Check into the ‘Zoo Motel’

Thaddeus Phillips brings a live, remote, interactive theatrical experience to the web

Thaddeus Phillips phone booth
Philly-raised Thaddeus Phillips will launch ‘Zoo Motel,’ his latest theatrical offering as a virtual experience. Phillips’s ‘A Billion Nights’ was the toast of last year’s Fringe Festival. | Image courtesy: Thaddeus Phillips

To say that experimental multimedia theater performer, director and playwright Thaddeus Phillips has a uniquely up-close-and-personal history with Philadelphia is like saying our cream cheese is white and our pretzels are soft. 

Old City and South Philly are his former homes, yet places he has returned to often from his current family dwelling in Bogota, Colombia, (wife, playwright Tatiana Mallarino, is from Bogota, where they’re raising their 7-year-old son), that is, until the pandemic. Though the Philadelphia Fringe Festival 2020 is running to its close soon after this cover story comes out, it is that live, local, month-long performance art event where Phillips initially made his densest bones, where audiences began to be fascinated by his mini-travelogues, his often macabre and humorous mix of time-shifting history, mystery, language and multiculturalism and his kinetic energy and amorphous scripts.

“FringeArts and Thaddeus grew up together,” Nick Stuccio, the capo de capo of all things Fringe, told me not so  very long ago. “Thaddeus is part of our DNA. Without him, we would be a different organization.”

Beginning with 1996’s “Shakespeare’s Storms,” in which Phillips married The Bard’s “The Tempest” and “King Lear” with nothing but a cast of Barbie dolls, a suitcase, and a kiddie wading pool (“When I started out I was big on puppets and dolls to do my bidding,” Phillips told me the other day), he ran the voodoo down on a gamut of diverse, daring, multidisciplinary theater pieces that touched on the manner in which we communicate, move, love and lose. 

Phillips’ smart, snarky, hybrid productions have been Fringe must-sees: Latin-flavored comic travelogues like “17 Border Crossings,” “Flamingo/Winnebago,” and “¡El Conquistador!”; spare, spooky locally-themed enterprises such as the Edgar Allan Poe death trip “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace;” hypnotically moody interplanetary ruminations such as “A Billion Nights on Earth;” dueling takes on the most notorious drug smuggler in U.S. history with “The Incredibly Dangerous Astonishing Lucrative and Potentially TRUE Adventures of Barry Seal,” and the splashily-costumed “Alias Ellis Mackenzie.”

“I first played Barry Seal in ‘Alias El Mexicano,’ which is where and why I got hooked,” said Phillips, reminiscing not just about the pilot-drug runner, but his time, too on Netflix’s long-running drama, “Narcos,” where he plays CIA Agent Owen. “Then, in ‘Narcos’ there is a funny scene when the DEA guys ask about my boss, who this pilot in a picture, and I come in the room with a coffee and say, ‘Oh that is Barry Seal,” which is nuts cause I played Barry Seal in that FoxTelecolombia/MundoFox show about another drug dealer! They were making so many shows at that time about all that. Barry Seal is one of the most fascinating characters of the past century and links all political scandals, CIA drug dealing, Arkansas, the Clintons, the Bushes  together, in a crazy, yet true, way.”

Now, officially starting Oct. 5 (they’re currently in previews, you can watch) and running through Oct. 25, Phillips, along with his wife (directing via Zoom monitor from another room in their house), Philly-bound set and stage designer Steven Dufala via Skype, Phillips’ Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental and The Miami Light Project will world premiere “Zoo Motel,” a live, remote, interactive theatrical experience.

Live from Phillips’ studio space in Cajica, Colombia, each audience member – 21 per show so to fill the 21 rooms in their motel – will receive, upon reservation, an email file with a printable room key, a take-out menu and a foldable set piece they can hold.

Thirty minutes before show time, a clerk will check each temporary resident into their room, and the interactive magic (genuine sleight of hand taught to him by NYC trickster Steve Cuiffo) and highly improvised, but intensely choreographed (learned from famed Spanish/Ukrainian dance team Fernando & Katya via Instagram) movement commences when Phillips enters his own room in the motel, which, in his words, has an unexplainable connection to the other 21 rooms.

Phillips, Dufala & Co. have transformed Phillips’ studio into a fictional motel room that could be anywhere on earth and fitted it with a central rotating camera that allows for a constantly moving and shifting perspective as well as scores of prestidigitations, transformations and wild visual and sonic surprises.

“I am on the only one in it, and the rooms are the 21 spectators, or screens – one screen could be one person, a couple or a family watching together, thus there are only 21 tickets available nightly – that’s the 21 rooms,” said Phillips by way of explaining his physical role in “Zoo Motel.”

Thursdays to Sundays, you can catch “Zoo Motel” from 8 p.m. –  63 minutes without intermission – for $35 per household at zoomotel.org

Before that, Phillips spoke with me while deep in the machinations of “Zoo Motel” rehearsals.

