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Medea Electronique interviews The Builders Association

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We are thrilled to be discussing with The Builders Association, the renowned emblematic intermedia collective who have left their mark on contemporary theatre, especially with regards to experimentation and the fusion of old and new materials, ever expanding the boundaries of theatre. Founded in 1994 and directed by Marianne Weems, The Builders Association is based in New York City. They create original productions inspired by stories of contemporary life. Builders’ productions are fusing stage performance, text, video, sound and architecture in order to relate human experience in the 21st century. Marianne Weems, Founder and Artistic Director of The Builders Association, and Moe Angelos, founding member and actor, talk to us about digital media, online performances, Ζoom, the failures of technology and the collective spirit. Technology in their productions is not the message but rather a dramaturgical and performative instrument. May the God of storytelling and of the post-digital be with us.


Eric Lewis (Medea Electronique): I’m just wondering, what are for you and your company the challenges of collective theatre production when incorporating new technologies, since they often require specialized collaborators with expertise? How do you approach these challenges and to what extent do they impact the way you work, that is collectively or communally?

Marianne Weems (Builders Association): Well, I’m gonna do a little product placement here. I don’t know if you guys have seen this book The Builders Association. Performance and Media in Contemporary Theater (by Shannon Jackson and Marianne Weems, MIT Press 2016). You don’t have to read the whole thing, but the epilogue, which is only a few pages, is very much about this. It’s about design and drama. We are a collective. It’s an extremely integrated enterprise and we are all dependent on each other to bring our skill set to the table. I’m called a benign dictator. But I think that I’m not dictating, essentially what I’m doing is more dramaturgical. I’m trying to create this circle, which is the idea, and then either things go inside the circle because they’re part of the concept or they don’t go in the circle because they’re not. So beyond that, it’s a free-for-all. And I think the thing that distinguishes us is that we do find really skillful people who are not necessarily related to theatre, but who have an interest in all sorts of real-time events. And so they bring all kinds of different languages to the space that aren’t necessarily performance-related. So especially –I’m sure you guys know this– for people who are developing things like new software, theatre is not uppermost in their minds, in terms of like what they want to do, but the way that it’s layered into our sense of aliveness, it is a sort of stealth kind of way of bringing them into a performance context. Okay, Moe, please help me out here.

Moe Angelos (Builders Association): Yes, there are tremendous challenges when we are attempting to integrate new technologies into a live performance. I’ve been working with the Builders for 20 years now and in that time, the technology has changed tremendously. And it’s gotten faster and more robust, but you know, it’s got its ‘little thing’. It’s like a hospital, you need somebody who can do the heart and you need somebody that can do the kidneys, you know, but it’s all working toward this general purpose. But we do have to employ people who know their technology. I’m like a dumb actor. I don’t understand these things, but I’m taught how to use them in the context of the performance. And the technologies too are not built for theatre. We are taking some kind of consumer-grade, something or other, like a phone, we are attempting to put it in a show and make it work, this thing that we all have. So we’re very familiar with this technology in a certain context. But to put it into performance is a whole other layer of concern.

Eric:  As we all know in our present (and hopefully not too much longer future) CoVid reality, there’s been this sudden proliferation of digitally mediated art of all sorts and the problematization of notions of live performance and embodiment in the relationship between the two. How has this sudden proliferation impacted your own practice and the sense in which you view your productions as experiments in liveness? One thing we could say is we’re all experimenting in liveness now in the digital domain. Has that, in any way, affected how you’re thinking about future performances? What do you do with an audience who’s been looking at screens and watching performances for the last year and then they show up?

Marianne: Well, I think that one advantage that the company’s had and I think you guys probably had this too, is that when everything shut down, it wasn’t that hard to pivot to an online experiment. I mean it’s not a great moment, but you know, it didn’t really stop our sense of being productive. So we are working on a show now, we have been working on a show that is about people who work online. It’s about Amazon workers who are microworkers, who are people who are like paid pennies and they are essentially forming the algorithms that run our lives. So, we had sort of been circling around this idea for a couple of years and it was actually quite revelatory to be able to hire some of these workers because they’re all over the country. We made a performance that couldn’t happen in real space –a performance about these people who are distributed in these rural areas who don’t give a shit about theatre and they participated in this event in a way that was extraordinary, I think, for us.

