Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
( Barbara reads out loud .) About five years ago, I went with my son, who was 13, to see Richard Foreman’s Zomboid! —we both thought it was terrific. There was a big stuffed ass on the stage, and periodically, a booming voice would inexplicably intone: “Donkey!” In the program notes, Foreman emphatically rejected the notion of a unified meaning to the piece. When the play was over, we walked out, and I said excitedly to my son, “I think the donkey is the beast of burden, which is language, and meaning is the heavy load we keep trying to make it carry!” My son said, “I don’t think the donkey was supposed to mean anything.” Of course he was right. It was an “Aha!” moment rapidly followed by a “D’oh!”
I had precisely this problem when I heard that Radiohole—the brilliant, wacky, and irreducible Brooklyn-based experimental theater company—was working on a production calledFrankenstein . Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein seems to be tailor-made for Radiohole; a parable of what could be the defining features of their aesthetic: the mash-up and the unorthodox (and seemingly out-of-control) use of technology. The monster’s odd-lot mix of body parts could seem to evoke the company’s collaborative creative process, in which all members’ thoughts, obsessions, and associations become part of any project. Their productions also regularly slam together high and low—a tendency perfectly suited to a Romantic novel that, at this point, is inextricably linked in our imaginations to the 1931 film, not to mention the Mel Brooks remix.
Victor Frankenstein’s scary experiments with electricity might also parallel the ways sound design and video operate in Radiohole’s productions. In a word, they are inventive: hilariously primitive and simultaneously impressive. Yet one always has the sense that at any moment there might be a technological catastrophe, and sometimes there is.
So, back to my conundrum: Frankenstein seems to me the perfect vehicle for this company, and yet to suggest that their work can be illustrated by such a parable is, well, reductive. Since they began working together in 1998, they’ve meant many things to many people. Maybe the one thing you can say with certainty is that Radiohole is shocking. I’m thinking of the nudity, the goo, and the dangling electric wires. I am a fan. I was very happy to have a chance to sit down with two of the founding members, Maggie Hoffman and Eric Dyer, and ask them these questions.
Maggie Hoffman I love that!
Eric Dyer You talk about this technological mode and its dangers. Technological catastrophes are rarely apparent to the audience but happen on a fairly regular basis. Sometimes they are purely technical failures, but more often than not it’s a mistake in executing the technical score. Part of what we do is set ourselves such a complex series of tasks that it’s almost impossible to actually do all of them. There have been instances of wrong buttons pushed or right buttons pushed at the wrong time, resulting in sonic somersaults and instant, on-the-spot rewrites. In our first show, Bender, I tripped over an extension cord and unplugged the whole show. In Whatever, Heaven Allows Maggie does an incredible karaoke rendition of “I Am Woman.” During one show, as soon as she had finished it, somebody accidentally triggered the sample again—so she just repeated the whole number and it was even better!
And yet there is also a parallel physical danger going on. A lot of times I purposely physically imperil myself. I’ll hop up and down on one foot until my leg gives out, play golf out of a rocking boat with my eyes closed, dance on a greased linoleum floor while a 400-pound table is being lowered over my head. You know, things like that. This physical threat is important. It’s like the looming of the Frankenstein monster.
Barbara Browning I’m thinking of how those two qualities—extreme physicality and technology—come together, and of my experience of watching you guys. The first show of yours I saw was Radiohole Is Still My Name. What I remember very distinctly is the waggling of your naughty bits, and, of course, the beans, the chicken, and the beer slosh-fest. It was extreme physicality, bodily processes …
Another moment that’s lodged in my mind as being definitive of your aesthetic is, in a way, the extreme opposite: those ultrasound speakers in Fluke that direct the sound in a very narrow beam, like a spotlight. When aimed directly at you they have the uncanny effect of making sound seem as if you hear it inside your own head. That’s when I said, “Wow! Cool technology.” It seems like Frankenstein is a place where the two things collide.
MH The choice of Frankenstein just popped in your head out of nowhere, didn’t it?
ED Making the choice of any subject for a piece is usually about trying to connect desires. It’s like this: I’ve been interested in Artaud. In particular, in doing his To Have Done with the Judgment of God. But Artaud is a very strange thing to get one’s soul around, and so we were having trouble connecting.
