Private Property (1992): Interactive Multimedia meets Downtown Theatre

by Elyse Singer

Private Property was born on the downtown 6 train in spring 1992. I was reading a book about the history of experimental theatre in New York City–The Living Theatre, Open Theatre, the Performance Group, et al.–and wondered, “What would happen if cutting-edge interactive multimedia were integrated into interactive theatre?” This sudden flash was so strong that I literally ran home when I exited the subway station.

At the time, I was a young theatre director who had yet to direct a full production; still in an “apprentice stage,” I was collaborating with new writers and young actors on staged readings and one-act plays while assisting or stage managing Off-Broadway. During the day, I worked in fundraising for The Actors’ Fund of America. My partner was a film and music video producer with a strong interest in new media. Our not-quite-to-code basement loft on Bleecker Street near Bowery housed multiple computers and we talked a great deal in those days about what he was discovering at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and in his collaborations on public access television programs. We dialed into local bulletin boards and had free email accounts connected to a Canadian university so that we could visit the Usenet. Interactivity and new media were prevalent in our lives, but it wasn’t until that moment on the train that I considered how they might be applied to live stage performance.

The first person that I called that night was my playwright-collaborator-friend, Cary Wong. In a rapid-fire monologue, most likely without any pauses, over an hour or two at least, I shared my ideas with him and we fleshed out the seeds of a project. Out of that initial conversation came the idea of using Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire as the framing device.

Why Streetcar? How Interactive?

In writing this post, I pulled out my copy of American Alternative Theatre to see if I could locate what I was reading when the idea for Private Property first occurred. And there it was on page 100, written in black pen in all caps across the top margin: “INTERACTIVE THEATRE (~INTERACTIVE MEDIA/TV?)”  The chapter is focused on Environmental Theatre, and includes a section on the Performance Group‘s 1970 production of Commune, directed by Richard Schechner. Author Theodore Shank writes that Commune “is concerned not only with dropping out and violence, but also with American concepts of ownership.” (p. 100). During the play, the actors take objects from members of the audience and eventually one of the central characters exchanges clothing with a spectator. Shank writes: “The hesitancy of the audience in giving up these items stands for the larger preoccupation of Americans concerning property…However the production also functions in a non-metaphorical way. It is a means of interaction between performers and spectators. Schechner believes that such interaction is essential in fulfilling what people need from the theatre–a narrative structure which provides an opportunity for exchange between people” (ibid.)  The exchange potentially can lead to change.

Actor Marlon Brando hands a tissue to Vivien Leigh in a still from the film, 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' directed by Elia Kazan, 1951. (Photo by Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty Images)

Actor Marlon Brando hands a tissue to Vivien Leigh in a still from the film, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ directed by Elia Kazan, 1951.

It was not such a great leap from thinking about questions of theatrical interactivity around ownership in America to A Streetcar Named Desire, a brilliant meditation on sexuality, class, and power. The concept of focusing on the rape scene in Streetcar–an act of violation that is not shown in either the play or film–emerged out of our earliest conversations as a central question for the piece when we started to marry questions of stage interactivity with interactive multimedia. What does it mean to show violence onstage or in film and what does it mean to hide it? For the audience, what is the experience of seeing or not-seeing violating acts? How culpable are we for watching and not acting or interacting? We also discussed the idea of violations of the body (rape) versus violations of personal property (material theft)…even from the first discussion, the issue of violations of privacy and showing/not showing provoked many questions and layers of ideas.

By the time I had pitched the idea to a producer a few days later, I had already brought on poet Suji Kwock Kim as a second co-writer. The producer had embraced the idea at first, listening carefully to my description of the project, but the next day turned around and said that our new theatre company would in fact do a play of hers as its inaugural production. I do remember this very clearly because it inspired, first, an angry and loud telephone conversation (a day job no-no) and, second, a long walk around the block (always advisable) that led to, third, the “lightbulb” realization that I did not need this producer’s permission to do my play and that I could produce it myself.

Within a week or so, I was sitting in the office of Aaron Beall at Nada on Ludlow Street (an office that doubled as the technical booth and actors’ dressing room.) The actress that I had asked to play the actress-playing-Blanche knew someone who knew someone who knew Aaron, and I came in very professionally with a proposal all printed out, and probably dressed as if for job interview. Aaron’s response was (and anyone who remembers Nada from the early-to-mid 1990s will recall this): “Sure–I have some open slots–can you do it about 6 weeks from now?”

Todo con Nada, Ludlow Street (1988-2000).

Todo con Nada, 167 Ludlow Street (1988-2000).

At this point, there was no script. But we had a date on the calendar. And that was enough.

PRODUCTION HISTORY

The initial iteration of Private Property came together remarkably fast in June and July, 1992. We had roughly two weeks of rehearsal and the script was being revised throughout. The fragmentary nonlinear story centered on an ensemble of four actors putting on A Streetcar Named Desire and the director/Stanley figure (Kirk Jackson) using the play as an opportunity to actually violate the actress playing Blanche (Felice Neals). Scenes cut suddenly between those directly inspired by Streetcar, like a video monologue about the Napoleonic Code (“What belongs to her belongs to me”), scenes focused on the tensions between the four performers offstage–particularly around the theft of one of their video cameras–and scenes that broke the fourth wall and directly engaged the audience. Ideas of surveillance, pornography, identity, and representation of violence were woven throughout, as were issues surrounding race and ethnicity–“Blanche” and “Stella” were played by women of color.

