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Performance as Art and Theater: Rooms Part 2: An Interview with Todd Frugia

Jeriah Hildwine

Rooms is a space in Pilsen East (the Chicago Arts District or the Principality of Podmajersky, depending on who you ask), operated by Todd and Marrakesh Frugia. Unlike most galleries, theaters, or performance spaces, Rooms produces their own programming. Their performances have included Advice to Iraqi Women, Oracle, Meddle and Cue, and The Malady of Death. Their most recent piece is While What Waits, a “performance installation” in which blindfolded performers respond to randomized cues provided by an MP3 player. Todd and Marrakesh create something that exists in the strangely-shaped spaces between comfortable definitions of theater, performance art, video, sound, sculpture, and performance. I have asked each of them a series of questions in an attempt to explore the margins of these spaces.

Jeriah: Could you each give your background real quick?  Where are you from, what did you go to school for, how did you two meet, and what brought you to Chicago?I think you’ve told me that you guys have a background in theater, is that right?  What was your first exposure to theater?  Did you go to the theater when you were young?  Were you involved in theater in high school?  And did you study it in college?

Todd: I come from a very, very small town in Texas called Winnie. It’s a blip on the side of the highway. I always knew I wanted to be in the arts but due to limited exposure and resources in Winnie, Texas – I had to do what presented itself first. In seventh grade I did a community play and kept acting in your normal fare of musicals and high school one act plays. I originally wanted to go to film school for college, but had the classic fears of moving from home. So I went to Lamar University – the closest college to Winnie – and took two years of classes with the intention of going to film school in Austin. During those two years I worked at a CBS affiliate in Beaumont doing various jobs in news and production. After those two years I realized that I probably wasn’t going to transfer and decided to go back to the theater.

Oracle Channeling

Oracle Channeling

I met Marrakesh during the second year of acting at Lamar. She played my dead wife in the first play we did together. We were married within a year of meeting. My last semester there I got really interested in playwriting and wrote a few things – including a horrible play we brought to the American College Theatre Festival. After Lamar I tried to go to grad school for playwriting. While visiting Ohio University to look at their playwriting program, I also scheduled time with the head of the MFA Actor Training Program – Andrew Manley. We had a great first meeting, he didn’t seem rigid about the program, and seemed like he wanted to foster actors who wanted to write or dabble in all kinds of things. I auditioned and got in.

Andrew ended up being a really huge influence. We had to do our share of “main stage” shows that I pretty much abhorred – but Andrew was always working on side projects. He’d perform in all kinds of spaces on campus, do works by Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, Peter Handke, Joseph Chaikin, and the like. Andrew was never afraid to do something adventurous with these works. He also directed me in a site specific one man show about my experiences working in a refinery in Texas. Andrew was an actor and director in Britain – he had only been teaching in America for a year before he taught my class. So he wasn’t bogged down in the normal academic approach to art. He was practical, and I think found a great freedom having the opportunity to experiment a great deal, not having to deal with box office returns. He was quite adventurous or “experimental” doing plays in England, and sometimes the resistance to this type of work makes your blood boil. But the same thing happened during our training – some thought we were not getting the more standard actor training – which lead to lots of debate and department drama. The year I graduated Andrew had left Ohio University to teach at Colorado College. However, we’ve stayed in close contact. I teach classes at Colorado College now and he’s worked on several shows with us here at ROOMS. Marrakesh (who also studied under Andrew at Ohio University – she came in a year after I started) and I moved to Chicago. We liked that Chicago had lots of small theatre companies and hoped to eventually start our own.

J: How about performance art?  Did you study that in college as well?  Do you guys have a background in other kinds of art, besides theater and performance?

T: I had little or no exposure to performance art. But in undergrad I’d always do drastically different stagings of scripts in directing classes. I’d always be told it was “experimental” but it really just seemed like the best way to bring the scene or play to life. For me there’s always been little difference between theatre and performance art. I really just wish it was all called performance. After studying under Andrew, as well as just getting out to bigger cities – I really started to see the possibilities for performance. And because I worked in television for a few years I had learned how to edit video – so I also had lots of ideas about how to use video (without having lots of knowledge about this type of art either).

