Written and directed by Kenneth Collins, and performed by Temporary Distortion, Americana Kamikaze (click here to see the show on video) is a performance piece—inspired by Japanese ghost stories—that pushes the boundaries of theatre by staging meditative vignettes in claustrophobic, boxlike structures that bridge the gap between cinema, live performance, and visual art. The innovative video projections by William Cusick include video doppelgangers for the live actors, and On The Boards in Seattle did a multi-camera recording of the show as part of their OnTheBoard.tv program. Live Design touches base with Cusick on this groundbreaking project:
LIVE DESIGN: What was your design concept for the video in AK?
WILLIAM CUSICK: The video projections in Americana Kamikaze serve two purposes: as a film that plays concurrently with the live performance; and as the primary lighting of the actors. The video projection as film provides a parallel narrative that complements the narrative unfolding between the live actors. This cinematic projection is formatted vertically, at approximately 7' high by 2' wide, situated between the performers. The lighting elements vary from scene to scene in the performing space on either side of the screen.
The concept of a parallel narrative in the video world is an ongoing exploration by Temporary Distortion. We're interested in creating complicated narratives that move through variable states of reality and time. By juxtaposing filmic reality with live performance we create an altered state unlike the unique experiences of theater or cinema. While the onstage dialogue unfolds tense, static storylines, lush dream-like video sequences expand the narrative world beyond the stage boundaries. Our production Welcome To Nowhere utilized a horizontal projection screen directly above the performers, but used only industrial lighting fixtures for onstage illumination.
The idea behind using the video to light the performers was inspired by my experience working on larger theater productions, where lighting designers have Vari-Lites to create specific shapes and change colors. We're effectively trying to emulate moving lights. The design of the box structure housing the actors and projection screen naturally lends itself to this design, since the video raster outside the projected images fills the performing areas as part of the native aspect ratio of the projector. Instead of masking off the excess projection area, we use it for the lighting. It works nicely with our style of staging and performance, allowing us a high level of specificity.
LD: How did you collaborate with the director and scenic/lighting designers?
WC: One of the benefits of creating work with Temporary Distortion is that the writer/director, Kenneth Collins, is also the scenic/lighting designer. We work very closely for about two years in creating a new work. The first eighteen months are spent designing the physical elements of the production, doing test video shoots, and developing visual motifs that will create the overall mood of the show. The last six months of the process we work intensely, creating every moment of the show in rehearsals with our team of technicians and our company of actors. At our rehearsal studio, we have a storyboard wall that has 8.5" x 11" photographs of each scene, detailing every lighting/video change, so we can see the flow and evolution of the visual design of the show all at once.
LD: What is the technology used?
WC: I shot all of the content using a Sony EX-1 XDCAM, which proved to be a great choice. Having a solid-state camcorder allowed us to review each take directly on my MacPro tower to confirm both technical and performance details. Some shots we managed to get in just one take thanks to this technology.
All of the footage was edited using Adobe After Effect CS4, and all of the matte paintings were done using Photoshop CS4. The opening scene of the show is a dolly shot down an endless hallway, which I created entirely in Autodesk Maya 2008, based on a photograph by Lauren Bentley of a hotel hallway in Manhattan. The video projector is a 5kW Sanyo HD projector.
The software we use to program all of the video projections and lighting is Mark Coniglio's Isadora. I've been using the software for years both with Temporary Distortion and in my freelance projection design work. Early in the process, I paired Isadora with a Behringer BCR2000, a MIDI audio mixer with 32 rotary knobs that I programmed to interface with Isadora's controls. Each row of knobs on the Behringer coincided with a series of actors within Isadora to manipulate shape, color, size, softness, intensity, and a variety of other lighting parameters, so that Kenneth would be able to design the lighting as intuitively as possible. We use a LanBox LCX to control all of the onstage dimmers that power industrial lighting fixtures built into the set.
LD: Where/how do you create the images?
WC: My photo/video studio is situated immediately next door to our rehearsal space in a warehouse in Long Island City. We shot nearly every scene of Americana Kamikaze in my studio, both building sets and shooting in front of blue and green screens, and three of the video sequences were created by my associate and motion graphics artist Jon Weiss using photographs that he and I shot of the city. Jon created a city skyscraper fly-through sequence for the show entirely in After Effects 2.5D space, which I think is effective in creating the sort of unreal fantasy elements that define the design of this piece.
Our costume designer, TaraFawn Marek, worked closely with us in planning all of the shoots, effectively serving as a line producer: She managed the details of costumes, makeup, and in-camera special effects for all of the shoots. We'd generally build the set for the shoot in my studio and then shoot the final storyboards with the EX-1, using stand-ins for the performers. Several shots in the video design involved complicated makeup or special effects (i.e. the cut-mouth prosthesis), and TaraFawn handled these details brilliantly. Most of the characters in the show have numerous costumes in the videos, most of which she designed and built by hand, all of which works to create the depth of the video world.
LD: What happens when the show tours?
WC: We've designed this show from the beginning to work on the road. Our co-producers of the work are Performance Space 122 in New York City, Le Manege in Maubeuge, France, and Maison Des Arts de Creteil in Paris, France—so we've been planning for this to tour since the beginning. The set is constructed like a jigsaw to piece together with as few screws as possible, so that it can be assembled in under an hour. The two technicians who run the show, Joe Cantalupo and Andrew Scoville, both worked with me in programming the show and they operate it in performance, so they are onsite for load-in and show run. We had our first test-run, remounting the show in January for the COIL Festival at PS122, which we think went well, and now we take it to France in March 2010.