Behind the Scenes at Prism Co’s latest: “Animal vs Machine,” Dallas

{Written at the Green Warehouse Boxing Ring in Dallas, Texas}

“Animal vs. Machine” made its debut in Dallas on April 23 at the Green Warehouse to resounding applause from the audience seated and standing around the ring, that comprised the stage in Prism Co’s first theatre-in-the-round production. Already rich in praise, the show bleeds wild emotion with the talent of Lauren Mishoe and Christina Valentine. Kelly Schostag and I attended the show’s Opening Night, dressed to the nines in  accordance with Las Vegas Fight Night theme. We came away entirely bewitched by the power of what many are calling Prism Co’s greatest creation yet. Believe me, you do not want to miss this extraordinary production’s last weekend (May 6-8th)

“We take you from a MMA realistic world to a fantasy world that’s more dance-related till the show evolves to a point in Round 3 where fighting and dancing are indistinguishable from one another,” says Jeff Colangelo.

This article goes behind-the-scenes to rehearsal; the first time I met Jeff Colangelo and Katy Tye, the co-founders of Prism Co and producers of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and dance hybrid show, “Animal vs Machine.”

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Animal and Machine attack Round 1 (PC: Prism Co. & Zach Huggins)

“This is the corner of Bataan Street and Singleton Boulevard,” had repeated the Uber driver. My friend Olivia Schmidt and I found ourselves in front of a lime green warehouse in the Trinity Groves district of Dallas. We entered cautiously, unsure whether we had truly found the headquarters of the noted “experimental” dance theatre company, Prism Co., but our doubts had vanished instantly as Jeff came running towards us with a friendly smile.

“We’re in the midst of choreographing a dance fight scene! Take a seat, enjoy the rehearsal, Katy’s in the trunk of the car sorting out the music.”

There was a large red SUV parked in the far left of the warehouse, where aerial dance specialist Katy Tye sat cross-legged in spritely overalls, meddling with an auxiliary cord to get the speakers to blare the correct intense fight scene music. Colorful graffiti characterized the central floor of the warehouse and twinkling fairy lights hung around the perimeter of the walls. But right now everyone focused on the padded mats that comprise the boxing ring – soon to become the opening night stage for “Animal vs. Machine.”

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Sneak Peek at Rehearsal for “Animal vs. Machine”

Four cast members slowly lowered the boxing ring’s ropes as the scene transitioned away from the violence of the Machine’s fierce attack on her adversary, the passionate fighter Animal, into a dreamscape of Animal’s memories of training entangled with her lover. In three battle rounds of wordless movement theatre, two female mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters’ every blow serves to crack past the celebration of violence to illuminate the passions that brought them to the ring in the first place.

“We’ve got kind of a reverse situation, reverse gender Billy Elliot sort of situation going on with the Machine,” explains Jeff. The flashbacks show that “she’s in ballet class but she’s bored by it, and so she goes across the street secretly to learnt tai-chi.”

Katy explained how the characters’ names stem from their fighting style. “Christina, the Machine, is very cool, calm, and collected, sort of mechanical – if you will – whereas Lauren – our Animal – is more raw, animalistic.”

“You’ve got technique versus passion basically,” added Jeff. “As we develop the fight you see that difference in personality and style.”

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Machine masters Tai Chi with the Prodigy (PC: Prism Co)

“Animal vs. Machine” is rendered further unique from the standpoint of its uncommon plot line of female aggression. In regards to coming up with the idea for the show, Katy said “You’re talking to two huge feminists, and it’s played out to an extent. It’s just not interesting to see two guys in a ring fighting anymore. But two women fighting? That’s got a level of intrigue. People want to know, ‘oh why are they fighting?’”

“But at the same time the fighting here is not to highlight the fact that they’re women. The show takes that for granted – there is no question about the fact that these are two unbelievable badasses in the ring. The story is about what they bring to the ring. We both really look up to people like Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm, and the amazing waves they’re making in the marshal arts scene and on the world in general,” adds Jeff.

“Until [Rousey] people either thought of women fighting as Hollywood cat fights or sexy ninjas that show women as mystical fighters instead of someone made of flesh and blood. Being able to fight as a woman is an assertion of space; something that women are not taught or encouraged to do…and why the hell not?”

