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Close Encounter with Collision Theory

Brooke Pierce talks to K Tanzer about the company's new show, The Abduction Project.

By New York City

From The Twilight Zone to The X-Files, Ray Bradbury to L. Ron Hubbard, E.T. to Independence Day, popular culture is rife with stories 'from the beyond' about alien life forms and their encounters with humankind. Collision Theory--a company that has done staged explorations of such varied subjects as prostitution, mental illness, and the medical system--went to ground zero and talked to people who believe in, study, and say they have experienced contact with extra-terrestrials. Their findings have inspired the company's newest piece, The Abduction Project, playing at HERE this month.

TheaterMania spoke to K Tanzer, co-creator and co-director of the show, about turning documentary into drama and alien abduction into art.

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THEATERMANIA: So, what does Collision Theory do?

K TANZER: We create and produce physical theater that has a highly choreographic style. It's in that gray area between dance and theater; it's very much theater, and it's not a company of dancers, but it's highly choreographed. It's a ton of movement.

TM: Do you have a choreographer in the company? Or are you trained that way?

TANZER: Stephanie Gilman and I are co-artistic directors in the company, and we do a great deal of the choreography, but some of it is also actor-generated. It's a real mix. Steph and I will work in a rehearsal room and we'll do all the choreography for certain sections. We bring it in and we teach it. Sometimes it changes, sometimes it stays exactly the same.

TM: Tell me about the music you use.

TANZER: Bo Bell is our resident sound designer and composer; he's incredible. I mean, I happen to think all our designers are brilliantly and wonderfully talented people, but the sound design on this piece is really fantastic.

TM: Do you always use original music?

TANZER: Actually, there's a lot of prerecorded music in this piece. The Abduction Project takes place in the 1950s--it's the essence of the 50s, I should say--so we have "Life Could Be a Dream," "Chances Are," "Rock Around the Clock. " Those are the three that sort of reared their heads.

TM: Did you use your research to create a traditional dramatic work? Or is it more like, say, The Laramie Project, where the process is presented within the drama?

TANZER: We do a ton of research and a ton of interviewing. And that, for us, is a jumping off point. There's no verbatim text from any of the interviews at all, but we're incredibly influenced by the extensive research period. The work we're doing is very image-oriented, and some of the images actually came up in conversations with people we interviewed. For example, someone had told us a story about these red rose petals falling out of a book, and now we have a very important theme with rose petals in our show. The audience wouldn't know this, and that's fine; we're using these documentary materials, but we're not making a documentary.

TM: Does the piece have a regular sort of storyline?

TANZER: It's very non-linear. We don't do narrative or 'story' as such. This is not a story about a person who gets abducted, not in any linear or overt way, although there is story told by the images. It's very hard to explain!

TM: What gave you the idea to tackle aliens?

TANZER: Whenever people ask us 'How did you come up with your idea?' I wish I had some really fabulous answer. Ideas just sort of come to us, usually while we're working on whatever show we're working on, right before we go into tech! Last year, when we were doing Incorporated: A Cinderella Story, somewhere towards the end of the rehearsal process Stephanie and I just sort of looked at each other and went: 'Alien abduction!' That sounds crazy, but that's really how it happened. We get so consumed by whatever topic we're focusing on; all of our energy is focused on one thing, and I think our subconscious minds are sort of brewing while we're not paying attention. The fact that Stephanie and I have this shared vision, I don't know how and why that happened. Bbut it's a great thing to have that with someone.

TM: When did you two meet up? Did you create Collision Theory?

TANZER: Yes, we're co-artistic directors and co-founders. Stephanie and I have known each other since '92. We started working together in '94, then founded Collision Theory in '96 and started making these full-scale productions. Many of our company members have been with us from the early days. We've been working with all of our designers for a few years as well.

TM: Did you kind of have a mission at the start, or did you just charge into things?

TANZER: The mission was always to create ensemble-generated work. We're both extremely interested in the documentary process and this very abstract, image-oriented, highly physical work. That was our immediate connection.

TM: About The Abduction Project: Did you go into this with any prejudices as to the subject matter, or were you all very open-minded?

TANZER: We try to be as open-minded as possible. Because, otherwise, why do it? We went in saying, 'Obviously, something's happening.' We like to look at these sort of multi-dimensional topics from as many positions as we can. We're not doing political theater or 'message theater.' We just explore through the documentary process and come up with what we come up with.

TM: How did you find people to interview?

TANZER: The internet, particularly for this topic, has been a fantastic resource. This is a real fringe topic and sometimes, with fringe topics, people organize. There were fringe organizations, like PEER (Program for Extraordinary Experience Research), so we met up with them. Have you heard of Dr. John Mack? He's a Putlitzer Prize winner, a Harvard professor, who sort of brought this phenomenon into the mainstream. On March 4, we're having a panel discussion after the show, and he's going to speak on the panel. Then there's a New York-based group called the Intruders Foundation that's run by Bud Hopkins; these people are extremely well known in the field. We sort of connected with the organizations and, through the organizations, we met individuals. Once you're in, you meet more and more people. But it took us several months to find the right 'in.' We worked on a show called Sex Work and it was very hard to meet sex workers; but, once we did, people really wanted to talk. On the other hand, when we worked on a piece about the corporate world, nobody wanted to talk to us. People were very guarded, worried about losing their jobs. They didn't want to be acknowledged in the program. It's interesting.

TM: Then you do acknowledge your interviewees?

TANZER: It's by choice. We ask them if they would like to remain anonymous or to be credited in the program; some people do and some people don't. When there's stigma attached to a topic, it's a real choice.

TM: On TV and in the movies, there are the typical images that of aliens and alien abductions that we see. Did you hear anything new from the people you interviewed that really surprised you?

TANZER: So much. What we get in film and TV is a sort of boiled down version; it's for entertainment. This topic is vast. There's an incredible depth here.

TM: Since you've already been through rehearsals and previews and opened this show, I suppose you must have your idea for Collision Theory's next project. Do you want to share it with us?

TANZER: Well, it's just the beginning of the idea, so I'm happy to share it with you. It's currently--or I should say tentatively--called Nocturnal, and it's going to be a piece about murder and detectives and things that take place at night. A sort of film noir on stage. I don't have any idea how we're going to interview murderers; but, somehow, we will.


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