by Deanna Sirlin
A Meditation on Them Black Bodies:
by Opal Moore
A dialogue with Director Daniele Frison and Giuseppe Gavazza
Daniel Pettrow, Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Hot Season, 2021. Directed by Daniel Pettrow. Film still.
A Dialogue on Acting and Performance
with Philip Auslander
Daniel Pettrow, Herz Schmerz, 2019. Dance-theater creation. Directed by John Heginbotham in collaboration with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Performed at Baryshnikov Arts Center.
Daniel Pettrow is a boundary-crossing artist. Trained as an actor, he began his career in the theater, performing Shakespeare and the work of modern and contemporary playwrights, and appearing in independent films and on television. He has gravitated over time toward more experimental work. He has performed with The Wooster Group, based in New York City and arguably the single most important and influential avant-garde theater to emerge from the wave of theatrical experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s. Pettrow brings his expertise as an actor and director to collaborations with artists in other media, including choreographers, musicians, and visual artists. He is the Director of Performance & Communication Training at Heifetz International Music Institute, through which he has developed a program that enables classical musicians to enrich their connections to their performances and audiences using fundamentals of acting. His current project is a collaboration with French-Afghani visual artist Kubra Khademi that incorporates a film and a gallery exhibition leading up to a live theatrical performance in 2023.
In this wide-ranging and thoughtful exchange with The Art Section, Pettrow discusses this project, and his background in theater, his inclination toward experimental performance and hybrid genres, and some of the ideas and concerns that inform his work.
The Principles of Uncertainty, 2017. Assistant Director and performer Daniel Pettrow. Directed by John Heginbotham. Performed at BAM in NY, NY 2017.
Philip Auslander: Since The Art Section is headquartered in Atlanta, please tell us about how you began your acting career here before moving to New York City.
Daniel Pettrow: I moved to Atlanta around 1998 after training at the summer intensive at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. I chose Atlanta because my family was there, and I was figuring out where I wanted to go next. My brother was attending the Atlanta College of Art. Shortly after arriving in Atlanta, my brother and myself (along with two friends - Atlanta artists Jena Jones and Jeremy Dost), created an alternate art space in downtown Atlanta called The Ballroom Studios. We created this space for multiple reasons: to have an affordable place to live and work, curate shows for ourselves and other artists, and support work that we found exciting. At the same time, I dived into the acting and directing scene in Atlanta. I was fortunate to work with Tim Habeger (artistic director of PushPush theater) who was continually pushing and challenging me. It was also during this time that I met French director Arthur Naucyziel. I performed in his production of Black Battles with Dogs by Bernard-Marie Koltés. This production ended up having a long life performing at National Theaters throughout Europe for the next ten years.
PA: I saw Black Battles with Dogs in Atlanta, at 7 Stages if memory serves. What was it like to be an American actor working in Europe?
DP: It was an incredible experience to perform in Europe for the first time. Most of my favorite artists are from Europe, and here I was performing at a lot of the same theaters that they performed at. It felt very dreamy and exciting. I remember being particularly struck with the support system for performing artists in Europe. European companies often spend longer periods of time rehearsing and have longer runs of shows. Also, the audiences are not only open to more experimental and poetic creations; they actually embrace them!
In terms of being an American actor in Europe, I always feel like I’m straddling two different worlds. A lot of my young experiences and training were composed of both American and European approaches to acting. My American training was composed of a lot of psychological preparation, intensely identifying with the character that you’re playing, and deeply being in your body. I was also influenced by American cinema, such as the directors John Cassavetes and David Lynch. Additionally, I was trained in European acting approaches. I would describe these as more language based, tuning my sensitivity to poetry, and abstract expression. A lot of directors from Europe and the East influenced me, like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wong Kar-Wai. So, when I perform in Europe, I feel a bit of an outsider and insider simultaneously.
Black Battles with Dogs, 2002 - 2012. Directed by Arthur Naucyziel. Daniel Pettrow as Cal. Performed at 7 Stages in Atlanta
and National Theaters across Europe. Photo: Frederic Nauczyciel.
PA: How did your association with The Wooster Group, probably the most significant and influential experimental performance group to appear in this country after the surge of theatrical radicalism in the 1960s and '70s, come about?
DP: While in Europe, I found myself performing at a lot of the same theaters and festivals that New York's experimental company The Wooster Group was performing at. When I finally had a chance to see one of their shows, House Lights, in person, I was so impressed by the incredible performers and beauty of the production that I wanted to discover how they made work. I wrote them a letter asking how to get involved with the company. Luckily, the manager of the company at the time wrote me back and said to visit them for an interview. So, I went to New York and met them. They offered me a technical internship where I could be in rehearsals every day working with the technicians and observing the company as they rehearsed. I felt this was the right choice to make, so I ended up moving to New York. I was super interested in developing original work and exposing myself to new environments. After working with The Wooster Group for one month, our director, Elizabeth LeCompte, asked if I could rehearse with them one day because one of their actors was away. I spent the day rehearsing with them, and at the end of the day Elizabeth asked if I would join the company as an actor.
