(more on old Agrippa + Baron Münchhausen who pulled himself out of the mud by his own hair.)
thingNY and PPL have been stealing time (natch) with one another for the past few months now, arguing and experimenting and working intensely on two books for TIME: A Complete Explanation in Three Parts…the first book is for us to follow onstage, a “book” in the sense of opera, a script with text, music, and stage directions, as per usual performance-creation.
The second book we’re calling the Performance Book, which will contain the program, the entire 60-page script, references, keys, diagrams, rules for participatory games, the musical score of the work, as well as instructions for durational experiments, photographs, visual pieces, footnotes and a complete bibliography. Each audience member will be loaned a copy during the performance, with the opportunity to take it home afterwards. (P.S. we’re seeking help to print these, check out our IndiGoGo campaign)
The expansion of this project into time, through the pieces in the printed Performance Book is one of the most critical ways in which the expertise, theoretical backgrounds, and experiences of collaborating artists, which in some cases are radically different from my own, have been pushing me into new areas of pleasurable confusion. In terms of this Performance Book, there are several ideas that have had an epoché-like effect, during which I am forced to focus my conceptions and attitudes surrounding fundamental questions in theater practice, and then attempt to see where I am just being absurdly religious and should really change my mind…
The primary crux of this is the facilitation of audience experience.
Despite my affairs with Hans-Thies Lehmann, I have long been partial to the rather austere mindset that a study of the communication between audience and performance is, necessarily, the study of two engaged bodies of participants, each with the objective of understanding one another or, at least, having a entertaining experience together. This mindset is certainly a part of epic theater and is the pre-conception that underlies the possibility for any verfremdungseffekt (in order for the effect to work, the audience must be expecting -or even conditioned- to engage with characters empathetically, but no “audience” can be affected according to an authorial plan, which isn’t the exact audience considered in the creation of the plan, i.e. if the audience doesn’t have the expectations that the author wants to subvert, what does the V-effect do?). It also forms a baseline for the trajectory of most performance work whose primary mode is a “political” one, which perceives theater (in a sense most spiritual) as a public forum for ideological clarification and organization.
This “political” trajectory, in many senses (so they say), split from classical Greek intentions regarding reinforcement of moral engagement (as Martin Luther from the Catholic Church) along the seam between theater as an analytic medium (mode of transmission) and theater as an expressive/descriptive medium, but, like Christianity and Catholicism, these trajectories maintain similar (and deeply rooted) core tenets regarding audience engagement: most generally, that audiences have the expectation and ABILITY to engage empathetically with live performance.
I am partial to this general religious pre-conception about audience engagement and expectation maintained by theories of theater as an analytic medium and expressive one alike because it reinforces, in some senses, another important Democratic (in the ancient sense) socio-political belief, that ‘the masses’ are intelligent, engagable, curious, and inherently able to make decisions for themselves and others, and thus, that if they are directly faced (often in work created with this assumption this idea manifests itself literally onstage) they will face forward, ready for engagement (whether or not they are subsequently “permitted” to engage emotionally with characters or subsequently otherwise manipulated). And I still believe this in the political sense, but this view is facing complications in practice now. And why now? well it’s an argument for multi-disciplinary collaboration because my experience has been that working purely in theater and performance theory from a theater perspective, young theater artists such as myself have to dig deeply into post-dramatic and extremely avant-garde (and mostly German and British) theater in order to find work functioning outside of the assumption that the audience (most childishly put) has expectations. Additionally, I have had ideological issues with much of such “post-expectation” work, often offering the two-cents of criticism that often such work is only a part of a politically-aligned trajectory insofar as it seeks to disrupt the constructed perceptions that the artists perceive their audiences to be holding. (The differences between this and what the “political” epic theater, Boal‘s theater, and so on, uses as its rhetoric of rupture are interesting to analyze in light of Zizek’s Interrogating the Real but that’s another post). It has been only through collaboration with the “music people” of thingNY, that I am truly questioning the pre-conception that transmission will occur in performance, or even that if it does occur, that it is a controlled enough situation that it can be facilitated by the authors of the piece. Dina Keller tried to explain all of this to me already in 2007 at the Lincoln Center Theater’s Director Lab but I didn’t get it…Now however, it seems that limiting performance modes to those which pre-conceive audience engagement as one of empathy, sympathy, terror, awe, and so on (as theorized by theater’s institutional doxa) completely ignores critical performance tools, many of which have been (exhaustively in fact) explored by the performance theory of music in the 20 and 21st centuries, and more academics than at whom I can shake my stick…So now, with help and humility, I am exploring the range of audience-experience facilitation practices which:
1.) are designed to formally seize (Lyotard?) the audience’s attention and construct (live) their expectations. Obviously, the presentation of shininess, violence, bare breasts, and so on (spectacle) abets this, but where does the grotesquery of Public Relations a la Bernays and psychological marketing meet a conscientious and empathetic invitation to publicly engage with an experience (that has already been paid for at the door, we presume)?
