Michael Counts

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Michael Counts
Born (1970-05-25) May 25, 1970 (age 48)
OccupationDirector, Designer, Visual Artist
Years active1993-present

Michael Counts (born May 25, 1970) is an American stage director and designer of epic theater, opera and immersive performance events[1] and creator and producer of large-scale public art installations and digital platforms. He has been described in The New York Times as a “mad genius”[2] and “a master of immersive theatre”,[3] and in Variety as having the "grandest ambitions" of leading pioneers of immersive theater in New York City.[4]

Counts has worked in an exceptionally wide range of contexts and locations which include a performance on the side of a mountain in Japan, a custom-designed bus that made Times Square and the surrounding streets its stage, an immersive environment for a program of spatial music for symphony orchestra presented in a vast drill hall, a six-story video tower in a planned community in Florida, and two immersive adaptations of Dante’s The Divine Comedy: the first an evening performance in a series of walk-through installations in a 40,000 square foot Brooklyn warehouse and the second in an escape room maze in Midtown Manhattan. He has also directed and designed major opera productions at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York City Center and the Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College. Many of his innovations were ahead of their time, anticipating new developments in the worlds of live performance, design and the digital realm that began to achieve mainstream success a few years after he had pioneered their use.[5]

Counts is the Founding Director of Counts Projects [6] and currently produces his work in New York City.[7] He has served as a consultant for Disney theme parks and other leading global entertainment and media companies. He was a co-founder of GAle GAtes et al.,[8] a performance and visual art company initially resident with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) at various locations in Manhattan and on tour in Asia before taking up residence in the Brooklyn warehouse.[9] From 1996 to 2003, Counts created a series of immersive performance installations at the warehouse space and elsewhere that many regard as some the most influential productions of New York’s downtown performance scene in recent decades.[10][11]

Early life and education[edit]

Counts was born and raised in New York City, the son of Carolyn Counts Fox (née Lawler) and Dr. Robert Milton Counts. He studied Theatre and Economics at Skidmore College from 1988 to 1993, where he created The Life and Times of Lewis Carroll, a performance that was both an abstract re-interpretation of Alice In Wonderland and a poetic performative portrait of Lewis Carroll.[citation needed] At Skidmore, Counts also created the "Failure Series", an open forum of experimental performance concepts that continued after he graduated under the leadership of collaborators Ian Belton [12] and Yehuda Duenyas.[13] The series included a wide range of performance, theatrical, operatic and scenic elements spread over many acres of Skidmore Campus which anticipated much of his later work with immersive performance installations and theater.[citation needed]

His most notable influences from his time at Skidmore was his connection with Gautam Dasgupta[14] and his then wife, Bonnie Marranca, who had co-founded the PAJ: Performing Arts Journal and had been two of the most important writers for and within the New York avant garde scene of the 1960s and 1970s and the international theater, opera, art and film movements. Counts went on to study with Dasgupta off and on for the next 20 years.[15]


Theater and Performance[edit]

In his formative years, Counts was drawn to the work of theater and visual artists who forged idiosyncratic and often fiercely independent artistic paths, including Robert Wilson, Reza Abdoh, Richard Foreman, Joseph Cornell, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Marcel Duchamp, Antonin Artaud, and Gertrude Stein. A common thread is the way the work of these artists was fueled by a subconscious or non-literal dynamic generated through collisions and confluences along the intersections of visual art, literature, music, sound, and live performance.[16]

After graduating from Skidmore, Counts founded the C & Hammermill Company and Exhibition Space in a 100 ft.-long warehouse in Saratoga Springs. Dozens of people joined Counts in the creation of a series of installations, site-specific performances and guerrilla artworks on the Fifth Avenue promenade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a 40-acre estate in Devon, Pennsylvania (Waterloo Mills and the Kings of Prussia), and the streets of Prague in the Czech Republic (Frontier and the Kings of Prussia, a seven-day site specific guerrilla theater production performed in 14 different outdoor locations, and Kral, an abstract re-interpretation of King Lear staged in a prewar movie theater that had been converted into a night club in the historic center).

Counts’ artistic process and sensibility had demanded that he work with epic perspectives from the start. When he moved back to New York City, he was determined not to follow the conventional route of his peers – directing spartan theater productions in small black box theaters in the hope of eventually working up to the large stage. He co-founded GAle GAtes et al. – a name inspired by Counts’ grandmother [17] – with performer and producer Michelle Stern and scholar and Butoh performer John Oglevee, whom Counts had met in Prague and had made the introduction to Stern on their return. With the help of the LMCC, where the embryonic company had been appointed Artist-in-Residence, Counts was able to work with vast spatial “canvases” right away, securing temporary use of the vacant floors of skyscrapers in the financial district which provided the sprawling perspectives that have remained an essential aspect of his work.

After creating his second work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art promenade, The Making of a Mountain,[18] in 1995, Counts directed and designed a series of performances and installations from 1996 to 1997 in multiple indoor and outdoor locations in Manhattan and in touring residencies in Thailand and Japan, gathering a growing circle of artistic collaborators along the way.

