Big Art Group’s “Broke House” at Abrons Arts

Edward Stresen-Reuter, Matthew Nasser, and David Commander. Photo by Big Art Group

“This is really coming out of a project we did in Italy, where we were in a contemporary art gallery,” Jemma Nelson, the co-founder, along with Caden Manson, of Big Art Group, was telling me. “And also thinking about the American artist Gordon Matta Clark, about his sculpture on houses, his ‘drawing on houses,’ as he called it. To call them sculptures or to call them performance doesn’t really matter, but he would saw a house in half, and capture it on video, and that would be the ‘drawing.’ And so that sort of exploration is part of the background of this piece.”

This was the first of two talks I had with the creative team behind Big Art Group, about Broke House, which is currently playing at Abrons Arts Center (through April 22; tickets $20). The official premiere of the show was back during APAP, as one of the most highly billed shows at American Realness, though it only played a handful of times. I first spoke to Manson and Nelson shortly before Christmas, and followed up with Manson a couple weeks ago.

Founded in 1999, Big Art Group has a remarkably diverse resume, producing a series of stage performances, live spectacles, and site specific works throughout the United States and Europe, though they’re probably best known as innovators in the use of technology and mediation in live performance, despite eschewing that sort of narrow label.

“Our first technology is the actors themselves,” Nelson made clear, “and it’s the way that we train the actors, and that’s really the foundation about which all this orbits. It’s interesting that people often look at us as a heavy tech company, when what we mostly try to use is consumer grade electronics and things that are available to everyday street users. And we’re really talking about the ways we use technology every day, in which we are facile in manipulating our own images and sending our images to other people and receiving them back. So it’s that language around technology, it’s the use of it–that’s where we’re quite heavy.”

Added Manson: “Yeah, when you say ‘technology,’ I say ‘language.’ Because it’s the language we all speak. In fact we can speak it three different ways at the same time. Not so well, but that’s what we do. So our work is really written in that language.”

All of which is fair: It’s almost glib to even talk about the use of technology as a choice in live performance these days. Not only is video in live performance around 40 years old at this point, but technology and mediation are so embedded in our daily lives that the real question is how artists are engaging these changes, not why.

Broke House, though, does mark a new shift in BAG’s work. Not only does it make use of a large mechanical set (as opposed to primarily relying on implementation of projections), but it’s also one of the company’s first real stabs are an established theater text.

“We’ve been making work for twelve years, and it’s one of our tenets is that it’s all original work,” Manson explained. “But we wanted to look at a classic–a canonical piece–and make a response. Not a really an interpretation. So Three Sisters is sort of embedded in there. But you’ll have to really parse it to get it out.”

Seeing the show last weekend, I wouldn’t go that far (though my guest did suggest, alternately, that in some ways the show could be read through the lens of The Cherry Orchard). The show takes the rough outline of Chekhov’s play and translates it into the present, except rather than dreaming of a better life out of the provinces and in the capital, BAG’s characters imagine their dream life through the creation of a series of trippy online videos. The story is structured around a documentarian (Edward Stresen-Reuter) who arrives to film the family as they produce their latest episodes, even as their life is falling apart. The family has been living in the house their parents left them, spending down their inheritance, and they’re now quite literally broke and about to be evicted.

Just as they collectively mediate their own desires through the invention of imaginary worlds through low-budget web films, the main characters find their hopes and dreams mediated through various technologies. One sister, played by Heather Litteer, is somewhat comically taken in by romantic Nigerian-email scams; Matthew Nasser’s perennially unpaid handyman is smitten with Litteer’s character, and hopes to convince her to go into making more profitable online films (to be euphemistic about it) to get them the money to escape their perverse situation they’re in; and finally David Commander, who plays Litteer’s brother, longing for romantic engagement, convinces himself the documentarian’s in love with him.

The audience is turn experiences the piece through varying levels of mediation: while the actors are performing on a complex and ever shifting set, the documentarian’s camera feed is projected live throughout, as are the feeds as the group film their twisted, Dayglo-y sci-fi movies.

“This piece is very different from any other piece we’ve made,” Manson told me. “A lot of it is exploring the inability to cope, and a constant kind of breakdown. So we built it on trying to remember things. The script was first improvised for about four weeks, and then we’ve taken that–I edited it then Jemma started to change it more.”

Doctored it,” Nelson corrected

“Doctored it!” Manson added with a sardonic chuckle. “It’s very doctored now!”

“But we did rehearse with everything,” Nelson made clear. “When we say rehearse and improv and stuff like that, it’s with all the gear from the get-go, from the beginning. All the language is being developed at the same time.”

Asked recently about the experience of debuting the show so briefly in January, Manson assured me that, “It’s really to get to run something, then take a break, then work on it and run some more, with feedback from your audience–it’s what we usually do, actually.” Based on that early run, they “annihilated about thirty minutes of the piece and re-made it,” particularly by redeveloping the web-films the family is making.

The end result is around an hour and a half of multi-layered chaos smartly edited into a play. The show surges forward with anarchic glee, as layer upon layer is added until the made-world collapses under its own weight (“It’s like a house of cards. It’s about unsustainable systems, it’s about collapse, it’s about entropy,” Manson commented), propelled by the fantastic performances. Although scripted, the actors are free to improvise and talk over one another, creating a sort of mumblecore vibe.

“They can decide to sort of veer. They can go off the script and just improv if they want,” Manson explained. “Because we’re trying to build between them that sort of awkwardness and inability to communicate and that rhythm of language that you don’t really get when you have a script.”

“I think the challenge for us, having worked with technology for a while, is how to keep it organic. Keeping the focus on live and what is live, and what is that liveness-feeling,” added Nelson.

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