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The Builders Association and dbox, SUPER VISION: full text for Allen Hahn, SUPER VISION interview

NYC, 5 December 2005.

Nick Kaye: There are two things that I am particularly focusing on. One is the process by which the work comes together and the other is SUPER VISION itself. So I want to start by asking you when and at what point you joined the evolution of the project?

Allen Hahn: Having worked with the company for a long time and having worked on the project immediately prior, I have been in this from - if not the earliest conversations then certainly the first conversations about the project within the company as a whole. The first time I remember speaking about it specifically was in Norway in the Spring of 2004 talking about my involvement in the first of the workshops in Columbus (The Wexner Centre, Columbus, Ohio) that summer (2004).

Nick Kaye: What is the nature of that involvement?

Allen Hahn: Because this work is created over such a protracted period of time, and because of the necessity that everyone is in the room from day one with the technology that has been decided upon - or the technology that is being considered - and that all of the elements, visual, textual, directorial and performantive, are being grown in tandem with one another it’s difficult for a designer of Jennifer Tipton’s stature to commit that kind of time. So, historically, it has been me that gets us to that point where she can do a more typical process of teching the show in a week or so. Jennifer will arrange to be at some of the critical meetings while the show is in development andthere is communication back and forth on all levels between Jennifer and I, between Marianne Weems and Jennifer. I am in rehearsal with the rest of the company throughout. So it is a much more web-like structure than a more traditional hierarchical structure.

Nick Kaye: So how did the design work you were involved in evolve in relation to the work that James Gibbs and Stewart Laing were doing?

Allen Hahn: The initial workshop in Columbus Ohio concerned itself with working out story ideas, but again the work is created with everyone involved from the beginning and so in the processes of doing that we also established some basic parameters of how the scenery and the space could work. So going in we had a very few ground rules – that we would have a screen here and a blue screen there and I figured out a lighting plot that would work for that initial set up and just as we established what we were doing each day we would turn things on. Change them round – record them - and I guess then, based on that, there were further discussions - not in a workshop situation - between Marianne Weems and Stewart Laing and Neal Wilkinson, our production manger, about how what we had discovered in that workshop would translate into a stage space. From that point we went to The Kitchen, in New York, for a second workshop, which was much more production-based, and where we sort of knew the general shape of the space. From there it was just kind of refining the ideas we developed there..

So it was clear from reasonably early on that we were talking about a very shallow playing space, which was the whole width of the stage, and the technicians and performers would be part of the stage picture are throughout.

So that presents very strict parameters to work from with the lights and then, once we got into rehearsal at St Anne’s (St Anne’s Warehouse, New York, summer 2005), it was a question of trying to provide opportunities to play with and, at times, against, what James Gibbs was doing – which is to say experimenting with how to integrate the performers into the video… whether suggestions of directionality of the light within the video could translate convincingly into a directionality in the light on the performers and at other times when it seemed more appropriate to pull the performers out from the background.

Nick Kaye: Which are the specific – I don’t know there might be too many of them - can you give me an example of specific moments where you are integrating them in or when you are bringing them out?

Allen Hahn: I think the thing that seemed very apparent from early on was that each of the three story lines needed its own visual language with regard to the lighting. It seemed critical that just as in the content of the projection and the animation each story line had its own visual style and different vocabulary, so the lighting needed to as well. In the end the decision was to make the family seem part of the realistic animated space behind them. So that required pushing back the light levels to what at times seems just on the edge of visibility, or just on the more present side of visibility against this luminous background. One of my chief complaints about other companies who use large-screen projection is that you often can’t see the performers, because the projection is deemed more important. I have seen concert presentations of operas using video projection where I am kind of squinting and thinking, “why aren’t I just home watching the DVD and listening to the recording?” Because I don't feel like I'm there in the room with the performers for not being able to see them clearly.

So it is an interesting push and pull and there was a lot of discussion - and still is a lot of discussion about what is the appropriate level of physical presence. There is, also, a conceptual aspect to this. In the story of the traveller, there was a lot of talk about the traveller becoming less material as his story progressed… that he became less a physical presence, and instead more a presence defined in the body of data that accumulated around him. The interesting thing about that is it seemed kind of a natural progression. We had talked about it but then it just seemed to happen in rehearsal without having to broker very much. Then – with the third story - which we continued to tinker with for some time, again we wanted to give Jen (Tanya Selvaratnam) a separate story, a separate visual character to the light – give it a little vitality – which in the end translated into it being the most visually colorful of the three stories, both in the video and in what I am doing.

