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The Builders Association and dbox, SUPER VISION: full text for David Pence, SUPER VISION interview

NYC, 3 December 2005.

Nick Kaye: What was your involvement in the development of SUPER VISION?

David Pence: I came into SUPER VISION part way through the process this past summer (2005), when I came to New York to be part of the two script development workshops. Actually I suppose my involvement started the summer before—in 2004. I was in South Bend, Indiana, working with Marianne Weems, Moe Angelos, and Jessica Chalmers on a Builders’ piece called AVANTI (2003-5). During rehearsal one day, Marianne said, ‘I have this piece of text. Would you be willing to read it? We’re going to use it as a trailer for SUPER VISION, the next piece.’ So I read two pages of text as a monologue, and Dan Dobson recorded it. It’s an interesting recording to listen to now, especially to see some of the ways the piece changed. In that original monologue a man tells about how he died in a car crash and how his wife found his laptop, which was full of secrets. Some of those elements of the Fletcher narrative remain in the piece to the present day. Anyway, that was the beginning of my involvement with the project.

Nick Kaye: What was the process of script development?

David Pence: When I joined the process there was a first draft, and we read through it. Kyle deCamp and I had worked together on The Builders’ first large-scale performance piece, MASTER BUILDER, back in 1994. We’d had a nice chemistry then, so when I saw her across the table in 2005 I was really pleased. I admired certain things about her as a performer—her fluidity and her connectedness, for example—and I knew she was a good improviser. We would read through a scene with Marianne Weems and James Gibbs and Constance De Jong and Dan Dobson and talk about what the scene was and what we wanted it to be. Then Dan Dobson turned on a recorder, and Kyle deCamp and I improvised versions of a scene—say, Carol interrupting John Sr. at the computer. It was great—lots of stuff started to happen in terms of the relationship between the husband and wife, and odd, interesting lines that are still in the show are derived from those improvisations. For instance, ‘I am spending a lot of time with him in my mind’ is something I said in one of them. The momentary confusion about the sound of the phrase ‘this and that’ and the sound of the word ‘snap’ happened in one of those sessions. So it was a really rich path for us. Then Constance De Jong was able to use those recordings to weave some of that stuff back into the actual script.

This is very much in keeping with the way The Builders often work. Improvisation is valued across the board. The designers and technicians improvise so much at the beginning of the process. For instance, Dan Dobson is making new sound each day and trying it in rehearsals—which is similar to an actor’s process.

Nick Kaye: To what extent were you working with the technology in rehearsal?

David Pence: We worked with the technology from day one—even before then, given that James Gibbs, Peter Flaherty and Dan Dobson were important contributors to the script workshops. And this is emblematic of the way Builders’ members think about projects and making work, which is that even at that early stage—when there are just words on paper—we are already starting to unify the ideas of the director, the designers, the live performers, and the playwright. The group is already talking to each other about the ways information will be transmitted. That’s the context for talking about plot, character development, imagery . . . because all of it will involve media in some way. For example, at the most basic level, we know from the start that every word of the script will be delivered through a microphone. So everyone works on exactly how we shape the text, the physical performance, the visuals, the cameras, the sound. For me, that’s really exhilarating. It’s the only way I have worked for the past fifteen years.

Nick Kaye: Do you find that you are rethinking or extending the concept of your character and performance into the media itself? Or do you find that your practice is still separate from it?

David Pence: That is a really interesting question. I hold onto and employ almost all of the same techniques that I learned in acting school about building a character—that is always home base for me. There will be times during the process of working on a Builders’ piece when I start to feel unmoored because of the technology. So much time in rehearsal is spent talking about some aspect of video shooting or transmission, about the difference between this angle and that angle of my face with the camera. Then I need to remember the human material that is underlying the whole performance. I don’t know what the best metaphor for this is, but the one that comes into my mind has to do with temperature. For me, there is perhaps a potential for too much chilliness in the performance, because of all the machinery and mediation. I’m more interested, as an audience member and certainly as a performer, if the chill is reduced somewhat. For me the work that I do on a character—the fundamental work—is where whatever warmth that ends up in the performance is going to come from. So I find very simple ways, hopefully, to go back and refuel—to get the balance right again.

In this piece, probably more than half the time I’m being shot live by a camera, and these live images carry a great deal of power. There are some quite dramatic close ups. So much so that I have to think in terms of moderating my performance—in other words, doing less. Anyway, during let’s say 60 or 65% of my time onstage I can move very little. My whole performance is right here—the camera in close on my face—and for me it is a really interesting challenge to keep the character activated and flowing and yet be expressed through a range of what might be an inch and a half of head movement. Yet it’s interesting also that there are moments when I break away from the camera and can use my whole body. In other words, it’s not only film, and it’s not only theatre. It’s a hybrid.

