A Poorly Edited Salmagundi Of Half-Baked Thoughts
Setting: Pacific Standard, Park Slope Brooklyn, Friday after work. I’m sitting at the bar, hunched over my laptop, and drinking a pint of Green Flash IPA while “Rock the Casbah” plays. A three-year-old is sitting next to me, oddly enough. I don’t know her name but she’s a regular. I like this place. It’s the “West Coast bar” in Brooklyn. Northern California, more specifically, with memorabilia (see above)–California being, for an Oregonian like me, my “United States” (pace Stephen Colbert). But I’ll live. The West Coast has great beer. This place even had my favorite stout on tap a couple months ago, North Coast’s Old Rasputin Imperial Stout, a rare find on the East Coast. I don’t normally like dark beers, so that was kind of a treat. Though I guess I did drink a lot of Guinness when I was Dublin, but that’s just what you do in Dublin. Hell, the Guinness Brewery was a block from where I stayed. I also drank a lot of Irish whiskey. Which, combined with the mistake of having taken up with the most charming no-goodnik in the place, is how I got tossed from the Oliver St. John Gogarty in Temple Bar. Which I take special pride in, because St. John Gogarty was nothing but a bloody anti-Semite, who helped chase Samuel Beckett out of Ireland as a result of his slander trial. But I digress.
I haven’t written anything in too long (writer’s block), so I’ve come to write something. Three things actually, three separate pieces I meant to write but for some reason never got around to, or at least never finished. So here goes: three stories combined lazily into one, not entirely well-thought-out narrative jaunt, with no single subject, no rhyme or reason to its organization. Enjoy!
Aborted Article: On Watching Bones & Criticizing Plays, or, Downtown Has a Different Discourse
I have no idea why, aside from my writer’s block and a general January hang-over, but over the last month I watched every episode of the first six seasons of TV show Bones on Netflix. It’s not very good, and to be honest, it gets worse the further you get into it. It stars Emily “No Quirkitude” Deschanel and David Boreanaz, best known as Angel, the broody, Botox-y, and repeatedly-slain vampire love interest from Buffy. Why this is important to the story I don’t remember, but a few weeks ago I was going to write this big thing in response to the theater blogger shit-storm that wasn’t-quite, regarding Claudia La Rocco’s take down of Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, and Bones had something to do with it.
Read Claudia’s original story in the Times. Done? Good. A lot of theater bloggers I know had at least a little bit of a problem with Claudia’s article. Rob Weinert-Kendt accused her of the p.i.e. (portraying is endorsing) fallacy by accusing Rebeck of sexism. TONY‘s David Cote, on Rob’s blog, commented further:
I find it interesting that Claudia, who normally reviews more experimental, interdisciplinary work for the Times, should hold a new mainstream play up to such standards of social-ethics role-modeling. It’s a satirical comedy, not a position paper on feminism. Characters might say sexist or piggish things; does that make the play sexist? The men are not glorified; they are just as flawed as the women.
Claudia responded, as did Isaac Butler (mainly approvingly, later in the discussion with a caveat). Just read them, I’m too lazy to paraphrase. I just want to get this part done. The reason I didn’t finish the post on the subject is that the subject of my response, I fear, is tedious. But here goes: the problem all has to do with discourse, and the way various sectors of the performing arts world consider their practice.
Around the same time, I was talking to a friend who’s worked in both commercial theater uptown and Downtown, where said artist is more at home, who was telling me how awkward it was to go to Broadway or Off-Broadway theater parties because they just plain speak a different language. The way the mainstream theater thinks about its practice is very different from the way contemporary performance does. We could argue endlessly about whether Claudia was right or wrong (I haven’t seen the play myself), but what’s interesting to me is how people are arguing. Essentially, the theater bloggers and critics responding to Claudia are arguing that she’s conflating Rebeck’s own beliefs and political values with Rebeck’s representation of a character’s behavior. Surely this is wrong, right? Surely not every sexist asshole must get his comeuppance in the realm of art?
