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Emotional Contagion

A Conversation with Carissa Halston and Randolph Pfaff on his images for her short play Patsy

OL: Tell me a little about this month’s cover image, “Pride.” Where is it set, how was it taken, and whence those words?

CH: I’m going to leave the wheres and hows to Randolph.  The words spring from the main philosophical crisis that Patsy and Brian suffer from/discuss in the play.  They want to feel inspired, want to care, but can’t quite muster it.

The photo highlights one of the unspoken reasons for that.  We’ve got a crowded street scene, and an almost claustrophobic row of buildings.  The figures in the foreground are turning their backs to us and the figures facing us form a slow stampede.  Living in a city can sometimes incite a group mentality, even when you don’t realize it.  The problem with that is if you disagree with that mentality, you’re an outsider.

I mean it. It’d be so easy to just give up. To go somewhere cleaner and safer, more affordable. A place where you no one asks you for anything, much less change.

Where change isn’t needed?

Isn’t wanted. Maybe that’s what keeps me here. A desire to change.

Sure, but to change what?

RP: In a way, that’s actually how the photo ended up being made. I spent so much time in New York feeling like I couldn’t go with the flow and when I was taking photos, that’s when I felt most at home there. This one was shot on Broadway in SoHo. I was waiting, like everyone else, to cross the street and I was struck by how everyone was doing the same thing but not doing that thing together. There was this cohesiveness of action offset by a complete lack of emotional connection.

OL: Randolph, I’m interested in your remark that you were most at home when taking photos — do you feel like this is because you’re most at home as an outsider, and that being absorbed into the city’s rhythm, being osmofied, was a frightening idea?

RP: It was the just the opposite. The notion of that happening was exciting rather than frightening. I really enjoyed losing myself in a place without being physically lost. I could wander around in Manhattan or Brooklyn taking photos and suddenly realize that I’d ended up somewhere interesting with no idea how I’d gotten there. It was very liberating not to have a destination in mind. I also find the whole idea of the photographer as detached observer a bit overwrought. It suggests a lack of interaction with and understanding of your surroundings and I fail to see a correlation there. Also, that seems a bit too emo for me to get behind it.

Small things. Big things—everything. …I haven’t given it much thought.

But in changing things, aren’t you just trying to stay the same?

What do you mean?

I mean just that. You have an idea. An ideal. A perfect urban setting—or something close to it—where you can bend things to your liking. Those preferences are yours. So, essentially, you just want a city that reflects your own image.

That’s not what I meant at all.
(She hides her face within her drink.)

Then what did you mean?

It’s complicated.

OL: Tell me about Patsy.

CH: Patsy is purposefully not mentioned by name in the play.  Patsy is her name, but it’s also symbolic.  She’s the city’s target, its victim.  She feels cheated and can explain only marginally how or why.  But she willingly decides to stay.  And even when she loudly voices dissent, the only person who hears is Brian.  A fine sounding board, yes, but he’s also willing to jump through hoops to keep her placated.

If there were anything that I’d cite as her downfall, it’s her inability to release responsibility.  She thinks she owes something to herself by staying in the city, but in doing so, she’s unhappy.  She supports Brian because she wants him to be comfortable.  But if she could shift her perspective and see all the other potential ways that they could both be happy, she’d feel less trapped.

OL: Have you guys always lived in cities? Which have been your favorites and in which have you freaked out? And have the been the same cities?

RP: Carissa can surely give a better synopsis of our respective upbringings (I feel she’s had more practice tell that story in short form), but we both grew up in the same exurb (1.5 hours from both Philly and NYC) and only experienced cities in the role of visitors until we were adults. At this point, I’ve lived in several cities and have been both elated and horrified by the experiences I’ve had. I lived in Las Vegas for a short while and that freaked me out like nothing before or since. It was a strange time for me and the dichotomy of being able to have anything I wanted while getting almost nothing that I needed was, in a word, bad. My favorite cities, for reasons too numerous to list here are Portland, OR and Boston. Both places make me feel like I’m on an extended vacation, though I can probably attribute a great portion of that to sharing the experience with Carissa.

So, simplify it for me.

I want people to pay attention. To care about their surroundings. About each other!

That’s asking a lot.

Is it?

Yes. You can’t tell people what to care about. Laws on thoughts and opinions are difficult to enforce.

All right, fine. But what about their thoughts on the city itself?

What about them?

Am I allowed to have expectations for that?

Depends on what they are.