When I first came in contact with the John Fletcher Sr. character, I immediately connected to him and felt that I understood him completely—and ‘evil’ was not the first word that came into my mind. Of course, I do understand the evil inflections people see in the character. But I felt that I knew how to play him in a way that would have those very dark tones as well as other qualities that people would recognise in themselves.

Kyle deCamp and I—in working on the Fletchers’ relationship, and with the projection of the boy—talked a lot in the beginning about how there were few opportunities for her and me to touch each other. There is an incidental moment in the first scene when we’re standing stage left and the boy John Fletcher Jr. comes up in the kitchen window and interrupts us and says he’s bored, and she turns around to speak to him. Then I cross behind her to speak to him, and I just touch her shoulder. We talked quite a bit about the importance of a moment like that, because we didn’t want John and Carol—however fucked up their marriage may be—we didn’t want them to be cold and sexless. That would be too easy, and not as interesting for us as performers. We wanted to make a suggestion to the audience—if anybody chose to notice and think about such a small nuance—that what’s missing in the family is something else.

Another provocative discovery for me was the idea that the son, John Fletcher Jr., is unreachable. He is embedded in the dbox imagery behind me, so I can reach out through space, but I can’t get to him. So there is a kind of longing that is almost sensual, because I am poised between things that I cannot touch in this weird, confusing space of my own creation. Finally, after I realise that I have to leave and get to some empty place where I can be at peace, again I find myself alone in a kind of physical limbo. And again I have an impulse to reach out and guide that boy—but still I can’t get to him.

I find the content of these two relationships very provocative. I think being a father myself helped me find the vein of this character and home in on a couple of core issues or impulses in him, namely protection and privacy. I believe John Fletcher Sr. acts out of a profound desire to protect his son. And part of that protection—ironically enough, given what he’s doing to the boy’s virtual identity—is keeping John Jr. away from his father.

Nick Kaye: Yours seems to me a very musical performance, in a way that complements Dan Dobson’s development of the sound score. A very important part of your performance seems to be the musical aspect of your tone of voice. What you are talking about, the humanising, or warmer aspects of the performance, comes across to me very strongly in your tone of voice.

David Pence: Thank you, I appreciate that. I think, as you mentioned, Dan Dobson’s role is obviously crucial, but I would say also that in terms of The Builders Association’s work, it is very important that Marianne Weems is a musician. She is a viola player, and more importantly her sensibility is musical. Even in my earliest memories of Marianne and me working together, which stretches back to 1989, I can remember her using the word score to talk about the progress of my performance over the course of a scene or over the course of a piece. ‘Figuring out your score.’ So since that time it has always been part of our vocabulary and my way of thinking. I’m a sometime musician with a decent ear—in any case, I’m tuned into sound. I think of my voice as one of my most important tools in this work. I craft my vocal performance pretty tightly, and at the same time I try to stay available in the moment for something new that might happen.

I don’t know if other performers have talked about this, but I feel a very intimate onstage relationship with Dan Dobson. As the group has gotten more sophisticated about technology, the tools have changed. We used corded microphones at the beginning, then cordless microphones. Now each of us performs with a tiny microphone on a stem attached to his ear. I feel Dan right here, almost at my lips—he’s right inside the tip of that microphone. That’s partly a manifestation of the technology, but it’s also specific to the way Dan works. He isn’t merely an operator up there in the dark behind the audience—he really feels like a performer to me, and there is continual give and take between us. I can’t see him from the stage, but I feel him reacting to me. I can hear my voice grow a little more present. I can sometimes feel him pulling me back a little. It’s very sensual. He is playing me, and I am reacting to him.

There are a couple of very nice moments in the show—musical moments—whose power comes from a musical effect or a marriage of music and text. For instance, in the climax of the Fletcher narrative, when I realise that my wife Kyle deCamp knows what I’m doing online, I am on the phone, and I turn and see her in the room, and I abort the call. Physically, I am standing at that point, and I’m not on camera. Then I sit on the stool in front of the computer and camera—I slide into the frame—and the video image comes up, and I turn my head to look across the stage at Carol and say, ‘She knows.’ Now, there are layers to the musical score that Dan created. There is one particular loop or musical phrase running underneath this part of the scene, and on a good night I’m able to time ‘She knows’ to land right on the four beat, because Dan has a wailing guitar note that he wants to place exactly on the one beat that follows. So that is one specific instance of him and me communicating musically in terms of timing and feel. Executing a series of moments like that with sound, live performance, and video is unbelievably gratifying. Passages like that are the reason I rarely work with anybody except The Builders. For me the way we try to wed ourselves as artists to the technology is really where the magic is.

