A few months ago, our friends Chris Sandon, Natalie Berry and Trevor Stone, who perform together under the name Spontaneous Art, drove out to Chicago to audition for the television show America’s got Talent. Well, on Wednesday night, their episode finally aired. Here’s video of their segment, followed by the transcript of a discussion that we just had through the bright pink sphincter of their giant pet cat, Lucky. (If that doesn’t make sense, just read on. It will.)
MARK: Are you able to talk on the record about America’s Got Talent, or did you sign something?
TREVOR: We can talk about it now. We just couldn’t let anyone know that we were going to be on the show before it aired on TV.
CHRIS: They may still be able to sue us, though.
MARK: So you had signed something earlier stating that you couldn’t say anything until after it aired, right? I’m just curious as to what would have happened if you had. Were there specific penalties that were spelled out? I mean, I don’t imagine that, even in America, they could imprison a person for saying, “Well, it isn’t a real cat, but a giant cat puppet, and Howie Mandel got freaked out when we shoved a turd out of its butt,” and spoiling a valuable reality television plot twist, right? So were there just financial penalties?
CHRIS: I think it was/is 5 million?
TREVOR: I think they realize that participants will be telling their close friends and family, but if everyone knew what, or who, was going to be on the show, they might not have as many viewers.
MARK: So, how much of what we saw on television did they script?
TREVOR: We designed almost of it. They had a couple great angles to add, though.
MARK: So, what did they add… the stuff about Trevor growing up in a family of cat trainers?
CHRIS: No, that was all Trevor. He really explored that angle and played it to a T. The whole Jedi hand gesture angle was his as well… and it cracked me the fuck up when I saw it.
TREVOR: They asked me to interview as the cat trainer, as opposed to all of us interviewing as Spontaneous Art. I get that angle, but would have loved to see Nat & Chris on TV.
MARK: I’m curious about the process… Did you all sit around a table with the show’s producers, and brainstorm as to possible angles?
TREVOR: They have thousands of people auditioning so I don’t think they have time to work with everyone. Once we got in, then we got assigned a production manager that worked with us more closely to make sure that our act fit their viewing guidelines. They’ve seen tons of acts, so they really have a good sense for what makes for “good TV.” This enabled them to be a very thoughtful sounding board for our ideas.
CHRIS: There was an idea about having a group of people (perhaps kids) on stage with us and we would play it like a kids’ show. Like a Sesame Street meets Ren and Stimpy (or something).
MARK: How did this whole thing come about in the first place? Were they Googling for weird animal acts, or had you reached out to them?
CHRIS: The producers had contacted Mark Tucker from Fesifools, and originally Mark had asked us to help him brainstorm ideas. And, at some point, it was determined that the idea that we’d come up with wasn’t possible. But then the producers contacted us, and asked us about our GIANT CAT. We responded with, “This cat doesn’t exist anymore,” and they said said something like, “Well if it did, we would love to have it audition for AGT this year.” So we rebuilt it in a little over a month.
TREVOR: Mark Tucker has been really helpful to us over the years, but also a performance artist in Chicago named Fereshteh Toosi gave them word about us and told them to get in touch. We are grateful for such a sharing, cohesive community of artists around us.
MARK: I’ve seen a few “reality” TV contracts, and they’re amazing. Assuming you’d moved on from the first round, would you have had to sign one? And, if so, would you have had to give away a percentage of Spontaneous Art to the producers? For instance, I’ve talked with a producer of the show Shark Tank, and I know that, whether they use your segment on their show or not, once you appear on their set, and make your pitch, they own a significant portion of your company. I can’t believe that people do it, but I guess, for some, the promise of fame and fortune is worth the gamble.
CHRIS: The main concern we had with the (Vegas) contract was 30% for up to 13 years.
MARK: So, you signed one contact for the audition, which essentially said, “Keep your mouth shut until the episode airs.” And, then, had you advanced to the next round, which would have been in Vegas, you would have been forced to sign a contract giving them 30% of your company. Is that right?
TREVOR: Are we allowed to give details about their contract out? I don’t want to get in trouble. We decided that we couldn’t sign their contract for a couple reasons, but the biggest one was the 13 year deal… which would only come into effect, if we won and if they decided to give us a contract. Maybe their contract was very standard for the entertainment industry, but we’re used to contracts in the art industry, which basically say: By signing this contract you agree to show up and perform on this date and we agree to pay you this much. They’re simple one page contracts. The AGT contract was an inch-and-a-half thick. Again, I’m not familiar with the business of entertainment, so maybe that’s standard.
