NEW YORK — Possessing acting chops isn’t the only qualification for performers interested in joining the ensemble of Big Art Group, a mixed-media theater troupe founded by Caden Manson in 1999.
“You have to have computer skills, too,” Manson says, adding that he had a hard time casting his most recent project, “House of No More,” which opens tonight at P.S. 122, because of the technology involved. “It’s not that glamorous, but having to be a technician and a performer is part of the bargain.”
This story first appeared in the January 8, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
For its latest effort, Big Art Group, whose name is purposely ostentatious — “I mean, big art?” Manson quips — takes the camera and computer work up a notch. This time, the stage at the East Village space is painted in bright green to create a blue-screen effect; actors controlling Powerbooks insert background images onto three cinema screens using Powerpoint, and those on stage perform in front of video cameras. Theatergoers simultaneously watch the images on screen and the way those images are being produced. “I didn’t want anybody up in a booth controlling what you see on stage. You see everything in front of you.”
But if it all makes the production’s storyline, which is ostensibly about a woman searching for her abducted daughter, fade to the background, well, according to Manson, that’s the idea. “It’s not a play or a movie,” distinguishes the director. “It doesn’t have a straightforward narrative, so it denies you any real wisdom. The installation is where you find your meaning.”
“House of No More” ultimately examines the struggle to define an identity in a world of fleeting images, and to achieve this effect, multiple actors play the same role. “I want to challenge the audience’s vision,” Manson explains. “You have to construct what’s happening on stage yourself. Images are considered disposable and we don’t pay enough attention to how they’re created. I want to give them more weight.”
Though he worked for a Powerpoint slide house during the Internet boom before attending (and dropping out of) graduate school, Manson’s background is in theater, which he studied at the University of Texas. (He now lives in Pennsylvania.) “That’s where I got all that student stuff — like peeing and bloodletting on stage — out of my system.” He says he’s interested in live performance because “there’s no product, there’s nothing for sale.”
In a funny way, although Manson is exploring the bounds of what technology can bring to the stage, much of his equipment, which he purchases at Radio Shack and B&H (“because you can return things there”) is already out of date, including three irreplaceable and obsolete editing bays that he bought only a year and a half ago. “A computer can handle what it is we’re doing, but that costs $75,000,” he says. “So what we’re trying to do is make a video wall on a budget.”
Just because it looks expensive doesn’t mean it is, and creating a spectacle on a shoestring might be the Big Art Group’s most exciting achievement.
“People look and say, ‘Oh, you have so many toys,’ but it’s just an accumulation of crap,” he adds. “This camera is like $200, and there’s a real aesthetic of duct tape. I’m interested in things that are broken.”