‘How Much is Enough?’ and ‘Lush Valley,’ 2 interesting participatory/interactive theatre projects

Some of us are always complaining that much “political” theatre poses itself “autonomously,”(Adorno) as apart from society, as a critical, aesthetic, closed, or un-institutionalized dialectic of socio-political self-reflexivity, maintaining the directive to point out (primarily negative) political systems and oppressive structures/constructions. This kind of autonomous “pointing out” is often performed in the “avant-garde” political theatre through modernist aesthetic modes of disorientation, de-hierarchization of image/text/movement, and positioning in relation to narrative. Especially through their binary negation/appropriation of narrative, these works cling to conceptions of theater as a mirror, even if their work operates as a fractured reflection that can negate an empiric reality (which, even further, is often an empiric reality perceived “pessimistically” as total, inherently oppressive, and monolithic.)

While narrative has long been theatre’s particular burden, within a broader artistic genealogy, work in avant-garde political theatre that is “autonomous” in this way can be additionally aligned with a first direction of the avant-garde, modernism.  Within modernist schemas, even those that argue against representation and mimesis (Artaud, Derrida), in favor of theater’s “incorporation” or “embodiment,” presuppose a reality/life that is still empirically existent. Largely, they completely neglect or fail to address issues of agency and inter-action. In the theatre, failure to address agency seems to prevent theatre’s use of its own forms to explore political participation.  Autonomous theater is of itself, about its own ability to reason and control rationale, at best it proposes an alternative way of seeing, and yet it operates as an object for affirmation or negation, consumption or rejection, as a vehicle for quality and value judgments, and as an inflexible structure itself, regardless of what it succeeds in pointing out, identifying, interpreting, mirroring, incorporating, deconstructing, or disorganizing.  Jochen Shulte-Shasse summarizes the efforts of autonomous art (as he aligns Adorno and Derrida) as “critique of a system of metaphysical closures that for reasons of domination reduces differences or qualities to comparable identities and that eliminates heterogeneity in favor of exchangeable homogeneity.” While I do feel that this critical concern is still of significant relevance to our theatre now, I am more interested in the “other Avant-Garde,” a participatory, non-autonomous area of work that addresses agency at every level of its operation, using the medium of theatre to experiment with and practice forms of political engagement.

Two projects this Fall have modes which (perhaps, I am being fairly presumptuous here) seriously shift away from the predominate, “autonomous” avant-garde trajectory into one which might be called (by various theorists) “dynamic,” “active,” or “engaged” as they move away from signification and epistemology, and the above list of verbs, towards a different set of arguments that centers around socio-political agency and the dissemination of diverse perceptions, experiences, and any ideas which are marginalized by dominant schemes and systems of  spectacles, images, representations, and ideals.

In mode alone (as these projects have not yet been “performed” completely, they premiere final stages of interactive processes in the Fall of 2011), these works seem not to share autonomous theater’s dramaturgically-inherent participation in the political binary of affirmation or negation of ideas and worldviews, or in binaries between art and society, or at least they seem to be tempering these with participatory platforms. Drawing on cognitive psychology’s understandings of association, assimilation, accommodation, frameworks for community and social organization, and theories of education and participation, this direction in the avant-garde is also closely aligned with the work of Brecht, Boal, and visual artists such as Joseph Beuys.  According to Schulte-Sasse in his introduction to Peter Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, this trajectory “juxtaposes the state of expropriation with a utopian state, in which dominated social groups reappropriate language, allowing it once again to become a medium for expressing the needs and material, concrete experiences of individuals and groups. It could thus counterbalance the powers that strive to dominate socially.” (p. xvi, Foreward)

I am interested in the attempt to combine the most “effective” aspects from each of these two trajectories of the avant-garde as they apply to theatre, as of course there is no simple binary between “brands of avant-garde” here, nor any ideal of avant-garde theatre as a fundamentalist, villainous or beneficial, structure of ideological and theoretical unity with practice. We can often argue any side of any perceived theoretical opposition and these arguments are always combined with our own aesthetics, perceptions, experiences, politics, and sensibilities. However, as we pursue a better understanding of what we do and why, effectivity can perhaps be imagined as a mutually-influential engagement of theater practices in states of culture and society, with directives engaged in social needs, including the need to collectively and autonomously express and describe.  My own opinions on how this effectivity might be created are more specific but not relevant here; in this post I just want to analyze two theatre projects’ statements of intent and compare and contrast the modes of these projects on a spectrum between the two directive clusters outlined above.  I seek combinations of autonomous and collective expression and description, and to contribute to a theoretical companion documentation of these modes of performance work.