MH And then suddenly you said, “Screw it! What about Frankenstein?”
ED Did I say that?
MH You did. And we said, “Yes!” And so Artaud is still in our minds, but Frankenstein is a base to put things on.
ED Right. It doesn’t mean the Artaud goes away, but Frankenstein becomes a vehicle for Artaud. This piece in particular, To Have Done with the Judgment of God, is inside Frankenstein already.
BB There is something inherently a little spooky about Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, you know?
ED Well, there’s something about Theater of Cruelty that I feel like we already practice. On one level, it has to do with the notion of a total art of theater using elements such as lights, costumes, sounds, sets, language, etcetera. Something else that applies to us is, to quote, “We shall not perform any written plays, but shall attempt to create productions directly on stage around subjects, events or known works. The very nature and arrangement of the room require spectacle and there is no spectacle, however vast, that can be denied us.” But, more importantly, our work relates to Artaud’s desire for a new language for the stage: “And what theater can still wrest from speech is its potential for expansion beyond words, for development in space, for a dissociative and vibratory effect on our sensibilities.” Many in the downtown scene or whatever are and have been doing this for a long time. One more thing: in his beautiful essay on the Marx brothers, Artaud talks about a certain quality that “always moves toward a kind of seething anarchy, a total breakdown of reality by poetry.” But it’s challenging to approach Artaud because his theater is sort of impossible, on some level. He never did really make his own theater. There is an aspect of his thought that was probably never meant to be anything but an idea.
MH That’s why we work together, though. You couldn’t make your own theater either, because your brain’s too much like Artaud’s. (laughter) But then there’s me and Erin [Douglass] saying, “You have got to do it!”
ED We’ve always had this way of fulfilling each other. I couldn’t make Radiohole by myself; I could make something else but it wouldn’t be that. None of us could do it. Our collaboration is synergistic; it’s more than the sum of its parts.
BB Do your productions grow out of the ones that precede them?
ED Yes, we choose a different subject or a different theme or a different book, but it’s almost incidental to working together—the way that we relate to each other and have evolved over the years is one ongoing working process. Sets and things like that come out of each other from show to show. We’re working on the same physical ideas over and over again.
MH For this particular project, which will be presented as a work in progress at The Performing Garage in February 2012 and will premiere at The Kitchen in early 2013, we have very little funding. So, in a Frankenstein way, we’re thinking, Maybe we can recycle all our old sets and costumes. And recycle ideas even, and make the show this mix of all the things we’ve used before.
ED Yeah, we always repurposed things but it hadn’t ever been about doing that. This time we’re actually taking a conscious look at what we have.
BB You mention two things: economic constraints and process. Yours is a highly democratic process as far as theater making goes, where multiple voices are involved. This is what I was referring to in the beginning when I said that there’s no one parable that will capture what you guys are trying to say. You are always saying a lot of things at once and aiming for various possibilities to remain open, it seems, which makes me think of the discourse around Occupy Wall Street. People are saying to them, Could you please say what your demands are? What are you trying to say? And the answer to that is, We’re going to muck around and that’s actually part of the point. The mess is part of the message. Real democratic process is messy, slow, and dangerous. Also, I’m struck by how interesting the performance practices going on there are, like the human microphone, for instance—
ED Joe Silovsky, with whom we work so often he’s almost a member of Radiohole, actually sent us an email yesterday about how we should use this.
BB Well, it seems aligned with what you do: it’s genius and so primitive and yet—
MH We never try to define what we’re doing unless we have to write a grant. We’re always trying to have an open conversation, avoiding things such as, Oh, this is the message, or, This is what we’re all about.
BB Now I’ve put you in this impossible position of making a statement. (laughter)
ED It’s a really important point. A lot of people see Radiohole’s work as being apolitical, and, in a certain sense, it is. I mean, we’re not trying to teach people in this Brechtian way, but the process, the back end of what we do, is very political. It comes out of a direct reaction to the way most theater is structured which basically mimics the structure of a corporate hierarchy.
MH It does.
ED People see the wackiness and a lot of other things, whatever, which is wonderful, but the way we work is, for us, vital. It’s about doing things in a way that you can really believe in, to put it simply. I think this is what’s going on at Zuccotti Park.
BB Even when it’s messy.
ED Right, otherwise, ship it to the PR company and they could come up with the five-point list of demands like that.
