A Conversation with Lyndsay Magid & Josh Aviner
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Written by Corey Ruzicano
Photography by Emma Pratte
October 4, 2016
Walking into the studio where producer Lyndsay Magid and director Josh Aviner are rehearsing is like walking into EDM slumber party fever dream. As they tell the story, the performers walk the line between precision and wild abandon. We sat down with Lyndsay and Josh to talk about their dazzling hybrid of dance-circus-storytelling, SLUMBER, premiering at House of Yes.
Corey Ruzicano: I would love to start by talking about the language of circus. How does the cirque vocabulary add to or shift the process and limits of storytelling?
Josh Aviner: I think circus traditionally is very trick-based. Most different cirque disciplines have a series of tricks that you learn and do. In the last thirty years, a lot of circus schools have been focusing less on the trick and more on the over-the-top physicality stuff you might see at Streb. It’s closer to dance, but still circus-esque. A challenge for us is picking what tricks we think enhance the storytelling and which are just too “show-biz-y” to use. It’s a balance between, okay that trick looks like you’re choking her and is also a really impressive circus trick, versus, that one looks too much like a style, like it belongs on a more old school style show. It’s important to be familiar with the vocabulary, seeing a lot of different acts, and being able to say, out of the thirty tricks you can do, which are the fifteen that work best for what we’re doing, and then using Keone and Mari [Madrid, choreographers] to fill in the gaps to make the tricks look a little less like tricks and a little more like acting moments.
Lyndsay Magid: Something that’s been really interesting is that most circus performers come with a specific act and then there’s a process of restructuring it so it has the feeling of the song and the moment of the show, which is different than a traditional circus show where they just book the act.
JA: They already come with a song.
LM: They come with the song, they come with the act, that’s what you get. With this it’s: let’s deconstruct your act and mold it to fit the dynamics of the moment.
JA: That’s the fun part.
CR: I would love to hear more about what are the things that you love about doing this? As a pair you have such compatible backgrounds for this kind of work –what is it like working on a project where you’re both coming at it from such different angles?
LM: Well, I’m like, what’s the story? Who are you? What is their connection to each other? Because I’m a musical theater girl. Make me feel something. And Josh is like, I want to feel something but I want to be wowed.
JA: What’s special about circus, at least to me, is that in-the-moment, visceral reaction. When you see someone drop from fifteen feet and all you know is that the only thing catching them is their own hands, that gives you a gasp you can’t really get in another medium. So the tricky part is tying what’s best about circus and what’s best about theater, and now that we have Keone and Mari here, what’s best about dance. What’s interesting about adding dance is that it’s this level of precision that theater and circus don’t really have. Theater often, with the exception of Curious Incident, isn’t so specifically choreographed. Circus isn’t choreographed at all – it’s athletic, it’s a trick and then another trick. Having Keone and Mari has been so helpful because they point out that we can take all of these little moments in between and just by moving your hand in this direction you can add a whole meaning to it without text. And that’s been my favorite part.
We’ve been working on this contortion number with Olga, where the premise is that she’s coming back from being almost dead. Usually a contortion number is just picking the trick sequences and now that we have the song, we have all this cool movement you can do within a trick with your free hand or your free foot or leg or head, to make it way more creepy and make the character way more clear. So that kind of collaboration, taking what the artist brings to it, has been the most fun part.
LM: It’s almost like the dance is the bridge between these two worlds, it’s connecting it. When we started, I knew it would be additive, but I didn’t think it would be so connecting of the two. It’s so cool because we have the dancers and we have the circus performers, and both groups keep saying, I feel so out of my element. It’s not a circus show, it’s not a dance show.
CR: Absolutely. What’s it like when all these people who speak different languages get in a room together?
LM: It’s awesome. I think a lot of people would think it’d be hard, building a show with so many different vocabularies, but everyone is so game to do it. It’s funny, we’re doing lift and the dancers are trying to figure out how to do it, and the circus performers get it in one go, and then they’re doing a section where they’re dancing in counts and that’s easy for the dancers, but it’s so different from circus. So it’s really cool to see the different skills, it’s what makes it a show I’ve never seen before, it’s a whole new genre.
JA: All the numbers that we’re making are ensemble numbers, and usually when you’re seeing a circus show, you see a Chinese pole act, there’s a sort of lamppost looking thing. If you’re doing an ensemble piece in circus, you have a bunch of people coming down and doing flips and things, but now that we have all these dancers we can do all these things with dance that match – like, as he drops, what kind of dance movements can we do that a typical circus performer wouldn’t have the physical awareness to be able to do? We picked Keone and Mari when we were looking around, because they do this very close storytelling thing that we really want to do and because we thought our languages were similar.
CR: In that vein, what has it been like cultivating these different creative partnerships, both with each other and with the community? How and with whom do you collaborate? What’s your recipe for success?
JA: Well, I think I have a recipe for collaboration, not necessarily for success. I think it’s being super, super open, to start with. Not taking anything personally if someone throws up an idea that’s different from your idea. And I think listening, particularly for me as the director and Lyndsay as the producer, it’s really about getting everybody’s thoughts on how they imagined it, because usually that’s so much better than I imagined it in my head alone. I feel like if we let everybody bring to the table what we hired them for, why we wanted to work with them in the first place, I think that’s really key. Listening.