Well, no. Of course not. Art needn’t be just or righteous. But it’s not that simple. Back in college, my insufferable intro to theater course encouraged us to see theater as falling into one of two realms, the “representational,” which showed us a depiction of reality, or the “presentational,” which allowed the artist to actively manipulate their aesthetic presentation. Ibsen, Chekhov, Wilson, etc., are “representational” playwrights; everyone from Beckett to Brecht are “presentational” playwrights. Get it?
I call b.s. on that whole false dichotomy. “Realism” as an aesthetic practice has no more special a claim to depicting “reality” than any other aesthetic. To pretend that capital-R “Realism” is anything but an aesthetic in its own right is to accept, a priori, its own materialist philosophical interpretation of the world. Which is fine, but (a) we needn’t agree with its interpretation, and (b) it remains an interpretation, achieved through aesthetic verisimilitude and mimesis. It is not the thing itself. “Realism” is therefore not really an accurate representation of reality, it’s just another aesthetic presentation of it. A false distinction, but one that mainstream theater practice is highly dependent upon.
My preferred base-line critique of mainstream realist theater practice is Mac Wellman’s essay “The Theater of Good Intentions.” In it, he lays out a detailed critique of mainstream American theater practice, from O’Neill to Miller to Mamet and so on till today. His arguments are worth considering in their own right, but at a basic level what’s important to note is his central thesis that realist play writing as practiced by American dramatists is not so much an accurate representation of contemporary reality as it is a constructed moral universe, in which a cheap form of pop psychology informs our understanding of basic human behavior (the “Geometric Character”).
This is, I would argue, the core of the critical dispute between Claudia and her detractors. I don’t want to speak for her, but I think Claudia approaches any work of art–regardless of where it plays–as a consciously constructed work, and her criticism of Rebeck’s work is informed by her sense not that Rebeck is herself a conscious or active misogynist, but rather that the world she creates within her play allows for misogyny as casually practiced by her characters to go unchallenged, and furthermore that it is understood as a component of masculine artistic behavior. Claudia sees that Rebeck has geometrically constructed her male artist as an inherent philanderer, misogynist, and general jackass, and takes her to task for it. In contrast, those who give Rebeck credit for how she presents “reality” argue, in essence, that because there are jackasses in real life, she’s just doing her best to tell it like it is.
So make of it what you will. I certainly operate from the perspective that Realism has no special claim to representing reality. Mainstream theater practice, in contrast, operates under the assumption that verisimilitude makes something true. Which is kind of silly if you think about it. We could all imagine countless totally irrational and impossible stories being told in a realist manner, but we certainly wouldn’t label them “Realist.” That’s what Cote gets backward–realists are the ones obsessed with how things should be, since they have to imagine a believable reality to put onstage. It’s not Claudia who’s engaging in “social-ethics role-modeling” (if I can infer what that’s intended to mean), it’s actually Rebeck. Claudia’s just trying to make sense of what she’s done and finds fault with it.
What this has to do with Bones, I don’t know. I think I was going to use it as a demonstration of how realism develops characters in a geometric, predictable fashion through the example of Deschanel’s character, Temperance Brennan. Initially, she’s a smart, highly rational, and impersonal individual. She seems disconnected but repeatedly and credibly presents herself as a nevertheless emotionally engaged and present individual who just doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. Predictably, the show quickly pathologizes her (bringing on no less than two psychologist characters to actively analyze her behavior) to make her rational dispassion a “defense mechanism” to protect her against emotional hurt. Because of course we couldn’t have a strong woman or a person who simply approaches the world hyper-rationally due to intelligence; she’s got to be an emotional wreck underneath.
But that’s a super extended metaphor for something and I’m feeling lazy and unwilling to do the legwork to bring this back around. I will however admit that I was inspired to watch Deschanel’s more adorkable sister Zooey’s show New Girl, which is even worse. So now I’m off TV.
