„I don’t want to present, but create experience!“
The talk with Andrew Schneider took place at the midst of March, at the day when all theatres and other institutions were closed. The premiere of „remains“ had taken place at the last evening before the shutdown. We met in the historical Berlin-Mitte, from one day to the other a very quiet place quiet place, at the home of Sasha Waltz& Guests. The correspondence went on after Andrew’s return to New York.
You are a multi talent in theatre, using all kinds of media.
How did you start your career, what is your professional background and how did you get to do what you are actually doing? You state on your website that we live in an increasingly synthetic world of our own making. The work I make is highly technical but it is not about technology. Why and how can technology help to show / highlight our separation from the world around us?
Its strange because my training was in musical theatre. I moved to New York City from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and did acting and different sorts of things. By the time I was in the third separate production “Little Shop of Horrors” The musical, I thought this is great, I love performing. But there are different stories that I can tell. I am part of the generation that grew up without cell phones. Later on I acquired one, that was around 2002/2003. My partner texted me (man/woman? Prefers not to answer) „I love you“. This is terrible, this is the death of civilisation, I thought. People are talking, but they will become completely isolated as communicators – and as human beings. At the same time I got interested in the work of the Wooster Group and Builders’ Association, and I was very interested in their use of technology. Somebody suggested that I go to a Secondary school for interactive art but I was very sceptical. What I knew was that I wanted to explore all those technologies but I did not know how to use them. I knew that it (technology? yes) was making us worse in communicating, and I wanted to get my hands on it and understand why, somehow dismantle it. I learned how to programme, make a LED blink. Basically it is an engineering school for artists and an artists’ school for engineers (Interactive Telecommunication Program at NYU): And once they teach you those things you learn that you can do anything.
Previously I did not know how to use a sound board or a light board or how to program things. Suddenly I had this platform where I could make my own sound etc. That was very empowering. To me, as a person without money, it meant an access to these resources, a democratization. Being able to make things that otherwise I would not have been able to make. The infrastructure of New York theatres is not made up to set up for this kind of work. It is set up for rehearsals, with benches and chairs with two people rehearsing. My world was a world of screens and people who were disrupted. I knew that I needed to use it and also to know it, as it would become content.
You want to create more meaningful human to human interaction. Do you think traditional theatre, is too limited to do this? You said that technology separates people but using it in your way you want to go the other direction. How do you do this?
That’s right! Theatre is great at what it is supposed to do, as a manipulator of experience. Usually in the traditional way the seats are bolted to the ground, you see and watch something in front of you over there. It is a bit limited, because it is in a way like cinema in the sense that you, the audience, is not part of it. To me it is important that 350 people experience and exchange energy. This is maybe (not) scientific but I think it matters whether people sit in one room together and that‘s what theatre is good at. But I see also the complacency in the form of having a play but you are not really meant as a person. My mother loves Broadway theatre, but it‘s largely entertainment. It is incredibly good for what it is meant to do, a story telling machine.
From 2007 to 2014 you worked for internationally renowened experimental Wooster Group. What did you find interesting about their way of performing?
I studied their scripts in College, and in the theatre class somebody showed me a video of their performances. I remember that my first idea was: Can you do that, you are really allowed to do that? You don’t need to have a play and a writer and an actor and music? They arrived with such a different form!. In fact they make new work by reassembling old work. All of their major work of the past 25 years is basically based on classic,Their way of performing was so interesting to me, because they would use external sources use and stimulus to make a performer present in the actual now. You have screens that tell you that you are reacting to them, screens from a film or suddenly there is a closeup and you rush to the front of the stage or there is a wide shot and you rush to the back of the stage. With sound it’s the same thing. Liz was interested to take one form and bring it into another form - this was very inspiring for me. That is different from Opera or a conventional theatre play, where you follow a story. You develop a play without a narrative. . One thing was revolutionary, I found. They used in ear monitors. You could be saying and play a text from Tennessee Williams but wirelessly in one ear or with head phones you would hear the an interview with him . That is an incredibly complex brain exercise but it keeps you present at the task you are in. Liz was very interested seeing a person do things on stage rather than pretending doing things. That is the normal way of acting, pretending to be someone that you are not. The brain is actively involved in completing a task.