LM: Yeah, not treating any idea like it’s precious. Being open, knowing that ideas can come from anywhere; I think that’s really important way to think about the process. My idea isn’t the right idea, it’s just an idea. It’s how we go about it, even with each other when we’re talking about something. It’s like, well I have an idea, so we just start with that, and then it usually ends up a totally different idea, but if you’re not open to it, it can never get to that other place.
JA: Circus is also a little bit different from theater in that there’s no playwright. The job of the director is mostly to come up with the concept for each of the scenes. Circus community doesn’t call the rehearsal period rehearsal, they call it creation, because so much that actually needs to be created in that period that typically the playwright would probably have created prior to, that would map out the beginning, middle, end of the scene. With circus, it’s like we know we need to hit this trick and this trick and we have to get to the finale trick at this musical cue, and I want to use you guys…and there’s no way to really script that.
CR: Do you guys use text in this piece?
JA: We do. We have two characters who have pre-scripted text and there’s about ten minutes of talking in the show – some of it is improv, some of it is set. We do acknowledge the audience is there, so some of it, who’s in the audience that day will determine what we talk about.
CR: That’s so cool. I ask because I remember reading this article on HowlRound while Les 7 Doigts de la Main were doing their show Traces at ArtsEmerson, about how the use of spoken text in circus was so form-breaking and shocking for a lot of people, that it’s a different practice with a different set of rules. So I think it’s so cool to hear about how you’re taking this rulebook and reframing it for what you want to make and do.
JA: Oh yeah, we’ve definitely been inspired by 7 Fingers. Gypsy [Snider], one of the co-founders who directs many of their shows, was actually very helpful in getting two of our circus performers. We called her and said, we need a contortionist and we need someone who can do Chinese pole, and she was like, I have the people for you. It’s so great to be able to all help each other out and it’s a pretty small community, you get to know everybody pretty quickly.
CR: Of course, I’m sure there aren’t very many performers who can do all those things. How do you see horror and circus being used as a lens for autobiography?
JA: That’s a good question. I think the tricky part about circus is being very specific. It’s hard to hit or talk about specific themes. In a play, you’re talking, so you can talk about things, about what you want to artistically say. I think the purpose of circus is to give you emotion, and we’re trying to use the text to get you the ideas, that hopefully over the show, the music, the dance, the circus, has put you in the right kind of mood to be receptive to the little bit of talking they have, to what the motivation is behind the show, why we’re here doing what we’re doing.
LM: I also think the idea, when you see horror, that person doing the horrific acts has a very strong motivation, and that motivation is clear to see when you go see horror.
JA: And the way in which we’re treating horror less like slasher film and more like a Quentin Tarantino movie: lots of thriller, blood, action, but it’s not just gore.
LM: Exactly, and I think it helps that it’s horror because this character with the motivation, we follow her through the whole show and she has a very strong point of view and a very strong point to her actions, so it’s a really easy story to follow. I think sometimes with contemporary circus, you get the idea or theme of the show but it’s hard to follow the actual story; whereas with this I understand what’s happening to these people, especially with the talking, it clarifies exactly what’s happening. You get the story and you get the visceral motivation.
JA: The most important thing is character, so with all of the physicality, with your dance, how can we be really clear about how everyone is related together, who’s the one who’s not cool, who’s the one who’s super cool, who has a crush on whom, who’s angry at whom? Without words you have to get that all across, but if you manage to do that, then you can get the audience aligned with the performers the way you would in a play.
CR: What about fear is compelling for the act of storytelling, especially when there’s a choice involved?
JA: Circus is very fear-based I think. You can imagine someone walking a wire or doing an aerial act and the danger is just real, and therefore the fear is real.
LM: I mean, they train lots and lots and lots of years. It’d be different if, say, I decided to get up there and do it.
CR: Oh yeah, me too.
JA: Of course, but fear is still really tied to circus. Even the best acting moments…you could have Meryl Streep stabbing Al Pacino on stage, and at the end of the day, you know it’s all fake. With circus, if you mess up, the danger is real.
LM: I really want to see that show.
CR: Well, there you go, that’s your next project!
JA: Definitely. And that’s what makes fear such a fun thing to play with. Our performers totally know what they’re doing, but maybe to the audience there is a question of whether or not they’re in control of what they’re doing.
LM: It’s new every time – even though I know exactly what trick he’s doing, I know the setup, I still gasp. As an audience member, it is really fun to feel that real, urgent sense of fear.
CR: And it’s so interesting to juxtapose the manufactured horror-fear with the very real physical fear.
JA: Yes, exactly. Nailed it.
CR: Oh amazing, I passed the test. So why Brooklyn? Why New York? How does circus relate to place?