MARK: Speaking of Vegas, which, as I understand it, is increasingly more kid friendly, I can see you guys doing really well there with the cat. Of course, if you were to try it outside, you’d be dead in minutes, given the heat, but I think it might work well as a family-friendly stage act.
NATALIE: Vegas could be really good for us. While at the audition, we met and befriended a performer named Reva, who was from Las Vegas, and she said that it’s such an entertainment friendly town, we probably wouldn’t have any trouble finding places to perform.
MARK: What kind of hotel did they put you up in, and were you surrounded by other contestants? And were there any off-set incidents that you feel like sharing? Like were all the losers crying around the Holiday Inn’s self-serve waffle machine the next morning? Or did you hear any other teams debating whether or not to sign the contract?
CHRIS: It was a really nice hotel. We ended up eating every night in a bowling alley lounge nearby. The only other contestant that we met from our hotel was already working in Vegas. As Natalie mentioned, her name’s Reva, and she’s a pro singer/rollerskater.
NATALIE: The contract wasn’t given to us right away, so, at that point, we were bathing in the excitement that they were going to be sending us to Vegas! As Chris said, we celebrated by eating in a 50’s style bowling alley and sang karaoke.
MARK: How long did you shoot for that 2:00 segment? What didn’t we see?
CHRIS: 5 minutes maybe? (I’m hoping we didn’t sign anything that says we can’t say this...) You didn’t see Trevor saying to Howie Mandel, “Everyone likes a BIG CAT,” and Howie responding, “But no one likes a BIG PUSSY.” (The producers immediately walked up and stopped taping saying “you can’t say that.” He persisted, and was the only judge to vote us down.) Howard Stern was very supportive and envisioned us as an “oversized puppet show”. Heidi had reservations, but admitted that she “belly laughed” harder than she had for most of the comedians who auditioned. Even though she was the only one who X’d us, Mel B (Scary Spice) broke down and gave us the 3rd vote for continuing to the Vegas round. (Which we didn’t do.)
TREVOR: There was some fun dialogue that happened beforehand too- just some friendly banter between Howard Stern and me. And after the poop got thrown at Nick Canon, Howard Stern smooshed it in between Heidi’s back and her chair – so she got up and started hollering at Howard. And then Howard threw it into the crowd and nailed someone from the audience. Actually Howie Mandel said that whole line, “Everyone likes a big cat, but no one likes a big pussy.” He was just starting shit to make a rowdy show. Some other AGT staff members told us that it was okay to yell at the judges – I think they want some “hockey fights” onstage. Part of the mission of reality TV talent shows is to find new promising artists and part of the mission is to beat people up on stage… its a contemporary gladiator’s ring. The crowd is foaming at the mouth to see a triumphant victory or bloody defeat.
NATALIE: It was great to see at least part of that story on TV. For me, all this has been is an anecdote. I was in the back of the cat the whole time. After the cat performed on stage, we went backstage and were allowed to watch Trevor be judged from a small screen, but had to stay in costume just in case. I had to pretzel myself in a crazy fold in order to see this tiny TV through a sea of the production team’s legs… I was glad to have evidence that this all really happened!
MARK: So, not having seen the show before, I’m kind of unclear on this. You need three votes to move forward to the next round, and you got the three that you needed. But you chose not to go due to the contract that was offered?
NATALIE: There are 2 portions to the judging. The judges can “X” you at anytime during your 90 second act. Three “X”s and you are gone. If you get to finish your act, then they vote – if you get two “No”s you are out… At least I think this is how it went.
MARK: My guess, and maybe I’m being naive, is that the show’s producers keep the judges out of the loop to some extent in order to get fresh reactions out of them once the acts take the stage. Would I be wrong about that? Are the response of the judges just as scripted as everything else?
CHRIS: The judges apparently don’t know anything about the acts ahead of time… but we saw a lot of “act natural” set-up scenarios in the holding tank green room, so who knows.
NATALIE: You have to love Heidi Klum’s eyes get super wide when the cat loses it!
MARK: Now that you’ve had a taste of “the industry” are you hooked? Were you networking your asses off with producers?