Daniel Pettrow as Horatio and Rosencrantz in Hamlet, 2006 - 2015. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte at The Wooster Group. Photo: Paula Court.
PA: To me, the way The Wooster Group performs is right on the borderline between acting and performance art. What is distinctive about their approach to acting in your experience?
DP: In my experience, one of the unique things about The Wooster Group is their approach to how you use yourself as a performer. That’s a good observation that you said about it being “right on the borderline between acting and performance art.” Oftentimes, the company uses technology such as in-ear microphones and video monitors. Both these systems provide the performer with external stimuli and information while performing. We are then required to follow or pick up these external cues. Sometimes, the information that the performer is receiving is very intense and layered. Ultimately, this creates a kind of external psychology for the performer. Another unique thing about the company’s approach to acting is the long rehearsal periods and attention to detail. Liz is brilliant at continually refining moments and fine tuning the performances of all the performers.
Julius Caesar, 2006 - 2019, Directed by Arthur Naucyziel, Daniel Pettrow as Mark Antony. Performed at multiple National Theaters across Europe and South America. Photo: Frederic Nauczyciel.
PA: Your connection to The Wooster Group and many other things you’ve done speak to your commitment to artistic experimentation, but you’ve also worked in more conventional settings.
DP: When I was young, I was obsessed with Shakespeare and poetry. At the same time, I was obsessed with films and photography. My grandfather and father were photographers, so I grew up in darkrooms with them developing film. The process of being in the dark, manipulating instruments and chemicals, being patient, and watching images almost magically appear out of nowhere really shaped a lot what the artistic process is for me. So, from an early age I was always interested in classical work and experimenting with new forms.
Oftentimes when I work on something that is considered more "commercial," I just think that I’m switching genre and style. I don't see it as a big leap to make. Staying flexible and open is something that I value as a performer. To switch between theater and film can seem like a huge jump, and it definitely is in some ways, but for myself, once I frame it as another sort of "reality" that I have to inhabit, that tends to make the transition a little bit smoother. I feel the same way about switching between commercial and experimental work. However, in the last 15 years, I've been focusing more on experimental work. I think the reason for this is that I'm more interested in creating work that I’ve never seen before, and the form of expression that takes doesn't usually fit into a traditional framing structure.
WPA Virtual Commissions: Wolf and Duck by Daniel Pettrow. Premiered Jan 3, 2021.
PA: I’m intrigued by the ways you position the audience in some of your work. I’m thinking of A Kind of Mirror, a series of classical concerts in West Virginia meant to make the music more accessible, The Sea Museum, in which the audience was led through a disused subway tunnel in New York City, and Dance Marathon, in which audience members participated as contestants. What are the objectives of these various way of incorporating the audience?
DP: Every time I create a new show, I get a lot of pleasure from thinking about how I’m going to “frame” the show. You can dramatically change the experience of any performance by the way you “frame” it. In my experience, having the audience positioned in a slightly different relationship to a show can create deeply poetic experiences. With The Sea Museum, I wanted the audience to feel like they were in a post-apocalyptic world. I also wanted them to hear the beauty and strangeness of the writing in a very amplified way. I set the play in an underground abandoned subway tunnel in Brooklyn. The audience literally had to go to the middle of an intersection and climb down a manhole. The audience was then led down half a mile of this tunnel as the play progressed. I co-created Dance Marathon with the Canadian performance collective bluemouth inc. We created an audience participatory show where they danced the entire time. This was based on Depression era dance marathons and the film They Shoot Horses Don’t They. We wanted the audience to feel like they were at a party, and every so often something poetic would appear. It’s like being on a boat in the middle of the ocean and every once in a while, a dolphin jumps out of the water. This show was about endurance, competition, dreams, and unfulfilled dreams. By having the audience immersed in the show this way, they actually could feel those themes personally. A Kind of Mirror is part of pianist Miki Sawada’s project "Gather Hear.” She travels to different states with a piano in a van and performs in community gathering spaces to connect with Americans across socioeconomic and political boundaries through music. She asked me to collaborate on one of her tours for West Virginia, where I was able to create A Kind of Mirror with her. In this show, the audience sits around Miki, but there’s one chair directly in front of her. An audience member sits there for each song and Miki gives them tasks to do while she’s playing, like making a cup of tea, putting on headphones and repeating what they hear. These little tasks create poetic and surreal moments and add something very personal and unexpected for every performance. The image I had for this show was the idea of sitting around a campfire and telling personal stories. I wanted this show to really reflect the audience more than the performer. So, in between each piece of music, Miki would also interview the audience member and have them talk about their town and experience living there.
