Brooklyn-based artist Andrew Schneider, currently at On the Boards with "AFTER" running through Oct. 27, makes his own baffling stage inventions, specializing in sensory and intellectual overload.
Pity the poor publicist who has to make heads or tails of an Andrew Schneider show and distill it into quick and easy marketing copy.
Schneider is a Brooklyn-based artist who did serious time (2007-2014) with the Wooster Group and has spun off to make his own baffling stage inventions. One begins like a simple monologue (him, wearing jeans but no shirt, telling the audience he doesn’t know why he’s shirtless), then breaks into meticulously timed stage effects (flashing colored lights, his body moving at the speed of a blink during quick blackouts, brief noises that sound like a motherboard having a panic attack) to create what feel like glitchy hallucinations. But they’re real.
He delivers fractured lectures on high-level physics (“There are more ways to be disorderly than to be orderly — thisisafact! — and there is no state of maximum entropy”), then drops into intimate asides about addiction, the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and loneliness (“… and the ninth step is ‘treat yourself to a pre-10th-step cocktail!’ No?! What?!”). Later, he pauses, slowly approaches an audience member and whispers a secret in her ear.
Schneider specializes in sensory and intellectual overload: His body was over here? Now he’s way over there? And what’s that other audience I hadn’t noticed for the past 50 minutes? Where did they come from? Were they watching a different show? What is happening?
Even Schneider’s titles are thorny. “YOUARENOWHERE,” which just closed at On the Boards last weekend, could be pronounced “you are nowhere” or “you are now here.” Which is correct? Are they both correct? What the hell is Schneider playing at? Is he breaking theater to make a new kind of theater?
Exactly. Try putting all that on a poster.
One recent afternoon, while taking a break from the load-in of his new show “AFTER” (“YOUARENOWHERE” and “AFTER” are playing back-to-back weekends), Schneider sympathized with his publicists’ dilemma.
“Marketing this is so hard,” he said, grimacing on a lobby couch at On the Boards. “All people want to say is ‘technical wizardry’ and ‘cutting edge.’ We turn the lights on and off really, really fast. Is that ‘cutting edge’?”
His description is too self-effacing. It’s like saying artist James Turrell (one of Schneider’s inspirations) simply fools around with light.
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“What we want to do is mess with your perception,” Schneider said. “ ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ works because 400 people all pretend like that’s a real living room — but I’m not able to tell a story that will hold your attention like that. I’m not a writer like that.” So he and his close collaborators, including Alicia ayo Ohs and Bobby McElver, create entire sensory worlds to disorient — and enthrall — their audiences.
“AFTER,” for example, includes a 12-minute “total blackout” that Schneider and his team have carefully designed to plunge the audience into the equivalent of a collective sensory-deprivation tank — or, in his words, to virtually “cut the optical nerve.” (“AFTER” includes minders watching through infrared lenses for safety, and to gently escort people out of the theater if they start to feel too disoriented.)
“I find that the most exciting art happens in your brains,” Schneider said, “where your subconscious is trying to figure out if what you’re experiencing is real.”
Another example: Sometimes, Schneider shows a video clip from “AFTER” to grant committees. That section is so visually mind-scrambling he has to clarify that the video isn’t edited. Those events are, in fact, happening in real time. “What we’re doing doesn’t seem possible,” he said. “But it is.” What really interests him is the moment when people get over trying to make sense of what they’re experiencing. “Then,” he explained, “they can see the next thing with fresh eyes.”
Which still sounds abstract — until you sit in a room with other people and experience it.
Theater, Schneider said, is a better medium for running these experiments than film or virtual reality. “When you look at a screen, you know you’re looking at a screen,” he said. “When it goes dark, it’s just a laptop on your desk — your entire perception doesn’t go black. In virtual reality, you’re not with other people, and you’re complicit in your own perception-altering experience. But in theater, that stops when you’re at the door. We can put the lights where we want you to look, put sound where we want you to hear.”
(The day before, Schneider said, he and his team spent four hours adjusting a piece of Marley flooring on the stage to get the perfect position for a visual effect.)
Besides the 12-minute blackout, “AFTER” also involves a highly sophisticated set of speakers called a “wave field synthesis array” that uses air pressure to place sound in space, like an audio hologram. The technology is so precise, Schneider said, a person can actually walk around a sound — while the speakers are on the other side of the room.
For all its technological and thematic sprawl, Schneider’s work feels surprisingly elegant — like a confusing but carefully curated adventure that happens in a theater, but feels like something else.
So, to risk the impolite question one typically doesn’t ask boundary-slashing artists: What are you doing? What, exactly, is it?
“I don’t really care at this point,” Schneider said. “It usually gets listed in theater sections. It’s usually written about by theater critics. And my mom tells her friends I’m in theater. I’m just trying to make stuff I would want to experience.”
“AFTER,” by Andrew Schneider and collaborators. Oct. 25-27; On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle; $12-$30; 206-217-9886, ontheboards.org.