Nick Kaye: It is very interesting because you are talking very specifically about the degree or tone of material presence and the relationship to the video that the performers have. This came across very strongly. So Rizwan Mirza (the traveller), toward the end, becomes quite strongly equivalent to his own projection - because they are the same size and you developed the lighting design to accent that specifically.

Allen Hahn: Yes and as I say it was a conceptual point early on but it seemed to develop along a separate, more organic line based on what was happening in rehearsal, as the text was changing and the exchange between Rizwan Mirza and Joe Silovsky was evolving. It was very there – you know – the tone of their last conversation, in particular, which is very flat and… not dreamlike, but very flat and sort of by rote - and Rizwan Mirza become less character and more facts about his character

Nick Kaye: And Joe Silovsky gets larger as this progresses.

Allen Hahn: And then, interestingly, in that last scene - it is no longer necessary for Joe Silovsky to be physically present at all either - to be seen by the audience - because his presence is felt so strongly. I mean, the only thing in the last scene we are watching is Rizwan Mirza and over the course of the two and half to three minutes of the scene he ends up going from fully lit to a silhouette against all the data projection and Joe Silovsky is never more than lit from above in the faintest light.

Nick Kaye: So Joe Silovsky, on the front desk, diminishes over…

Allen Hahn: No. Joe remains strong, but by that last scene the dynamic has so clearly – the power relationship is so clearly in Joe’s hands that his voice is enough. We don’t need to see him - and in fact it would lessen the dramatic impact if you were to see him - and that was strangely obvious too. Once we got to develop that part of the script. In rehearsal I turned the light on and then I turned it off and everyone agreed that was what it should be. I have been working with this company on than off since the beginning, and the thing that keeps me coming back is that I feel like the process by which the work is created allows for really organic and much more well established and thoroughly resolved choices to be made. And of course the object of any theatrical event – or the object of the creation of any theatrical event - is to make something happen on stage where you can’t separate the direction from the performance from the design… that it all comes from the same place and the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. Some of the pieces over the course of time have been stronger than others in toto, but they all have an incredible cohesiveness and that alone speaks to the audience.

Nick Kaye: One of the things that I have found very interesting is in the family scenes David Penceand Kyle deCampseem to have a kind of slight luminosity that looks – that is a little bit like the light you get from the video. Stewart Laing referred to this in relation to the costume design and the reflection of light. It begins to sort of amplify this exchange between the live performer and the mediated set and the other video images. Is this something you were pursuing?

Allen Hahn: Yeah, well in a funny way I think that luminosity you are talking about is a function of the restrictions on what is even possible in a space of that shape with projection on the front and the rear in such close proximity to the performers. Because that set leaves you with the sole option of lighting things from the side, which is an inherently more dynamic or dramatic way of lighting the figure, it’s not possible to light the figure evenly. It provides its own kind of depth, which up against the accomplished nature of the animation works perfectly well. Where that ends is where the costumes begin, because the costumes have to meet certain requirements as well. The first suit we had Rizwan in was a light coloured suit - and it was the right suit for the character, but it ended up running afoul of the projection screen because it bounced so much light into the screen that video was seriously compromised. No matter what I did to control it, the light just bounced right back into the RP. It created an aura around him that mitigated the projections to an unacceptable level. The suit was rethought and a new one found that I think works better with overall balance.

Nick Kaye: It is a very complex situation to light, with video projection for front and back.

Allen Hahn: Yes and no. I mean it’s difficult, but complex - not especially – you’re left to making a choice within one plane. You are left to make choice in a 180-degree arc about where someone is lit from. And just as the nature of the space limits the angle of the light and the extent to which you are able to light the figure in physical terms, then the projection is the primary constraint on the colour, because whether you are playing with the projection or against it there is always projection. So you have to pull back to some minimal statement in color, angle, and in fact I don’t know if the lighting looks terribly different from one scene to the next within each story. The question is where does the design part of the lighting design begin? You have these severe limitations and I think the freedom comes in establishing the level of physical presence against the projections, which is to say the brightness or whether something is brighter or dimmer from one scene to the next. To a lesser degree colour shifts play a role and then in getting from one point to another. I mean, you know, all of the realistic scenes between the family are lit at the same general level. But when we see Kyle alone at the end she comes up very quickly to a level we haven’t seen before, a very bright level which is I think it is just an indicator of where she is now and I don’t think it telegraphs the moment emotionally - but the scene starts off very strong and the light starts off very strong and as she pulls back and starts speaking to and about her husband who's deserted her the light falls back to her to a level more like that we have seen until she fades away and becomes a silhouette against that final video.

