Philly Theatre Week may start April 22, but there are already a few shows to indulge in now, including the family-friendly interactive theater performance of Theatre Exile’s ‘Zoo Motel.’ The show was created by director, designer, and performer Thaddeus Phillips in collaboration with multidisciplinary, Philadelphia-based artist Steven Dufala and the show’s director Tatiana Mallarino and is set to run now until May 2.
“I think we’ve always wanted to try to find a way to do this,” says Phillips in reference to partnering with Theatre Exile for their latest show. “It’s perfect for Theatre Exile for a lot of reasons. For me, it’s great because I’ve had my work at either the Painted Bride or the Fringe Arts Festival in Philadelphia for years…So it’s great to have it back, but through them.”
Phillips may have experience in the City of Brotherly Love and beyond, but he also has plenty of experience in having to think outside of the box when it comes to his performances as well. Phillips, who started out doing puppet performances of ‘King Lear’ in Old City developed his own style combining objects, theaters and cinematic ideas. Through his world travels, the director and performer ended up studying theater design in the Czech Republic, specifically, working with how set design can write a play. This helped when writing his off-broadway shows all over the globe including most recently in Sweden and Spain, and it especially helped with the pandemic.
When COVID-19 first hit, Phillips was directing a play in Madrid, which was coincidentally based around a plot deeming that indeed, bad things were in our future, just regarding the environmental issues on earth. Then, a week after his show opened, it closed down due to the pandemic.
“I saw some people were doing plays on Zoom, and I watched them and I thought they were really interesting. But I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t know how to edit between actors…It wasn’t like theater to me, it was more of like a video conference performance. I just couldn’t figure it out,” explains Phillips when asked about how the pandemic affected his cretaive process. “Then I read about a play, a magic show actually, that only let 25 members in to see it nightly. That was really inspiring. I thought it would be a much easier way to engage with a smaller group of people for a live performance.”
‘Zoo Motel’ was created with the purpose of bringing a world where audiences from around the globe can share a mind-bending adventure in the comfort of their own home. This “virtual odyssey” combines interactive live theater, gripping storytelling, cinematic illusions, musical interludes and magic. The show may be broadcast from a studio apartment in a South American village, but during the experience, audience members will journey to Spain, Japan, the Mojave Desert, and other parts of the world with Phillips.
While working behind the scenes on TV shows, Phillips says he became fascinated with the camera work. So, for he latest show he figured out how to maneuver the camera through the use of different technologies and techniques to make a movie in one single room for the experience.
“If I thought of ‘Zoo Motel’ as a movie, then it would work as a play. It was a really weird way to think,” explains Phillips. “Audiences aren’t seeing a stage, which is why the Zoom background is hard to work with, you’re just in someone’s living room, or there’s a fake background behind it. But if we say we’re going to have them look at this like a movie, then you can see all these different perspectives of the motel room.”
The room itself is the set. Everything is three-dimensional and analog. There’s an old typewriter and an old dial phone, it’s all very non-digital. But the creativity is in the simplicity.
“Something can go wrong just like in theater….I feel that and the audience feels that,” continues Phillips. The fact that the show brings together so many global viewers is also a plus for the creative, who says that even without a pandemic, ‘Zoo Motel’ can still be performed and conceived as a stage show, just with a web address.
The show is influenced a bit by Phillips’ interest in European cinematic elements as well. To mimic that, he had to pay close attention to the way the camera moved and the way that the camera told the story, which is typical in the movie world, but it played into the cinematic illusions for the show. All of those elements are meant to engage the audience, so they can also enjoy the play almost like a movie.
When audiences purchase a ticket, they also receive a brochure, a principal room key, an evacuation map and a piece of motel stationery that they print out. It’s through these elements that Phillips will be able to achieve the magical elements of the show.
“It’s almost like a weird dream. What happens is that you dive into the performance with us…Not only are you interacting with us in this weird room, but it’s a little bit subversive. On one level, it’s a beautiful entertainment show, but it’s also kind of a higher energy movie at the same time. It has this kind of hybrid personality. So in that way, we tried to create something really entertaining, really fun, but powerful and moving and beautiful all at the same time. Which is really what theater should be.”
Tickets ($40) to ‘Zoo Motel’ are available April 15 to May 2. Philadelphians can purchase tickets online at theatreexile.org or call 215-218-4022.