INTERVIEW: Carmen Wong of banished?productions

INTERVIEW: Carmen Wong of banished?productions

After this holiday hiatus, I want to take some time to look at one particular subset of "small house" performance: food and food-inspired theatre.

I asked Carmen Wong, the Founder and Artistic Director of banished? productions in Washington, DC, if she would talk to me a little bit about her experience staging Tactile Dinner.

This multi-course performance event premiered at the 2009 Capital Fringe Festival, and banished? has gone on to produce the show at three different locations over the last two years. Inspired by F.T. Marinetti's Futurist Cookbook, Tactile Dinner operates out of a spirit of playfulness, combining multimedia, movement and gorgeously designed food. The Washington Post described Tactile Dinner as "a giddy little refreshment," and the City Paper called it "an experience, and one I exhort you not to miss."


Carmen and I connected over Google Chat to talk about the ideas behind the show, the challenges of pulling it off, and how she uses food to create a unique and intimate performance environment.

me: So... Tactile Dinner?

banishedproductions:  yes!

me:  I know you wanted to do a show with food for a long time. Why?

banishedproductions:  i'm so glad you know about it

me:  Of course, dude, I web-stalk you.

banishedproductions:  the food part was just out of love
of food
and the communal experience
if i could get that close
get that kind of intimacy in a performance setting

me:  How did the specific concept for the show develop?

Futurist Cookbookbanishedproductions:  started when i found the futurist cookbook
and saw that someone had already done that
in the 1920s
so i thought about how to make it more a performance than just a prank of a dinner
at this point we'd also just seen a few shows at the Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts
where we saw this AMAZING show
and i wanted to appropriate some of what I experienced
the group was Teatro de los sentidos
and the piece was called The echo of the shadow

me:  What was it like?

banishedproductions:  one basically journeys alone (even if you came with someone) through a labyrinth of sorts
staged with many vigenettes
in a large abandoned school

me:  What elements of that did you adapt for Tactile Dinner?

banishedproductions:  some points of the piece you were cast in total darkness
and sometimes, your hand was taken
so you could feel something
i adapted this one part
where a lady with a suitcase, made me feel these little swatches inside the suitcase
and that was a part of the first tactile dinner....where diners would come in, and feel for a swatch of their tactile preference
and be seated with someone whose dinner jacket was the material they picked out.
Tactile Dinnerthe show was centered
or hosted by the character Marinetti
who gave directives on what to do
and how to "eat"
and dispense disapproving sounds
if done wrongly
for the 1st tactile dinner, he was a head on 2 TVs
i think that his character was very much what made the show different from the original futurist dinners
it was an affectation that functioned as a source of direction

me:  How many diners could you accommodate?

banishedproductions:  the 1st one we could seat up to 50
we also only had about 50 dinner "pajamas"
so we were limited on that end too
50 was too much
service would be slow when we were maxed
and too fast when we only had a half house
very good learning experience to settle that 3 dozen was a good limit, with about 30 people was ideal

me:  What was the space where you performed?

banishedproductions:  this is funny
it's actually a service center for the aged!
the room they do coloring
and crafts and bingo
and they sometimes take their meals there too
we were supposed to have the show at a restaurant
but they pulled out quite last minute
so we had to rush and found this space a few doors down from the restaurant

me:  Were you concerned about the taste of the food? Or was it more a visual impact kind of thing -- purple cauliflower, etc.

tactile dinnerbanishedproductions:  taste was completely important
the 1st show
we barely had the budget to do major cooking
and it was sort of based on what could do
what would be the least of allergic problems
and other food concerns
gluten free
and we were guided by the 4 or so dishes in the futurist cookbook for their version of "tactile dinner"
so we knew we were gonna do our version of polyrhythmic salad - a salad with a music contraption to which waiters would dance
then we were also sure of tactile vegetable garden (the purple cauliflower dish) which had to be eaten without help of hands
but one of the hardest thing the first go around, was figuring out how to do "magic balls" also on the original tactile dinner menu
which called for balls made of caramel, which would hide things like garlic, meat or bananas
my chefs had such a rough time making it not gooey
or melting
and we tried several dozen things
self-made caramel (too heat-senstive or too hard if we made it hardball)
then tried things like cow tails (the premade candies)
no luck. they looked bad and tasted worse
then one of the chefs found this recipe that made it such that we were limited to the insides being liquid (oil or vinegar based)
but it worked like a charm.