Seven o’clock is approaching and this place is getting busy while my battery is getting low. I really need to get a new MacBook. This one’s old and slow and the palm rest is cracking. Plus it doesn’t even support the newest version of iTunes, so I can’t sync my iPhone with it. #FirstWorldProblems right? Also, this pint of Sixpoint Pale Ale isn’t half as good as the Green Flash. I have no idea what to do with myself tonight. A friend lent me Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie like two months ago and is threatening me if I don’t watch it and give it back, and I have one of my favorite horror movies, [REC] on DVD at home that I really need to watch and send back and cancel my Netflix DVD subscription, because it’s really just wasting $10 a month, but I’m probably not going to do either.
I’m pretty sure now they’re playing Cage the Elephant. Catchy but overrated.
A Conversation Unsuccessfully Dodged at Radiohole’s Fundraiser, or, My Top 5 Live Performance Experiences
A couple weeks ago I went to Radiohole‘s fundraiser/gala/performance/whatever for their new show, Frankenstein, that’s set to debut in January 2013. As these things are wont to do (particularly if they involve Eric Dyer & co.), there was an after-party and as midnight rolled around, I found myself drinking in someone’s SoHo loft and talking with a long-time Wooster Group associate about Radiohole. She was kind (and specific) enough to credit Radiohole with providing three of her top-10 live performance moments ever, which I was duly impressed by. I mean, being able to name off the top of your head not just your top-10 live performances, but your favorite performance moments, is kind of impressive. But since I’m a critic…or whatever…it was quickly turned around on me, and I got asked for my top moments. Which I immediately got self-conscious about and refused to do. But I figure, what the hell? You wanna know what experiences inform my background? Here goes:
1. Community Theater (No really.) Fall 1997, maybe spring 1998. Freshman year of college. I had a crisis of confidence a few weeks before class starts, and I dropped out of university before I ever went and spent a very formative year working at a bookstore and going to community college while living at home in suburban Portland, Oregon. Two close friends are in the same boat as me, and one of them is working with a community theater in nearby Hillsboro, called Hillsboro Actors Repertory Theater, or HART. Anyway, HART’s benefit time rolls around and I’m roped in to going, where I spend like $10 or $15 to have the opportunity to watch a mix of show tunes performed by loving amateurs for a couple hours. (Oh teenage gay kid hamming up How to Succeed in Business…, I hope to God you got out of Hillsboro!) I was being a friend, and being supportive, but it did drag most of the way through, until the very end.
I have no idea what his name was, but my friend told me he was a former Broadway actor, clearly long since retired, who’d been very generous in supporting their little theater, all in exchange for the chance to perform in their benefit show. (He was also a bit of flirt with the young ladies, I hear.) Anyway, surprising as it was, this man’s closing of their benefit show was one of those electric performances that just stick with you. A 20-minute lounge-style performance, where, in a slightly gaudy suit, he just wandered the stage, told a few anecdotes, and sang three songs. None of them were noteworthy as I recall, but I’ll never forget the (possibly made-up) story he told about the last song he sang.
Taken from a mostly forgotten musical, the song was an older man’s lament. The musical’s story focused on a woman who had two suitors: one old, one young. She of course goes with the young man in the end, and the old man sings this lament. Except that–here’s the anecdote–this song was so powerful, the audience booed the ingenue for choosing the young guy, the show closed its preview run, and was re-written so the older man gets the girl.
Too perfect to believe? Probably. But that’s not the point. I’ve seen hundreds–I suspect more than a thousand, actually–of live performances in my life to this point, and this is one of the absolute most charismatic, charming, and unforgettable ones. I remember it vividly all these years later. As I like to say, “All performance is local.” It’s always about what happens when a group of people get together to watch others do something on stage for them. This didn’t change the world or anything–hell, I’m probably the only person who even remembers it–but it made a deep impression on me. It remains, for me, the base-line definition of what live performance can do.
