Thursday, May 10, 2012

Don't change the channel - its Evan O'Television! Part 2

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.

Blood From a Turnip #Providence, Evan O’Television, Photo: David Higgins

Marsian: What was you most disasterous slam experience?
Evan O'Television: One of Kristin McLean's occasional collaborators was the director of The Revolving Museum - an organization that curated site specific shows at various different locations all around Boston.  The director of the Revolving Museum had set up a show for First Night (New Year's Eve) Boston that he populated primarily with Puppet Slam performers.   He asked me to perform at it.  It was at the Cyclorama in Boston and there was a very cool set, and we were all in different rooms of a mocked-up house.  People were encouraged to wander around and it was definitely a very cool set up if you were a more interactive performer.  But the problem was that I was performing a 15 minute version of the "Ex Machina" show I described earlier.  And this piece also now included an audience-plant routine.  The biggest issue is that my pieces are narrative and definitely require the undivided attention of an audience.  Here, we were playing a venue where people would essentially wander through look at what we were doing for about 2 minutes and then move on. Because I perform with a recording it's difficult to stop or start over and nearly impossible to improvise.  So we just kept performing it over and over, often with no one in our space and just me and my friend and collaborator Mark Myatt (who was my audience "plant" originally intended to blend in with the never-constant audience).  Most of the time we were performing for no one, or else for people who took a brief interest akin to viewing animals in a zoo. 

M: What did you take away from that experience?
EO: After performing in this show I have always taken pains to clarify that any show I am booked at is organized as a theatrical performance and not an "installation" style environment.

M: How could your slam circuit grow?
EO: I definitely would like to see more connection and sharing of acts from Boston and Providence up to Vermont, with Sandglass, and obviously Bread and Puppet.  So many performers I have enjoyed over the years have spent time in Vermont and yet, we still haven't fully been able to make Western Mass and Vermont a consistent part of a circuit down to Boston and Providence.  There's plenty of work still to be done on making the loop from New York to Providence to Boston and back more regular and fruitful.  Even though there has been some success with mini-tours in recent years we can always do more.  It would be also be cool to extend the performer's circuit up to Maine, which has always seemed to be rich with talent (Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers come to mind). 

M: And Nancy Andrews is up there too!
I would love to see a slam circuit that brought more performers from Vermont, Western Mass. and Maine down to Boston and Providence, perhaps though UConn and on to New York, Philly and maybe even D.C....  and of course, vice-versa.

M: Tell us about a fabulous failure and what you've learned from it.
EO: There was an early show, probably the  5th or 6th piece I created as Evan O' Television, where I had a lousy idea for a very odd and awkward premise, where the TV and the live performer would start by speaking for many minutes entirely in synchronized speech, saying the exact same things, almost like a chant, and then a breakdown in our synchronized presentation would happen and we would separate into our usual argument mode.  One problem was that I was under-rehearsed so I was genuinely screwing up the synchronized speaking before the built-in intentional screw-up" could happen.  But it was basically too convoluted and too elaborate a performance idea with very little payoff to recommend it.  It taught me a lot about how I need to simplify and shape my ideas in the writing and recording stage before I got to the performance stage.  And it also taught me that when I am attempting something very stylistic different within my formula, I need to allow for even more rehearsal time.

M: Why are Puppet Slams important to you?  
EO: I love Puppet Slams because they are some of the only shows you can attend and still see things you didn't expect to see.  There are very often surprises, in terms of what kind of performance someone sharing, and what their particular angle or interpretation of puppetry is.  It is also great that very often the participants are a mixture of pros and amateurs, newbies and veterans.  You not only have very good odds for seeing something completely unexpected, but you also could see something astonishingly professional in its execution, and sometimes both within the same performance.

M: What inspires you to create a puppet slam piece?
EO: I wish I knew where my ideas came from so that I might burn a fire under them and become magically way more prolific.   Most of my ideas are about situations I can imagine the TV and I struggling with onstage.  If you have seen any of my performances, it's pretty clear that they are all built around a some performance goal that is thwarted or that the TV and I ultimately become distracted from in some way, or ultimately fail at.
So I guess the seeds of my pieces always are twofold:
1. What would be interesting to watch the Evan on the TV and I try to do? 
2. What is a new, interesting and entertaining way for us to fail at that goal? 

I also always like to play with breaking the audience boundaries and pursuing new ways to interact with the audience, because the more I do that, the less restricted and trapped I feel by the fact that I am performing with a recording.  Finally, in recent years, I have looked for new ways that circumstantially or plot-wise my live-performer character can sometimes get the upper hand or grab some power from the TV, because the Evan on the television is so often the more charismatic comedic star of my show.   I like to occasionally have the straight-man win one.

