Waiting, Making, Being

Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Photo by Julieta Cervantes

When you walk into the theater, you’re greeted with what looks like a long-lost Dada play in motion – Vacuum Cleaner Meets Box Fan. These two characters are sitting on stage, accompanied by their attendants, Pile of Sawdust and Wet Paint Sign, as the many many lights and speakers go through what appears to be some kind of calibration test sequence (lights by Justin Townsend, sound by Bray Poor). The brightly colored stage brings to mind a kind of demi-Victorian Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (the set is by David Zinn).

Your neighbors, two young and eager theater students (it’s 99 cent Sunday at Soho Rep) chat excitedly:

“I wonder if that’s an actor or a stage manager – the person in the booth.”

“I think she’s an actor. Her face is too actory.”

You’re waiting for the start of 10 out of 12, Anne Washburn’s extraordinary new play / sensory experience at Soho Rep (directed by Les Waters). And indeed, this act of waiting – for the play to start, for the light cue to get fixed, for the actors to come back from the bathroom – takes up the majority of what one might otherwise be tempted to call the play’s “action.”

But if one is attentive, one might find this initial pre-moment moment telling. For soon enough a young woman in black grabs that vacuum cleaner and cleans up that sawdust. A young man takes down the wet paint sign, puts away the fan. A wire gets caught under the door. Waiting, preparation, becomes action.

And this is all before the play has even started.

It’s tempting to think of these acts as non-acts, as a clearing away, a setting up for something else. And in some sense they are. But 10 out of 12 seems to be arguing for a leveling of the convenient categories of “preparation” and “action” – setting up for the Olympic high dive can be, if we’re attentive, just as rich and full and fascinating as the dive itself (even without its attendant pikes and flips). In fact (and here I am getting ahead of myself somewhat) if we are to take the play’s message to heart, then sheer being itself, the mere fact of time passing, people existing in space, is event enough for theater, as for life.

And here I am once again reminded of the Dadaists, whose nonsensical appropriation of the quotidian can be read as a celebration of all existence, all perception. Duchamp hangs a snow shovel from the ceiling and says “look at this!” and suddenly the utilitarian is transmogrified into the aesthetic. (And here I must admit that this is but one selective, and likely historically incorrect, reading of the very politically complicated Dada movement.)

Anyway, where was I? The play. Artists sometimes talk about this idea of “hiding your brushstrokes,” in other words of making the painting seem as if it had somehow just inevitably become, not that it was painstakingly made. The act of making is hidden, swept away, reduced to something like magic.

Now, the more contemporary view (or at least the one that I am attracted to) is often to do just the opposite, to not hide but to highlight the brush-strokes, make the audience aware of the artifice, make process and content somehow one and the same. (Think perhaps on David Greenspan’s use of editing in time – in his plays characters often say such things as “maybe it’s a problem with the writing” or “I’ve lost the continuity here,” or even simply reword a sentence that didn’t work the first time.)

Strictly speaking, 10 out of 12 is not highlighting its brushstrokes. In fact, after seeing the play, I am perhaps even more baffled at how Washburn and Waters (and their extraordinary design, acting, and yes, stage management team) managed to assemble this dizzying, heartfelt, and strange play cum radio play cum another simultaneous radio play cum freaky light and sound installation. (It should be noted here that much of the dialogue is heard via private headset (more on that later) and that even much of the “on stage” action occurs behind us, voices from a booth, unseen). Instead, it might be more accurate to say that 10 out of 12 is in some sense a masterful painting of a brushstroke. It is not so much depicting how it itself was made (again, that process is a beautiful mystery), but instead how some other play (which we hardly even see) was made.

So, what do I mean by that? I mean that this is definitely a play: there are scenes, things happen, something is represented. It is not, as I at first thought it would be, a real-time simulacrum of a tech rehearsal (in which the presence of us, the audience, is artificially ignored). Instead, the action takes place over the course of several days, and the scenes are excerpts from the time that passes in those days (you know, like a play). In fact, and I won’t give anything away, Washburn delightfully dials up reality from time to time, sparingly dolloping small doses of surreal expressivity that break the otherwise gorgeous verisimilitude of the form. (It should be noted that these expressive gestures are meted out with the restrained hand of a true master – a younger, less sure mind (such as myself) would not have had the prudence to trust that only one or two breaks from reality are all you need to lift an entire world off the ground).

Now, you may wonder, perhaps rightfully, why do this? Why paint a brush stroke? Why depict the act of depiction, make the act of making? The simplest answer is homage – like Jackson Browne’s classic “The Load Out,” which describes the noble toil of rock n’ roll roadies, 10 out of 12 can be read as a paeon to the unsung heroes of the theater – the stage managers, PAs, board ops – who make this magic machine go.

But I’d venture to say Washburn’s set her sights higher. Sure the play can be read as an homage to labor, asking us to attend to the making, rather than the made (if I knew even one thing about Marxist theory, here is where I would show it off). And indeed, this is a strong reading – walking out of 10 out of 12, I couldn’t help but marvel at all the small wonders about me – the subway, the sidewalk, the mail-drop box; all of these things were made, and not just that, made by people, whose lives are all too easy to ignore. (And here I’ll freely admit the lens of privilege from which I write this – had I grown up in a household paid for by the work of a subway operator or machinist, I’m sure this would be no news to me.)

And it is here where the gesture of the earpiece makes most sense – upon entering the theater, each audience member is given a headset. We then literally tune in to a private radio channel, where we can hear the (pre-recorded) chatter of (actors playing) techies as they set up the show, call light cues, and generally pontificate about life and lunch. It is as if Washburn has given us a Rosetta Stone to the secret language of the invisible fairies who make the world happen around us without our noticing – for once we can hear them. For once we are aware. (I would venture that to a frequent theater-goer but non-theater-maker, hearing this chatter, learning of these people’s existence really would be news – news having little to do with privilege, and much to do with finally being shown how the sausage is made).

I’m going on too long. Suffice it to say that this reading, the one about making invisible labor visible, is strong but not complete. Because the heart of the play, the blood, lies in this idea of collective action – what is it for people to make something, together? How is it that individual, autonomous, frequently selfish entities can act as if governed by one collective conscience? And how is it that, knowing such a collective consciousness is impossible, knowing we are flawed, knowing the thing will always be imperfect, that the door won’t quite shut, the light won’t quite time out right, the floor will still have some dirt on it, that being entails entropy and entropy breeds imperfection, how is it that we try, try, and try anyway? And how could we not?

10 out of 12 runs through July 18th at Soho Rep. Get your tickets here.

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