The speaker is Thaddeus Phillips, of the highly original and experimental Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental, and he’s talking about the company’s latest creation, Zoo Motel, inspired by and geared for this time of COVID-19, when theaters around the country are exploring new ways of continuing their work and staying in touch with audiences. If you know anything about Phillips’s body of work, you’ll understand the apparent contradiction of the description “remote but live,” which covers an exploration of boundaries — imaginative, intellectual, visual, aural and, of course, specific to the COVID-19 crisis.
I first saw Phillips at Buntport Theater, his home when he performs in Denver, on a cold night in 2001, when he performed a one-man evening of Shakespeare: King Lear, translated into a golf game, and The Tempest, performed in a rubber kiddie pool. All of the characters except for Prospero and Lear himself were portrayed as objects: a high-heeled shoe for one of Lear’s two evil daughters, a flower for truth-telling Cordelia. Lately, Phillips has been experimenting with size, space, imagery and light, and all his work carries a sense of wonder and exploration. Phillips himself is a terrific performer: unpretentious, low-key and utterly riveting.
Zoo Motel features Phillips in an unnamed motel room. His viewers — on Zoom — are presumed to be in motel rooms of their own; sometimes these people interact with him. The run starts Wednesday, November 4, and ticket holders will be sent email packages containing the brochure for their motel and a key to be printed out; they'll also be asked to bring a pack of cards to the performance.
Other intriguing artists are working on the production, and Phillips's wife and longtime collaborator, Tatiana Mallarino, is directing. The motel-room set is created in collaboration with Obie-winning designer Steven Dufala. Steve Cuiffo, master of sleight of hand, taught Phillips magic tricks specific to the play over Skype.
The enterprise sounds both specific and ambiguous, and we had a lot of questions for Phillips.
Westword: Can you give me some background on the genesis of this show?
Thaddeus Phillips: I came late to the Zoom world, as all my work was canceled due to the pandemic — thus no need to Zoom, since there was nothing happening. However, in May, New York Theatre Workshop did a virtual studio visit — and while I was still thinking only of creating and performing in the normal way, two things struck me. One: I spent hours before the talk trying to frame the view of my studio in a dynamic and theatrical way. And two: Over 1,200 people watched the studio visit at some point. I also was playing with cards at the talk and wanted to dive deeper into the world of playing cards and play with theatrical possibilities. One night in my studio here in Colombia, I realized it looked like a motel room, and that if I could liberate the webcam and stage the play like a live film, a show could be made this way — as a live "movie," as it were. Thus Zoo Motel was born.
I understand you were in Madrid when the COVID crisis hit, and the play was in part inspired by your difficulties in getting home and a stay in Iceland.
I was directing a play at the Teatro de la Abadia in Madrid called Antropoceno or The Anthroposcene, which was nuts, as we had sequences about pandemics in the show and visions of the world in 2087. Then I went to Milan for a press conference for an upcoming tour of 17 Border Crossings there and got my temperature checked —which I thought was odd. Then the show in Madrid opened, I got stuck a bit in Iceland, the show in Milano got canceled, then the show in Madrid. I made it home. Then shows in New Jersey, Denver, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing all canceled. Like dominoes.... When making Zoo Motel, we used a bit of this domino feeling of a world shutting down to create the funnel to the small motel room space.
The culture of the U.S. can be pretty provincial, but travel and internationalism are major elements in your work. Can you comment on that?
I find New York City to be provincial, as they think they are in the center of the cultural scene in the USA, when in fact, places like Boston, Miami, Denver, Los Angeles are much more open to the world and especially new and experimental forms of theater. Thus I find the internationalism in my work only problematic and confusing for New York audiences and critics but fully embraced and understood everywhere else.
How does your particular approach to theater — your use of space and time, your collaboration with other artists, the fluidity of your imagination and the way you use transformation, not to mention strange and interesting factual tidbits — work when you’re forced into presenting theater and performance in a whole new way, virtually, through Zoom?