I hope to write a follow-up post to this one after I have participated in/attended these projects! This post is about two “mainstream avant-garde” works made by contemporary theatre dream-teams of artists, their stated directives only and their relationship with the above two trajectories in avant-garde artmaking.

“How Much is Enough?” is a new “interactive theatrical work” created by Kirk Lynn of the Rude Mechanicals and the Foundry Theater’s Melanie Joseph, and Lush Valley, “a live art participatory performance” developed by  Yana Landowne (director, dramaturge), Kristin Marting(founder of the HERE Arts Center, director) and video artist Tal Yarden (video artist) along with writers Robert Lyons and Qui Nguyen and designers Oana Botez, Clint Ramos, and Jane Shaw at the HERE Arts Center.

While How Much is Enough calls itself “interactive” and Lush Valley uses the word “participatory,” both are created through a process of public sessions that immediately shift artist/audience relationships in conceptual conjunction with collective socio-political analysis across public/private spheres. Most basically in terms of intent, the former addresses “value” and the latter addresses “the American Dream” through processes of public engagement.

How Much is Enough and Lush Valley statements need to be cited here exactly, as re-phrasing or summarizing their descriptions would be absurd. With this kind of work, the descriptions practically are the work in initial phases (referring back to the importance of language, or “sense”), as soliciting participation (from “the general public” as well as targeted theater and art world individuals) requires transparency of formal vision, as well as perhaps a warm, colloquial concision and precision in describing what is being asked, offered, presented, constructed, cognized, etc.  Likewise, it’s sometimes difficult to explain these kinds of projects to funders and other types of institutional participants, assuming one has them, without a certain clarity of communication, yet too much specificity closes the direction of the piece, which is sometimes meant to be influenced by the participatory development process.

Writes someone from the How Much is Enough crew very clearly:

“[we are] making a new theatrical piece exploring the concept of ‘value’ — in all its poetic iterations:  quantitatively through our relations to money and qualitatively by asking what we hold dear.  ‘Asking’ is the operative word since the play itself will actually be built out of questions posed by performers to audience members about how they’ve lived their lives, what plans they’ve made for the future and what advice they can offer to us and to one another as we all attempt to create lives of value. We’ve been making this play over the past year by meeting with and asking questions of all different groups of people throughout NYC and Austin, TX (where Kirk lives).” (http://www.thefoundrytheatre.org/rehearsal.html, July 15, 2011)

The geographic authority of the artists (Kirk Lynn’s home city and Melanie Joseph’s home city are the two locales) and the pre-formation of the “exploration” keeps this project rooted as a subjective, artistic endeavor, as does the direct reference to “qualitative” and “quantitative” reasoning (which pertain to “value” in this piece, both self-reflexively and as an inquiry into perceived existent cultural conceptions) while the relationship between the artists and the audience (“Asking” as a performed objective rather than pointing out) will limit the autonomy of artistic authority/self-reflexivity and essentially seek reappropriation, part of the second set of modes which underlie not a negation/affirmation paradigm but a medium of collective expression.

Lush Valley calls their period of public engagement in the development stage “interviews, think tanks, social-networking forums, public art actions” that are given the description of directive here:

LUSH VALLEY strips away the assumptions of the American Dream that we have consciously & unconsciously embraced for generations in order to uncover the foundation upon which our country’s mythic ideals are based. We start with 8 concepts that are at the core of the Dream: Equality, Freedom, Happiness, Opportunity, Community, Ambition, Hope & Honor.”

