No Cats Were Harmed In the Making of This Play
“Basically I wanted to be an actor. Kind of. I think. I was just kind of doing theater because I’d always done theater,” Jamie Peterson said, leaning back against the bench. “And I went to college and started studying with Will Bond, from the SITI Company, he became the acting teacher my sophomore year, and I started studying Suzuki and Viewpoints. So that kind of started it, then I got arrested and suspended from school.”
He turned to me and grinned. We were sitting in Tompkins Square Park at Peterson’s insistence, desperate to use the excuse of an interview to escape the dark of the Incubator Arts Project–where his company The Paper Industry’s new show Apologies (And Other Gray Areas) opens this week and runs through Dec. 17 (tickets $20)–and enjoy a few minutes of what threatened to be one of the last sunny days of the fall.
While avowing that the story of his arrest wasn’t interesting in and of itself (something involving drugs, a roadside shrimp shack in upstate New York, and a man with a thrice-pierced penis), the event proved transformational for Peterson. “Cast to the wind” as he put it, and uncertain what to do having been suspended from college for a semester of his senior year, he called a friend who’d recently taken an internship at Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater. By chance, one of the interns had just quit, and so the Connecticut-born Peterson left upstate for the city and began his career in experimental theater, which, in addition to a couple years with Foreman, includes a role as assistant director of NTUSA, whose Chautauqua he tech directed on tour. His own company, The Paper Industry, formed early on in his time at the Ontological-Hysterical, and has produced several works over the past five years. But the main thrust has been a trilogy of “ugly operas”–dance-theater performances making extensive use of music–inspired by concepts taken from physics.
“This show is actually based on the work of Schrödinger and Heisenberg and their work in physics,” Peterson began explaining before I interrupted him.
“Is there a cat in it?”
“No,” he said with a laugh. “But there are a lot of cat references. A lot of cat jokes. At one point, I was like, ‘We should just let a cat loose onstage.’ And then I was like, ‘That’s a stupid idea.’ That would ruin the whole show. Nobody would watch anything. I wouldn’t watch anything, I’d forget I was directing and just watch the cat.”
Somewhat ironically, we were then distracted for a couple minutes by a friendly lapdog being walked by an elderly Russian woman. But, once back on topic, Peterson proceeded to explain: “So the show’s about uncertainty. This one is sort of unpacking beginnings, how we understand them. And it’s taking Heisenberg and Schrödinger’s work on observation. The observation of a quantum state causes it to change. Or causes the possibility of alternates to collapse. Whatever. So, the idea is that we’re creating a space of potential, of flux, and then defining it. That’s what a beginning is–the moment you observe and become cognizant of, or aware of, something is when it really takes root and becomes defined.”
In order to turn such an abstract concept into an experience for the audience–to provide a “visceral understanding or point of communion”–TPI presents a form of total theater, utilizing movement, text, complex interactive scenography, and music, the last of which they have a growing reputation for incorporating in meaningful, compelling ways.
In terms of scoring TPI’s work, Peterson’s primary collaborator is Carter Matschullat, who’s been working with the company since their first piece and, for both Apologies and its immediate predecessor Sine Wave Goodbye provided almost the entire musical component on his own. (In Apologies, one section was produced by North Carolina-based dj Noah Smith, a.k.a. Hard Mix.)
“My original pitch was, I wanted all the music to be super ambient, because I wanted it to be like a space of suspended time,” Peterson told me. “And [Matschullat] came back to me–the way we worked this time was he sketched out stuff, and we went back and forth. And he came back and said, ‘I’m thinking of making the rest of this show down-tempo house music.’ So we started listening to house records, and I was like, ‘Okay. Let’s do it. Why not? Go for it, full-bore!’ So now this show is loud and all really bouncy and big. There’s a lot of drops. It’s funny because the dance is very contrapuntal to that.”
The work is performed by a company of seven dancers and two actors. The choreography was developed collaboratively between Peterson and the performers, who he credited with pushing him and helping him take the movement to a level beyond what TPI has previously been able to accomplish. As for the actors, much of their text, which is fragmentary and doesn’t, on its own, form the narrative of the show, is drawn from research Peterson did in the correspondence and discussions between Heisenberg and Schrödinger and their debate over how best to represent physics theory.
“Heisenberg believed in the power and potency of math as a language. His equations are…the uncertainty principle is tiny. Three variables,” he explained. “And Schrödinger’s equation is very large, but he created a means to explicate it,” the famous “Schrödinger’s Cat” analogy.
The set by Andreea Mincic continues TPI’s exploration of how to use the scenography to present the transformations that occur during the work. While some of the details were still being worked out when we spoke, essentially Mincic’s set created divisions in the space, with a large, polyvalent wall separating the actors from dancers which dissolves over the course of the performance, as the potential of the moment collapses into a concrete reality.
“It’s an hour long reveal that’s kind of inevitable,” Peterson said. “There’s not a lot that you’re going to be, ‘I never saw that coming!‘ But that’s the point. The point is that you see it coming, and that’s what the text talks about, that beginnings are calm and deliberate. You think back, and you think that just happened. But every moment, there’s this moment where you’re like, ‘This thing is happening.’ And it’s basically taking that moment as the start, when you became cognizant of it. It’s distending that moment into this piece about what the flux feels like. That’s one of the reasons we went with house music, because it layers, and the way the songs build. It’s like how a cognitive process winds up.”