Frankie's blond bobblehead, amplified in size on one of three film screens stretched across the stage, has a Barbie-doll-gone-bad quality. She's a kleptomaniac, a thief of merchandise and hearts. We can't avoid her wide-eyed deceit. Meanwhile, Vivian Bang, the actor who plays Frankie, maneuvers around the clip lights and cameras behind the screens. The audience sees everything she and the other members of New York's Big Art Group are doing in Shelf Life, at least from the chest up. They fidget with their costumes, their hair, each other, and then--voilà!--hit a mark as the camera turns their way. One minute Frankie's ready for her closeup; the next she's adjusting a bra strap. Both events are fascinating.
Directors often take us behind the scenes, but it's rare to experience the inner workings of film and theater together, their most mechanical elements demystified and elevated to the same level of the art itself. In the case of Big Art Group, which will present Shelf Life this weekend as part of the Walker Art Center's Out There series, the technique has a name: "Real-Time Film." But according to Caden Manson, the 30-year-old artistic director, his troupe is more than a quirky concept. Big Art Group ("a no-apologies, balls-out" name, he admits in a telephone interview) toys with perception. The performers act in front of cameras yet are still trapped within the immediacy of theater. There are no second takes, so they must manipulate viewers into seeing what they want them to see, in the moment.
"It's like video puppetry," Manson explains of Big Art Group's task-based choreography. "Parts of the body connect and disconnect to create a character on the screen." Even though the actors are of different races and genders, their disparate physical qualities meld onscreen to create a new sort of identity. It's a bit like looking at one of those children's flip books in which pictures are divided into three parts that can be manipulated to create fantastic beings. Arms stretch across the expanse of three screens, perspective shifts with nary a camera adjustment. And yet those actors we see behind the screens seem so normal...
"People ask me what are they supposed to look at: the image or the stage? I always say they are equally important," explains Manson, who came by his vivid sensibility assisting such experimental theater masters as Robert Wilson, Julie Taymor, and the Wooster Group's Elizabeth LeCompte. This perspective challenges the common performance-art experience, in which video is an afterthought, an excuse to include the term "multimedia" in publicity and grant descriptions. "It doesn't reward or help you think about anything when that happens," Manson says of such work. "It's just decorative."
Big Art Group's approach, by contrast, is immediate and raw. Frankie's bizarre love life plays out through Jemma Nelson's deliberately mundane text. "In theater there are moments of metaphor and backstory, but there's no metaphor in Shelf Life," Manson continues. "It's still really beautiful if you listen to it. There's a rhythm, but he stripped it down to the 1s and 0s." Flat language is, however, the perfect foil for special effects, a fact Big Art Group happily exploits. The expected boundaries of film and theater are mutated, even mocked on a stage, as all the secrets of the trade are shamelessly revealed. The image, it turns out, is really the product of our desires.
"I'm so happy with how the process invites the audience to turn on its imagination," Manson concludes, then adds pragmatically, "but ultimately it's a magic trick with no sleeves."