J: How and when did you guys start collaborating, and how did Rooms come about?  How did you decide on the format, the tone, and the sort of stuff you guys wanted to do?  I don’t know of any other performance artists who run their own space like you do; was the idea modeled on something in the art scene, the theater scene, or did it just kind of make sense as a solution to you guys?

Babel

Babel

T: I think Marrakesh and I started collaborating right away. We didn’t produce anything at first – but we always had ideas. I remember her and me dreaming up all kinds of ideas for new pieces or ways to direct existing ones. During our first year in Chicago (2003) we decided to do that one-man show (BLIMPSHOT 20) that we did under the direction of Andrew at Ohio University. We showed it at the Abbie Hoffman Festival to a room of like 4 people. Marrakesh helped restage the show and this was our first performance as ROOMS. We decided on Rooms because of an old piece of wood we had that had the word “ROOMS” on it. Marrakesh’s dad had fixed it up when she was little and we had just always hung it up in every place we lived.

The next summer we did another show at the Abbie Hoffman for a whopping six people. It was a dark and very odd piece based on dream and memory called the Cinequadrome. Then we both acted in more conventional plays with other theaters for awhile, and in 2005 brought BLIMPSHOT 20 to the Indianapolis Fringe – It was fun, but the Fringe scene seemed just as competitive and “markety” as everything else. While there we started to think we should think about making stuff that could be more commercial. That following summer I wrote a show called Coachology – a sort of experiential musical journey based on my high school football coaches. I played all of the coaches, Marrakesh played me, and the audience was the team. We did a nine-week run at the Apollo Theatre’s studio space. Again it was fun, we made a quality little play and people liked it. But after a few performances I knew it wasn’t the work we should be doing.

I had been writing lots of small strange little pieces and making video projects that I was really feeling good about. We had also befriended a couple who were photographers and video artists, and I felt really drawn in by the art side of things. I realized we weren’t going to do plays anymore, we were going to art museums and galleries. And in the fall of that year we did a performance/video piece with our artist friends called 862 for a Collaborations Festival at the Bailiwick. There were lots more sketches and theatrical acts there and our piece stuck out like a sore thumb. But I felt really, really good about it.

FAIL BETTER

FAIL BETTER

That following Christmas we were celebrating the holiday with our landlords in Pilsen at the time (Beth and Willie Wagner) – Beth showed us a room in the building we lived in that we didn’t know about – she was renting it to a guy running a catering company, but he couldn’t keep renting it. We asked if we could help fix it up to rent and do shows in. It was pretty affordable and we’d have lots of access to it. So that winter and spring we fixed up the place and I finished a series of seven performance pieces – some of them very finished and others very, very loose. We gathered a cast of seven (including Marrakesh) and started rehearsing in April. It was great, we lived right above the space and I could run down stairs and experiment with audio and video projections. I could also be very loose with rehearsals – allowing for more time and space to try lots of ideas out. We could also make sure that we were in charge of the total experience – not having to deal with the restrictions of using other people’s space. It all came together into CYCLE 7 – the first show that really had the tone, look, and feel of what we wanted ROOMS to be. The next month we created our first performance/video installation called NOTIONS OF DEATH. All the resources were there and the piece came together with ease, while still allowing for lots of experimentation. But soon our landlord’s new barbecue business started to take off and we knew it was going to be successful for them. We also knew that we couldn’t have the smell of BBQ wafting into all of our performances. So we moved out of the building completely. Our first performance space soon became the main dining hall for the now popular Honky Tonk Barbecue.