me:  Sounds like the food was a performer that required LOTS of direction.

banishedproductions:  no kidding!
big DIVA

me:  Chefs is not a title you see in a lot of theatre programs. I know from personal experience that you're a fabulous cook -- did you draft "real" cooks to help you or did you get friends or theatre artists who just knew how to cook?

banishedproductions:  real chefs
but young
no one famous
or with their own places
real cooks

tactile dinner

me:  What was the audience response to the show? Do you think people expected "dinner theatre"?

banishedproductions:  LOADS of people thought it was dinner theatre
but i think they caught on when they were given their textured pajamas
and then the word got out
that it wasn't a dinner theatre
but that is still the #1 question i get asked by someone who hasn't heard about it and asks me from the title
its a hard sell to be sure
even finding the right words to describe it has been a challenge

me:  Do you see the show as an ongoing thing... Still in progress?

tactile dinnerbanishedproductions:  oh yes!
very much so!
the beauty is that it can reinvent itself
that you can go to another tactile dinner, having been before, and see a different show
experience different things
i don't remember if i told you
but the next step is the food cart

me:  That's VERY cool!

banishedproductions:  yeah mobile art
not truck
but more a weird shaped cart
with a TV somewhere
and this way i get to use some of the menu items
and put about 10 items
and dont have to have a narrative arc as much

me:  People love buying food on wheels.
Or food hanging from clippy things. Why is that?

banishedproductions:  so people can buy ala cart(e)

me:  Heh heh.

banishedproductions:  it appeals to our inner child!
the whole point is to be accessible.
banished's mission
is avant pop
making what seems to be scary performance art
be appealing, fun
non threatening

me:  It seems that the mission of banished? could encompass shows with a wide variety of sizes and scales. Do you imagine yourself doing work in the future that would require a tiny audience? Food-based or otherwise?

banishedproductions:  i'm having trouble imagining "requiring" a tiny audience
without thinking of the show that levia lew and i wanted to do in bathroom stalls
this is where the works intersect genres
like we are now talking about installations almost
or maybe that's where i go because that's what i feel i would like to go
the site itself becomes part of the installation
a performative installation
so yes, we would go there

me:  Speaking of food, I'm trying to come up with a way to bring a "theatre piece" to the next potluck my neighbors throw -- in a way that would be "real" theatre (what does that mean) that they could enjoy and would not freak them out. Any suggestions?

banishedproductions:  does it have to be consumable?

me:  No! But now that you've inspired me...
I was thinking of a scene from Macbeth narrated by my 3-year-old.

banishedproductions:  well how about this?
a scene not ONLY narrated
but also drawn by the 3 y/o
with edible paints

me:  Hehheheheheh

banishedproductions:  like food purees
there is one dish by Alinea
very playful
they have this silicon "tablecloth"
and the chef comes out with a cart
with all these food all nicely prepped in his mis-en-place
and he begins to "draw"
so he places the main proteins down
then the sauces get artfully splashed
and but the end you have this edible tablescape
and you tuck in

me:  Sounds right up your alley. :-)

banishedproductions:  so it could be participatory
a tablescape inspired by macbeth
and in the background
the narration
everyone grabs a squeeze bottle
and some pretty veggies
and creates something that you all then eat up together!

me:  banished? productions presents: Thursday night potluck.

banishedproductions:  inspired by something bloody

me:  Fun for all ages!

Photos: Jessica Seo
Joshua Hermias
Ayo Okunseinde

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