Dallas — If you’ve attended any shows at the Ice House in Trinity Groves, you know not to expect the conventional form of performance. In fact, using that term “performance” already sets it apart from 98 percent of what you see advertised through traditional outlets. In a cultural climate that favors Broadway musicals, traditional storytelling devices, and (dare I say) logic, Acoustic Nerves offers a wildly sensorial experience unlike anything else happening in our city. Dean Terry, a professor in Emerging Media at the University of Texas at Dallas, has developed this cross-disciplinary performance over a number of years. As a whole event, Acoustic Nerves includes musical and hybrid performance acts. The last section of the evening includes “Therefore,” a piece that Terry has developed in close collaboration with the three performance artists. “Therefore”—which also the name of the group presenting this work—is a combination of music/sound, performance, and real-time video art. All of these mediums merge together to form distorted layers of meaning, which may appear utterly incomprehensible at first.
“Therefore” is a somewhat ironic title as Terry experiments with the illogical, “…the basic philosophy is about celebrating irrationality, coming out of the Dadaist tradition and all the movements that came after that. Basically, all of my studies in philosophy led me to the idea that rationality is not the answer to all of life’s questions.” In a conventional theatrical experience, narrative and intellectual comprehension of the actor’s work is paramount. We want to understand what they are saying, why they are saying it, and wrap it up into a nice bow before we move on with our lives. So, what do you do with a work of performance that heightens dissonance or opens multiple interpretations? What do you do with a work of art that you can’t summarize with language? How do you respond to it?
I spoke with Terry and the three performers (Hilly Holsonback, Hannah Weir, and Abel Flores) to peel back some of the mystery in this hybrid performance. They have been working since February at UT Dallas, exploring live feed video, cell phone camera technology, and building the performance frames. There’s no “script,” referring to printed words that each character speaks in order that guides the performance. This concept may cause some minds to either explode (the chaos!) or belittle this kind of work, suggesting that it lacks discipline. A series of words on a page spoken in sequence does not make a piece of theatrical art. “Therefore” is set up in “frames,” or situations in sequence with specific parameters. Terry says, “Inside the frames, there’s a huge amount of improvisation. Like the entire script that they got was on a Post-it note. Three words. Otherwise that’s it.” But, remove the comedic, Whose Line-concept of improv from your brain. Think of it more as generating content in the moment.
The quartet spent months simply experimenting with situations and technology, engaging in a long process of simply trying out things. Flores says, “Most of what you see in the performance is actually accidents, mistakes, things where we were like ‘Was that supposed to do that?’ And it’s really not, but we found a way to capture that. And sustain it through a whole piece.”
Terry was drawn to these three performers because of their previous work with Thomas Riccio’s Dead White Zombies, where actors must abandon themselves in immersive, non-narrative performances. Terry notes that these performers are wildly creative and bold, possibly more so in collaboration with each other than apart. The group has grown very close through their time of experimenting and responding to each other in a dark room for hours. The collaborative team did not simply explore randomly. Terry created a list of frames, or loose situations/contexts for the performers to begin playing out. Weir says, “Dean [had] a skeleton of pieces that he wanted us to flesh out as performers. It was basically like a spreadsheet with different sections and each rehearsal we would try one or two and eventually we decided the set framework.” These frames relate to Artificial Intelligence, primarily with the question of “If an AI could feel pleasure, what forms would that be?” For this piece, the illogic is the source of pleasure.
The cross-disciplinary nature of this piece may not seem unusual in the theater. We use sound, we use lights, we even use projections…but usually in a way to accent a story. You hear the sound of a car passing so that you imagine that it’s happening, or a projection shows talking heads from a fake news report to accent what’s happening to the main character. In “Therefore,” the use of sound and video are literal re-presentations of the performers. On top of that, these mediums affect the performers as well—cuing them when to react or move. In a way, the media platforms and performers become an endless loop of energy, energizing the space and then acting in response. Terry is after a disorienting complex of senses—not simply using tech as decorative elements to support the narrative. “So we don’t do anything decorative, everything means something, comes from somewhere, and creates an overall impression.”
In “Therefore,” everything is processed. The actor’s bodies are captured on live video and projected on a screen—mostly through grainy cell phone cameras. Also, the voices of the performers are manipulated, not simply through microphones but other complex systems. At one point, Holsonback’s microphone is connected to the device displaying the video projections. But it’s not showing a video or her face or what her microphone sees, it’s showing what it hears. Every time her microphone picks up noise, ERRORS appear on the screen. Reacting to that, Weir and Flores improvise what these errors could mean. Many elements get translated over and over again in this work. Words to gestures to concepts, everything turns over and mutates into alternate re-presentations of itself.
