Dallas — Jeffrey Colangelo and Katy Tye’s movement-based theater company PrismCo grew organically during their time at Southern Methodist University, and it all began with a show called Prism, in which the performers used their bodies as paint brushes on a giant canvas. In fact, they had the name of the show before they had one for the company.
Last year, PrismCo. made its first big splash for Dallas audiences with the original work Galatea, based on the Pygmalion myth; and this year, they’re brining back Prism in a production that is pretty different from the original.
We talked to Colangelo and Tye about their work, mission, this show and…Keanu Reeves.
TheaterJones: Prism was your first show as a theater company, talk about what it means to come full-circle or why this play now, or why again?
Katy Tye: First off doing it with Dallas Arts Week is perfect because the show started as a kind of an experiment in movement art, or at least that’s how I first saw it when Jeff brought me in on the project. And it’s just kind of art in darkness, light, and color. I think coming “full-circle…”
That’s my phrasing; feel free to express the process in a different way.
Jeffrey Colangelo and KT: Yeah.
KT: It feels…I don’t know; that’s a great question.
Do you feel like in the interim between doing it the first time and doing it now…
KT: It definitely evolves. We as a company have evolved in how we work together. It was just a random project that we started out on at first so now we kind of come together and have been more focused and that has helped a lot.
JC: It is definitely very appropriate for Dallas Arts Week. I don’t think I like saying we’ve come “full-circle” because that sounds like we’ve come to the end of things, and we’re just getting started. But it’s so cool to come back to this piece and feel like we have a new methodology, and way, and language for talking about this sort of thing. It’s fun to just come back to it. It was a huge experiment; it’s wildly different from all of the other pieces we’ve really done as a company.
Because it’s not so narrative driven; it’s very abstract. But it’s so much fun to come back to that and look at the stuff we’ve learned, look at how we work as a company, and how we develop things, and I think we’ve been able to actually dig more out of the show and dig more out of the concept and theme. That show was the first time that Katy Tye pulled out weight sharing, and now to watch what she had then and what she has now, it’s like astronomically different and better. It’s so interesting to watch Katy work as a weight sharing artist. And in terms of fight choreography, it’s going to be such a fun way to take a look at the thesis that it used to be; it’s going to just explode from there.
How has the show changed? In ways other than just your skill sets, or what you have learned doing other shows?
KT: Definitely. The time before it was a workshop at school. Things were coming together at the last day, or the day of.
JC: When we first did this show we thought it was going to be terrible. We thought everybody was going to hate it. We thought people were going to say, “What is that?” It was the very first one. We had no idea that people even liked this kind of stuff; we were just making stuff up. This time around we’re not so nervous and putting it together last minute and throwing people in and saying, “Do something!”
KT: It’s kind of like we set the framework last time and this time we actually get to fill it in and color it. Because the limited time we had then and we had to put things away. As one of our professors says, “It’s never finished, but it’s done.” So, like at that time it’s done but it’s never finished. It’s always growing. That’s constantly with our work, even with Galatea.
JC: Exactly, because even if we have the same people, we are at different parts in our lives. We have the story, and we say, “Oh, what about this part of the story? Let’s examine it further.”
KT: It means different things at different times.
JC: Like last night, this whole play section we did there’s a part where civilization starts getting created and everybody is living in perfect harmony for a moment and it turned into a…
KT: …dance circle.
JC: Yeah, it turned into this awesome improv dance circle kind of thing; it felt so authentic and fun. And that’s not something that would have happened in the original one. That was just something that happened because of the people we had and what we’ve learned as a company in terms of like: let’s just let stuff happen.
KT: The very visceral experiences, they’re not the same, every night they will be different. That’s the fun of it.
Each of your shows is based on a material theme (paint, elastics, sand, paper) and a myth (Greek, Latin, or Russian folktales). How do myth and material synchronize in this show?
KT: I think myths are so ubiquitous because at the heart of them they each have one key little thing that they are each saying. So, I don’t even think they are about the myth at the end of the day. I think it is just us kind of us asking what’s that little thing that’s universal with humanity that everybody goes, “Oh, I understand that. I don’t know what that is but I get it.”
JC: That’s very true. With all of our shows there’s a nugget within the myth that we say, “Let’s explore that.” With Galatea it was that moment when he creates the perfect girl. We wanted to look into that moment and ask, “What does the perfect girl think about that, how does she feel?” So with Prism we use flashlights, mirrors, and paint. The nugget of the myth is…it’s a basic creation myth, so we are hoping that it’s a myth that kind of feels similar amongst everything. It’s that whole idea of everything starts in darkness, and then light is made, and then the first two of something is made, and from there everything is populated.
So, more of a universal myth as opposed to tied to something specific?
KT: I hesitate putting something definite on it, because at the end of the day we are taking something and making it, or that’s the hope.
JC: We would rather not beat-by-beat do a story of, say, Pygmalion [the fictional character], but instead our own story that’s a jumping-off point from that place.
KT: I think our focus is more on the audience experience and thinking about what kind of journey we are taking them on. That’s what theater is.
PrismCo was founded on your love of movement and desire for a different kind of theater. Both of you have been educated in, trained at, and are still involved in conventional theater environments. How do you see your kind of theatrical expression fitting in to those conventional environments?
KT: It’s so funny, I was talking to somebody yesterday about this. The last year of SMU we do Shakespeare; that’s our focus.
Talk about conventional.
KT: But it felt the most natural to me, because Shakespeare is very body-oriented and it’s so physical. It’s very interesting doing physical work in something like Shakespeare. And you [to Jeffrey] just did Shakespeare in the Bar.
