Synesthesia’s Artistic Collision Comes Calling Again

Ashlin Halfnight 

Electric Pear Productions, the upstart company responsible for the FringeNYC 2006 hit, Diving Normal, as well as a recent revival of Lisa Kron’s 2.5 Minute Ride this past winter, is swinging back into action next week with its 2008 edition of Synesthesia, a multi-disciplinary performance piece inspired by the old grade school game of telephone that examines how artists influence each other. The inaugural edition in 2007 featured an eclectic lineup of contributors including writer Benjamin Percy, comedian Rebecca Drysdale, singer-songwriter Jeremy Parise, New Yorker editor Ben Greenman, and members of the theater company Performance Lab 115. This year’s roster promises just as much variety, with contributions coming from playwright Clay McLeod Chapman, dancer-choreographer Jo-anne Lee, DJ JayCeeOh, and filmmaker Gregory Stuart Edwards, among many many others.

Electric Pear’s co-executive producer, playwright Ashlin Halfnight, stopped by the ol’ blog for a chat about Synesthesia and some of the other things the company has in store for audiences this year. He is briefly joined by Electric Pear’s other co-executive producer, Melanie Sylvan, a little later on. Take a read… 

This is the second installment of Synesthesia. What made you decide to do it again?

Well, we actually always envisioned Synesthesia as a yearly event – with a consistent format but different artists – so deciding to put it up again was contingent on two practical things: the success of the first show, and the ever-present budgetary concerns. As it turned out, we had a great sold-out run last year, and we managed to scrape the cash together in 2008… so here we are.

Aside from that, putting up a show like Synesthesia is incredibly gratifying on a number of levels, a factor that always enters into a discussion about re-mounting. As producers, we get to work with some incredibly talented people from a myriad of creative fields, which keeps the project fresh and exciting; each time, we get to watch these people work, hard and fast, and what they come up with is always stimulating and surprising. On a more philosophical scale, Synesthesia was also unlike anything that we’d seen before in a performance space – and the idea of letting this artistic collision drop out of existence was somehow just not an option.

What does the word “Synesthesia” mean?

Exactly? I’ll need to cheat here, with a little help from my dictionary – Synesthesia is “a condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a color.” So, I guess, the process of our project mirrors this kind of stimulus-response set-up. There’s a reactive quality in both cases, but there’s also a creative one; a new piece of art (or poem, song, dance, etc.) is created in response to the previous one in our project, and in a synesthetic brain, a new sensation (color, in the example above) is created in response to a separate stimulus.

What was the impetus for this project? What made you decide to use the game of telephone as a means of exploring how artists influence each other?

The impetus for the project was, as always, alcohol. No, just kidding. It was actually a long and serious night of heavy drugs. Lots of heavy drugs. Which is why I don’t remember what the impetus for the project was. Who are you, again?

In all seriousness, I don’t recall when I first hatched the idea, but it definitely had to do with the overwhelming amount of information that’s out there, and how artists are influenced, either implicitly or explicitly by it. We have such extensive and easy access to all forms of media that it’s really impossible to create anything in a bubble – or even to be trained in or disposed towards any one tradition. And so I got thinking about this idea of borrowing (or stealing) from current culture as a whole, and from other artists in particular – I wrote a play that was set up and inspired by Edwardd Hopper’s “Summer Interior.” It was awful. And then I wrote one that was inspired by The Master and Margarita – and I worked with PL115, who ended up performing it… and it was much better, probably thanks to them. In any case, I find it fascinating when pieces of art are in conversation – The Grey Album, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Sunday in the Park With George – and so why not frame the conversation in a way that brings this kind of mash-up to the surface and lets the audience inside the creative process.

What made you decide to include participants from all types of artistic disciplines, not just theater?

Well, it certainly could just be a theater project, but we thought it was crucial to reflect the cross-disciplinary conversations that are going on in the world right now. Theater and other arts are guilty of a certain amount of navel-gazing – and there’s a boring and corrosive insularity that can be bred out of that kind of limited scope. Think of a cocktail party where everyone stands around talking about theater, exclusively… that’s great for the practitioners, but the person who came as a date, well, they’re going to be in the corner sticking a fork in their eye after ten minutes. Perhaps that’s a little extreme. Maybe just a toothpick. Anyway, Electric Pear is interested in projects that bring some kind of multi-tasking to the table. We’re attracted to international collaborations, mixed media, site specific stuff… anything that’s just a little different. Synesthesia fits that bill, and we want to have as much of the creative world involved in the conversation.