2. The First Taste of “Experimental” Performance It was 1998, and I was off to college. For real this time. I’d spent a year in slacker purgatory, but finally made peace with my desire to study theater. I discovered Samuel Beckett–and Ionesco and Genet and Weiss and Brecht and all that great stuff, but it was Beckett first and foremost that convinced me that the theater could do something truly unique and might be worth engaging with. I’d finished my freshman year wandering the aisles of the theater section at Powell’s Books in downtown Portland, purportedly the world’s largest bookstore, compulsively grabbing old Grove Press editions off the shelf. I discovered Rozewicz and Mrozek and tons of other great playwrights (and seminal works like Artaud’s The Theater and Its Double) purely by virtue of that line-drawing of an evergreen tree they used as a colophon. And those old Roy Kuhlman covers still remind me of that eager first (and only) year at Southern Oregon University, in the comfy, crappy old armchair I bought from a second-hand store, compulsively reading and smoking cigarettes in my dorm room while coffee brewed.
I don’t remember exactly when, but it was around this time that I saw what was probably my first exposure to what I now call “contemporary performance,” when I went to see the initial run of Portland’s Imago Theater‘s version of Sartre’s No Exit.
Imago was founded by a pair of Ecole Jacques Lecoq-trained artists, Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle. Their original claim to fame was a family-friendly physical theater piece called Frogs Slinkies Lizards and Orbs (now shortened to Frogz), which toured widely and made them enough money to acquire their own space. I knew nothing about Lecoq, but I was still in my tedious Existentialist phase, and thought Sartre was the shit and that No Exit was a great play. Anyway, Sartre led me to Imago, and I was blown away.
Starring Mouawad as Garcin, the show was staged in the company’s warehouse space. The audience was seated in arrangeable bleachers in front of a platform raised perhaps four feet off the ground. The stage formed the hotel room that Sartre situates his hell in, and as the show opens, the bellhop leads Mouawad in, past the audience, and up into the “room,” delineated only by the edges of the platform. What made the show mind-blowing to me, though, was the concept.
The platform was pivoted in the center. As Garcin and the other two characters (a woman and a transsexual in Imago’s production, a straight woman and a lesbian in Sartre’s original) enter, the stage literally bows under their weight. At the open, blocks were placed under each corner, permitting only maybe two feet of arc up or down (which still gives you like four-feet of swing from top to bottom of the arc if you’re on the very edge of the stage). After Garcin and the others make their pact, to ignore one another to avoid tormenting one another, the bellhop wanders around and completely blocks off the corners, so the stage is stable and level and doesn’t move at all. And then, as the characters’ arrangement breaks down and they’re subjected to the hell of other people, the blocks are dramatically cast away, letting the corners of the platform plummet the full four feet to the floor, giving a shocking eight (or so) feet of arc movement at the edges.
It was a completely abstract, slightly gimmicky, and inspired way to realize Sartre’s otherwise didactic, pedagogic explication of the “Gaze of the Other.” A couple years later, during the first revival (there have been several over the last decade and some), I went to see it again, and was a little less blown away by the performances, but still impressed by the concept. That performance was the first time I really saw the potential for non-textual live performance, and it sticks with me. The last time I was in Imago’s space, it was to see Maria Hassabi perform there during the 2010 TBA Festival, and it was an emotional experience returning. When I interviewed Jos Houben before his appearance in Peter Brook’s production of Beckett’s short plays last fall, our private conversation was all about Lecoq and my Imago experience. That brought it all back around–talking to a founding member of Complicité about Lecoq and Imago (he knew of them).