BB I was thinking about Frankenstein the movie and suddenly it dawned on me that it came out in 1931, a moment when the country was in a total economic collapse. I wonder whether there is something significant, consciously or unconsciously, about your doing Frankensteinnow, during the current economic crisis.
MH There must be, because everybody’s doing Frankenstein right now. It’s in the air. I wonder if it has to do with that kind of anxiety and general sense of catastrophe?
ED Technologically we’re not so far from becoming Frankenstein creatures ourselves. There are already prosthetic limbs that you can move with your brain, by thinking about it.
BB I thought you were going to say something about all of the devices we now depend on: the iPhone and—
ED Yes, but it’s moving into our bodies. There are actually people with chips in them and—
BB And people with other people’s faces.
ED Right, face transplants, exactly. All of this is also part of the popular imagination.
BB So the anxiety comes from several different places; it’s economic but it’s also technological. Can I ask you about what this production is going to look like?
ED It’s going to look—
BB Also, who’s in it?
MH It’ll be pretty much the same people from the last show—me, Erin, and Eric—and then Joe Silovsky and Mark Jaynes.
ED Mark Jaynes is like our next-generation Radiohole.
MH Our rock star.
ED We’re very lucky to have found him. We’re so tight-knit that it’s really hard for us to deal with other people coming into the process.
MH When we were doing ANGER/NATION at The Kitchen a few years ago we served the audience beer in custom Radiohole mugs and we needed somebody to wash all of the mugs every night. He came and washed all of the mugs.
ED Like 200 of them. (laughter)
BB His goal was to work in theater?
MH Yeah, to work with us. He just sort of slipped in, washed the cups and then, you know, he was there.
BB If you’re useful, man … And you guys work hard. It’s not like you’re in the trailer having a smoke.
MH One of the reasons we’re together is because we’re all compulsive workers. We don’t know how to delegate.
ED The virtue of it is that we are self-reliant. But then it verges on a pathology. Can I tell a story about delegating, where Maggie did the best job of delegating I’ve ever seen? So we had another wonderful volunteer/intern, Kat, who was working on Fluke. We got hold of these little mechanical fish …
BB I loved those fish.
ED And Maggie said, “They have to be painted black-and-white.” And I thought, Oh my God! It’s impossible; we have a hundred of these things. But Maggie set Kat up, explained what she wanted—
MH And Kat hand-painted all these fish, and it took forever.
ED But the real kicker was that Kat would do these beautiful fish and then Maggie would come in and look at every single one and write her comments about each particular fish on a Post-it note. Like “Maybe you could put some polka dots here.” (laughter)
BB You’ve been working together for a very long time. Did you anticipate that it was going to be this long-term?
MH Well, we used to fight so much more. Every show we thought, This is the last fucking show! I never want to see you again.
MH But we’ve mellowed out a little bit. Our problem these days is financial, so every show we think, We’re just going to try to do it for this last show. We’ve been saying that for the last couple of “last” shows.
BB Is that the state of affairs of arts funding, generally speaking?
MH It’s the state of affairs and maybe of our specific affair too, because of how our work is just not quite marketable enough. It’s so interesting to me that, while we love performing at The Kitchen or at PS122 or places we tour to, our favorite moments are always when we get to perform back at our little garage in Brooklyn.
ED Quite possibly our best show ever was for two guys at the Collapsable Hole.
MH It was Radiohole Is Still My Name We had an audience of four, but two girls walked out. It turns out that somebody in their high school had tricked them and said, “Oh you’ve got to go to see Radiohole,” and so they went and the minute we whipped out our genitals of course they were out of there.
ED They were Muslim.
BB Oh dear.
MH But then we had these two guys left in the audience and we had the best show ever.
ED These two guys were on vacation from Minneapolis and accidently stumbled onto the show. They had no idea who we were or what they had gotten themselves into. They recently wrote us to tell us how they still remember that experience and how much they still cherish the memory. It sounds corny, but that really does it for me—it makes me feel like I’ve done something.
MH That was a comeback show. I think that was the year Scott [Halvorsen Gillette] quit and also we didn’t have money again. It was one of those “This is the last show.”
