. The first guy that came up to me was an auto mechanic. He shook my hand and was like, “Thanks, that was really interesting. I’m going to be thinking about that for a long time.” They had no preconceived notions about what this “crazy experimental theater” was because they hadn’t gone to see experimental theater the week before, and the week before, and the week before, and the week before – a totally fresh audience of the most open, interested people that I’ve ever met. It wasn’t my friends in Brooklyn who were just like, “Oh yeah, it’s Andrew doing his show again.” I realized that these are exactly the people who I want to be talking with, because they’re interested in talking, and exploring this with me.

SM: They have space for a deeper engagement with the work because they’re not seeing so many other things all the time. Are you planning to take more work outside of NYC?

AS: I’d love to. I don’t have the time to do that yet. I think New York is a great incubator for things. I don’t know where I would live if I didn’t live in New York, but I feel like New York is becoming – not a parody of itself, but a…

SM: Performance of itself?

AS: Yes, exactly.

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