Dreams of tentacles - ON AIR production's Truckers and Trackers. Alien unmade
at the AULA/ Milchhof, Berlin, Germany,
Review and Interview
Scene from Truckers and Trackers. Alien unmade, ON AIR productions (2006). © ON AIR productions
Equipped with only the technology absolutely
necessary to master the space, the ON AIR-quartet of Frauke Havemann
(director), Eric Schefter (video artist), Neal Wach (performer) and
Mark Johnson (author) present at the AULA/ Milchhof what they call a
‘live film’. The ‘live film’ aesthetic consists of a single
live performer (Wach, lit so that only his head and upper torso are
fully visible), who is in direct dialogue with three pre-recorded video
versions of himself. These show up on the screens as huge heads that
face the audience most of the time. Reading, talking and communicating
through facial expression, the four of them slip into the roles that
Johnson’s script provides for them: Standardman, the mission commander;
Hooker, the engineer; Fremont, the cook; Compost, the science officer;
Mother, the computer system; and – some alien life form. To assist
the audience in differentiating the characters, Wach and his doubles
incorporate some minor props (a pair of glasses here, a headscarf there),
as well as characteristic facial expressions, voices, and accents.
Take a series of motifs from the Science
Fiction/ Horror genre, cut them into small pieces, add the following
words, pictures, light and sound effects to ensure a stable, consumable
form, and mix everything rhythmically: a faint mechanical pounding.
An isolated place. An alarm goes off. Slimy. Sticky. Saliva. Semen.
A transmission from an unknown source. Strong wind. A hostile environment.
The first contact. It. Beeping. Crew members should not be left alone.
Hunger. Food. A search. The sound of running feet. A scream. Fearful
facial expressions. A treacherous computer system. Passwords. A blood
test. Distrust. Harassed glances. The examination of alien samples.
Quarantine. White lights, red lights. Darkness. Whereabouts unknown.
Lush, pathetic string music. Grand emotions. Blurred identities. Imitation.
Trying to reach someone by transmitter who does not answer. Hysterical
reactions. Noises of the spheres. Forbidden inter-species love. Tentacles.
Mark Johnson’s script crossbreeds material
like Bill Lancaster’s The Thing and Dan O’Bannon’s Alien
with material from his own work, in the process alluding to major works
of the Sci-Fi genre such as
Starman, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Bladerunner.
Johnson also draws on elements from other popular genres, including
the questioning methods of the crime story and the schmaltzy lines typical
of melodrama (“And didn’t I give you everything an alien possibly
can?”). If you care to draw a story line through the accumulation
of media fragments that makes up this production, you could do so in
two sentences: a crew of four is left alone together at some isolated
place, maybe a spaceship, maybe a research station, which is controlled
by a computer system called Mother. An alien life form is detected somewhere
on the premises, and one crew member after the other is attacked by
it, until in the end only Mother and alien remain. Or… maybe not.
This kind of narrative analysis doesn’t get you very far with this
piece of theatre. To further explore the multi-layered montage presented,
it might be helpful to look at how its components interrelate.
The fragments combine, overlap, and penetrate each other, fragments which are often cut off sharply. But since they all float in the same well-defined theatrical cosmos, a sort of atmospheric coherence is guaranteed. The performance is held together by its consistently followed rules, its recurring textual, visual, and musical themes, and its limitation to a minimum of theatrical means and techniques. The whole of the scenic texture offers meaning without fixing it. It demonstrates that a very few elements are sufficient to form a scene when they are brought into play with each other. For example, a wild chase is suggested as follows: while the row of screens emits a grey-blue light, the whistling of the wind can be heard, then some tension-rhythm music on top of it. The head of one character appears in profile on screen, his running movements indicated only by the rhythmic up and down of his shoulders and his moving from screen to screen. With a panicked look in the eyes, the head turns around from time to time. It finally reappears at the other end of the row, while the music continues. Suddenly a scream, then only the noise of the wind can be heard. Gradually, pathetic, melancholy string music comes in, and slowly the screens turn black. The music continues for a while, opening the space to the audience’s imagination of the inevitably accompanying events. One does become acutely aware of the intentional pressure on one’s emotions. Sound is used as a major means of producing atmosphere and a sense of architectural space; the latter, for example, by the noise of running feet that circles the audience.