Angeliki Poulou (Medea Electronique): During the pandemic we also came to realize the limits of the digital. Because at the beginning we were saying ‘Okay, yes, digital space, we can communicate, we can do everything’. It was a fascination with the digital. And then rapidly we understood that, ‘Okay, no, we cannot do just anything online’, there are limits. So do you have any idea or any thoughts about what is coming beyond the digital?

Marianne: Well, that’s a great question. Now that, you know, Broadway is back, it’s as if nothing happened. It’s as if we’re all done with the digital and in many cases, George Floyd didn’t end up meaning anything and you know, the wheels of capital are spinning back up and everybody just wants to go back to Broadway. So I find that shocking, that not much has changed in the world of theatre per se. So that’s my bitchy diatribe. And then I would say on a personal level, the thing that I’m still excited about is our work ‘I Agreed to the Terms’ in that it is kind of still an online event, but it’s going to have these live components. So at one point, we’re going to follow Moe out into the real world. Like, you know, David Letterman’s ‘man on the street’ kind of thing. But essentially the audience is going to start the show online. So we’re kind of still maintaining that digital proscenium.

Moe: Yeah, in this production we were all distributed strangely, but we were in a big studio space. So I was there as an actor, the other actor, David, was in Maine at home. And then the technology guys, some of them were with me in that space so I could see them across the room and then it all gets put together and then the digital workers were in the Bronx and in Alabama and in Mexico, like all over the United States. It’s strange times. But it would be interesting to have people in the room with us, watching us.

Manolis Manousakis (Medea Electronique): When we started in 2006-2007, we used the technology that was available to us back then. And then the more we grew, we would use technologies again and then more technologies and then newer technologies. That thing changes every two months, every three months, every six months. And then we realized that, ‘Okay, using technology is like using a third hand’, maybe it’s something that you can’t really do without, so that’s why you use technology. So then, the question that comes to my mind is, if I was going to an ancient Greek theatre to perform a work there or create work for Epidaurus, then what would that be like? If you were in a different context, would you use any technologies? Would you bring the technologies with you? How would you act? How would you change your practice when in other places?

Moe: Such a good question.

Marianne: Yeah. What do you think, Moe?

Moe: The ancient technology of Epidaurus, a mask to funnel the voice like this, right? That was the technology of that time. So that really interests me just because of my nerdy theatre background. It is interesting to take these new technologies into this ancient context and see how that changes the conversation in a vast and gigantic theatre with excellent acoustics. Our sound would have to change, projection would have to change, but yeah, it’s such an interesting puzzle to put those things together. What do you think, Marianne?

Marianne: I always used to say that I don’t think we would have anything on stage if we didn’t have some kind of bed of technology to draw from. I mean, it’s kind of part and parcel of the language of the company, to hold a mirror up to contemporary reality. And I think staging liveness in this radically interconnected digital world means that you are still dealing with the digital even if there’s nothing on stage.

Eric: Could I follow up on that a little bit? Something I’m personally interested in theoretically and practically are the opportunities bad technologies offer us actually. You know, bad Zoom audio forces you to listen very carefully. In pedagogic settings, when the audio is bad, boys don’t shout over women in the classroom because then you can’t hear anything. So there are a lot of ways in which you might think, if you’re interested in the phenomenology of theatre, that imperfect technologies can actually be leveraged in interesting and new ways. Instead of thinking that Zoom sucks, why not say, ‘Wow, what can we do with the way that it sucks?’ I’d be curious to know how you approach the fidelity of a technology? Is it always ‘better is better’?

Moe: That’s great. Yeah, for sure. We have insisted on dragging technology into places where it doesn’t belong. I did a whole workshop at a retreat in Tuscany. I don’t know if you guys have been there, but it’s this 16th century villa. And we wired part of one wing of the house and dragged all these projectors and cameras in there and it was terrible. But it was fascinating because of that, because we had to accommodate that architecture and the rawness or the otherness of that space. I think now is definitely the moment to celebrate how bad it is, in this medium.

Eric: Yeah, just the sense in which if our goal of the virtual is reproducing the live, then we’re also reproducing the political and power dynamics of that medium, as opposed to asking ourselves, maybe new things can happen in this context.