LM: Well, we both live in Brooklyn. We’ve lived in New York for the past seven or eight years, my formative understanding of the field is what it’s like to be part of the field in New York. I spent a lot of time in commercial theater and Broadway and I loved the community. Meeting Josh three years ago at Columbia and talking about where New York fits in this greater scheme of circus…it’s a pretty small community here. And it’s such a hub for all other art forms that it’s strange that circus is so underrepresented here.
JA: But the thing about New York circus is that it seems inherently a little more theatrical because it’s in a very theatrical city, and there are other cities like Montreal or Chicago or Las Vegas, where it’s a little more traditional show-biz-y, and not in a bad way, it’s just more presentational. And because we’re in New York and there’s less circus, the circus that does exist seems to pull a lot from the theater and from the dance community and so I think we both realized that and thought, oh, we really really commit to that and really pull from theater and really pull from dance and try to make something that New York audiences will like.
LM: And we also both felt strongly that we wanted to stay in New York and create this new voice of our voices in circus and what the future of the American contemporary circus is and can be, because there’s a lot of people doing it that I really admire, and so in trying to create our own voice, doing it in Brooklyn felt like the most authentic place to start.
JA: And then we can tour it.
CR: How does audience engagement differ for this kind of art? How has the development of your podcast informed your work?
JA: Oh man the podcast has been so awesome, because when we started it, I think the idea was, it doesn’t really matter who listens because we’re just going to get to talk to all these amazing people we admire. They come over to our house and have beer and hang out and we chat, but we never really get into it in the way you sometimes do in an interview. And after the podcast we felt like all these amazing people give these snippets of advice and things that have worked for them, that we’re trying to absorb as much as we can. As to how we’re trying to work with the audience in this show, we start off with the audience thinking that there’s a fourth wall and there are all these perceptions that get shattered pretty quickly.
LM: It’s an immersive show in that you’re actually inside of this environment of the world. It’s not invasive in that you have to participate.
JA: It comes to you.
CR: What is the role of technology in the conversation – both of making the art and producing or communicating it?
LM: Well we found Keone and Mari on YouTube. Their career started through YouTube.
JA: And the internet is so amazing in terms of casting. Circus performers are spread all over the world, and sometimes you’re hiring people from Mongolia or Russia or Australia, and that’s pretty normal just because there aren’t that many people who can do all that stuff, so you have to find them wherever you can. And the internet is the number one way to find them, and then you try to go see and meet them in person. But that casting is pretty key for the conception of the project, but other than that this is a pretty low-tech show. The blood effects have a little tech in them but pretty much everything else is done by hand, old school ropes and pulleys.
LM: And as far as the audience using their cell phones, the good thing about circus and being in the space we’re in, we don’t care if you post a photo.
JA: As long as you use the right hashtag.
LM: Yeah, we’re lucky in that sense that it’s not destructive to the show, it’s additive in a way. Just no flash. Other than that it’s a pretty low-tech show, which is nice.
JA: The more tech, the more things can go wrong.
CR: Definitely, there’s already a lot of fear involved. When you feel stuck, what do you do? To whom do you turn?
JA: One another.
CR: That’s awesome – do you have pieces or places you look to for inspiration, or heroes that you draw from?
JA: Oh absolutely. Sort of all over the place. Artistically, 7 Fingers and James Thiérrée, Charlie Chaplin’s grandson, who has a lot of shows that come to BAM, and frankly Cirque du Soleil have been huge influences in shaping what I like and got me excited abou circus in the first place. Whenever we’re stuck, Lyndsay and I sit in our apartment and we just talk it out.
LM: And coming from musical theater, I love contemporary musical theater songs. I think they’re great at telling a song telling a specific story and I love listening to the builds of those songs. I worked at Atlantic Theater Company for a while and the Managing Director there, Jeff Lawson, I call him my theater dad. He’s really great at being part of the theater world but also understanding what we’re doing.
JA: And both our dad’s are entrepreneurs, totally self-made people, so whenever we have a real legal problem like, oh man this contract totally blew up in my face and it has nothing to do with theater, it’s nice to have parents who have that business background and have been through that struggle.
LM: Because that stuff is a struggle.
CR: My last question is, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?
LM: The best piece of advice I’ve actually ever gotten has nothing to do with anything, but I was an actor at one point and studied at BADA in Oxford, and Alan Rickman came and taught class and someone had said, you always play the villain – and I think this is really pertinent to this show – and he said, I never think of myself as the villain. The villain never sees themself as the villain. They want whatever they want more than anyone else and they’ll do whatever it takes to get it. And I just thought, that’s so smart and it’s so relevant to this show with a character who wants what she wants more than anybody else.
JA: Mine’s more circus-y but Paul Binder, the founder of Big Apple Circus, told me this thing about working with collaborators which is that, you know you have a good or bad collaborator if, when you tell them you don’t know about an idea, they get very defensive. Because people who are genuinely creative are open to new ideas and coming up with more things. But if someone is so defensive and fights so hard for their idea it’s because they’re worried they won’t have more. And even though that sounds like something you would use as a template to hire people, it’s actually great internal advice: don’t fight so hard for that one idea, you’ll have more, be in a place where you can let them go, be confident enough that you’ll think of new ones. And if you go into that, you will be in a place to be a good collaborator.