We really liked the live-work format, and we were big fans of Pilsen. I had also been working as a video producer – so having a live work space wasn’t just about the art. We decided to move into a Podmajersky place in the Chicago Arts District. It was affordable, and fit all our needs. We also liked the idea of having a built in crowd on second Fridays so we could try out all kinds of new ideas and not worry so much about marketing (which also has its downfalls). The main thing was getting a space that we could outfit with sound and video – and have all of our props and equipment close at hand. This gave us time and flexibility – we could really learn how to use the room and we could keep making changes with little risk involved. We would literally be living with our art – much like many painters or sculptors do. I know it’s a long story – but it’s all about context with us. We’ve made definite choices – but many made by necessity and the availability to knowledge and resources. Would we love to pursue more avenues? – you betcha. The biggest problem we have is having too much fun creating and experimenting. Once the show is made and starts performing, I’m usually ready to work on the next one (or the next variation of that idea). I think we’ve made a lot of strides using our spaces as incubators – but the next step for ROOMS is to buckle down and get the word out about the kind of work we’re doing. But that’s easier said than done. I work in advertising to make money – and to try and package what we do as ROOMS seems laborious and counterintuitive. Maybe I have a naive dream that we’re like that really wonderful restaurant or rock band that becomes popular through word of mouth. That we can be that out of the way place that people take pride in finding and experiencing.

J: Looking at the art and theater scenes in Chicago, what do you guys tend to go out and see?  Do you go to a lot of plays, or performance things like at Links Hall or the New Blood thing Todd wrote up, or more traditional fine art stuff like painting and photography and so on?  Seen anything good lately?

The Malady of Death

The Malady of Death

I feel like we should go to more – I always feel like I’m missing something. Marrakesh and I have also started a video production business and between that and ROOMS we’re working most of the time. Bad excuses I know. Most recently we went to see Sankai Juko – a Butoh Dance company from Japan that performed at the Harris Theatre. Lately we’ve been going to the Lyric Opera – it’s not always the best but I enjoy the music. I’ve been more interested in Opera recently – thinking about ways of staging them. I think it would be fun to see how minimal you could get – but I also really love the amount of people shuffling around (I just think they can usually be used in better ways). On the fine art side of things I just recently went to the Luc Tuymans show at the MCA; I really enjoyed it. We also had my friend’s one-and-a-half-year-old with us and he runs at all the art. Makes things a little less meditative – but this kid has seen more art than most adults. Needless to say he loved the interactive pieces they have down stairs at the moment. I feel sheepish naming off the bigger venues. We do have many friends that we support. Our friend Jim Dee is a phenomenal painter who used to show at Logsdon here in Pilsen before they closed their doors. He’s been showing in festivals around town. We’ve also seen works by Blank Line Collective and Anatomy Collective. I know it’s not that recent (or in Chicago) but the most influential thing I’ve been to in the last couple of years were two shows in London part of a series called Focus on Forsythe – where there were several pieces by the dancer choreographer William Forsythe performed by his company. First we saw DECREATION at Sadler’s Wells. It’s a piece based on an essay by poet Anne Carson. This was minimal, inventive, disturbing, intense, and took lots of discipline. Then we saw more of an installation piece called NOWHERE AND EVERYWHERE AT THE SAME TIME in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall where dancers weaved their way through a vast space filled with hundreds of pendulums. It gave me lots of ideas about following rules, playing “games of skill”, and how performers come in and out of the piece. I’ve been working off many of these ideas for the last year.

J: The stuff you guys do at Rooms seems to straddle the line between performance art and theater, if there is such a line.  In regard to the work that you see out there, do you see a distinction between theater and performance art?  Are distinctions of venue or audience important?  Or is it a matter of the presence or absence of a narrative structure?

T: As I said above – I really just wish it was all called performance. Sometimes I see what people call performance art and I see the exact ingredients I’d see in theatre. And in some theaters I see what many would call performance art. I’m sure there’s someone in a comparative arts class who could have a more at length discussion about it – but it doesn’t do me any good to keep this in mind when we’re creating. I never sit down and say – I need to write a play, so I write a play. For me it’s been about the idea – sometimes it needs to be a play, sometimes an installation, sometimes an audio or video piece, or even sometimes a game or a single action. The idea wants to come out– and the artist/writer/actor/director needs to be open to as many ways as possible to execute that idea.

