MimeLondon: Phil Soltanoff and Steven Wendt on This & That

Photo: Brian Rogers

Directed and performed by New York-based Phil Soltanoff and Steven Wendt, This & That comes to the Barbican Theatre this month as part of MimeLondon festival.

Speaking to me via video call, they describe how they approached the development in something of a unique way. “We went into the studio with no plan every day…we would just mess around until something happened. Some days crap all would happen; some days something really great would happen.” He adds, “I highly recommend it.”

Those sessions, where they worked without thought of deadlines or an end goal, are where the basis of This & That, which explores the universe and everything in it, came from. It perfectly captures their explorative approach to performance-making. “We stumbled on this idea of video feedback’” Soltanoff says, describing the method Wendt uses to create the effects seen in the show. As Wendt manipulates objects live on stage through this method, Soltanoff mixes atmospheric sounds and orchestrates live music.

Nothing is improvised and everything is planned, which is no mean feat. “If it falls off [track], I have to go back a little bit to get it to [a certain] shape, because that shape flows into the next thing. It’s a little bit like navigating or sailing: there’s constraints but you have to get from point A to point B and it’s happening in real-time,” says Wendt.

Soltanoff speaks of his partnership with Wendt almost as if two hands, working intricately together as they developed the show. “We would leapfrog each other; a musical idea would come up and then a visual idea would follow, or a visual idea would start and then I would find an audio idea to go along with it… the key is kind of saying yes to everything.”

They describe coming to London to perform at MimeLondon as “a dream come true” and highlighted the support they have had to make the trip possible to get their equipment from the US to London safely. “I have just been floored by the support of the Jim Henson Foundation,” says Wendt as he talks about the challenge of getting their equipment across – they had to get special cases and backup cameras. It’s a lean show in terms of hardware he says, but the cameras that make up the basis of his equipment are hard to come by. “We have like the last of this Sony Handycam off eBay as our backup,” he says.

The show debuted at The Chocolate Factory Theater in New York in September 2022 and was met with an interesting reaction from audiences. “People are bowled over by what Wendt does in this show. They think, ‘wow – the computer effects are really incredible’… [but] there’s absolutely no computer-generated imagery whatsoever – in fact, Steven doesn’t use a computer, it’s all hand manipulation.” 

Everything you see in the show’s video projections is what the camera sees, which raised an interesting challenge: audiences were already impressed but not at what they thought was impressive – and the reality is was even more astounding.

So the pair have been thinking about how they tweak the show for their performances at the Barbican. “We need to find a way to clarify [that it isn’t computer generated] for an audience so that they can step into this and see what he’s doing as happening right then and there with no trickery and no special effects, that it’s all Lo-Fi, hand-made operation.”

Wendt describes the work as taking the idea of hand shadow puppetry and taking it as far as it can go through the use of a video camera. “We’re taking [hand shadow] to the Nth degree, and we’re doing really rigorous choreography to these musical scores… it’s about shaping what’s being seen in real-time, and you can only get there by a very specific path.”

Such is the intricacies of the work, someone who saw the performance reached out to tell that they had done their master’s thesis on the production. “I was totally flattered by the gesture,” says Soltanoff.

He sees a parallel between their work and something he’s been watching on YouTube: Venetian glassblowers at work. “They get a metal tube, and they stick it in the furnace, and they get a bunch of molten glass, and they twirl it around, they blow it a little, they stick it in a mould, and you don’t know where they’re going with this thing. [But] then some work of beauty emerges from this whole thing.”

It’s a great analogy for the work they’re doing. “There’s a low fi quality to what we’re doing: no fancy equipment, there’s nothing slick about it – and instead of the piece of glass, we’re making stuff with light and shadow to inspire wonder and delight in our audience.” He reflects for a moment, “and I think that that’s what we do.”

It’s the first time Wendt has heard Soltanoff use the metaphor. “I like that,” he says. “[The video feedback] has this… visual beauty – and it’s very fleeting, and it’s fragile.”

This and That is at the Barbican from 13 to 17 February as part of MimeLondon 2024. Though currently sold-out, any returns will be made available via the theatre’s website.

Read our full MimeLondon coverage here: