The day the Eagle of Apollo 11 landed on the moon, Tom O'Horgan's eyes were intent on a TV monitor showing the Vikings' discovery of America in a miraculous flow of color and kaleidoscopic images unprecedented in television history. While New York's avant-garde La Mama players enacted an ironic tale of Viking myths and the murderous instincts of men, director O'Horgan, the man who put the zip into "Hair," improvised a musical accompaniment all by himself on 18 percussion instruments and a fire extinguisher. Yes.
It was a virtuoso performance to match the extraordinary visual effects achieved by Videospace, a new concept of television developed at KQED, San Francisco's educational TV stations, without one new piece of equipment. Videospace involves a whole new way of looking at the infinitesimal electron.
The 90-minute play ""!Heimskringla!" or the Stoned Angels," written expressly for Videospace by Paul Foster, author of "Tom Paine," will be shown on "NET Playhouse," Friday night at 8:30 on Channel 13. The first part of the title is old Norse for "orb of the earth"; the second, the playwright's fancy. But today, the play is not the thing, the place is not the theater, the medium is not the message; rather with Videospace, the medium is the mix, the electron is the clay and the question is;: What happens when artists take the same old TV equipment and turn it inside out?
The answers, in the form of Foster's exploration of "the thin edge between truth and myth," began to unfold that Sunday at the first complete showing of the "!Heimskringla!" videotape. In the play a skaid, as the old Norse poets were called, recounts how far man went to discover himself and his universe, beginning at the top of the world in Greenland in the year 955. The cast of characters includes King Olaf, who converted Norway to Christianity by force and persuasion and looked for new worlds to Christianize; Eric the Red, discoverer of Greenland and disciple of Thor, the ancient god of war; his son, Leif Ericsson, who discovered America at Vinland; and the Indians, who with love and brotherhood greeted the "first of the devouring tribes" to act out the tale of extermination.
Foster had become fascinated with Norse legends when the La Mama troupe traveled through Scandinavia. He had also spent three weeks in San Francisco learning about the Videospace conceptions being developed by a group headed by Brice Howard, who put the first La Mama plays on NET several years ago. It seemed an ideal medium for a poetic playwright with magical visions often too difficult to stage.
Videospace, a term coined by Howard, had its inception when the KQED Special Projects department went to the Rockefeller Foundation with a fumbling proposal for funding a project which, if its results could be described, there would be no need for the project "an experiment in art and communication in fully contemporary terms." On Aug. 1, 1967, the yearlong experiment got underway with a $150,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and $70,000 from the National Endowment of the Arts. Howard, who had left NBC in 1958 to become executive producer of cultural programs for NET, was asked to take charge. He and his wife Rita, a former casting director for "Omnibus," found "five lovely, obstreperous, delicious, maddening people" to work with them. An artist, a poet, a composer, an underground magazine editor and an avant-garde filmmaker with an understanding of physics and philosophy.
The group began to question and probe the raw nature of the beast that has brought "Peyton Place" and the moon into the living room. From KQED's engineers and electronic technicians, they learned that the elusive electron can be to a master mixer at a television control-room switcher what stone is to Henry Moore. In studying the conversion of light and sound waves to electricity, the artists and engineers discovered not only a new material in the electron flow, but a new way to express themselves. They started to experiment with the artistic possibilities of the synchronization, amplitude, amplification and modulation in electronic circuitry. They photographed the television monitors to achieve a visual echo effect. They played around with the color guns, one of the four tubes in a color TV camera, to achieve unusual colors, halos and outlines of figures. By adjusting the verticals and horizontals, they could create a hall-of-mirrors image. They used tape delay for esthetic reasons rather than for the conventional protective purposes.
According to Howard, people in commercial TV, hounded by the demands of product, profit and time, have failed, in their rush toward broadcast distribution to grasp the "remarkable richness of mixing electrons. This newer medium is swift in nature. It demands a new kind of perception. It moves like light sparked into life as through a nervous prism. It is another paint, another dance, another music of sound. Another message to catch the quick vision of the inner eye. Whether or not people like what we've done with "!Heimskringla!" television will never be the same."
But in order to realize the infinite possibilities of Videospace, old habits of thought, particularly about conventional theatrical staging, have to be discarded. To use the TV studio as another form of theatrical space is a waste of what Videospace can offer, and Videospace means using available equipment in new ways.
Last April, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting decided to continue the exploration into Videospace. It established the National Center for Experiments in TV here with a $100,000 grant and the stipulation that KQED provide an additional $50,000 in money, men or material.
"We are not a production center," Howard emphasized. "We are not interested in producing anything, but in finding out. We have simply turned our heads around and begun regarding the medium in a different way. The TV system has a unique likeness to the human nervous system. It's wild. An electron is both a wave and a particle. Its just like where we are today. Culturally, baby, our big hang-up is 'are we waves or are we particles?' Are we in and out of each other or are we separate? What is obviously true is that we are both."
"One of the terrible things about our culture is that
we don't know what's for real and what's pretend," said Howard, 51, who
grew up immersed in the natural world of Alaska. "Are those cats
Huntly and Brinkley real? Are they pretending or are they for real?
How come we can sit down and eat our dinner and a war is going on at the
dinner table? We're trying to steer away from pretending. Much
of what Off Off-Broadway theater involves is 'let's get away from pretend.'"
Thus leaving more room for real fantasy.
So when the opportunity came to explore the use of Videospace in a dramatic narrative, it was natural for Howard to call upon Ellen Stewart's La Mama group. Playwright Foster, director O'Horgan and Howard met about a year ago and agreed that the medium demanded something mythic, large and open. After watching five hours of experimental videotape at the time of their first joint meeting, O'Horgan recalled, "I felt slightly seasick. It was such an intense visual experience. It was abnormal exposure to a lot of visual things, in a new and very rich medium. It made a new surface of the TV set. Like the eye or a Braque or Kandinsky, it had the ability to take something and abstract an image and make it comprehensible.
"What became immediately discernible was that you could not mix this new rich idiom with plain photography," O'Horgan said. "The plain photography seemed more unreal than the other techniques." All the new approaches were used to enrich the ironic blend of fact and fantasy, old Norse myth and wild Yankee humor in Foster's narrative, not to substitute electronic gimmickry for ideas.
Although the 90-minute "!Heimskringla!" was taped in only
eight days, there were frustrations about the time spent in achieving visual
effects. "All in all it left us with less time to work on our part
of it," O'Horgan said. "I'm never prepared for the difficulties involved
when you're up against machines. In the middle of all this, I thought,
'My God, what are we doing? We're doing a play and the play is the
last thing we're thinking of.' I'm sure we could have done more if
we had had more time. We had to sacrifice clarity of diction, for
instance. But when the smoke clears, it will have been very much
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