CHRIS: Hell no. What you realize is that the experience is amazing and surreal, but in the end, it’s hype-based television. The reality was that we were one of the last acts of the last day of the last audition city. Everyone was fucking exhausted… it’s like any other job. Nick Cannon could care about us as much as the cashier at Walgreens. He’s just good at doing his job, which is to welcome you when you walk in the store, but that’s it. That said, I was impressed by the stamina and seeming real enthusiasm of Howard Stern, even in the final hours. I will also say that the encouragement and support that we received from the production/backstage crew was much appreciated and energizing to our ego/performance.
TREVOR: I know so little about the entertainment industry that it is hard to say. Maybe there are some TV/movie producers who would be super fun to work with. I liked all the people that we came in touch with at AGT, but I really prefer a more personal relationship with the people we work with/for. Maybe there is a way to have that in the entertainment industry… I’m not sure.
NATALIE: I really love what we do. It’s connective and engaging and hopefully make some people laugh. If we figure out how to do that in Hollywood without sacrificing our own needs, then I’m all for it. Doesn’t seem like that is how things work, though.
MARK: If someone were to approach you, do you have TV show ideas to pitch? I’m just curious… If so, can you give us just a hint? Would it involve the three of you living together and getting into wacky hijinks? Maybe you’re all mascots from the football teams of competing colleges or something…
CHRIS: We’ve discussed this a lot lately, and we like the idea of having more of a crew of people to help us produce and perform our costumes and ideas. There seems to be an energy in what we bring to an environment, and we just want to continue to grow while making a living in that world. As far as a TV show, see the Ren and Stimpy comment above. As far as a reality TV show, it’s part of what we didn’t want to sign away to in the AGT contract. There are, however, a lot of hijinks to record… like on the way back from the Chicago auditions, I almost got arrested after buying fireworks near Gary, Indiana. (I have a court date next month.)
TREVOR: I actually think there are enough interesting components to make a well-rounded movie with Spontaneous Art. From our playful antics, to our detailed artistic philosophy (see our TEDx talk), the interpersonal effects we have on people’s lives, the hysterical banter continuously popping off between the three of us, the social/psychological reasons that brought us all to create this interactive performance together, etc. I think people would spin between laughing, crying and starry-eyed wondering and then afterwards sprint out of the theater with a brand new lease on life. I would love to see that happen!
NATALIE: We do find ourselves pretty entertaining. Who knows – maybe a cuter Pee Wee’s Playhouse for people of all ages? Whatever direction we choose to go in, I think we know now that we need to keep creative control and our open, collaborative and super silly environment.
MARK: What was the charge? Were you smuggling them into Michigan? Or do they have a law against people in costume buying explosives?
CHRIS: No, I backed into some guy’s brand new car with the U-Haul on the service drive. After I hit him, I pulled into a parking lot. And apparently it’s illegal to move your vehicle from the scene of an accident. Somehow, I blame the fireworks. I lit them off last night and felt a little better.
MARK: What surprised you the most about the whole experience?
CHRIS: How much that promise of fame and fortune (that you previously mentioned) can permeate your brain and fuck with you. It really makes you question your motivations and morals in ways I (we) didn’t anticipate. At the end of the day, we really learned how much we value what we’ve built the past couple of years, and asked ourselves some of the same questions that you’ve asked. What do we REALLY want this to be? Many of the answers contained the answer, “I want to have fun with these creative people that I adore and love, and hopefully making a living off of it would be a wonderful bonus…so let’s keep trying.”
TREVOR:What Chris said…
MARK: As we discussed when you first started talking with America’s Got Talent, I had no problem imagining the cat in the show – I could totally picture it – but I just didn’t see how you’d move forward in this totally scripted “competition”. I mean, where do you go after pooping and spitting up hair balls? Did you have a second act in mind, or had you pretty much resigned yourself to the fact that you were there to fill a role, like the hilariously delusional people who they bring in each year for the judges to eat during the earlier rounds of American Idol?
CHRIS: That was honestly part of it…. Like I said, we were one of the last acts of the first round of auditions, so the turnover to Vegas was something like two weeks. So, even without the contract issues, we weren’t really prepared to evolve our act in such a short amount of time. In the days that followed our audition, there were a lot of hours spent trying to answer that question, and I think we came up with some great ideas. But, in the end, we didn’t think that it could be pulled off in a way that wouldn’t make us part of the scenario that you mentioned… “the hilariously delusional”.
TREVOR: And some of these ideas are going to get actualized, but it would take a lot of time to do them right. We didn’t want to rush some junk to the stage and not have it be our best effort. So we are slowly chipping away at some bigger things for a stage.