CH: We’ve always wanted to live in cities.  Both Randolph and I had a desire to live in New York when we were young.  It was the first large city that I’d ever seen, but it was also the first city I ever got sick of, and that was long before I lived there.  By the time we decided to move, he was still pretty excited, while I was mainly trepidatious and depressed about leaving Boston.  When it came time to pack the truck and physically move, we were both a little heartbroken.

I once read that all current New York residents lament a city of the past.  “Why can’t things be the way they used to be?”  And that image of what it used to be like soured the city for me.  By the time we moved to New York, it was far more commercial than I remember it being and right under the harried excitement lay an emotional absence.  It was as if, after all the promises and hype, there was nothing but buildings and numbered streets.

So, New York is the only city that’s ever really freaked me out, but it was in a slow, deliberate way.

Cities that I adore:  Boston, Chicago (though I’ve only visited once, I really enjoyed the city’s demeanor), Portland, and Philadelphia.

Who’s to say you have to be unhappy here at all? Maybe it’s all perspective.

I don’t follow.

Well, you’re talking about changing the city for the better and forcing people to be happy. Maybe they’re already happy and you just don’t see it. Maybe you need to fall prey to their emotional contagion.

Their—? Christ, Brian, I’ve been drinking.

Emotional contagion is the thing that makes an ad memorable. It lives in the public mind. It’s infectious laughter. It’s the song lyric that everyone knows and wants to sing along to.

It’s other people’s happiness.


I can recognize other people’s happiness.

OL: Tell me a little bit about the way in which the photos operate in Patsy‘s performance. Are they hung from string? Projected? And have you considered combining them into a small book?

CH: In our ideal setting, the photos and text would be transferred on a series of clear surfaces (most likely plexiglass), then arranged at staggered positions in front of the performance space, likely hanging from the ceiling to create a skyline.  The viewer or audience members would be able to walk between rows of the images, reading snippets of dialogue and stage directions, while also watching the play progress in the negative space within the photos.

A less obvious boon that scenario offers comes from the photos that don’t feature the tops of buildings, instead focusing on passersby or a single person surrounded by urban mass.  Those people become the citydwellers in the story.  So the images would be both a backdrop and a three-dimensional setting where Patsy and Brian live.

We’d love to put the images in book, but that will likely wait until after we produce an actual run of the show, and go through many iterations of the installation until we get the entire piece as close to where we want it as possible.

RP: We also ran into a problem with the actual performance in a gallery setting. Overall, the piece lends itself more to a performance art-type presentation than actual theatre. Obviously, we can’t have performers in a gallery every day, performing for the entire day (i.e. We are not Marina Abromovic). We had originally discussed filming a performance and projecting it onto a wall. This seemed a poor solution, though, because it removes the performance from the rest of the installation. At this point, we’ve settled on a sound recording, so there is no real focal point but you’re still experiencing their story and their words as you walk through the suspended images.

OL: is this the first photo/theater collaboration you guys have done? Are there plans for more?

CH: This is not our first theatrical collaboration–Randolph performed in my collection of plays, Cleavage, in 2005 and helped produce/direct my storytelling tour, Portraiture, last September–but it is the first project which has combined my writing and his photography.

I think there’s a great deal of potential for overlap between our work because we create similarly melancholy, dramatic scenes.  I write more prose than I do plays, so Randolph may end up inundated with words, though there are worse things to drown in.

RP: I would love to do more things like this with Carissa. I think a lot of what we do is complementary and this pushes both of us to create in ways we’re not accustomed to. We’ve done a lot of things behind the scenes together (e.g. apt, Literary Firsts, the No Shoes Readings) but this is the first time we’ve really presented our own work in a collaborative way. There’s actually a small project we’re going to do for the first print issue of apt that is based around my graphic design work and Carissa’s deft way with satire.

Randolph Pfaff b. 1980 in Pennsylvania, currently resides in Boston, MA. He is a visual artist, designer, and editor, and is currently pursuing his MLIS at Simmons College in Boston.

Carissa Halston co-founded Aforementioned Productions in 2005 with Randolph Pfaff. She’s the writer/director of Cleavage, the author of A Girl Named Charlie Lester, and the contributing editor of apt. Her debut novel was honorably mentioned in the 2008 New York Book Festival and called “emotionally generous” and “a lovely piece of female confessional” by Kirkus Reviews. Carissa’s plays have been performed in New York City and Boston and her fiction has been published online and in print, in the United States and the UK. In September 2009, she performed in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Toronto, and Boston for her one-woman storytelling tour, Portraiture.

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