by Gail M. Burns, August 2003
Phil Soltanoff has been coming to Williamstown every summer since 1993. Pursuing his interest in mixing and blending the arts in new and interesting ways to create new forms of theatre, in 1996 he created an ensemble performance entitled “To Whom It May Concern.” He was invited to bring the piece to New York City and stage it in an abandoned office building off of Wall Street. That run of the show garnered critical praise and attention from the avant garde world, and an invitation to bring the piece to the Belgarde International Theatre Festival (BITEF) in Yugoslavia – one of the most important avant garde festivals in Europe.
“I created To Whom It May Concern as a sort of a lark, but when we were invited to BITEF we had to become more formal about who we were, and so we became mad dog,” Soltanoff said. At the Festival Soltanoff met Soho art pioneer Hanne Tierney and they began discussing the creation of a performance space specifically for their unique works. This led to the creation in 1999 of the Obie Award-winning Five Myles venue, a cavernous former warehouse space in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights area.
Now Soltanoff and his troupe, many of whom have stayed with him since 1996, are back in the Berkshires to begin work on their seventh original performance piece, LEM. The new work is inspired by a science fiction novel The Futurological Congress by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem.
mad dog will give a live audience the first look at this work in progress on tonight at 8 p.m. and tomorrow at 9 p.m. in the dance rehearsal space on the second floor of Building 11 at MASS MoCA.
“I wanted to work at the MoCA site long before it was a museum,” Soltanoff explained, “I make theatre for everyone, but not for anyone. Conventions make us passive. I am always looking for ways to make theatre for a contemporary audience and to engage them with technology.”
Soltanoff just spent 18 months in France working on a piece called Plan B, which is currently touring in Europe and which he hopes to bring to the U.S. and the Berkshires in the future.
“I based the process we are using to rehearse and develop ‘LEM’ on my experience working on Plan B, where we had a long time frame,” Soltanoff explained, “These three weeks in North Adams are the beginnings, and out of this we will present 30-45 minutes of ‘theatre research’ to an audience. Then we will take a break and come together again for another three weeks of work in the fall. We will be back here next summer, and I hope the piece will have its New York debut in December of 2004.”
Born in 1921 in Lvov, Poland, Stanislaw Lem has a devoted cult following. His 35 novels have been translated into 40 languages from their native Polish, with more than 27 million copies in print world-wide. The Futurological Congress (1974) is a fantasy on a future world where everyone and everything is controlled by drugs. The book is told as a first person narrative of the experiences of protagonist Ijon Tichy, who rebels against this society where everything is illusion. One literary critic deemed the work “excruciatingly zany.”
“Lem is very subtle in his understanding of human foibles. Here he is engaged in a real dialogue between illusion and reality. How do we trust our own eyes and ears when all the information we receive is mediated? That is really a question for our own times as well as Lem’s theoretical future.” Soltanoff said.
In 2000 Francine Russo of the Village Voice quoted Soltanoff as saying: “The work I do is theater, but derived from movement rather than text.”
“Translating a literary work for the stage is always challenging,” Soltanoff said, “Do we do narrative or not? Do we tackle some themes and dispense with the narrative? Do we move from literature to dance? We try to engage all questions vigorously.”
There will be limited seating at MASS MoCA, but Soltanoff encourages everyone to climb the stairs in Building 11 and try for a seat. “I make theatre for everyone, but not for anyone. Theatre is play, and it is wonderful to see other human beings doing brave and difficult things with their bodies and spirits in space.”
mad dog performs LEM August 14 at 8 p.m. and August 15 at 9 p.m. in the dance rehearsal space on the second floor in Building 11 at MASS MoCA. The performance is presented by the Williamstown Theatre Festival, but you need to call the MoCA box office at 413-662-2111 for reservations.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003