It is the principle of cut and montage
that organizes the performance – a principle that more often belongs
to the world of film. In Truckers and Trackers the different
media penetrate each other structurally. The ‘cut’ technique is
also used on the live performance situation, and is even emphasized:
scenes suddenly break off, music suddenly stops, and screens flicker
before they switch to a new image. The pauses between scenes are non-existent
at times and extended at others. Furthermore, scenes can be repeated
or ‘looped’. There is another filmic peculiarity that becomes a
major characteristic of the whole performance: the close-up. The facial
expressions of the characters are extremely present, and the impact
of the feelings they reflect is heightened to a maximum degree. On the
vocal level, there is a very complex dialogue going on between the live
and the pre-recorded dimensions. As the live player, Wach sometimes
lends his voice to all of the present (live and video) characters at
once, but at other times he shares the dialogue with the recorded voices,
or leaves the talking entirely to them. Thus, he does not stick to a
single role, but lets them all float through him.
Investigating the flux and friction between
live performance and pre-recorded video material was a main goal when
Frauke Havemann brought together Eric Schefter and Neal Wach in 2002
and ON AIR productions was founded. The trio created strategies to allow
Wach to play live against his pre-recorded selves. From their first
production, Hotel Radio (2002), to their most recent creation,
Truckers and Trackers, the group has continually refined the timing
and interaction between Wach and Schefter, who controls the videos and
sound effects. This live interaction allows for flexibility and decision-making
at the moment of performance; accidents and unforeseen events are integrated.
Over the years, ON AIR has developed quite singular aesthetics, which
are characterized by – the ‘un-shown’.
The unknown is what the spectator is
confronted with in Truckers and Trackers,
and not only in the form of an unidentifiable alien being. The unknown
also characterizes the huge space that is entirely left to the audience’s
imagination. Most of the action develops in between the fragments fed
to the spectators. Although the main theme includes bodies being penetrated,
violated and transformed, all we get to see is – the heads. While
the characters’ heads seem to be intruded by the idea of becoming
alien, the audience members’ heads are intruded by single phrases,
sounds and images that force them to activate their archive of cultural
knowledge to satisfy their hunger for sense. Nonetheless, despite the
lack of onstage action, the ‘actions’ are extremely present and
can be emotionally and bodily felt by the spectator. By isolating the
elements which are essential for creating a certain atmosphere, and
by reproducing this atmosphere with such minimal means, the group manages
to lay open the structural functioning of theatre and to integrate the
production process into the performance.
The audience’s experience in watching
this performance mirrors what the characters within the ‘story’
face: the perception of phenomena as unconnected fragments. It is a
situation in which the seeds of fear are planted. Interestingly enough,
the alien never shows up. Is it just an outcome of the paranoia that
forms in the minds of the crew? It never becomes quite clear who is
infected and who is not. Suspicion and distrust arise. Anyone could
be an intruder if - like its relatives in The Thing - the alien
imitates the beings it invades. The ‘Other’ looks very much like
The piece scatters tracks for both crew
and audience to follow – and that’s all. The result is a constant
state of irritation. Both groups take part in an elaborate game of implying.
“What do we do now?” “Keep your eyes on them.” “Whose eyes
on whom?” “Just do it.” The dialogue suggests that none of the
characters knows exactly what anyone else is talking about. The short
sentences collide with each other, and the reactions are never quite
what one would expect. Suddenly a serious and urgent situation such
as finding the right computer password takes on the character of a quiz-show.
At these moments, when audience expectations are treated playfully,
the scenes can become very comical.
The irritation caused here is also a
product of the production’s motif of playing with identities. It becomes
impossible to categorize: who is human? Who is an alien that is imitating
a human? And who is a human who is just imagining that he is an alien
because he has had to imitate one too often? For example, at one point
the crew decides to beat the alien at its own game (“it imitates,
so we’ll imitate”). However, since the alien does not actually present
itself, what the crew imitates is only the appearance of the alien that
each of them has created in his imagination. As if this wasn’t enough
inter-species confusion, suddenly a character is duplicated; his image
appears twice on the screens. Later, someone else’s voice splits up
into two overlapping ones. For the audience, new questions arise: ‘which
voice belongs to which body?’ ‘What part is the live performer playing
now?’ In the end, it is always the same face the audience is confronted
It should be obvious by now that the performance’s narrative takes on many forms. It is not the telling of a certain ‘story’ that is important in this production, so much as the experimentation with identities, with irritation and expectation, the questioning of narrative strategies, genre aesthetics, the working methods of film, and the creation of atmosphere. Perception becomes a significant topic; how does the consciousness synthesize meaning? Furthermore, how does paranoia manage to creep in? The spectator’s head, actively seeking something to connect with, quite literally finds its mirror-image in the heads of the characters, who, facing the audience from the screens and stage, dialogue with it as much as with the other characters. The final words of the performance may be viewed as advice for characters and audience alike: “why don’t you just wait here for a while, see what happens?”
