Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Don't change the channel - its Evan O'Television! Part 1

For the last 15 years, the performer known as Evan O'Television has hit the slam circuit as both sides of his comedy act with his television alter ego.   Evan frequently performs at puppet slams in Providence and Boston. For a decade, he produced  PAN 9, a multi-genre variety show event out of an artist's loft in Allston, which hosted one of the earliest Boston area puppet slams. Recently, Evan has been co-hosting Blood From a Turnip, which will have its final late night iteration on May 19th.  Evan's  feature-length show "Evan O'Television in Double Negatives" traveled to the New York International Fringe Festival.
Photo: Sarah Paterson
Marsian: How long have you performed at Puppet Slams?

Evan O'Television: In the 1990's I moved to Boston after attending Amherst College and growing up doing community theater and school theater in Brattleboro, Vermont (just two exits south of Putney, current home of the great Sandglass Theatre).  When I first got to Boston I was directing short plays  (in one and two-night runs) at venues like the Middle East rock club in Cambridge.  That was when I met Kristin McLean who was then the director of the Puppet Showplace Theatre.  She had already launched the very first round of Puppet Slams at the Showplace.  She and I met at a party for a mutual friend and ended up talking for hours about performance and puppetry.  For about a year I had been performing a 15-20 minute piece about Andy Kaufman called "A is for Andy".  That was the first piece where I recorded myself and then performed a dialogue with the video.  I knew I was cribbing from ventriloquist/dummy dynamics but Kristin convinced me that what I was doing was in essence puppetry, and encouraged me to create something new in the same style for her next Puppet Showplace Slam

M: And when was the first one?
EO: So, I think the first one I performed at was that Winter, in 1996?   I know it was the first time I called myself "Evan O'Television" The night is a blur of a memory for me, but that is the case every time I first perform a new piece.  It was the first version of a show I would perform for several years called  "Ex-Machina".  I had written it to be a little more directly about puppetry than some of my other pieces - As a live performer I had my head in a cardboard "TV-Shaped" box, directly across from the actual TV, and as a live performer claimed to be an animatronic puppet. The piece consisted mainly of the TV and I arguing about when the actual live performer was going to show up.
M: Who was on the bill that night?
EO: I don't really remember who else performed that night, but some of the key performers at those early Brookline Slams were the Andrew Periale's Perry Alley Theatre (doing their Chinese Menu puppet Shows), Paul Vincent Davis doing any number of wonderful shows, Kristin McLean herself (often doing gorgeous shadow puppetry) and the late Caleb Fullam performing with his sweetly funny original creations.

M: Explain "video ventriloquism" 
EO: My tether to puppetry (you could even call it my creative umbilical cord) continues to be primarily based on how much of the structure of my act is directly borrowed from Ventriloquist "dummy" acts.  The Evan on the television plays the dummy role, by continuously performing as the primary foil and catalyst for my routines.  Also the television is related to other forms of puppetry beyond ventriloquism because the TV is the focal point for any "illusion" that occurs in my act.  Where many puppet-artists, such as marionette-performers or hand-puppeteers rely on physical skills to create misdirection, or performer-character separation, or give illusion-based believability to their act, the mechanics of the illusion that I create are primarily auditory.  The believability, regarding how much my dialogue resembles the rhythms of real life conversation is the primary illusion.  The more I am able to achieve that goal, the greater chance there is that the audience might forget the unreality of what they are watching.   That audience commitment to the imaginary and suspension of disbelief is common in all theater, but I definitely think that the way I approach it, is most influenced by puppetry,
M: You've toured all over the North East with your TV.
EO: I have performed in Slams in New York City (Great Small Works' Spaghetti Dinner and Hellzapoppin' Puppets at the Voice 4 Vision Festival), Connecticut (UConn,  Puppet Slam), Philadelphia (Puppet Uprising) and obviously Boston (Brookline) and Providence (Blood From A Turnip).  Sadly, only the Northeast.  Philly was the most furthest  and therefore by default, the most exotic.   Morgan Andrews and Beth Nixon put on a terrific show with an infectiously circus-like atmosphere.  
M: What is the funniest, freakiest, edgiest, or weirdest show you have seen?
EO: My favorite performance ever at a puppet slam still has to be a Big Nazo performance I saw at the Brookline Puppet Showplace.  Big Nazo was preceded on the bill by a quiet 20-something young man who spoke in thickly broken-English and said he was from somewhere in Eastern Europe, I think.   He had a very intricate and delicate Toy Theatre set that he had made, if I remember corectly, he even needed a bit of help getting up on stage.  I feel like it was about 4 feet across, with  miniature figures and detailed little buildings across the whole thing.  He explained that the set was an exact model of the village he came from, in his country, and he pointed out all sorts of details on it, as the entire Showplace leaned forward in awe at the meticulous creation.  He said that he had written a song about his village that described all of the little buildings and each of people on his elaborate tiny Toy Theater model.

M: Lovely
EO:  After he was about one verse into his song (I believe the first verse may have even been sung in his "native" tongue), suddenly two enormous 7-foot tall, Big Nazo Puppets burst through the upstage curtain stepping on his model and crushing it completely.  The singer tried to salvage the tiny village but the Nazo monster had turned the "accidental" crushing of his Toy Theater into a slapstick entanglement, in which the Big Nazo creature couldn't move in any direction without stomping or wrecking the model further. 

M: Oh My!
EO: The audience was so devastated horrified and shocked, that I think they were even further revulsed by those people who got "the joke" right away and had started laughing first.  Gradually everyone realized that they'd been had and the foreign singer was a set up.  The Big Nazo singer with the extended rat head started up his patter and they launched into a song, but the total chaos of audience response that they had created did not die down for minutes.   

M: That's amazing!
EO: I always think of that as one of the most powerful, brilliant and funny manipulations of the audience I have ever seen or felt. - definitely in the Andy Kaufman tradition of engaging sympathy and flipping expectations.  We were all so invested in and devoted to this sweet, fictional singer/model maker that we were truly shocked and horrified by the destruction.  And then it all  gradually gave way to realizing the whole thing was a joke.  It was amazing.

M: How unexpected!
EO: Here's another contrasting example of a show I loved, a truly beautiful show that not many people had the chance to see when it was originally performed.  Many years ago Kristin McLean did a performance in which she had this small white house she had built, I think with sticks and rice paper.   I believe it was a tribute to the late Mary Churchill who ran the Puppet Showplace for many years.   Over the course of Kristin's performance she used the walls of the house in many different ways, including as a shadowpuppet screen-- projecting images through these walls.  She also painted on the walls with water and ink, all during the course of telling a story. Eventually, I think she cut into the rice paper walls of the little house making doors and windows and if I remember correctly, she ultimately began taking it apart.    It was just a powerful piece that examined very simply and directly all of the stylistic directions you could go with this physical object, and have them metaphorically resonate, and in the execution each action, the piece was consistently, quietly, beautiful, profound and poetic. 

M: Stay Tuned for Part 2...

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