Moe: Are we living in a speaker view world? Or a gallery view? In Zoom, we couldn’t do an ancient Greek play with a chorus because people can’t sing together. They can’t speak together at the same time in Zoom. So we would have to figure out how to do it live.

Angeliki: Yes, if I can extend a little bit the question that Eric asked. How do you build your own performance? What is the role of the director? Marianne, do you make all the difficult, final decisions? Finally, what is the role of media in your work?

Marianne: I always loved, even twenty-five years ago, the idea that we don’t privilege the text. And that there are all these layers of information and expression and they all have equal weight and are living alongside each other in this kind of composed sense. So the visual and the audio and the extra technologies and the performers are all intertwined. One of our important methods is to have the technology with us in the room from the very beginning, from day number one, right? So it is integrated into the storytelling. But the other thing is, I wouldn’t say that I make the final decisions. I think that I am like a referee. There are a lot of opinions in the room. There’s a lot of big personalities. And essentially, it’s like, sort of, you just blow the whistle at some point and you have to just say, ‘yeah, that’s how we’re going to do it’. Does that make sense to you guys? Do you have a referee?

Manolis: No.

Eric: We’re all referees all the time.

Manolis: We never credit somebody as a director. The majority of the Medea members, when we started, came from the commercial world, which meant that we were fed up with directors. We were fed up with decision-making and we needed to do things that interested us and we didn’t really care about the outcome. So even the name that we got, Medea Electronique, (because our name was different before that), we came up with it because we did this very big, live performance at the Benaki Museum and we needed to credit it to somebody. Nobody wanted to get the credit and that’s how the name of the collective actually came to be. ‘Okay, let’s credit the Medea Electronique Collective’.

Eric: I was going to say that this extends to our notion of copyright and ownership. So, concerning all of our residents of the Koumaria Residency, we tell them that anyone could use any of the materials, repurpose them, as long as they credit it to the Collective, to the residency collective. So take them, change them, modify them, but don’t claim them as exclusively yours even after the transformations. Everything is a product of the collective because, if you’re at the residency washing dishes, that’s what facilitates someone else being outside shooting video. And so you’re as responsible in a sense for that video project as they are.

Moe: That’s wonderful to recognize all of those layers of labour. Because it’s never –you know– the genius in the attic, right? You know, interestingly, credit –and correct me if I’m wrong, Marianne, or if I’m missing something, but of all the things that we tussle about artistically, like everyone advocating for their idea, ‘No, my idea, my idea’– credit is not one that we really fight about, is it, Marianne? Have we had a fight about that? Because I think it’s the sense of like we are all contributing to this whole, together and it is a very level playing field. So Marianne does a wonderful job of encouraging everyone’s curiosity in the process so the video guy or the sound guy or me or James, who is our dramaturge, professional named dramaturge, you know. Anyone can contribute in the idea spectrum, right? There’s not this ‘well, that’s not my job’ feeling, I would say.

Eric: I’m just curious about the following, it may be a bit of an autobiography. I know you worked with the Wooster Group early on in the Performing Garage where I spent a lot of my college and high school days. And when I think of predecessors in a certain sense of what the Builders Association is doing, given my own experience, I think of the Performing Garage, I think of The Kitchen. How do you see what The Builders Association does, in some sort of ancestral lineage of those sorts of spaces? Did you sort of take this and like this, but wanted to add something else or prioritize things differently? I don’t know if there’s an interesting story to tell at all about that.

Marianne: When were you at the Garage?

Eric: Oh, certainly in the early 80s. So I found myself there and at the Public Theater and at The Kitchen, and I understood some things, and didn’t understand others. I liked some things I didn’t understand, and didn’t like some things I did understand. But, you know, there’s a sense to me, at least, the Builders Association seems to come out of that history to some degree.

Marianne: I think that there’s kind of a shorthand that I have started a few years ago, probably more than a few years, when I started really getting to know Richard Schechner, who I think you guys probably know, started The Performance Group, which was at the Performing Garage. And he was the progenitor of the Wooster Group. Spalding Gray, Willem Dafoe, all came from his company. And then, it was all filtered through Liz who is a director, Elizabeth Lecompte. And I was sort of fortunate enough to sit by her side for six years and be the assistant director and also the dramaturge. So, I learned a lot but then when I left and when I was fortunate enough to start the Builders, I really kind of looked back to Schechner because our work still is about socio-political reality.

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