Making meaning out of nothing
Any theatre maker who willingly and boldly engages in the form of audience participation is out of their mind. So many things can go wrong. So rarely does the form exceed our expectations. The words themselves evoke a dull dread in the theatergoer. I spy an old school political form, a Boal weighed down by the passage of time and outdone by its contemporaries who are possessed with something much more alienating, fast, electric. In This Is Not A Theatre Company’s Readymade Cabaret, they defied my baseless beliefs and dared to walk this very terrain, and I was pleasantly surprised to experience a kind of participation that was smart, functional and at times deeply poetic. The company, founded by director Erin B. Mee and playwright Jessie Bear, not only seeks unconventional ways to expand on the relationships between the audience and performance, but goes so far as ‘inviting audiences to the live creation of our ‘plays’’.
There is nothing flashy about this show in the traditional sense of a cabaret. Instead, there is an atmosphere that is keenly academic and endearingly kitsch. The show, which runs about an hour, takes place in a modest fluorescent-lit room in the basement of Judson Church, occupied by handmade artifacts lining the walls as if they were museum pieces or perhaps a popup gallery. Little tiles of text describing each piece accompany the objects. Interspersed with these objects are the performers themselves, dressed in black attire, frozen for a time, then adjusting ever so slightly to another pose. As audience members slowly filled the faux museum/gallery/performance space, I sensed a distinct tension, an awkward discomfort growing in me. This was no ordinary museum. The space was a sort of incubator, eliciting a mode of audience hyper-attention: of placing every object, human, and their interactions under the scrutiny of complete visibility that is fluorescent lighting.
The performance itself begins with the echo of a gong struck by a woman who is seated in the corner of the space for the entirety of the show. (She also ends the performance with the same gong struck a number of times.) The performers come to life and our attention is directed towards a post, which bears approximately thirty scene titles dressed vertically in a row. A die is then thrown by an audience member. The number on the die dictates what scene will be performed. This is repeated a number of times, perhaps around twenty, until the performance is over. The scenes vary in length and content, but most are short, poignant, charming, and manage to interact imaginatively with each museum object around the space. There seemed to be some scenes that dealt specifically with audience participation or existed on their own as vignettes, such as the ‘#TweetDances,’ inspired by audience members’ tweets which then become a theme for an improvisational dance the day of the show (performed a marvelously random four times in a row by Kyla Ernst-Alper the night I went.) The other scenes seemed to be grounded in a narrative pattern, the most recognizable one (or perhaps the scenes that were chosen the night I attended!) about a couple who met on a blind-date, and whose conversations and developing relationship were a contemplation of the human need and desire to create meaning out of nothing. The narrative scenes are very well crafted so that a chance selection of any number of scenes would most likely produce recurring characters and storylines that we could easily follow. Not all the scenes are performed; a handful of titles still left on the post at the end of the performance made me curious about what I had missed.
Readymade Cabaret is inspired by Duchamp’s aesthetic of chance, as well as Dada concepts of embracing the random, chaotic essence of life. This is a consistent theme throughout the show, both discussed by characters in the narrative portions, and mirrored in the infrastructure that attempts to put these theories into action. I myself have been thrust into a great state of chaos recently, hitting the age of dirty thirty and questioning every decision I’ve ever made in my life. I left the performance that evening contemplating a number of things – perhaps most immediately, how I’ve come to follow a ‘path’ which I was pretty sure promised the blind walker all the treasures of life as long as you kept at it, and the dreaded realization that this path actually leads to an existential nowhere. Just a mirage in my mind… The repercussions of falling off said path have left me tremendously lost, and as the play suggests, those who can believe in fate have it lucky. I am looking to move upstate to somewhere quiet, maybe Hudson Valley or even further north. These are my answers to thirty, at least for now. In a tile of text I found in the hallway, it stated: “By draining away any content from art, [Dada] created an action-field that allowed the artist to move around without any inhibition.” Even a show that rigorously detested the idea of meaning couldn’t escape its own meanings, reaffirmed over and over again through tactful shifts of perspective, clever layering of plot, and the repetition of movement, which eventually established rules and coherency for the audience participant. What do you do when you realize you’ve been making meaning out of nothing? Perhaps I’ll throw myself into the wings of chance.