Thaddeus Phillips is a man of the world. As a theater artist splitting his time between Philadelphia and Bogota, Colombia, Phillips has traveled the globe in search of stories and new ways to tell them. On Friday, Phillips touches down in New Orleans for the first time with his one-man show 17 Border Crossings, which the Contemporary Arts Center presents in conjunction with the Where Do We Migrate To? exhibition opening Saturday.
Phillips' work in theater has taken him to some remote places, and he finds that some of the most interesting stories never make it to the stage. These stories he'd tell among friends: bizarre and sometimes frightening encounters in Cuba, war-torn Eastern Europe and the wilds of the Amazon. He calls them the "outtakes" of his time spent traveling to develop shows. In 17 Border Crossings, Phillips compiles these monologues and examines the imposed borders and their effect on personal interactions.
"This started being developed in 2010 when all the stuff in Arizona was going on with the crazy laws," says Phillips, referring to Arizona's controversial laws aimed at undocumented immigrants. While working on the play's structure, Phillips realized other political and social events over the past two decades helped shape his stories.
"We were looking for distinctive markers that change the way the world is perceived and thus change the borders," he says. "The borders after the fall of the Berlin Wall all changed in Europe completely, and after 9/11 they all got changed again."
As a director and designer, Phillips attempts to engage the audience and heighten the drama of his border crossing stories by avoiding the conventions of traditional theater. In Prague, he studied action design, a contemporary approach to set design pioneered in the former Czechoslovakia.
"Traditional theater is essentially very conservative and not that interesting," Phillips says. "It's people talking in a very organized way and in a fairly realistic set." By contrast, action design allows artists to treat the stage as a "completely transformative plastic space."
The set design for 17 Border Crossings consists of a few microphones and a bar of fluorescent and halogen lights that can be manipulated to shape a variety of places and settings. The use of light also reinforces the notion of borders as impermanent and intangible markers of space.
"The idea of borders is such a firm thing that governments have established and nations have established, but it's really just a line in the sand," Phillips says. "And so we wanted to make a border out of light, which is abstracted and can turn on and off. We define the space through use of different lights to give you the sense that you're on a train, or in a bus, in a bathroom in Amsterdam, in a tent in the Amazon."
Phillips uses a second-person narrative to help audiences imagine they are experiencing the stories themselves.
"It gets annoying to be like 'I like did this' and 'I was there,'" Phillips says. "And it's just more theatrical to say 'Okay, now you're in this train in Hungary. You're about to cross the border into Serbia.'"
After performing 17 Border Crossings in the United States, Europe and Latin America, Phillips is going to focus on directing. Already he's receiving accolades for directing and designing Red-Eye to Havre de Grace, an avant-garde musical about the last days of Edgar Allan Poe. A recent performance at Philadelphia's Live Arts Festival, drew praise from New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood, who called it an "exquisite show" and "among the most original musical theater works I've seen in years."
"In a way,17 Borders is like the ending of a chapter of performance," Phillips says. "It's not my last time on stage ever, but it's a definite wrap-up to a certain stage of work I've been making."