M: Who are some other artists on the puppet slam circuit that you are inspired by?   
EO: At a Blood From A Turnip  show that Vanessa Gilbert organized on the Brown Campus many years ago, there was a really amazing shadow show, I think it was The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by the Drama of Works.  That really blew me away.  It absolutely pushed the most cinematic potential of shadow shows in ways I've never seen.  You had a piece in that show as well, Marsian, your Michael Jackson's Zoo storybook piece which I really enjoyed in all of its perverse splendor.  

M: Go on!
EO: I especially liked  the way it was reminiscent of Children's TV - just you sitting there with the giant book, that you opened up and the puppets came out of.  I have always loved how quickly you are able to immerse the audience in the uniqueness of your world.  As you know I also loved every iteration of Growing Up Linda, that I have seen and really enjoyed it when you revived it at my Itching Man show at the Coolidge Corner.
M: Well thanks for the trip down memory lane...
Sarah Frechette is always one of my faves, though I haven't seen her perform in a while, not since she moved West.  I'm just mesmerized by her power to make herself invisible through her Marionette skills and I love the puppets that she builds.  The Man on the Burning Trapeze, I believe was the name of a piece she used to do that used to give me chills it was so good.

M: Anyone else? 
EO: Last Winter in New York at the Hellzapoppin' Puppets show I saw Carla Rhodes for the first time and I was in awe.  It was just so exciting, to see someone who, like me, is playing around thematically with updating vaudeville traditions - but unlike me, has absolute real-deal chops and virtuosity regarding the traditional twin talents of puppeteering and ventriloquism.  Also, the way in which her puppet Cecil, both seduces the audience, but then punishes us by being totally offensive, is something that I really enjoy comedically.  I like the way we, in the audience, are made to feel guilty for liking him, and also how it falls to Carla as the puppeteer and performer to negotiate those uncomfortably funny problems of political incorrectness, in front of the audience.

M: What pieces do you have in circulation to perform in puppet slams?
EO: I have about three 8-10 minute sets right now that I feel are slam-ready and slam-worthy.

The first piece is essentially the initial 10 minutes excepted from my NY Fringe Festival show Double Negatives.  In it the television and I are undermined in our attempt to introduce ourselves to the audience by technical difficulties that involve a particularly awkward moment for the TV... of losing lip-synch.

Another piece is an abbreviated version of the show I am currently developing, called TV Personality,  In addition to dealing with a difference of opinion about how to start our show and greet the audience, the TV and I get into conflict about the appropriateness of a certain Abbott & Costello anecdote and entertain very different ideas about what the future holds for us.  If people are interested in booking a longer set, I also perform a 25 minute version of this show.

I also have a piece called Similies in which the TV attempts to moderate the live Evan's stress, by smoking an illicit substance.  But this ends up working in the wrong direction, resulting in the opposite of a mellowing effect.

And finally, if people want to book a longer piece, I have my long-standing, crowd-pleaser, Pavlov which famously involves audience participation and hypnosis and runs about 15 minutes. 
M: I love that one!  Such a classic. Where can people contact you to perform?
People can contact me at my website,  It is still kind of just an old Wordpress Blog where I sometimes post about my shows.  It will be undergoing a redesign this year I hope.  Or you can email me at

M: Where would you like to see the Puppet Slam Network in the future?
EO: I would like to see the Puppet Slam Network continuing it's current trajectory.  It's pretty inspiring to see it grow.  And I would like to see more and more of the Puppet Slam Network in person.  Namely, I would absolutely love to have a majority of the shows I do in 2013 to be at Slams around the country.  Puppet shows and puppet audiences have always been my favorite crowds.

M: That's a fabulous post-apocalyptic goal! What advice do you have for up and coming slam artists who are just starting out?
EO: Maintain a spirit of adventurousness and experimentation but also never forget the importance of the audience.  What is the journey you are hoping to take them on?  How successful are you?  Whenever experimental work forgets to continuously engage or reward the audience then it misses the inherently conversational nature of live theater and risks being over-indulgent.

M: Anything else we should know?
EO: On May 19th Vanessa Gilbert and David Higgins and I will be having our final Blood From A Turnip of the season. We'll have the always inspiring and hilarious Z & Chad with their  Wonderspark Puppets (another favorite act I could have mentioned above).  We will also have MF Town Productions from Providence, and Nicole LeDuc Hartigan bringing her newly acquired Storrs, CT, puppet school knowledge.   This will be our final season of doing Blood From A Turnip as a late-night series.  We will return in the Fall and Winter with a smaller selection of shows that will probably be more feature-driven.

And on June 9th and 10th, in Cambridge, Mass., I am reviving my Itching Man brand of live events in Boston with a two-night Fest celebrating Art Doing It With Comedy that includes ventriloquist Carla Rhodes, puppeteer Kim Mikeness, and sock-puppet soap opera Fat Nancy and Crisco alongside some of my favorite comic performers. 

M: Yay!

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