3. Discovering the Joy of Dance Here’s the story of how I fell in love with contemporary dance. It was 2009, and for a few years I’d been writing about performing arts for Seattlest.com, the Seattle outpost of Gothamist.com’s one-time empire of municipal blogs. I’d moved to Seattle in 2003 with little or no direction other than to work in the theater and become a writer. I spent a couple years working in the theater and pursuing an erstwhile and ultimately failed career as a journalist, and by 2009 I was safely ensconced in a corporate gig at Amazon.com, my only creative outlet writing for Seattlest, originally about music and city desk stuff, just to keep my hand in the game.
In 2009, we lost two founding editors and I got bumped up to Performing Arts Editor in the re-shuffle (not that any of these roles were all that formal, or compensated), and I tackled it aggressively. I don’t know why. Before that I’d settled on being a dilettante, in it for the comps and scapegracing-by through sheer knowledgeability, but I guess because theater had been my preferred vocation, I didn’t want to disappoint and approached it editorially, with a mind to do it right and give the field the coverage it deserved.
I’d always seen more dance than the average person–it was just part of what I did–but I wasn’t knowledgeable or a fan, per se. Rather, I did it and appreciated it as best I could. I knew theater, and I knew visual art and music (the indie rock type, anyway) and that gave me an in. But really, Seattle wasn’t the best place to learn contemporary dance on the fly. There are some good companies, a couple truly notable choreographers, a strong scene, but a lot of mediocrity.
But there was one thing I was already deeply invested in, and that was On the Boards.
I don’t remember my first show at OtB, but I remember feeling immediately at home. A contemporary arts center that grew out of an artist-generated space some 30 years before, OtB is today one of the tour stops on the North American circuit for contemporary performance. I saw Radiohole there for the first time, Jan Fabre, Romeo Castellucci. It’s a great place. I’d fallen in love with it before I ever became an contemporary performance person.
The first time I met the current artistic director, Lane Czaplinski, was at a “Shit Storm,” a very occasional meeting of Seattle theater people. It had been in hibernation for several years, but an article in The Stranger, the local, hipper Village Voice-esque paper, about how to save theater, generated a huge outpouring of interest, so a new Shit Storm was organized, and hosted by Seattle Rep, the mainstay of Seattle’s LORT houses. So on a Wednesday night (or thereabouts), me and every other stakeholder in Seattle theater made our way to a rehearsal room in Seattle Rep’s space, dropped our $1 bills in a bucket in exchange for cans of PBR, and argued for a while in a semi-organized public forum.
The host and organizer was a man named Matthew Richter. Richter was a long-time Seattle performance person. As a sign of just how small our little world is, he moved to Seattle in the early 1990s, fresh out of Northwestern University, with a group of friends that included Culturebot’s founder Andy Horwitz. They spent a few years living the Singles dream, trying to form a theater company. Richter eventually organized a small performance space called Room 608, and later became performance editor at The Stranger, the paper founded by one of the Onion‘s originators and the birthplace of Dan Savage’s career. When I moved to Seattle in 2003, my first paid writing gig (the check never actually came through) was interviewing Richter for Vodka magazine, a short-lived “West Coast urban lifestyle” glossy, about his almost as short-lived arts center, Consolidated Works.
Anyway, I was an OtB convert but knew no one there other than my press contact, in passing, when I showed up for the Shit Storm. I had a few beers, said my piece, then let the conversation de-evolve into the typical ridiculousness of theater people trying to justify their existence through doing mainstream work fewer and fewer people care about. I was done and in need of a smoke, and wandered out to the courtyard.
I don’t recall exactly how Lane and I met. Maybe he came up to me and asked what I thought of this entire exercise, maybe I drunkenly “Hey man, what’s up?” at him. Whatever the case, I distinctly remembering him complaining about the local theater scene, noting, “They don’t even think my theater does theater.” Which led me to ask exactly what his theater was, at which point I effusively gushed about how much I loved what OtB did.
Anyway, right around then, I went to OtB to see Tanja Liedtke’s construct. I knew little more than the press release told me, but I was religiously seeing shows at OtB and went and, well, I guess the result is that these days I’m more known as a dance critic than a theater critic. Which I owe to Lane, OtB, and, above all, Tanja Liedtke.
