How is it possible that Phil Soltanoff, one of the most thrillingly imagistic directors working in the American theatre today, has yet to break out on the national scene?
The reasons are complex and plenty, but certainly they certainly do not issue from Soltanoff’s innovative, mesmerizing theatre. He is a stager of hybrid artifice of the first rank. Since 1996, when he premiered his astonishing To Whom It May Concern at an abandoned floor in downtown New York City (and later at the Belgrade International Theatre Festival 1997), this infectiously radical director has never ceased challenging traditional forms, colliding artistic genres in compelling ways, building links among seemingly incompatible media and materials, and using new technologies in surprising yet human ways.
Perhaps one reason Soltanoff has remained an outlier is that he has never intellectually or emotionally connected with the sort of middlebrow productions that America’s regional theatre companies spit out with nauseating regularity. Growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, the director styled himself as a kind of theatre outcast, because the hybrid compositional creations that interested him often feature actors who rarely speak a word—and because his theatre traverses into performance installation that’s committed to specific sites and local neighborhoods.
At five myles, a warehouse turned multidisciplinary art center in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights district, Soltanoff and his artistic partner, the puppeteer Hanne Tierney, made a go with theatre pieces that mix and combine avant-garde concepts in fascinating new ways. Imagine his 1999 staging of Peter Handke’s word score The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, a text made up completely of stage directions and presented in an area known as a hip-hop ghetto. Consider Soltanoff’s Strange Attractors (2000), first presented at Mass MoCA’s courtyard, in which patterns of anonymous bodies and street movements are used to investigate questions of personal identity. Soltanoff’s brand of experimental theatre entices audiences from surrounding neighborhoods to come, while piquing the curiosity of sophisticated urbanites from metropolitan New York City. In 2000, Soltanoff and Tierney received a Village Voice Obie Award for their work at five myles.
Although he has staged everything from Thornton Wilder and Arthur Miller to David Rabe and David Mamet, Soltanoff’s inspiration came from an unlikely place: John Cage’s book Silence. In an interview, Soltanoff remarked, “It expressed in a very clear and naive form, ideas about space and time that I was grasping at but couldn’t articulate. I had been hung up on an idea of the right notes and the wrong notes, so to speak, for a very long time. Cage’s writing freed me from that conundrum. It’s a very simple thing really: Why is it every time a child or dog walks on stage they’re totally compelling to watch? They’re doing all the wrong things onstage, but they’re unforgettable! I finally found a way to think about the whole space, what’s happening regardless of the rules, and that opened the door to everything.”
That Cage-like, mad-dog naivete packs a lot of actor-driven energy and lets loose assembly lines of bodies in a landscape of order and chaos. In the early 1990s, he led a company of young actors at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, where he has spent some 14 seasons. He created a range of lyrical ensemble pieces and mind-blowing site-specific installations that require long development, intense research and extensive restructuring. A typical Soltanoff work in progress explores the boundary where dance, theater and music clash and collide, and in performance they overflow with space, sound, time and bodies in deceptively simply permutations.
When Soltanoff staged his signature piece, To Whom It May Concern, in a vacant office space on the 15th floor of a Wall Street building in New York, he had twelve men and women in corporate suits and running shoes, each sadly clutching a bouquet of flowers and portraying a sea of ordinary humanity. They wake up, go to work, work hard, party harder at night and return home. “We remove language from our work, but we communicate with movement, with the body,” Soltanoff remarked. “Strict dance people hate us. Strict theatre people hate us.”
Soltanoff’s theatre possesses intellectual rigor and repetitive game-like splendor. It is no wonder he has attracted international attention and cast a mad-dog spell on the French. In Plan B (2003), Soltanoff worked with four acrobats and jugglers from the Toulouse-based object cirque troupe Compagnie 111. Clever and inspired, Plan B stages the seemingly limitless dramatic possibilities of the variously angled plane object both as a geometric shape and as a material surface. An abstract movement piece that wows kids and adults alike, the show tells the otherworldly stories of human beings sharing the stage with a huge solid plane. At first, the plane is placed at an incline. Trap doors open on its surface. Drawers burst out of it. Then the plane become vertical, and then it falls to the floor to become horizontal. People, light, soundtrack, film images and props are deployed across, over, under and above this plane in a continuous interaction and with impeccable precision. Subtitle it “Body, Rest and Motion.”
The French object-theatre director Aurtelien Bory, artistic director of Compagnie 111, was so entranced by Soltanoff’s unique vision that Bory has since adopted many of Soltanoff’s staging trademarks. Plan B was marketed in the U.S. as a French creation, but what the press releases elided was that although Bory and Soltanoff collaborated on Plan B, as well as its dazzling follow-up piece More of Less Infinity (a fantasia on the line), the true roots of Plan B’s geometry of human actions and desires issues from a very American spirit of fun.
