Who knew “The Grapes of Wrath,” theater on live stream and mortgage-backed securities had so much in common?
They’re all in “House/Divided,” a play from the Builders Association, a cutting-edge performance and media company. (The group’s name, along with the fact that the drama is sponsored by contractor E.W. Howell Co., is pure chance.)
Taking place simultaneously during the Great Depression and the time of Lehman Brothers’ collapse, the play features a futuristic set with a house created from real materials as well as a shifting series of projections.
A wraparound onstage screen displays a stream of stock quotes interspersed with the actors’ faces. The group, based in New York, integrates technology and theater in every production.
Marianne Weems, the show’s director, spoke to me the day after opening night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Wearing a gray coat, purple and yellow dress and a necklace with a peace symbol that doubles as a magnifying glass, she laid out her vision for the theater.
Tarmy: I brought a friend who works at JPMorgan to the show. He thought you were too soft on bankers.
Weems: That’s so great. The nice thing about playing it in New York is that there are people who, on a personal level, are going to be able to judge it critically.
We’ve been touring it in the Midwest, where there’s a lot more identification with the foreclosure side, not the power-mongering side of it.
Tarmy: How did you ensure that all of the details in the show were accurate?
Weems: That took a lot of work. An associate wrote an algorithm for the ticker and got all of the exact stock quotes for the days that the show is marking. We did a lot of digging through FCIC documents -- the story just kind of tells itself.
Tarmy: You manage to seamlessly integrate technology with theater.
Weems: That’s kind of our signature. The aesthetic is about this high tech world, not necessarily celebrating it, so there is a complicated interplay between critique and celebration.
Tarmy: Is the integration of technology into live performance the future of theater?
Weems: We’re operating at the edge of what people consider legitimate theater. Because to see people on stage with nothing around them, with a kitchen sink, it’s like, “What audience are you talking to, and what are you representing?”
They’re representing a generation and a way of living that’s long gone. We’re swimming in mediatization, so putting that on stage seems relatively obvious.
Tarmy: Why do you think that the practice isn’t more mainstream?
Weems: When it goes to Broadway it’s drained of meaning: it’s utterly meaningless to have a huge video wall that is just a backdrop. You might as well just have scenery that is less expensive. So this whole investigation of how to have technology be part of the storytelling is really key.
Tarmy: So what’s next?
Weems: AR -- “augmented reality.” The audience will be either invited to use their own phone or given an iPad as they go into the theater, and they’re going to be able to view the scenery and much of the show through their screen.
So what you would see when you hold up the screen is a giant castle over the proscenium, which the actors are acting within... but you don’t need to build the fricking castle. That’s the point.
Tarmy: How much did this show cost to produce?
Weems: Around $300,000. That’s all the workshops, the development phases, set materials and some new computers. And we believe in paying the artists, which is really a problem for artists now.
Tarmy: Theater actors don’t get paid?
Weems: It is difficult now, more than ever, because unfortunately many of the arts organizations that have cultivated and fed this whole scene have had to pull in their skirts because of their own issues.
After 9/11 there was also a massive dip in funding but then it crept back up. But now foundations have closed their doors or changed their mission.
Tarmy: How do you compensate for that?
Weems: The current wisdom is that everyone has to cultivate individual donors. That’s what foundations tell nonprofits. That you have to go out and find out deep pockets. It’s a hugely time-consuming task, and it’s a different kind of fundraising.
Tarmy: When you have single donors, do they try to influence the content of your shows?
Weems: No, but they come up with crackpot funding ideas. Like when we did a show about outsourcing work to India, and we actually all thought that we were going to get Virgin to fund it. When we asked Virgin they were just like “No. Your show is a critique of what we do.”
Tarmy: You were actually surprised that Virgin turned you down?
Weems: Yeah, well, that’s what I mean. Live and learn.
The Builders Association presents “Sontag: Reborn” at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 15 to 18.
(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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