Like I said, I’d seen a fair bit of dance before–something on the order of a dozen shows a year, ranging from ballet to modern–but Liedtke was the first artist I’d seen where it just clicked. Her hour-long romp through metaphors of construction was the first time I remember seeing contemporary dance where the artistic voice of the choreographer so clearly trumped the academic considerations of the movement. This was dance I could experience. I still remember one sequence in the show so distinctly, where the dancers re-enact a prior danced phrase as a shadow puppet performance, with the fingers done with their fingers.
Two random Liedtke coincidences. First, Liedtke is a strange name, made all the stranger by the fact that I grew up with my paternal aunt and uncle whose last name was, in fact, Liedtke. They were the only Liedtkes any of us had ever heard of. Weirdly, their oldest daughter–my cousin–is also named Tanya.
But second, and less fortuitously, construct was one of the first pieces OtB filmed as part of OntheBoards.tv, an ambitious project to create high quality film documents of live performance. Which means that I’ve been able to go back and re-watch it. And predictably, my more nuanced understanding of dance, with a couple years’ engagement, finds faults with it that I never would have identified at the time. Today I find it a bit too gimmicky, its episodic structure cute but a bit too in search of artistic profundity. Still good, still a document of a great choreographer sadly stolen from us too soon. But to acknowledge that weakness affects a precious memory.
Liedtke, for the uninitiated, was an incredible German movement artist who spent her early career with London’s DV8 Physical Theatre, before being appointed artistic director of a Melbourne dance company, a position she’d barely taken up when she was tragically struck by a car and killed one insomniacal night in 2007; construct at OtB was one of the only North American opportunities to see her work as performed under her original direction before her company dissolved. She also performed one of my sentimental favorite dance sequences on film in DV8’s Cost of Living (2004)–you can watch it here. It’s an incredibly beautiful duet. In another strange sign of how small our little contemporary performance world is, the other lead from Cost of Living, Eddie Kay (not the one she dances with in the clip), is dating a friend of mine, and last year we had a drunken evening in an East Village bar chatting about Tanja Liedtke.
4. Just Plain Good Ilkhom Theater of Tashkent’s The Ecstasy of the Pomegranate. At this point, I think I’ve set the precedent that each example I’m giving is deeply personal, but this one isn’t. This was just an amazing show. (The only connection I have on a personal level is that a friend of mine from Seattle, a Russian born in Tashkent and raised in Vilnius–her parents, rocket scientists, knew Ilkhom’s director when they lived in Tashkent, but more on that in a minute.)
In 2008, the Ilkhom Theater of Tashkent, Uzbekistan came to Seattle through a partnership with ACT Theater. They presented two shows, White White Black Stork and, for one week only, Ecstasy with the Pomegranate. There are a lot of reasons they made it to the States, but their Seattle visit was, I think, owed mainly to the sister-city relationship it has with Tashkent. Strange as it may sound, during the late Soviet period, before Uzbekistan achieved independence, Tashkent was a vibrant intellectual and artistic center for independent-minded people exiled from the metropoles of Moscow and St. Petersburg. One such man was Mark Weil, who founded the company in 1976. Over the years, it became known as an internationally important theater company with many tours to major festivals. But in the post-Soviet era, the likes of Weil–born to Ukrainian Jewish parents who made their way to Tashkent in the 1930s–fared poorly. Ilkhom pushed significant boundaries in the increasingly Islamic state with shows like White White Black Stork, with its frank depiction of homosexuality, and 2007, Weil was assassinated outside his apartment. By then, his family was already living in exile in Seattle.
White White Black Stork–a cute, innovative in terms of mise-en-scene, queer Romeo & Juliet story set in Uzbekistan–is an highly tourable and utterly forgettable hour-long festival circuit show. I almost didn’t go to Ecstasy with the Pomegranate. Thank God I did. Four hours long and epic in terms of its story and conceptualization, it’s probably the single finest piece of theater I’ve seen.