Those who never saw To Whom It May Concern recently saw Soltanoff’s fingerprint in Sit, Stand, Walk, Lie Down…” at Governor’s Island. Sometimes referred to as SITSTANDWALKLIEDOWN…. (which I personally prefer), the piece “reacts to public space by painting it with choreographed movement,” Soltanoff states. “The movement is created in response to the specific qualities of a particular space and thus SITSTANDWALKLIEDOWN.… is a movable feast. Its concept remains the same but its particulars change based on the space where it’s constructed. The questions become: What qualities does a particular space possess that make it unique? What are the space’s dominant themes (architecturally), and how does it shape how people use it and look at it?”
The good news is that, publicity-wise, Soltanoff has gradually been growing into his own, even as infectious impulse for play continues to morph and evolve to produce two new works, which he suggests might be companion pieces that point to a new direction. His LA Party (2010), originally produced at HERE Arts Center as part of the Under the Radar Festival, matches a spirited 40-minute monologue (spoken by actor David Barlow) with innovative low-tech but high-concept special effects. Six performers (a narrator, a camera person, a guy on the floor, a keyboardists, a woman in a chair with duct tape covering her eyes and mouth) and a live video produce a compelling portrait of a fanatical vegan—a man who falls from a raw-food pedestal into a delirious night of drug-induced hedonism and guacamole consumption.
“An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk” is another heady concoction. Instead of seeing Shatner in person, his image as Captain James T. Kirk from the original “Star Trek” series emerges from a static screen mounted on a wheel and expounds on philosophical matters of art and science. It’s a video Kirk oracle, a Yoda-figure whose pronouncements have been meticulously spliced, samples and catalogues from Kirk’s dialogue in the sci-fi TV series.
“Talk” isn’t quite the right word to use for this Shatnerbot, created by Soltanoff (director), Rob Ramirez (systems designer), and Joe Diebes (writer). First every single word Kirk says was chopped off from the original “Star Trek” series and isolated as a single video frame. Those sampled words are then strung back together to form and resemble new sequences of audio/visual speech-like rhythmic thought.
Soltanoff’s theatre is drunk with lively humor, surprise, great ambition and thrilling adventure. A master craftsman, this director is a pathfinder of new forms of expressive human communication, combining disparate types of languages (circus, theatre, video, dance, music and sound) to make us see the world vibrantly anew. He is without a doubt one of America’s still-unknown great auteurs.
RANDY GENER: How did you convince Shatner and/or the “Star Trek” franchise to agree on this theater project?
PHIL SOLTANOFF: William Shatner has been very supportive so far. Before I began work I felt it was important to get his approval. We had a phone call, I described the project, and he was behind it. We made a contract which stipulated that after Fusebox Festival in Austin (2012), he could decide yes or no about future dates. I was using his name, and he wanted to have the final say so.
William Shatner © Screen capture from “Star Trek” series
It was important to me before I began the project to have his approval. Warner Brothers, which owns the footage for the original “Star Trek” series from which all of the piece is taken, is a whole other story. My lawyers and I talked, and it was decided to fly under the radar with the project. There were two reasons: I didn’t have a lot of money, so Warner Brothers probably wouldn’t be interested, and I was only using lots of fragments, all of which are under one second in length, to create the Shatner oracle. In other words, I wasn’t using enough of any sample to affect copyright laws. It’s interesting.
Given that Shatner recently wrote and starred in his own one-man Broadway show, it’s amazing that he gave you the green light on this fascinating project.
I’ve performed an excerpt of An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk at PRELUDE in NYC which Shatner knew nothing about. I was also invited to bring it to a festival in Nantes, France, but the contract is still being negotiated. Shatner was insistent about getting paid for those performances. I agreed and proposed a figure. He decided to let it slide, but warned me that future productions would mean payment to him.
So… I tread carefully when it comes to William Shatner. I’d like to stay in his good graces, but I have absolutely no intention of abandoning the piece because of him. I’ve considered changing the title if necessary. I have been invited to present it at PuSH Festival as well as The Chocolate Factory in 2014. Shatner doesn’t know about these dates yet.
Would you describe your Shatner chatbot as a kind of robot? Or is Shatbot actually not a robot?
You’re not the first person to mention the word “robot” in connection with this project. In fact, in Austin I was invited to be on a panel concerning robots and theatre. But I hadn’t actually considered robots when thinking about Shatner. Robots, it seems, can mean many things to many people.