In New York, 90 Degrees from an Equinox? Where are We? And Where are We Going?[19] was a twelve-hour performance installation that took place over the course of six days in a 65,000 sq. ft. space on the 51st floor of 55 Water Street. Texts by Gertrude Stein and John Cage were performed alongside original and found texts by actors performing in an environment made of a field of wild grass harvested from Jamaica Bay. wine-blue-open-water[20] was a walk-through performance installation freely adapted from Homer’s Odyssey with a pre-recorded text by Ruth Margraff. Set elements were rolled in on wagons past performers stationed like statues on a vacant floor of 67 Broad Street. Counts and the company also produced Oh… A Fifty-Year Dart (a series of episodes that unfolded over the course of three months), Departure, Ark, and TO SEA: Another Mountain[21] at a range of locations including Grand Central Terminal, the SoHo Arts Festival and the Tunnel nightclub.

Internationally, a nine-member company went to Thailand to collaborate with the BoiSakti Dance Theatre of Indonesia under the auspices of the Bangkok-Bali-Berlin Festival,[22] and Counts, Stern and Oglevee were joined by composer Joseph Diebes to study Butoh at Min Tanaka’s Body Weather Farm in Japan. At the Farm, Counts directed and designed I Dug a Pit a Meter Six in Either Direction and Filled it Full of Sake. I Mixed in Honey and Milk and Poured It Over Barley and Pine Nuts and Rice and Onion and Fruit and Blood and Stopped.[23] The performance was set halfway up a mountain, requiring the audience to make an arduous hike then descend at night, the experience of which was integrated into the performance concept. Counts described the work as occupying the territory “when dance-theatre starts to bleed more into proper theater”.[24]

Buoyed by the LMCC residency's success, Counts began to search for a permanent home for the company that could accommodate the cinematic perspectives essential to his work. Brooklyn Academy of Music's then Executive Producer Joseph V. Melillo pointed him to the Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood now known as DUMBO, where David Walentas of Two Trees Management offered him a lease for a 40,000 square foot warehouse and shopfront gallery in exchange for the company attracting a steady stream of visitors to what was then a somewhat forbidding neighborhood.[25] Counts, Stern and Diebes were joined by resident artists Michael Anderson, Tom Fruin and Jeff Sugg to create four large-scale performance installations and mount numerous exhibitions and off-site events over the following five years. To SEA: Another Ocean, a performance installation for four performers and 500 blue umbrellas, marked the official opening of the space in September 1997.[26]

The first fully staged production Counts directed and designed in the new space was The Field of Mars,[27] which was inspired by Tacitus’ account of the burning of Rome. A one-line summary in the playbill read "This performance is as a dream is, or a landscape. Its meaning is more or less what you determine."[28] The pre-show began in the shopfront gallery as the audience milled around a bar and one by one noticed an actor dressed in elegant evening wear suspended high above on a wire. He descended a ladder with his hands, then led the audience up a ramp decorated with a frieze of tiny flames (a reference to the Great Fire of Rome) to the warehouse space above, where they encountered a series of episodes described in The New York Times as “a fun house for the senses… a cascade of images conjured by the conscious and subconscious, and with the question of how pictures framed in the mind's eye make their way into everything, from ancient myth to abstract paintings to commercial movies.[29]” The action was traced - and the attention of the audience guided - by intelligent and moving stage lights and Diebes’ through-composed electronic score as the audience drifted from scene to scene: a living room whose back wall disappeared to reveal a pixie in a slowly receding forest, a dark tryst in a public bathroom mounted on wheels and swirling around the space, a fractious family dinner at an ornate and extravagantly long table, a tartan-skirted schoolgirl living on top of a wardrobe, and more. A sequel, The Field of Mars - Chapter 1, was mounted in 2006 by Counts Media, in which groups of six people were guided through more than a dozen locations in mid-Manhattan including Grand Central Terminal, a Park Avenue office building, a minivan, the basement of a manufacturing building in the Fashion District, and the interior of a Lincoln Continental. The Field of Mars – Chapter 1 was produced in part as developmental workshop for The Ride, a commercial entertainment concept that he developed with a group that included Broadway producers Robyn Goodman, Vivek Tiwary, Charles Flateman, Barry Tatelman and media executive Scott Carlin. The Field of Mars – Chapter 1 also anticipated Counts' 2017 work, The Path of Beatrice, that was conceived and developed as an extension of his immersive escape room production, Paradiso.

Tilly Losch, produced later in 1998 and described by Counts as “a dream one might have had if falling asleep after watching Casablanca”,[30] took its inspiration from the eponymous shadow box sculpture by Joseph Cornell. It was the first of two GAle GAtes et al. productions in which the audience was seated throughout in a location from which the entire 120 feet throw of the back stage area could be viewed through the false proscenium of an industrial passageway. The backstage area was initially masked by a backdrop as a series of vignettes played out in front - two soldiers playing chess at breakneck speed, a row of seated cinemagoers floating across the stage on rollers to audio from the film Casablanca, a Butoh solo. The backdrop was then removed to reveal a series of shadow box-like scenes that receded further and further back into the space – a couple arguing in one window and a pensive man listening to Nina Simone in another in a recreated section of the Met Life Building Clock Tower facade, and an equally meticulous recreation of Andrew Wyeth's painting Christina's World in which a close resemblance to the original work came into focus at certain moments, yet before and afterwards was punctuated with counterpoints in movement, light and sound. Christina was portrayed as having lost the use of her legs and strenuously dragging herself into position to the sounds of birdcalls, chirping crickets and gusts of wind. The sun set at virtually the same pace it does in real time, and the lights in the tiny house on the hill turned on one by one. The scene concluded after a tiny hot air balloon and an airplane appeared far off in the sky. In the climactic scene - a recreation of the titular Cornell work - the hot air balloon was shown in virtual close-up as a performer floated through a frame suspended on wires.