Seen your broad skills and knowledge, how did you take part in their performances?
I started as a video designer. I had been interested in photography and in theatre and put theatre and photography together. I liked to frame things, and you have this in photography and in theatre. I wanted to take that even further and see how I could do my own version jump cut. Later, I also worked as an actor and in all this, I learned a lot for my own productions.
In the past years, you have created diverse shows, partly with very few persons acting. One is YOUARENOWHERE a rapid-fire existential meditation, combining physics lecture, pop culture and personal revelation“ : What was the idea of the show and how did you realize it?
The idea was a view on the previous ten years of my life. I started from my substance of problems from college to adult life, relationships, to the way I see life, to explore parallel universes and philosophy. It was never really in the present, a bit in the past and also in the future. It was my attempt to create a neural landscape of my brain translated into light, the video and sound. It was a neural landscape, the substance of how I was experiencing reality. If you set two different perspectives into a relation, you are literally with Einstein’s Theory of relativity. I started with the lighting, I lighted one spot at one area and one at the other, I wanted to see how fast it could switch. The show is based on a 30 dollar micro controller instead of a multi thousand dollar lighting desk. It was the idea to splice reality. I built up the show slowly and found out that there was a character that developed and could represent the different perspectives. In the second part I included the audience, it was different every time.
Splicing reality and put it together in anew in an attempt to sharpen the consciousness for reality - this is what you developed further in "Nervous System" What had been if…
Indeed, this production furthers the idea of getting as many realities jam-packed in one space. It was my attempt to take in some ways the film Tree of Life by Terence Malick, a film about a Texas family in the 1950ies, taken out of their track by a tragedy. Beyond the narrative there is a mythological track with volcanic eruptions, the universe and dinosaurs. I was inspired by the question of what happens to us ifs everything could have been different if one thing had been different. What decisions do we take and how do these determine our future? (Quote): Audiences discover a living map with a multiplicity of narratives: a biker, oblivious of the car that will hit her six blocks away; a couple kissing goodbye, then going on to lead different lives; flight patterns; crossed paths; missed opportunities; and countless other trajectories, patterns, and futures. NERVOUS/SYSTEM decodes the possibilities we miss each time we blink. It was a complex play, and I would have needed five years to do it. But I only had nine months. This is the US reality of capitalism, where time and money also counts for the arts.
„Acting Stranger“ is a project that requires less time and money. You act with persons in a public space that is shown later on your website or in a larger format. How does that work?
The genesis was in 2007 as part of my grad school thesis. I How do we use technology and make interaction in real life possible that is not real ? Two people do something together who normally would not even have, this is the idea. People can register on my website and choose a text they want to perform perform with me. We then meet at a public space and play this scene together. I do not know these people, we do not rehearse, we only meet for this only time. The scene then is registered. This is mainly interesting for the performers and less for the audience who has not participated.
This brings us to „remains“ where we met in Berlin in March. How did you get to choose dance as a medium for your artistic message? Dance and light and sound go together. We also had speech in the background.
Dance has always intimidated me, because I am not trained. I have always thought about volume and space, before I came to dance. That’s what I did before, people in a real space. In that sense it is not so different from theatre as it could be from other art forms. What the audience is experiencing, this is important. If you go to a gallery you know what you expect. And theatre provides a wonderful set of expectations that I can use but also counteract. Dance is a little bit of a wider boundary, within the play, it is incredibly exciting. When it is labeled as a play, and you don’t get it, you say it’s so abstract, I don’t understand it. When it’s labeled as abstract art from the beginning you say how wonderful!
Sasha Waltz comes from architecture and her pieces have a strong interaction with the space. This is what I also could feel in your play. How could you use this experience of the dancers?
I think it was a strong opportunity for me. Sasha is such a visionary person for 25 years, the institution is set up to all kinds of experience. So when I asked for complete darkness or be able to move around or audio where you have the feeling to move around, these ideas are not questioned, because they understand the importance of these factors.
In your piece, dance, light, sound and speech are very closely connected. And I think this only works when the dancers have the same precision as the stage elements. The stage also is shown alone, empty, only the stage and light and some background sound. What is the attraction for you of an empty stage?
