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INTERVIEW: Visualizing Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) and Nuclear War: A Chat with Claire Nolan (Guthrie Theater)

Peggy Shaw in the Split Britches production of Unexploded Ordnances (UXO), now playing at the Guthrie Theater. Photo by Matt Delbridge.

When Joseph Haj started at the Guthrie Theater, he announced plans to reach and move audiences through the ambitious Level Nine Initiative. Three seasons later, the initiative has manifested in hosting Split Britches’ Unexploded Ordnances (UXO). This work, the first of three presentations in the Guthrie’s curated festival Get Used To It: A Celebration of Queer Artistry, plays through February 10 at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio.

Split Britches is in many ways a natural fit for the precepts the Level Nine Initiative is designed to highlight. The company’s work is satirical, often gender-bending, characterized by public engagement, explores innovative uses of videography and other media, delves into aging and well-being, and unabashedly presents lesbian-feminist voices and perspectives. Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) places the audience in the thick of things, in a Situation Room during a crisis with nuclear weapons on the line. Nor do audiences get to sit back and watch – they take the part of a Council of Elders, and are interrogated by the performers.

With Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) unfolding directly in the Situation Room around the audience, it is unsurprising that the three mammoth projection screens in the room take on a character of their own. Basil Considine spoke with Claire Nolan of Split Britches about working as the show’s video content designer and the tools of the trade.


Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw in Unexploded Ordnances (UXO). Photo by Stephen King.

What are some of the editing and design tools that you used for the video content in Unexploded Ordnances (UXO)?

I work in Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects.

What playback tool(s) are you using?

The videos are run in Qlab through a TripleHead2Go from Matrox.

When/how did you become involved with Split Britches? 

I met Lois Weaver of Split Britches back in 2009 in my final year studying Film and Performance at Queen Mary University of London. I took her course Performance Composition and – although personally a non-performer – fell in love with her practice and way of making work, especially its collaboration. Over the years since then, we have become close friends and colleagues, resulting in my long-term working collaboration with Lois and Peggy.

Over the years, I have worked on other productions with Split Britches such as What Tammy Needs to Know (about getting old and having sex) and standalone video pieces for online platforms and installation work.

Collaboration is a term that’s used a lot in today’s theatre, but can mean very different things in practice, especially with technical and artistic decision-making. How does this look with Split Britches? 

With Split Britches, being part of the creative process from the outset of projects is integral to how they make work, and it in turn plays a huge part in what is the ultimate production.

When did your involvement begin with this show?

With Unexploded Ordnances (UXO), my involvement began with their first residency in NYC on Governors Island – where Lois and Peggy first found the inspiration for the show.

You’re listed in an old program for this show as a co-creator – what did this mean in practice for what you proposed and ultimately executed for this show?

The usual process for making a piece of video is being around the table and part of the discussions for what Lois and Peggy and the rest of the team are imagining and inspired by. Sometimes, material is handed to me or discovered by another member of the team, then I go away and research and experiment.

Collaboration runs through the videos in UXO – things like Peggy’s arms that hold out the mobile phone near the start. I also worked closely with sound designer Vivian Stoll’s sound piece in what we call the “Bomb Drop” video, as well as with technical designer Jo Palmer in how the in-video strobe in that piece would light the space. Jo also hand-drew the words in the credit sequence at the start of the show.

Tell me about the functions that video content plays in this production.

The three large screens were directly inspired by the War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Therefore, the first material we had and imagined was the nuclear map that is a constant backdrop to the show.

Other functions for the video content are to support or be in conversation with the live performance, such as Lois tracing the plane that flies through the screens or Peggy’s instructional videos for an early monologue.

The video also sometimes takes the performance and space into different mode or disrupts: “Duck and Cover” cutting into public discussion, the “Bomb Drop” sequence, our nuclear drop before the fallout, and Vera Lynn singing us out at the end.

Has the video changed/evolved since the first production to the present one?

Being involved in new works from the very starting point means being able to change and evolve the work as the production also evolves. Being able to make video that the company can experiment and play with in early phases means that we have the time to shift and change things that may not work, or play with things that might work better.

Most of the videos in the show have been worked on over time – some cut completely and some added, and some changed for the final version of the show.

How do you store/archive your video content?

On lots of external hard drives!

Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) plays through February 10 at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine

Basil Considine is the Performing Arts Editor and Senior Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Arts Reader. He was previously the Resident Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Daily Planet and remains an occasional contributing writer for The Boston Musical Intelligencer and The Chattanoogan. He holds a PhD in Music and Drama from Boston University, an MTS in Sacred Music from the BU School of Theology, and a BA in Music and Theatre from the University of San Diego.

Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.

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