Philly-raised Thaddeus Phillips will launch ‘Zoo Motel’ on the web. His previous works include the Edgar Allan Poe death trip ‘Red-Eye to Havre de Grace,’ pictured here. | Image: Johanna Austin/Austin Art

We started talking about Barry Seals for a minute, and of course, “Narcos” came up. How did you get to that series in the place?

I was living in LA for a summer to try to make it in Hollywood. I got an audition for “The Revenant,” the Leo DiCaprio picture, and was not cast, but, at a party, a guy with odd shoes said there was this new show coming called “Narcos” and that I just had to get on it. I was like, “That’s impossible,” but emailed a contact that I had in Colombia, went in and read for CIA Agent Owen in an odd office in Glendale, California, and got the part. We were back in Colombia and started filming in no time. It was super cool, the director was Brazillian and out of his mind, and everything was a wild mess. The second director, a Colombian was genius, and I learned a lot about cinema, things of which I am still using in “Zoo Motel.”

Such as?

All those super cool camera moves.

In Philadelphia, up until “Zoo Motel,” everything you have produced has been presented through the Fringe, be it the Fringe Fest or at FringeArts HQ. Why not this show?

I sent the idea to Nick (Stuccio) this summer. He flat out said “no.” In the world’s shortest email. So that to me is a bit of drama. 

In terms of other works, the new curators of FringeArts replies have been things like, “Dear Thaddeus, will we consider watching your 15-minute video proposal this spring, if we find time and interest, we will get back to you.” So that is why we have not been around in the past two to three years there. . . . BUT then again, Nick and the Fringe have been super cool now that we are up in helping to promote. Look, New York theaters said they would consider. But, Miami Light Project said “HELL YES.” So, we have this partnership with them. In this brave new world where geography does not exist, specific place and location does not matter. 

You described “Zoo Motel” at its start as “a place in which planes have suddenly stopped, passports invalid and time stand still, and from that, something new and magical fights to emerge. Tell me please about the lightbulb moment where you realized that life had changed?

The light bulb came on in February at the Milan airport. I was directing a new work about the climate catastrophe for the Teatro De Abadia in Madrid, called “Ántropoceneo”´(“The Anthropocene”), and had to fly to Milan for the day for a press conference for an upcoming tour to Italy of “17 Border Crossings.” At the airport in Milan, I got my temperature checked on my head, which struck me as very odd. 

Four days later, the show in Madrid opened, then I landed back in Colombia and while waiting in line at passport control, I got an email from the Italians saying the situation was getting bad and the tour would need to be cancelled. Then the show in Madrid was cancelled, then a new creation in New Jersey, cancelled and a nine-city tour to China, like dominos it all fell down. I made it back to Colombia with a few weeks of freedom only to see it come right to our door.

What was “Antropoceno,” the show you were working on in Madrid about pandemics? What sort of race did you have to make to get back to your family in Colombia, and how did any elements of that Madrid-based show make it into “Zoo Motel?”

“Antropoceno,” the show that only played for a few performances in Madrid, was a collective creation about the current state of the world, based in large part on David Wallace-Welles’ “The Uninhabitable Earth,” and began with an image of Greta Thunberg ascending onto a massive dome structure and then falling into the earth. It was about the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch that was created by humankind’s effects on earth, thus environmental collapse, pandemics, massive migrations, etc. It also featured a girl in 2087 wearing a gas mask to survive . . . I took a flight in the middle of “Antropoceno” rehearsals in January from Madrid to London to LA to do “17 Border Crossings” in Los Angeles. That flight is in a scene in “Zoo Motel,” and brings in the Madrid show elements. 

From Thursday to Sunday, you can catch ‘Zoo Motel’ at 8 p.m. – 63 minutes with no intermission – for $35 per household at zoomotel.org. Image | Tatiana Mallarino

When, why and how did Philly’s Steven Dufala become part of this?

Steven and I worked together on “A Billion Nights on Earth,” and I emailed him and asked what he was up to, he said not much at that moment and we both dived in. 

What were the first things that the two of you came up with to create a theme(s) and a look(s) and a sound(s) that have lasted through to its present incarnation and why?

How to design the room. We wanted to avoid two things, clearing being on Zoom, and video editing. This meant liberating the webcam and allowing it to be an EYE in the room. Then we designed certain decorations in the room that have a theatrical presence and transform. This is the first incarnation, thus the “Zoo Motel” will be a place that will evolve and grow as the performances happen and spectators are invited in.                                                                                                                                                                                         While I’m certain that your life as an international artist with family/friends in America has meant a decade’s worth of Skype, Zoom and other tech related web communication, how was/is this time different?