Based on the story of Aleksandr Nikolaev, a Russian painter who studied with the likes of Wassily Kandinsky before heading to the Far East with the Imperial army in the late 1910s, where he settled in Tashkent and took the name Usto Mumin, the play explores sexuality, culture, imperialism, tradition, modernity, the whole complex trajectory of the Twentieth Century. It’s amazing. Mumin’s artistic obsession centers on the bochi boys, hyper-sexualized pre-pubescent male dancers and essentially courtesans in the anti-female world of traditional Uzbek society. The story follows their political radicalization and emancipation in the wake of the October Revolution even as it problematizes the legacy of the imposition of Western values on a non-Western society.
The only work that has a bigger hold on my theatrical imagination is Eimuntas Nekrošius’s Hamlet, which I only ever saw on bootlegged, low-quality video.
5. Why I Quit And back we go to my final foundational experience, one that’s not really even a performance. Fall 1998–the first quarter of my first year away at college, at Southern Oregon University. I was still busily consuming those books (and coffee and cigarettes and booze in my totally spacious dorm room). My first quarter away at university, I took Acting 1, your basic Meisner class, and it really did change me.
My teacher was adjunct faculty, an extremely fit physical performer with a background in Lecoq, roped into teaching idealistic youngsters Method. There was a lot of reading and exercises, as I recall, but essentially the class was structured to lead us through two core exercises: a monologue, for auditions, and a short two- or three-person scene. Anyway, the essential memory I have of it was the monologue, about halfway through the term.
We were disastrous at approaching the task. Our first assignment was to choose our monologues, and it was such a wreck (I, for instance, wanted to do Kushner’s brief, lyric “Oranges” monologue from A Bright Room Called Day) that the teacher wound up assigning them to us. We spent a couple weeks doing exercises to prepare, and then had to perform them in front on the class.
I still distinctly recall the structure. We were in the well-equipped blackbox theater in the theater complex (Southern Oregon, with its links to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival down the road, is actually a quite good professional program with a strong BFA). We were to applaud everyone’s effort, but not ecstatically. It was a safe environment.
Of course we were all awful. But what I definitely wasn’t prepared for was being led through the process of “finding our character” in front of the class by the professor. As each of us in turn failed to achieve sufficient emotional verisimilitude in our performance, the teacher would stop us, walk us through a process of emotional connection, leading us to an extremely vulnerable and often painful place.
The monologue I recall most vividly was by a classmate named Summer. I think. Maybe it was Autumn. Some season. Anyway, what made it so distinctive was that she was a trained dancer who shortly thereafter left to attend the Ailey Company school. She had immaculate posture, which, for slackerish Americans like me, is unusual and the sort of thing you notice. Inexplicably, she’d been given a monologue from the perspective of an inner-city urban youth of some sort, Hispanic or African-American, written in dialect. Summer, so it be said, was a very white girl from a very white town on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, and it was a wreck, a just plain grating mismatch that, I think, she literally drew out of a hat.
Anyway, the monologue was so emotionally fraught that the teacher walked on stage, pulled down a folded floor mat, and had Summer attack it while reciting. And this is what I remember so distinctly: The teacher standing, holding the folded stack while wearing her sleeveless top (she had very powerful, muscular shoulders for a woman), and demanding Summer punch it as she saw fit. They ran through the monologue maybe three times. The first time Summer was smacking it limp-wristed, very girlishly. And the teacher was almost taunting her, pushing her to find her character’s emotional space.
And then Summer snapped. It was like a record player’s needle finding its groove. I can still, all these years later, see her dancer’s posture drop, her shoulder sag as she sucker-punched that pile of floor mat with everything her hundred-some pounds of weeping (she was freely weeping by this point) eighteen-year-old could muster. And they shuddered with the force of the blow. All of a sudden, the odd cadences of some playwright’s imitation of urban speech fit her voice like a glove, and what came out with an emotional deluge of uninhibited rage.
