Darren and Heather Stevenson, co-producers of PUSH Physical Theatre, have been asked more than once whether they wanted their extreme-movement, physical performance company to appear on national television ("America's Got Talent" has called several times). But this is the first time they've accepted.
PUSH is currently appearing in the reality competition show "Fake Off," a truTV show currently airing its first season. In "Fake Off," teams compete to make it to the end of the eliminations by theatrically engaging and surprising the audience by reinterpreting — with a twist — a given theme. The winning team comes away with $100,000.
The Rochester-based physical theatre company recently spent weeks in Atlanta, where the show was shot. The first episode aired Monday.
The basic idea behind "Fake Off" — hosted by actor and dancer Robb Hoffman — is to give teams a theme which they must then shape, twist, and spin into an entertaining, convincing and clever reinterpretation. This seems a perfect challenge for PUSH, a group characterized by works of sharp humor and deep perception.
Still, it is also a bit out of step for the company in terms of usual operations.
"We like to focus on creativity and the work itself," Darren Stevenson told City Newspaper last week. "I'm not usually big on the idea of competition because then it becomes sport, not art. But we wanted the national exposure and this show gave us the opportunity to work with a lot of other creative people. We were able to utilize set and costume design in a way that we haven't before. It was wonderful."
The show's competitors span a wide berth: ArcheDream, a black light theater troupe from Philadelphia; The Body Poets, a street dance crew from San Diego; Freelusion U.S.A., a video projection mapping dance group from Los Angeles by way of Budapest; Inspirati, a shadow dance company from Denver; Kristef Strikes Back, a comedy acrobatics team from Las Vegas; Verses, a silhouette dance group from Los Angeles; Lightwire Theater, a luminous puppet theater from New Orleans; Wilderbe, an interactive video projection mapping dance company from Los Angeles; and YFX, a theatrical mime and illusion group form Detroit. The show's judges are Harry Shum Jr. (from "Glee"), Michael Curry (from Broadway's "The Lion King") and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas (from the band TLC).
The theme given to the teams to "fake" on the first episode was based on the Super Bowl. For its 90-second spot, PUSH created a humorous take on this ultimate American game — involving seven costume changes for Stevenson and a use of sets and props that is usually not financially possible for the company.
"The first question we asked ourselves was 'What makes the Super Bowl the Super Bowl?'" Darren said.
The company brainstormed together and decided that the experience of watching the Super Bowl was what most viewers would relate to, so that's where they started.
PUSH's "fake" begins with Darren sprawled on a couch, pizza in hand, watching the game on a large screen TV. We then watch this ordinary guy live his fantasy as he dives through the screen and into the game, casually tossing his pizza slice over his shoulder in slow motion and pulling a football helmet down over his head. He is apparently the quarterback — we watch him throw the ball — but then he goes out for the pass too and becomes the receiver. Ah, fantasy. PUSH excels in the slowdown and startup of time and this segment demonstrates just how effective, and yes, hilarious, that can be.
Next, Darren peels off another costume layer and it's the halftime show. In his shiny silver suit, bending low over his microphone, he has become a sort of Bruno Mars figure, all pomp and flash. Our character then becomes the guy in the beer commercial during the halftime advertisements. And so the segment goes.
"It's about visual illusion and redirection," Heather Stevenson said. "Those 'Aha!' moments are fun surprises for the viewers. But telling a story in 90 seconds is more difficult than telling a story in 20 minutes."
Darren agreed: "The medium of television doesn't express very well the amount of time it takes to create something. It condenses things."
The couple also found that there is a different energy to rehearsing when there is a camera documenting everything.
"You censor yourself," Heather said. "And usually when we're performing — on stage — you turn off your filter."
PUSH has been performing on stage for almost 15 years; the Stevensons formed the group in 2000 based on a shared desire to "push" the limits of traditional theater. The two met while studying at The Center in St. Louis. Darren was born and raised in England, and Heather in New Jersey. They continued studying together with Several Dancers Core in Atlanta; Pilobolus collaborator Bill Wade in Cleveland; and The Goldston and Johnson School for Mimes at Kenyon College; as well as touring across the states and Europe during this time.
In 2009, they were awarded Performing Artist of the Year Award from the Arts and Cultural Council of Greater Rochester; and they also earned the Anton Germano Dance Award. PUSH now performs locally, nationally, and internationally in addition to working with students in Rochester schools.
The other performers in the company have diverse and fascinating backgrounds. The Stevensons said they value the integration of personal experience into performance. Avi Pryntz-Nadworny, from Rochester, is a trained actor, juggler and gymnast. He studied circus arts in Quebec and performed with Cirque du Soleil. Jonathan Lowery, from Jackson, Missouri, trained as a mime and actor and toured both nationally and internationally before joining PUSH in 2009. Past members of the troupe Christine and Ben Christensen, were recruited back to perform on "Fake Off."
The next episode of "Fake Off" airs on Monday, November 10. There will be a red carpet event at Hart's Grocery beginning at 8:30 p.m. The troupe will be present and offering commentary as guests watch them "fake" its way through another theme. The event is open to all.