The advantages of having virtually unlimited access to a permanent space which served as a performance and design laboratory began to be truly manifest in Tilly Losch. Set elements could be tinkered with and refined to optimum levels over the course of months. A wall was designed to tilt almost imperceptibly over the course of two minutes, operated by backstage hand wrenches.[31] At the other extreme, Counts’ growing confidence in the non-linear dramaturgy of his work was evident when the dreamlike scenario in the Met Life building came to an abrupt halt as the working lights snapped on and stagehands dismantled the set in full view of the audience.

The title of 1839 (1999) refers to the year photography was invented, and was conceived as a dream of Daguerre “in which a child, in the guise of Oedipus, wanders through a landscape peopled by narcissists in love with their own photographed images.[32]” The landscape was a kinetic collage of multi-layered, allusive imagery. There were yet more three-dimensional recreations of artworks – Manet’s Olympia, an enormous three-dimensional classical still life, a cat from a Balthus painting – interwoven with invented scenarios. A hermaphrodite appeared in different guises, at one point dressed in a sailor costume identical to the ones adorning a statue of a child and worn by the Oedipus character. An armadillo lumbered around the stage, at one point standing up on its hind legs to reveal a naked young woman within on whose skin an image of the solar system was projected. There were multiple scenes involving a surreally distanced Oedipal coupling of two actors who recited a combination of Sophocles and invented texts at breakneck speed. At one point, the Oedipus figure shot arrows across the full throw of the backstage area at a circle of light as the Jocasta character looked on.

In 2000, Counts was invited to direct Gertrude Stein’s Listen to Me at the CalArts Center for New Performance in Valencia, California. The production featured three iterations of the same three characters: a man dressed alternately in a snowsuit and a schoolboy’s uniform; a woman also appearing in multiple incarnations including an opulent 18th century white wig topped by a silver model of a three-masted sailing ship; and an art museum guard. The stage design featured a series of sunken trenches created by rows of white cuboids that extended the width of the stage and rose to chest height, and a suspended walkway above. The choreography was by Ken Roht, who had previously worked with Reza Abdoh and became a frequent collaborator of Counts’ in the years following.

A Counts Performance Installation Scene by Scene: So Long Ago I Can’t Remember[edit]

The last large-scale performance installation produced by GAle GAtes et al. in DUMBO was So Long Ago I Can’t Remember[33] (2001) a free adaptation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy with a text by Kevin Oakes pre-recorded by the actors (who lip-synched their lines in the live performance) and choreography by Roht. So Long Ago marked a return to the walk-through format of previous performance installations. Dante’s nine circles of hell were depicted in a series of installations in which audience members alternately roamed and were seated in different environments as multiple performances unfolded around them - and, at some points, in their midst.

The audience entered at the back of the space for the first time and took their seats at cafe tables. A dominatrix-like mistress of ceremonies - Counts’ Virgil, the only performer whose words were not pre-recorded - gave stern instructions for how to move through the space and rules for interacting with the performers. A chorus of women in identical elegant street clothes with fur collars appeared, one in the attitude of walking a statue of a greyhound sitting stiffly at attention, followed by a solitary actor in the same elegant street dress (Counts’ Dante). He stood directly in front of an opening in a large wall - the wall tipped over and fell to the floor around him, pushing a strong gust of wind out at the audience.[34] The actor was joined by an actress for a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tap routine. They exited to reveal a boatful of lost souls crossing the river Styx.

The audience was then guided through a succession of long narrow spaces – the rings of hell – sometimes by the dominatrix, sometimes through the gestures of the characters, sometimes by light. In the next space, members of a dysfunctional family stood on a platform that spanned the width of the space, forming a kinetic frieze, their arguments abstracted through multiple distancing layers of time, space and verbal embellishment. At one end of the frieze stood a clutch of Nazi soldiers speaking German, at the other, a girl in a red dress reciting text on a swing. A hanged man in a fedora clutching a violin case appeared, and a chorus of dancers flooded the space – the same chorus who had previously performed a Vegas floor show decked out in headdresses, shiny bikinis and high heels, but were now either nude or bare-breasted wearing an assortment of briefs - and performed a frenetic dance before disappearing as quickly as they had arrived.

In the next space, the audience encountered a floor covered with sand and a Florentine stone wall where an ailing Pope delivered a monologue as Dante and two clerics looked on. The audience was then led behind the stone wall and seated in two rows spanning the width of the space to watch a pensive maid, a pair of hotel guests, and two gangsters move through the hallway and elevator of a floor in the Waldorf Astoria as a mafia hit may or may not have taken place behind closed doors. The wall was then winched up to reveal a chorus of dancers wearing the same red dress as the girl on the swing, who emerged from the chorus to deliver a final risqué monologue while nonchalantly strolling offstage.

The second act began with a speech by the anarchist labor organizer Emma Goldman envisioning a bleak future for the workers, after which the audience was led back through the Florentine wall across a bridge spanning a pool of white fluorescent lights as Dante stood silently by in 13th century costume, head bowed. The bridge led to the smallest space, in which the audience huddled around a quartet of seated actors lit from below in ghoulish green light delivering a string of non-sequiturs about a Pomeranian as the statue of the greyhound stood sentinel nearby.