JC: I would say that my work at Prism has really helped me. With Shakespeare in the Bar we have zero preparation, and we show up to this place, and we’re basically like rock stars; it’s really cool. A lot of the times you come in not knowing who your character is or your lines, so you discover who it is on the way. My PrismCo work has allowed me to be able to figure out character as I’m doing character. In terms of conventional theater though, my work as a fight choreographer; it’s very useful there. Even in writing written plays, doing these plays helps me understand structure so much better so that when I write a written play I know what the structure needs to be and that instead of movement there need to be words being expressed.
KT: It’s interesting too because I always feel there is dialogue behind the movement. In my head when I’m doing stuff it’s like, “Oh, I’m going to this person I love.” It always has an action or a line, whatever that conventional thing is behind it.
JC: Actually, that’s one of our training things with our new coming actors. We have them monologue out exactly what they are doing with their words and then we take away those words and usually it gives their movements purpose.
KT: It just helps their body figure out what it’s doing.
So, you don’t see what you are doing as at odds with conventional theater?
KT: Not at all. I think it is actually great training because a lot of actors I see today aren’t in their bodies and aren’t very attuned and I think it is a disadvantage. Not that you have to be movement oriented. Like Mike Daisey is in tune with his body.
JC: Yeah, you gotta know what you got. I also think it’s kind of funny they consider us experimental theater, because I think where we are coming from is not that experimental. It’s just story based. Also, if you just hop across the border you’ll pretty much see a lot of stuff we are doing, at least the basis of what we are doing. We would be considered conventional everywhere else.
KT: Or boring.
JC: [laughing] I hope not boring.
So, choosing Jackson Pollock as an inspiration not just for his style of painting but for his anti-figurative and rebellious movement away from easel painting and conventionality while incorporating physicality is probably apt for your show. Talk a bit about Pollock. Was it just his splatter technique or do you feel there is a sort of ethos involved in his type of expression that speaks to you?
JC: To be completely honest, we invoked the name of Jackson Pollock to try to make people familiar with what we are doing. He wasn’t really the direct inspiration. Oddly enough, it was a project with [choreographer] Shen Wei. He did this show with paint at SMU and I was in it, and it was about dancers dancing with paint. I saw it and was like, “Well why don’t we do something else like that?”
So, Jackson Pollock was just a way of providing a signal for audiences to understand?
JC: Exactly, we really want them to understand that this is unconventional. We aren’t just sitting there and painting, we are dumping ourselves in paint and going for it. And, what is the result after fighting is the painting. The painting is a recording of the entire war.
One of the great powers of theater is its immediacy and its temporary existence at a particular performance at a particular time and place for a particular audience. So talk about how Prism the play will result in permanent works of art of the show, which seems to transcend that immediacy of a particular show where you are going to have a record of that show in a form of art itself.
JC: As permanent as an art gallery can be. Well, there is definitely going to be a record of a lot that permanent stuff because we are going to be hanging each of these paintings up at the end of the show. The whole show as far as the audience experience goes will evolve. The gallery is going to be different every single night. By the end of the show we will have ten giant paintings hanging. Everyone will be able to see those paintings, the records of the previous shows.
KT: It will be interesting for people especially once they have seen it and they see what different colors go with different things. I think putting two of them together and seeing how two different nights sort of complete each other. Edward Albee says something like, “It doesn’t have to happen the same way but it has to reach the same point.” We reach the end of the play but every night it could happen just a little bit different.
And they build on each other too, right? They accumulate.
JC: I would suggest to an audience member to try and come see our first shows and then try to come and see our last shows, and just see and what evolves.
Talk a little bit about performing in an arts space. If people were really going to accuse you of being unconventional they might say things like, “Well it’s not narrative based, it’s just movement based, and they are performing in an arts space, not a theater.”
KT: I say, “Sit back and take in what you take in, and then try to think of the experience.” I think that people who will try to put that label on it are coming in and looking for something. Just sit down and take it for what it is.
JC: I think what our work really tries to play on is human beings and audience members and their natural ability and need to put things together and make it make sense for them, to make the narrative for themselves. We have our own personal narrative, but I think the absence of words sometimes allows people to do that; it gives them that freedom. In this show we actually do talk but we speak a language that is entirely made up. With those made up words it’s like watching a foreign language film without subtitles; it’s fun. You will try to put together a narrative based on body language and such.
So, in a way, you are responding to critics who may say that what you are doing is distancing yourself from audiences is that, in fact, what you are doing is opening things up because you’re are allowing them to interpret for themselves and leaving it open-ended.
You are not directing them with words that have certain meanings, or a structure that has a particular meaning.
JC: Written words are great. We are not stomping on those guys either. We think they are awesome. We like to offer something where you don’t have to come in and be told exactly what to think.
KT: I think when there are not words it’s easier for the person to put themselves in, which is a natural tendency of what humans do.
JC: It’s the blank slate idea. It’s the neutral mask. It’s why Keanu Reeves is probably the best action hero because he is a total neutral mask; it’s why we love him in the Matrix. He’s perfect for the Matrix because we put ourselves into Keanu Reeves because he doesn’t act. He’s total blank face. We transport ourselves into Keanu and we experience being the most ultimate person ever as Keanu because he isn’t giving us too much character to work with.
KT: So, he’s so bad at acting that he’s actually good?
JC: That’s what I’m saying; it’s so true.
If only it were intentional.
JC: So, same idea here. We are offering our audiences a blank slate so that they can put themselves in there.
It makes it even more inclusive and collaborative then.
KT: It’s different for each person. The first time we did this show somebody thought it was a creation story, somebody thought it was something else.
JC: We actually had some wild theories about it.
KT: I think there was a resurrection story somebody told us.
JC: Once again, it has the opportunity to hit people in different ways because we haven’t told them, “This is what it is, accept it!”
KT: The best way to come into it is just looking at it as an immersive art experience.