Creative moldbreaker Natasha Tsakos is a singularly original Miami artist who’s been showcased in the kind of forums where you rarely find artists: TED, Google, IBM, the United Nations. She’s made her name, and her work, uniting her two loves, technology and performance; equally enthusiastic about the profound human power of traditional theater and the (potentially) boundless possibilities of new technology. Her bio lists a mind-boggling list of accomplishments, from performing in Haitian orphanages and with rad burlesque troupe Circ X to the Super Bowl and the Discovery Channel.
And yet Tsakos, 37, is relatively little-known in Miami. Her complex pieces take years to produce, she spends lots of time researching, and is more likely to be off on an out of town project than performing here. But this weekend offers a rare chance to see her, in COLOURS, for the Miami Theater Center’s Inside the Box series. It’s a resolutely “technology free” play she wrote at the end of high school at the New World School of the Arts. She’s doing it in part to keep her juices flowing as she works on her next boundary breaking project, the ambitious Billions Billions, where she aims to make a show that changes in response to real events and lets audiences respond via mobile software – kind of a ‘change the world before curtain call’ performance.
Born and raised in Switzerland to an English artist mother (her Greek father was not around), Tsakos speaks French, English, Spanish and “silence – my other language.” At 14 the rebellious polyglot went off to Guatemala on what was supposed to be a three-month exchange program, then “declared my independence” and stayed, living and working on her own, for a year before coming to Miami and New World to study theater.
I talked with Tsakos about how her idiosyncratic creative/worldview, how she combines theater and technology, and more.
– Your work is an indefinable cross between theater, performance art, visual and physical spectacle, clowning, tech and ideas. Could you talk about these interests evolved and how they feed into each other?
I’ve been performing – lets call it playing – since I was six years old. I picked up a play from my grandfather’s shelf, I didn’t even know it was a play, and decided to memorize it. Before I knew it my cousin and I were touring the family market, my grandparents, my aunts, my mother. Theater came very naturally to me. It’s what I do love to do and continue doing.
What became very clear to me [at New World] was I wasn’t so interested in the pure acting route. I didn’t want to audition for other people’s plays or land a toothpaste commercial. I wanted to write my own plays – I had my own voice, and I knew I had my own things to say. So I started writing plays. When I graduated I discovered credit cards, which was very dangerous. I thought I’m going to produce, buy a set, props, pay actors.
She quickly produced her own play, Zap, at Green Door, a short-lived avant-garde space downtown. But her achievement disappointed Tsakos.
It was my play, my words, but the result felt very rigid. I realized I wanted to bring magical surrealism to the stage, a cinematic quality. What I saw was too linear, too real. One of my favorite lines in one of my favorite books, The Little Prince, is “words are a source of misunderstanding.” So if we remove the words what is left?
That question gave birth to UpWake, a major commission from the Miami Light Project and the brand new Adrienne Arsht Center, which started Tsakos on uniting live performance with technological magic. In UpWake, which was a local sensation in 2004, she was “Zero,” a Chaplinesque innocent voyaging through a surreal, computer-generated universe. UpWake established a prototypical character and structure for her; rather like that independent teenager who plunged into the/a New World on the other side of the Atlantic from Europe and her family.
UpWake was a four year process. I started drawing and doodling, and it became a storyboard without my knowing that is how cartoons or movies are made. The whole process was very natural and intuitive. That felt right. I could play on a symbolic conceptual level and really play with the visuals and sound and motion and interaction of characters to drive the story and share ideas.
Meanwhile, Tsakos kept performing live – often in unpredictable situations like the street, nightclubs, events, often with Circ X, the satirical, daring, thought-and-stereotype-provoking burlesque troupe headed by Diana Lozano. Circ X was a money-making gig for many top Miami performance artists and choreographers, including Octavio Campos, Rosie Herrera, Luckner Bruno, Rudi Goblen, and Ana Menendez. That work helped Taskos hone a quicksilver, ironic/comic, vividly live persona, embodied in her sleek, androgynous, elegantly rubber bodied figure.
