How Do You Feel?

A fight between Lucia Roderique (left) and Katiana Rangel (right) leads to an apartment fire. Photo by Katherine Brook

Can you recall the last time you experienced a wave of deep emotion while watching a theatrical performance? And not just that little prickle of discomfort or small rush of appreciation/recognition, I’m talking about a full-on avalanche of feeling, that which temporarily robs you of any semblance of control. Actually though, scratch that – when is the last time you experienced a performer embodying extreme emotion onstage? And how did that make you feel?

In Tele-Violet’s upcoming production The Power of Emotion: The Apartment, which runs at Abrons Arts Center from October 11-21 (Tickets $20), the notion of emotion as a perfomative element provides the foundation for a wider exploration on how we not only watch, but hear and interpret emotion.

Backing up for a moment – what even is emotion? One dictionary definition states that emotion is the “instinctive or intuitive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge.” Which is to say, we may define emotion as a human response that acts outside of the logical or narrative boundaries that confine our otherwise “reasonable” behaviors and experiences. As problematic as it may be to conventional storytelling methodologies, sometimes we are sad and we don’t know why. Emotion is volatile, a sudden lack of control, a momentary non-conformity. For these reasons and more, it’s difficult to put on stage convincingly, authentically, if at all.

Katherine Brook (director) and Shonni Enelow (writer) have been thinking about emotion with regard to performance for several years. Starting with an adaptation of a 1933 acting manual called Acting: The First Six Lessons, which was performed at NYU in 2013 and effectively skewered the archiac approaches to acting (and emotion) in general, they followed up by creating The Power of Emotion: Breakfast, developed in residency with Chashama in 2014, then The Power of Emotion: Actresses, presented at Under The Radar: Incoming! In 2015, and now the work continues with their current production at Abrons.

Their engagement with emotion and what happens to it when staged seems of particular importance in an period of theater-making that often eschews the ‘big emotional moment,’ replacing it by not telling a big enough story to require said moment or by underselling its emotional content (which, on the one hand, makes the moment more comfortable for an audience…but isn’t that discomfort what makes the moment interesting in the first place?)

Trying to come up with recent recollections of big emotional moments on stage, I thought of Small Mouth Sounds, an Ars Nova show that I saw during its second run at Signature Theatre. In it, an actor has an emotional breakdown during a silent retreat and literally heave/sobs on stage for at least two unbroken minutes while the rest of the people on the silent retreat either a) keep sleeping, or b) look on without knowing what or how to respond. The audience is aligned with the people doing the second thing, as opposed to the person doing the sobbing. Is that the de facto position for how we (as an audience) are likely receive emotion on stage, especially in the (less feely) experimental theater scene? Passively observing? Or crying along with the performer?

In The Power of Emotion: The Apartment, Brook and Enelow are confronting the emotion as it occurs in front an of audience, but not necessarily requiring or expecting the audience to share in the experience. Brook, during a recent conversation, stated “I hope that what I’m doing is foregrounding emotion, showing it in its strangeness, ugliness, and its action – how does emotion manifest or transfer between bodies, take shape in sound, what does it do? What is its form?”  Put another way, what happens when an audience contends with emotion that isn’t working the way emotion is supposed to look on stage? How can that dissonance become amplied into something grotesque, an elemental energy that can either be rejected or in some way transferred?

How is emotion supposed to work on stage? I think of early twentieth century pyschodramas, how the overt display of emotion on the character’s part seems farcical to a contemporary audience. I think of the utilization of camp as a foil for emotion – if it’s campy, we start at funny, which means the slide-step into sobbing may go down easier. I think of the conventional mainstream drama, wherein a central character is faced by mounting conflict and eventually must give in to the inevitable emotional devastation caused by whatever the dramatist has saddled them with. I think of how deeply suspicious I am when emotion is deployed as a storytelling device.

When asked which performances have provoked a memorable emotion response for her, Brook thinks of Pina Bausch. “I used to dislike her work because I couldn’t stand the emotional performances in it. Since I’ve started thinking more deeply about emotion as a theatrical element myself, I’ve had a total turn-around, though: I think she’s doing something really incredible (if a bit violating) to me, which is making me witness emotional expression that I find distasteful, and doing so with exquisite form and style.” And certainly one can see some (abstracted) influence of this in Brook’s approach. Emotion is rendered as almost elemental, a force that isn’t tied to narratives or character-generated empathy.

In Pina Bausch’s work, the emotional content is most often generated through form itself. In a recent conversation with one of her dancers with regard to a recent performance of Rite of Spring, the dancer noted that it’s impossible not to feel something when surrounded by sweaty dancers covered in dirt, but that the emotion is not dictated to them – it’s something that the performance (and performer) generates organically. In Brook’s work, emotion is treated less as organic matter and more a thing to be surgically removed and transplanted into a new (less readable, less obvious) context.

It should be noted that while The Power of Emotion: The Apartment is not (primarely) seeking to tell a ‘story,’ there is a story contained within its structure. While watching rehearsal videos from Tele-Violet’s recent residency at Mt. Tremper Arts, I mentioned that it seemed to function more as a Rorshach test for an audience’s capacity for emotional response or involvement. (Like this one? I got “curiosity”.) The work constantly reconfigures and reframes how and in what context it addresses emotion, not least through the interjection and eventual foregrounding of music, which also contains emotional triggers (operatic performance, beauty) coupled with jarring distancing techniques.

“I don’t think (that test) is very meaningful,” Brook interjects, “but yes, how music is used especially interests me in this piece. I think its inherant abstraction opens up possibilities for expressive feeling that don’t insist on being named. Emotion is powerful and elusive at the same time in music, and specifically in the singing voice. Wayne Koestenbaum’s book about opera, The Queen’s Throat, opened up a lot of ideas for us, and there is one quote (in which Koestenbaum quotes Kierkegaard) that has been a touchstone for Shonni in particular: ‘I lean up against the partition which divides me from the auditorium, and then the impression is most powerful; it is a world by itself, separated from me; I can see nothing, but I am near enough to hear, and yet so infinitely far away.’”

I’m still grappling with how we are accustomed to emotion being presented on stage or screen (either oh-so-carefully within a story tapestry that manipulates us into some type of catharsis, or via the cheap shots aimed at our heart strings by a show like Grey’s Anatomy, or the Pina Bausch example when the intensity of form and energy forces an emotional response from its performers just by virtue of being so rigorous, or by sneaking it into downtown performance via an incongrous song-and-dance-within a play routine that borrows heavily from the Brechtian distancing technique only now, bizarrely, is deployed with the opposite effect, allowing us to draw momentarily closer to feeling instead of backing away) and how The Power of Emotion: The Apartment seeks to operate in contrast to the examples above. There is something unnameable, untameable even, relentless in its pursuit. Emotion as essense. Emotion as element. Emotion as dramatic building block, filling  up the place of distance. Emotion capable of creating discomfort. Emotion just ‘as is’ – right in front of you. What do you do? Do you recoil? Do you lean in? Do you feel? Do you believe?

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