The Austin Chronicle


You better listen to the radio

By Robert Faires, July 15, 2011, Arts

A solo work by Stephen Pruitt is a rare joy, like a total solar eclipse or a fabled comet's return. The mastermind behind Fluxion Scenic and Light Design spends most of his time providing outstanding design work for performing arts spectacles such as Forklift Danceworks' The Trash Project, Mary Moody Northen Theatre's bobrauschenbergamerica, and Trouble Puppet Theater Company's The Jungle. But every few years, he'll have enough time on his hands to create one of his own – though in Pruitt's one-man projects, the spectacle owes less to extravagant production values and more to incisive writing and theatricality that can blow your mind, as when, to illustrate the principles of Foucault, he suspended himself upside-down and became a human pendulum.

That was in 2002's History of the World as the Center of the Universe, and since then, Pruitt has given us only Catastrophe Theory in 2006 and "TBA" in 2009. The latter, created for FronteraFest, was a meditation on late-night radio, sounds in the dark, and how much of life is "to be announced," with each audience member listening to Pruitt through a separate radio and set of headphones. He's now reworked the piece to explore the wealth of information perpetually riding the electro-magnetic currents in the air, what we filter out and what we don't, what's truth and what's myth, what's clear and what's in code. DJs, UFOs, and the mysterious creature dubbed Mothman come into play in the piece, newly titled Encryption and opening this week at Salvage Vanguard Theater. Here, Pruitt decodes the work's development ... we think.

Austin Chronicle: Where did Encryption originate?

Stephen Pruitt: My performances are like [an Alexander] Calder mobile. I cruise along, doing my thing, assembling various parts as I find them, then one day they all sort of balance one another out and interconnect, and I know that piece is done. In this case, radio has always been a fascination, as has the mysterious and the unexplained fringe of science. Those were the two jumping-off points, and both go all the way back to my childhood – and in the case of Mothman, even before that, as it all happened the year before I was born.

AC: How did the original piece take shape as a radio experiment? Where did form meet function?

SP: It was all function at first. I knew I wanted to do the experiment with broadcasting to everyone wearing their own radios and headphones, but I didn't even know what to call it. I didn't have time to work on the content until after FronteraFest publicity had already labeled it as "TBA," but that was an absolutely brilliant title, so I ran with it and ended up talking about radio, television, and those hours in the night when they literally didn't know what they were going to put on the air, so TV Guide or whoever would just put TBA – "to be announced" – into those time slots. I didn't really know if anyone would remember that, but I still liked the idea of linking that metaphor to the way that life throws surprises at us, even when we're not expecting anything in particular.

AC: After FronteraFest, did you want to bring it back?

SP: I didn't intend to bring that particular piece back at the time, but the feedback from my friends, who tend to have really great taste in theatre, was good, so I decided that I shouldn't throw it out. I worked on it on and off, and it had a couple of short-circuited attempts at full production, and each time I'd put it back on the shelf. But then I'd stumble on some new piece of the mobile and start working on it again. The final part hit me over the head at the end of last year, so I've known for a while that I needed to do it. I didn't have any design work scheduled for July, so I called a few theatres to see if any of the smaller spaces were free, and SVT had room for me. If they hadn't, I was going to do it in the woods somewhere, as a drive-in radio show.

AC: How does Encryption differ from the FronteraFest piece?

SP: It's completely different, aside from the radios. Most of the content of the FronteraFest piece is gone now. Some of the themes are the same, but I've had two years to think about them a little more carefully and figure out how they fit together, plus several new things have been added. The storytelling is stronger now, and there are subjects I never dreamed I'd be talking about back then. Life has a way of happening to you when you work on something for a couple of years.

AC: Is there encrypted information in the answers you've just given me?

SP: Yes. Some things have been buried quite deeply.

Encryption runs July 15-30, Fridays & Saturdays, 8pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd. For reservations, visit

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