X-ID REP @ the NEW MUSEUM: OPEN REHEARSALS
X-ID REP is a performance project and repertory company initiated and overseen by the New Museum’s R&D (Research and Development) department, a program of the museum’s education and public engagement wing, and is a part of their season-long exploration, PERSONA. This fall and winter, a pop-up repertory company, comprised of four playwrights, four directors, and eight actors representing diverse approaches to staging and performing across various identity categories has been assembled to investigate the ethics and practices of cross-play in performance. During a series of intensive week-long open rehearsal sessions facilitated each week by a different X-ID REP director, the artists have been experimenting with texts and performance strategies around cross-play, and opening a series of critical questions and considerations in the process.
This essay is Part Two of a three part series examining the project: Part One presents an overview of X-ID REP and its unconventional casting process; Part Two considers the open rehearsal sessions; and Part Three will respond to X-ID REP’s performance presentations which take place in January 8 and 9 at the New Museum Theater.
“Suck my clictus like a good little actress.”
X-ID REP performers, Mikeah Jennings and Alex Tatarsky, sit side by side on the stage of the New Museum Theater, trying to speak in sync to a recording as it plays through their iPhone headphones. They are listening to a text, written by X-ID REP playwright, Kirk Wood Bromley — a rapid-fire slang that lives somewhere between poetic verse, gibberish and Ebonics.
Shky – wubba fugga zat?
Quo – it’s my clit, but it’s a cactus now,
or wut I’d ax u call my clictus.
Shky – yr juvey poony dun spike sprung?
yo, all I say girl is I clean, so walk on down
don’t go there road, cuz I ain’t havin no
infection accusation skeevy tv booshit.
Quo – It ain’t a VD, Shky. It’s mo like
an ET, but the “extra” mean “betta.”
In version two, X-ID Rep performers, Saori Tsukada and Gregg Mozgala, mouth along with the recording (made on Blain-Cruz’s iPhone featuring Bromley reciting his own text). The actors engage in a physical improvisation, taking in the recording which now plays through the theater’s sound system. Their improvisation develops into an eventual power play that leaves Tsukada subdued on the floor. On this second hearing, the scenario becomes a bit more coherent. A female character, Quonique, has awoken to discover that her clitoris has turned into a cactus, which she dubs a “clictus,” and demands that the other character, Shky, fellate her.
Lileana Blain-Cruz, this week’s X-ID REP director at the helm, turns to the assembled company of performers and playwrights and asks, “How does everybody feel when seeing these texts on stage?” X-ID REP playwright, Aya Ogawa chimes in, “I want to throw up watching it, hearing it. I feel upset watching these actors perform it.” The artists chime in to address concerns regarding what they perceive as the piece’s subtle and explicit forms of violence and aggression, as well as the use of stereotype. They question whether or not the text can be staged “as is.” If it doesn’t work “one to one” as Mozgala puts it, how might they create a frame for the text and the performing of it that will allow for a deeper conversation with an audience?
Now in week three of the New Museum’s multi-phased performance project, X-ID Rep is deep in the woods, not only testing the limits of ideas and exploring ethical and performative frameworks for cross-play in performance, but pressing up against possible boundaries and breakdown.
The artists debate possible tactics, including switching the genders or races of who is playing what role, making staging choices that subvert or complicate the power dynamics and narratives in play, or somehow re-creating and staging the artists’ conversations about and around the text directly for the audience. Blain-Cruz stresses the importance of creating transparent mechanisms for bringing what she refers to as the text’s “problematics” to the audience. A performer asks, “Should we give energy to this text at all? Do we need to see this?” This question spins the group into considerations of free speech and censorship, during which reference is made to an earlier exchange in the process in which Bromley referred to the group as “the PC police.”
Their practice and struggle in this moment underscores a larger set of questions running through the project: How do the artists work to crystallize and play within the fixed identity categories they represent and to acknowledge the relative positions of power and agency they hold vis-à-vis those categories, while also working and playing across those categories, problematizing, breaking down, and even transcending them to open up richer, more complex considerations of personhood? How do they work and play within the inevitable spaces of breakdown when they emerge — in regards to language, to performance, and within the collaborative process? And, how do they bring these questions and representations to an audience in a meaningful, ethical, and potentially transformative way?