ED Actually, the play was named Radiohole Is Still My Name because when Scott quit, he said, “You can’t be fucking Radiohole without me.” And we said, “Yes we can!” (laughter) There’s a spaghetti Western called Trinity Is Still My Name. It was also was very apropos at the time, because of the Scott thing. But, going back to the economics of it …
MH That was going to be our last show for sure. (laughter) And then we thought, Oh, well, that was really great! Maybe we could do it again. So with Frankenstein our attitude is, Let’s just try, maybe we can do this …
ED I’m not holding out on some kind of principle of being broke. None of us are. We’ve always tried to be somewhat creative with our fundraising. Maggie comes up with these awesome mail campaigns like “The Spirit of Radiohole” campaign or the fundraising letter that looked like a Con Ed bill.
MH “The Spirit of Radiohole” was a spoof of a cruise brochure. Our “Past-Due, Final Notice!” campaign looked like an overdue Con Ed bill. Most recently we did the “Do It for the Children” letter in which we dressed the three Radiohole babies in potato sacks and sent pictures of them looking pathetic in an effort to raise money to bring them on the road with us. We’ve always tried to put as much thought and creativity into the business end of things. But, you know, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes the more straightforward campaigns are more successful.
ED It’s funny; people are always complimenting our fundraising campaigns.
MH But they don’t actually give us that much money.
ED We’re becoming more conscious about Radiohole’s making plastic art. We often put more time into things that an audience sees as “set” and “props” than into rehearsing our performances. We’ve always had the sense that our sets are installations that we inhabit—at the Collapsable Hole this is particularly true because we transform the entire room and spend so much time in there. Frankenstein is about making some thing, so making things is really central to this show; it seems perfect to focus on ourselves as visual artists, as makers. The objects we make are very singular and specific. Maggie’s fish are a great example. There’s a great story of these curators from some museum in Finland who came to see the show and hated it. (laughter) But they loved the fish! Afterward, when everyone’s milling around, they nicked one. So, one day, we were on tour in Bergen, Norway, and we’re hanging out with our friend there, Sven Birkeland, and he’s like, “Come into my office.” So we go in and—
MH See a fish.
ED He’s got a fish. He’s friends with the curators. They felt bad about having stolen the fish, so they’ve asked him to give it back to us. (laughter) Sven happens to be a collector of battery-powered toys, so we, of course—
MH Let him keep it.
ED I just thought it was so funny that these museum curators stole our fish. You know, other things that we actually made, like the little boats in Fluke—
MH We spent so many hours working on those boats, making real boats that you could put in the river and they’d float. It was an inordinate number of hours compared to the amount of time we could have spent on the show itself.
ED We all felt they had to be real because that made part of what we were doing real also.
BB Don’t you think the stuff that, in a sense, “doesn’t matter” totally matters?
BB But this started as a question about what this next show is going to look like. Do you want to say anything about it?
MH The set is going to be inflatable and very messy with mud and goop, like a goo-on-skin rubdown. We’re interested in all of Mary Shelley’s pregnancies—she had all these miscarriages. So we have this idea for Erin and me to have these inflatable bellies; they blow up and blood squirts out and it’s sort of no big deal and we’re all just humping each other. They were all into the free-love thing at the time, but of course the ladies were all getting pregnant … Their babies were dying, it was horrible. So that will be in there too.
ED This idea of working with inflatables is incredible to me. It’s a totally new material for us—we’re making them out of the shopping bags you get from the supermarket.
MH Yes, you can iron them together—
ED Or tape them together, fill them with air.
BB Are you guys just figuring that out on your own?
ED Yeah, my kitchen is this little experimental inflatable lab.
MH But it’s perfect if you don’t have money. Just shopping bags and air. Oh yes!
ED The inflatables relate to organs. These surfaces that they create correspond to Artaud’s idea of the body without organs. And the creature is made out of plastic bags—he’s a bag man.
MH We can’t afford a rehearsal space right now. We’ve been subletting the Collapsable Hole to other companies who can afford to pay for the rent there, but we can’t afford not to be working, so we have developed this private blog for ourselves.
BB Oh, interesting.
MH We’re all just blogging to one another and trying to maintain this place where we can share ideas, since we can’t actually get together. It’s working; I never really thought it would. That’s been kind of cool.
ED What’s nice about it is that a lot of times we’ll have our ideas, but we won’t talk about them until we get into a rehearsal room. It’s a little traumatic to have all of these ideas come at you at once, especially when they appear to conflict with your own.