Shatner is a kind of doppelganger—a large human-sized TV head on a mobile TV stand body. So he looks human, but that’s of little interest to robot-makers. I’ve been considering how human beings and machines interact, so the Shatbot is moved by a human performer. In fact, his movements and staging are very classical—as the meaning of the text shifts, so does the direction or speed of his movement. The performance is a kind of one-man show—except there’s no man present.
We all know Captain Kirk from the get-go. And we all have a certain relationship to him—dad, decision maker, hunk, etc. The performance starts with this relationship. It accepts it willingly. But then a string of roughly 6000 audio/video samples and a brilliant text (written by Joe Diebes) make you understand the character as something different. Captain Kirk becomes another character. In other words, something other is created right in front of you. And that other is nothing but a sequence of samples—something purely technological transforms into something human. I find that fascinating.
There is no effort to anthropomorphize the TV screen. Its movements might fulfill a familiar form—the one man show again—but it does not perform gestures that might be read as cute, dangerous or lovable.
What do you feel the differences are with robots that perform on stage and robots on film? Which of the two are more interesting?
I am a hardcore live arts person. It doesn’t mean I don’t love movies—and probably know as much about them as anyone—but my fascination is on the live arts experience. My most recent projects have all explored the relationship between machines and people. So in LA Party, for instance, it took six of us to manipulate the real-time video technology to create one believable human being—a kind of video puppet. An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk keeps its “liveness” by the interaction with a performer. The subtlety of her movements creates a gestural language that only exists in the space the audience is in. The fact that a string of samples takes on a musicality helps its “liveness” too.
I thought the most interesting robot on film was the HAL 9000. It was just a red eye or VO [voice over]. So you created it in your imagination. The Star Wars robots were too anthropomorphic for me. I’m always of the mind that why should you use technology to imitate something else—all those sound synthesizers designed to imitate strings, for instance. I’m more interested in using the technology to bravely go where no one’s been before—which possibly explains my interest in Captain Kirk.
What is happening now with the Shatner project? How has the show changed? Where will it be presented? What’s the time frame?
As I mentioned earlier, there is much on the horizon for the project. But I’m trying to keep in the good graces of William Shatner, too. Ironically, we don’t make fun of him in the least. It is quite jarring to hear Captain Kirk hold forth on the subjects of the future of art and the future of science. And he does this well—with humor, logic and great perceptivity. He gives an interesting talk! I discovered a great deal about him and his subjects through the piece. In fact, he became much more mysterious to me. I thought I knew him, but the samples told me otherwise.
I’ve been invited to bring two pieces to PuSH Internatonal Performing Arts Festival in Canada next year (2014). I look at those performances as a platform to launch the two works [LA Party and An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk] into the public consciousness. I look at William Shatner Asterisk as a starting point to consider a post-human theatre—a theatre where there is an unstable relationship between the people and their technological partners. I like to put that relationship onstage.
Explain what you mean by “video puppet.”
In LA Party I was exploring how six people could recombine parts of themselves—voice, body, face—to make one person—it is a kind of video puppetry. It takes something very human—precise listening and collaboration—to manipulate the different video elements to create a real-time puppet. And the audience is privy to all the manipulations—no lies happen. And it’s this “liveness” I’m fascinated with.
I’m also dealing with the intervention of technology. I’m certainly not very good when it comes to the technological—I’ve never sent a text message in my life—but I consider this ineptness a creative resource. We’re all dancing with technology whether we like it or not, and it’s the doing of this dance, not whether it’s good or bad, that interests me.
In An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk, I’ve moved the discussion to a figure we all know, but isn’t there. When you say the name “William Shatner,” everyone has a response. They know him. At least they know his image—and that’s what’s important to me. He’s a cultural icon, Captain Kirk—somebody we all have an opinion about. That opinion might vary, but that doesn’t matter. I can make a discussion about him—his image—and dispense with the usual dramatic tools. I don’t need to develop Shatner as a character, because we all start somewhere with him. I can make the discussion go from there. I’ve done it in the past, particularly with costumes—business suits come to mind—a thing that we all know and have an opinion about.
In An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk, the discussion is about object theatre, puppetry, and a kind of “sample” puppetry—where it takes multiple human beings to make an image of William Shatner come alive. I’m busting up the entire original “Star Trek” series into fragments of Shatner that system designer Rob Ramirez and I can play “live” and make the image of Shatner speak eloquently on the subject of technology and art in the 21st Century.
