The Performing Garage and Dance Theater Workshop, two spaces that consistently house work that pushes the boundaries of conventional theater, have teamed up to present an encore of Another Telepathic Thing, Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar's latest Big Dance Theater creation. Originally produced last winter at DTW, where it picked up a couple of Obies and a Bessie, the piece has moved into the Wooster Group's Soho space through December 9 as part of the Performing Garage Visiting Artist Series.
After the first performance in the new venue, Lazar--who performs and co-directs with his wife, choreographer Parson--noted one difference: Now, the audience is close enough to see the performers sweat. "In its prior incarnation, because of the distance [in DTW's space], there was a seeming effortlessness," Lazar explains. "So the seductiveness of the shifting picture took precedence over the narrative. Here, maybe the movement a little bit served the story."
Another impact of the Wooster Street space occurs before the show even begins; one finds the Performing Garage free of the video monitors and industrial set pieces that typically fill the space for the Wooster Group's shows. The bare stage immediately focuses the audience's attention on Big Dance Theater's craft: the simple, even elegant way that (for example) a bamboo rope ladder becomes a bridge, then a prison cell, and then a sled.
In Another Telepathic Thing, Big Dance Theater seamlessly and often simultaneously uses visual imagery, movement, music, narration, and dialogue to dramatize "The Mysterious Stranger", Mark Twain's bitter and ironic story about an angel named Satan who changes the life of a Medieval Austrian priest by caisomg jo, to find a large sum of money. Twain's tale is framed by another storyline created from illicit audio tapes of actual actors auditioning for film and television.
"The yearning and the dissatisfaction of being in your ignorant earthling life was so prevalent in both these worlds," Lazar explains. "How suddenly a force from without can come and affect it." The result is a piece in which an evil astrologer, circa 1590, stands to testify in court, only to meld into an Elvis-obsessed actor serenading the judge-turned-film director in the 1950s.
These kinds of connections and discoveries come out of the collaborative creative process that is a trademark of Big Dance Theater's work. A quick glance at the credits in the program reveals that the performers, most of whom have been with the company for years, also contribute to the creation and design of the piece. For example, Cynthia Hopkins, who won an Obie for her performance as the Narrator at DTW, created the original songs. Based on her particular skills, she was also given the challenge of dealing with certain patches of the narrative, which was largely taken verbatim from Twain's story. "Cynthia has a rock-and-roll band called Gloria Deluxe, and she has a very particular way of talking between songs," explains Lazar. "She creates a text that knits her songs together. So I said to think of the Twain text in that same vein, as patter in between songs."
Describing the group's creative process and his own role as the piece's co-director, Lazar says: "Oftentimes, when we're dealing with a particular section, I'll come in with the first idea that I've cooked up away from the group. Then I'll toss it in, and what started out maybe as a static idea will slowly become a more physicalized idea as we bounce it off the group." In the end, he says, "Whatever seems like the most fun, the most exciting, wins," with Lazar and Parsons acting as the excitement arbiters.
Working as a collaborative unit has also allowed Big Dance Theater to develop group interests and aesthetics; the use of Asian design elements and storytelling styles in Another Telepathic Thing foreshadows future explorations. In its next piece the company plans to combine a look at the work of a contemporary Japanese writer with a medieval Japanese narrative of imperial rule, not to mention the Nixon tapes.
"It's so much about power and maintaining it," Lazar says of the proposed new project. It's also akin to the group's affinity for literary works (they have adapted a Gustave Flaubert story, in addition to Twain's) and illicit audio tapes. Furthermore, company members Stacey Dawson and David Neumann have already been playing out ideas about Asian performance in their own collaboration, Pearl River, recently seen at P.S. 122.
Also in the works is a project that may reunite the group with playwright Mac Wellman, who wrote the text for their previous show, Girl Gone. "Classic Stage Company seems like they are going to invite us in the spring to do an adaptation of Antigone by Mac," Lazar says. "Which would be fun, because Mac's so smart." The show would no doubt be fun--and challenging and provocative--for audiences too, if it's another Big Dance Theater thing.