Features Published 7 March 2016

Andrew Schneider: “I just want to share an experience in a room with a person.”

The US-based performance artist on how Light and Space artists have inspired him to create work that pushes the boundaries of perception, including his acclaimed performance/installation YOUARENOWHERE.
Nicole Serratore
Andrew Schneider performs YOUARENOWHERE. Photo: Maria Baranova

Andrew Schneider performs YOUARENOWHERE. Photo: Maria Baranova

“[I’m] trying to get people to perceive themselves perceive,” says performance artist Andrew Schneider describing the intention behind his show YOUARENOWHERE. Schneider’s interest in this Möbius strip of audience perception can be traced back to an unexpected, non-theatrical source–the work of some visual artists from the Light and Space movement.

While perusing a museum bookshop in Los Angeles five years ago, Schneider picked up a copy of the book seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees based solely on the cover and the provocative title. The book traces 30 years of interviews with Light and Space artist Robert Irwin. Light and Space was a movement in California that began in the 1960’s and embraced technology, minimalism, and a bit of theatricality, but with its focus on installations of light and reflection.  The Light and Space artists often made the viewer’s experience of the work part and parcel of the work–the observer aware of their act of observation within this environment that has been created by the artist.

After reading the book Schneider found inspiration in Irwin’s meandering creative trajectory, idiosyncratic philosophies, and approach to art.  “The art world seems so impenetrable and untouchable. When you read about [Irwin], he started [his career] by painting cars. He’s just like a regular dude who happens to think about things in a different way. And it’s not precious at all,” revels Schneider.  Stumbling across Irwin led Schneider to discover fellow Light and Space artist James Turrell.  Now both of these artists have deeply influenced Schneider’s thinking and the work he creates.

This spring, Schneider is bringing YOUARENOWHERE to New York and London: a work which evokes the spirit of these visual artists and pushes audiences to experience performance in a truly unique way. YOUARENOWHERE debuted in PS122’s COIL festival in 2015 and won Schneider an Obie award.  For the past year, Schneider has been touring  YOUARENOWHERE with appearances in Slovenia, France, and Australia.  With rave reviews in each port of call, the show is described by critics as “astounding,” “electrifying,” and “wondrous and disorienting,” as it brings together artist and audience in an unusual dialogue.

Andrew Schneider performs YOUARENOWHERE. Photo: Maria Baranova

Andrew Schneider performs YOUARENOWHERE. Photo: Maria Baranova

Schneider performs the piece and with humor, mystery, and a rapid-fire engagement the audience finds itself in and out of the world as we know it.  Time, space, sound, light, and existence all feel like they crumble within Schneider’s creation.   The challenge in talking to Schneider about YOUARENOWHERE  is that the show benefits from the audience seeing the show without much additional context.  But Schneider’s process and influences provide a window into the work without spoiling the delicate achievement of the piece.

Schneider’s work may be theatrical in nature because that is his training and the language he uses to express himself.  “This is the only way I know how to have a conversation about the things that I’m interested in,” he explains. But he takes much of his inspiration from visual art.   “I really enjoy seeing non-time based art,” says Schneider.  “A Richard Serra sculpture can make you feel things and not because he’s telling you a story.  That’s really informative for me—seeing people who don’t have stories to tell but yet evoke emotion through art.”  Schneider continues, “You can exhaustively describe a James Turrell piece but it doesn’t matter unless you go and stand inside it.  You can understand it as much as you want but unless you experience it you’re not having the experience.”

Those ideas of experience and emotion are central to YOUARENOWHERE.  But the show also has a rebellious streak.  “I became frustrated with seeing some downtown theater and having it have to be contextualized or self-contextualized—where it relied on the knowledge of the history of theater, or the history of art, or the history of ‘here’s how you exist in a room to watch a theater show,’” Schneider explains.

Instead, Schneider wanted to create something different.  “I just want to share an experience in a room with a person. That’s why I got into theater—so I could do that. Unfortunately, I’m not good at telling stories. I have to curate this emotion without narrative, through experience.”

YOUARENOWERE is like a magnet that picks up bits of pieces of concepts that excite Schneider including the linearity of time, quantum mechanics, and how we connect to each other.  But it is through those disparate ideas that he builds the dynamic audience experience in YOUARENOWHERE, some of which happen on stage and some of which take place in your mind.

With rich sound and lighting design that Schneider has created himself, he establishes a singular world from the moment the lights go down.  But all these theatrical moving pieces are meant to communicate subconsciously to the audience—beyond theater, language, or meaning—through pure experiential emotion.  The result of this approach is aesthetic heroin shot directly into your eyeballs and it is not an exaggeration to say you may feel shaken and changed after seeing the show.

“We’re really trying to get people who aren’t theatergoers to see it. You really don’t have to have any interest in theater or time-based art whatsoever to enjoy the show” notes Schneider.  In fact, he hopes that playing at venues such as 3LD and Shoreditch Town Hall allows for some theatrical expectations to be left at the door.

“When you walk into a room you have subconscious expectations of what is going to happen in that room.  When you walk into a theater, your brain tells you theatrical things are going to happen. I was scared about doing the show in proper theaters because of that.  The expectations are all different.”  It has become “such a great gift to do it in a space where somewhere in your body and your brain is telling you that nothing exceptional could happen here.” If the gambit of the show works, audience members will leave the show looking at the world differently.

With YOUARENOWHERE largely finished, Schneider is turning again to developing new work.  Schneider has just returned from the Sundance Institute’s Playwrights and Composers Retreat where he was working on a new musical that involves a collaboration with director Rachel Chavkin and composer Heather Christian (Mission Drift).  Based on the Mac Wellman novel,Annie Salem, as of now Schneider is playing the character Jack, writing some of the book of the musical, and doing some of the scenic design. Schneider has worked with Chavkin a couple of times already and enjoys her collaborative approach.  He shot the video for The TEAM’s show RoosevElvis and designed the video for Beth Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds which Chavkin directed.

Schneider hopes to premiere his next original creation at COIL in 2017.  Called Field, the show is inspired by James Turrell’s famous Ganzfeld seriesTurrell’s Ganzfelds usually involve a uniform field of light which prevents the viewer from orienting themself in space.  The result of this visual deprivation can be both physical and emotional. Schneider explains, “Ganzfelds are a way of implementing sensory deprivation without resorting to darkness.  Just presenting the eye with a solid field of color and having your eye re-tune itself.” Experiencing a Ganzfeld results in “lots of different things happen[ing] perceptively.”

Field will likely be about mountaineers, perception, and hallucination, with “perception as a gateway to emotion.” Using light and sound, Schneider hopes to “create a 3-D space in your brain without you seeing it.” With Field, like YOUARENOWHERE, Schneider continues to push at the edges of the audience experience, and find ways to subconsciously impact their perceptions.

YOUARENOWHERE is playing at 3-Legged Dog in New York, March 9-April 3 and in London at Shoreditch Town Hall for LIFT, June 14-18, a co-production with the Gate Theatre.  For more on Andrew Schneider’s work, visit his website.

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Nicole Serratore

Nicole Serratore writes about theater for The Village Voice, The Stage, American Theatre magazine, TDF Stages, and Flavorpill. She was a co-host and co-producer of the Maxamoo theater podcast. She blogs at Mildly Bitter's Musings.

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