IGNITE to feature Cunningham, Donahue on Sept. 13

Kevin Cunningham (left) and Tom Donahue will each present during the Carson Center's IGNITE colloquium on Sept. 13.
Kevin Cunningham (left) and Tom Donahue will each present during the Carson Center's IGNITE colloquium on Sept. 13.

IGNITE to feature Cunningham, Donahue on Sept. 13

calendar icon09 Sep 2019    user iconBy Kathe C. Andersen

Lincoln, Neb.--Award-winning, New York-based artist and producer Kevin Cunningham and director and producer Tom Donahue will be presenting at the next IGNITE colloquium at the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts.

Cunningham and Donhue will each present during the event from 12:30-1:50 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13 in the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts Rm. 101. The Carson Center is located at 1300 Q St. The event is free and open to the public.

IGNITE is a weekly colloquium for all Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts students, which will involve guest lectures, workshops and seminars around creative development and professional development.

Kevin Cunningham

Cunningham is the founder and executive artistic director of 3-Legged Dog Media and Theater Group in New York. Over the last 16 years, he also ran 3LD Art & Technology Center, 3-Legged Dog’s multi-venue, high-tech development studio for experimental arts of all kinds in lower Manhattan.

Three-Legged Dog came into being following an experience Cunningham had in 1996.

“I was working as Richard Foreman's in-house technical director and designer,” Cunningham said. “He read one of my scripts,  a piece called ‘House of Bugs: A Biological Tragedy’ and offered me six weeks on the Ontological Hysterical Theater stage in summer of 1996. The piece about a couple made up of a junkie and an alcoholic trying ineptly to have  relationship was being ‘directed’ live by a character called the director who burst into flames in the first scene and nonetheless continued to try fruitlessly to direct the relationship into some semblance of viability until it finally imploded. The piece incorporated eight channels of video, four of which contained alternate versions of the junkie and alcoholic that had dialogues with the live characters. The piece also incorporated robotic spinning speakers and a sound design by Laurie Anderson's sound designer Bob ‘The Ear’ Beilecki and Elevator Repair Service founder John Collins. Bob created a phase variant speaker array that allowed us to start the show by flying a mosquito around the audience and to create a very convincing exploding fireball when the director self destructed. The creative team was made up of many artists like John Collins, Scott Halvorsen Gillette (founder of Radiohole) and Michael Casselli (Elisabeth Streb). who made their livings helping more established artists pull of miracles onstage. We were able to produce a work that looked like it cost $90,000 for $20,000, and the piece was so successful and satisfying artistically that we decided to form a company. As people working to make experimental theater happen in New York, we had noticed a disturbing trend that was driving an accelerating decrease in basic production value in off-Broadway, off-off Broadway and experimental theater. Artists, convinced that they would not have access to the resources they needed were reducing the scope and ambition of their visions and settling for unacceptable production conditions. We started 3-Legged Dog to combat this trend.”

Cunningham has produced 140 complex multi-media productions since 2006 and seven feature-length films. His productions have won many awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, five Drama Desk nominations, four Selections to Sundance and selection for the Venice Biennale, among others.

Cunningham said his reason for getting involved in larger-scale, interdisciplinary work comes simply from following his artistic vision.

“Edward Albee always told me, ‘You know, they make perfectly good theater with an actor and a light bulb,’” Cunningham said. “So I would start to write a play with an actor and a light bulb, but the actor would start talking to somebody or something. The somebody or something would be in the past or up in the sky or would be a dead person, and they would start talking to someone else and the light would start blinking and replicating and moving around and take on form and the light and the physical objects and people would start to blend and morph. So the incredibly powerful digital toolset that has evolved driven by artistic experimentation was simply required if I were to express myself directly and honestly which is one of the responsibilities that sets artists apart from commercial creative agencies.”

The work he does to develop new tools and technology comes from his “desire to be able to take time, space and matter into my hands and mold them improvisationally and at will,” he said.

“The tools I've focused on developing and using are actually bringing me close to achieving this dream, especially multiplexing tools and to a more labor-intensive degree, the gaming engines  Unity and Unreal Engine,” he said. “I literally can bring a complex multipart cue state to the actor as they work or allow them to trigger and explosion of beauty by just snapping their fingers. I can fly people without wires or bring a heard of elephants onstage and not have to clean up the poop. I can transform a 100,000-square-foot space in a moment because of interdisciplinary digital tools and methods.”

Technology will continue to change the theater experience, Cunningham said.

“From my perspective, what’s happening is that the live bodies and the technology are getting closer and closer together,” he said. “It’s getting easier and easier for artists to use technology to affect things like scale and depth and complexity and also just to communicate ideas more clearly.”

But it’s also the audience that is changing.

“The other thing that’s changing is what audiences expect and how they experience work, especially with younger audiences,” Cunningham said. “People are less and less satisfied with just being presented with work, sitting in a chair and watching something. They want to be in it. They want to be part of it. That’s a lot of what we’ve been focused on since at least 2005. It’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s Memorex. That’s another area I’m interested in—making a moving image element dimensional and creating these works where it’s hard to tell the difference between emerging media with a media object and a live object onstage.”