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Animal celebrates! (PC: Zach Huggins)

Back in the rehearsal ring, the team tweaked the final details. With Opening Night only 2 weeks away, Jeff Colangelo animatedly mirrored the exact form of the spinning-kick turn he wanted Lauren Mishoe (starring as the Animal) and Christina Valentine (portraying the Machine) to incorporate into the transition to Mishoe and Josh Porter’s (playing the Lover) emotional and lust-worthy choreography. Even Olivia and my mere 30-minute insight into the rehearsal space showed us just how close and passionate the talented cast is. Mitchel Stephens (playing the Master) even threw us some goofy faces when he saw my camera, while Jasmine Segar (the Prodigy) and Dwayne Guy (the Father) perfected their punches under Katy and Jeff’s watchful eyes. It was this fierce camaraderie between the cast members that delivered on its promise to make “Animal vs. Machine” a powerful performance.

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The Animal and The Lover at Opening Night (PC: Prism Co)

Later that evening over dinner after rehearsal, Katy and Jeff explained their amusement with the label “experimental” that many critics have bestowed upon Prism Co.

“I find it funny that people call our stuff experimental because what we’re doing is actually really old. It’s older than written plays – it’s just utilizing body language to tell a story. It’s what we [humans] had to do before we invented words.”

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“Animal vs. Machine” will be Prism Co’s fourth creation since its founding in 2013, when Katy Tye and Jeff Colangelo were still students at the SMU Meadows School of Arts. From their first paint-and-movement production, “Prism” (2013), the duo consistently explored new dimensions to movement theatre. “Persephone” (2015) played with light and shadow effects created through choreography with flashlights while “Galatea’s” (2014) set was created out of thousands of sheets of recycled paper in keeping with its theme of an artist trying to draw his perfect woman.

“There’s always a moment when we’re making a production where we’ll both stop suddenly and wonder: how did we even think this was a good idea? What if no one in the audience even gets it?” laughs Katy.

“Especially the first two productions,” adds Jeff, “We’ve never seen anyone – at least not in Dallas – do this sort of theatre. But as we saw the positive reactions, we stopped and tried to figure out what was working in our shows.”

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Jeff Colangelo fine-tunes a fight choreography scene

Describing their teamwork as earth and air, or martial arts and aerial arts, Katy and Jeff continued, “There are always new challenges for each show; they’re wildly different from each other.” For “Animal vs. Machine” in particular, the directors cite music as their biggest challenge: “Timing is everything for these fight-dances.

Even when people aren’t necessarily dancing, the tension and tempo has to be right in a scene. “‘Animal vs. Machine’ is probably our first show where light and music have mattered this much for the purposes of storytelling. They really help define the two worlds – the physical reality vs. the flashback scenes.”

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Scenes of rope choreography between Machine and Animal (PC: Prism Co.)

But Katy sees challenges as positive things. “One of the challenges in a [wordless production] is that what we intended for a moment might not be what the audience reads from it. We’ve had people come up to us and say “oh my God that moment was about this, and we might not have thought [the same thing] but that’s the beauty and challenge of wordless theatre – our audience might take away a completely different story from the one we thought we were putting out.”

“As long as our audience is engaged and emphatic to the scenes, that’s all we are aiming for. Failure to us would be when people don’t care,” explains Jeff.

“If they were to come away indifferent – having felt no reaction to the scenes that would qualify as a failure,” adds Katy.

“What’s great about our type of theatre is that it’s really just an opportunity to feel. It’s just really a lot of pure frickin emotion, man,” finishes Jeff.

Trust me, there is no way you can leave “Animal vs. Machine” without feeling something deeply passionate. Though it may be Lauren Mischoe (Animal) battling Christina Valentine (Machine), it will be you who comes away feeling raw and caught in the midst of this violently emotional MMA tempest.

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*This article was originally written for The Odyssey Online at http://theodysseyonline.com/southern-methodist/prism-cos-latest-dance-mma-fight-animal-vs-machine-looks-passionately-promising/407369

Author: Nikita Taimni

A Dubai-based blogger, I write about travel, theatre and lifestyle in the cities I explore around the world. Follow me on Instagram @nikitalyfe and follow via email if you enjoy reading my posts!

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