Better than late than never: a discussion about Must Don’t Whip ‘Um

As y’all know, Culturebot “doesn’t do reviews,” but we still like to talk about performance, so here’s a chat (conducted via E-mail) between Culturebot writers Risa Shoup and Sarah Maxfield about Cynthia Hopkins’ latest creation Must Don’t Whip ‘Um. Are you still thinking about the show? Add your thoughts as well!

Risa Shoup: I wonder how you felt about the integration of the musical performance with the theatrical? I was highly entertained by the show, however, I felt that the performance by Gloria Deluxe was much stronger than the actual play. Case in point – I saw a disconnect between Must Don’t Whip ‘Um the play and Gloria Deluxe the band playing live music from Must Don’t Whip Um. In any case, I feel that Hopkins is an enigmatic, provocative performer, who moves comfortably between the worlds of theatrical and musical live performance. However, I might have preferred a better blend of musical and theatrical performance, leading to a more fully-realized, slightly less confusing piece. I get a little bit annoyed at the fact that the creative team seemed to answer the question of “How do we present a confusing story?” with “In a confusing way.” Meta-shmeta, there’s little to be said (in my opinion) for not giving us all the pieces of the puzzle and asking us to put together to form a cohesive whole. I thought that they didn’t do enough to justify the characters, especially Jeff Sugg’s or Bill Finley’s, throughout the piece, which made me care less about the story and more about the concert, which was the admittedly stronger performance happening on the stage and the one that was easier, and more fun, to focus on.

Sarah Maxfield: I completely agree, (which might make this a boring conversation.) I loved Hopkins’ last show Accidental Nostalgia so much, that I saw it four times. In fact, I loved Accidental Nostalgia so much that I saw Must Don’t… twice. The first time that I saw MDWU, I kept waiting for the integrated theatrical-musical-magic that was Accidental Nostalgia. Disappointed that the meld never quite happened, I adjusted my expectation and went back, granted, on comp tix. The second time, I did enjoy it more, but largely because I just let go of the theatrical elements, and listened to the music, which I loved. A friend of mine, a non-theater person, described the show as a band promoting their new album, which could have been the case except that there was no album from the show for sale – total bummer. I agree that “it’s experimental, man” doesn’t cut it as a reason for an unfocused script, and I think Hopkins could have done (and has done) better.

RS: It’s not boring, I mean, I love to hear myself and people who agree with me talk 🙂 Further, I’d love to know your thoughts about the attempted integration of the video projection. I preferred the homespun versions that Jeff Sugg manipulated with his hands throughout. The weird green-screen, more-high-tech stuff that they did with Findley and Hopkins’ scenes was occasionally visually stimulating, though never felt necessary, and ultimately irritated me because of this.

SM: Again, I agree. I love the “homespun” stuff. That was one of the things I really loved about Accidental Nostalgia, you could see nearly all of the image manipulation and technical elements being run, implemented, and adjusted right there on stage. It gave the video elements, (which in many pieces feel cold), a sense of the human touch. That melding of the human and the technological is something that theater does better than film, and I think if you’re going to use film and technology in a theatrical performance, you should have a reason like that. It should be important in the theatrical setting, not just used because it’s “cool” or “new” or “cutting edge.” On a slightly tangential note, I’ve also been thinking about expectation in general related to performance. Since, for me, my expectation resulting from my experience of Accidental Nostalgia so colored my experience of Must Don’t… It seems not often talked about just how heavily one’s experience in the audience is influenced by expectation. An artist’s previous work, marketing materials, the space in which s/he performs, etc. all contribute to that expectation, as do each individual audience member’s connotations around the piece’s title, subject matter, performance style, etc. While some of these contributing factors are generally considered and controlled by the artist, others are completely out of his/her hands, and therefore more terrifying and exciting. That’s what makes theater “live,” right?

RS: I’m really liking your phrase “human touch” – especially with respect to the idea of what makes theater live, and the expectations involved therein. Theater is human. It breathes and sweats and makes noise when it walks. It is uncontrollable in many ways. I liked the risks involved with sticking your hands on the film, and I like the risk of doing a performance…and then coming back and doing another one. And what I didn’t like about the more high-tech video elements in MDWU was that they seemed too controlled – too sterile – in an otherwise messy, raucous, provocative show that, at times, really resonated with me. The disconnect between these elements prohibited the performances from creating that magical idea that people on stage were achieving any kind of fictional reality. The mere presence of the high-tech video belied the notion that any fiction was occurring: the creators admitted that what they were doing was NOT REAL by using this unnecessary technology.

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