While many theatrical processes work smoothly without the playwright in the room and directors, actors and designers meet the text as a finished product, X-ID REP has structured itself as an experimental dialogic process, a laboratory in which to tackle this rough terrain. For X-ID, the expectation is that playwrights will offer existing work, as well as generate new work in response to collaborations and conversations amongst the assembled repertory company. Aside from a few face-to-face conversations with the company, Bromley has been physically absent for much of the process, choosing to submit texts remotely. Without Bromley in the room to provide context or back-story, to speak directly to his intentions or to respond to the group’s reactions with feedback or generative material, he removes himself from direct dialogue. The artists plow forward without him, applying their various critical performance tactics to the text – dialoguing amongst themselves, processing, contextualizing and re-contextualizing, framing and re-framing, casting and re-casting, grafting, erasing, silencing, and subverting, to name a few.
These methods apply to more than the artistic tasks at hand, signaling a corollary set of dynamics, and related tactics, that play out within our broader social realities and cultural narratives. As it becomes apparent in the context of this process that Bromley is the representative straight white able-bodied cisgender male in the company, his absence pushes up against a larger narrative trope of the dominant force of privilege that asserts itself, in this case a rather provocative text, upon the group, but is not physically present to take responsibility for it and to hear real-time reactions from collaborators.
The group eventually puts the text aside, tabling it for the day, and leaving it open for further discussion. The mp3 file of Bromley reciting his text continues to play out over the speakers.
Moving on to Ogawa’s text, Family Portrait/Transformation, the performers take their places in a silent tableau, scattered around a long table. Two people freeze as if in a chess game, a performer stands over them and pretends to smoke a cigarette, another actor mimes holding a drink, a performer plays what appears to be a kneeling child peering up over the back of the table and a final performer sits apart from the group, serene, reading a book.
Ogawa’s stage directions read:
As if someone sliced open a house.
An unspecified place, and unspecified past…”
“Everyone is frozen in their very heightened naturalistic poses, and looking out at the audience, as if looking at a camera.”
The performers stand in their tableaux for nearly three minutes until Blain-Cruz calls out, “Two minutes naturalistic slow motion.” They begin to move, extending their action forward in time. After two minutes, an actor makes a sharp, physical motion, which catalyzes a shift into expressive and exaggerated movement. The domestic parlor scene transforms into a grotesque and violent picture. The performers explode into fast tempo, inflicting violence upon one another — strangling, hitting, ripping up pages of the book, throwing objects, and finally, descending en masse on one of the actors, pantomime kicking them onto the floor. Then, the performers return to their suspended tempo, walking away slowly. Their breath is rapid and heavy, and their muscles are taut from the moment before. The actors re-set to the initial tableaux, but this time, they trade places and take on a different role in the composition. In this second experiment of the day, the rotating portraiture opens a set of questions about the cyclical nature of violence, and each individual’s perceived status and relative relationships to power and to the other figures on stage.
In watching the performers’ bodies in stillness and extended slow motion over time, framed by a white cube and in the context of a museum, the viewer plays the voyeur, and inevitably begins to project interior life and narrative onto each figure. Blain-Cruz asks, “Are there things we are learning from this process? Are there any new discoveries that are coming up for people?” She adds, “Maybe this is something I already knew, but I am seeing that ‘othered’ bodies have meaning already – just the simplicity of that fact.”
Someone asks, “You mean, ‘othered’ as in marginalized bodies?”
“Yes, bodies that are considered as other, they automatically contain history.”
In this domestic scene, as the artists work to illuminate and problematize established norms and identity categories, as well as to expose the subtle and overt forms of violence that often keep them in tact, the performance almost requires a movement from naturalism to an increasingly poetic and expressive physical vocabulary. The transformation from a domestic family portrait — contained, poised, pedestrian — to a graphic explosion of violence and back again enables us to see these tensions and potentialities. While Family Portrait/Transformation exists as a text with detailed stage directions provided by Ogawa, the actors have been stripped of language, playing primarily within the movement between the pedestrian and poetic body, and with the gaze of both actor and the audience.
