BWW Interviews: A Conversation With Katy Tye and Jeffrey Coangelo, Co-Founders of PrismCo
The craft of playwriting and theater production is not as simple as some believe it to be. Sure, you start out with a concept, story outline, create characters with a backstory and give them some very clever and engaging dialogue, find a director and actors to play it out and WALLA, you have a production. Which, of course, audiences are going to simply adore!But what if the process started and ended with just the concept and the words were taken away? What if you had to interpret a play based solely on actor facial expressions and non-verbal body movements? Would it hold your attention? Or would you spontaneously combust with boredom and leave, but not before requesting a refund from the box office clerk? That is exactly what's at stake whenever the thought-provoking PrismCo theater company, led by co-founders Katy Tye and Jeffrey Coangelo mount a production, usually in non-traditional theater spaces which have the effect of grounding audiences deeper in a story by stripping away familiar surroundings. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Tye and Coangelo prior to the opening of their latest work, "Prism" which opens next week, named after their company and the unique approach they take in developing theater
BS: In a local theater community with an emphasis on large budgets, state of the art facilities, proven productions and shows, and sometimes the importation of non-local artists to provide theater experiences to the public, Prism really sticks out like a sour thumb but in a good way! What motivates you and Katy to create this very unique brand of theater?
PrismCo: Its funny that you ask that, because I think Prismco's namesake show: Prism, is an excellent example of what motivates us to make the brand of theatre that we do now.
When we set out to make Prism, we did it with the idea in mind to do two things: play with some fun materials and mediums that we had never played with before, and to make a theatrical experience and rehearsal process that was actually collaborative. So we ended up making a show that incorporated paint, mirrors, flashlights, dancers, actors, musicians, and visual artists all into one really fun and unique experience.
Ever since then, I feel that our main motivator for making our type of theatre is to be able to work with a wide range of local artists, from one- man bands like Fabricio, to magicians like Trigg Watson, to incredible graphic design teams like the Striped Heart. We love this type of theatre's ability to incorporate almost any art form in a way that is seamless and fun for everyone involved. It drives us to keep making new artistic friends and bring them along as we keep exploring the limit of what is possible.
BS: The majority of shows produced today reflect on the voice of a playwright through their words, a director's vision, and the expertise of actors to bring a story to life. That triad of players is responsible for telling an audience a story based on their perception and how they should feel when they leave the theater. Prism operates completely different in that you allow the audience to form its own opinion about the visceral images you project through minimal staging and actors. Do you feel this is effective storytelling since people are used to words, that they are being being forced in a sense to think, to form their own ideas, create their own story?
PrismCo: Of course! If done well, with an eye for specificity and fun, we totally believe that this type of wordless theatre can be an incredibly effective form of storytelling! First of all, by not including the English language, our work instantly becomes more universal, as it levels the playing field for our non-English speaking audiences. Additionally, the way human beings read body language across cultures is basically the same all over the world (A smile is still a smile no matter where you go), so If the storytelling is structured in a way that's specific and appealing, audience members from a wide range of cultural backgrounds have the opportunity to read into the narrative that we are telling them. Finally, by not having a recognizable language to tell our story, we produce a very interesting effect in our audiences that I like to call "The neutral mask effect" where we present a series of events to our audience members that act as a blank slate to them. It's up to them to fill in that blank slate with their own narrative and meaning, rather than us providing the answers. I believe this ambiguity ultimately provides a more rewarding experience to our audience members who are willing to have a good time with us.
(I say no recognizable language because Prism is rather unique in the fact that our characters actually start speaking a made up language toward the end of the play, which has been an absolute blast to create.)
BS: Physicality and movement is a hallmark of your stage productions, almost harkening back to the time of silent films and stage productions. What's the attraction you have with producing stage work in this manner, i.e., in a very abstract and conceptual manner?
PrismCo: I've always loved movement theatre because it gives its artists the potential to express themselves in ways that are so much more epic than text based theatre allows. Don't get me wrong, I love text based theatre and I love to write in text based theatre, but I've always found that words tend to bind characters to ideas of the past and future while their bodies are forced to remain in the mundane actions of everyday of life, whereas movement theatre can explore seemingly impossible heights of emotional and physical expression. The experience of creating these moments and living them are, to me, incredibly freeing and powerful. There aren't many plays that let their actors fully embody the powers of a god, or utilize paper circuses, paint wars, or 20 tons of sand in quite the same way as movement theatre allows.
I love that Prismco isn't bound to the concepts of "realism". It allows us to explore storytelling in a way that forces our imaginations to soar to their limits.
BS: In your production PlayTime, which received the 2013 Broadway World Dallas Critic's Choice Award for Best Play Short, audiences were asked to bring pillows to the productions, which was not only odd but intriguing. In your latest production "Prism", audiences are asked to wear casual clothing in support of a production climax that will result in the production of war inspired visual art that will be part of an art exhibit. What do you have up your sleeve and is this safe?
PrismCo: First of all, thank you so much!! Those awards really meant a lot to us when we were first starting out. In response to whether or not our paint war is safe, our audiences and performers will be very safe during this production. In terms of what's up our sleeve... well, I'll give you this: there's a paint war, there's a splash zone for our audiences, and they MIGHT be able to throw paint at our actors.
BS: As a theater patron, I find your productions extremely thought-provoking. In markets like New York, Chicago, L.A. and Houston, do you feel there's a place for productions such as those produced by Prism? Do you feel they could be funded? Would audiences attend? Please explain.
PrismCo: I've always found it interesting that a lot of press and media in town has labeled us as "experimental". I don't think I've ever really seen our work as "experimental". We're still trying to tell a story and offer a good experience to our audience members. The only way it seems to be "experimental" is the fact that we want to include every artist we can in our storytelling. We want dancers, actors, musicians, and visual artists to work with us, and we want them to do things they aren't necessarily used to doing at first. (Fabricio's, for example, is acting in this play and it's wonderful to watch) In fact, all around the world, you'll find a lot of work that is being made with the same goals and the same spirit as ours. Really, it's only here in the US that we've been recognized as experimental or unusual.
That being said, I think markets like New York and Chicago love work like ours. Our work is about inclusivity and we want to allow everyone the chance to be able to work with us and/or enjoy our work. We want to make the best possible product without breaking the bank. We want the young and the old, the English speakers and non-English speakers, theatre people and non theatre people alike to join us at our show and enjoy watching something they've probably never seen before. What grant foundation or theatre company wouldn't want to support that? Isn't that what theatre is all about in the end? Being inclusive? Bringing everyone together to experience an event as a community?
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"Prism" opens Apr. 9 at the Trinity Groves Warehouse, 2900 Bataan Street, Dallas Texas and runs through Apr. 26. The show is being sponsored by the SMU Meadows Foundation and Striped Heart, with curated art gallery space being provided by Haley Henman Gallery LLC.
"Prism" is directed by Jeff Colangelo, co-directed by Katy Tye, hand-to-hand choreography by Katy Tye, dance choreography by Hope Endrenyi, fight choreography by Jeff Colangelo, live music by Fabricio CF with recorded music by Seun Soyemi, marketing by Striped Heart, lighting and set design by Jonah Gutierrez, and special effects by Trigg.
"Prism" features the acting ensemble of Jeff Colangelo, Kristen Lee, Kamen Casey, Kaysy Ostrom, Adam A. Anderson, Seun Soyemi, Josh Porter, Dean Wray, McClendon Giles, Katy Tye, Hope Endrenyi, Claire Carson, and Fabricio CF.