Athletic Kinesthetic Action On Stage

Gracie Gardner’s Athena at JACK. Photo by Mike Edmonds

Theory: Movement on stage is compelling. In particular, athletic kinesthetic action, almost-constant movement that happens with dramatic purpose (other than because it’s a dance piece, say).  Bodies in movement are more interesting to watch than bodies that sit, or stand still. Of course, stillness is also inherently useful, but it’s only stillness if offset by movement. A body previously in motion comes to rest. The audience refocuses, contextualizes the stillness. The lack of movement becomes part of the movement.

Question: Then why don’t more plays incorporate kinesthetic action?

A few weeks ago, while watching Gracie Gardner’s Athena at JACK, I found myself categorizing the play (despite trying to resist the impulse to categorize in general) as one of a trending handful of new works that are placing movement at the center of their dramatic structure. In Athena, the bulk of the action is contained within a series of fairly short vignettes in which two high-school-aged women practice fencing with/against each other. One steps forward, jabs, the other feints, jabs, they stop, reset, and do it again. This allows for them also to take their masks on and off, allowing for two different types of dialogue to emerge from the scenes – that which is uttered with mask on and that which is spoken with mask off. Mask off allows for the casual utterance, the throwaways, incidental conversation – moments of breath catching, of stillness, of reflection. Speaking through the mask indicates a more intense or necessary utterance. There is also plenty of space for preparation – they are often putting on or taking off fencing gear as they ready themselves for practice. It’s a particularly successful technique for setting up a space (somewhere that people fence, a gym probably) and a time (the duration that a practice session takes up) and allows for a logical and immediate need for movement. It also allows for a different kind of spoken text to exist –  more closely observed behavioral language (theatrical mumblecore?) than exposition-delivering narrative dialogue. For whatever reason, it feels more real.

Other recent plays are also doing this, albeit with variations. If Gardner’s Athena represents the most reduced model (two women, fencing, in various sequences, for about 85 minutes; until at the very end, one woman is replaced by a new one), than Sarah DeLappe’s recent and celebrated award-winning play The Wolves might be considered the more complex cousin. It’s also a world built with bodies, but now they’re indoor soccer players. Significantly, there are nine of them. The play also sets up its movement structure (they are always warming up for a game, each scene is a warm-up for a different game, allowing for a time progression to evolve organically) and then – for the most part – does not deviate. There are a few breakaway moments, but overall, the action is the play. The dialogue is placed amidst the action, with spikes of conflict that dissipate into the activities of kicking, running, stretching – these are not showdown moments in a ‘rising narrative,’ rather they are the stones over which the narrative flows; if the play functions like the rapids of a creek, the theatrical cliche of dialogue that ‘crackles’ could be replaced here with ‘roils’ or ‘bubbles up’. There is, later, a waterfall, where everything crashes down for a moment, but then keeps on flowing. With nine (actually, ten by the end) actors instead of two, The Wolves also benefits greatly from adding and subtracting around its basic form. Who isn’t in the circle? How does the dynamic shift based on someone entering or exiting? Who talks about who, and how?

Sarah DeLappe, on her intention for the play, says “I wanted to see a portrait of teenage girls as human beings — as complicated, nuanced, very idiosyncratic people who weren’t just girlfriends or sex objects or manic pixie dream girls but who were athletes and daughters and students and scholars and people who were trying actively to figure out who they were in this changing world around them.”

This activity is made physical, the bodies set in motion allow for the characters to become viewable in relation to themselves and their activity rather than some societal other (the girlfriend/sex object/manic pixie girl type for example). They exist outside of the limitations and boundaries of previously existing and more patriarchal storytelling methodology by becoming the whole world. Their movement allows them to take up all the space, filling the stage all the way to the frame.

In Clare Barron’s recent Playwrights Horizons production Dance Nation, things get more complicated still. It’s a play about a team of competitive dancers (mostly female but not exclusively), and so the structure incorporates a number of dance-oriented scenes, although it’s less constantly active than Athena or The Wolves. The scenes that utilize kinesthetic activity are arguably the strongest of the play, and include several show-stopping dance numbers (which exist without much dialogue) as well as sequences with the dancers warming up and taking class. Because it doesn’t rely as fully on the movement-based staging techniques, the timeline is less predictable, which can be good – it’s less obvious – and sometimes challenging, in that shifting back and forth between an activity-based structure and a more recognizable scene-driven narrative structure can be slightly disorienting, resulting in neither scene type fully grounding itself. This approach also risks letting an audience decide which type of scene they feel more comfortable watching, which may result in that audience member choosing to disengage whenever the other structure pops up. “I loved the dancing,” they might proclaim later on, “but didn’t care much for those long scenes between the dance teacher.” Even so, Dance Nation was overall a success, and the fact that it asks more of its audience than Athena or The Wolves (i.e., we’re asked to balance multiple frames) is exciting for the future of the craft.

One might also consider the play Men On Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus (produced first at Clubbed Thumb, then later revived at Playwrights Horizons) to be relevant to this conversation. At first glance, it’s not the same; it’s women playing (mostly) men, with a different frame and a different outcome, plus it’s a gender satire of sorts, which means that the use of kinesthetic action and constant movement plays with and complicates the action-movie tropes that provide the justification to stage it that way in the first place. That said, it also succeeds in filling up the entire stage with activity in such a way that allows the text and its thrust to exist more as textural than dramatic, without losing the focus and attention of its audience along the way. In particular, Men On Boats thrives in its moments of respite (while off the river, the men set up camp and engage in some manly bantering several times in the play), which probably work as well as they do because of the antic action that preceded them.

Perhaps the reason there aren’t more plays like these is because they are actually deceptively difficult to execute.  While the use of activity frees the narrative from needing to execute the beginning, middle, and end of a scene (it exists more as all middle), the scene still has to end at some point, which may lead to arbitrary cut-outs by the playwright that feel cursory over time; repetitive vignettes (activity-packed or not) can begin to lose their impact if not complicated by some other dramatic device. While watching Athena, the sense of how one can get stuck in this type of structure becomes apparent, as Gardner has created such a specific and vital space for her sparring partners that anything she tries to show us that’s outside of that space doesn’t work as well; yet returning to that space too many times consecutively starts to break down as well.
It’s also a challenge without the right group of actors. Adhering to a movement-first structure generally creates an ensemble – there is no one star, no leading performer. It’s a group effort (literally). This is possibly why one has been more likely to see this type of structure emerge from the work of an ensemble-devised performance group rather than from the singular mind of a playwright, although – as evidenced above – this is beginning to shift.

Four plays does not necessarily indicate a movement, although it’s difficult to ignore that both The Wolves and Dance Nation were awarded the 2015 Relentless Award, and Gardner also won the award in 2017 (although for a different play, Pussy Sludge). At the very least, as more young writers encounter the works of Gardner, DeLappe, Barron, and Backhaus (along with others that I don’t mention here or haven’t personally witnessed), it’s not hard to imagine an entire generation of new playwrights that strive to borrow from, improve upon, and further complicate the kinesthetic structure. Which is great, because I personally don’t have a burning desire to see one hundred more plays that feature a realistic kitchen set with couch front-and-center. Move the sofa out and give me the movement, please.

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