Street performing was a big part of my life for more than 10 years. That also informs the work – this non-verbal slapstick, the clown – not mime exactly – all those styles and aesthetics melted into one.
After UpWake I was invited to speak at the TED conference. That was my Oscar nomination moment. But I was also like oh my god I have to speak about what I do. I got rid of words, created this monstrous multi-media experiment, and now I have to explain. But it was really interesting to be able to speak about it. And people I met in the conference world were so stimulating, scientists and engineers and people of all backgrounds and expertise who share this big vision. I got invited to other conferences. But I never wantd to repeat myself. I can’t – your thinking process updates, or should update constantly. We should have epiphanies, we should challenge ourselves all the time. So every time I’ve been invited to speak I’ve updated my thinking and translated where I was with my work and discoveries. That led to this visionary element: What will theater look like? How will entertainment be affected with the internet and augmented and virtual reality?
The questions I pose are about the future of the arts and the advent of technology. I’m particularly interested in the realm of theater. But it’s endless. With the integration and combination of so many technologies out there now, we will soon live in a play. That’s not science fiction or fantasy, it’s a very real proposition. It’s scary if money gets in, if agencies start to manipulate this augmented reality for their benefit. But it’s important to realize from the artist’s point of view the leverage we have to create a better world, to lift people out of their misery.
Her constant quest to experiment and push boundaries led to what may be Tsakos’ most prestigious commission and most ambitious project yet. In 2015 she received a rare scholarship to Singularity University, co-founded by famed inventors and futurists Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis. Located in Silicon Valley, SU is a visionary think tank which aims to leverage brilliant minds to create new technology and ideas to solve humanity’s problems.
You go there to learn about exponential technologies to solve a million people’s problems. I got into the Global Impact Challenge competition, I got a full scholarship and spent the summer there. At that point, as far as the shows, I was on a roll, producing more work, more work. I understand how to do this but it wasn’t good enough anymore. People started labeling me this techno-performer. I though if I’m really going to play with technology I ought to know what’s out there, what will be possible in 5, 10, 20 years because everything is moving so exponentially fast. After graduating from Singularity University I had an existential crisis: what do I do now? After you learn about all those exponential technologies and how you can positively affect a billion people, it’s hard to go back to the theater and do my work. So how can theater affect a billion people? Can theater change the world? It has transformative power, it is needed. But is it good enough? Is this language antiquated or do we need to update it?
Tsakos’ answer – for now, anyways – is Billion Billions, which premieres at Georgia Tech University in 2018.
Billion Billions is a roller coaster through time that will be different every time you see it. I’m leveraging mobile technology to create a show that responds to world events and where the audience can respond in real time, via our own app, the show’s app. You’ll be watching a scene on climate change and the data becomes the environment. The performers react too. You might be seeing CO2 emissions visuals, it’s very climactic and at that moment your phone lights up and invites you to do something that tackles that challenge.
This sounds light years from the low-tech, word-centric COLOURS. But when MTC founder Stephanie Ansin approached her, Tsakos couldn’t resist the chance to get back to her original inspirations – and to finally present a play she wrote 18 years ago – as she works on Billions. Fellow Circ X alums Bruno and Lozano will join her, as will actor Malia’Kekia.
I have a hard time saying no – it’s a problem. She’s giving me a space and I can just play. When she told me the series is called Inside the Box it was a no brainer, because COLOURS is all about box box box. I like to think it’s a play where Samuel Becket and Dr. Seuss could meet. This fool wakes up in the morning, realizes nothing exists anymore, and he makes up fictitious characters. It’s very deranged. Most of the text is invented words. It’s a very mad show for sure.
COLOURS is performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Miami Theater Center Sandbox, 9816 NE 2nd Ave., Miami Shores. “Absurd after-Xhibit-party” follows. Tickets $25 at mtcmiami.org.