CHICKEN TENDERS: Peter Whitehead, poultry, and the art of collapse in Sister Sylvester’s They Are Gone But Here Must I Remain
Sister Sylvester’s new piece, They Are Gone But Here Must I Remain, opens with the company’s founder and director, Kathryn Hamilton, cheerfully and pragmatically laying out a few basic facts concerning her subject of interest: a documentary film called The Fall shot in 1968 by British filmmaker Peter Whitehead.
Whitehead, we’re told, came to New York to shoot a fictional film about a political assassination starring himself and a beautiful Italian model he’d cast as his girlfriend. The project quickly shifted focus as Whitehead, while shooting his fictional film, was drawn into the radical real-world political protests he was witnessing on the streets of New York. Instead of a fictional political thriller, the film became a documentation of the Students for a Democratic Society’s strike and occupation of Columbia University in protest of the Vietnam War.
This film, Kathryn tells us, will act as a springboard for a discussion on the relationship between Image and Action.
Kathryn then goes on, still with an air of teacherly goodwill, to establish a simple diagram: Image on one side, Action on the other, and the artist as the filter and essential link between the two.
From there we get into a bit of theoretical hula-hooping: the artist creates an image which prompts action in the real world which in turn gives rise to new images that filter back through the artist and then prompt new actions, again and again and again, until, in theory, art and life are no longer separate and we’ve achieved some sort of bettered society.
The Fall, we learn, is fascinating in that it seems to be a text-book case study for this theoretical diagram. Five years after the film was made, despite very limited distribution, a Greek professor obtained a copy and screened it for her students, who, inspired by the film, decided to occupy their own university, which eventually led to an overthrow of the Greek military junta.
We’re fortunate to have Kathryn Hamilton acting as our own filter for this material as she has unique access to her subject: it so happens that she’s buds with Peter Whitehead and hangs out with him from time to time in a remote corner of the UK where he breeds falcons (a trade he devoted himself to in the aftermath of The Fall – the violence he encountered while filming caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown and abandon his career as a filmmaker).
This performance is as much about Peter Whitehead as a man and filmmaker as it is about the film he created. (I’m reminded of a quote I read recently in David Shield’s Reality Hunger: “Every documentary film, even—especially—the least self-referential, demonstrates in its every frame that an artist’s chief material is himself.”)
And in this vein, this performance is as much about Sister Sylvester, Kathryn Hamilton, and performer / contributors Cyrus Moshrefi and Kelsea Martin as it is about Peter Whitehead – a fact these artists are keenly and very slyly aware of.
Early on in the evening Kathryn-as-lecturer discusses a scene from The Fall where we see Whitehead, camera in hand, reflected in a window in the moment before he climbs through said window and into the on-going protest at Columbia University. It’s a critical moment where he acknowledges himself as a filmmaker and as a filter for the images he’s documenting. It’s the very moment on the diagram where image and real life collapse into one another.
I’ve noticed a deep and fertile fixation on these moments of collapse in Sister Sylvester’s previous work. In The Maids’ The Maids, real-life maids create their own version of Genet’s text and work through, on stage, the real-life challenges of creating a theater piece. In Dead Behind These Eyes, audiences attended a performance in a karaoke bar. And while it was a performance and they were an audience, they were, at the same time, actually singing karaoke in an actual karaoke bar. In They Are Gone…, unpacking, understanding and ultimately achieving a collapse between life and art is the piece’s most fundamental impulse.
A critical moment very similar to the image of Whitehead in the window occurs on the level of our live performance when Kathryn tells us she is not really a performer, and that she had wanted Peter Whitehead himself to play her part (this is also the moment when we begin to seamlessly transition away from a straightforward lecture format and into more performative ground).
Despite his absence, Kathryn tells us, she wanted to find a way to represent Peter on stage. Not having the means to procure a falcon (his ‘spirit animal’), she produces a live chicken.
In this moment Kathryn tells us several things without actually saying them (her ability to communicate in such a powerfully subtle fashion is partly what makes her, in my opinion, a remarkable artist.)
In calling attention to herself as a reluctant performer, she reminds us that she, the person we are looking at on stage, like Whitehead in the film, is also a director who has made very specific decisions about what we will and will not see this evening.
In casting Peter as a chicken, and discussing casting choices in general, she raises our awareness of her as a creator and a manipulator while acknowledging her limitations in representing the ‘real world’ in a piece of theater.
I love seeing animals on stage – they bring the exciting possibility of very real disruption and highlight what a precariously permeable membrane there is between real life and live performance. I have to suspect that Kathryn has a similar interest in this tension and possibility of real life intruding on art-as-planned (or, in other words, potential for collapse) and that this is the real reason the chicken got the part over Mr. Whitehead.