When it comes to navigating and opening up questions around identity and subjectivity in the rehearsal room or on the page, how is our language inadequate or impoverished? Is the impulse to narrativize a natural inclination, or a product of social conditioning? And, when it comes to looking at “othered bodies” on stage, do the audience’s projections open up more possibilities for empathy and being in the world, or is this narrativizing another kind of colonization? As the performers restore to different positions, one set of assumptions and associations is shattered, while a new set of projected meanings already begins to form. The cycle continues.
I’m like a walrus in the body of a crocodile.
During the last work session of the day, X-ID REP playwright MJ Kaufman’s text is projected onto a wall, along with a slide show of Google image searches based on images from their text.
The sounds of whale songs fade in as the actors recite:
1: I’m like a walrus in the body of a crocodile.
2: I’m a dog in the body of a cat.
1: I’m a horse in the body of a zebra.
2: I’m a dolphin in the body of a whale.
1: I’m an angel in the body of a human.
2: I’m a feminist in the body of a narcissist.
1: I’m a teacher in the body of a lumberjack.
2: I’m a newspaper in the body of a kindle.
The group agrees that the text is the start of an intriguing idea worth further physical exploration. In approaching the staging, they note a potential danger in asserting and even re-enforcing an overly simplistic gender binary. Tatarsky observes, “If [someone] came to see a performance of this – [they] might say, ‘Oh I get it – it’s the trans experience, you are a man in a woman’s body,’ but we know it is not that simple.” Again, how might a physical vocabulary support the complexities held in Kaufman’s text, further opening questions around subjectivity for a public?
Blain-Cruz gives the actors an exercise: working with Kaufman’s text, one performer attempts to physically capture the essence of one animal, object or archetype, while another performer enters to add a second physical proposal. For instance, Actor One enters and plays “a walrus” (offering either a literal or more impressionistic interpretation), while Actor Two enters and plays “a crocodile,” attempting to find relationship to and agreement between the two figures. Once a new shape comes into focus, the actors exit the stage. In this negotiation, sometimes the two animals or objects remain distinct and appear to fight it out, and in other instances, the performers create a new creature, a “chimera,” X-ID REP director JJ Lind calls out from the audience. There is a tragic-comic poignancy in the earnest attempt to join two distinct and different forms, to find agreement between two performers in the moment, and to reach towards wholeness, followed either by the breakdown of that union or the surprising revelation of a new impossible creature.
Blackwell, a trans actor in the company, steps out of the exercise to note a certain power in portraying inanimate objects on stage as a means of shifting the attention away from being read through the lens of their particular identity categories, in this case, their “trans-ness.” Mozgala, a disabled actor in the company, responds to Blackwell by piping in over the mic, “Oh, you want to be cast as non-human now? Try being disabled.” Blackwell makes the sound of a rimshot and the room laughs. In playing within the realm of the non-human (animals, elements, and in-between creatures), are the performers rendered as objects, as abject, or is their personhood and their humanity further enlarged through these experiments? As evidenced by the interchange between Blackwell and Mozgala, the outcomes may be different for each individual.
X-ID REP’s efforts not only further R&D’s larger season-long exploration of PERSONA, but the group’s findings both impact the lived realities of the participants who create and work within larger artistic and social contexts. The personal anecdotes that participants share as part of the process of exploring cross-play in performance become another critical narrative layer, and even a call for direct engagement. During the sessions, the performers share comical and difficult stories about navigating discrimination in daily life, on the street, in artistic spaces and in the casting process, and questions emerge regarding the responsibility of individual artists and institutions in upholding certain ethical boundaries. Blain-Cruz asserts, “For me, it’s about accountability. Why is the onus often only on us – artists, actors, others, to start and to frame these conversations? Why do we always have to start the “stinks”? And yet, we must speak up. But it often falls on [us] to speak up and to open [ourselves] to danger, to incur risk.” She later expands that just as artists need to take risks in speaking up, artistic producers and institutions must “open themselves up to that same kind of risk/vulnerability”.
Transctipy Vs. Suck the Clictus
For the presentation at week’s end, the group informally showed ten experiments based on the four playwrights’ texts, as well as collaborative explorations in the studio. In all, there were about ten people in the audience – collaborators, friends and family of the artists mostly – who arrived for the presentation/open rehearsal and stayed for the entire piece. Throughout the presentation, X-ID maintained a casual atmosphere; the doors to the theater were open and a few museum visitors entered and watched, coming and going as they pleased.