This was followed by Purgatorio, a twenty-minute wordless opera for a seated audience by Diebes in which four sopranos wandered among ostensibly artificial tree trunks made of rags and painted black. The actor playing Dante doubled as a young man in modern dress burying an undisclosed treasure in the dirt. The performance concluded with Paradiso, an installation in which the girl in the red dress was suspended over a pool of dry ice that spanned the entire floor of the shopfront gallery as the couple we had seen previously in the hotel hallway mounted a stairway without end. The audience viewed the scene while walking over a custom-constructed bridge as Manhattan's East River skyline appeared across the water through the shopfront windows of the space, then exited onto the streets of the city at night.[35] There was no curtain call.

Theatre after 9/11[edit]

The events of 9/11 took place a few weeks after So Long Ago closed. In the aftermath, there was a significant shift in Counts’ work back towards his original intentions for doing site-specific works outdoors for unsuspecting audiences.

While performance has continued to be an integral component of Counts’ output, the only theatre production he has directed since was Play/Date, a site specific “immersive theatre experience” produced by 3 Legged Dog and installed in the three levels of the Fat Baby nightclub on the Lower East Side. Actors were stationed at tables throughout the space, performing scenes written by multiple playwrights portraying blind dates, late night hook-ups, star-crossed text messaging, break-ups, and unrequited love. The audience was invited to join any of a number of scenes taking place simultaneously as the amplified conversations were projected through a carefully calibrated sound system while multiple digital screens in the seating areas displayed courtships by text.

Opera and Orchestral Music[edit]

In 2011, Director of New York City Opera (NYCO) George Steel invited Counts to direct and design a new production entitled Monodramas[36] at Lincoln Center. Monodramas was an evening of works for solo soprano and orchestra: the world stage premiere of La Machine de l'Être by John Zorn, Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg, and the US stage premiere of Neither by Morton Feldman, with a libretto by Samuel Beckett. Steel had first encountered Counts’ work at GAle GAtes et al. and had been in discussions about presenting performances of John Cage in the GAle GAtes et al. space prior to 9/11. The production featured episodes that provided a through line tying all of the works together, bookended by an intro and outro performed in silence.

In 2012, Counts was invited by New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert to direct and design New York Philharmonic 360, a major staging of “spatial music” for orchestra in the Park Avenue Armory’s vast Drill Hall presented in-the-round. With the success of the New York stage premiere of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, Gilbert had created a context for adventurous multidisciplinary programming at the end of each season, and New York Philharmonic 360 was the most ambitious to date. Counts designed an immersive lighting and performance environment for works by Gabrieli, Boulez, Mozart, Stockhausen and Ives that included “living statues” in elaborate costumes which the audience encountered in a red space under the bleachers on entering, and large luminous screens installed behind each orchestra that glowed in blue, red and yellow (there were three orchestras for Stockhausen's Gruppen, arranged in a circle, with audience sections in the center and in between). The performance was featured in a free worldwide webcast on Medici TV, a Philharmonic first.[37]

Counts returned to New York City Opera in 2013 to direct and design Rossini’s Moses in Egypt, whose most striking feature was a vast backdrop of LED screens with imagery created in collaboration with Ada Whitney, co-founder and creative director of Beehive. Intricate animations of night skies, deserts, and the parting of the Red Sea intermingled with abstract shapes and video of natural forms. For the first time, Counts was able to realize on a big screen the cinematic pans and aerial shots that had been an implied element of his live stage work, while creating new, disorienting effects through confronting the invented time on the LED screens with the real time of the live performance, notably through the use of a revolving stage. Moses in Egypt marked the first time New York City Opera had performed in its original home, City Center, since moving to Lincoln Center in the mid ‘60s[38].

In 2016, Counts staged the world premiere of the seven-hour The Ouroboros Trilogy, a production by Beth Morrison Projects presented by Arts Emerson at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston, MA. The work united three scores by Scott Wheeler (Naga), Zhou Long (the Pulitzer Prize-winning Madame White Snake) and Paola Prestini (Gilgamesh) under the umbrella of libretti written by a single author, Cerise Lim Jacobs. The production drew on and significantly expanded upon design elements Counts had used in previous productions, notably a vast video screen and a suspended bridge. Madame White Snake is being presented at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in March 2019[39].

Immersive and Interactive Events and Installations[edit]

While virtually all of Counts’ works prior to 2002 could be categorized as immersive events, the new directions he took with his work after 9/11 marked a watershed. Thereafter, his work in theatre, visual art and interactive installation developed along relatively distinct tracks.

The first work Counts created after 9/11 was Looking Forward, a video installation mounted in April–May 2002 in the clock faces of the DUMBO clocktower that featured a looped series of video portraits of the faces of volunteers who recorded messages for New Yorkers describing “New York moments”. Looking Forward was inspired by Counts' love of New York City and realized through a celebration of its two most defining elements –– its people and its architecture — that was designed to bring them together in unexpected ways.[40] The audio of the voices of the New Yorkers who were interviewed, set to an original soundtrack, was simulcast by WFMU on May 3.[41]

Looking Forward was followed by – and served as a prelude for – The World: An Immersive Installation Performance, a series of interactive events that returned to the format of Counts' earlier works, in which an overarching narrative unfolded in the imagination of individual spectators as episodes were staged in different locations over a period of months. Two dozen writers were invited to respond to a sculptural series of miniature cinematic vistas and environments created by Counts that situated dozens of figurines on surreal landscapes that told a series of implied, non-linear stories. The resulting texts were presented in readings. A performance installation at the Whitney Museum of Art’s Annex at the Altria Atrium in Midtown Manhattan featured simultaneous episodes inspired by the texts. A second presentation of the work was presented by the Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton, NY. The installation featured a series of sets and environments that included a vintage red Ferrari dino glowing under red stage lights; and silent characters stepping in and out of dioramas installed in the venue windows and onto an elevated open air platform under small screens in the shape of speech bubbles on which frenetic video collages displayed images of what the characters may or may not have been thinking.