Actually it is really exciting to be able to invest so much of one's attention and energy in such subtle aspects of the lighting and how it works. In a typical tech situation in this country you have a week and a half from the time you focus the lights until there is an audience and you have a bigger show, or bigger space or a level of complexity so much greater that you can’t really give the attention to the subtleties of the timing which is the primary element the light can still play with here.

Nick Kaye: How do you deal with the colour of the video, because the lighting must affect the perception of colour of the video.

Allen Hahn: Yeah well its interesting there is always a lot of back and forth initially about ‘that’s not the colour, everything looks too cool’ or ‘that looks to warm’ - to finding the right balance between the colour of the video and the colour of the light. It seems to me - you would have to ask James Gibbs about this - that the video we were working with in the family scenes at the beginning of rehearsal was quite a bit warmer than it ended up being, as was the colour in the light Jennifer Tipton and I had initially chosen. It was apparent almost immediately that that the color in the light wasn’t going to work. So, both video and light went through various color iterations before the right balance was achieved between the video background and to the performers in the family scenes. And, of course, brightness comes into play here too, because as the brightness of the lights changes, so does their color.

Nick Kaye: This question of the tone or the warmth or coolness has been something that has come up in different ways with many of the people that I have talked with.

Allen Hahn: On an emotional level or in literal terms?

Nick Kaye: Well, in the tone of the performance - in the idea that there is coolness in the technology, which is being either accepted or moderated by other elements of the production.

Allen Hahn: I can’t say that I have really thought about this before, but I think stylistically in the past the work of this company has been cool. And the emotional waves – the significance of a moment or event has been left to the audience to establish for themselves, which is fine and very valid but I think this piece goes to a different place. I think there is more humanity to the characters in this piece on the whole – probably across the board.

Nick Kaye: It is interesting that the lighting at that point was too warm.

Allen Hahn: Well it just ended up looking muddy. Warm lights, warm background… it just didn’t work in visual terms. It was not that it was the wrong choice for the text or the context emotionally or dramaturgically, it just didn't work visually and that trumps all, doesn't it? So I think one of the primary strengths of this piece is that we are allowed past the technology to a more human level.

Having worked on all but two of the projects that the company has done, I think it is part of a progression about learning how use video to greatest effect. The first thing I did - the first thing the company did – was MASTER BUILDER (1994) but that was a horse of a different colour anyway. The project we did after that was JUMP CUT (FAUST) (1997), where there was a very large video screen over the stage and a lot of close-up live camera work - and to me the most successful presentation of that piece was in a tiny little space that doesn’t exist anymore on Lower Broadway called Threadwaxing Space, because when you got into a bigger space with that show - in filling a very tight frame on camera – an actor would turn his head to speak to the other character and there was a great rush of light ten feet tall above the stage pulling your eye away from the live actors on the stage where you almost couldn't perceive the turn of the head in comparison. So by being in the small space on Lower Broadway there was much more parity between the close-up camera image and the size of the actor and I think that was kind of a discovery we all made, although I never remember speaking to anyone about it. It seems to me that that balance has become much stronger between the physical space and the projected world in each of the subsequent pieces. So maybe, now, this is laying the groundwork for a way through the neutrality of some of the earlier works – I don’t know.

Nick Kaye: I think it is very interesting that this screen that comes down and becomes the environment is also softened in a number of ways – I didn’t see JUMP CUT (FAUST) (1997), but looking at the imagery from it, it seems like a very hard edged set of separations – whereas here the softening of the edge and the curve of the video itself seems to be an important part of the integration of the performers into environment.

Allen Hahn: I think ALLADEEN (2002-5) can be seen as a transitional step between those two pieces. There are two major projects between JUMP CUT (FAUST) (1997) and ALLADEEN which I can’t really speak to, because I didn’t work on them. Certainly in ALLADEEN there were some scenes where the actor played in relation to a realistic animated background, which has become the bulk of what we see in SUPER VISION. Also, I think in the third section of ALLADEEN, the video imagery on the screen above the stage suddenly becomes the element that lies back a little, and the action – the visual action - becomes the action happening on the stage with the bright colours that heretofore we have only seen in projection – an interaction of a different type between the actors and the physical space.

Nick Kaye: Peter Flaherty was talking about the complexity of lining up the relationship between the light in the garden, the light in the video projection of the room, and the lighting of the performers to create this sense of unity in the family scenes, because of the direction of the sunlight.