Blain-Cruz explains that she attempted to work with the white cube that is the New Museum Theater, playing with the feeling that the company was under a microscope, and that they were also putting these texts and ideas under a microscope as part of a larger experiment. Each experiment was introduced and framed by a projected title that could be easily read upon entry, such as Experiment 1: Family Portrait/Transformation; Experiment 2: White people talk about gentrification (real things people said); Experiment 3: The class for women writers; Experiment 6: I have a black woman inside me; and, Experiment 7: Transctipy vs. Suck The Clictus, and so on. Some of these experiments will be presented at the New Museum as part of a public performance in January, along with other texts and performance pieces developed with X-ID REP directors, Kareem Fahmy, JJ Lind, and Niegel Smith. Open conversations, interviews and video archives developed during the process may also be integrated into the presentation.
Blain-Cruz stayed true to her imperative, introducing Bromley’s text by bringing the problematics directly to the audience. She shared, “every week we’ve had issues with aspects of [Bromley’s] texts.” The text of Suck the Clictus was then projected on one wall of the theater alongside Transctipy, a candid transcript formalized into a playscript in which the other three playwrights render themselves as characters and carry out a dialogue around Bromley’s texts, as well as other issues related to the larger project. The audio file of Bromley’s voice played in the background.
In the final piece, Experiment 10: The Talkback, the audience jumped into the debate. The first question out of the gate from an audience member: “Yeah, so what was the deal with the one piece that you couldn’t show, the one about the clictus?” I may have heard a collective heart-sink amongst the company upon the discovery that their attempts to shift energy and focus away from the drama around Bromley’s text and onto a larger set of texts and issues had, apparently, moved the conversation about Bromley more center stage. Blain-Cruz remarked that during the presentation, she noticed the audience primarily reading Bromley’s text, and paying less attention to the projection of Transctipy.
Company members and audience participants affirmed that the issues brought up around the question of Bromley’s provocative text, and his voice in the process, are real issues/voices that reflect power dynamics at play within our historical legacies and present-day social realities. Jennings observed, “We can not make work in a hermetically sealed room,” and an audience member referred to the text as a reminder and a call to address the violence that occurs “in staging work, in the rehearsal room, in this museum, in this institution, not to mention out there.” Many of the artists appeared split, not into two “sides” per se, but within themselves. Some participants expressed wanting to continue to put work into the text and to use it to open up a dialogue with the public, while also referring to the text as “an obvious provocation” or “a punch in the stomach from a stranger late at night.” Other performers asserted that they were no longer interested in portraying that “fucked up shit” on stage, and were more inclined to use the theater to stage and to create alternatives. In response to my relaying the artists’ and audience’s strong reactions to the perceived violence and stereotype in his work, Bromley replied over email, “I can fully appreciate that people might perceive the characters in my plays as stereotypes of people of color, but that is their perception, not my intent. I have zero opinions about people of color…I don’t write stereotypes…I really love to write characters who are tripping big time on new phonetic magic. If what I wrote sounded like Ebonics, O well. Ebonics is cool, so is electronics, ergonomics, and economics…”
When asked how he sees his role in X-ID’s process, as an artist, a playwright and also as a straight white male, Bromley replied via email, “I abhor such categories, and frankly anyone who wants to think of me according to them can have at it, but I’m not down with them…I’ve met some nice people who seem obsessed with such categories, so instead I’ll just say I hope it makes them happy. How those things play out in the room is up to those who are playing them out in the room, but I don’t play those games, so ask them…I consider categorizing people to be a violent act, and I don’t do it, though, of course, it is done to me and others all the time. Perhaps this is why ‘violence’ is something I am interested in and why the actors sensed ‘violence’ in my scenes. I see my job as depicting the world as it is, not as I want it to be, and it is a violent place full of people who seem to find it impossible to think of others without defining them in some way, but what’s new?”