Trucker and Trackers. Alien unmade,
directing/ video- and textmontage: Frauke Havemann; live and video performance/
textmontage: Neal Wach; live and video cut: Eric Schefter; script: Mark
Johnson; production management: Kerstin Schroth, Nina Thielicke; first
performance: 21. September 2006, AULA/ Milchhof, Berlin (Germany)
Next performances of Truckers and
Trackers. Alien unmade: 9./10./16./17. March 2006, TESLA, Berlin
(please check www.tesla-berlin.de/index.php to confirm)
“… going with the narrative as much as against the narrative…”
A conversation with
Frauke Havemann and Eric Schefter about
Truckers and Trackers. Alien unmade
Have you been in any situation lately
that you would describe as being ‘alien’?
Frauke Havemann: (laughter)
Probably constantly. More or less.
How did you arrive at the basic theme
of your latest production, “Truckers and Trackers”?
I think it had to do with the fact that there are questions that develop
after each project, out of each project, so there is sort of a chain
going on. Since Leatherback already dealt with elements of horror
films, there were still questions open which interested us. But it was
not ‘Oh, it’s gonna be Alien’. And then, when I saw
Alien again, what was really interesting was that it seemed if we
did Alien it would be absolutely over challenging us, the movie.
Because it is a big movie. Alien is very, very visual. That is
something we don’t do at all. And what interested me also: There was
a documentation part, where Dan O’Bannon talked about how he developed
the script. And he talked about how he was accused of stealing from
one specific source. There was an author who said ‘This is not
an original idea, it comes from blah blah blah’. And O’Bannon made
a list of the people that inspired him and said, ‘I hope, this will
put to rest the notion that I stole Alien from a single source.
I stole it from everybody’. Also, because in his original script
he (O’Bannon) was thinking of a B-movie, a lot of the fear, the paranoia
was done through spoken language, through the dialogue, and not through
incredible visual effects. The film which I found even more interesting
for questions we work with was “The Thing”. The ‘thing’ enters
the body and disappears, and this creates a situation of mistrust and
paranoia. What you look at you cannot trust anymore. So the image of
the person becomes very doubtful. They don’t know: Are you already
infected? Are you gonna change, are you gonna transform?
So in your performance, what is this
alien for you?
We don’t define it, we don’t even say it’s certainly bad. We leave
it open if it is something which is created from inside, or on the other
hand it could also be something that has entered or is entering from
outside. But we leave it open, we don’t define what it is, and we
never show it.
There is no literal alien in the piece. It is not even necessary for
this piece to operate with a literal alien. What could have happened
in that situation could have happened through the paranoia of the crew
itself. Or through triggers that come from outside like the transmission,
but not necessarily through any alien or virus. It all comes from inside
How do you deal with the narrative?
Your piece has a very fragmented character…
FH: It is not so much about deconstructing
the narrative. I like the effort of going with the narrative as much
as against the narrative. What that means is that the elements in relation
to each other have to make sense within this context. But that doesn’t
at all mean that it is a linear narrative with a middle and an end and
that it has a plot. For me it is more about how we use the narrative
element to create a situation. So the situation becomes actually more
important than the narrative.
Did you have some kind of storyline
in mind at the beginning?
FH: No, we didn’t have it in
mind. One important aspect of our work is to create a live situation.
We have to montage what we get as a script, and during the process we
find out how we can use the elements. We basically find out how we can
work with the story and against it at the same time, to create a situation
that has to do with perception. We shift the text from the original
characters as it was originally written by Mark and give the words to
other characters, or other players you could say, to bring in another
challenge within the live situation.
Could you describe how the script
by Mark changed throughout the production process?
