Talking about Death with Brian, Daniel and Andrew

From March 22 – April 5, 2014 The Bushwick Starr will present PHIL. 176 / OBIT, a collaboration between multidisciplinary artists Daniel Fish and Andrew Dinwiddie, an episodic performance installation drawing simultaneously on the text of Shelly Kagan’s renowned Yale College philosophy course, “PHIL 176: Death,”* and on current American obituaries and death notices. Over the course of the run, Dinwiddie will perform thirteen of the lectures from the class – a different lecture every performance – aided by in-ear recordings of the originals.

Brian Rogers, Artistic Director of the Chocolate Factory Theater, recently joined Fish and Dinwiddie in rehearsal to discuss the project. In 2010 The Chocolate Factory presented Dinwiddie’s Get Mad at Sin!, in which he meticulously reincarnated a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon from a vinyl record by the evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. In 2012, The Chocolate Factory presented Fish’s A (radically condensed and expanded) SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN, in which five performers listened to and spoke aloud a collection of recordings of the widely celebrated author David Foster Wallace.

We join Rogers, Fish and Dinwiddie mid-conversation …


Brian Rogers:  That’s what we’ll talk about with this. How is this piece engaged with its community?

Daniel Fish: Everybody dies.


BR: But I’m actually curious to hear what you would say about who the community is for this. The analog to me would be when we did your David Foster Wallace piece – there was actually a connection to this community of people that were David Foster Wallace people. There were clearly people there who were not downtown theatergoers.

DF: I don’t think we know the answer to that. Are there a bunch of philosophy geeks out there who know Kagan’s work? Or people who wanted to go to Yale and couldn’t get in?

Andrew Dinwiddie: What I understand from Shelly is that he’s very famous in China and Korea, that these lectures are used as advanced English training and have gotten extremely popular. People are listening to the lectures in order to improve their English beyond a conversational level, into an academic level.

DF: Interesting.

BR: Does it have something to do with Eastern ideas about death?

DF: Well I wonder if they are interested in the content or if they are just interested in the vocabulary.

BR: Well does that interest you? The vocabulary?

AD: Part of the reason I’m attracted to it is how well he speaks and how fluidly he puts together sophisticated thought.

BR: So it’s the vocabulary, but it’s also something about the cadence and the rhythm.

DF: For me it’s very much about that. It’s probably more about the cadence, the rhythm, the sound and the words themselves than it is about the overall narrative of the argument that he’s telling over 26 lectures.

BR: So in that sense then, it seems like it actually relates really closely to some of the things you guys have been doing recently. That’s definitely a focus I’ve seen in all of the last four things of yours, Daniel, that I’ve seen, and definitely in your piece that we presented, Andrew. I wonder if you would call that a fetishization, just an intense interest, or something else – fetishization is probably the wrong word but I’d like to hear you say why it’s the wrong word – of the musical components of the language. There’s a rhythm, a tempo and a structure that develops that feels musical to me in all of the pieces you both have made separately before now.

AD: Daniel, were the performers in the David Foster Wallace piece mimicking the sound of the voice?

DF: They weren’t mimicking the sound of his voice. They were trying to capture a sense of his rhythm, and trying to connect to some essence in his voice without imitating it, and trying to do that through their own voices. So they weren’t trying to imitate his voice but they were trying to almost channel his voice through their own instrument. Their own person.

B: Which to me is what made it possible to hear David Foster Wallace’s voice through it in a way that I wouldn’t have heard it if there had been this really, really highly worked imitation of the voice, similar to the actors who imitate Mark Twain …

AD: Hal Halbrook.

B: We talked about Hal Halbrook.

AD: Absolutely. And that’s what I was doing with Jimmy Swaggart in Get Mad at Sin!. You might have called that a fetishization, because I was really pursuing trying to sound like him.

BR: How much are you listening? How much of the process of performing this is actively listening to the lecture in your ear? Do you know the words that are going to come? Do you have any of it memorized?

AD: No. I have to listen.

BR: And there’s a lot of language, so maybe it’s insurmountable? Maybe it would be too hard if you were going to say “I want to memorize.” But is it important to you that you not know what’s coming?

AD: It’s not that it seems impossible to memorize it, but it doesn’t seem worth memorizing it, in my life – to be like Homer and memorize 26 hours of something.

BR: Right. What would be the point?