How do you go about picking the participants?

Some are people we’ve worked with before – PL115, for example, and Jeremy Parise, who wrote the music for a play I directed awhile back. Melanie has worked with Clay McLeod Chapman and Project: Projekt… we have the great fortune of continuing these relationships through an artistic endeavor. And then, some of the participants are people we’ve been wanting to work with – a couple of this year’s artists come as recommendations from last year’s group – and some great folks randomly fall into our laps. It’s really scattershot. There’s a haphazard beauty to that, I think… and it keeps the project from being too heavily weighted in any way.

Once you’ve got the lineup of artists, how does this whole thing work? How do you get the ball rolling on something like this?

Well, it takes about 5 months of intricate schedule coordinating… there are the artists themselves, then the producers, then the documentary filmmaker, and the sound person…not to mention the piece of art itself, which may need to be performed, projected, hung, carried in a box, a truck… and so on…

We always start with a fortune cookie. We always start at Congee Village, a restaurant on the Lower East Side. The first artist picks a cookie, unwraps it, and takes the fortune home to be the inspiration for his or her piece. Each artist is given roughly two weeks to come up with something… then they bring it back, and pass it off to the next person in line. It’s like the schoolyard game of telephone – you only know what the preceding person “gave” you…each artist is blind to the many steps that may have come before.

Each artist is interviewed about their impressions and process – this year we have the wonderful Avriel Hillman doing all the documentary work – and this is then shown in the performance, so that the audience can gain insight into what each artist was picking up from the last. The show is partly live (dancers, singers, theater artists and so on perform live) and partially pre-recorded (the interviews, films, photographs, and static arts), and then projected onto a large movie screen.

Are you still aiming to make this an annual event?

Yep. We’re really hoping that it will grow with each outing. So far, the response from the audience and from the artists has been great…and, although it’s an incredible amount of work – mostly for Melanie this year – we intend to try to make it bigger and better with each iteration. We made some procedural changes after last year, and shortened the show… and we’ll surely have some tinkering to do after 2008’s version.

Melanie Sylvan

You’re doing this year’s edition at Judson Memorial Church, which has a firmly entrenched place in the firmament of downtown theater history. Conscious decision on your part or divine happenstance?

Ashlin: Both.

Melanie: I have worked out of Judson a number of times over the years. I was producing a Chanukah event there in December, and I suppose you could say I had a moment of divine inspiration when I realized that this would be the perfect venue for Synesthesia.  Judson is one of the most majestic spaces I have seen in the city, and it has an incredibly rich history of showcasing experimental art. I’m in awe when I think of the artists that have presented their work in this room since the 1950s: from Robert Rauschenberg to Trisha Brown, and Yoko Ono to Arcade Fire. It’s an honor to be able to bring emerging artists into this space. Synesthesia is an ideal fit with Judson’s “radical art ministry,” and it’s a great honor to now be a part of the church’s history of presenting avant-garde art to the downtown community.  The church staff and community is incredibly supportive and I think this is an awesome opportunity for our company and all of the artists involved in the project.

What does Electric Pear have going on after this?

Emily Long has been spearheading our play development series, The Outlet, and has also initiated our first audio play. The company commissioned a talented young playwright named Gregory Moss to write a piece that was specifically designed for broadcast, which he did – a funny and thought-provoking play called Amanda Tears, Teenage Sleuth. Erica Gould is directing a great group of actors and we’re putting up on the Electric Pear website for free download later this spring. Check it out!

We’re also in the process of developing an acting company. It’s a great step for us right now, because we’re really looking to grow a community of like-minded artists – some will be familiar faces to Electric Pear shows, and some will be new. We wanted to avoid those terrible situations where fifty actors end up being a part of a “company” and then never get to do anything…they do development work, or they volunteer at the benefits, but when the plays go up, they’re not cast. Their affiliation is in name only, which is silly and a little insulting. We intend to commission new works by exciting playwrights that are written specifically for our actors – and that way, we can promise them each a role in a show, every season.

We also have some really exciting projects on the horizon that we’re being kind of hush-hush about until they’re truly solidified, but rest assured we’ve got an incredible season planned that will start with a site-specific show next September.

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