By Christopher Grobe
June 14, 2007
Standing at a bus stop, you eye the people around you, many with cell phones pressed to their ears. A couple gives you a darting glance. Storm clouds drift further away, toward the horizon. A woman down the block checks something off on her clipboard. Is she observing you? Someone whistles a song that you don’t quite recognize. When will the show begin?
This is the overture to Headlong Theater Company’s interactive performance piece, Cell, part of this year’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas. Or rather, this was the unique overture to my version of Cell, since, as far as I know, all of the performers in this scene were members of the New Haven community who were entirely unaware that they had an audience of one.
This takes some explaining. The premise of Cell is simple: the performance takes place on the streets and in the buildings of downtown New Haven and has an audience of only one person. Following instructions from a woman who calls you on your own cellphone, you are led from location to location, from activity to activity.
These various “scenes” range from the mundane, like sitting on a bench, to the absurd, e.g., participating in what could only be called “freestyle walking” with two playful members of the Headlong company. (A grizzled man skirts around us and quips, “Someone’s having fun.” He’s not a cast member, right?)
The goal, seemingly, is neither to tell a story nor to manipulate emotions, but to create a state of mind, a level of consciousness beyond the mundane. Placed in a world that resembles good old New Haven but that carries with it odd rules and strange customs, I found myself becoming open and imitative. If someone comes up to you and holds out his right wrist at chest height, you touch your wrist to it, don’t you? If someone starts speaking to you in a language you don’t understand, well, you can still make out what he’s saying, can’t you?
At one point, while I was sitting on a bench talking to my guide over the phone, a young woman sitting at the other end of the bench scooted over and began speaking my guide’s exact words into my other ear. Indicating the cigarette butts, the traffic, my stereophonic guides declared, “Everything has been put here specifically for you.” What a high, what dangerous, egoistic pleasure we can derive from the thought that everything revolves around ourselves alone.
This mindset opens up new levels of experience. Without the hyperconsciousness that Cell inspired, I’m not sure I would have noticed the odd beauty of that uprooted tree stump sitting on the sidewalk along Chapel, looking almost like an abstract sculpture with its dirt-clotted roots. But, for me, there was something ominous in this self-centeredness. After all, this is the same solipsism that everyone decries as the worst fallout from a technological society, where we spend hours toying with the cell phone, the television, the Internet.
After this hour-long journey through New Haven’s alter ego, the last stop is “the Hive,” the mysterious, buzzing center of this world. I won’t reveal what secrets lie within, but once you have emerged from the Hive, you can read the reactions of those who came before you, and, if you feel like it, contribute your own.
Some people felt like they were the star of their very own thriller. Others felt like a coequal member of the Headlong company. Still others expressed the joy or discomfiture of an hour of voyeuristic wanderings. After contributing my own thoughts to the guestbook, I exited into the New Haven evening.
That was the last I saw of the Headlong folk … as far as I know. Cell might sound like one of those pieces that are more fun to talk about than to experience, but when you return to the real world, you will realize how crucial the experience itself is.
Like the ringing in your ears after a rock concert, Cell stays with you, pulsing just below the surface of things. And in the same way that the ringing in your ears is said to mark the death of a few damaged cells in your ears, the lingering buzz of Cell feels like a loss of innocence. I first experienced this in the nearest coffee shop.
I was emotionally exhausted after my participation in Cell–you only realize gradually how energetically you yourself have actually “performed”–and needed nothing more than a nice jolt of caffeine. As a barista made my espresso-based beverage of choice, I suddenly realized all that Cell has to say about the service economy that caters to our every whim. My guide’s pronouncement that all the world had been arranged especially for me is exactly the illusion that advertisers, waiters, and salespeople flatter us with day and night.
As I mused over this, the barista asked me if I was heading home–my exhaustion must have been apparent. I responded that I was in between festival events, and she suddenly blurted out, “You know what I really want to see? What’s it called … Cell!” If my immediate thought was–“So she’s working for them!”–I can only say, in my defense, that this persistent distortion of my personal reality was exactly what the members of Headlong were aiming for all along.