BB Would you say something about the writing process? Is it different this time?
MH Funny; we haven’t even thought about that yet. There hasn’t been any mention of, So here’s what I’m thinking is the story or the dialogue.
ED To be honest with you, right now Frankenstein isn’t a performance to me, it’s a balloon-art thing. I trust the performance is in there; when we start meeting it will come out. But, as far as generating text, one thing that came up is how much the creature talks in the novel.
BB Beautifully too.
ED The whole center of the book is the creature’s monologue.
MH I felt like he talks forever_. I could just see Eric playing him. We always set up Eric to be the guy who talks and talks and you’re just thinking, God, Eric, shut up! (laughter)
BB So you guys have been spending much more time with Mary Shelley than with the film or with other spin-offs?
ED I wouldn’t say much more … I would say about equal. As opposed to what we did with Whatever, Heaven Allows, where we analyzed Douglas Sirk’s movie All That Heaven Allowsand basically rewrote the movie in our own likeness. It isn’t going to be strictly about rewriting James Whale’s film in our own likeness or strictly about our adapting Mary Shelley’s novel …
MH No, and certainly not even recreating her life. It’s fascinating, but that certainly won’t be what it is.
ED One of the awesome challenges to this, and this is similar to making Fluke, is … I love Moby-Dick, but when I looked around at what art had been made based on the novel I realized it was not very good. Moby-Dick is so monumental in and of itself that it was an incredible challenge to make something that could actually speak from itself, as opposed to being dependent on it to speak. With Fluke we made a piece that can speak on its own, without Melville.
BB When you look at Fluke something in there is asking us also to think about authorial questions. You resist things like “I’m about to tell you a great story as a great writer in this monumental piece of art.” It’s a dispersal of the authorial voice among all of you. I’ve always identified your work with that resistance to a top-down authorial and also directorial structure.
ED It’s intentional, but if we had to write a manifesto about it I’d be a little hard-pressed …
MH In a way, it goes back to the idea of failure. We let the process of failing into our performances because it produces something real and unrehearsable. You really can’t fake slipping and falling down in a puddle of Jell-O, or a short circuit that causes all the power to go out, or a missed sound cue and the improvisation created by it. That’s one of the reasons we as performers have always run all the sound, video, and lighting from the stage—in addition to performing, it forces us to do something complicated and real that most likely will fail at some point. Fluke was all about failure. We performed and did all the technical cues literally with our eyes closed! Yet we try our damnedest to succeed, and that creates the intensity and chaos.
ED Fluke became this weird epic of digressions. It’s a reverence through irreverence. I mean, yes, we’re doing this Moby-Dick, but at the same time we don’t give a flying fuck about this Moby-Dick—
MH But we do.
ED The art, the operas, the music pieces, and some of the other work that I looked at were very Moby-Dick. Moby-Dick was the stamp. It was on top all the time. The only thing that I came across that was a truly imaginative use of Moby-Dick was an essay by Gregory Whitehead in which he talks about the storm scene, where Ahab is this radio body. Though Whitehead is primarily a sound and radio artist, this essay, which makes noise only in the reader’s head, is my favorite piece of art by him. It set an example for where I wanted to go with Fluke. Take it into your own world. To what it means in your world. This is what we’re going to do with Frankenstein. What does it mean in our world? This world specifically begins with this little hermetic confab of Maggie, Erin, Joe, and me.
BB And the plastic bags.
ED The plastic bags. We live in the world. We are of our time. We are intimately connected, and all of this feeds in and we don’t put a filter on it. There’s no intentionality or directionality to it. When we go in, we don’t have to worry about a script; we’re not trying to make language pure. We are not playwrights; our work is not specifically grounded in the word. We don’t have an agenda.
ED It’s open. We are our own agenda.
BOMB’s theater interviews are sponsored in part by the Select Equity Group Foundation.
Barbara Browning is a writer and dancer. She teaches in the Department of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. Her debut novel, The Correspondence Artist, was published by Two Dollar Radio in 2011. The same press will release her second novel, I’m Trying to Reach You—a murder mystery in which no one is murdered—in the spring of 2012. Choreographic clues to the mystery have been posted to her YouTube channel.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.