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AtticRep repurposes art installation for set of new show ‘Smudge’

BY DEBORAH MARTIN
DLMARTIN@EXPRESS-NEWS.NET
AUGUST 13, 2011

AtticRep‘s set for “Smudge,” the final show in its fifth season, is a real piece of art.

Literally.

The set was drawn from New York artistJade Townsend’s “An Allegory of Taste: Between Here and There,” a large installation commissioned by the McNay Art Museum for the “New Image Sculpture” exhibit earlier this year.

“It’s definitely exciting that it gets this whole other life,” Townsend said.

Using an art installation as a set feeds into one of AtticRep‘s missions as the company prepares to launch its sixth season this fall. Producing artistic director Roberto Prestigiacomo and interim managing director Rick Frederick want to find ways to collaborate extensively with artists from other disciplines — to bring in visual artists more often, for example, and to bring in musicians and work with galleries and other arts groups, as well. The idea is to bring in other perspectives and fresh eyes from beyond the world of theater, they said.

“It’s quite exciting,” Prestigiacomo said.

For “Smudge,” which opens Thursday, a few visual artists were brought into the mix, starting with Townsend and his installation.

The most visible section of the piece when it was on display at the McNay was a small, white house bursting at the seams. The house’s insides, visible through the windows and bulging gaps in the walls, were crammed with all sorts of furniture and other clutter. Plywood lamps, dressers, televisions, a piano and a guitar, among other things, were piled high; a crowned figure sat atop the heap.

There was never a notion that the piece would be preserved as-is after the exhibit came down, Townsend said — “I don’t like to show the same installation over and over again; it’s counterintuitive to the creative process” — though there was a possibility that he might re-use some elements in other installations. (He did keep a mechanical piece at the rear of the house, which featured two figures poking and punching each other.)

“It was a lot of stuff to deal with,” said Rene Barilleaux, chief curator at the museum and the curator for the exhibit. “We knew that some of (the elements) would probably be destroyed. They were like theater sets.”

Townsend offered to let McNay staffers who worked on the installation select pieces to keep. After that, Barilleaux said, “he said, maybe there’s another life for it. Rick Frederick (who also works at the McNay) saw it and said here’s an opportunity where we could become part of another art form.

“I think that’s a great thing, that it became part of another medium. It’s a work of art that went from being a sculptural work to being a theatrical work.”

Townsend gave his OK, and also came on board to do some other design work for the production. It marks his first foray into theater, though, he noted, “I feel like I make pretty theatrical artwork. And it plays right into the hands of theater.”

The installation has taken on a different form onstage. At the cast’s first full run-through on the set nearly two weeks ago, the three panels that made up the exterior of the house stood near the rear of the playing area; two of them were raised slightly on one side and the third was fully flush with the floor. Some of the furniture from the installation was stacked behind; Prestigiacomo said he was hoping to also have some pieces shooting into the air, as if the house had exploded.

The off-kilter elements serve the context of the play. “Smudge” is about a couple, Nicholas (Ross Olsaver) and Colby (Susanna Morrow), whose lives are rattled when she gives birth to a one-eyed being she describes as “this mangled mass” that looks “sort of like a jellyfish.”

The elements from Townsend’s installation snap right into playwright Rachel Axler’s universe, said Prestigiacomo, who is directing the dark comedy.

“There are surreal elements to the play,” he said, noting that there is some question about whether Colby actually sees some of the things she believes she sees. “The challenge is to be able to ride the fine line between what is real and what is surreal.”

Before the run-through, the production team met to hash out some design issues. Townsend was to join them via Skype, but was a little late calling in. While they waited, they worked out an issue that had been bothering Prestigiacomo. The set included a long rectangular pillar that was strictly functional — it was used as a seat. All of the other set elements are recognizable as furniture, he noted — when, for instance, Colby steps away from the baby, she sits on an off-balance dresser — and the pillar should follow that motif as well. He just wasn’t sure what shape it should take.

Emily Barker, who is doing some animation for the show and also helping with other aspects of production, suggested that the pillar could be made into a grandfather clock. Prestigiacomo immediately approved.

“If I knew you better, I would kiss you,” Prestigiacomo told her.

Besides working out the pillar issue, they looked over drawings that Townsend had done of the baby’s carriage, which was to be built by San Antonio artist Jeremiah Teutsch. (Teutsch is also creating the sounds that will emanate from the carriage, and he is making a stand-in for the baby to give the actors something other than an empty space to look at when they peer into the carriage.)

Townsend’s sketches ranged from a fairly simple carriage that was suggestive of an animal’s gaping maw to a more monstrous piece with lots of cords, panels and medical equipment snaking from and surrounding it.

Prestigiacomo opted for the simpler design, to make sure that the carriage doesn’t overwhelm the actors and everything else on stage.

The scale, though, won’t jibe precisely with what would be found offstage.

“It should look a little bit bigger than a usual carriage,” Prestigiacomo said, adding that all the props should be about 5 percent bigger, as well.

Near the end of the meeting, Frederick carried the laptop around the theater with the camera pointed toward the set so that Townsend could get a sense of what they were doing with his work.

In an interview the following evening, Townsend said he was impressed by what he’d seen.

“I think they’re making it work,” he said. “It’s such a unique theater — it’s really wide and skinny from front to back, but I think it looks great. (Frederick) did an amazing job with what he had.”

He’ll be in the theater opening night for sure. And Barilleaux might be there, too. The curator is eager to see how the installation has been transformed, though he’ll probably resist the temptation to go over to the theater and get a sneak peek.

“I’m just curious,” he said. “Part of it is, do I want to wait and see it animated with the actors? That will re-enforce its new life.”

“Smudge” opens Thursday. It can be seen at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 4 at the Attic Theatre at Trinity University. Tickets cost $10 to $20. Call 210-999-8524 for reservations or visit atticrep.org to buy tickets online.

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