Nick Kaye: So the video provides a frame within which you are dealing with these rhythmical structures?

David Pence: Yes, and it’s sometimes a frustrating mix of the mundane and profound. The mundaneness is the physical situation of my body and the stool, the table and the camera. Ideally, I pre-set the frame correctly for these scenes. The worst-case scenario is that I have to make a physical adjustment of the camera. Tanya Selvaratnam and Moe Angelos are free to reframe their images, because their cameras are part of their narrative. But only in a worst-case scenario will I touch the camera. Joe Silovsky is in the same boat as me. What I can do is re-orient myself on the stool in order to improve the frame. When things are going well, I have nailed the framing in the preset between scenes. Then my body can be as relaxed as I can let it be. I can almost forget the frame. My muscles know so well now just how much or how little I can move. Then I really can engage all the musicality and textures and rhythms—even the visual rhythms, a little bit of back and forth and big and small.

Nick Kaye: This is very different from Tanya Selvaratnam or Moe Angelos’s experience, where they are watching themselves on the screen as part of the performance.

David Pence: Absolutely. I made an important discovery for John Fletcher Sr. related to this. One of the first questions I always ask as an actor is, ‘Who am I talking to?’ Since the beginning, really, the question of who I am talking to in the John Fletcher Sr. monologues has been a challenge. Some lines indicate that I’m talking to my not-present son. Sometimes I seem to be talking to myself. Because in part the text is about alternate realities—looking through reality—it seems a little cloudier than usual for me as a performer. A number of people, Marianne Weems included, had the feeling, as time went on, that certain patches of my monologues seemed artificial or out of focus. They sounded written. Then I had a little epiphany, and in a way it’s oddly similar to the natural situation that Tanya Selvaratnam and Moe Angelos find themselves in. I thought to myself, what if I’m actually making a video log? I tried it the next day—we were out in Seattle, about the 11th or 12th performance of the piece—and suddenly all that written-ness went away. So that idea helps me find the tone I need.

Nick Kaye: It makes a lot of sense, because so much of what you are doing is about a rewriting of events in order to justify what you have done. Again, it is a very intimate, inner story.

David Pence: There is a play between past and future, and an ambiguous present reality. Part of it is just being in front of a computer screen. I work also as a writer and editor spending a lot of time at a computer screen, and the way you experience time in a closed office, in front of a computer . . . the real objects around you recede frontward and backward. This distortion of your physical reality, or your perceptions of it, I find very provocative. I’m given a lot of help in this regard by the way that the story begins to take form visually around me.

Nick Kaye: Dan Dobson talked about the presence of the birds. The scene in the north when the birds are finally seen, however distant, is very powerful. You seem to go to the north to escape, but also to be in a ‘real’ place. The appearance of the flock of birds in the distance, then coming closer, relates visually to the dbox imagery of the data breaking up and coming back. So there is something there about an overlapping of imagery and references about all the webs—the web of virtual imagery, the web environment, the data environment in which everybody in the show is somehow being constituted. Then you find—in this beautiful simulation of a natural environment, in the visual score—that they are just there. There are all those implicit references, but then it is not really resolved. The birds appear, and then they are gone. There is some kind of equation the piece is making—in the way it’s told as well—between this virtual landscape and the natural.

David Pence: I’m fascinated that he talked about the birds. They seem to be there in one form or another in all of the important moments of our narrative. Carol and I talk about birds in the first scene. Then there’s that beautiful passage with John Fletcher Jr. and Carol calling, ‘I’m here, I’m here.’ From my character’s point of view, Carol has a very important speech in the first scene in which she talks about ‘the dread.’ It’s a scene in which essentially I’m trying to get her to leave the house and go to the park so I can get back on the web. I am urging her out the door, and she has this speech about the dread. Even though I need to turn away from her to the computer, I made a choice as an actor to really listen to that speech and really take it in, because I allude to the dread after I go north. In the Arctic landscape, I see birds through the binoculars, and I remember Johnny and apologise to him. I use myself as a model for him, saying ‘You will find a new way, just like me—like your warblers. They get the signal and they go.’ The dread. So that extraordinary moment of regret and guidance is delivered through the imagery of the birds.

Nick Kaye: Do you feel your presence as a performer in the technology? Or do you feel separate from it?

David Pence: I think I’m aware of both almost continuously. I am aware of myself as a physical human being in the way any actor in a show feels himself on the stage: light on my skin, a lot of people out there, another actor to look at or talk to—maybe. Those are really the tactile realities that are just about being alive onstage. But also, I feel that I am inside that technology and being delivered through that technology. And this is a sensation I don’t want to lose, because I treasure it. I feel—and again I sort of personalise it—I feel safe, as if Marianne is presenting me. It’s like I’m part of a beautiful machine.


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