The Digest: May 11, 2011

Sebastian Nubling's staging of Simon Stephens' "Pornography" in Hanover, Germany in 2007.

Director’s Theater: Chris Wilkinson at the Guardian‘s theater blog directs us to British playwright Simon Stephens’s keynote speech at the Theatertreffen Stückemarkt, Berlin’s main new play festival. The entire thing (see here) is a must-read. The playwright, who began making realist-style theater, recounts his ongoing collaboration with German auteur director Sebastian Nübling, who’s directed four (soon to be five) of the writer’s plays outside of Britain. Britain, like the US, is essentially a playwright’s theater–productions of plays old and new largely exist to serve the playwright’s purpose. Nübling comes from the Continental tradition of a director’s theater, a concept almost completely non-existent in the US (to our theater’s continual impoverishment), and Stephens’ embrace of what he learned is fascinating and inspiring. For one thing, I rarely hear a playwright admit that “theater is a physical medium,” because playwrights–being control freaks who often see themselves as the sole meaningful creative input–have so little control over that aspect of production. Stephens even goes a step further and acknowledges that theater–and this is true of all theater-in-production, though we often forget it–is “multi-authored” by virtue of all the diverse creative inputs, of which the playwright is but one. But for Stephens to admit that language is “noise”?”

Hallelujah! Predictably commenters on the Guardian‘s blog go for the jugular (leading Andrew Haydon, whose own response got bumped by Wilkinson, to quip on his personal blog, “having seen the comments…I’m rather glad my piece isn’t on the Guardian Theatre Blog”). But a slightly more subtle reading (actually it doesn’t require much subtlety at all, just a willingness to acknowledge that a play ain’t a damn novel) reveals that Stephens is actually making a much more thoughtful point that at its heart does nothing more controversial than acknowledge that everyone else involved in a production plays a role in conveying the meaning, not just the playwright with his words.

“People receive languages in ways far more complicated than just the literal,” Stephens says.

[Nübling] stages language in a way that releases the subliminal and the chaotic, the playful and the visceral. In his productions language is unapologetically gestural in a way that is simply not the case in England. It’s not that he ignores the meaning of words [emphasis added] but that he fuses that consideration of meaning with a consideration of gesture which few English directors dare. They are too concerned with what the writer is trying to say, a question Sebastian has never asked me. For me as a playwright this is a massive provocation. It makes me ask: why am I writing these words down for the characters to speak? They have to be more than simply a literal gesture. It is as liberating as it is thrilling and has redefined my work.

Mierle Ukeles "Maintenance Art" in the 1970s.

The Art of Failure(?): The Awl, writing about the Kitchen’s gala last week, has a lovely little anecdote about artist Mierle Ukeles, via the editor of Cabinet magazine. Back in 1969, Ukeles wrote a manifesto called “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969.” The document is worth reading in its own right, as it explores a number of interesting ideas about work, practice, art, and job, but the anecdote, about a performance Ukeles proposed, is fantastic. You should read it for the narrative effect, but the set-up is the essentially wanted to perform a janitorial role at a museum, which happens at night. The museum took her literally, which meant that when she did it, there was no one actually there to see the performance. I find it hard to express what touches me so much in this little story, but I think it mostly has to do with the dignity of the act itself, and what that says about the value of art outside the audience-artist dynamic. And the best part? Turns out it’s not really true. Much like there’s value in a performance you can’t see, there’s also magic in stories that didn’t happen.

Young Playwrights Need to be Aware of This Great Resource Called “Culturebot”: There’s an inadvertently funny essay over at HowlRound by Max “Bunny” Sparber called “Bad Influences,” in which he argues that, “I am of the opinion it is as important to cultivate your bad influences as your good ones.” Now I don’t know Sparber or his plays, and I don’t want to hammer him too hard, but this essay is one of the most alarmingly uninformed things I’ve read recently. Sparber lists his “provocative” heroes, ranging from Marinetti (for pissing off audiences) to Valerie Solanas (for dirty words in titles?) to a couple visual artists (my favorite clueless quote: “I’ve always felt that the world of theater would benefit from the experimental lunacy that always seems to be in vogue in contemporary art”) who created really fascinating performance experiments.

Mind you, this is all un-ironic. Mr. Sparber is apparently completely and totally ignorant of the entire world of experimental theater today. The latest of the works he references is 40 years old. In my short life (I’m just past 30) I have seen performances (not all of which I’m claiming were good) involving actual sex, drug use, anal penetration by AK-47, live animals, improper relations with dead animals, blood play, urination, defecation and the incorporation of the products thereof, and…oh God. So many directions I could go I just don’t know what to say.  I applaud the intent, but are playwrights really this uninformed about the rest of the world of their own art form, to say nothing of the larger world of the arts? Sparber lists as one of his Marinetti-inspirations a play he wrote in which the audience is forced the leave the theater before the climax, “a moment that runs the real risk of simply irritating the audience.”

For the poor kid guy’s sake, no one tell Ann Liv Young he’s moving in on her turf. God knows what she’d do to him.

Odds & Ends: DanceUSA on the impact points of technology on the future of dance – George Hunka on the nexus of haute couture and theaterAmerican Theater on tourability and touring – Loughlin Deegan departs the after a lauded tour as AD of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theater Festival

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