New Ways to Talk About the ‘Work’ – a course-driven response to ANIMALS

Photo courtesy of Michael De Angelis and ANIMALS

Photo courtesy of Michael De Angelis and ANIMALS

While watching the closing performance of the ANIMALS performance group’s Chase – What Matters Most at Dixon Place back on October 31st,  I began to wonder what might happen if we (the writers, watchers, and makers I suppose) began to use the word ‘course’ to describe a certain type of performance structure*.  Initially – prior to any research – I thought I meant like a golf course, or an obstacle course, a ‘course of action.’  So I looked it up:

course (noun)

  1. the route or direction followed by a ship, aircraft, road, or river.
  2. a dish, or set of dishes served together, forming one of the successive parts of a meal

course (verb)

  1. (of liquid) move without obstruction; flow
  2. pursue (game, especially hares) with greyhounds using sight rather than smell

After parsing the results, I wonder if the second noun usage is actually more useful, especially if you substitute the word ‘dish’ with ‘action’, so that it reads: an action, or set of actions performed together, forming one of the successive parts of a play.  But without a menu (program), one does not generally anticipate what comes next unless one has an intimate knowledge of the chef (creative artist)’s tendencies.  So – maybe it is a combination of the two (route + service action) that makes up this theatrical redefinition of ‘course.’

At least for me, anticipation plays a large part in a theatrical performance’s ability to engage its audience. One of the key elements to making non-narrative work at least moderately accessible to its audience is to figure out where that tension (between what is happening onstage and what the audience can theoretically predict will come next) may be generated.  Particularly in evening-length works, if the creative artist pays little attention to this tension (or lack thereof), eventually the excitement of “I don’t know what’s going to happen next!” devolves into the tedium of “I don’t care what’s going to happen next.”  And yes – there are some audience members, oh excellent viewers among our readership, who either do not experience devolution into the not caring, or actually enjoy the sensation, finding that it frees them up to watch the performance in other ways.  However, I am not reliably one of them and so I labor to engineer new means to create, manipulate, and maintain the tension between expectation and action in my own work (and as a result, seek to identify and examine methodologies in creating tension when witnessing the work of others).

The function of this tension, of course, is that once an audience has an expectation of future action, one can begin to surprise (and delight, or horrify, shock, manipulate in general) that audience by providing them something else, that which is unexpected. Generally, that ‘something else’ has to fall within a certain range of what your audience will consider to be “believable” based on your existing play structure (whatever that means), and now we’re getting pretty close to plot-driven and so that’s probably why some artists try to avoid creating this tension in the first place.  But I believe a complete lack of tension risks/invites tedium, and what ANIMALS achieved at Dixon Place on the eve of Halloween was not tedious, although it doesn’t fare terribly well if you try to view it through the lens of plot alone

So hey – the show’s closed – you either saw it or you didn’t.  No harm in rendering it through that lens, right?  Here’s what happens if you force Chase – What Matters Most through the plot machine (which I think is what the New York Times did, and almost always attempts to do, which is why it may be potentially useful to come up with some new vocabulary one of these days, starting right now):

It’s after or during the apocalypse.  The employees of a particular bank are still coming to work.  It’s dangerous ‘out there’, because every time a new employee enters (by sliding down stairs into the playing space), the rest of them hold up knives in ritual self-defense.  The text suggests that they have never had a customer, in all the time that they’ve been coming to work post-apocalypse.  Yet they choose to remain acting out their roles, leadership versus underling.  Sort of.  There is an operatic part where the boss sings a song about getting ready for the day, the joy(?) of work, of their never-ending ritual, using text lifted from inspirational bank ads like the ones you see in the subway.  There are two underlings in particular (played by Nikki Calonge & Brighid Greene) who seem to share a bond, or at least talk to each other a lot about how it used to be.  They are nostalgic for trees, for the forest.  They wish they had seeds.  Then, another of the underlings shares a very concise telling of a former disaster, some 70,000 years earlier, wherein a volcano erupted at a level 8 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (the highest level, which range from non-explosive to gentle, explosive, severe, cataclysmic, paroxysmal, colossal, super-colossal, and finally at level 8, mega-colossal). When this apocalyptic explosion happened, the homo sapien population was reduced to a few thousand, maybe ten.  These individuals, the underling’s theory goes, had to develop new skills quickly in order to survive in the face of this catastrophe, and so they developed language – a skill set unthinkable and indescribable to the generation of homo sapiens that had preceded them. The underling concludes the monologue by offering up hope that perhaps there is something about their current experience that will bring about a similar evolutionary development.  (From a plot-driven standpoint, this insight is probably “the thing,” that which we take as an audience and plant in ourselves, seed-like; we develop some expectation that this may be further explored.)

