Togetherness / Aloneness at Prelude 2014
This year’s Prelude Festival was curated around four major themes (shortened slightly here): Care’s Hiding Place, True Things are what?, All Together All Alone, and Endurance/Loss. With this in mind, I observed many moments over the course of the three day festival, including but not limited to: a room in total darkness, a man in a suit full of holes standing in front of a fan with newspapers blowing all over, a performer with hooves somehow turning the pages of a script, multiple uses of panty hose over the head, red wigs, blue wigs, a long-distance relationship played out in a single space, a game of truth or dare that strangely resembled spin the bottle, a man on a massage table behaving badly, and a dead dog evoked out of nothing but a rudimentary hand gesture; but what stayed with me the longest was the actual dogs.
In William Burke’s piece Comfort Dogs: Live from the Pink House, the entire staging area of the Segal Theater was walled off using orange construction mesh fencing, creating a literal fourth wall between the performers and the audience. In this particular instance it’s vital, given that two of the performers are actually canine and did not appear to be specifically trained to this purpose. One dog didn’t enter properly, instead wandering off into the audience area to greet various strangers before being enticed into the walled off “performance” area. The human performers exhibited various dog-like behaviors throughout the piece, and also read short texts from cards that had been placed on and around audience members. One read, simply, “I’m bored.” Additionally, the human performers sing and play instruments and during one particular howling song, the dogs also get into the act, howling along with the humans, until the humans stop but the dogs keep barking. And barking. And they won’t stop barking, and one begins to wonder if they’ll ever stop barking and if they know that they’re performing right now, or what they’re saying via these barks in their doggie heads, or if it’s just a lamentation of being stuck behind a wall wherein a bunch of strangers are watching them and trying to make meaning of the barking; and then, not too much longer after the barking finally subsides, the smaller of the two dogs makes a break for it, forcing itself through a small hole in the mesh and escaping the performance all together in order to reunite with its owner, who is fortuitously sitting in the front row and is able to scoop the dog up and hold onto it for the remaining duration.
I’ve been asked to write about Prelude from the perspective of a participant; I had the good fortune of being asked to perform in JV Squad’s Marathon Play [Excerpt] and also provided dramaturgy for Rose & Stags’ In The Fog. On a personal level, having been both an outsider standing in the many lines and hoping to gain entry to a particular show, and now an insider, warming up in a track suit and hoping I don’t forget the choreography, I can state that I became more aware of the length of lines (oh, they have a longer line than we did) and noted the general trend of this being a year in which the artists were largely under the age of 35, which made me feel both glad to be part of this burgeoning experimental downtown community (I am one of them!) and also a little uncomfortable about our role as each other’s audience, the echo chamber looming somewhere just over the horizon, and the quality of the overall work (in my critic’s brain) perhaps threatened by this; the insidious unshakeable knowledge of what goes over well for this particular cohort of non-traditionalists and the need to both subvert and conform to those expectations simultaneously.
Then again, at the closing party, I concluded one of those three-day-long conversations that you tend to have at Prelude in which you keep seeing the person in a line or a play and you keep exchanging ten or fifteen sentences before they or you has to go but you keep saying, “You’re going to be at the party, right, we can talk then?” Just inside the door, as I’m about to leave, she says, “I’ve lost a few friends recently so it’s just really good to see everyone here together.” And we looked out over the throng of artists, and I thought, yes. It’s okay that this is for us. And then I thought, wow, she really nailed one or more of the curatorial themes with that statement.
But, so, the dogs. All together, all alone. We are watching the dogs, and they appear to want to get out of this space, go play or run or sleep. They are not that into the music, or one assumes they are not – but maybe that’s just our tendency to project the full weight of our own humanity onto the dogs, these dogs, trapped in this performance space, not understanding the difference between performative and non-performative but nailing naturalism, albeit the non-text-driven variety. We’re all just animals here, the urge to escape perhaps ever-present even in the most dynamic and engaging performance arena; we’re all together trying to make sense of the overwhelming desire to engage in something – a concept, a dream, a gesture. Yet, the dog that literally escapes through the fourth wall feels like the most human idea of all.
Dan O’Neil’s plays have been produced or developed at Albright College, Barter Theater, Bedlam Theater, Brooklyn Winery, Centre Stage S.C., Chashama Arts, Dixon Place, Great Plains Theater Conference, the Incubator Arts Project, the International Festival of Art & Ideas, the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, Links Hall (Chicago), the Minnesota Fringe Festival, the Museum of the Moving Image, Newman University, the Playwright’s Center, Red Eye Theater, and Carnegie Mellon University. Dan has been a Playwright’s Center Core Apprentice (2011-12), two-time winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Screenwriting Award and finalist for the ACTA/Steinberg Award. He reads plays for Clubbed Thumb, serves on the selection panel for The Flea’s Pataphysics Playwriting Workshops, and holds a B.A. in performance from the University of Minnesota and an M.F.A in dramatic writing from Carnegie Mellon University. www.danoneil.org