The process informs the script as much as the script informs the process
in the sense that first of all it is not a typical film or theatrical
situation where you get a script and you interpret it. At the very first
research stages we look at materials that relate to the theme, in this
case the films Alien and The Thing, but also for example,
things on parasites.
We look at a lot of different sources surrounding the ideas.
Have you done that together with Mark?
He does a lot of research by himself, and in this case I collected something
like a proposal, which was a montage created from three or four different
scripts. It also included sections of Mark’s own work. We sent this
to him, and then he started working on the script. And we talked on
the phone, we talked by email, and exchanged about the process of the
script. It would be great – but we haven’t achieved it so far –
if the script could be called ‘finished’ when we start. Because
if it is fully developed we can redevelop it. I make a first edit because,
in this case specifically, the script was very long. And then, because
Neal does all the characters, we have to find voices for them, which
means accents: The French guy, the Jewish guy… Who plays whom? In
the course of that decisions are also made how we change lines from
one character to another. For example, from Standardman, the captain,
we gave more and more of the text to Mother, the computer. There was
a large shift. We changed whole sections. So basically we laid out the
whole script, we divided it into individual sections, and then we started
shifting them around. So sections would appear in totally different
places than in the original script.
But you do have a final version of
the script before you start shooting?
We had about half the script, I think. We started shooting and rehearsing
with that material. At the same time Mark was sending us new material.
It was an organic evolution, I suppose. It was constantly shifting.
And up until almost the last week of rehearsal, it was still shifting,
even though we had all the material at that point. And we even went
back and shot scenes we had taken out, and extracted scenes we left
FH: The first edit was a very extreme one, a very reduced version of the script. And then we noticed it was not working like that. And then we actually went back to the script, and Neal and I both did several reedits of it. It is not enough to just take the script and translate it directly one to one, because then we are on too secure ground. It is also about knowing and not knowing. There has to be a challenge in the live playing. And if it is just one character you play through and develop, there is no question on what this illusion, this fiction is built. Therefore the question ‘Is it live, is it not live? Who is speaking?’, these shifts, become really important. And therefore working with the script within the live situation goes through such an extreme process.How did you produce the video films?
ES: The biggest problem that arises
is that as soon as you change a scene you have to reshoot it, and you
either find a way to work within what you already shot, for example
by taking out a character and giving the lines to a character who is
not on screen, or you reshoot the entire sequence. We want to be flexible
with this video playback option. We split the whole up into as small
as possible sequences which I can then rearrange for rehearsal, so we
can be flexible in the ordering of the sequences. And also that I can
react to Neal and Neal can react to me. In fact the timing of the interaction
between Neal and me is totally flexible. We don’t just hit a button
on the DVD player and it goes on for 45 minutes. It is really broken
down into individual beats almost. I use the same program to run the
DVD player and to run the music so that I can quickly make changes.
In your performance you play a very
peculiar game with the different voices. Sometimes the live player speaks
all the parts, synchronizing his video-selves,
sometimes he is in dialogue with their pre-recorded voices, and sometimes
only the recorded voices talk to each other. Why did you decide to do
it this way?
We didn’t want to get stuck with one character on the stage. For example,
in comparison with “Leatherback” where the live player plays a very
strong character all way through, here we were interested that it was
not one character he is playing. We took the idea of transformation
and shift which is in the material and played with it in the live situation.
We connected it a little bit to the story; for example, when the first
character gets killed, the live performer takes over another character
and gives him his voice. And then, when things shift more, when there
is a so called ‘technical failure’, he steps in and plays them all.
We developed it out of tasks. So for Neal it is not ‘I am this character’,
no, he is giving the voice, like a voiceover artist. It’s a very clear
job for him, in that moment.
Why did you choose to show only the
player’s heads on the screens?
For me it is interesting what you need to add. And it has a lot to do
with movement, with the choreography of each image in relation to the
others. With the heads I have the option of communicating movement which
continues on where I don’t see the body anymore. So I can work with
very simple in and out, turns of the heads, with enter and exit, and
create the rhythm of the scenes through that. If you saw the whole body,
that would be a totally different perception of the situation.
We initially worked with monitors, and monitors are approximately the
size of a human head. A body on a monitor is very small and has a totally
different impact. When you work with close ups of heads, you can do
very little things that have a very large impact in terms of the performance.