After GAle GAtes et al. closed in 2003, Counts embarked on a series of interactive works situated in the public realm. In Yellow Arrow (2004), Counts collaborated with Christopher Allen, Brian House, and Jesse Shapins to create “Massively Authored Public Art” that was a forerunner of the geospatial web in its creation of a “deep map” of the world. Volunteers who submitted online requests were sent uniquely coded stickers by mail and asked to write a message, place the stickers in a location of their choice, and submit a photograph of the site by SMS. In 2005 Counts and the Yellow Arrow Mobile App/Global Public Art Project created an immersive installation and exhibition for Piaget at Art Basel Miami, and in 2006 extended the scope of the project to an augmented reality game called ICUH8ING. At least 7,535 Yellow Arrow stickers have now been placed in 467 cities and 35 countries worldwide.[42]

In 2007/8, Counts founded Counts Media, through which he raised financing to fully realize the conceptual blueprints for Yellow Arrow and two digital projects created, directed and designed for the Blue Man Group - Mobkastr, one of the first entertainment applications of mobile technology (designed to accompany the North American tour of How to be a Megastar); and BILL: The World’s First Live and Interactive Video Billboard in Las Vegas. 2010 saw the launch of The Ride, a custom-designed tour bus whose seats were oriented to the side onto the sidewalks around Times Square equipped with a state-of-the-art sound system and dozens of synchronized video monitors. Two live MCs played the roles of urban researchers as the vehicle followed a 4.2 mile route through Mid-Manhattan and live performers emerged amidst passers-by on the street including a UPS delivery man suddenly launching into a breakdance, a ballet duet on Columbus Circle, a rapper improvising rhymes to passers-by on 42nd Street, and a re-enactment of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day.

Beginning in 2014, Counts renewed his work on immersive live performance in events that crossed over into the worlds of fashion and television. As Creative Director of the Jet Set Event for Michael Kors in Shanghai, Counts utilized one of the largest eyeliner video projection screens used to date in an aircraft hangar (Hongquiao Airport in Shanghai, China) complete with private jet plane. The same year, he was creative consultant and stage director for Walking Dead Escape, an immersive theatrical adaptation of the Walking Dead Comics and AMC television show produced by Skybound EXP at the Hartford Xfinity Theatre and at Petco Park for the San Diego International Comic Con. Counts then wrote, directed and produced The Walking Dead Experience – Chapter 1 in partnership with Walker Stalker Con, in which groups of seven people are dropped into a sequence of intense encounters lasting 30 minutes that renders a small town in the throes of a deadly outbreak, all set in a 10,000 square foot immersive space with state-of-the-art special effects. In 2016, Michael Counts conceived, designed and directed a fashion show concept and presentation in collaboration with Lena Dunham and Jack Antonoff for the Betty & Veronica by Rachel Antonoff brand at New York Fashion Week which combined the aesthetics of comics and pop art with high fashion in anticipation of the launch of Riverdale on the CW.

Also in 2016, Counts partnered with former Jerry Bruckheimer producer and Las Vegas nightclub impresario Jennifer Worthington to create PARADISO: Chapter 1, an immersive theatrical production which added a number of innovations to the escape room genre. PARADISO: Chapter 1 was Counts’ second dramatic adaptation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Groups of ten people were tasked with escaping from a series of rooms by solving a range of puzzles. The experience featured encounters with performers in a series of meticulously designed interiors of the Virgil Corporation, all animated with state-of-the-art special effects. The production was designed as a series of five interconnected chapters. In March 2017 Counts and his Paradiso creative team launched The Path of Beatrice, an immersive theatrical extension of Paradiso that took audience members in small groups of 1-4 people through a series of real world experiences over the course of a week. Among other inspirations, the concept referenced the David Fincher film The Game, and cult classic The Institute. The production continued Counts’ career-long fascination with site specific theater, non-traditional temporal frames for theater, and the blurring of the boundaries between art and reality.

Visual Art[edit]

GAle GAtes et al.’s move to a permanent home in 1995 brought with it an obligation to attract a steady flow of visitors. Initially with Stern and later with New York City gallerists including Mike Weiss, Counts co-organized a series of exhibitions from 1996 to 1999 that attracted a steady flow of visitors to the DUMBO shopfront gallery while Counts and his creative team developed performance installations backstage. In 2001-2, Counts collaborated with Bob Bangiola (then at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music), and Anne Ellegood (now Senior Curator at UCLA’s Hammer Museum), on organizing a series of exhibitions in the Emerging Curator Series, whose unifying principle was viewing the curator as an artist. While there was resistance to this concept in New York's visual arts establishment, the series became a vibrant early career platform for curators and artists who soon thereafter rose to prominence in the art world. A few years later, curators were widely regarded as having the capacity to be producing artists - as they already had been in Europe for some time - and scholarly articles were being written about the phenomenon.[43]

Concurrently, Counts was making small sculptures that rendered, in miniature, the same sorts of cinematic vistas and abstract theatrical environments that defined his large-scale installation and performance works. Counts' works were exhibited in solo shows in the GAle GAtes et al. gallery and in RARE Gallery, and were included in group shows and art fairs including Scope and Art Basel Miami) (with Step One Gallery). In 2003, he created a series of free-standing sculptural landscapes at GAle GAtes et al. mounted on a series of table-high platforms with undulating edges, each a unique shape akin to those of individual holes on a golf course. Dozens of miniature figurines and natural features (trees, rocks, different colored soil) were juxtaposed in situations where the naturalistic and the surreal collided in stark relief. While the sculptures as a whole resembled the naturalistic landscapes of model train sets, the variety of ways in which the miniature people, animals, landscapes and model jet airplane were juxtaposed on those landscapes defied logic. Two dozen writers were invited to create theatre texts based on the sculptures, which were then presented in a series of readings that served as episodes of The World: An Immersive Installation Performance.

