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NYC, 2 December 2005.
Nick Kaye: At what point did you join SUPER VISION?
Tanya Selvaratnam: At the beginning, because I was working on ALLADEEN and Marianne Weems and I are also old friends. So when she started developing the substance of her ideas she talked to me about working with her on it. When we did the first workshop at the Wexner Centre (July 2004). At the beginning the only (actors were myself, Jeff Webster and Joe Silovsky), who plays the border control agent. He is our technical director as well – we brought him into the workshop process and that is where his role evolved.
Nick Kaye: This is before the script had been developed?
Tanya Selvaratnam: Yes.
Nick Kaye: What was the relationship between this process and the creation of the media environment?
Tanya Selvaratnam: The technical people are in the same room with us - Marianne Weems and James Gibbs from dbox. We also had two writers working with us at that time – Jed Weintrob and Andrew Osborne. So we used the technology as a starting point - and we also used the news. We had articles that we would read – and we would try and recreate scenes inspired by those news items.
Nick Kaye: Did some of those come through in the final form of the piece?
Tanya Selvaratnam: All of those definitely informed the stories now.
Nick Kaye: How did the relationship between the performers and the virtual environment develop in rehearsal?
Tanya Selvaratnam: When we are at the workshop stage there is a lot of improvisation - I would say 80% improvisation - so you have technical people, the video and sound technicians, improvising with us. Things would get projected onto the screen spontaneously while we were performing - and that is where a lot of the visuals evolved, in this live improvisation with the technology.
Nick Kaye: Does that include your own mediation into the performance as Jen?
Tanya Selvaratnam: Our ideas are all in the same incubator – so yes, but to a limited degree because I am not operating the controls. These are people I have worked with for a long time so it is almost hard to know where the idea begins and where it ends, but the power of the technology really rests with the technicians. If anything the technology controls me more.
Nick Kaye: In what way?
Tanya Selvaratnam: Well, because I am not free to move. I am only free to move so much as the technology frames me. One of the biggest nuisances I have every night is dealing with the video camera – I mean I have been dealing with video cameras for ten years, but my back is to the audience and my whole performance is just what they can see of my face in that camera. It is not natural, really.
Nick Kaye: Do you see the mediation of yourself?
Tanya Selvaratnam: Oh yeah! I have to be able to.
Nick Kaye: How does it affect your working with the other performers?
Tanya Selvaratnam: Well, I am not working with any other performers. It is a challenge, because I am working with Moe Angelos’s projection as my grandmother, but she and I have such a great rapport. It feels more self-created than other performances that I have done. You feel very alone up there. When you have an established rapport with your fellow performer you can expand more. You have that building block.
Tanya Selvaratnam: The other most recent show I did was House/Lights with the Wooster Group. I don’t know if you saw that - there I was with six wild performers on stage. This is a more lonely experience. But it’s fine, I am not saying that one is better than the other; it’s a very different experience as a performer.
Nick Kaye: Working within the set itself, where the projections create the scene, are you able to get a sense of the whole of that space?
Tanya Selvaratnam: No, not at all. Moe can look up to the stage, but I can’t look down. It’s funny - when I am running lines with her and looking at her it is a completely different experience. It is almost better for me not to do that because you act with somebody differently when you can see their eyes.
Nick Kaye: Is the video mixed live in performance?
Tanya Selvaratnam: No. Things get very set, especially by the time we have got up to BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music, November 2005) – there is very little that we can improvise because we are all cuing off each other. There is too much room for error and we have had that happen too. If a cue doesn’t happen, if a video cue or if one of the screens doesn’t close properly, as happened last night, it throws everyone off slightly. We are all very attuned to each other so we cover quickly. We are performing live, but our score is very set.
Tanya Selvaratnam: We are all cuing off each other, but the score is set – I don’t think that is particularly a Builders Association thing. I think the difference is the total immersion in a technological landscape. I think the thing Marianne Weems is better at than most people I have worked with is really creating a technological landscape that is coherent and relevant to the subject matter as opposed to just decoration.
Nick Kaye: I felt that was very powerful - that the subject matter came over in the way the stories were told, at least as much as in the stories themselves.
Tanya Selvaratnam: I do feel like the technology stands out more than the stories. It is a different approach to performing - you just know that you are not quite as prominent.
Nick Kaye: How does watching yourself in mediation affect your performance?
Tanya Selvaratnam: I am doubly aware because I am looking at myself to see how I look on camera - and I am also trying to be unconscious of myself. That for me is different from what I was doing with the Wooster Group – I was aware of other people doing – Kate Valk had to do that in House/Lights. She is looking at her screen to see how she is framed but also trying to act in the scene. I learnt a lot from watching her.
Nick Kaye: What specifically?
Tanya Selvaratnam: Just an ease – present - very grounded in the moment, very bare. Not worrying too much.