By Patrick Ferrucci, Register Entertainment Editor
June 16, 2007
Let’s make something clear immediately: If you embarrass easily or have problems when you can’t control a situation, Headlong Dance Theater’s “CELL” might not be the event for you. Thankfully, it’s impossible to make me feel uncomfortable. Since “CELL” is a creation of modern-dance company, the easy assumption is that the bulk of the “audience of one” performance would include various types of
Rather, it’s about downtown New Haven, about the people and places contained in the area. It’s about losing your inhibitions, and taking note of all the things going on around you. Mostly, though, the key to “CELL” is to follow instructions and liberate yourself from the norm – for the hour or so the experience takes.
And my normal day does not include standing at the bus stop on the corner of Chapel and College streets while waiting for a phone call. I bet you thought it did, yet you’d be wrong. But that’s exactly where I was waiting for that first phone call that would begin my “CELL” experience. You see, when I picked up my ticket for the performance, it came with a note that told me to be at the bus stop. It also said to “be alone and on time,” “wear comfortable shoes,” “don’t bring a bag” and “it might rain, bring an umbrella or raincoat.” Oh, and I had to “wear the enclosed honeycomb button.”
Those aren’t the kind of instructions you expect to get while attending an Arts & Ideas event. But, then again, “CELL” is unlike any A&I performance you’ve ever been to; heck, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever done in your life. Before my experience began, I had done enough research to know that strange things would happen, but I sure didn’t expect what did go down.
When you purchase your ticket to “CELL,” you will be asked for your cell phone number. Calls from someone named Buzzz are the catalyst for everything that happens within your experience. Buzzz calls you Buzzz, too. Of course.
And Buzzz has a fascination with bees, and she tells you random facts about the insects during each call. After completing “CELL,” I’m confident I would clean up during a bees category on “Jeopardy!”
The initial phone call from Buzzz came – after I put on my button – with specific instructions to look around and take in everything going on around me … and to follow some dude in a gray sweatshirt without letting him realize I’m doing it. Was this guy part of Headlong’s cast? I don’t know. One of the main objectives of “CELL” is to make you wonder which of the people you’re seeing downtown New Haven are part of the performance. And while you will encounter many Headlong actors and dancers, even the regular folk walking the streets are part of your experience, even if they don’t know it.
My stalking didn’t last long, only four or so blocks. Buzzz quickly called me back and told me to abandon the plan and head to the corner of Chapel and High and sit on the stone bench. A woman was already sitting there, so I took a seat on the far other side. I’m not a big fan of being close to people. Our distance didn’t last long though. Once my phone rang again, the woman proceeded to purposely invade my personal space and speak into my ear the same things Buzzz was saying into my other ear through the phone.
Throughout each conversation with Buzzz, it becomes clear that Headlong members are indeed watching me. When I blow a bubble with my gum, Buzzz asks what flavor I’m chewing. And though I constantly look around during my journey, I can’t seem to spot Buzzz or any of her fellow worker bees.
But they’re everywhere. When I do as I’m told and sit in a red chair in the lobby of the Hotel Duncan, a woman across the room motions toward me, slaps a note on a table and leaves. The note says, “Please follow me.” So I tailed her right into Sullivan’s On Chapel, where she was waiting with a table for two and a bottle of root beer to share. I wish there wasn’t any root in the beer, since I don’t like root beer, but I drank it up. Of course, that became more difficult when the woman became animated, speaking wildly in what I think was Vietnamese, slamming the salt and pepper shakers around and generally making a big scene in the restaurant.
But then Buzzz saved me from further “conversation” when she called and asked, “What the heck is she saying?” I didn’t know. What I did know was that I had to leave Sullivan’s through the fire door in the kitchen. Um, OK.
It was around this time that Buzzz began to speak lovingly and excitedly about a place called “The Hive,” a place that I would soon visit. But not before being carried by some dancers around York Street, holding hands with a couple of teen dancers, riding in elevators, exploring a roof of a downtown building and seeing a photo montage of myself and others on a screen in a room. When were these photos taken? I have no idea. I looked for people, but sure didn’t see any.
