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

8 thoughts on “The Digest: May 11, 2011”

  1. George Hunka says:

    Well, honestly, I've read that Stephens article and found it to be just about as duh-inspiring as the Sparber essay. There have been enough dramatists since the early 20th century as sensitive to the multiplicity of both word and performance languages in the theatre (at least in the non-mainstream theatre) as not, from Jarry and Artaud (both playwrights themselves) up to people like Young Jean Lee, all of whom are quite cognizant that dramatic text is only one element in a collaborative process that distributes creative weight among their collaborators. Even Richard Foreman, as director of his own texts, can't be counted among "control freaks who often see themselves as the sole meaningful creative input," drawing from both designers and performers during the creative process. Putting the playwright up as a "control freak" straw man is laying it on a bit thick, even for those who insist on the centrality of the text to theatrical performance. And honestly, I've never heard a playwright deny that "theatre is a physical medium." Indeed, many freely acknowledge it (and, in my somewhat longer life, being 18 years older than you, I've known a playwright or two). I'm not sure what's new in Stephens' perspective, if anything at all.

  2. Jeremy M. Barker says:

    Oh, I don't think it's original at all. It is a big "duh" speech, for me. But I'm still happy to have a playwright say it, particularly one who developed his reputation as not a particularly radical playwright, but who's nevertheless embraced a more radical interpretation of his texts than the average American or British director would ever risk. As Sperber demonstrates, an awareness of the variety of methods (or at least a wide acknowledgment of their value) is not something you can always count on. As for the "control freak" comment–well, gross generalizations are usually not fair. I'll grant you that. But surely you're not arguing that our theater culture is not oriented towards "serving the playwright's vision," which usually defined as "not screwing with his or her direct intentions much"? I find it a terrible stretch of the imagination seeing a production of a contemporary play diverging as much as Nubling does from the script going up at a regional theater or on Broadway. And yes, playwrights do defend their vision. Sometimes it's justified, for sure. But it also reinforces the mainstream vision of theatrical production. A visionary director liberally interpreting a script is likely to get the same complaints cast at him as the AD and Literary Managers accused of meddling with the playwright's vision during the development process. Again, I'm not anti-playwright–my point is that there are other valid ways of making theater that we don't see much of in the US, and the idea of a director's theater rather than an actor's or playwright's cuts nicely across the traditional division between playwright-driven and devised that I hear about whenever I write about a more expansive vision of American theater.

  3. Jeremy M. Barker says:

    Yes, we are in more agreement than disagreement. Really I wish that playwrights would recognize different methods and help push for those. One of the things that bugs me is how often I see playwrights, when talking about the struggle they face producing work, naming things like the Public Theater or even (though they rarely say it) Broadway as their ultimate success goal. It's not that I have something against that, but I do think it has a pernicious effect on the quality of work produced because so many playwrights essentially write with that sort of end-goal in mind, and the results are often disappointing because the playwright is envision a different caliber of actor, house, and design that can be achieved below that level.

    But no, it's not the playwrights' fault that America doesn't have a stronger or larger culture of directors who take a more expansive view of how we can produce theater. It's certainly more complicated.

  4. Max Sparber says:

    So my essay was alarmingly uninformed because I listed some of my favorite artists, but not some of yours. Good to know.

    1. Jeremy M. Barker says:

      Quite self-evidently, my point has absolutely nothing to do with preferring some artists over others, or complaining about your influences.

  5. Max Sparber says:

    You failed to understand the point of my column, which was stated in my first sentence — that this was an inventory of my own personal bad influences from theater — and then leapt to the to conclusion that I must not know anything about contemporary experimental theater. You then wrote a douchey, self-congratulatory response critiquing me for not providing a not providing an inventory of more event artists.

    That's pretty self-evident.

    By the way, I'm a decade your senior. Please don't refer to me as a kid. Just because you didn't like my essay doesn't give you license to become condescendingly paternalistic, I did not earn that, and it's not the mark of well-considered criticism, it's just the written equivalent of a sneer.

  6. Max Sparber says:

    More recent artists, rather.

  7. Max Sparber says:

    Well, let me see if I understand your point via paraphrase:

    "Why are you writing about Marinetti when I saw somebody poop onstage?"

    That's a very good question.

    Whether or not the artists I listed in my essay still have the power to shock — and I think you've made an unfortunate decision to discount that with some hipper-then-thou–you-should-see-what-I've-seen-in-Manhattan posturing — they're still my influences, they still proved and irritated at one point, and I am not sure why you felt the need to affect such a combative tone to chastise me, except from your unresearched sense that I somehow don't know much about contemporary underground theater.

    Sorry that the essay offended you because I didn't mention people who are inserting weapons into orifices. I enjoy that art, but it doesn't influence me. But good luck with your future nights of enjoying feces-based theater, which I agree there is not nearly enough of.

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