Josh Oberlander is a designer and artist, focusing on theater, opera, and dance. Originally from Georgia, he’s been involved in the theater since the third grade, and theatrical artifice, performance, and storytelling have been his main ways of mediating between the world and himself since. As a queer artist, he’s especially interested in how identity is formed and then destabilized at the intersection of inherited narratives, performativity and class warfare. He believes theater today should exist somewhere between journalism and philosophy: it is through intellectual, ethical, emotional and poetic rigor that theater can affect meaningful change. He holds a B.A. in Theater Studies and English and Creative Writing from Emory University in Atlanta.
Anna Nicole (2011) is an tragic opera with comic elements celebrating the brief and tumultuous life of model, TV personality, and ordinary goddess Anna Nicole Smith: from her escape from her humble beginnings in Texas to her fame to her death. I wanted to use banal materials that speak to Anna Nicole’s humble beginnings but on a grand and extreme scale, instead portray this specific brand of capitalist American no-placeness. I wanted to use these materials to affectively tell a story about confinement: the type imposed us by the circumstances of our class/birth, the type that appears as freedom but slowly closes in around us, and the type we impose on ourselves. Over the piece, we go from being trapped in Texas (represented by a large plywood wall with no visible exits and entrances that quickly becomes Anna’s self-directed stage-within-a-stage of her life story) to her open-air fantasia of a midcentury LA mansion under the stars, a large image of Marilyn Monroe hanging in the background, to the living hangover of a very small, lonely and desaturated hotel room on a soundstage of her demise.
The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O’Casey is a 1923 tragicomic play centering around the inhabitants of a Dublin tenement house trying to live and cope in the midst of war, speaking to the constant trauma and psychological effects of living under the threat of political violence in a country that has become saturated with an almost suicidal devotion to ideology, weaponry and death. This, for the design team, indirectly resonated with some of our contemporary anxieties of American life as well. To try to bring that contemporary resonance forward, we worked to craft a space that referenced later architecture, and opened up the play to show the other main inhabitants of the house, hoping to emphasize the deeply interwoven community relationships in the play. The space was crafted with used wood sheets, salvaged from an old Pennsylvania lumber mill, a material that is warm but also institutional and inherently imbued with an aura of historicity. The overwhelming compressed quality of the space seeks to create a powder-keg atmosphere that conveys to the audience a visceral feeling of the inhabitant’s claustrophobic discomfort and making the final scenes of chaos and dissolution feel almost inevitable.
Project 892 was a semi-devised work written and directed by Laurence Maslon and Goldie Patrick, based on the event of The Cradle Will Rock, and the lore and figures surrounding it. In one room is a dressing room, and in the other is on-stage of the Carlotta Vance Theater where Orson Welles is mounting a critical revisionist revue of American history until the project is shut down by the government. We had many conversations as a team about what the theater means to us, and how the patently political work of the Depression-era Federal Theater Project spoke to our own convictions about what is possible and not possible in theatrical space. For me and my co-designer Taylor Friel, we also felt inspired by the brief of pushing and pulling two literally interconnected blackbox spaces into something of a collage and love letter to theater as a site of labor but also a home.
Goldie E. Patrick / Laurence Maslon
Goldie E. Patrick / Laurence Maslon
Taylor Friel & Josh Oberlander
Sienna Zöe Allen & Amanda Roberge
Kristen Paige / Natasha Marie Rotondaro
NYU Tisch Grad Acting/Design
Walker Theatre / Shubert Theatre
The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht is a musical that has followed me throughout my life, informing my interest in political theater and the intersection between theater as a site of enjoyment/spectacle and edification. Approaching it as a class project threw into sharp relief just how much the language of the piece is ultimately about a toxic and desperate love story, about how the cruelty of love and the cruelty of the marketplace intermingle and inform one another. It centers around Polly, Jenny, and Lucy, all trying to escape their circumstances with their own tactics somehow involving the known serial killer and gangster Mack the Knife. I was inspired by the intense sexual commodification linked to the rise of porn as a mainstream genre in the 1970’s, as well as the forgotten spaces of Austrian brown bars. Ultimately, I drew a large amount of inspiration from old family memories from the 70’s, including super 8 videos and a pawn shop my family used to own, to create a fluid space that references these capitalist slip spaces that exist at the edge of propriety and illegality. A large part of the space takes place in an abandoned bar that Mack’s crew takes over, with a cloud billboard hanging bitterly out of reach.
Taylor Mac’s Hir (2014) tells the story of the nuclear family under meltdown. Isaac, a war veteran with a history of drug abuse comes home to find his sibling has transitioned, his father is a catatonic, and his mother has imposed a rule of disorder on their previously well-kempt suburban home. Through the lens of the Connor’s and their sometimes playful but also vicious attacks, Mac seeks to dismantle the long-standing optimism of the American family drama. Taking cues from Taylor Mac’s polemical attacks on bourgeois exurban American life and its moral and environmental failings, this production of Hir is an image-saturated hybrid theater/video experience on the theme of “absurd realism” and suicidal American mediocrity. It takes place in a contained film set riffing on games like The Sims, American post-modern architecture, and American sitcom language. The walls are caked in some matter— whether it’s excrement or Hershey’s syrup is hard to tell. The house has a glossy store bought vinyl quality, the lighting is slightly too harsh, and the makeup is pancakey. The audience watches from above, looking down and catching glimpses of scenes around walls and through windows but also through videos walls on the upper level, where hidden cameras capture HD footage of the scenes as well as video collages of quoted camp classics or abjected source material, all meant to create a heterogeneous experience of the total categorical social breakdown that Taylor Mac depicts.