After GAle GAtes et al. closed in 2003, Counts continued to create sculptural artworks, but it wasn't until nearly a decade later that his artworks were exhibited again. In 2011, he created a series of twelve sculptures that took key motifs from Monodramas, the evening of operas for soprano and orchestra he was then directing and designing at Lincoln Center. Six of the twelve sculptures of the series, entitled Dream Sequence 3:52:29 am–3:56:12 am, were displayed in the lobby of the Koch Theater at Lincoln Center during the run of Monodramas as visual elements that were integral to the experience of the work as a whole. The other six sculptures were simultaneously exhibited at John McWhinnie at Glenn Horowitz, a rare book and fine art dealer who represented Counts from 2011 until his untimely death in 2012[44].

In 2016, Counts collaborated with Florida artist JEFRË and 3-Legged Dog on creating The Beacon and Code Wall,[45] a large-scale outdoor art and architecture installation commissioned by the Tavistock Development Company for the planned community of Lake Nona in Florida, one of the most technologically advanced communities in the country. The work transforms two sides of a parking lot with a 264-foot-long “code wall” - a skin of steel veneer perforated with symmetrical rows of binary code - at the junction of which stands a six-story hyperbolic convex-concave tower animated by dynamic video designs. Counts continues to work with Tavistock on additional site-specific designs and marketing concepts that will be integrated within the overall community vision.

Talks and Presentations[edit]

Michael has been a featured speaker at MIT’s Media Lab, Omnicom’s Global Summit for the Radiate Group, and on panels hosted by City College and The Rockefeller Foundation. He has led workshops at several schools and other educational institutions including the California Institute of the Arts, Chiang Mai and Bangkok Universities, the Williamstown Theater Festival, and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Michael’s media concepts have been presented at MIT and at Ericsson’s Innovation Lab in Stockholm.


A key inspiration for Counts’ work is Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art in which all the various elements of drama – music, sound, text, movement, set and costume design – are integrated into a unified whole.

Another key inspiration is the work of the American director and designer Robert Wilson, to whom Counts is often compared and who was indeed a conscious influence. Some of the titles and locations of Counts’ early work paid direct homage to Wilson.[46] However, while there are certainly similarities between their work, Counts emerged from Wilson's shadow and found his own voice relatively early in his career. This is arguably because Counts drew so deeply on the raw material of his own personal experiences in his work – submerged as these were beneath multiple layers of allusion. Some have speculated that the reason his work continues to draw routine comparison with Wilson is due to the decline in the number of avant-garde artists active in performance beginning in the 1990s.[47] In other words, the contexts in which his work could be fully understood and appreciated have narrowed considerably – there simply aren’t many other artists to compare him to.

Counts’ performance installations featured stylized movement that could take many forms, depending on the context, often infused with an erotic charge. Although key performers he worked with had undergone intensive studies in Butoh, this was not an influence on his own directorial approach but rather one of many elements within it (except in terms of the level of concentration, discipline and physical control required, which could be considerable). Since 2000, he has worked regularly with choreographer Ken Roht, who performed with Reza Abdoh’s company Dar-a-Luz and served as Adboh’s choreographer on many productions.

Immersive Environments[edit]

While Counts has created his work for an exceptionally wide range of environments and contexts from epic cityscapes to digital screens, a common thread is the experience of immersion. Counts says:

″My approach with all the things I’ve ever staged was to create a world and then immerse the audience in that world… Creating an alternate reality where the rules were different but it held together. It might be very abstract, but it held a certain logic that the whole world operated within. It was then a compelling experience to be a voyeur in that world on the part of the audience.[48]

Counts arguably created his most highly developed immersive environments in GAle GAtes et al.’s 40,000 square foot warehouse space, which served as a kind of laboratory in which he incubated performance concepts that grew more and more elaborate and refined over the course of the five years the company was in residence.

Many consider The Field of Mars and So Long Ago I Can’t Remember as the two productions that best epitomize Counts’ immersive theatre aesthetic. These two performance installations – made before digital technology became a core component of his work and cast the public more fully in the role of author, and before immersive theatre went mainstream – were mounted in the cavernous DUMBO warehouse space, through which the audience was free to wander and choose their own individual perspectives on the action unfolding around them. The feeling of moving through Counts’ fantasy landscapes added a layer of visceral complicity – the physical sensation of the body traveling through space had the effect of ″warming up” the individual's imagination and made it all that much easier for willing viewers to immerse themselves in the unending flow of mysterious images, sounds and movement.