In terms of its raw emotion and my own connection to it, that moment is still the most powerful “performance” I’ve ever seen. Except for maybe what happened to me a few minutes later, which of course I did not see but had to suffer through. I won’t recount that story. It’s still too painful. That was the day I gave up any desire to ever perform again. And I resent the entire thing, because what we were being taught was nonsense. Meisner, Method, psychological realism..it’s the most painfully literal-minded approach to live performance I can imagine. It insults audiences’ intelligence by assuming that audiences have no empathy, and that their only ability to connect with experience is pornographically, on a visceral level of animal response to something happening in front of them.
I also knew I was incapable of taking myself to that sort place on my own. Sadly, something as basic as Viewpoints was not part of the theater department’s curriculum, and that was that–I had no idea there was anywhere else to go as a performer. I never returned to performance, and aside from a few courses in directing and a brief career as a designer and technician, I’ve never been a “theater artist” since.
Ten o’clock is rolling around. I’ve long since abandoned Pacific Standard, overrun with a Friday night crowd, and the battery in my MacBook was gasping its last. I’m back at my still-new Park Slop apartment, dodging inside just as heavy, cold raindrops start to fall. I’m on my second cup of coffee–espresso, really, I guess. I’ve been introduced to a new brewing method by my roommate, who learned it from an Italian immigrant some years ago: a small pot with a boiler in the bottom that imitates an espresso machine pump as the water percolates up through a tube into the carafe above. It’s good, but the coffee isn’t so much–I miss my quality beans (Pacific Northwesterner, remember) and would prefer a French press, but that’s still at my old place in Bensonhurst (weekend plans!). I’m cranking a mix of Sleigh Bells‘ two albums off of Spotify. Drum machine and guitar. The gearhead in me is curious about how he’s getting that sound–old Boss fuzz pedal and compressor?–and missing my guitar. I never brought my Jaguar with me to New York, it remains in Seattle with my friend Michael Lee, the singer-guitarist of Mal de Mer and bassist for The Young Evils. If I had it here, I’d have something to do besides write….
Where Culturebot Makes Announcements & Talks Intellectual Stuff
This isn’t another story. This is the what’s-what with your good friends at Culturebot, and those readers intrepid (or bored) enough to reach this point are indeed our core audience.
Things have indeed been exciting here at Culturebot HQ (which, for the record, exists solely in cyberspace, or, at best, on the bar in front of where Andy Horwitz, I, and our little band of intrepid contributors choose to make our occasional meeting). Hopefully, some of you got to see the “Culturebot Conversations” we had this last January, presented as part of Under the Radar. Well, we’ve been granted the chance to continue that sort of conversation with an invitation from the good people at Exit Art.
After 30 years, the Hell’s Kitchen art gallery will be closing its doors June 1. Later this month a retrospective, “Every Exit Is an Entrance,” covering the space’s history–featuring artists from Cindy Sherman to David Wojnarowicz–opens. Opposite the retrospective, the gallery is hosting a performance art presentation called “Collective/Performative,” featuring both a series of video interviews with notable performance artists as well as series of week-long residences. Culturebot has been invited to curate/present a series the week of April 17. Entitled “Ephemeral Evidence,” the presentation–details to follow–will expand upon issues identified in Andy Horwitz’s essay “Visual Art Performance vs. Contemporary Performance,” and other discussions.
And that’s just the beginning. Over the coming year expect more–a lot more–from us here at Culturebot. For almost ten years, we’ve been one of the only resources devoted to performance outside the framework of traditional theater and dance, and we intend to expand that significantly through expanding both our coverage as well as developing new platforms to further discussion of performance as a live, vibrant, and essential practice. It promises to be a hell of a ride, and we invite you to join us in kicking off Exit Art’s final show, at the official opening Friday, March 24, 7 p.m.