Actually, most international communication before this hit was via email, and sometimes Skype for tech meetings with designers and such. Zoom of course was unfamiliar to me and many people six months ago. Now instead of meeting via these platforms, the huge difference is we are creating, so we have studio time when Steven and I are working together but in separate spaces, or when we rehearse with Newton Buchanan, who is the night clerk and stage manager, it feels like a normal rehearsal, just online. 

How and why did you utilize that difference for “Zoo Motel?”

Due to the camera work, “Zoo Motel” can only be created this way because it will be experienced on screens, thus it is better to have the design team, stage management and direction, watch via screens, like a film. 

Can you please explain, as thoroughly as possible without giving away the game, how this web-based work is genuinely interactive?

At some point, for a magical reason, I am able to see the other people in their rooms – the audience, the spectators – and talk with them, and they can talk to me. Interactive elements are emailed to each ticket buyer that are used for these interactions. 

Hey, by  the way, I’m just thinking out loud: What is this “Not for Nothing” film you are part of and scheduled in pre-production in South Philly?

That is a film by South Philly native and ex MTV host Frankie Tartaglia that he wrote and will direct. We were to shoot in April, which of course did not happen. The airport here only opened yesterday, with only weekly flight to Miami, and they plan to shoot in November. I am not gonna fly on a plane to go to shoot in November under these circumstances, with Florida having almost no rules to stop the spread, and thus, well, I won’t be able to be in the film, which is sad for me, but great for Frankie and the film, ‘cause I was terribly miscast. 

Thaddeus Phillips’s curated Fringe show ‘A Billion Nights’ was the class of the festival in 2019. Now he’s back with an all-virtual show, “Zoo Motel.” | Image provided

Back to “Zoo Motel.” What does it mean to train with sleight-of-hand magician Steve Cuiffo and choreographers Fernando & Katya over the web?

With Steve it is easy, as we can get up close and really go over tricks and brainstorm ideas. The challenge is how to invent some magic that we can do with audiences not in the same room. Fernando and Katya live in Spain, and the process has been of me sending improvs literally from the streets of Madrid to my phone for me to craft from, then I sent videos back. 

You, Dufala, etc. – what is it like to argue through Skype? Do you just hang up?

Texting is great, you can just not respond. But neither Dufala nor I have the temperament to argue. Things have been a bit tense when deadlines approach, but we work with focus and calm. And hope the set pieces he built in his studio arrive in time. The last package is currently still in Colombia customs holding, we hope to have by Friday.

“Zoo Motel” is influenced by Orson Welles, Michael Gondry and Robert Lepage – all three filmmakers of whom I am greatly acquainted, learned and have immense respect toward, and awe for. Any hints as to what and how their inspiration affects the overall work?

“Zoo Motel” is essentially a live movie, done via one shot as the camera can move during the play, the webcam, is liberated and used as an “eye” to track and move around the room. Welles was the master of fantastic shots and using the camera as an eye, and tracking shots and going into things. Gondry employs surreal and theatrical transformations, in which he takes you to different places using real different sets next to each other that the camera passes, without editing, and Lepage really pioneered bringing this cinematic, yet theatrical language to the stage. What has been so fantastic is really experimenting with the blend of film and theater. “Zoo Motel” is totally cinematic, even if in one room, yet also theatrical since it is live, but the direction, cinematography and lighting is done as if it is a film, yet performed as a play. 

What is life like in Cajica, Colombia? 

Cajica is the countryside outside of Bogota, we live in a newer development of dope houses surrounded by fields. Since it is almost at the equator, there are no seasons, since it is in the countryside, you see no action on the street, just the cows in the field and then mountains in the distance and hear a highway hum in the distance. Thus, every day here is absolutely the same, so time really feels stopped as nothing indicates its passing . . . I feel like we live on a spaceship or another planet colony enclosed in a dome. 

How do you feel as if Trump’s America or Biden’s America or all the things that are BLM affect you, and what you are doing?

The government here is like a mini U.S. one, the president is far right, quite an ignorant and unprepared person who has installed anti-peace people in charge of the peace process, gas and oil people in charge of the environment, etc., etc. And the BLM type movement started here, without a name, as a class movement, rather than a race one. Last week, the Colombian police put their knee on a young, but poor lawyer and killed him in the same way George Floyd was killed. Riots started here where they killed many more people, so, it’s just like the USA only a few months behind in events.  

Ultimately, all of the themes of “Zoo Motel,” no matter how diverse and disperse, are about connection and disconnection, or, rather, our connections in the current disconnection. Why?

“Zoo Motel,” is a show that will be performed live, yet remotely, so there is a connected disconnection. We are also all, globally, currently connected in the disconnection of living with all this. It is a sort of abstract, yet real liquid, yet very concrete way to play with doing something live, yet remote. 

  • A.D. Amarosi's Headshot

    A.D. Amorosi is a Philadelphia-based journalist who, along with Philadelphia Weekly, writes for numerous local, national and international publications including Variety and the Philadelphia Inquirer.