“The original idea,” theater artist Phil Soltanoff told me over coffee, “was basically: take all the footage of Captain Kirk from Star Trek, cut it up, sample it, and use that to have him talk about art.”
That is, indeed, a fair summation of his piece, An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk, which opens this week as part of Performance Space 122’s COIL festival. I saw it at its premiere in Austin, at the Fusebox Festival in 2012, and was compelled to reach out to Soltanoff because — in the sort of coincidental synergy that comes up at contemporary theater festivals — another show at COIL this year also uses new media technology to manipulate existing materials to stage a “what if” event. Reid Farrington’s Tyson vs. Ali has a self-explanatory title: through video mash-up and elaborate fight choreography, Farrington has staged an eight-round bout between two of the most iconic boxers of all time, the ultimate fight that never happened.
It would be a mistake to see this as theater’s late embrace of remix culture; outside of mainstream, conventional theater, experimental artists have been manipulating media for decades. Farrington himself spent a number of years working as a video artist with the Wooster Group, which has been creating media collage performances since the 1970s, and the Builders Association, a New York–based company, started staging large-scale video-based performances in the early 1990s. European directors like Frank Castorf, the long-time director of the Volksbühne in Berlin, pioneered the incorporation of live video, influencing several generations of directors in the US. Jay Scheib, for instance, has used the technique to tweak the model of National Theatre Live–style broadcasts with his production of Platanov, or the Dininherited (currently running at the Kitchen), which is structured so that an audience at the live performance sees a different show than those who watch it simulcast in movie theaters around the city.
In fact, what sets Farrington and Soltanoff apart isn’t their incorporation of technology and media, but rather the limitations they place upon themselves in doing so. Whereas most artists use technology expansively — to incorporate a wider array of content and aesthetics than they’d be able to otherwise — these two have done the opposite, using the potential afforded by technology to stage something narrow and specific. And that limitation has led them back to something that, despite its tech-geeky appearance, is a rather conventional form of theater.
The process of creating William Shatner Asterisk was uniquely challenging for Phil Soltanoff, who’s known mostly as an innovative site-specific performance maker. “I’m not a pop culture enthusiast,” he told me. “I look at Captain Kirk as a kind of sign — something that culturally and iconically a lot of people have a starting point with.” While he often spends a year or more developing a piece, normally the majority of that period is given over to constant fine-tuning. With William Shatner Asterisk, just getting a working version running took months.
The first task was to create a video sample of each word Shatner says in the original Star Trek television series, a library of some 5,000–6,000 tiny clips. From there, various utterances of the same word were catalogued for their delivery — intonation, intensity, and emotionality — so that Soltanoff could sample not just the word itself but its performance and delivery. A lexicon was produced for playwright Joe Diebes to draft Kirk’s lecture, which in turn necessitated the development of new samples. (Ironically, although the topic of Kirk’s monologue is “art,” he never actually says that word in the entire Star Trek series; Soltanoff produced it by clipping “start.”) Rob Ramirez then created software that combined the samples into a video track, which could be manipulated during live performances. That took several more months.
Once a usable video of Kirk — a spasmodic series of fraction-of-a-second-long clips delivering a retro-futuristic lecture on art, with subtitles — existed, the problem became how to put it on stage in a way that made it a performance, rather than just a presentation. The video is shown on a flat-screen monitor mounted on a rolling cart that’s moved around the stage by performer Mari Akita; Soltanoff compared it to a puppet show, with Akita as the puppeteer and the monitor as the Kirk puppet. The movement is modeled on the stereotypical blocking for creating a dynamic one-man show: begin at center, slowly develop the space by moving straight towards and away from the audience, then side to side, and then in increasingly dynamic forms like diagonals.
Before Tyson vs. Ali, Reid Farrington’s stock-in-trade was innovative video-based adaptations of films. In Gin and “It” (2010), he excavated the subtext of Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) by staging the director’s technical experiment as a play. With Rope, Hitchcock famously sought to increase the emotional intensity of the film by reducing the number of cuts as much as possible and forcing the cinematography to conform to a fixed set (an apartment interior), rather than a more flexible sound-stage environment, in which walls could be removed for broad shots. On stage, Farrington replicated the dimensions of Hitchcock’s original set, without the walls — an effect somewhat akin to a live version of Lars von Trier’s Dogville. Stagehands retraced the original blocking, carrying screens onto which video of the actors from the film were projected.
Farrington used similar staging techniques (to less transgressive effect) in his version of A Christmas Carol, which was in 2011–12 a mainstay of seasonal downtown New York theater. But, as he said to me after I sat in on a rehearsal of Tyson vs. Ali a couple weeks ago, “I’ve taken what I can do on my own as far as I can go.”
The new piece is a more collaborative effort. After arriving at the concept through an off-the-wall conversation informed by childhood memories of going with his dad to watch Mike Tyson Pay-Per-View fights at the local Holiday Inn, Farrington began working with four performers with backgrounds in mixed martial arts and stage combat. The fight choreography was culled by taking “the most interesting” parts of fights by both Tyson and Ali: the knock-outs. The fights in each of the show’s eight rounds are directly modelled on specific exchanges of blows by Tyson or Ali that resulted in a knock-out or knock-down. The performers never fully inhabit either Tyson or Ali, though; instead they take turns, with two fighting while the other two deliver monologues based on interviews with the boxers. The “third man” (the ref, and the only performer who plays one character throughout) narrates and calls the fight. At the same time, he manipulates a complex set of standing and hand-held screens on which video of the original matches is projected.
But, as with Soltanoff’s piece, the conceptual development didn’t at first offer much in the way of a performance. Rather than belabor an analysis of which fighter might actually have won the match (if the two could have faced off in their primes), Farrington fell back on their famous real-life encounter in 1992 on the Arsenio Hall Show, in which Tyson averred that, clearly, Ali would have won. By the end of Tyson vs. Ali, the story shifts from the imagined match to recounting the interpersonal relationships between the performers. During their months practicing for the show in a local boxing gym, they had ample opportunity to observe the camaraderie that exists between boxers, many of whom come from the same humble circumstances as Ali and Tyson. Boxers, the play suggests, are all members of the same extended family, connected by a “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”–like chain of who-sparred-with-whom. Like Soltanoff’s appropriation of Captain Kirk as a cultural signifier, the fictional Tyson vs. Ali match becomes, in Farrington’s piece, a space of shared imagination for a broader public.
For all the technological flashiness of their pieces, in the end, both artists arrive at very human stories. For Farrington, it’s the interior lives of boxers. “This has become an homage,” he said, “something that I want [my collaborators] to be proud of, other boxers to come [see].” For Soltanoff, it’s less about the technology itself than the interaction with it. Late in William Shatner Asterisk, Soltanoff flips the puppet-puppeteer dynamic between Kirk and Akita: Akita is forced to deliver a deadpan monologue dictated by the same subtitles that have been making Kirk’s disjointed speech comprehensible. The suggestion is that technology is transforming us as we use it, causing us to alter our behavior to accommodate what was originally conceived of as a liberating new tool.
“I’m not a person glorying in technological things,” he told me. “I’m taking it as, ‘I’m a normal guy, here’s this technological thing, how do I work with it?’ It’s part of my world, so how do I dance with it?”
An Evening With Williams Shatner Asterisk runs at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher Street, West Village, Manhattan) through January 12. Tyson vs. Ali runs at 3LD Art & Technology Center (80 Greenwich Street, Financial District, Manhattan) through January 25.