The Digest: March 9, 2011

tEEth Performance's "Home Made," at the Fusebox Festival in Austin this April. Photo by Aaron Rogosin.


What’s In a Joke?: Isaac Butler over at Parabasis is starting a new series of investigations of narrative. “Story Matters I” focuses on a joke about a Clown (no, not that sort of Clown Joke), which, in written rendition, utterly flops. Which is precisely his point. “The point of The Clown Joke—like all Shaggy Dog stories—is that the punch-line is miniscule and unsatisfying,” he writes.

The more grandiose the set up, the more dramatic the distance, the more perversely pleasurable the joke becomes, for the storyteller, anyway. For the listener, the point is to be indoctrinated into an inner circle of knowledge via a lengthy trial in which you have no control. You get for this a story good enough to hold your attention and the ability to play this same trick on others for your own enjoyment.

Either way, narrative has a very clearly defined role to play. This is not true in other storytelling mediums. Long have we debated the purpose, value and role that narrative plays in theatre, in fiction, in poetry, in film although the latter two seem to be more resolved on this issue (poetry rigidly against, film slavishly for). Does story serve some other goal or do those other goals serve story?

From my perspective, all too often contemporary playwrights operate like the joke-writer he describes, but with a slight twist: everyone now no doubt knows the Aristocrats, which is the ne plus ultra of the operation Butler describes and the mode most often employed by playwrights. Not only does it set up a miniscule punchline, everyone knows the punchline in advance; the success of the joke is entirely dependent on the narrative which gets you there from the beginning, which tells you where you’re going. Most contemporary plays are very essayistic like this; given the homogeneity of the typical theater artist and audience, we know that a play that starts off about war will have something bad to say about it, that a play that engages with gay issues will be pro-gay. (Someone please name me the last big pro-war or anti-gay play you saw professionally produced.) In this typology, the “narrative,” which is essentially the entire play being produced, exists to narrate a series of points that makes the predictable ending impactful, which we charitably still refer to as catharsis. This is why I generally don’t like contemporary playwriting.

That said, I like that Butler is interrogating and asking questions like this; a nice companion piece on the function of jokes came up in February’s issue of The Believer and can be read online.

Belarus Free Theater: Well, they’re not exactly “free” anymore, if by “free” you mean “free to return home,” which makes them a bit less Belarussian. Maybe. (I’m trying to be too witty. Apologies.) The point is, the Belarus Free Theater, a courageous collective of theater artists from Minsk who spent nearly a decade producing samizdat plays in the repressive state have been in the US since January, when, with the help of fellow dissidents and the international community, they managed to sneak out of the country to perform at Under the Radar. In February, they were in Chicago, and now they’re coming back to New York to produce a trio of shows at La Mama starting on April 13. Whether they’ve returned home in the interim I do not know at the moment, but I kind of doubt it. Several members were detained following the latest rigged presidential election in December, when dictator Sasha Lukashenko “won” yet another term. Government provocateurs helped incite protesters to riot, providing a thinly veiled excuse for the security services to brutally crackdown. With the world’s attention elsewhere (read: the Middle East and Africa), Lukashenko is comfortably out of the news and back to his wacky dictator stuff (did you know he nationalized the fashion modeling industry? Yup, he’s that crazy), leaving Belarus’s future as bleak as ever.

Fusebox Festival Line-up Announced: Woo-hoo! The Fusebox Festival, one of the nation’s premiere contemporary performance destinations, has announced the line-up of this year’s festival, which goes down in Austin, Texas from April 20-May 1. The fest features the work of some New York mainstays, including Young Jean Lee‘s The Shipment and choreographer Faye Driscoll‘s well-reviewed There is so much mad in me, as well as some other pieces we’ve recently seen, including Jerome Bel’s Cedrix Andrieux. But Fusebox definitely has its own treasures, some of which I will be catching the first weekend of the festival. First off, Austin’s own Rude Mechs, whose amazing The Method Gun closes at DTW this weekend, will be debuting a new work, I’ve Never Been So Happy, which plays in rep at their own theater The Off Center, with the also-local Rubber Rep‘s The Biography of Physical Sensation, an interactive biographical work that plays out for all five senses. And it looks like curator Ron Berry is one of the first nationally to hip to Portland, Oregon’s tEEth Performance, who, if I understand correctly, have only been seen once in NYC at the Joyce Soho in ’09, despite being embraced in Northwest and making repeat appearances at Fusebox. Home Made, their newest work, which is coming to Fusebox, recently captured first-prize excerpted at The A.W.A.R.D. Show! at Seattle’s On the Boards, and my sources tell me it’s amazing.

More on Looking at Dancers’ Bodies: Not had enough of “Sugarplumgate” yet? (Really? That’s what we decided to call it?) Well, over at DanceUSA’s eJournal, Houston-based writer and teacher Nancy Wozny weighs in with a personal, reflective essay, “My Eyes, Your Body,” where she admits that at a recent performance, she found herself “fixated on the circumference of a dancer’s thighs.”

“Watch the dance, not the legs,” I silently yelled at my brain. What’s wrong with me? And me, of all people, a thick-thighed somatic educator, who spent two decades teaching people to accept their bodies. This can’t be true. At war with my own attention, I missed the performance entirely by trying not to be bothered by a pair of less-than-perfect legs. Too distracted by so-called imperfection, I became a victim of my own learned blindness.

It’s a generally lovely, thoughtful, and remarkably self-excoriating piece, but what troubles me about it is the degree to which she faults herself for being, well, normal. We’re not always proud of ourselves and the way in which we look at and judge other people, but declaring your intention to force yourself to think differently seems to kowtow to political correctness. What I find fascinating is that a writer has revealed something personal about the way she experienced a show, which would likely never make it into a review. Personally, I think we need more “I” in reviews and a willingness on the part of the reviewer to reveal their actual experience, not hide behind a veneer of authorial arrogance. Does it seem mean to admit that the way a dancer looked in a performance distracted you? Maybe, particularly if you take the Alastair Macaulay route and make it a joke. But if Wozny was reviewing the performance she mentions, it’s probably worth admitting. Is it really any more mean to say so (revealing your own shortcomings in the process) than it is to give a show a bad review, and tear down someone’s hard work and a massive investment of time?

In fact, I’d argue that it’s deeply important to be that honest. Far too often, artists live in a world of positive feedback loops, where anything negative is swept under the rug. In the end, the artist is responsible for his or her choices, from casting to costuming.

Body-blind casting is as naive and problematic as race-blind casting. We’ve all seen choreographers who choreograph for dancers of a certain type and then have to make do with what pick-ups they can manage. Context is everything, of course, but I’ve been insulted on a dancer’s part more than once seeing them forced to do something they’re not built to do. Choreographers do not always choreograph in a way that supports the essential human dignity and inherent beauty of the body, and that is something they need to be held accountable for. (On a side-note, I want to point out that one of the choreographers whose work has most impressed me for her capacity to work with diverse body types in beautiful and meaningful way is none other than Angelle Hebert of tEEth, noted above.)

As for critics, we (hopefully) enter the theater seeking to experience what the artist wants us to, which is easier for people who are more familiar (like us) with the vocabulary of the art. But we do always need to take a step a back and ask how successfully they achieved their goals, and call out problematic issues. The truth is, it’s more a fear of exposure on the writer’s part that keeps us silent than anything else, and that’s disrespectful to the artists. They expose themselves in ways most of don’t have to; the least we can do is take them seriously and offer an honest response.

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