This feeling can be compared to wandering through a gallery and encountering surprising artworks, much like Counts wandered through the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a child. In the more frenetic sequences of The Field of Mars, the experience was more like exploring the different spaces of an underground nightclub, or, in the eyes of Peter Marks of The New York Times, “ a little bit like chasing a two year old around an apartment.[49]” In Art and America, Douglas Davis described the Field of Mars audience as “dazzled witnesses to a cosmic event.[50]”. In PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Michael Rush describes the experience of a Counts production as "akin to diving into a hypertext on the internet, but he’s doing all the clicking and controlling. It’s also like cruising through a fun house at the carnival, but the creatures popping out of the darkness aren’t just screaming, they’re reciting oblique texts from classical literature, art criticism, Fellini movies, and Dada playlets.[51]"


Counts’ use of language in his original works is another area in which there was a profound change post 9/11. In the preceding years, he worked with complete scripts that were either compilations of text fragments lifted from a variety of sources or theatrical playscripts by a single author (including two scripts he wrote himself). Then, with the shift of authorship to public participants that began with Looking Forward, improvisation, texts for apps and other digital platforms, and the conversations of the participants and their interactions with performers replaced theatrical scripts at the heart of his work.

The most important function of language in Counts’ oeuvre is as source material which is then transformed into the conceptual underpinnings of his final performative frameworks. Counts’ description of how a book collection of the world's great letters was a seminal influence encapsulates this process:

"There were various accounts. Dostoyevsky writing to his brother after he was almost assassinated, to letters of obscurity. It was a portrait of human history through correspondence. And that book changed my life. I would build pieces around some of the ideas and letters and relationships and the stories that were revealed.[52]"

Private life[edit]

Counts lives in Brooklyn Heights with his wife Sharon and two sons, Wilder and Dashiell.

Legacy and awards[edit]

  • 2013 New York Philharmonic 360 named by The New York Times as one of the Top Ten Musical Highlights of the Year
  • 2013 Moses in Egypt named by The New York Times as one of the Top Ten Musical Highlights of the Year


  • 1992 The Life and Times of Lewis Carroll
  • 1992 Failure Series
  • 1993 Waterloo Mills and the Kings of Prussia
  • 1993 Kral
  • 1994 Frontier and the Kings of Prussia
  • 1995 The Making of a Mountain 1995
  • 1995 90 Degrees from an Equinox? Where are We? And Where are We Going?
  • 1996 To SEA: Another Mountain
  • 1996 Departure
  • 1996 Ark
  • 1997 Oh… A Fifty-Year Dart
  • 1997 wine-blue-open-water
  • 1997 I Dug a Pit a Meter Six in Either Direction and Filled it Full of Sake. I Mixed in Honey and Milk and Poured It Over Barley and Pine Nuts and Rice and Onion and Fruit and Blood and Stopped
  • 1997 To SEA: Another Ocean
  • 1997 The Field of Mars
  • 1998 Tilly Losch
  • 1999 1839
  • 2000 Listen to Me
  • 2001 So Long Ago I Can’t Remember
  • 2002 Looking Forward
  • 2002 The World: An Immersive Installation Performance
  • 2005-8 Yellow Arrow
  • 2006 The Field of Mars: Chapter 1
  • 2006 ICUH8ING
  • 2007/8 BILL: The World’s First Live and Interactive Video Billboard
  • 2008 MOBKASTR
  • 2010-17 The Ride New York
  • 2011 Monodramas
  • 2011 Dream Sequence 3:52:29 am–3:56:12 am
  • 2012 New York Philharmonic 360
  • 2013 Moses In Egypt
  • 2014 Walking Dead Escape
  • 2014 Play/Date
  • 2014 Michael Kors – Jet Set Event
  • 2015 The Beacon at Lake Nona
  • 2015-16 The Walking Dead Experience – Chapter 1
  • 2016 PARADISO: Chapter I
  • 2016 Betty & Veronica by Rachel Antonoff
  • 2016 Ouroboros Trilogy
  • 2017 Road Trip - Bang on a Can [53]
  • 2017 The Path of Beatrice
  • 2017 PARADISO: Chapter 2
  • 2018 A.HUMAN - NY Fall Fashion Week
  • 2018 August Moon Drive-In
  • 2019 Madama White Snake - Hong Kong Arts Festival