Allen Hahn: I think two things happened. We tried experimenting with directionality and the light on the performers to reflect the apparent directionality of the light in the video - and we were able to do that successfully to an extent, but it didn’t work to the extent we imagined it might. And to do that convincingly would require an investigation on its own terms. So what ended up happening is that the video imagery of the spaces in the family scenes moved to less strongly directional light in the rendered images of the room- and the light sort of met them half way, because it just worked better on stage. I am actually going to be teaching in the spring and I hope to do a kind of laboratory type project where the students can explore that.

Nick Kaye: Where are you doing that?

Allen Hahn: At Carnegie Mellon– but it is something that I know a bit about and gotten deeper into. New design problems have presented themselves to me in doing all these different projects with the company, which is one of the reasons I keep coming back. And, of course, it is certainly an increasingly popular choice to include video in stage presentation and it’s very much to Peter Flaherty’s credit and to Chris Kondek’s credit before him that video is so well integrated into the stage action. Its very sexy stuff – video - all the interns want to be a video intern, and only the real stragglers and idealists want to be lighting interns for instance. But it is very easy to get carried away with the technology and the medium and the sexiness of it. I think the company’s work has moved over time in a direction of really integrating the technology with the performance. And that has come in no small measure from having Peter Flaherty and Chris Kondek as the people responsible for video - and both of them being people who would rather have their work make a case for itself as part of something greater than like ‘ hey look at me’.

Nick Kaye: It was very interesting talking to Peter Flaherty, because he was very clear about video in theatrical context – about thinking in a theatrical context.

Allen Hahn: On a technical level it goes back to what I said before - I have seen full stage projection used by other companies in a way that then requires the performers to be in extremely dim light and I rather wonder what the point is. I imagine that there are companies out there who got a grant where there is a little money behind them, perhaps for the first time, that are doing these experiments with video, where video appears above the title of the piece, if you will.

Nick Kaye: I think The Builders are pretty unique in the way in which everybody is involved in the design of the technology – because the technology is there at the beginning. It has been really interesting to hear about that process from so many different points of view.

Allen Hahn: Well, I also think that the content of the pieces the Company concerns itself with in terms of our relationship to technology, is important. What is the word? I guess it is important... I remember the assistant director of a British production which had taken London by storm, that came here and was being done at the New York Theatre Workshop - and at intermission we were introduced and she told me that it was an “important work” and I thought what an incredibly fatuous thing to say. Like, what does that mean? If you say this an important piece of work you better be damn sure you know what you are talking about - and that you can make a case for it, which I didn’t think this piece was in the least. Having said that I am going to go out on a limb and say that The Builders Association’s work is important because it explores an area that is not just part of the Zeitgeist, but a part of a real human negotiation we in the Western world are in - having to go through on a very personal level of our boundaries and our relationship to technology, which is a much more personal relationship than at any time in our history. It profoundly affects the way we think of time and space and ourselves and our connection with other people.

Nick Kaye: Well it is very interesting to me because I have been to New York quite a lot, but never actually had my finger prints taken before, and being asked a few more questions –

Allen Hahn: And really all you are wanting to do is live your life. I don’t know if you read the New York Times review, but I thought it was incredibly - I mean his opinion was whatever it was but it wasn’t a review as such– it concerned more the demimonde of the piece and the topic of the piece than the piece itself. On that level, I am not sure it was much of a review – but, moreover, the guy made the contention that every day we become more and comfortable with giving up a little of our privacy for the convenience, which I think should give one pause in the same way that the steady erosion of our personal liberty at border crossings does, as you were just saying.

Nick Kaye: It is interesting one, because of course in the UK there has been a lot of heavy security for a very long time –

Allen Hahn: And a lot of video surveillance

Nick Kaye: I think people participate with that. I was amazed that somebody launched an action against gym rucksacks being searched in the subway, because to me that’s kind of standard…

Allen Hahn: Procedure – What is interesting is that there is a more personal interaction in being asked a question and responding than – I was going to say than going through your rucksack, but I also think the unfortunate truth was that this reviewer was probably not wrong, ultimately - that every day we make a bargain and we become a little more comfortable with exchanging convenience for privacy. But I think this country got a free pass for many years. I think this country doesn’t have the same idea about risk and security that the UK has because of course the IRA problem goes back so much further and so I think we are further back on that same road that the citizens of the UK have been down.

Nick Kaye: It is interesting because the debate is a bit different here - it’s partly the absorption - the question of where your identity lies, which was not the question of the 1970s with the IRA. That really wasn’t an issue because there was no data bank; it was just to do with ‘is there a bag there or not’.

Allen Hahn: Is there a nail bomb in the bag? Do you think that has changed since 9/11? Really the moral problem is the accumulation of data and the linking of data. In an historical context this speaks to larger problems for the governments I had a brilliant insight to share with you, but it has faded

Nick Kaye: The other difference is that the UK has a political culture of secrecy - it is not a culture of openness.