Third Bird, 2022, Directed by Isaac Mizrahi, Daniel Pettrow as the Ostrich. Performed at the Guggenheim as part of their Works and Process series. Photo: The New Yorker.
PA: You usually describe yourself as an actor/director but you’ve also done movement-based work presented in the context of dance. Through your collaborations with visual artists, musicians, composers, and choreographers, you frequently cross over and hybridize genres. How does this impact your sense of identity as an artist?
DP: In terms of the hybridization of genres, I'm aware that it's almost impossible for me to have a cohesive identity, or rather, my inconsistent and conflicted sense of self is sometimes my identity. I find that my identity is contrary and evolving. It's constantly in the process of challenging its own best ideas. I think the resistance to a fixed identity could possibly be a great strength. I have always felt the despair of being boxed in by an identity and an inflexible opinion, for this can be the very death of creativity. For me, the ability to be open to influence, to discard personae, gives a freedom to express myself in contrasting ways. When I think about the artists who have had the greatest impact on me, this necessity to reinvent themselves is common to most of them. I think this is such a value - the ability to change, and to grow, and to confound. So, using various art forms to create a new work is just a natural and honest progression for me.
PA: As someone who writes a lot about musicians as performers, I’d like to hear about your program for classical musicians.
DP: I'm the Director of Performance & Communication Training at Heifetz International Music Institute. It's a unique summer conservatory aimed at developing the expressive potential of classical musicians. What makes us unique is our Performance & Communication training. It's a specially designed program of different art forms that the students train in, in addition to their music training. The goal is to increase their expressiveness, make them more connected to the music, to themselves, and ultimately to the audience. My work with them involves getting them to use themselves fully when they perform. To connect their bodies, breath, mind, and inner life together. A lot of this work is about developing their presence. What does it mean to be present? How do we enhance and practice presence? Also, a lot of work is developing new mindsets about what it means to be a performing artist and developing practical skills that can really amplify this. In my experience, most of this work is very alien to classical musicians. They generally have very little focus on physical work. Part of the work I do is to make them discover their own unique and rich inner lives, how to utilize them, how to physicalize them, and then practice the deepest way they can express these things.
Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Hot Season, 2021, Directed by Daniel Pettrow, Film still.
PA: You currently have an ongoing project titled Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Hot Season, a collaboration with the French-Afghani artist Kubra Khademi that has so far resulted in a film and a gallery exhibition, both currently on exhibition at Collection Lambert in Avignon, France, and you are also planning to do a theatrical production next year. How did this collaboration come about and what are some of its themes?
DP: I met French-Afghan artist Kubra Khademi in France a few years ago. Both of us were performing different shows at the National Theater of Brittany in Rennes. We immediately hit it off and developed a personal relationship. Over time, this relationship turned into a collaborative friendship. We always wanted to make work together, and we were interested in creating something that used our own identities as part of the creation. During our research on developing material, we discovered photos of these unknown Taliban portraits that they used to take in these little hole-in-the-wall photo shops in Afghanistan. As part of our rehearsal process, we began recreating these portraits using ourselves as the characters. We were also aware of how rare it is to have a collaboration between an Afghan and American artist. We knew we wanted to explore the complex relationship between the USA and Afghanistan. This evolved into asking questions about “identity” and “power.” What are they? What are the factors that shape them? How do people in positions of power mythologize themselves through imagery? What are some of the destructive tendencies of patriarchy and the effects of violence?
Our new body of work is both an art show and film titled Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Hot Season. It’s a story about the relationship and romance between an American male politician (played by myself) and a male Taliban leader (played by Kubra Khademi). The two men meet in Afghanistan and a romance blooms. We use a series of tableaux that blend poetic imagery and symbols. We incorporate a range of artistic elements (visual art, theater, writing, cinema, ritual practices, cultural and political references) and weave them together in a narrative tapestry. The film depicts an allegory for the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States.
Both the art show and film were made during the Covid pandemic which forced us to work in a long-distance relationship. For the art show, we had to take photos separately and then photoshop them together and add elements in post-production, creating a sort of photo collage/painting. For the film, we shot our scenes separately using green screens (Kubra in Paris and myself in New York). I then edited them together to make the film. Because we were forced to work this way, we created a style of performance that is very frontal, almost ritual like. There are hints of an influence from and allusion to The Color of Pomegranates by the great Sergei Parajanov. Currently, we are working on the third part of this project which will be a live theater production that will continue the story from where the film ends.
Daniel Pettrow is a multidisciplinary artist, actor, and director based in Brooklyn. He frequently focuses on original and experimental creations while fostering collaborations with artists from different disciplines. He is the Director of Performance & Communication Training at the Heifetz International Music Institute.
Philip Auslander writes frequently on performance, music, and art. He has published seven books, of which In Concert: Performing Musical Persona is the most recent. Auslander is a Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech, and the Editor of The Art Section.