J: Performance art is sometimes lumped in with sculpture and installation; is that a classification that makes sense to you?  Or does it seem kind of arbitrary?  Do those practices inform your work?  Where else do you draw inspiration?

Meaning Machines March

Meaning Machines March

I think I like playing with the distinction between sculpture and performance art more than between performance art and theatre. I guess what I like about that “lumping” is the attention to the duration of the work and the audience’s ability to move around or get close to the performers. But that’s only for some of our shows. What happens when I want to do a performance piece that only takes five minutes, and I want it to happen one hundred yards from the audience? We call many of our shows performance installations as opposed to plays – so as not to have the duration mean much to the audience. I read a great quote by Aernout Mik once where he said that his video installations start when you start to look at them. I feel much the same way. As with many forms of art, a ROOMS piece is about your level of investment. And again I can only go back to the needs of the piece. Sometimes you have to sit the audience down and “make” them watch. And sometimes you have to give them a choice in how they want to receive it. The more I think about it – these distinctions do play a role in our work, but not as it relates to defining our work. I might go – “How does one take in a sculpture?’ And begin to think about different ways people look or receive performance – then play with those ideas in creating the piece. It’s almost as if these distinctions are too complicated and still mean that we take too much for granted.

Many of our shows lately deal with really simple explorations in performance. Like, what happens if you take a performer’s connection from the audience away? What’s the least amount of content I need to create moments of relationship and the semblance of meaning? Or what if we make actors improv while completely deprived of their senses? Recently, I read a story John Cage told about Morton Feldman (a composer whose work I’ve been very interested in lately.) They were in a car together and Feldman was sleeping – he suddenly woke up and said “Now that things are so simple, there’s so much to do.” Then he went back to sleep. Most of the time I come to this conclusion about performance – one or a group of others agree to do a completely abstract thing, and people come to see this thing. I’ll start there.

J: You guys just moved into a great new space; how are you liking it so far?

T: We’re still figuring things out. Mainly working on trying to avoid a logjam at the front of the room. It has many advantages and disadvantages. I’ll make a short list. Advantages: Bigger space, can’t hear the highway, can make it darker, higher foot traffic. Disadvantages: The ceiling is too high for me to get to easily, we can hear the goings on in the gallery next door, no restroom to offer to the public, higher foot traffic sometimes makes it harder to intimately experience the piece.

J: You’ve got the second performance of While What Waits coming up tonight, what do you have in mind after that?  Doing anything crazy?  And, in a longer term sense, how are you feeling about this model of operating your own space to present your work?  Is that feeling pretty sustainable, or are you looking at alternatives like galleries and theaters?

T: We’re taking a month off then showing two months of a piece we did last year called ORACLE: CHANNELING where Marrakesh and I hook ourselves up to televisions and repeat everything we hear for two hours. There are four TVs with live signals from ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX. The audience can see the stations but not hear them. They have the choice to select one of the four channels for us to mimic. I’m also taking the time off while we do an older piece to work on an evening of new pieces based on our recent explorations of indeterminacy in performance. It would be a departure from our recent installation work, but it’s not exactly a play. Think of it more like going to listen to an evening of chamber music. (Now you see why I’m not the best at marketing our art.) I love running our own space – and wish we could fully commit ourselves to it with more performances and daytime hours for installations. But at the moment this model makes no money for us. Quite the contrary. So we have to balance work and art (like everyone else). We’ve known for a long time that it would help to go not-for-profit, but we keep holding off. Again we get into trouble when we have to define what we do. We wouldn’t mind doing shows at a theatre – but we’d need to rent one or get a grant for one. And then you really start worrying about butts in seats. We’d probably prefer to do more site specific work, as well as showing in galleries. In the end I have to admit to not knowing the best way to go about this – I’d be open to advice 🙂