Could you give another example of
how you transfer the structural characteristics of one medium to another?
FH: I think for example the aspects of music and choreography are really important for the editing process. It goes back and forth, one informs the other... I have learned a lot from experimental films for my choreography, in terms of hard-cut editing of movement.Speaking of music, what are the sources of the music and sounds you use?
They come from lots of different sources. We looked at Alien
and took little bits and pieces out. And then we use sound effects…
ES: …To create an atmosphere.
If you cannot see it, but you hear it and it works, it doesn’t have
to be the sound that you would expect. Then we also used lots of music
sources, often film music, but not only, also more experimental music…
FH: But we only took very small
bits. We had sessions where Neal would sit down and listen to a bunch
of music and make a list, and then I would just take a second or two
seconds, and Eric looped it. And maybe it just appears at one point,
while other elements are also used for the structure of the overall
performance, so there are certain themes we bring back.
ES: We didn’t reference Alien
and The Thing through any music. We took about three sound effects
from the films. It is also part of the process finding the sounds, which
in this production came fairly late. That helps determine the structure,
because once you find the theme that might bridge two sequences for
example, that changes the timing dramatically.
FH: And there the ‘play’ starts,
really: Does Eric start a bit earlier, or does Neal start the scene?
That is also where they react to each other.
ES: Finding a balance or a non-balance
between activity and non-activity on stage –these sort of balances
are informed as much by the video and the performance as by the music.
The timing of the piece is very much influenced by finding the right
sound to create space.
Yeah, one aspect of the sound is to create a space which expands beyond
what you see. We play with it, and the audience can play with it.
Do you think your audience needs a
profound knowledge of the genre you used to
‘understand’ your piece?
FH: I don’t think so, necessarily.
Certain people had fun with the reference points and how they transformed.
They had fun with how the context changed. But on the other hand, I
think you can look at it on a different level. And you don’t need
to understand it all; it is not made to be ‘understood’.
ES: I think the audience members
that came hoping to see a translation of Alien or “The Thing”
would be thoroughly disappointed in so far as the piece has entirely
it’s own life now, and it’s in no way a literal translation of the
original films. I don’t think it is necessary to know the films or
any of the sources at all to enjoy the piece because I think Mark’s
writing and also the atmosphere that is created are something that stand
outside of the original work. The narrative that we created does not
hinge on understanding of the story of Alien or The Thing.
FH: They talk about food, for example. A lot of people can relate to how they talk about food… and other elements which in the original Alien are just very small parts of it, which Mark expanded.Why do you like to play with popular culture?
FH: Oh, I think it’s great.
(laughter) How can you get around popular culture? What interests
me is the ‘within-each-other’ of things. There are lots of trivial
original things that we find and that we like to play with – not to
make fun of them, but to blow them up, and then to put them again into
very complex systems, or to connect a lot of contradictory points with
ES: The perception of science
fiction is that it is kind of a B-genre. But I think that these films
are very much representative of the time they were made. They are extremely
good films. They just deal with the issues they deal with in their very
FH: That is very different from
our work. We don’t make a B-movie, but I think the emotion, the drama
– Leatherback is very melodramatic – it is working with these
aspects and saying ‘Yes, they are there’. Of course they are illusions
in our work, but illusions create an emotion. At the same time we try
to make that transparent. So it is this fat blown-up stuff we support
just by using a simple piece of music. But on the other hand it is also
transparent because we have a single person sitting on stage, at a table,
playing against himself. So there is something paradoxical about that,
ES: Genre also allows you to start
with a base that many people already seem to think they know the rules
of. And then you can twist that as you like.
FH: We don’t stay in the genre.
We actually do a lot of stuff that doesn’t belong in the genre at
ES: I think Mark, in his writing,
is playing very much with the genre. Often he says things very directly;
he has the characters come out and say the things, which would never
be said in a genre film. They would be implied.
FH: Yes, that would be the subtext. There are interesting aspects of human relations, of language and misunderstanding which have a lot to do with the question of codes. And then we come to popular culture again. How can we raise questions and still have fun with it?
Berlin, 10. November 2006
Wibke Hartewig has studied theatre and
dance theory, literature and art history, and has also worked as a performer,
choreographer and critic. She recently received her Dr. Phil. for her
thesis on William Forsythe’s work and the ‘reading’ of movement.
She lives in Berlin.