“Hi-Fi, Wi-Fi, Sci-Fi” – CultureHub’s “risky and fragile research project” at La MaMa

La MaMa and CultureHub, in association with the Seoul Institute of the Arts, present Hi-Fi, Wi-FI, Sci-Fi: Predictions Past, Present, & Future a collection of plays from the 1960s and 70s, as well as a new premiere, by iconic playwright Robert Patrick at La Mama’s Downstairs Theater from 2/2/17-2/19/17.  It’s an ambitious, multi-channel, international production that integrates 360° video, motion capture, and multi-location performance. They’ve called it a risky and fragile research project. After dropping in on a couple rehearsals I’m placing my bet, all potentialities of projector blowouts to Manhattan internet grid collapses to actor flubs included, that it will be an evening of many uncanny connections across not only the great distance of decades but through many time zones and the fluctuating flow of the internet. Amidst the daily grapple with technicalities, technology and timelines, the witty takes on the human condition popped up as sometimes droll, sometimes biting, but most often shrewd absurdities that serve as an astounding mirror of contemporary life. I left my second day feeling altered at a cellular level. I’ve entered the paradox – by seeing the future, I’ve changed my future. This production connects us with an expansively visionary and prophetic playwright and in the hands of this creative team of directors, designers, programmers, and performers we get the easiest way into a rift in the space-time continuum. It’s going to be a pretty singular theatrical experience. The revolution will be virtual.

Five years ago, director and Peabody-winning TV of Tomorrow Show artist Jason Trucco called Billy Clark, CultureHub’s Artistic Director and pointed him towards Robert Patrick’s plays thinking they were the perfect match for a production by La MaMa’s resident arts and technology hub. Since 2009, the CultureHub team has connected audiences with over 500 artists from 30 different countries through their annual festival, Refest, artists’ residencies; research and development of creative technology, educational programming and regular presentations of other artists. Trucco saw Culturehub’s mission (he’d also done his thesis on experimental theater of the 70s at La MaMa) and said to Clark “So, you are the artistic director of the theater that was to extend it into the future, here’s a play about that.” Robert Patrick had been an important part of La MaMa’s history. An extremely prolific playwright, he’d often deliver a script to La Mama’s founder Ellen Stewart whenever she needed one by “next week.” His was a DIY practice that matched and fed La MaMa’s continuing global legacy of spirited persistence in the face of various cycles of supportive to hostile funding environments. The DIY aesthetic allowed Trucco to begin directing and producing Patrick’s plays from as early as his senior year in high school, where the production elements wouldn’t be any less than a more “flush” company’s version. That DIY ethos is also a strong part of CultureHub’s style and teaching. I’ve known Billy since he and I were members of La MaMa’s Great Jones Repertory Company and he’d taught a couple experimental courses for Hunter College’s AGDEP students. I’ve seen some of their projects, fewer than I’d like to, but upon walking into a rehearsal that turned out to be a film shoot, I thought OF COURSE. This is the OF COURSE project for CultureHub. A thrillingly precarious convergence of La MaMa then, La MaMa now, artistic vision, and technological innovation on a very human level.  As Trucco shared, even as a young director the work was “alive and contemporary and relevant to me and my actors… we were making interesting art that we were just learning the form for.” His sense then matches my sense of now. We are still learning the form of this theater of today while building the theater of tomorrow. Here is a truly experimental piece of theater making, let us test the boundaries. Here is the theater as a laboratory for discovery and exploration, let us redraw the edges of what is possible. Here is the original mission at play, let us collide the disciplines and in the fission glimpse The New exploded out of The Known. Not obtuse, Patrick’s experimental theater and Trucco and Clark’s vision builds on, as Trucco calls it, “the current cannon of culture” and asks it to do something truly fresh in live performance. It’s a kind of Steve Reich/Anna Teresa De Keersmaker “Fase” piece with Philip Auslander’s “Liveness” theory running simultaneously (but increasingly out of sync) inside, underneath, and through the wires and blood streams of all acting entities whether projected or present.

Robert Patrick – photo courtesy of La MaMa Archives

For Patrick’s plays, the experiments were primarily ones of imagination. He was able to churn out plays quickly (and for Ellen, on demand) because he kept the production needs low and the originality high.  This allowed him to be deemed “New York’s Most Produced Playwright” in 1972 by Samuel French.  According to CultureHub’s Managing Director Anna Hayman, legend has it that Patrick’s roommate Lanford Wilson shared a single desk, chair, and notepad with him. Wilson had a night job and would write during the day, Patrick would write at night after a day’s work. Patrick was one of NYC’s first out gay playwrights who, before the regular commissions from La Mama, had his work regularly produced at Café Cino where, as the legend also goes, he once simply followed in a hot guy. At one point in rehearsing “Action,” the two performers who are in a sense writing each other into creation, ended sitting opposite one another at a single desk. Not the first staging choice, but one that unconsciously nodded to the past. During a rehearsal of “Simultaneous Transmissions,” I watch downtown veterans Valois Mickens and Agosto Machado indoctrinate the young John Gutierrez in the destructive cycle of “us and them.” Fresh off the Women’s March in DC, I feel the ironic sting in their righteous, sign holding stance against their invisible foe, but beyond the staging, the words blend our national naiveté and paranoia: “Who are they? What do they want?” “They have plenty, but they want ours.” “They have nothing we want and they wouldn’t give it to us anyway” “We’ve got to do something about them.” “But they’re watching us.” “We’re watching them.” “Watch them watch us.” Our fear begets the fearsome. The next day, watching them work through the newest commission “Anything is Plausible,” with Harold Lehmann, the delight and laughter as they riff off of one another is infectious. The conversation turns to costuming and the potential for designing a logo and branding him. The game is afoot. Will it be over the top or excessively humble? Is it Scientology or the fixed aesthetic of now, like a punk boutique in LAX Is he real or CG? Is it real or is it Memorex, anyone?