The space is always present for me, and the audience needs to know that it’s present. It is important to show the space alone, as a volume where we exist together. I like the American West, the desert - where you can see starlight and colors that you cannot see anywhere else. That has a big influence on me to have the ability to sit down and just look at a landscape.
Let’s have a look at the audience: The audience gets involved in the play, mainly through the space, light and sound. Is the configuration of the space and the sound that gets directly into your body, the flashlights and people sitting directly in front of the stage part of you concept?
Yes, it is always there. I am not a playwright to produce text, although I did it. In all phases of my work I think of the people I am doing this for - it is for you! When I step aside, I think about whispering in the ear of the audience. My work can be very abstract, but I want the audience to be taken care of and not feel isolated. Every single gesture we do is with the audience in mind. In my school I was told the opposite, to never think about the audience. I found it a terrible advice and I have been rebelling this all the time. I don’t want just to show something, I want to create an experience, it’s all about the experience!
To get practical: How did you develop the production? Did you come often to Berlin?
It was very difficult. I was here in August 2019 to do a two week workshop with 15 dancers. During that time I was very open. I was honest and told them that I usually come without a clean agenda - I don’t how the form will be. This is how I work. I have many ideas But I don’t know what the form will be like. I had many ideas, the main topic was about grieving and loss and touching moments, these are topics that I feel very close to. At my apartment I had a little book „Dictionary of Physics“, literally. It explained the quantum entanglement, different kinds of shadows and lighting different types of things that happen in your brain, in your eyes. I would sketch pictures, dozens and dozens. I explained how I thought one could do certain scenes with lighting, others with sound, then with the bodies. Then we did some scenarios to make all this happen. We generated enough material, then we added it and we created connections out of these sketches. Then it was like an archeology to find out the connection between the scenes. This I did together with the dancers.
What about the technology. Do you create and define it by yourself, also the technical equipment?
Unfortunately, I am involved in everything, down to every single newest LED light where I choose. They have different curves for emulating daylight and I have to see how I can take them on and off. I have my favorites for the most recent product of such and such a firm. I have different curves to immolate natural light to get natural light in and off. For the past 5 years I have made workarounds, because I cannot afford the latest developments. The show you saw can be run from a single laptop. There are thousands of queues, it is a network of crazy patches that I have created, in Max/MSP, Isasora, EOS, Isidora and … Everything talks to each other in the most efficient way. I have a designer in New York, Yi Zhao. He is very good at EOS and I am very good at Max/MSP. He knows how to make these things. All the gestures of the dancers should be the same thing as the sound that you hear and as the light that you see. They all should have the same precision. And therefore everything has to run on the same track.
So you know all these technology!
Yes, this is what I learnt at the interactive school. You can show a gesture of the body also as a light gesture, that is incredible. We also can make the space to be a character, as you said before. It allows me to create an environment that is like a brain, or also a landscape to recreate the conditions of the mind. Technology is just one medium to do this.
Your experience working in Berlin, how was it?
I toured everywhere in the world but I was never in Berlin. It was a lot of work, I saw the studio, over Christmas time I saw a movie, that was about it. But the working team was great, I got a full support behind this was really great!
How do you work in New York?
I have my own space, but it’s just me and my ideas. For every piece I look for new partners but I also work with wonderful recurring collaborators with whom we’ve built up a short-hand for how to do this kind of work. But the economy in the US for theatre making is organized in a way that I can work for my work but I cannot people. I have a lot of work to do before I go out and try to find partners.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment we ware working at an actual version of „Acting Stranger“. The project fits well for the Pandemic times. We did a version for the West Coast - Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle. The project is community based with authors from there who write scenes referring also to the pandemic - what happens if you hug somebody you have not met for 6 months, how do we deals with being closed up, how will be able to break up? But I am sitting in my New York Studio and work at my next project that deals with the stars. For this, I built a tiny grid of 360° with LED’s above my head, with an array and loudspeakers to produce a soundwave in the space. This is my tiny personal planetarium.
What an excellent idea to have your own, beautiful universe that hopefully will help you to get well through the Corona - times!