Terry describes this version of “Therefore” as a Beta test, to see if these ideas have any legs. As with many collectively created pieces, these artists had to put the breaks on inventing new frames as the original performance date drew closer. Terry notes that one of their mantras later in the process was “stop inventing shit.” From their 40 to 50 experiments, they chose the most successful frames and created a full structure, carefully working on the overall flow and transitions.
Acoustic Nerves performed at the Ice House in May, but they were removed from the building during their second performance by the Dallas Fire Marshal. The string of evictions from spaces during performances is a circulating story right now, and many companies have found alternate solutions. Unfortunately for Terry and the performers, they spent many countless weeks customizing this space and crafting it into a unique performance environment. Other rooms in the building contained art installations and the group had built a stage for the performers. This kind of work also includes intricate cabling and routing systems for the live feed video, musical instruments, and overall visual aesthetic. They simply can’t transplant this event to a new location within a few hours. This performance was built for that particular space (with a grant from the city). Now, they are performing again for one night only at The Texas Theatre on June 10, a compromise that excites the team—with a hint of rage. Terry aims to still include the audience interactive elements, but it will certainly have a different atmosphere than the warehouse.
The combination of the initial strong collaboration and the solidarity after getting removed from their first space has only fueled the flames in each of these artists. At first, they believed that this was a one-time event, but now they are starting to dream up future performances, without limits on where. Even though they have met a few roadblocks in the process, it seems very certain that they will keep evolving and blending performance with emerging technology.
» Acoustic Nerves is performed at 8 p.m. June 10 at the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. In her Work in Progress column, she'll have conversations with playwrights, theatermakers, directors, designers, dramaturgs and others involved in the process of realizing new work from page to stage as she explores new plays and musicals being developed/created by theaters of all budget sizes in North Texas.
NEW WORK CURRENTLY ON LOCAL STAGES
- Kitchen Dog Theater's New Works Festival, featuring the National New Play Network Rolling World Premieres of Steve Yockey's Blackberry Winter and The Thrush and the Woodpecker, which will run in repertory, plus readings of new plays and PUP Fest with Junior Players, at Undermain Theatre, through June 25 OUR REVIEW OF BLACKBERRY WINTER | OUR LISTING FOR THE STAGED READINGS
- Rover Dramawerks in Plano presents the world premiere of Larry Herold's Crisis, through June 18 OUR LISTING
- The third annual Dallas Solo Fest, which features several premieres, presented by Audacity Theatre Lab at the Margo Jones Theatre, June 2-12 OUR SPECIAL SECTION (with schedule, interviews, reviews and more)
- DVA Productions in Fort Worth premieres Jordan Cooper's Masked at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center's Sanders Theatre, June 10-19 OUR LISTING
SELECT UPCOMING NEW WORK
- House of Bard's, a Shakespeare political mashup from Fun House Theatre & Film at Plano Children's Theatre, June 16-20 OUR LISTING
- Undermain Theatre does a staged reading of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (and Dallas resident) D.L. Coburn's new play The House of Clay at the Meadows Museum at SMU, on June 25
- Theatre Arlington participates in the American Association of Community Theatres' NewPlayFest and has the world premiere of Anthony DeLauder's Gracefully Ending, July 1-17 OUR LISTING
- The Festival of Independent Theatres, featuring several premieres, July 8-30 at the Bath House Cultural Center, Dallas OUR ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE LINEUP
- The Distant Echo of Ancient Youth, a new work from Johnny Simons at Hip Pocket Theatre, Fort Worth, July 8-31 OUR ANNOUNCEMENT OF HIP POCKET'S 40TH SEASON
- The Incident, a new work from The Drama Club, opens July 16; info TBA
- Don Quixote, a new visual theater adaptation by Lake Simons and John Dyer at Hip Pocket Theatre, Fort Worth, Aug. 12-Sept. 4 OUR LISTING
PREVIOUS WORK IN PROGRESS COLUMNS
- Len Jenkin's Jonah at Undermain Theatre (April 15, 2016)
- David Lozano and Lee Trull's Deferred Action in a co-production between Dallas Theater Center and Cara Mía Theatre Company (April 28, 2016)
- Janielle Kastner's Ophelia Underwater, presented by The Tribe at Margo Jones Theatre (May 11, 2016)
- Caridad Svich's De Troya, a developmental reading presented by Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth (May 13, 2016)
- Steve Yockey's Blackberry Winter and The Thrush and the Woodpecker in Kitchen Dog Theater's 18th New Works Festival at Undermain Theatre (May 18, 2016)
- Stefany Cambra's Finding Myself in Bed from Proper Hijinx (June 1, 2016)