COIL 2012: An Interview with Lin Hixson and Matthew Goulish

Stephen Fiehn in "Let us think of these things..." Photo by John Sisson

For twenty years, Chicago’s Goat Island was recognized as one of the most interesting and challenging theater groups in the world. When they decided to disband with a tour of their final show The Lastmaker, which finished in 2009, it was obvious that although the company was through, the artists would surely continue making work. Now, New York is getting its first taste of post-Goat Island work, with Every House Has a Door‘s Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never. at PS 122’s COIL Festival (Jan. 5-9; tickets $20/$15).

Founded by Goat Island’s Matthew Goulish and Lin Hixson, the company is intended to serve as a vehicle for project-specific creations with artists unable to devote themselves to a longer term engagement with a company. Although they’re on their third or fourth piece now, Let us think was their first. In fact, the idea behind it was born of the final Goat Island show, when a Croatian presenter in Zagreb, Marin Blažević, suggested they produce an international work with Croatian artists. Selma Banich and Mislav Cavajda began collaborating with Hixson, Goulish, and Stephen Fiehn, a fellow Chicagoan and recent transplant to NYC with his company Cupola Bobber. Over more than a half-dozen intensive residencies in Chicago, Zagreb, and England, Let us think was developed. I recently spoke with Hixson and Goulish over the phone about the show; Carol Becker has a long interview with them in the current issue of the Brooklyn Rail which is also well worth reading.

The genesis of the show comes from several sources all pointing to the Serbian film director Dušan Makavejev. Makavejev is an experimental and provocative filmmaker from the former Yugoslavia who spent many years in exile in the United States, where among other things he taught at Harvard, including lecturing about Ingmar Bergman’s films. At the same time Hixson and Goulish came across his groundbreaking film Sweet Movie, Goulish came across an essay about Makavejev’s work by the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, at which point the possibilities for a performance exploration began to open up.

“It gave us a way to approach an intercultural collaboration,” with their Croatian collaborators, Hixson told me. “And as we got into it, it was like Cavell was a stand-in for the Americans, and Makavejev was a stand-in for the Croatians and the ex-Yugoslavians, and Bergman became this third thing that none of us really knew that much about and could respond to.”

“Initially it was [Makavejev’s] biography that was very interesting to us and the way he spanned…the way his life spanned the issues we were hoping to access with this collaboration,” Goulish added, “with the dissolution of Yugoslavia into seven different countries, the international utopian dream of the initial multicultural society that you sort of saw in the idea of Yugoslavia. That you sort of see in the idea of Makavejev’s films, with their international casts. But one thing that happened immediately, in the first conversation about Makavajev, between us as collaborators, it became acutely apparent that he was not very well known in the ex-Yugoslavian states.”

That added another layer of interest for the performers from Croatia, who saw part of their mission as reintroducing his work to their contemporaries.

The show was mainly developed from a story they heard about Makavejev at Harvard. In 1978, in order to deliver a lecture on Ingmar Bergman’s films, he edited together more than 20 scenes from 11 films to play within the space of only an hour. After contacting Makavejev, they were able to track down his editing notes and used the classroom experiment to build a piece through mediated experiments. As such, Let us think is both a deconstruction of film and, in essence, a performance lecture.

“Why performance lecture? Or why film in a performance? Our response to those questions always circles back around to this question that Lin continually asks as a director: ‘Why is it live?'” Goulish told me over the phone. “Or what is this piece’s ‘live-ness,’ what is its reason for being in a room with a live audience rather than in some other mode? And I think her way of answering that, and our way of answering that, is actually by trying to keep those different strands separate, by not trying to merge the film and the performance, by not merging the lecture and the performance. And that’s where you get into some of the potential for…I mean, for me, it’s a kind of lecture performance when someone comes out onstage before the performance and makes a pre-show announcement, and says, ‘Please turn off your cell phones, the show is about to begin.’ Because the show has begun, but here’s this person announcing, ‘I’m not part of the show, so I’m just a messenger telling you to do X, Y and Z, and then the show will start.’ And I think we try to exploit that for comic potential, in that first the actors will do a pre-amble in lecture-mode, and then they will do the performance they just introduced, which is a radical shift between the two things. They never quite occupy the same territory.”

“Our specific interest in these films, in Makavejev, is the experiments we’re talking about, where he showed three Bergman films at once, or he edited a number of sequences from different Bergman films into one new film, those were done in classrooms,” Goulish said. “And they were a kind of ecstatic pedagogical experiment. Treating the classroom as a kind of theater. So there’s also the interaction between the performers and the classroom, and the classroom and the film, and this sort of impractical but very exciting way of bringing all those different questions into one container.”

Filmic vocabulary came to heavily influence the piece, but in complex ways. Not only are Makavejev’s films potentially unknown to audiences, but they are purposefully left out of the performance; audiences only catch glimpses of them during the show. The company’s intent, in other words, was to force the audience to experience film through live performance, something which the audience is essentially informed of in advance, allowing them to play with the gaps between expectation and what’s actualized onstage.

“The film is actually playing in the performance room, and they [the performers] are watching it, but the audience never sees the film until they’ve seen Mislav on the computer,” Hixson explained, “you can see a scene from WR [Makavejev’s most famous film], but that’s late in the performance. The audience does get a glimpse of that. But it was important to me that we never see the film, actually. Except for these glimpses. That you only see the film peripherally. So that technology is embodied to the performers. You see it through the performers.”

“The other part of the question of ‘why is it live?’,” Goulish added a bit later, “in this case, is what is the affect on the body of the performer in playing out these films live? To interpret them for an audience who can’t see them. What does that do to the body of the performer over the length of time? How do they sweat? How do they eat an apple? How do they drool? How do they get chocolate on their hands or clothes, how does the stage become slippery and more dangerous over the seventy minutes of the performance?”


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