The Digest: March 16, 2011

Tim Crouch is one of the playwrights called out by British bloggers as using narrative in a more interesting fashion

Story, Story, Story: So much discussion out there, I don’t even know where to start. Last week, I linked to Isaac Butler’s new series on Parabasis about narrative in theater and added my own two cents; he responded, and that generated both a healthy comment train as well as two other blog responses here and here. Plus, across the pond, theater writers were discussing the same thing. The Guardian‘s theater blog wraps it up nicely, but be sure to read Deborah Pearson’s essay in Exeunt and Andrew Haydon’s blog post, both of which are indispensable (and not just because I think they back me up). Here are some money quotes:


What I find frustrating is the overwhelming prevalence of one particular model for exploring “about”. I don’t think it’s too much to describe it thus: you pick an Issue, any Issue; you then create a small group of characters, usually about six and put them in a situation in which they come into contact with The Issue. The Issue is then explored by the characters talking about It, their relationship to It. Possibly, if you’re lucky, there’s a story, how It changes them. At the moment, I’m struggling to think of a single play I’ve liked which has done the above.


The political problems that narrative throws up are not so tough to recognize. Narratives must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They must have a “controlling idea”, one main point (moral) we can take from the series of events that have unfolded. […] Narratives are psychologically comforting because they provide resolution, and often impose a logic onto a frustratingly fluid reality. As anybody who has ever had to edit a play or story can tell you, narratives are highly selective, shamelessly omitting facts and events in search of a coherent story. This is all well and good for Oscar bait – but when these rules are applied to a political situation (as in the media they often are) the omissions and cuts are real people with real experiences.


[A] good story well told can be just as effective as a non-linear or abstract work for making you think about things if it functions in the same much-less-directional way. It was a bit of a revelation for me […] Because, the debate does seem stupidly polarised. Either something falls into the “issue play” *about*-a-subject camp, or else it seems to be “bonkers, devised, crazy avant-gardism” or something (yes, I know this is rough, but let’s run with it).


Performance in the UK has its own Kinsey scale of Narrative – most pieces I have seen seem to lie at one of two extremes – well made plays that place Story above all else, or performance and dance pieces that reject storytelling entirely. And then there are those pieces that sit somewhere in the middle – juggling the difficult job of telling a story while not telling a story, aware of narrative without pandering to it blindly.

The point? No one’s against narrative, nor theater tackling complex issues, nor is anyone arguing exclusively for weird abstract performance art. But clearly I’m not alone in feeling that a great deal of theater is failing to challenge its audiences by focusing on telling stories that argue reductive points or fail to engage their own presumptions. There’s a huge spectrum of theater that’s powerful and can find ways to communicate and deal with issues in meaningful ways. My own two-cents again? First, I don’t want to write off non-narrative performance across the board. Narrative is one often extremely rational approach to making sense of experience; there are others. That said, there’s just as much bad dance and performance art as theater. Second, again, I think context is important. Sometimes a straightforward narrative representing someone’s experience is deeply meaningful (Larry Kramer, August Wilson when he was alive); other times, no matter how harrowing or moving, “telling someone’s story” doesn’t rise above edifying entertainment or downright pedagogy , and even risks reinforcing the status quo (Nottage’s Ruined, August Wilson now that he’s dead).

Please, comment away.

Dancers Aren’t People Anyway: Just yesterday I linked to Wendy Perron’s discussion of how ABT dancer Sarah Lane was both literally and figuratively deleted from Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Then what comes across the Culturebot news desk but a report from the Wall Street Journal that the New York City Ballet is going to include social media restrictions in its contracts with dancers, because they shouldn’t have thoughts or opinions, either. You know, dancers should be pretty, soul-dead, preferably emaciated-looking things onstage with no discernible personality. Turns out the main culprit is some jack-ass NYCB dancer named Devin Alberda. The jerk had the nerve to gently mock his boss’s drunk driving arrest, criticize a gauche representation of an Asian in a show, and poke fun at the oh-so-loveable David Koch, i.e. one of the company’s super rich benefactors, i.e., evil incarnate. Oh wait, I think I like this Devin Alberda guy! Meet your new Twitter follower

Art & Performance: Also from the UK, the Independent has a story on an interesting series of collaborations between visual artists and performers hosted and curated by the Whitechapel Gallery. The “Art Plus” series began as collaborations between artists and choreographers, and has included editions with music, film, and a couple now with drama, featuring texts written by artists using text in their work, but performed by actors. It’s an interesting concept because all too often, visual artists experimenting with performance come off as boring or just pretentious due to the fact that performance is slightly different than static visual art. So the collaborative element seems an interested approach to helping visual artists explore time-based work. This is something I plan to keep in mind this fall, when Performa 11 launches around NYC.

Emerging Artists in the PacNW: Applications are open for Hand2Mouth Theater’s annual Risk/Reward Festival, which goes down in Portland, Oregon in June. For all of Portland’s buzz as the it place to be for young artists, the city suffers from a near complete lack of infrastructure for artists to develop. There are few presenting venues supporting contemporary performance, a lack of access to funds, and that leaves artists to their own devices to push themselves and develop, and we all know how that usually turns out. Even the TBA Festival, a national destination event, only offers a couple slots to Northwest artists, who frequently hail from Seattle which has a stronger infrastructure. H2M, who’ve been making work for a decade or so in Portland, eventually got fed up waiting for someone else to do it and set out to lay the foundations themselves. Risk/Reward, their most notable endeavor on that front, showcases local talent, and frequently pulls in artists from other cities around the area. Applications are due April 15.

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