Without giving away too much more of my “CELL” experience – since I don’t know if everyone’s is the same, although I’m pretty sure they’re at least slightly different – let’s just say everything leads to The Hive. Does what happens in The Hive tie everything together? Well, I can’t be sure. I do know that “CELL” seriously moved me. It made me think a certain way and I truly enjoyed it. I also looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was following me that night, even when I was just in a bar with friends. I waited for people to tell me what to do, which could have been a bad thing.
Only you can find out how The Hive will affect you. After “CELL” ends, you’ll be brought to an area that contains a journal filled with entries from others who lived through “CELL.” Everyone I read said something different because this is a personal experience. Nobody does it with you. Yet everyone does it with you. You’ll read the entries and think about your experience. Then you’ll write your own.
Just remember to sign it “Buzzz.”
By Jennifer Dunning
September 16, 2006
What do we see in the world around us and how do we see it? Those questions were addressed by the Subcircle and Headlong Dance Theater companies and answered, obliquely, by the Miro Dance Theater in performances on Thursday as part of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival.
Subcircle’s new “Still Unknown,” performed in a series of gleaming white installations in the Ice Box Projects Space, a former frozen-fish factory, posed the specific question of what is still unknown in an age of boundless information. Conceived by Niki and Jorge Cousineau, the hourlong piece was constructed to be seen from two perspectives by two groups of audience members.
The occasional faint sound of the other, invisible audience laughing was enjoyable, as was a pretty sequence of a woman flying on a trapeze through projected colors. Best was the discovery of images on a small monitor turned away from the audience on a bed table in a rumpled room, complete with male sleeper, an unexpected throwaway. But as with most dance and performance pieces that unspool in a created rather than found environment, the visuals were mostly antiseptic, as was the dancing and would-be ironic commentary by the performers.
Headlong’s new piece, “Cell,” choreographed by Andrew Simonet, Amy Smith and David Brick, was one of the festival’s most talked-about works. Essentially a 45-minute walking tour of a small, old section of Philadelphia, each “performance” was scheduled by appointment for an individual audience member (given the code name Buzzz) who received instructions by cellphone calls from a mysterious “McKenna,” code name Buzz, on where to walk and what to look at. The mostly silent guides, who sprung up unannounced along the route, included a pleasant woman sitting in the second floor of a bookstore; a woman in a large white hat who spoke only Spanish, very fast; and a male dancer whose smiles seemed reassuringly unscripted.
Capering across cobblestones, whirling down a street in a wheeled office chair and swinging around a lamppost are not for everyone. I did try to be “present in the moment,” as the bookstore woman unnecessarily instructed. I would have liked to stop to admire the burnished old brick buildings rising from those cobblestones. I had already sat in the park across from the bookstore and watched the passers-by, though without the accompaniment of a ringing cellphone. But “Cell” did confirm the general resiliency and good-naturedness of dancers, who here included three performers who used my halting moves and gestures to make interesting choreography of their own in the finale, in a humming, soft-lighted and sweet-smelling “hive.”
What then is the “still unknown”? “Lie to Me and Shorter Stories,” a new hourlong piece conceived by Amanda Miller, Tobin Rothlein and Antony Rizzi of the Miro Dance Theater, provided one answer. One unknown might be what is reliably unknowable in art, like the churning, contradictory truths and images that splashed and pushed across the tiny, bare stage of the Cinema at Penn like the fountain water and greenery in a segment of the dance’s vivid, stylish video component.
Ms. Miller and Mr. Rizzo worked long years with William Forsythe, the dance world’s favorite intellectual, and their influences here were unsurprisingly brainy, including the writings of Franz Kafka and French film techniques. And “Lie to Me” – an Almodóvarish title – burrowed into the displacement of travel and the contemplation of lies and truth. Performed by Ms. Miller, Rick Callender, Kristin Osler, Melissa Toogood and Andre Zachery, “Lie to Me” created a gnarled, invitingly impenetrable-seeming world with too many mysteries to savor for thoughts of the unknown or present moment to arise.