Nick Kaye: Do you think that focusing on yourself in that way in the performance heightens your sense of presence?
Tanya Selvaratnam: No, I think it actually diffuses my sense of presence, because I am not relating to the audience. I mean this show is surprisingly a more exhausting one for me to do. I switch gears so drastically between the prologue - where I am standing in front of hundreds of people talking directly to them without anything behind me - to not talking to any of them at all. Switching the energy like that is very exhausting for me.
Nick Kaye: For me, in watching SUPER VISION, there are times when there is a very strong sense of equivalence between projections and performers. At times the performers seem to be illuminated almost like video figures - when Rizwan Mirza, for example, performs behind the screen on which he is simultaneously projected. At other times, attention is drawn to your live performance of ‘Jen’ onscreen. So ‘presence’ is very much a part of the content of the performance for the audience. Yet these perceptions seem very different from your experience in performing.
Tanya Selvaratnam: Yes, I am aware of that. That is what keeps my performance going. I am aware that it’s part of the big picture. It takes a much lighter touch to do that, because it is more like film acting, which I have done as well. It is that bizarre light touch that you have to strike as a performer - if you go a little bit too far in one direction you look like you are overacting.
Nick Kaye: Especially in a live theatrical situation
Tanya Selvaratnam: Yes, because you have the energy of the crowd; you have the lights on you; you have that immediate gratification. It is hard not to want it.
Nick Kaye: When you are watching yourself onscreen in performance, do you see the screen as very other to yourself?
Tanya Selvaratnam: The thing that I find most interesting is that how I look in the video camera monitor is very different to how look on the TV screen - because I have the video camera, with its little monitor, and the TV screen - and I see a real difference. Sometimes, because the video camera monitor is much harsher than the full picture I get, I am amused by how different the two look. Like that isolated image of myself and then the image of myself with Moe on the screen, because I can see both. That is fun and more interesting, but I also have to be careful not to look at it too much because then I lose my sight lines.
Tanya Selvaratnam: When we were at the Wexner doing the very first workshop (July 2004) we looked into different sources of information - and so for example, we had a private investigator who came in. We looked at stories about identity theft and there was this web site – I can’t remember if it was James Gibbs or Marianne Weems who heard about it, but it was basically a marketing research web site – Claritas ™ – which I talk about in the prologue. So we did a lot of improvs that summer and one of the improvs for the workshop presentation was set up more like a game show. It was me calling people onto the stage – four audience members sat in chairs and I would do instantaneous searches on them to see how much information we could find by punching their zip code into Claritas ™. So that is where the prologue came from. I don’t know how you feel about the prologue, but the feedback is that the prologue actually scares people, which is good.
Nick Kaye: I think the prologue’s direct address to the audience is very important – partly because it acknowledges the reality of the theatrical mechanism. It also foregrounds the transformation of a particular kind of direct, explicitly theatrical storytelling structure, into a mediatized performance. It also highlights this contrast between your live and mediated performances. To me, throughout the performance, there’s an emphasis on your presence to the audience, and the prologue makes this explicit because you speak to us directly, before your performance is filtered through the technology. Then as the performance unfolds, we always see your mediation in the context of your live performance.
Tanya Selvaratnam: That’s a good way for me to think about it. It is very gratifying for me, I think, because I am Sri Lankan and we ended up using so much of my material. It does personalize the show for me in a sense, which probably facilitates my ability to be present. Moreover, it is really wonderful to see how Moe transforms herself. To me that is one of the most impressive things about the show when you see her in real life and see that she is a very American, white person – the way that she puts on that South Asian accent and the brown skin. I have had Sri Lankans in many stops see the show and think she was Sri Lankan. That to me is very exciting.
Nick Kaye: It is interesting that both yourself and Moe Angelos have talked about the ‘privacy’ of the performance, and yet from the audience point of view it is so much about your dispersal through that space – your transmission across the space. SUPER VISION seems to me quite musical in its structure. Are you aware in your performance of that musical aspect?
Tanya Selvaratnam: Very much so. I have been very lucky to work in sonically intense shows throughout my short career, but I think Dan Dobson is a genius. From the very beginning, even with the pre-show music, it totally sucks me into the mood I should be in because he has basically downloaded a bunch of hold messages and tones when people are waiting. Then I become very aware, once the prologue is finished and I am in silence, and it actually takes me a while to get out of that - because I feel so alone up there. But once I hear the family I become aware of this virtual world; the rhythm implies a kind of virtual world - an over saturated world. And because the rhythms between the three stories are so different I think that helps the seamlessness of the show. Without those rhythmic differences I think the show would feel flat. I am aware of what kind of rhythm I have to be in, because of the rhythm he has assigned - I mean, he determines how I move. I start pacing when he moves faster. It is an instinctive thing he does with how a scene should sound that affects the way I act.