Phil Soltanoff Shows “How Our Town Lies”
The Black Box production of Our Town is opening on the 22nd of October. It will run until the 28th so, to quote Thornton Wilder: “Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough” to book a ticket to come and see the show!
· Why Skidmore College? And why Our Town? Did you want to work on this play for a long time or did you come up with this idea after arriving here?
I taught at Skidmore for many years. Professor Opitz invited me back to direct a play. I have been working my way through a canon of plays committed to video. I staged Death of a Salesman here in 2010. Our Town was a natural extension of that project.
· In which ways is this project aligned with the rest of your work?
One branch of my work involves investigating the relationship between people and technology, how the two interact with each other. Our Town is part of that investigation.
· You said I quote: "I like to start with a familiar place, object or process […] and work with it until it transforms into something unfamiliar." Would you say that it applies to your work on Our Town? In which ways?
Oh yes! I’m using the video to put the audience in a similar relationship to the performance that they would have had when the work was first done. The lack of scenery in a Broadway house must have been shocking when first experienced in 1938. It’s certainly no longer surprising. But I think the video can have a similar effect.
· How far would you push the limits of theatre and what is possible on stage?
Every project for me is about pushing the limits of theatre—where it can happen, what happens, who performs it, etc. My interest is always about testing those boundaries.
· How do you think new technologies impact the way an actor plays? e.g. watching films/recordings of plays during the rehearsals, interacting with them on stage etc. Would you say that this is one of the elements at the core of your work?
New technologies are ubiquitous whether we like them or not. They change us and how we interact with each other and the world. To not include them in theatre seems foolish to me. The questions become how to think about them? How to use them in new and interesting ways? The video compels the Skidmore performer to hang in with a choice when they might have bailed. They are forced to discover choices that the video actor’s make. I would not say this technique is at the core of my work, but it is a strategy I have used before. What is at the core is questioning the limitations of theatre and using the video to that end.
· How would you define the relationship that the students have in a way with actors who are not physically present? How did you work with them so that they could portray an actor and a character at the same time?
The actors in the video spent weeks preparing the production. They are also professional actors. There is a great deal to be learned from them. The experience of studying them is akin to that of a student painter in a museum attempting to copy a masterwork. Through close examination the artist learns something about applying each brushstroke. A similar experience happens in Our Town. The difference being our work happens in time. But that is always true of the actor’s work, it is a time-based art form. Through close imitation the Skidmore actors absorb the meanings of the play and contact something authentic in themselves.
· Do you understand that such a bold choice as having actors play without using their own voice could be puzzling for an audience?
I think using video this way is unfamiliar to an audience, but I believe they get accustomed to it very quickly. And besides, making theatre that does things in unfamiliar ways is key for me. I believe in making theatre that is finally a naïve experience. You don’t need to be an expert to appreciate it.
· How did the actors react when they learned about the lip-synching? It must be difficult to get rid of such an important element as one’s own voice?
The actor’s approached the lip-synching nervously. I was removing one of their key expressive instruments. But at the same time, the lip-synching was forcing them to find the emotional life of the play without using words. It was activating unused parts of their communicative selves. Now they’re obsessed with it.
· How do you think the audience is going to react? Would you want them to go back and forth between the video recording and what is happening on stage or would you rather have them focus on the actors?
I am very comfortable with a multi-layered viewing experience. In other words, the audience is free to choose when to look at the live actors, when to look at the video. And we’re changing how much of the video is seen in certain places in the production. Sometimes there’s no video at all, and sometimes no lip synch too. I have no idea how the audience will react, but that’s always true for me. I do know I’m building a naïve experience. It’s something for anyone, but not everyone. In other words, if you’d rather stay home and drink a beer that’s fine. But if you choose to come to the theatre the experience will let you in.
· What would you want people to reflect upon after they will have seen your version of Our Town?
I’m really attempting to do the play. And I think the play is big and powerful. Too bad it’s been done to death so the play is encrusted with barnacles. Hopefully, the production clears away some of that crustiness and lets the play out. As far as I can tell, the characters in the play and the members of the audience all have something in common. They’re all people. They’re born, live and die. Hopefully the audience reflects on that.
· Would you say that imitating is in a way the first step toward mastery of any skill?
Yes. Whether we consciously imitate of not is the question. In our case, imitation is embraced.
· What are you going to do next?
I have an idea I want to workshop in Texas. It involves choreographing with over-the-counter electric muscle stimulators.