2.) are designed to create a mise en abyme (placement into repetition), unfortunately flying in the face of many of Derrida’s opinions, as well as into those of many dear Situationalists and Fluxers and Psychogeographers, like so many tiny moss-covered airplanes. Mimetic formal devices which are tools for analysis, synthesis, and actualization that can be performed and then used again in “real life.” A pathetically naive example of this would be a musical phrase that is “catchy” that is designed to help individuals cope in daily life. … I looked for the TED Talk about a guy who did this (his results are…eh) but I couldn’t find it again, but here’s a TED Talk by Mallika Sarabhai that puts a dose of application into all this trash-talking of mine. Mantras, and much “traditional” movement, dance, storytelling, etc can be considered, as well at Meyerhold‘s meme/mimetic/abymic efforts…this is all an interesting knot of terms and contradictions…
Moreover, it still makes nothing but sense (and thingNY’s practice agrees with this) that formal devices that function on a public, political level must begin in the smallest of in-performance details, and that the construction of a theory (way of seeing) onstage, in the theater, can be (if possible, should be) consciously and methodologically facilitated.
What one (passive voice) finds in this idea of a Performance Book creation, is inclusion of a whole range of tools in terms of the above 2 conceptions:
1.) direct invitations and rules for audience participation, aleatoric modes of performance as stemming from music theory.
2.) explanations of artist thought-processes that allow the audience to travel “deeper” into an idea being presented more quickly and with greater ease
3.) visual aids, diagrams, and equations to underly expressive modes of performance and link them into overall concepts
4.) citations so that audiences can continue explorations of the ideas contained in a performance, and if the sources are already known, better understand the performance’s historical, cultural, and dialectic context
5.) provide literary “punchlines” and mimetic phrases (of various kinds, as so masterfully done by Kafka, Galway Kinnel, and Anne Carson, links to works which do this), a tone and effect that I love so much…so exciting…I’ve been trying to create this effect with projected text for a few years.
and more, I am sure. But here’s the baron in the mud:
Do these tools give too much authority to the authors of a performance piece? Does the work become less Democratic? Does it cease to be a public action? Is the audience’s path to engagement meant to remain subjective, and private inside each audience member, not controlled by the authors of the piece? How does this kind of work consider its individual audiences and individual audience members? How can it create these “aids” without being plain old condescending, seeming pretentious, underestimating the audience, or limiting the audience’s experience to that pre-conceived by the creators (who have their own specific, limited worldviews and experiences)? Is this not a colonial mindset? What exactly does aleatoricism do in theater performance?
I hope to better understand the implications of such things in “time” and through the performance of TIME…and I look forward to the endless cycles of proofs, skepticism, analysis, proofs, cycles which are infinite, but the infinite of course, is the opposite of time…AGRIPPA WILL NEVER DIE!
I am curious what any of the other theater artists, for example Witness Relocation, who did that aleatoric piece, I‘M GOING TO MAKE A SMALL INCISION BEHIND YOUR EAR TO CHECK AND SEE IF YOU’RE ACTUALLY HUMAN at the Bushwick Starr think about this…