He is intrigued by the mission of the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts and its focus on interdisciplinary curriculum.

“I’ve been working for a long time to try to see if I could work with different universities to try to get them to move toward a more interdisciplinary curriculum and move away from those traditional genres silos—dance, theatre, writing,” he said. “And I think that’s the opportunity at the Carson Center. There’s an opportunity there to actually bring the curriculum into the 21st century.”

His advice to students interested in emerging media arts is simple.

“Well, the advice that I always give my students is that if you’re passionate about anything else, go do it,” he said. “It’s not an easy life.”

But he also thinks students today are well equipped for studying emerging media arts.

“Most students that are in their early 20s are already doing what they need to do,” he said. “They’re digital natives. They’re not afraid to play around with different tools and different technologies. I follow a principle here that I think is good for development as an artist, which is ‘the art is the boss.’ So whatever the art tells you to do, that’s what you go do. If that means learn a new tool set, adopt or create a new kind of software, that’s what it means. You do what has to be done to express the work in its form of highest integrity.”

Tom Donahue

Donahue has directed “This Changes Everything,” a feature documentary that uncovers what is behind one of the most confounding dilemmas in the entertainment industry—the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of women. The film will be shown at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center Sept. 13-19. Donahue will present a Q&A following the 7:30 p.m. screening on Friday, Sept. 13.

“The film was a three and a half year journey from the start in 2015 to its first premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last September,” Donahue said. “I was not hired by anyone to make it. Rather, I own an independent production company called CreativeChaos (with my partners, Ilan Arboleda and Steve Edwards) that specializes in feature documentaries about social justice. We felt that this issue was one of the most important issues of our time, not just for women but for men as well. We understood that the negative way women were represented in Hollywood had an outsized impact on the entire world and was helping to fuel a toxic masculinity that has been trampling on the world for far too long. We felt an obligation to add our voices to this fight.”

He hopes the film makes audiences think about the issue.

“I’m sure there are many different things people will take away from this film based on their own experiences,” he said. “On the whole, I hope that after seeing it, they will think about their approach to gender equality in their own life and think about what they can personally do to make a difference. What media are you showing your kids? What messages is that media sending them? If you own a small business, is it gender-balanced? I hope specifically for men that, at the very least it can serve to shift their perspective so that they see that this is a very real issue and one that affects not just women but them and their children as well.”

His previous documentaries have included “Thank You for Your Service,” which was an examination of failed mental health policy in the U.S. military; the Emmy-nominated HBO feature documentary “Casting By”; and the feature documentary “Guest of Cindy Sherman,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008.

He and his partners started CreativeChaos in 2010 to make films that mattered.

“We didn’t set out to only make documentary films, but we have found them to be immensely satifsying,” he said. “I’ve met some incredible people on these journeys, and we get to tell stories that can have a great social impact. We also like to make films about pop culture and are currently in production on docs about Dean Martin and The Outsiders.”

Story is central to what he does.

“I need to feel an emotional response to the story,” Donahue said. “I need to connect to it. I know that if I feel that emotional connection, that others will too. Each story in an issue-based film like this is a building block, one piece of a much larger narrative. Does that story drive this larger narrative forward or is it too much like another story in the doc? Is the person telling me this story the most credible witness for what this story is trying to achieve within the larger narrative structure. The greatest part of making a movie like this is getting to hear many of these incredible stories. The hardest part is having to leave many many of these great stories on the cutting room floor.

Thorough research is also important to the kinds of films he makes.

“Research is the foundation upon which my more issue-driven films are built. In many ways, ‘This Changes Everything’ is actually about the importance of research and data and the important role it plays in advocacy and making change,” Donahue said. “For each of these films, I spend countless hours in libraries around the country, seeking out supporting documentation and audio and video material that can add credibility to the arguments that I’m are making. Of course, they also lead me in new directions as well.  Each on camera interview that I do (200+ each for ‘Casting By,’ ‘Thank You for Your Service’ and ‘This Changes Everything’) serve as a huge font of research as well, sending me down many avenues I would have never thought to explore otherwise. In each of these films, I had the opportunity to talk to some of the greatest experts in their fields so these interviews served almost as masterclasses. And, of course, each interview leads you to further documentation and audio and video evidence.”

Donahue began making films in high school and then fell in love with the documentary form at film school.

“What I love most about making films is when I’m able to make somebody feel what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes for the length of the film’s running time,” he said. “A well-made documentary has the power to change policy. . . and lives. I’ve seen this happen, and that’s why I do it and will keep doing it as long as I live.”

He is looking forward to his visit to Lincoln.

“I’m very excited to screen the film in Lincoln,” he said. “But I’m also really excited just to have the opportunity to visit the city and the university. I’m very much looking forward to it.”