COIL 2012: William Cusick and Kenneth Collins of Temporary Distortion

“We started doing small video screens, partly because we wanted to start cautiously,” William (Bill) Cusick was telling me, “and partly because we had no money at all. And we’ve always worked within our limitations. Kenneth’s work started really small, because he’d build it in his living room. We rehearsed for years in his living room.”

“This is the first show that wasn’t built in a living room,” Kenneth Collins offered. “Even Americana Kamikaze and Welcome to Nowhere, which have toured internationally and played to houses with three-, four-hundrd seats, were designed and built and fully rehearsed in my living room. Which was a small living room! It wasn’t a loft.”

“It was a sixteen-, eighteen-by-twelve room, and the sets were eight-foot-by-eight-foot, sitting in front of a bookshelf, next to a leather sofa and the TV,” Cusick continued. “And it wasn’t like he ripped out his living room, he lived there, it was real. And we’d all come and rehearse there for a couple years…”

“This is the first show that we’ve had a larger environment, which is our rehearsal studio, to build the work,” Collins continued. “And again we’re scraping, we’re hitting the walls, we’re up against the columns.”

Cusick: “This show is almost three-times as large. It’s twenty feet wide and twelve feet high.”

Collins: “But it’s a philosophy of being able to make the work that an audience sees onstage in the studio. And again it’s one of the ways that we approach making theater more like visual artists, perhaps. Because the work in the studio is what’s of primary importance to us. It’s the work we present to the public.”

This was the weekend before Christmas, and I was sitting–shopping bags of gifts around my feet–in the loft of a Soho cafe where Collins and Cusick, the creative directors behind the company Temporary Distortion, had agreed to meet to discuss their latest, Newyorkland, an exploration of the life and myth of the American cop, which premiered at On the Boards in Seattle a couple months ago and makes its way to New York as part of PS 122’s COIL Festival in January at the Baryshnikov Arts Center (Jan. 12-28; tickets $20/$15).

Of all the interviews I’ve done of January artists, this was easily my favorite. Not to sound trite, but the two make a great pairing. Collins, the director and designer, is angular with shorter hair and tattoos, while Cusick, the video artist, has longer hair. Both wore all black. The former can be elliptical in conversation, while the latter can speak enthusiastically about film and video and television. While one responded to a question, the other would sit quietly, occasionally looking bored, but intently listening, jumping in to add to the conversation, occasionally finishing the other’s sentences. And sometimes they seemed to forget all about me and conversed among themselves about some point on which they different perspectives, evidence, I suppose, of the creative frisson that drives the company’s work. Really, I’m not trying to be cute here, but transcribing our interview was a fascinating exercise in trying to capture just how differently these two incredibly smart, thoughtful artists described their work, even as they demonstrated a deep understanding of the other’s process.

Temporary Distortion was founded around 2002 by Collins, who met Cusick in 2004 at the Lincoln Center Theater’s directors lab. Notwithstanding his education in film, Cusick is himself a long-time theater artist. At the time, he was working as an assistant lighting designer but hoping to make the transition to directing, and parlayed his design experience into the directors lab. Shortly after meeting Collins, he caught two of Temporary Distortion’s early shows in quick succession.

“I saw his show at the Ontological, and it was easily the most unique experience I’d ever had to that point in my life in a theater,” Cusick told me. “My participation level was so far beyond anything I’d experienced, that when I watched the show, I had so much going through my mind, in so many ways, that I wanted to get that out of my head and onto the stage.”

Collins, for his part, was already working in the intensely sculptural mode that continues to define the company’s production design aesthetic, putting his actors in “claustrophobic box-like structures” influenced, as he suggested, by the artist Joseph Cornell.

“I’ve always been interested in, how do you make theater that’s more like a form of sculpture?” he explained. “How do you view the work on stage in the same way you look at sculpture in a gallery? How do create that sort of detachment with the audience and give them the time to view the work in that manner?”

The two began collaborating and today form the artistic heart of Temporary Distortion. Collins continues to develop intensely constructed spaces for his artists to perform in, separating them from one another. Cusick’s contribution comes in the form of video elements projected throughout the performance in diverse areas of the tightly constructed space. The work they create is often fragmentary, pulling together video segments that use recognizable filmic tropes, found-texts, and music that re-combine and explore that the aesthetic and content of the show’s subject.

“We’re working in a non-narrative video format, non-narrative visual format that can complement that sculptural installation,” Cusick offered, “basically creating video art to complement the performance art, and actually integrated to create a new form.”

The company’s most recent work has been in the field of deconstructing film. Welcome of Nowhere, about “road movies,” and Americana Kamikaze, about Japanese horror, were Newyorkland‘s immediate predecessors. Like those shows, Newyorkland is a complex document using a variety of sources to present the world of the police officer. But the new work may be a break from that tradition, depending on whose perspective you take.