With more pre-packaged, autonomous inquiry, this process is quite different from the How Much is Enough’s process of creating an “audience performance company” through open rehearsals developing the questions about value. Lush Valley chooses subjects (concepts such as “Freedom”) to invite negation or affirmation as well as associations and anecdotal experiences that are linked through the existent, supposedly mimetic, dramaturgical “meanings” of “The American Dream.” There is certainly an assumption present in this intention that there is a “foundation” or “mythic ideals” to be located within American experience in time and across consciousnesses, presumably in and through a political and/or social public sphere. This seems a logical combination of autonomous empiricism/positivism and engaged relativism/anti-positivism, although it would be pertinent to hear how the “stripping” of assumptions is performed, or used by the artists and other participants. To this question, the HERE Arts Center page states that the Lush Valley

 “ensemble of designers, writers, & performers use these loaded ideas as the basis for 8 narrative chapters that will constitute this epic performance event. We are actively working with a wide array of source material in literature, drama, architecture, art, critical theory, economics & sociology. Our most important sources currently are novelist John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy for structure & Studs Terkel’s work on the American Dream for interview techniques.”

The team is currently working on the piece through a retreat at the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis. The autonomous framework is visible through these processual details, perhaps aligning this work more closely with ethnographic materials-gathering processes found in symbolic interactionism and dramaturgical methods of interpretation, or that certain modernist approach of “pointing out.” If this is the case, I am fascinated to see where exactly interpretations are expected to occur: Are the participants the ones pointing out, and if so, are they pointing these things out as they recognize/interpret them in mirrors created by the public performance(s)? Is the public performance meant to be reflecting “empiric” (“mythic”) realities an “accurate” mirror, as constructed by the artists through narrative interpretation of meanings in collectively gathered materials?

Writes another articulate blurb-writer about this upcoming participatory performance stage of Lush Valley:

“LUSH VALLEY is a highly participatory, inclusive work in which audiences will use their personal sense of adventure & decision-making to navigate through our American Dream ‘themes’ park. The 3-hour event will include participatory activities (video interviews, census data plotted & projected live, citizenship tests & real-time video word clouds of audience texts); intimate monologues delivered to only 2-3 audience members at a time; full cast sequences where the entire audience gathers for activities like a Town Meeting (where they interact with characters, vote & testify via text messaging) or a Call-In Radio Show (where they call in & voice what they think is wrong with America); & dance sequences derived from classic American pastimes like bowling & baseball.”

The operative word here may be “navigation,” a self-directed and artist-directed (“voice what they think is wrong with America”) process that the individual participants (audience members) use to interpret meanings in a performed mirror that ultimately is meant to mirror themselves for their subsequent identification and application. While this “navigatory” mimetic action is prescribed to participating agents in this project in a very mise en abymic way (Bal, Gide, Dallenbach), the How Much is Enough final performance situation, which will entail a sequence of questions posed to the participating agents by the artists, seems to have less of a dramaturgically-structured worldview regarding pre-constructed interpretation and of whom and through what process interpretation may be practiced, if at all. How Much is Enough does make the fundamental proposal that “we are all” seeking lives of value, but the definition of “value” is left to the multiplicity of conceptions held by the audience performance company, who decide, with the artists, on what the questions asked in performance will be (is this correct?). Perhaps because this piece will contain no narratives at all (as “narrativization” is a form of interpretative reflection) this piece is not perceived by the artists as an autonomous mirror at all, but rather as a temporal, collectively-amassed index of questions and answers that may end up offering a mode of inquiry that operates less as an attempted mirror of “existent” reality than it does as a vehicle for collective inquiry itself.

I am very interested to learn from these pieces in performance, and to relate their examples to a general analysis of 1.) How artists can effectively (as above) combine their own pre-conceived political ideas, aesthetic tastes, sensibilities, and intentions with these kinds of processes.  2.) How participatory practices can reconcile the idea that there are ingrained/doxic/mythological/fundamental conceptions held by individuals and groups with subjectivity and multiplicities of conceptual frameworks/the differences and diversity of conceptions held by individuals and groups 3.) How theater artists are using or not using existing dramaturgical models of interpretation and reflection vs. other conceptions of public performance and political discourse,  4.) the linguistic and text-based considerations of these works, and 5.) what the practical considerations of participatory theatrical forms are (narratives, sequences of questions, surveys, etc), and what their theoretical and modal implications are.

More information and the websites I’ve cited for the respective projects are:

How Much is Enough

Lush Valley




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