DF: And for me the act of Andrew’s needing to listen, and delivering the text because he’s listening is a pretty important part of it. Hopefully it forces a kind of presence from you.

BR: Daniel, I only saw the Jonathan Franzen piece you did once [House for Sale, 2012], but seeing the DFW one several times, I noticed, and I think this happened also with Nature Theater of Oklahoma in some of their pieces when they ran them a long time, or with Scott Shepherd with Gatz, where at a certain point obviously he actually knows it now. But in the DFW I noticed you having to fuck with the tempo and things to sort of force the performers back into an uneasiness.

DF: To force them to listen. They would say “What are we doing?” and I would say, “You’re listening. You have to listen. Even if you know the word that’s coming, you have to listen.” And you can tell the difference …

BR: Yeah.

DF: … as an audience.

B: There’s a question – this is a really cheesy, kind of cliché question to ask and I don’t know how else to pose it except for: this question of authenticity. I’m not talking about authenticity in the sense of things feeling real, like in the theater sense of real, but in the sense that you’re actually doing the thing that you are setting out to do on the simplest level. Because I have lots of thoughts about how these other works of yours respond to that. I would call them – not in a disparaging way – sort of very simple conceptually. We are just going to be speaking David Foster Wallace, or we are going to be recreating this particular record, but then having this laser-eye attention to not veering off the course of this simple idea that you have, which is actually the work to me, which is really, really hard to do, actually.

AD: I think there is an aspect of the work that touches on performance art concepts of actually doing the thing. We’re calling this a performance installation.

DF: We are? Is that what it says?

AD: Episodic performance installation.

DF: Are we really calling it that?!


BR: The notion of authenticity in performance art history is the same problem that you have in a theater lineage, which is: Who’s really doing it, and who’s doing a simulacrum of it?

DF: I don’t know. In some ways this piece feels a little less, at least at the stage we’re at right now, to use your words, simple or pure. I mean I wouldn’t say it’s complicated, conceptually, at all. It is one very big, simple idea. But it also feels a little messier. There are these obituaries – recorded people reading obituaries from all over the country, very current obituaries and death notices – which are mixed in too. I just got fascinated with those, with the form of those things. With the long list of names, with the locations. It’s a way to learn about someone you don’t know.

AD: And those are serving as a counterpoint. The lectures are philosophical, intellectual, general, they’re about everybody dying. What is death for all of us? And they’re funny. The lectures are kind of … glib. So the obituaries bring it back to the reality of people dying, and are more emotional.

DF: But some of them are funny too. There’s a way in which they’re very simple stories about people. They’re very easy to listen to, whereas some of the lecture is not easy to listen to, it’s a lot to process. So I feel like it’s also a little bit of a break. And a little bit of a human connection to something. Your mind drifts and you think about this person.

BR: In Get Mad at Sin!, I felt part of the dynamic of the piece was this active attempt to engage and stay engaged. We were looking each other in the eye. If we tuned out you would notice that we tuned out and then that would come fold in on itself. You had the reigns. There was a kind of power dynamic to that. Whereas I feel like in your works, Daniel, and maybe I was a bad audience member for them, but the thing that I actually appreciated about them, especially in the DFW piece and then in Eternal  (2013), was that I actually tuned completely out of them for long stretches, and then tuned back into them.

DF: (to AD) And you feel like that shouldn’t happen with this?

AD: I don’t think so.

DF: We might need to make some changes.


DF: One of the things that’s different about this piece for me is that it feels a lot less tight and controlled than my recent work. We’ll have to see what that means. (to AD) I don’t know about you.

AD: Yeah, my work has typically been very, very specifically choreographed. Vocally, movement-wise. And in this piece, I don’t know what I’m going to say next, how I’m going to interpret that physically. It’s going to be exciting to figure that out every night.

B: Does it make you feel uneasy or anxious to be in that position? Both of you? I mean you’ve done it on purpose obviously. You’ve set up the conditions where you’re not going to be able to choreograph the details. So you must have done it on purpose.

DF: For me the fear will kick in when there’s an audience here. Because I enjoy it right now. I’m not at all afraid of it.  I like the element of chance in it. I don’t know what will happen when an audience comes and we feel that something didn’t work, or their interest isn’t there. It’s a big unknown.


*Shelly Kagan, Death (Yale University: Open Yale Courses), License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

(Special thanks to Theo Maltz for transcribing this interview)

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