As the piece continues it gets very metaphysical very fast. We’re introduced to two more performers: Cyrus Moshrefi as the editor (a sometimes-representation of Whitehead in the context of his fictional film) and as himself (real-life editor of all film used in the show) and Kelsea Martin, as the fictional editor’s fictional girlfriend and as herself (real-life girlfriend of the real-life Cyrus).
The piece is incredibly sly and seductive in the way it flows through thresholds between realities, identities and generic divides. It is both a non-fiction lecture and a theatrical spectacle, simultaneously embodying and commenting on the nature of the two forms. It’s nonchalantly educational, deeply entertaining, and, in part because of the constant acknowledgement of its own artifice, highly authentic.
Towards the end of the piece we return to Whitehead’s film, specifically to a scene documenting performance artist Raphael Montanez Oritz destroying a piano and mutilating a chicken in front of a live audience. Kathryn tells us the piece was originally about the experience of Hispanic immigrants, but in Whitehead’s film, it is recontextualized to comment on violence, protest and assassination.
We learn that this controversial scene prevented the film from finding wide distribution, and even in contemporary screenings, is the one scene that still causes people to walk out.
Kathryn arms us with the knowledge of what’s to come and invites us to leave if we so choose, with the caveat that we should first think critically about how we allow images to influence our actions, given that we’ve already acted as witness to representations of terrible violence against human beings.
For me, this caveat is deeply powerful in how perfectly, perfectly sensible it is (I take it the rest of the audience that night agreed with me, as everyone stayed in their seats).
But instead of screening the scene in its entirety, the performers decide to create a reenactment, updated for modern times—not by killing our chicken Peter—but by literally “phoning it in” and outsourcing the violence by ordering fried chicken from a fast food joint (an understated comment, again, on the absurdity of protesting the image of one dying chicken in a world with a massive industrial fast food complex, and also on our culture’s obsession with instant gratification – or, to borrow a phrase from Whitehead, the “seductive irresponsibility” of our times).
The takeout call is interrupted, however, by Cyrus’ real-life mom, Parivash Borojeni, calling to say hi and check in via video chat (Cyrus shares a story earlier in the show that his mother told him as a child about her experience as a protester during the 1978/1979 Iranian Revolution – I won’t retell her story here, but I urge you to see this show and hear it for yourself, as it’s both beautiful and complexly woven into the show’s larger concerns, several of which I haven’t even begun to touch on).
The performers chat lightly with Ms. Borojeni for a moment, introducing her to the chicken and turning the screen around so she can say hello to the audience, such that we see her and ourselves projected on screen.
This is another pivotal moment that echoes Whitehead’s shot of the audience viewing Montanez Oritz’s performance. As Kathryn says while discussing Whitehead’s scene, “The spectator can be an activist participant too. And that’s what Whitehead is revealing here, with this shot. […] he tells us ‘You are part of an audience.’ […] He’s trying to bind us together through the collective witness of this violence. Reminding us that we’re experiencing it collectively as an audience, not just an individual. A film has the potential to be a collective experience, just as a performance has the potential to remain a group of individuals gathered in a room. It’s not the fact of people assembled that makes for collective experience. It takes something more to bind them together.”
When she refers to Whitehead here, she’s also talking about herself, again, without directly saying so. By literally putting us on stage in front of ourselves, even for that one seemingly innocuous moment, she, like Whitehead, invites us to confront ourselves as active participants in the live performance we’re observing.
She also tries to bind us. Between transitions through various roles (Kathryn as lecturer, Kathryn as director, Kathryn in a wig, topless and with nun chucks, Kathryn as Kathryn), she spends an extended period sitting on the floor, facing the stage, aligned with the audience. Just as she gives us a turn on stage, she takes a turn as an observer–a gesture, I believe, intended to close the gap between artist and audience and offer us up as equals.
The phone call from Ms. Borojeni is the most powerful life-art collapse I’ve seen Sister Sylvester create yet (the fact that the timing of the call is clearly staged is, in view of the performance as a whole, inconsequential. Or, from another perspective, it adds to the intentional artistry part of the equation. In any case, unlike most “surprise” performance-interrupting phone calls, it doesn’t feel cheap).
Ms. Borojeni treats the audience by singing an Iranian revolutionary song and it’s incredibly beautiful that this woman, whose story has been an integral part of the performance we’re experiencing, is able to be with us in that moment. We get to see her feel excited and proud of her son Cyrus for being in this weird play (while it’s still happening!), and we get to see Cyrus honor and feel proud of his mother. Whether it’s in the context of the performance or real life doesn’t really matter–at this point, they’re the same thing. And we experience this at a moment when we, the audience, are looking at a video-chat version of ourselves onstage, and the artists start feeling less and less like performers, and more and more like people we’re getting to know.
They Are Gone But Here Must I Remain is playing at JACK in Cobble Hill through September 19.