What might it mean to represent reality “as it is”? The work of writing something into being for the stage is not an impartial act of reportage, but an interpretive process and a craft. Bromley’s position may reflect a desire to naturalize (or neutralize) his positionality and to de-politicize his work. But, once a text encounters other bodies and unfolds on real stages in real spaces with real contexts, with real histories and systems of power in play, isn’t it political? Bromley’s view of depicting reality “as it is,” and being able to make the work he desires without deference to his positions of privilege or thought to how even our desires are socially/culturally produced, seems like the real work of fantasy, and not a representation of reality.
The varied positions of the participants, a veritable “rainbow coalition” as one audience member observed, underscore the impossibility and the possible significances of this project. In taking on questions of cross-play in performance, the artists are inevitably drawn into deeper investigations of the self, which is a moving target. As they negotiate between personalities, subjectivities and political categories, both in the rehearsal room and on the stage, they remind us that we live in a dynamic and delicate relationship to one another, to systems and to the world around us. The act of staging a text, particularly when one is playing with and across categories of identity, is a constant negotiation of power, desires, wills, of one history and another, with multiple perspectives in play. Artists are subject to those pressures as well as responsible to the critical questions they open up. In the end, Bromley asserted his own set of boundaries and exercised his right not to participate, attributing “the drama of [his] absence” to the contemporary theater world’s lack of time or desire to engage in “an intelligent, historically- and poetically-informed literary analysis” of his texts.
Experiment Ten: The Talkback
Pointing to the stage and then, to the audience, Blain-Cruz wondered, “What is being transmitted from here to there?“ Tatarsky elaborated, “We have the lived experience of [the texts] and how they first resonated in the room, but the audience doesn’t…we’ve re-worked them and framed them for you, but what is lost in that process? How do you share that with a public?”
What about the public? Is the audience another problematic to contend with, or how might they be a real and critical partner in this investigation? During rehearsals, a concern was voiced that if Bromley’s text was presented “as is,” without context or alternative staging or casting choices, due to the ways in which we have been conditioned as audiences to receive violence, stereotype, and certain kinds of narrative on stage and on screen, in fact, the audience might not recognize the problematics even if they were looking straight at them. An additional challenge, while it stands that some art needs more elaboration and contextualization to be appreciated in its full complexity, and as audience members, we all need to work to re-condition our means of reception, artists must tackle how to frame or contextualize that work without being didactic.
Ultimately The Talkback was the only piece in the afternoon that did not feel like an experiment, but more like a reiteration of an established form. The curators of R&D have brought extreme rigor to the conceptualization and articulation of X-ID, as well as openness and flexibility in addressing the project’s unforeseen blind spots as they arise. Yet, it is unclear how the audience fits into the equation. Who is invited into the conversation? And, how are they invited so that they may participate meaningfully in the process? How might that engagement, in turn, inform X-ID’s processes and shape the group’s findings?
Opening the door and welcoming visitors into a theater does not necessarily make a project accessible. The members of X-ID REP, along with R&D and the New Museum, have set up a series of ethical frameworks and performance tactics to engage complex questions around cross-play in performance – a transparent, open casting and rehearsal process, the establishment of a collaborative repertory company, and a commitment to inclusivity that aims to consider both a diversity of identities while upholding complex notions of personhood. Much care has been given to the consideration of the bodies and the perspectives that are present in the room for this critical performance experiment. Might these methods also be applied to a critical consideration of who is in the audience, and how they might engage meaningfully as seers, listeners, receivers and critical thinkers – helping to further break down their/our assumptions around identity and to further enrich our vocabulary around identity – through collaborative investigation? As evidenced by these early experiments and brief public encounters, we all have a stake in these questions, but we need to be in the room together.
X-ID REP continues to run open rehearsals and presentations, and will hold public performances on January 8 and 9 at the New Museum Theater.
The Participating Artists of X-ID Rep are as follows:
Becca Blackwell: Actor
Lileana Blain-Cruz: Director
Kirk Wood Bromley: Playwright
Drae Campbell: Actor
Youree Jong Choi: Actor
Jackie Sibblies Drury: Playwright
Kareem Fahmy: Director
Mikeah Jennings: Actor
MJ Kaufman: Playwright
JJ Lind: Director
Gregg Mozgala: Actor
Aya Ogawa: Playwright
Niegel Smith: Director
Alexandra Tatarsky: Actor
Saori Tsukada: Actor
Amelia Workman: Actor