Once we figured out to use the framing of a movie and cinema, my approach to theater creation and space and time and collaboration perfectly adapted to this project, and it is as if we were all creating just as before. Also, I think the right word is “remote” and not “virtual,” as virtual is something simulated — thus if we were using fake computer-generated backgrounds, it would be virtual, but everything in Zoo Motel is real, 3-D, carefully curated and crafted, from magic paintings of phone booths to a real 1970s Olivetti Valentine typewriter, a 1920s phone on the wall, working clocks and lights. We have a real analog theatrical set that is shown to the spectators via a rotating camera and various tricks of classic cinema, top shots, etcetera — things I love to do in the theater via transformations, but here we do with the camera and transformations.
Even before I enter the door of my motel room, which is the Zoo Motel set, I feel nervous, just like I am about to go on stage, because, well, I am. I enter a space, our Zoo Motel room, and perform a live-theater movie. It is really weird, as it feels totally normal.
What are the drawbacks to this, and are there benefits?
Once we embraced this new form, there are zero drawbacks, as we are not trying to replace an existing work, but create one specifically for this medium. I feel not one downside. The benefits, however, are amazing. One: You can have dinner at your dining room table and then go up to do a show to spectators from around the world. Two: There is a wonderful global accessibility, where really anyone with an Internet connection can be a guest at the Zoo Motel. I think this type of remote theater will continue as an art form in its own right, even after we are back inside normal theaters. There are many possibilities.
Wang Chong, a director from China, wrote the “Online Theater Manifesto,” which states: “In this world, theater artists can start from scratch with just their bare hands. We can define all time and space; we can control all language and symbols; we can create all the currents and futures. In this world, it is easier for us to find the Dionysian spirit or the ‘immediate theater’ imagined by [famed director] Peter Brook.” This is true.
I’ve read reviews of Zoo Motel that talk about themes of human connection and isolation. Also, you seem to be trapped. Can you expatiate on this?
Don’t read reviews — they can lead you down false paths! We are all trapped on this Earth, and many reviewers have missed the obvious — that the Zoo Motel is Earth itself, and we are all here spinning around the sun together — an extraordinary coincidence, our existence. And we are all connected, in isolation or not, and actually, this is the main theme we are trying to convey.
Did threads and morsels from your past works creep into this one? Someone said the puppet fool from King Lear is in it. Why the puppet?
The puppet is from Lear, but he really is just there in the show. The why is a mystery...
How did the interactions with audience members work in different settings? Different towns and countries? Any strange responses? Funny ones? Things that pulled you up short? Thought-provoking comments?
The listening is interesting. While via Zoom, I am essentially not seeing anyone, since the camera always moves and I have one secret monitor I only see sometimes. Therefore I have to use all senses to really interact, which makes me very awake, alive and aware during the performances. On any given night, we have people from the host cities. First it was Miami, but also mixed in were people literally from everywhere, from New Zealand to Montreal to Singapore to Prague to London to Lisbon. It is really a global audience. So responses vary always from general wonder and appreciation of what we are doing or trying to do to, yes, some confusion — the show is quite odd and not linear; it was made as a result of a six-month lockdown during which all the problems we have known about seemed to be coming down on us at the exact same time — to sadness to joy. And there have been fantastic suggestions to try things. A banker from Philadelphia wrote us the most amazing analysis of the show and its layers that really helped us understand what the show was. She understood the work much better than some professional writers who stayed with us. After each show, we have a backstage tour and get a chance to show some of the techniques that are used and talk with people who stayed at the motel.
Do you have any sense of how your work is likely to change in the future due to the new realities?
I don’t think it will, other than that we now have a new way to perform remotely. So I imagine when we can tour again — we are supposed to take A Billion Nights on Earth and Inflatable Space to China next year — we will also do shows of Zoo Motel from this casa when not on tour. It is a crazy fun way to bring the world here directly.
Zoo Motel runs Thursdays through Saturdays, November 4 through December 19. For tickets, $19.95 to $24.99, and more information, go to the Zoo Motel website. .