By J. Cooper Robb
The dance performed by pedestrians on a daily basis typically goes unnoticed. Headlong Dance Theater explores the intricacies of a city’s movement in its immensely creative new Live Arts piece Cell. Quite possibly the most original work in the festival’s 10-year history, Headlong’s participatory production is staged for a single audience member at a time.
The show begins with a call on your cell phone. Over the course of the next hour a disembodied voice guides you on a mission to discover “the hive.” Bobbing, weaving and skipping along with cell phone attached, you make your way through the streets, cobbled alleys, warehouses and businesses of Old City. Along the way you have a series of strangely affecting encounters that are both bewildering and enlightening.
In one section a trio of dancers mirrors your own movements. At first you feel self-conscious and clumsy, but as the dance progresses you begin to see the elegance in your own simple everyday movements. A mysterious and gently engaging experience that’s both personal and communal, Cellconnects a pedestrian’s individual movements to those of Philadelphia as a whole-an experience that remains with you long after the show is over. Cell reveals the subtle and graceful dance of a city always on the move.
If you enjoy being trapped in small, dark spaces watching inscrutable dance-theater, you’ll love People Burning Inside Hotels, the first part in director Juan Souki’s The Uhaul Trilogy. Staged in the rear of a U-Haul truck and utilizing fragments of text, Souki’s frenzied, vaguely feminist work is described as a movement piece about dysfunctional relationships.
The three dancers who leap on and off tiny chairs are accomplished, and for a few minutes the work’s concept of exploring performance in a confined space holds your interest. But the venue feels like a gimmick. Eventually you become more preoccupied with the truck’s dwindling air supply than the performance itself.
A more genuine example of site-specific theater is Kaibutsu’s The Guided Tour. First presented in 2004 and remounted for this year’s Live Arts Festival, playwright Bruce Walsh’s script is a deeply autobiographical tale of a young man who despises his job as a tour guide in Philadelphia.
Performed on an actual tour bus (the kind that absurdly attempts to masquerade as a historic trolley), the in-transit play recalls Walsh’s miserable days leading tourists about the city. Guided shrewdly mixes interior monologue, narrative and dialogue to delve into both Walsh’s mind and the soul of the city.
Our guide/actor Bruce moans about the scripted “rap” he spews forth everyday to camera-wheeling tourists. Mildly amusing at first, Bruce is a fountain of trivial information, at one point informing us that William Penn’s likeness atop City Hall has 14-inch-wide lips and 5-foot-long feet.
But as the bus departs Center City and drives down the streets of Point Breeze past bewildered pedestrians (it’s not every day a tour bus rolls down Tasker Street, apparently), the play takes a darker turn. Walsh paints a picture of a man and a city broken and impoverished.
Unfortunately, when we return to Center City, the play loses momentum and reaches an unsatisfactory conclusion. Nevertheless, Guided is worth a trip.
Azuka Theatre has been around since 1998, yet the new production Azuka One-Acts marks the company’s first appearance at the Philly Fringe. A collection of seven short plays, One-Acts is staged in-promenade (meaning the audience moves with the show) at a variety of Old City locations. After a strolling monologue down Third Street, the production then progresses to a sidewalk cafe, a phone booth, the roof of the Painted Bride Art Center and a dog park before concluding on the stage of the Actors Center.
The locations are all aptly suited for each play’s subject matter, but overall each production lives or dies depending on the talents of the playwright. Some are better than others; Seth Kramer’s Speak Nowand Alexander E. Dremann’s The Cheever Tapes are the duds in the bunch. Far more entertaining is Ross Berger’s hilariously silly Catty Corner. Even better is Rolin Jones’ alternately amusing and supremely disturbing parody of suburban life Sovereignty.
The evening concludes with nationally recognized playwright Tom Donaghy’s It Takes an Orchard. In a satirical updating of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Donaghy imagines Chekhov’s 19th-century heroine Lyubov Andreyevna amid a host of 21st-century technology. Featuring a terrific performance from Sarah Keifer, Orchard concludes Azuka’s first Fringe production on a decidedly upbeat note.