NATALIE: One major thing that we dealt with this whole time is that we are not really used to stage performing. We are at our best when on the street, connecting directly with humans. That is where a huge part of our charm comes in. We are about doing things on the fly with a continually changing environment. Without that, we needed to overhaul what we do. We now have the exciting challenge of really developing what we could be about in this different venue, but as the boys said, not something that could be really discovered in two weeks. We now are in the works of some really brilliant new angles to our capabilities, so we have to be grateful for the experience.
MARK: Why do you work under the name Spontaneous Art when your work is anything but spontaneous. I mean, it took you weeks to make the cat, right?
CHRIS: Everytime we perform, we have a rough idea about what might happen. The reality is that we are often making major changes up until the last minute. The fast and intense energy of that, for me justifies calling ourselves Spontaneous Art.
TREVOR: We have a spontaneous art practice in the way we move into a crowd, bring people into our imagined worlds and respond on the spot to their reactions. The sculptural costumes we create do take weeks or months, so the name “Spontaneous Art” refers to our actions once the interactive performance is in motion.
MARK: Didn’t you burn the last cat?
CHRIS: No. It was around Halloween. We cut the (mangy beat up) head off and put it on our porch next to a bowl of candy.
NATALIE: I thought it got eaten by mice?
MARK: Are there plans to kill this one? If so, how? Could I convince you, maybe, to set fire to it on Water Street during the next Krampus celebration?
CHRIS: Maybe… but, hopefully, we built this one to last a bit longer. We’d like to tour with him for a while.
TREVOR: We poured so much time into building Lucky that I would like to develop multiple skits for it and keep it around for a bit. We tend to use our creatures until they break, so I’m sure that time will come- but not anytime soon.
NATALIE: AHHHH!! Don’t kill the cat!!!
MARK: This cat’s name is Lucky. How’d you arrive at that name? Did it have to do with the competition? And what was the last cat’s name? I can’t remember.
TREVOR: It was a reversal of black cats being bad luck.
NATALIE: Plus, Lucky has amazingly great luck.
MARK: So, the other day, the cat showed up at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, but, as I understand it, you weren’t allowed to push out the hair balls and poops. What’s up with that? Are people really so fragile that they can’t see a giant cat poop?
CHRIS: Apparently it’s not family friendly. But that’s what we think is so great. Most people (including kids) have seen a pet take a dump. So there’s something universal about it. We’ve never had anyone complain. In fact, quite the opposite. The reaction is that of joyous disgust. That said, some great comments were made about the anatomy like, “Daddy, I want to look into the pink hole again!”
TREVOR: Different venues have different guidelines or what is/isn’t appropriate. We are used to entertaining people of all ages, we don’t really mind.
NATALIE: That cat is such a spectacle that I had to swim through kids to create a path for Lucky. People have fun with us either way. Poop or no poop.
MARK: Have you ever considered other fluids? Urine maybe? Semen? Just how far can you push this technology that you’ve created?
CHRIS: Trevor accidently dropped his bottle of Evian water the other day. A kid immediately noticed and called it out. I think we’ve pushed this “technology” as far as it can go. Anything more would perhaps just seem messy and superfluous.
TREVOR: The initial cat was solely about crass humor. I think I’m more interested in producing a narrative or expanding on the skits in other ways this time around.
MARK: Will you ever have another pooping animal?
CHRIS: When we were building Lucky, Trevor and I went to Sherwin Williams to buy brown paint for the cat shit. In the parking lot outside, there was a large white splatter of paint where someone had obviously dropped a can. I immediately had the notion to build a GIANT PIGEON that would roam cities and spray shit all over. It would have to be some sort of corn starch bio friendly mixture and not Ralph Lauren. Anyhow….
NATALIE: We need to have all of our spirit animals. If Chris is a pigeon, and I’m a cat, we will still need an elephant-sized dog for Trevor so we can chase each other around!
MARK: Is there any chance that the cat might put in an appearance at the last Shadow Art Fair?
CHRIS: I think that there is a strong possibility. After all, our original cat made an appearance, what, six years ago? That’s some circle of life, Simba type shit right?
And, for what it’s worth, I can confirm Chris’s claim that he heard a child standing outside Lucky’s bright pink sphincter saying, “Daddy, I want to look into the pink hole again!”
[Those of you seeking more information about Spontaneous Art should also check out this video that I took of them this past October, upon the occasion of their winning an Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation grant.]