Thankfully, my Bleecker Street loft was large–even if the tin ceiling hung very low–and could accommodate rehearsals and design meetings, so we were able to work until the wee hours. No one was being paid and we all had day jobs; everything was begged and borrowed (stolen, too, if you count photocopying at work…).

Concurrent with rehearsing and devising the piece, our media team was editing video footage and strategizing about how to trouble-shoot technical issues. Downtown productions in the early 1990s did not usually allow for more than a day or two of technical rehearsals before performing in front of an audience–a practice that still exists–so we needed to figure out as much as possible before setting foot in the theatre.

Our “multimedia” design involved two monitors (i.e. TVs from home), two video cameras, and shifting between recorded media and a live video feed. The monitors needed to be able to be synchronized because at least two sequences involved pre-recorded figures on the monitors in dialogue (notably the “Angry Black Feminist” debate scenes with the “Tennessee Williams Scholar” over why the rape scene isn’t shown) and frequent interaction between the actors and the recorded videos that needed to be timed carefully. The final scene included a “press conference” moderated by the actor playing “Mitch,” where one audience member held a live feed camera and others were able to cross-examine the actor playing the director/Stanley.

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Again, the question of whether the concept was inspiring the use of technology or vice-versa is a chicken-egg thing; we were fortunate to have both artists and technologists in the same room and ideas were flowing both ways.

Video Toaster and Live Performance

One important factor in the design of Private Property‘s interactivity and overall multimedia design was the video toaster. Our ITP-based team had procured one for both editing the video footage and for switching during performance; the technology was inspiring the content and the content was demanding innovative solutions.

One scene that was particularly interactive involved a fight between the actors playing Mitch (Billy DiMichele) and Stella (Lidia Ramirez) regarding sexual consent. It started with some of the actors sitting in the audience, debating whether they had just witnessed a real or staged act of violence, and culminated in the actor playing Mitch grabbing one of the live feed video cameras from the audience member/cameraperson (“Gimme that tape”) and exiting the theatre to Ludlow Street. The feed on the monitors continued with the appearance of being streamed live. It was actually a recording of an improvised scene–filmed in one take–where Billy burst into Max Fish, and asked the bartender to put a tape of the movie of Streetcar (cued to right before the rape scene) into the bar’s VCR.  He complains that he doesn’t know how to use the camera and asks someone else at the bar (secretly, our video designer) to hold it for him. [A woman can be heard asking, “Is this some kind of NYU, like, project?”] Billy asks the people at the bar: “Do you think women want sex as bad as men?” “Yes!” one guy responds. They discuss this. “Do you think…if the woman said no, would you still have sex with her?” As this discussion continues, the person holding the camera slowly backs out of the bar, stealing the camera, and hops into a taxi, asking the cab driver to go to Brooklyn. “I ain’t goin’ a Brooklyn now, ya kiddin’ me?” the driver says, so the “thief” offers an extra five dollar tip, and the taxi drives away with the faked-live feed continuing.

Bill DiMichele exits Nada to Ludlow Street, carrying the video camera.

Billy DiMichele exits Nada to Ludlow Street, carrying the video camera, while an audience member films “Blanche” post-assault.

Context within 1990s Experimental Interactive Multimedia

When Private Property was conceived, I was unfamiliar with interactive video artists such as Lynn Hershman, and was only vaguely aware of what the Wooster Group was doing with multimedia.  One might situate it within the genre of the floating work of art, interactive installations offering “models for trying out a new distribution of roles” that emerged out of the late 1980s as proposed by Söke Dinkla in “The Art of Narrative–Towards the Floating Work of Art.” Dinkla writes:  “The floating work of art conceives of the digital medium, not as an extension of the human sensory organs, but as an aesthetic space, which allows for the reconstruction of a changed world order” (35). Thematically, Private Property shared many similar concerns as explored by Hershman’s interactive works surrounding control, sexuality, fantasies, and identity–as well as female personae. The audience was integrated into the action of Private Property through a blurring of the space between the performers and viewers–as well as inside/outside/live/recorded–the audience members’ control of the live camera, and the press conference that allowed them to question and confront the character whom they had seen commit an act of [staged] violence. The blurring between levels of narrative reality was enhanced by exploding the play-within-a-play form, the actors shifting in and out of characters, and the script switching channel-like between allusions to the Williams play and present debates around violence, representation, and privacy.

I am still meditating on how to contextualize my originating ideas regarding environmental theatre, immersion and interactivity as being rooted in exchanges of property within early 1990s interactive multimedia performance art. Certainly, live interactive performance involves embodied and material exchanges and interactive art involved mediated exchanges. There are material subjects involved, of course, but the interactivity and the exchanges are different. This post is a first step in understanding these connections and will continue to be fleshed out.

Post-Script

Private Property was a Finalist for the 1993 Jane Chambers Award, participated in the 1993 Voice & Vision Retreat, performed at Playwrights Horizons and in a second run at Nada before performing at the Gilded Balloon Theatre at the 1993 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it was profiled on BBC-TV. I will write further of the interactive changes that were implemented between the initial and Edinburgh Fringe productions in my next blog post.

To Be Continued…

Photograph of Kirk Jackson

Kirk Jackson in Private Property (1992). Photo credit: Daniel Sollinger

LINKS

Private Property – Press and Reviews 1992-1993

“Video Toaster May Be Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread”

“Nada Gets the Boot”

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