Then, if memory serves me, one of the underlings performs a dance of desperation.  A new person arrives unexpectedly (Eva Peskin), all covered in papers and with metal hanging from her wrist. Is she a customer?  It’s unclear.  She speaks in a strange (Jamaican/Irish) dialect, almost indecipherable.  If it was a T.V. show, she’d have subtitles even though you can kind of understand some of what she’s saying.  They are gathered around an electric light, listening to her.  They share some canisters of powder, which is apparently food.  She tells of the existence of a forest.  She has seeds, which she gives freely.  The main two underlings decide to run away with the seeds and find this forest.  After another physical dance interlude, they find themselves in a very different place – maybe it’s the forest, if the trees can sing?  But it’s definitely ‘somewhere else.’  They gather and meet the new leader, who is apparently leading some kind of a cult.  The leader describes their new society’s way of living, using various self-help platitudes to underline her points.  And then, the two underlings are left alone.  The lights go out.  The play is over.

Photo courtesy of Michael De Angelis and ANIMALS

Photo courtesy of Michael De Angelis and ANIMALS

But – it doesn’t feel over, if you’re hoping for any plot-like resolution.  This lack of conclusion may leave one feeling concerned, lackluster.  “It’s not finished,” one might think.  But if you adhered to a course-driven way of watching, it wouldn’t feel this way.  Because:

The stage is set up like a course – you can physically anticipate (via set of expectations) what is likely to happen.  All the action in the first half of the piece is super flat and shallow, forced to the front of the stage by hanging plastic and cardboard drops which are attached by binder clips to a clothesline that stretches over the top of the stage picture.  There is a bunch of collected junk and detritus jumbled at foot of the stage, which the employees will ‘work’ on.  One of them spends a good deal of time and effort creating a new knife from a metal ruler.  The employee who will eventually share her story of the volcano emerges last from a cocoon-like enclosure hidden onstage.  She is imagining civilization – she places little houses on a piece of fabric during ‘work-time,’ although in a spastic moment she accidently scatters them across the floor.  During the first ‘physical’ interlude – we can call it dance if we like, but it’s not quite that – one of the underlings begins to tear down pieces of the wall, revealing a vast blue-lit empty area behind.  This is a space that now must be used.  But during this action of tearing down, something else (unexpected) is revealed.  There is a new character behind one of the sheets of plastic – this is the Jamaican/Irish newcomer.  Logic doesn’t help us understand why she’s there and what her purpose might be, but she’s logically placed in the course.  Once revealed, she is activated and the play shifts, surrounds her.  A light is repurposed to suggest that perhaps we’re “in between” spaces – it feels like a campfire maybe, outdoors.  Or it could still be in the office, but the office is shifting.  Once she trusts her new friends enough (after all, they offered her food dust!), she offers them seeds in return.  This offering sets the two underlings in motion, and leaves the other three employees behind to become something or someone else.  (Our understanding of this structure allows us to let go of them – it would be unexpected for the boss to show up later as the same character, for example.)  The second physical interlude is set in place to completely destroy the first space – the rest of the cardboard and plastic is torn down, the lights are different, and the clothes line is pulled upwards, creating a new/different frame for the stage.  Strange creatures emerge (the former bosses, the remaining underling, and the newcomer, now differently costumed) holding what may be a representation of trees, singing.  Once they’ve established the new placement of course, they depart and by virtue of not being ‘trees’ anymore they’re able to become the people in the trees – a new culture is described.  The logic of this culture is confusing (perhaps culty), but the duration of the monologue allows for all the junk and detritus to be removed from the front of the stage and placed at the back wall, leaving us with a totally deconstructed and reconstituted stage picture.  The two underlings, still with backpacks and in original “character,” have arrived somewhere completely unknown.  And now that the course (as it were) has been completed – the point at which the structure can no longer be predicted at from a course-driven standpoint as there are no indicators left – the play ends.

Photo courtesy of Michael De Angelis and ANIMALS

Photo courtesy of Michael De Angelis and ANIMALS

The course-driven structure bears some similarity to the stage-by-stage approach utilized in most video games (and, for example, Alice in Wonderland), but in the series-of-stages structure, there is a sense of accrual in that the completion of one stage leads to another stage, and so on, until one gets to the end.  The course-driven is not cumulative; rather, it’s maze-like.  

I suspect, though, that it’s actually a combination of plot-driven and course-driven ways of viewing through which the ANIMALS show engages its audience.  There are certain things that occur on the plot-side that are not part of the ‘course,’ per se.  But, the plot-side way of viewing leaves the play feeling half-complete, whereas the course-driven allows for the sense of an end point.  The two ways of watching also create tension between modalities – it’s not easy to watch in this way, which can be uncomfortable or delightful depending on (I suppose) what you seek when you go see experimental performance.  The balance is key – skew too far into one (unsatisfactory in and of itself) way of watching, and you end up in a state of tedium.  Skew too far the other direction, and the complexity dissipates, leaving the performance only a single (plotline) course of action. 

While relying on the course-driven structure for its end point, Chase – What Matters Most nails this balancing act between course and narrative.  It uncovers a sense of the ineffable – of a performance finding its balance and establishing the capability to reward multiple ways of watching in the doing so.  


* I also googled ‘Course Driven Theater’ and then ‘Course Driven Performance’ just to make sure I’m not super late to my own mental party – I don’t see anything there that indicates that another has used this terminology in a similar way, but in all the writing about performance I’m sure it has been used somewhere.  If you (dear readerbot) happen to know of a good comparable usage, let me know, we’ll add it as a footnote.  Because writings such as these should always have footnotes, except – this one won’t, but for this lonely effort.


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