Ladies and gentlemen, the show is about to begin. Please, turn on your cell phones.
Because when New York’s WaxFactory company brings its experimental one-act #aspellforfainting to L.A. this weekend, theater-goers for once will be allowed — nay, encouraged — to live tweet the whole thing in a piece that views its collusion with a live audience as intrinsic to its aesthetic.
An improvised collaboration cooked up by performer Gillian Chadsey and DJ Ivan Talijancic, with help from VJ Shige Moriya, #aspellforfainting plays out on a catwalk, ringed by audience members lined up one row deep. Illuminated solely by the light from a projector, Chadsey — riffing off of various props, sound cues and video projections that mash up the likes of MacBeth, American Idol, YouTube instructional clips and A Streetcar Named Desire — rotates through five characters, three inspired by famous fictional women and one an historical personage. The fifth is something Chadsey calls “Channel 3,” her personification of the empty broadcast space a television must be pointed at in order to pick up cable signals. ]
Part of the fun for the audience, Talijancic and Chadsey say, is in figuring out who the performer might be portraying in any one moment. In a way, that’s true for Chadsey as well. Talijancic triggers the appearance of her various alter egos through a complex playlist of sound cues, comprised of contemporary classical music, ancient choral and medieval music, abstract sounds, electronic compositions, noises cribbed from nature (birds and thunderstorms and the like), vocal recordings by Chadsey and others, and dialogues snippets from films/TV/YouTube and other material. The mix of sounds is created for each performance and kept secret from the performer beforehand.
“We have a very sophisticated [theatrical] vocabulary in the piece,” Talijancic, who also co-founded WaxFactory, explains. “But it’s essentially a jam session.”
The company tends to stage multimedia-heavy, highly-choreographed, site-specific works that draw deeply on the literary and theatrical canon but have a modern aesthetic. #aspellforfainting's improvisatory nature represents a step away from the troupe’s traditional MO, but not entirely.
“I would say the envelope of the piece looks superficially very zeitgeisty,” Talijancic says. “But there is a very strong historical element.”
“Innovation is a big talking point,” he continues. “But what are you innovating on or innovating against? You’re not working in a vacuum. This piece is very rooted in the past.”
Specifically the 19th century, when Jean-Martin Charcot, the French doctor who discovered the disorder now popularly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, was a neurologist with a keen interest in hysteria and hypnosis. Once a week, Charcot held legendary lectures at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, during which he trotted out “hysterical” female patients to perform their symptoms for a crowded amphitheater of men.
“Gillian and I were interesting in coming up with a present-day equivalent of the voyeuristic dynamic that existed between Charcot’s subjects at the hospital and dozens of men who were in attendance, and subsequently reporting on it,” Talijancic says of their decision to incorporate live tweeting. Thus, in Charcot’s lectures, which took place around the advent of photography as a medium, the pair found an apt metaphor not just for the experience of an actor alone on stage but also a culture that in which we’ve all become fodder for a 24/7 public theater that “watches, criticizes and diagnoses” every move, Chadsey says.
But the piece also tries to get at something even more complicated about the impact of interaction. Talijancic says his playlist is designed not only to trigger Chadsey’s actions but also at times to antagonize, overwhelm or even obliterate her performance. The approach is in keeping with WaxFactory’s ambition to steer away from a more conventional play in which design elements are what they call “window dressing” for the script.
For her part, Chadsey says she found in this intense push pull an analogy to the creative process itself, the give and take of “relationships or lack of relationships, or your relationship to work, to not having work, to love, to loved ones, to a good idea that turned out badly.”
Collaborating in the heat of the moment, “what you really have to hang your hat on are the joy of performing and trust in yourself and the other person,” Chadsey says. “And I’m listening to my audience, so that we can all be in the present moment together for 40 minutes.”
The show performed in San Francisco this past weekend, and now comes to Los Angeles courtesy of the Silver Lake ensemble Son of Semele (SOSE), itself known for inventive, technically complex productions that grapple eerily well with life in our brave new world. (How many playwrights, after all, could pull off a dramatic exploration of net neutrality, as SOSE founder Matthew McCray did in 2012 with the exceptional Eternal Thou?)
Designed as a “bonus event” to cap off SOSE’s annual solo creation festival, which closed on July 20, #aspellforfainting is precisely the sort of work SOSE hopes to support with its hosting program, McCray says — namely work that blurs genre lines and are created, as this one was, by an ensemble rather than a single playwright. And McCray is also interested in what experiments with technology might unleash.
“When you use technology in those ways, you are in some way releasing control of your piece,” McCray says. Unleashing a cadre of smartphone-toting active viewers adds an active element beyond the traditional boundaries of improv. “It’s like you’re saying to your audience, ‘You came here to see something, and I am just as interested in seeing something.'”
#aspellforfainting runs for 3 performances, July 24, 26 & 27 at 8:30p.m. Son of Semele, 3301 Beverly Boulevard, Silverlake. (213) 351-3507; sonofsemele.com.
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