As theaters continue to remain closed, venues remain committed to the digital sphere as a vehicle for programming. Such is the case for the Exponential Festival — the annual wintertime new-work bonanza — and if previous years are any indication, Exponential is unlikely to bore you with standard Zoom programming.
Normally, The Brick in Williamsburg, Triskelion in Greenpoint, and other neighborhood venues host Exponential Festival performances. But even with the transition online, Greenpoint talent abounds with multiple local artists participating in the two-dozen-plus pieces comprising this annual festival helmed by the ever-intrepid Theresa Buchhesiter (Artistic Director of The Brick).
The Exponential Festival runs virtually from January 7 to 31, offering a myriad of virtual performances audiences can safely enjoy at home, with complimentary tickets issued via Eventbrite .
One such piece is Night Descends on Svalbard, a “short theatrical drama on film” that’s a collaboration from Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez and Ellpetha Tsivicos. Premiering on January 29 at 8:30 PM, this piece is heavily influenced by the unique cultures of its first-generation artists and how our histories and ancestries provide the blueprints for our present. Get to know Ellpetha, Camilo, and their new work that traces our paths toward discovery and selfhood.
Greenpointers: So many wonderful elements — the cosmos, the beauty and terror of the dark, how our lineage informs our identities — make up your show. As did Ellpetha’s discovery that you’re .25% Viking Hunter Gatherer! Discuss how that discovery came about?
Ellpetha: My father, who is Cypriot and was born in a small isolated farming village in Paphos, Cyprus did a DNA test and it came back 99.75% West Asian, North African, and Levantine, and then .25% Scandinavian, but the map specifically showed Iceland and this Arctic island of Svalbard. Being from a tiny obscure island (Cyprus) I have always loved other islands, especially in isolated places. I imagined to get from the Arctic to Cyprus one would have to be fierce, powerful, imaginative, and quite the explorer. It honestly made sense with how strong and independent my family of subsistence farmers are, as they have managed to get through so much with so little. It was really cool to confirm that despite the excessive colonization of Cyprus, we did not have any blood from the colonizers and were in fact indigenous, despite this tiny percentage. About a month later, my younger brother did the same DNA test, my father’s results adjusted to 100% Cypriot, so I guess this was all just for inspiration!
My family are the toughest and strongest people I have ever met. They are survivors and they are warriors, and so thinking that we had .25% Viking in us made sense. They were nomadic hunter gatherers, and so were so many other tribal indigenous people throughout the Middle East, and eastern Mediterranean. Also, I am kind of afraid of the dark, and my farmer grandmother always laments about the long nights of winter, and how it makes her worry. My grandmother on my mom’s side also had a lot of anxieties, so this piece is also about inheriting those worries.
Is this a one-person show in terms of how it’s presented?
Camilo: This started as a one-person show but has since evolved to include Michelle Uranowitz and myself. Michelle is such a unique mover and performer, and has an unforgettable, expressive face. We all studied at NYU together and have worked together in the past, but never in this capacity. She attended both “Quince,” at the People’s Garden, and our Dia de los Muertos outdoor performances in 2020 and has been so supportive of our work. We really just love Michelle as a human, and as an artist. Her spirit is unparalleled. I wrote the script in a way where most things can be shot individually, and socially distanced, and we are really excited to be working in a theater space, to combine all of our film backgrounds, and our theater training and create this hybrid short. I’ll also add that during the pandemic I have been working as an OSHA-certified production infection control agent, which informs our safety protocols.
How would you describe each of your roles in the creative process of putting this on its feet — or rather, bringing it to our screens?
Camilo: Ellpetha and I have lived and worked together for 13 years so it is difficult to say exactly where one of our brain’s ends and the other’s begins. Ellpetha thinks in images, colors, costume, and lots of emotion, and then starts to build a world. Then, I bring in text that tries to fill in that world, and then we edit back and forth. If we are filming I do a lot of the technical work and Ellpetha directs and builds the composition, but sometimes she says, “Give me the camera.” We are very specific about who we like to work with and try to make sure that our collaborators know we want to hear their suggestions and that we see them as unique individuals who are creating a role not just filling one. We love ensemble work and the kind of energy that comes with building a group, and deep collaboration, but make no mistake, Ellpetha is La Patrona (The Boss).
The show is produced by One Whale’s Tale. Is that your joint production company?
Camilo: Yes! What do you think of the name? We’ve been considering changing it, reach out, let us know in the comments. We work in a variety of mediums including documentaries, music videos, short films, commercials, theater, and live experiences. We hope the playfulness of the name reflects our desire to create magic and joy even when tackling difficult subjects. Our multicultural existence has given us a passion for creating work that preserves culture, creates dialogue, community, and highlights underrepresented stories. Fun fact: While shooting a short documentary in the Faroe Islands, they thought we were an anti-whaling brigade coming to expose their ancient traditions.
Was this show meant to be performed live, and then you pivoted during COVID, or was it created for a digital medium?
Ellpetha: This show was planned to be filmed primarily for a digital audience, we considered having a small two-three person audience but we decided against it with the current COVID numbers. The three of us have backgrounds in film and we are excited to bring the spontaneity and vivacity of theater with the technical savvy of cinematic storytelling and editing. Film and theater are very different crafts with unique visual languages and we are hoping to find the best of both worlds. It’s really great that theater artists are able to share their work digitally, but it’s important to be aware of and utilize the cinematic storytelling techniques that filmmakers and producers have been developing for generations, so that we are deepening an art form and not reinventing the wheel.
What’s it been like being a part of the Exponential Festival during such a crazy year?
Ellpetha: We feel really honored to be part of the Exponential Festival and have Theresa Buchheister’s support. All craziness aside, this has been the first year we have been able to dedicate so much of our time on our art, because all of our day jobs have been cancelled. This project is a continuation of themes we explored during a live outdoor Day of the Dead event we produced in October at the Gowanus Dredgers Boathouse. During that event we built a community altar and invited guests to bring photos, items, or leave written memories of those they’d lost. Theresa was so supportive of this, and helped us invite members of the theater community that would be enthralled with our work.
We wanted to create a space to begin communal healing and talk about death and loss, which has been big on all of our minds this year. We had magical characters on canoes floating down the Gowanus, live music, a traditional Mexican Tecuanes community dance troupe, and worked with the Street Vendor Project, and Make the Road, to have food from local street vendors. Night Descends on Svalbard, is a continuation of our thoughts on darkness and isolation which are tied to our thoughts on death, the changing of the seasons, and the phases of the Moon. All these themes are relevant to us all, but extremely relevant to me, coming from generations of rural farmers, who despite having only a first or second grade education know everything about the moon and how to create and foster so many forms of life. Having a project and a venue to work through all of these difficult ideas is extremely fulfilling, especially during the cold winter months.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Camilo: One thing we were able to do during quarantine was get a weekly CSA box of local seasonal vegetables. We are so removed from how our food grows, and have virtually everything available year round, but seeing and tasting what grows naturally during a certain time of year really helps to inform how you are feeling and what your body needs and how it is reacting to the seasons and changing environment.
Our next project The Queen of Cyprus, at Nancy Manocherian’s the cell, in April/May 2021, is a celebration of spring and the ancient Hellenic rituals dedicated to the deities Aphrodite and Persephone. A lot of our work is about working locally with our communities and trying to keep our connection to these elements of nature that have always inspired us as humans. By including these cultural practices in our work, we document them, and that is so important to us as first-generation Americans.