  1. ^ Fink, Charlie (April 4, 2017). "The Disneyland Of VR Escape Rooms". Forbes.
  2. ^ Marks, Peter (24 December 1997). "Carnival for the Senses in a Huge Warehouse". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 March 2017.
  3. ^ Collins-Hughes, Laura (7 July 2016). "From Dante to 'Walking Dead', He's a Master of Immersive Theater". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 March 2017.
  4. ^ Cox, Gordon (July 25, 2017). "Air Raids, Ghosts & Escape Rooms: Inside New York's Immersive Theater Boom". Variety. Retrieved 28 July 2017.
  5. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado, Boulder: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. p. 259. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  6. ^ https://countsprojects.com
  7. ^ http://rabbitcontent.com/
  8. ^ http://www.playbill.com/article/gale-gates-et-al-pioneering-brooklyn-theatre-company-to-shut-doors-com-113396
  9. ^ http://lmcc.net/
  10. ^ "Michael Counts, the redoubtable, resilient wizard behind some of the most alluring (if occasionally baffling) large-scale theatrical projects in New York City during the last two decades". Missing or empty |url= (help)
  11. ^ "Embracing Love and Tech in Large Scale "Play/Date"". The Clyde Fitch Report. Clyde Fitch, LLC. Retrieved 17 March 2017.
  12. ^ http://www.skidmoretheaternews.com/people/2016/4/6/rebel-director-ian-beltons-nomadic-journey
  13. ^ http://theascent.co/#/about
  14. ^ http://www.skidmoretheaternews.com/new-blog/2016/2/25/ads88xz1wgmr6b4xs6mlpen0ir8pi9
  15. ^ http://scholar.colorado.edu/thtr_gradetds/27
  16. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado, Boulder: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. p. 66. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  17. ^ “She was a brilliant woman. Spoke eight languages. Was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Extremely cultured. But it was her relationship to paintings that was my introduction to the visual arts as a child. She inspired me with this idea that at the most fundamental level the idea of making art is giving a gift. A celebration. It should elevate us. Even if it can be dark and cerebral, it’s still this idea of putting your hand out, this “let me show you something beautiful and challenging.” The core tenants of what is my aesthetic and what I think about art and my relationship with it is derived from my relationship with her, so naming the company after her was a very logical thing to do. What she thought art was, was going to be ever foundational to what the company did.” Michael Counts, 19 September 2012.
  18. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado, Boulder: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. p. 69. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  19. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado, Boulder: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. p. 72. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  20. ^ Marks, Peter (October 10, 1997). "As It Turns Artistic, A Noirish Enclave Steps Into the Light". wine blue open water. The New York Times. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  21. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado, Boulder: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. p. 107. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  22. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado, Boulder: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. pp. 75–76. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  23. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado, Boulder: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. pp. 80–81. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  24. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado, Boulder: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. pp. 80–81. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  25. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado, Boulder: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. p. 86. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  26. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado, Boulder: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. p. 107. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  27. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado, Boulder: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. pp. 109–122. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  28. ^ The Field of Mars. DUMBO, Brooklyn: Playbill. 1997.
  29. ^ Marks, Peter (December 24, 1997). "Carnival for the Senses in a Huge Warehouse". The Field of Mars. The New York Times. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  30. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado, Boulder: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. p. 130. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  31. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado, Boulder: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. p. 130. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  32. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado, Boulder: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. p. 139. Retrieved 17 March 2017.
  33. ^ Genzlinger, Neil (April 20, 2001). "It's Strange and Unsettling, Adrift Amid Hellish Images". So Long Ago I Can't Remember. The New York Times. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  34. ^ A reference to a scene in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. in which the facade of a house falls on Keaton who, happening to have been standing in the trajectory of a windowframe, is unscathed.
  35. ^ Genzlinger, Neil (April 20, 2001). "It's Strange and Unsettling, Adrift Amid Hellish Images". The New York Times.
  36. ^ Tommasini, Anthony. "Who Killed This Woman's Lover? And Other Elusive Operatic Issues". Machine de l’Être, Erwartung, Neither. The New York Times. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  37. ^ "New York Philharmonic: Philharmonic 360 - Spatial Music from Mozart's Don Giovanni to Stockhausen's Gruppen". medici.tv. Retrieved 14 March 2017.
  38. ^ Tommasini, Anthony (April 14, 2013). "Moses Leaves Egypt, and City Opera Comes Home - City Opera's 'Moses in Egypt,' at City Center". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 March 2017.
  39. ^ https://www.hk.artsfestival.org/en/programmes/opera-madame-white-snake-by-zhou-long-and-cerise-lim-jacobs/
  40. ^ Zorn, John (March 17, 2011). "Artists in Conversation - Michael Counts". BOMB magazine. Retrieved 14 March 2017.
  41. ^ Bahrampour, Tara (April 7, 2002). "DUMBO; Enigmatic Images On a Clock Tower, Offering A New York State of Mind". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 March 2017.
  42. ^ http://henryjenkins.org/2007/02/follow_the_yellow_arrows_an_in.html. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  43. ^ Doubtfire & Ranchetti, Joseph & Giulia. "Curator as Artist as Curator". curatingthecontemporary. Retrieved 15 March 2017.
  44. ^ Fox, Margalit (January 11, 2012). "John McWhinnie, an Expert in Rare Books, Dies at 43". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 March 2017.
  45. ^ Indursky, Bill (January 27, 2016). "Projecting Confidence". Design Life Network Magazine. Retrieved 15 March 2017.
  46. ^ The Life and Times of Alice Liddell is a nod to Wilson’s own early work The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, and I Dug a Pit a Meter Six in Either Direction and Filled it Full of Sake. I Mixed in Honey and Milk and Poured It Over Barley and Pine Nuts and Rice and Onion and Fruit and Blood and Stopped to Wilson’s I Was Sitting On My Patio This Guy Appeared I Thought I Was Hallucinating. Like Wilson’s KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenia TERRACE: a story about a family and some people changing, I Dug a Pit was performed on an actual mountain.
  47. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. p. 234. Retrieved 15 March 2017.
  48. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. p. 259. Retrieved 15 March 2017.
  49. ^ Marks, Peter (December 24, 1997). "Carnival for the Senses in a Huge Warehouse". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 March 2017.
  50. ^ Davis, Douglas (1998). "Drama on the Move". Art in America. 86 (9): 67–9.
  51. ^ Rush, Michael (Jan 2000). "Italicized Monsters and Beached Whales". PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art. 22 (1): 91–94. doi:10.2307/3245916. JSTOR 3245916.
  52. ^ Vinitski, Daniella Leah (2013). Field of Mars Revisited: The Opera-Installation-Performance of GAle GAtes et al. University of Colorado: Theatre and Dance Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27. p. 110. Retrieved 15 March 2017.
  53. ^ https://bangonacan.org/staged_productions/road_trip

External links[edit]