A compelling aspect of CultureHub’s remounting of the older works is how eerily prescient Patrick was in anticipating and describing some of the fraught human tangles we now find ourselves caught in despite writing decades prior to the internet, MMOGs, Skype, Facebook Live, or the unreality of the reality-TV, Twitterversed-dictated feedback loop of our daily news cycle. However, where he was working simply with language and inference, CultureHub’s team can now (after 5 years of incubation and institutional deepening) actually produce the plays literally. As Technical Director, Jesse Ricke points out “all of the technology is meant to be there, it was written into the plays. It wouldn’t be here if the play weren’t here.” This is often not the case, as Ricke attested – noting how often technology in live performance is used to enhance or dazzle up the work – before heading off to join Digital Projects Manager S.O. O’Brien in the less glamorous reality of resolving DVI versus VGA/digital versus analogy/1s & 0s versus waves, processing cards and cabling issues. However Clark, who is directing the production along with Trucco, points out that they were insistent about maintaining a creative process where the art and the technology remain integral to one another. Trucco, despite impressive forays into things like making 360 music videos for Macy Gray and Devo, is with him on that. “It’s always about the art. People here are genuinely committed to the mission statement. Mia [Yoo] and Billy and everyone are collaborators supportive of real experimenting, which makes me the happiest. They’re maintaining a legacy of the unexpected.” In that moment, despite Ellen’s absence from the planet, it was still clear that MaMa had found us another brother.

And, when Mia stops by, she and Billy joke about how well branded Jason is in his Seoul Institute for the Arts coat, where Mia’s father is the president. CultureHub was founded as a partnership between La MaMa and Seoul, so the heart of the work is in bringing us together across cultural gaps, make the foreign familiar and familial like the utopic parts of “All in the Mind,” a play in which the world is telepathically linked into a collective consciousness. For this project, Jason spent almost 2 “dreamlike” weeks in Korea where alternative cultural biases revealed fascinating perspectives on the work and process like when it became clear that Confucianist language foundations erased some of the underlying tensions that were written into the play. “In the play, the idea of everyone experiencing all the wedding nights that ever happened, to us is a bummer, a loss of intimacy. But, in their language something like “my husband” is actually “our husband” in Korean. It’s a whole other way of thinking.” As an intercultural exchange, a discovery like that explicates the importance of these kinds of collaborations. Working half way around the world on a piece about a world wide web of awareness that diminishes differences, there’s a case made for how powerful and important difference is. Now in New York, days later the Korean students are strewn about the theater and lobby painting or hammering props together or sucked into their various screens, half way across from their physical world but still wi-fi connected to their increasingly more insistent virtual one. The development process wrangles with all that is lost in translation, or as in “Camera Obscura,” lost in transmission. In that play, written ages before any #FaceTimefail, two lovers try to connect through networked screens, but a lag complicates the exchange. For the work, with a live performer in Seoul (directed by Park Il Kyu) and NYC, CultureHub developed software to create the actual 5 second latency written into the script. However, as both directors explained, data doesn’t flow at a consistent rate over the internet. It’s also not a force one can control in the theater, it operates across commercial and governmental terrains. And, as happened once, sometimes the entire grid can shut down right when your project is supposed to start. No internet. Anywhere in lower Manhattan. None. So there’s always that pathway down the multiverse options.

The effort is daunting, but the energy is unwaveringly optimistic. While watching the buzz of production and creation, there’s a continuous series of vibrations in my pocket as more and more bad news comes through my feed. My auto correct keeps changing “fiction” to “friction” and “fictionalized” into “factionalized” and I can’t stop my own burgeoning conspiracy theories of state surveillance malware in my portable keypad in this post-truth landscape, an alternative fact is fiction, and the factionalized country is looking like a pretty dystopic present. Caught in a feedback loop with the monster media made, I wonder about a dissolution of America’s insistent individuality against the seductive temptation of a collective conscious. “All in the Mind” as written is a treatise on the possibility of global empathy and the fragility of individual privacy. Luckily, the philosophical seminar is housed in a dizzying arrangement of directionally designed sound that both Ricke and video editor Sang-Min Chae had expressed personal excitement about. While negotiating the ramifications of ultimate awareness, I can also geek out on the team’s ingenuity in designing the spatial sound (with advisement from Wolfgang Gil and a sponsorship from Bose). “The multichannel video is great, but what I’m really looking forward to is when the audio channeling works, we’ll have directional sound located in specific parts of the space.” The team is impressively rounded out with lighting by Bessie Award-winning designer, Joe Levasseur, sound compositions from John Dyer and John King, and additional cast member Yeena Sung. Despite a thread of ambivalence about technological advancements, this collection of Robert Patrick’s plays are to the end an ode to the myriad plausibilities of lives lived fully immersed in art.

In addition to the performances, La MaMa’s Coffeehouse Chronicles will present an afternoon of panelists, archival footage and live performance of Robert Patrick plays. Saturday, Feb 4, 2017 at 3pm in the First Floor Theater, Free Admission; or Suggested Donation. Moderator: William M. Hoffman, Panelists: Michael McGrinder, Natalie H. Rogers, Jordan Beswick, Carol Nelson, Mark Waren, Magie Dominic and Jason Jenn

Shows: Feb 2 – Feb 19, 2017, Thursday to Saturday 8pm, Sunday 3pm Downstairs/66 E. 4th St $25 Adults; $20 Seniors/Students

PLEASE NOTE: This is not a seated performance; the audience moves about the performance space throughout the piece. Running time is one hour.

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