Dec 2, 2016
“It’s kind of like you’re editing a video, but you’re editing real life,” says Andrew Schneider as he tells me about the process of developing his new work FIELD at Baryshnikov Arts Center.
Known for the technological sophistication of his performances, working in a studio at BAC with its large, open space, floor-to-ceiling windows and relatively spare tech set-up presented a new opportunity. “I had gone on some writing residencies – I told myself I was ‘writing by programming’ but I wasn’t. I’d bring all my gear, set it up, make sure it was all working and all of a sudden the time was up.” So he decided to take this time at BAC to investigate storytelling techniques and dramaturgy, do some writing to explore the major ideas of the piece with collaborators sound designer/composer Bobby McElvor and performer/choreographer Alicia Ohs.
“I don’t really know exactly where the idea for this show [FIELD] came from,” he tells me. “I started making sketches after YOUARENOWHERE was in COIL [Performance Space 122’s January festival] but that was about it.”
One of the origin points for FIELD, was Robert Irwin’s Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a book he had encountered previously. “I had always liked the Light and Space art movement, but I didn’t know why. Reading Irwin I realized I liked the work because the ideas he was investigating are ideas I’m interested in investigating too.”
Schneider’s newfound insight and renewed interest in Light and Space was further stoked by seeing the James Turrell retrospective at LACMA while he was in Los Angeles performing in The Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals.
“I became fascinated by the idea that there is a point when you become aware of your own perceptions. When you’re perceiving your own perceptions, seeing yourself see, this is where the experience happens. And making a show about that would be an incredibly hard thing to do – so I thought I should do it.”
Hearing Schneider describe his creative practice, he is part magpie, part explorer: he surrounds himself with books, images, digital media files, notebooks, laptops, software and sketches – anything that captures his eye and imagination – then starts to arrange, edit, accrete, re-arrange and edit again, worrying at the edge of an idea until things start to come into focus.
Schneider takes what one might call a “rapid prototyping” approach to making performance. His “writing” technique involves both writing in the traditional sense – at BAC he kept an always-growing Google doc for writing new text and tracking ideas – as well as programming, assembling and editing digital media in Ableton Live.
This approach proved useful when Schneider and collaborators had the idea for what he jokingly refers to as FIELD’s “hallucination ballet” sequence, and then realized they needed more performers to see how the piece operated.
“I didn’t need the people, I just needed people!” he laughs. He reached out to Rosemary Quinn at NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing who sent over some students. “Basically I wanted to set up the parameters for the sequence and then ‘run the simulation’.”
By giving the performers in-ear microphones to feed them text and direction and having the scenes cued and played through the Ableton Live software, Schneider could have the performers up and running, literally, with little to no rehearsal or preparation. “We ended up with this crazy 15 minute scene with the kids just running all over the place.”
This phase of development was about building material that will work in conjunction – and perhaps opposition – to other pieces of the work already created. Schneider’s most recent work, YOUARENOWHERE, was in some ways a barrage of sensation; a pulsing overwhelm of light, sound and fractured text moving at high velocity. Schneider intuited he had to do something different. “The metabolism of YOUARENOWHERE was that I was always five steps ahead of the audience, so for this show, I started wondering how do we curate the audience’s attention with the opposite of sensory overload?”
Curious about how sensory deprivation – a lack of perceptual input or change – can give rise to hallucinations, Schneider eventually found himself surrounded by Oliver Sacks books, books about mountaineering and about collective hallucinations in explorers. A new series of questions began to arise: “Can we stage hallucinations in a way that isn’t like a realistic play?” “What would storytelling through hallucinations look like?” “Can we make a shared hallucination?” “Is it possible to induce hallucinations or at least get people to think they’re hallucinating?”
An earlier residency at EMPAC was focused on lighting, stage effects and sound spatialization using High Order Ambisonics (HOA), a technology for 3D audio spatialization that is every bit as space-age as it sounds. “Right now I think the first part of the show will not be presenting the eye with a lot of visual information, we’re going to work mostly with the 3D soundscape.” He cites Elevator Repair Service’s Room Tone as a major influence.
At a moment where so much of live theater is captivated by the so-called “immersive” and “interactive”, and where the media world has become enamored of Virtual Reality, few artists are so thoughtfully, rigorously, playfully and successfully interrogating the nature (and location) of human experience itself. Schneider uses sophisticated digital age tools alongside the traditional practices of stagecraft (he started his career in musical theater!) to create visceral, engaging performances that leave audiences questioning reality and the authenticity of their own experience without ever leaving their seats or donning goggles. He nests layers of ideas and information together and delivers them in unexpected but accessible ways.
One of the great thrills of experiencing Andrew Schneider’s work – whether in development or in its final form – is the exhilaration of entering into the unknown followed by the joy of discovery. We might not be able to articulate what we’ve found, but we know we’ve been through something extraordinary.
I ask him if FIELD is likely to have any surprises as startling as YOUARENOWHERE and he laughs. “Right now there are no spoilers – but I don’t know if that will stay the same.”