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BWW Interview: Thaddeus Phillips Explores 17 BORDER CROSSINGS in New Show at NYTW

BWW Interview: Thaddeus Phillips Explores 17 BORDER CROSSINGS in New Show at NYTW

With a chair, table, and bar of lights, visionary theatre maker Thaddeus Phillips magically conjures a rusty Croatian ferry, perilous international flights, obscure Amazonian ports, the twin cities of El Paso and Juarez, deportations, strip searches, illegal crossings, arbitrary passports and curious customs. Based on Phillips' actual adventures, 17 Border Crossings is a harrowing, comical, visually surreal and engrossing look at the imaginary lines that divide up the world and the very real barriers they create. 17 Border Crossings makes its Off-Broadway premiere at New York Theatre Workshop after sold out runs on four continents. The show is directed by Phillips' wife, Tatiana Mallarino (¡El Conquistador!).

Phillips talked to BroadwayWorld about the inspiration behind the show's structure, the task of creating so many different environments with only a few set pieces, and the different in performing the show in other countries.


What is 17 Border Crossings about and how did you come to create the show?

It's basically a theater show about 17 different border crossings from all over the world. Each crossing is theatrically told and features some crossing from across one country's borders to the next, from all kinds of different places. Some that are very hard to cross, something easy to cross. It first came about as wanting to do a piece about international travel. But then in developing it, we found that the lot of the stories we were trying to tell were about border crossings specifically.

When that theme was discovered, then all the crossings were collected. So, the process was taking the different border crossings and trying to stage them in interesting ways. They kind of have a narrative feeling, but it's not just me talking about them. There's certain visual elements like a green fluorescent light or train in Serbia, or smoke from the fire in the Amazon. We tried to create, in a very minimalistic way, very strong actual images.

Are all of the stories things that you personally experienced?

Most are from my experience, but there's also other weird, interesting stories that I read or found to kind of create a more global picture and look at things from totally different perspectives.

What inspired you to perform this as a one man show?

There's a monologuist named Spalding Gray, who died about 15 years ago, who would just sit at a desk with and the microphone and a glass of water and tell these stories solo monologue style. And so basically, I wanted to do something inspired by that, but I couldn't just sit at a desk. So as an homage to Spalding Gray, we start with just a desk with a glass of water on it and a map and a little lamp and a microphone. But then we start moving it around and using those simple optics to become a chair lift in Austria or the docks in Croatia. And that way it started from this kind of journalistic style of theater developed in New York in the 80s but then we kind of made her own thing out of it.

You've been performing this show since 2015. Has it changed much over time?

Yeah, there's definitely a change because of things happening at the world. The things mean different things. We also just put in a new crossing between Columbia and Venezuela that's based on what's happening down there right now. So that's a whole new scene that will premiere here at New York Theatre Workshop.

After touring the show internationally, do you think the reaction is different in different places?

The premise of the show is that you get a new passport in the mail and because of where you are born, it happens to be from the United States. So the show is set up around the fact that you're traveling around on this U.S. passport. But American don't actually travel that much. But when we did the show in Australia, when we started talking about all these places, they had all been there because they travel all the time. The Australian reaction was super interesting because it wasn't like the Balinese-Singapore part was some weird exotic thing. They've all been to that airport, so it was much more like comedy show at that moment. So, it definitely changes the perspectives on the show, which is very interesting because that also changes the way how we understand it and how we perform it anywhere else we go.

Can you tell me a little bit about the way you stage the different crossings? I know I saw a picture online of like one where you turn everything sideways, so it looks like the audience is seeing it from above.

Basically, we just have this table and the water and the microphones and and then what was so much fun was figuring out how to do things like a chair left in Austria. In the original version, I was standing on one thing, but then we tried other things and now it's the table. So, kind of like the shot you saw, but flipped, so it was like a top shot of being on a chairlift, with the table on its side. So it's really a question of how can we kind of do fun perspective shifts just with these very simple elements that also, more importantly, evoke where we are in the crossing.

The sound is very important in that. So you hear sounds like a ceiling fan going on in one scene or certain sounds when on a plane. In one scene, you feel like you're inside the actor's head. You don't even see his mouth because his back's to the audience and it's back lit with a little plain light and then just very loud microphone audio. So, we're using these simple elements to really make the audience feel like they're in those different places without some really expensive set design.


17 Border Crossings will play f a limited run through May 12, 2019. The performance schedule for 17 Border Crossings is as follows: Tuesday-Thursday at 7pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm, Sunday at 2pm and 7pm. Exceptions: there will be no performance on Tuesday, April 16 and no 7pm performance on Sunday, May 12

Photo Credit: Randall Ortega Chaves


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