Passing familiarity

A multimedia production takes a "hand-off" approach to collaboration.

ORIGINAL SYN Sylvan and Halfnight take a break from corrallin artists for Synesthesia.

Photograph: Jonathan Gayman; Courtesy Electric Pear Productions

Melanie Sylvan and Ashlin Halfnight, executive directors for the nonprofit theatrical company Electric Pear Productions, have taken the grade-school game of Telephone to a new level with Synesthesia, a multidisciplinary series that gives creative types two weeks to create an original piece inspired by a work from a different medium. Over five months, creations are passed from artist to artist (there are 12 participants in total) before the resulting painting, theater, writing, dance and music is presented at Judson Memorial Church for four nights starting Wednesday 2.

It was a fortune cookie, of all things, that set the inaugural Synesthesia in motion last year. Sylvan and Halfnight took writer Scott Korb (The Faith Between Us) out for Chinese, hoping he’d use his fortune as a jumping-off point. But as Sylvan recalls, “we picked the only Chinese restaurant that didn’t serve fortune cookies.” She scoured Chinatown and gathered more than a dozen cookies for Korb to pick from. Given this shaky start, the message inside was almost too good to believe: “Expect great things and great things will come.”

Brian Whiteley, untitled

The optimistic prediction inspired Korb to write “A Small Step for Man,” a short story about a female filmmaker’s portentous boat ride, which inspired Steve Spehar to photograph a woman in a bathtub. A few turns later, video artist Ohad Meromi filmed himself dancing wildly in a red jumpsuit, which encouraged comedian Rebecca Drysdale to create a slide show of rituals that would confound alien visitors (like the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain). By the time spoken-word poet Darian Dauchan drafted a riff on human struggles and the extraterrestrial experience, Korb’s initial idea was all but unrecognizable. “There was a lot of anxiety from the performers,” says Sylvan. “They felt they were being called on to ‘correctly’ interpret the work they received. Of course, that’s a pressure audiences always feel.”

Aliens figured prominently in Synesthesia’s first staging, but an earthbound motif is emerging this year: NASCAR. The auto-racing association entered the loop halfway through, in a painting by Brian Whiteley that led to racing-related works from playwright Clay McLeod Chapman, dancer Jo-anne Lee and others. “We wanted to show that it’s impossible to create art in a vacuum,” explains Halfnight, a playwright and former pro hockey player. “Picasso said, ‘Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.’ Our game codifies that.” Sylvan, whose background is in dance and musical theater, says that though there are no original ideas left, “we can take what we see around us, present it in an original way and hope to inspire others.” Synesthesia’s cycle of inspiration is extending beyond the confines of the event: Writer Ben Greenman’s 2007 contribution, “Sylvie or Marie,” led to a performance piece crafted by him and choreographer Beth Kurkjian that was staged in both London and New York. And singer Leah Siegel, the final contributor to this year’s series, is including her Synesthesia song, “Easy On You,” on an upcoming album.

Synesthesia takes place Wed 2, and Apr 3, 5 and 6 2008, at Judson Memorial Church.