STATIC APNEA (2020): Interview with Artistic Director Christopher McElroen

Artistic Director Christopher McElroen. Photo credit J. Elon Goodman.
Artistic Director Christopher McElroen. Photo credit J. Elon Goodman.

“STATIC APNEA (2020)” is a new socially distanced performative art installation at Brooklyn’s The Invisible Dog Art Center which will begin performances on September 12, 2020. The American Vicarious’ Artistic Director, Christopher McElroenThe show features text by Julia Watt and is performed by Isabella Pinheiro and Jenny Tibbels. The design team includes Troy Hourie (Installation Designer), Zach Weeks (Lighting Designer) and Andy Evan Cohen (Sound Designer).

The concept of the show was born from mulling over the discipline it takes to hold your breath underwater while motionless – static apnea. The sensation of breath being taken away and the struggle to restore it renders us motionless as the pandemic has rendered global communities motionless.  The show runs for 9 minutes and 2 seconds (the female record for static apnea) and takes place inside of a 40-foot storage container that was specifically designed to open at both ends, contains high-powered fans and air purifiers to ensure proper air flow, and allows only one audience member (who must wear a mask  throughout the duration of the show) to enter the container at a time. To enter the container is immerse yourself within a tunnel of blue light where you descend towards a single performer behind a wall of plexiglass.

Christopher McElroen is a Brooklyn-based media producer and director. His contributions to theater have earned him dozens of awards and accolades. He recently discussed this piece and more via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for theater and how did you find your way to The Invisible Dog?

Christopher McElroen (CM): Ah, your first question implies a love of the theatre… I suspect like many, it’s a love/hate relationship. I discovered theatre while studying business in college. It was through the theatre that I learned to express myself in ways that I had not previously experienced. Around that time, my father had lost his job. The lesson to my siblings and I: You can fail at the thing you don’t want to do as easily as failing at the thing you do want to do. So why not do that thing instead…So, I changed majors and got a night job sweeping floors at Madison Square Garden to pay my way through theatre school. As for The Invisible Dog, I live a few blocks away. I met Lucien (the founder and artistic director) back in 2010, shortly after he had started the place. I asked if I could push a piano out of his second-floor window. He replied, “Why not the third?” He and his staff are good folk!

MM: How did you conceive to put a show in a giant container?

MC: The shipping container is the influence of Sam Trubridge, a dear friend in New Zealand who founded the Performance Arcade. Some colleagues, Julia Watt and Andrea Goldman, and I began working on a piece after reading about the death of Natalia Molchanova, a world-record holding freediver who drowned while instructing others off the coast of Spain. Shortly thereafter, I reached out to Sam, whose brother, William Trubridge, is a world-record holding freediver himself. It was in those conversations that Sam extended an invitation to develop and present the work in a shipping container in New Zealand. At this point, I invited my longtime collaborator and scenographer, Troy Hourie, to imagine a shipping container with me. The work originally premiered in Wellington in March 2017 and was then remounted in Auckland in November that same year. While the concept is similar, “Static Apnea” (2020) has been reimagined to speak to a more immediate relationship to breath.

MM: Why was the underwater theme so appealing?

MC: Honestly, because I can’t swim. And, when originally creating the piece I had lost someone. They did not drown, but they did lose the ability to breathe on their own. When they passed, I wanted to navigate their loss in Static Apnea. When the pandemic reached its peak in New York, I began thinking about breath again… And as he did in 2010, Lucien said “yes” when I asked if I could park a shipping container outside The Invisible Dog.

MM: This is a short performance but what do you hope the take-away is?

MC: The piece will be performed by Jenny Tibbels and Isabella Pinheiro, each taking different days. Our collective hope is to simply have a meaningful exchange with whomever comes to experience the work. I’ve been holding my breath for some time now, not knowing when I can breathe easy again. I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment. So, as the text of “Static Apnea” (2020) begins, “Breathe with me.”

MM: What does the actress’ dance represent?

MC: There is not a dance, but the performer is there to let you know that you are not alone in this moment of uncertainty. We are in this together – whatever this is…

MM: What were the challenges of getting this piece staged while the pandemic’s effects are still lingering?

MC: I have the good fortune of collaborating with Erica Laird, the Producing Director of The American Vicarious. Erica, and our Production Manager, Neal Wilkinson, have done a remarkable job in meeting the challenges of producing a new work in this moment. They have made certain that we meet and surpass all of the safety guidelines set forth. For me, the creative challenges are what you might expect. The ability to gather and spend time with the folks you’re creating with has required the largest adjustment.

MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

MC: The next project at The American Vicarious will open in mid-October on the heels of “Static Apnea” (2020). debate: Baldwin/Buckley, is an adaptation of the 1965 debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. Staged live for three cameras, debate: Baldwin/Buckley is a pressing conversation about race in America in the weeks prior to the Presidential election. Beyond that, we’re looking for a home to exhibit a short video installation with original music by Gerald Clayton, “eQUaITy.” And, we’re producing a documentary film that will be completed in 2021. A new film by Sherief Elkatsha, “Far From the Nile,” which looks at the challenges of collaborating across cultural lines in a polarized world. As for more traditional theatre, that love/hate relationship will resume when conditions allow…