Allen Hahn: Which is probably something that is relevant to a monarchy or something. It has always seemed to me there is much that is anachronistic about the British culture.

Nick Kaye: Part of that is a different cultural debate. There’s very little public debate about the presence of surveillance cameras, because the assumption has been that the default position is that you can have them.

Allen Hahn: Here is my brilliant insight, it came back to me: In this country, once a year, you receive a statement from the social security administration saying that at this stage in your working life you are stand to be eligible for this much in benefits once you reach retirement age. It’s sort of interesting, but, you think, should I file this or should I throw it away? And you usually end up throwing it away. But then I had some tax trouble once: I had worked overseas and I had gotten paid overseas and there was a question about how to show it on the tax. I ended up going to an IRS office and was shown a piece of paper that said that certain years of employment for me in my past, I guess they hold open the legal right to reopen your filing status and your income taxes for a period of 5 years prior. I got a look at this piece of paper that said anything before 1996 was no longer of interest and I thought great, because I had held onto phone bills and all kinds of crap and I was very happy to be rid of all that. So I went home and dug through that drawer and threw out all that old paper and was glad to be rid of it. I wish that there were something similar with regard to data or video surveillance. As of today, no one knows anything - there is no official record of anything I did before 1995 - and I could think – I got away with that one. Not that my life is so full of secrets, but knowing that my memory of something and the memories I shared with people of things we experienced together are the only records.

I think it is just the idea that we have been masters of our own identity throughout history and now we are less so – and so it was very interesting for me in my 20s as I started working around the world to go to a different city and meet a different group of people and work with them and develop close relationships with them and realize I could present myself anyway I wanted to. I could in fact shape shift. I think that the ability to do that is compromised or you sense that it may be compromised by knowing you’re being tracked in a variety of ways by parties that are disinterested at least for the moment.

I think it is a problem, it’s very insidious. And the temptation is to say, well, if you are not doing anything wrong then who cares? But then the question is - ‘I don’t think it’s wrong – my life has led to this,’ but other people might think it is wrong. What is wrong? I should really be home getting prepared for class tomorrow and yet I am out at this bar. Is that wrong? I should really be visiting my family. I should really have gotten the earlier train to go see my family, but instead I have come to see this movie first - is that wrong? I suppose not everyone drives themselves as crazy as maybe I could.

Nick Kaye: And there is so much information you cannot track it live. You can capture it, but you can’t really look at all the stuff.

Allen Hahn: Right which is interesting – sure there are attempts to technologically overcome the need to review so much surveillance footage. As a matter of fact in ALLADEEN (2002-5) we used a technology that was being developed by IBM, where a live video image was processed through a computer and it only tracked the changes in the picture. Which in a surveillance context it would mean if you had a video image of a particular section of passage in a tube station, the image itself because it was static and the lighting conditions were static, would fade away and you would only see the people moving through that space, because they would change the value of the pixels in the space they were occupying. In a situation where there is a space that is meant to be unoccupied you could tell when there was an intruder because they would activate this thing. So you would have, presumably, a bank of blank security monitors and if there was any movement on any one of them you would know there was a person. It is a little chilling. Unfortunately it tends to fall into political terms - that either you are a liberal like me and you worry about privacy and are quick to dismiss, or tempted to dismiss the value in these things and their utility, or else you are a conservative who says ‘God damn it, forget about privacy – what do you need privacy for? What are you doing wrong?’ - Sort of willing to sell your soul. I think there is an argument to make in either case and certainly in this political culture no one is interested in having an intelligent discussion.

Nick Kaye: This is where SUPER VISION strikes an ambivalent position.

Allen Hahn: Well I think that is another interesting point as far as the work of the company is concerned. I think this company tackles material that is inherently political – it certainly did with this piece and with ALLADEEN - and it does so in an apolitical way. And I understand why - and I understand the value in doing that, but I can’t say I haven’t found it frustrating at times. I think the worst thing to do in the theatre is to give the audience the answer and the best thing to do is to - yes - present them with the questions and raise a doubt or idea, or an awareness in the mind of the audience. That is absolutely the right goal, but it can be a little maddening. I think that it is interesting that the company can be as apolitical - given the membership of the company and the culture, that being the culture of New York City and the intelligentsia and all that – I think it kind of amazing that we can be as apolitical as we are and many of us in our personal lives are less apolitical. So at times I have been stymied by the un-expressiveness in political terms of some of these issues being examined. You know it is an open question...


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