Last spring at the Fusebox Festival in Austin, Texas, I workshopped with the festival’s founder Ron Berry an idea about a panel discussion as performance. Certainly it was provocative and lively. I’m going to add an interesting text to the mix: a New York sound artist, someone else who’s working and thinking about art and technology, is writing a text that Shatner’s image will speak—perfectly and precisely. After his address, Shatner’s image will take questions from the audience. There’s no preparation when it comes to the Q & A, so human beings (the Shatner operators) will scramble desperately to make him work. Glitches and errors are included in the experience—and aren’t they always? I’ve taken an idea about object manipulation in LA Party and moved it forward. Maybe it’s a companion piece?
You have described Sit, Stand, Walk, Lie Down… as a moveable piece. What do you mean?
I created it on Governors Island and the Williamstown Theatre Festival. And I’m interested in creating it again….with another group of people in another location. It is a process of painting and drawing on space with choreographic gestures. It happens in public space so the performance is designed to collide with daily life. In this way, the event becomes a kind of tour guide—a lo-fi, non-commercial version of those red double-decker buses cruising Manhattan.
This piece germinated several years ago in Kansas City, Missouri. I decided to deliberately break the rules at an expansive mall parking lot. I walked in a straight line from a corner of the lot to the mall shops, bypassing allotted pedestrian walkways. This innocent transgression caused a mild ruckus—drivers honked at me, security personnel flagged me down. It made me realize how much public space is claimed by commercial or legal interests and deemed off-limits. Consequently, that space is not really seen or experienced. It’s assigned a label—like “parking lot”—and then abandoned, site unseen, to its designated purpose. I want to reclaim this space, remove it from the perceptual junk pile, and play with its potential as a part of the experience of the world.
SITSTANDWALKLIEDOWN…. is also a community action. A large group of people work together to create an event to awaken an audience’s relationship to space. The gestures are deliberately simple— they sit, stand, walk and lie down. Doing individual gestures like this is easy. Doing them as a group, in unison or cannon, takes work. It takes rigor and commitment, which brings the human element to the performance.
I love the potential of what’s called minimalist art. Placing a minimalist constraint in an unfamiliar location brings the unexpected to the surface. Seeing someone lie down on a lawn is very familiar. But a massive group of people all dressed in business suits, lying on a sidewalk that stretches for a quarter mile is unexpected. And if those people can move in an organized way—then the space really comes alive. That’s what I’m after. I also use objects to the same c. I like those five-gallon blue water cooler bottles—they’re cheap, easy to find, plentiful, everyone knows them and they’re identical. They also make a great sound. When they’re placed and moved in particular arrangements they can ignite what surrounds them.
I first saw Willy Dorn’s work in Austin, Texas and it inspired me a great deal. I liked his use of tableaux and its implicit critique of economic interests. I considered ways to advance his conversation with space. Rather than building still tableaux that the audience moved to, I built kinetic phrases that responded to the space.
I’ve staged SITSTANDWALKLIEDOWN…. three times. [Soltanoff staged the piece twice at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.] Each time I’ve worked with a large and different group of people for a minimum of four weeks, responding to the particular qualities of the space. Each location reveals its qualities through us working in it. Take, for instance, a path. I discovered that a path didn’t mean much until attention was called to being off the path. The moment of arrival on the path became significant. I discovered this on Governors Island and used my learning at Williamstown.
Each incarnation of SITSTANDWALKLIEDOWN…. expands its vocabulary. In fact, what makes the choreography most interesting is not the moves themselves, but what the moves point at. The ritual of performing the piece mixes with the rituals of everyday life—lots of carefully placed blue water bottles next to a woman pushing a baby carriage, a Hasidic man trying to fly a kite, or a couple driving a car—become the featured performers of SITSTANDWALKLIEDOWN…. Spaces also provoke interest in adjacent spaces. While I was working at Williamstown I discovered a bridge over a creek. In the piece’s next incarnation, I want the audience to stand on the bridge looking down at the water and have performers float out from under the bridge.
Making SITSTANDWALKLIEDOWN…. is about art. The political purpose is implicit. It’s meant to awaken the participant’s experience of the space they’re already in. It’s challenging. Our perspectives need to be cleared of clutter and memory so we can see what’s in front of us. Doing this is much more difficult than it sounds and has occupied my interest for many years.
Randy Gener is a Nathan Award-winning editor, writer, dramaturge, critic and artist in New York City. A contributor to National Public Radio, The Journalist and TDF Stages, he founded TheaterofOneWorld.org, a media project devoted to international politics, cultural diplomacy and global projects. For his editorial work and critical essays in American Theatre magazine, Gener also received the SPJ Deadline Club Award for Best Arts Reporting and NLGJA Journalist of the Year Award, among others. He served as curatorial producer/adviser for “From the Edge: Performance Design in the Divided States of America,” the USA National Exposition in 2011 Prague Quadrennial, which was re-mounted at LaMaMa LaGalleria and Penn State University.