The genesis of the piece comes from a phone call from Cusick to Collins as they were finishing Americana Kamikaze. They’d been mulling over a couple not quite satisfactory subjects for their next show, when Cusick sat down to watch The French Connection with TaraFawn Marek, the company’s costume designer. Inspired by the film, he suggested that they tackle cop pop culture for their next project. Collins had grown up in a family of police officers, so there was an added connection.

“It very quickly morphed into a project about deconstructing the profession of police-work,” Collins commented, though, “rather than deconstruction the film representations of police-work.”

“We spent about a year thinking of it as taking apart Dirty Harry, taking apart The French Connection,” Cusick continued to explain, “looking at it that way. We watched forty films, fifty films each, and then starting getting into the non-fiction literature, and the fiction begins to feel really frivolous. It begins to feel really repetitive and formulaic, and even insulting to your intelligence. How do you take apart something that simplistic? And then you begin to look at where it comes from. And the cop culture–it’s been said before that police work is the most mediated line of professional work in America.”

“We think of ourselves as very familiar with it,” Collins added, “although that familiarity is based on a fiction.”

So Newyorkland is a departure from the previous shows, which were primarily concerned with genre representations. Here, the company set out to explore the reality of police work as much as its representation. Sources were often as not non-fiction. Calling it an “assemblage,” Collins said: “Really, that’s what we’ve done in building the text and all of the content of this show, is to look at documentaries, to look at interviews, stories that I heard growing up in a family of cops. William went through–”

“The NYPD manual,” Cusick interjected. “There’s two scenes that are completely deconstructions–”

“–of found poetry in the police manual,” Collins finished.

But whereas Collins saw the work mainly as an exploration of the gap between the reality and the representation, Cusick maintained that from his perspective, and his work as the video artist, it remained similar to previous explorations of genre film, referencing dozens of different movies and TV shows.

“What starts as a film genre,” he said, “we realized is a cultural genre, a whole sector of our culture.”

Newyorkland features four live actors and more than twenty in the video segments, which offer a stark contrast to the live performance.

“It’s ironic in way, because there’s a very cold sort of formalism onstage, but in the video we allow ourselves to be very…” Collins searched for the word. “I don’t know, what’s the word? It’s almost the opposite…”

Intensity,” said Cusick. “There’s another level of intensity in the film.”

Asked to speak more about the process of creating the disparate elements of the piece and how those relate to one another, the two talked about the challenge getting together a long, mixed segment of video and performance they call, internally, “Role Call,” in which the officers get their daily assignments. The company used the event to offer a lens on the challenges facing officers as they present themselves professionally.

“It starts with the traditional Hill Street Blues beginning, like, ‘All right item such-and-such, we got this going on, this item, this is going on, keep an eye out for that.’ And with the video, it’s a follow-shot,” Collins explained.

“It’s the most complex shot in the whole show,” Cusick continued. “An unbroken shot, one long take.”

Collins: “A dozen actors…”

“With a twelve pound camera on one arm, on a Steadicam with no vest. Usually with a Steadicam you have a vest that counterbalances it,” Cusick explained.

“We had a location we dressed as a police station, I think rather convincingly,” Collins was speaking more to Cusick than me at this point.”And we had a number in uniform, a number of officers dressed as detectives, and as Bill followed–there’s a whole choreography set up ahead of time…”

“I’d follow one guy, he’d turn off, I’d follow another guy, he’d turn off, I’d catch another, follow him, he’d turn off…” Cusick recalled. “I worked on Law & Order, and they use Steadicam on every single episode. I remember watching them do it, and it was this really brilliant camera operator who’d wear a vest, and he’d have–they’d use a film camera, so he’d have a sixty-pound camera, and he’d be running down the street, following the cops.”

“The reason it was difficult,” Collins said, turning back to me, “and why we struggled with it, was we had this video sequence which in a way was very fixed because it’s a one-shot–you can’t edit and retain the essence of what it is. And we had a text we also liked, and had an inherent rhythm to it, and no matter how much you edited the text, it had this inherent rhythm to it. And we had music that John Sullivan, our composer, composed during a rehearsal that we also liked. And the three were just missing each other for months.”

“Off by five seconds, off by ten seconds…” Cusick concluded. “The first time we did it, I could see it in its ideal state, and we didn’t get there till six months later.”

There’s an extreme level of perfectionism that goes into a Temporary Distortion show (“When we get to putting a show onstage, we’re done,” Collins told me. Added Cusick: “The only thing that’s not cued when we arrive at the theater is the house lights”), but the results are startling. Newyorkland benefited from an unexpected synergy with public events, opening opposite the crackdown on the Occupy Wall Street encampments nation-wide, in which police were caught in the middle between opposing political units, and often cast as the bad guys in the drama. The show’s deep appreciation for the reality of the police officer’s experience and the challenges facing them in their highly mediated but little understood job is another example of extremely thoughtful and boundary-pushing work going up in January. I heard from numerous people in Seattle how compelling the show is, how strangely timely and important and perspective-shifting it is right now.

It’s also worth noting for those who, like me, missed the company’s previous work, that Americana Kamikaze is available online from; Temporary Distortion will be the first company with two shows available from the site.

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