To Be Alone In a Room With People: A Conversation with Joey Weiss and Matt Korahais
It was the first of a string of very cold December days when I was riding the F train to meet up with Joey Weiss, creator of the text, and Matt Korahais, lone actor in the performance space, to discuss their upcoming entry Take Me Through This On the Ground in the Exponential Festival. Take Me Through This has Korahais, the sole performer, speaking a text of found language composed from sources as varied as the commentary from a professional hockey game and the descriptions from cable channel listings. I’d seen two iterations of the show before, and both times was thoroughly amused by the new and surprising ideas that came from the onslaught of strange language. I looked up to the advertisements on the F train to find Officer Chin and his canine Bishop staring down at me. “It could be nothing,” Officer Chin warned, “but it could be something. That’s how important it is.” I’d spoken before with Korahais of the mockery of language that Officer Chin’s statement makes, and thought of what new narrative purpose alienating Chin’s words from the context of the PSA would make. He told me, “You hear the brokenness of language everywhere. I kept hearing and seeing commercials for Red Lobster, and the phrase ‘Endless shrimp is back at Red Lobster’ is just such a terrible arrangement of words.” I could not disagree with him there.
We met at Dizzy’s on Ninth Street to discuss the upcoming presentations (January 4-6 and 7-11 at 7pm at Triskelion. Tickets here) which promised to be bigger, if not better, than before. After settling into Brooklyn-priced standard diner fare, I asked the two about the origins of the project.
The piece began when Weiss was intrigued by language that explained a visual phenomenon without the visuals themselves. This was more interesting to him – using language that wasn’t meant to be by itself.
“It started as a piece with very pared down visual corollary,” said Weiss, “but I soon realized that was beside the point. It was a much more interesting piece to use language to describe a thing and entirely remove the visual corollary. It just needed to be Matt speaking absent any visual that the language was treating.” The first time I saw a much shorter version of Take Me Through This at Little Theater last May, the majority of the show consisted of the audio feed from a professional hockey game. Korahais sat in the lone chair on stage taking his time to look at almost every audience member before speaking the text with almost no inflection whatsoever. I slowly came to the realization that he was talking about a hockey game as he spoke of the puck being passed from player to player (“Savortin to the left side.”) in a monotone not dissimilar, I imagine, from the way commands were issued in the Milgram experiment. The sustained eye contact and flat vocal delivery was at first unsettling, but the piece slowly revealed its humorous side as the hockey commentary took on meaning substantially different from its original context. I wanted to know what led Weiss to using hockey calls in the first place.
“Because hockey is so fast, it’s very pared down. It’s edited to be more spare, but there’s less room for meandering. It’s literally just nuts and bolts, locations and directions in an arena. It’s really dumb visual-charting. When you watch a game like that, the language is almost invisible. If you remove the visual corollary, the language is much more interesting,” said Weiss. I would say that mission was successful. Although I initially attempted to visualize what was happening in the hockey game, not seeing where the players were positioned in relation to each other made this impossible. Eventually, the language became all that I focused on. New meanings and narratives immediately began to pop out at me. At one point, it seemed to me that I was hearing a recount of two people playing ping pong with each other. Korahais explained that this is one of the major goals of the piece.
“Part of the piece is an attempt to develop and teach the rules of the piece as it happens. One of the rules is sucking the meaning out of the individual words to make them as flat, as meaningless, as possible, to leave as much space for a new meaning or even just a sonic experience of a word. So that when you hear, ‘Savortin to the left side,’ it is not necessarily someone passing a puck over the blue line to a teammate. Then people can do what they wish whether it’s assign meaning or not, or to listen to it musically or rhythmically.” As a result, the language, spare in meaning, that Weiss and Korahais are working with becomes exceedingly dense when presented on its own. It creates its own linguistic realm where new modules of thought are allowed to exist. It’s also exceedingly funny, though I often found that I was the only one chuckling as the piece went on.
With this lack of dictated linguistic meaning, much of the dramatic experience becomes just what is happening in the room. “The brain makes the effort to make that very spot on,” Korahais says. “One of the things I say is, ‘To be alone in a room with people.’ That becomes descriptive of what we are actually doing. Not the architecture of what we are describing or even the left side right side from the hockey game. It’s also about executing poetry where you don’t mean to. The first step isn’t elevating it, it’s making it base. It’s taking everything out of it. Then when you say the word ‘hallway,’ it could be elevated or it could just be two syllables with two different sounds for the vowel a.”
I mentioned how this way of building the text was similar to the ethos behind the Language poets, who created texts meant to be pieces of language in and of itself. Language poetry was ridiculously unpopular in my undergraduate program because it was impossible to derive from a poem a meaning that everyone could agree on.
“But if he was saying everything so everything broke down and meant nothing, it wouldn’t be interesting,” added Weiss. “We needed to slow some things down so that they had more traction otherwise it would all just be ridiculous.”
At this point in my recording, there is a 20-second moment of us all just mumbling, “Mmmm,” perhaps as a result of eating tasty food, maybe just to fill the space.
The text has since expanded beyond hockey calls to include architectural writing, TV channel listings, and more. Weiss and Korahais told me that another rule for the piece was that the text will have surprising interactions with the spaces it is performed in and the people it is performed for. The piece was performed in the Doxn Place bar at one point and the pair recalled how there were two people waiting to walk through the bar and leave Dixon Place. It was perhaps coincidence that they made their move when Korahais said the name of the show “Password Plus” during the channel guide section. The audience gave a hearty chuckle at the congruence. I can attest to the re-watchability of Take Me Through This; each time it feels like a new piece despite some text that I had heard previously.
Any piece that treats text and performance this way is asking a necessary question: Who gets to make meaning? In Take Me Through This, meaning is built in the performance, in the interaction between performer and audience. It can be individual or collective, but meaning is certainly not prescribed by Weiss in the text or Korahais on stage. Korahais mentioned that this is something his most admired downtown theater artists are experimenting with. It’s an important question for us to continue asking what with the perversions and deprivations of meaning that come from the mouthpieces of authoritarian dictation.