Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

True Statement?

Fellow artist-investigators Travis Chamberlain and Ursula Eagly recently challenged me to write an artist statement.  Generally, I feel that an artist’s “statement” is the artist’s “work” itself, and our reliance on written descriptions of what we do to apply for various fundings and/or justify ourselves to others is more or less a waste of time.  However, Travis and Ursula made me do it, and in truth, I suppose it is a necessary evil – just like the awful-yet-essential “archival video.”

Once I barreled through my initial resistance, writing this statement was an interesting process.  I approached it by writing very specifically about my two most recent performance projects, and then deleting everything except the general statements.  With minimal editing after that cut, I ended up with this:

I create live performance.  My work involves a hybrid of forms, including dance, theater, music, and visual arts. The degree to which I use each form, and the references I pull from each, vary greatly from piece to piece.  Though there are common threads, each piece I make is very different from the last, as I work from an investigative point of view, emphasizing my subject through whatever form I feel will serve it most.   I think of form as a tool – just like dialogue, movement, storytelling, or staging.  I choose and create forms, which serve the ideas I’m attempting to explore with an audience.

Investigation is key in my work.  I make work to explore subjects about which I have questions.  I am interested in honesty on stage, which for me usually translates to awkwardness.  I am interested in engaging the audience actively, without making them uncomfortable.  I take the role of the audience very seriously, and I consider it often throughout the creation of a work.  I am interested in the counterpoint between “onstage” and “off,” yet I respect that the audience’s role is generally that of witness and not performer.

Aesthetically, I am interested transforming the simple, common and often handmade into the sublime.  I make work that transforms a paper airplane into catharsis.  Transformation (of the performance space, of the performers, and ultimately the audience) is something I strive for in most of my work.  I want to give the audience an experience, and I want it to stay with them when they leave the theater.  I use materials that the audience encounters in daily life, and I pay close attention to entrance and exit points.  The show begins as soon as an audience enters the building, and I hope that it trails after them when they leave – at least, I follow them with the show as far as I can, and hope they carry something with them after that.

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You said it.

I’ve been working on an essay addressing the state of contemporary performance: its opportunities and challenges in the current socio-economic upheaval that we’re experiencing.  With established structures disappearing by the minute in every social sector, the opportunities for new thinking are equal only to the pervasive anxiety caused by the constantly-shifting ground.

Yesterday, I came across this open letter from the newly formed Collective Arts Think Tank, which is a clear and comprehensive investigation of these issues.  So, since CATT has already done the work of framing the conversation, I’ll simply point you there, and offer this brief note as an addition:

I think the most important thing we can do to ensure the health and longevity of the performance field in this moment is to become better audiences.  We must listen to each other (onstage and off) with real interest, rather than simply wait for a turn to speak.

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That’s absurd.

I’ve been heartily enjoying a read of Martin Esslin’s landmark book The Theatre of the Absurd.  It’s a bit embarrassing that I haven’t read it before, actually.  (Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that when I was studying theater in college, my theater history professor believed that the only post-Shakespearean theater worth mentioning was described in the diary of Samuel Pepys; we barely made it to the end of the 17th Century.)  In any case, Esslin’s book, first published in 1961,  is a surprisingly fresh investigation of the trends in theater he observed (and coined) as “Absurd,” including the works of Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, and Genet.

In many ways, reading this book is like finding a long-lost, annotated family tree.  My own searching, investigative approach to performance seems to fit squarely within this lineage of “the absurd.”  I am at once comforted by a sense of belonging and challenged to aspire to the greatness of these artists.  Yet, at the same time, there is a nagging question: Where are the women?

I’m not suggesting that all of these men (and there are many discussed in the book, not just the headline names) don’t deserve as much attention as they receive.  I’m just curious if there were ANY women exploring similar work.  Did the social structures of the ’40s and ’50s mean that the women were overlooked, or did the social structures keep them out of the game entirely?  To stretch my family tree metaphor, I feel like I’m missing an important piece of my own lineage.  Forefathers are important, but foremothers are too.  (Is “foremothers” even a word?)

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This is not a contest.

The very-frustrating Amendment introduced by Senator Coburn to exclude the arts from government stimulus has sparked much heated conversation and activity in the arts community, as it should.  However, I’ve been discouraged to see so many of us playing into frameworks of ranking and hierarchies.  Isn’t it precisely art’s influence that can lead us to other models of thinking and organizing ideas?  This is not an “America’s Top Stimulus Priority” game show; this is about strengthening the complex infrastructure of American life that includes myriad choices, priorities, and methods regarding survival and fulfillment.  We in the arts community need to work harder at changing the conversation so that when we say, “We need to fund the arts,” those currently less involved in the arts stop hearing us say, “I need you to fund my art because it is more important than what you do.”  We need to relate what we know about the value of the arts to more people’s everyday lives – without condescension – and we need to do it not just when we’re asking for checks.



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Sweet Sensation

I watch a little too much Food Network.  This past weekend, while most people were watching the Superbowl, I was glued to a mini-marathon of the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show.  Yup, I spent an evening watching people alternately cheer and cry over gum paste flowers.  While it is quite amazing what some of these folks can do with sugar, I was struck by how important this niche subculture is to those who populate it.  That’s when it hit me: “downtown performance” is just like sugar art.

Both groups are entirely caught up in a self-created drama that most of the world is entirely unaware of.  Both groups have their celebrities who cause butterflies in the stomachs of their peers, yet would be unrecognizable to the average citizen.  That is, until Food Network swooped in an brought the Sugar Celebrities into my living room.  Thanks to Food Network, I know that Kerry Vincent is the Anna Wintour of cakes, and that Bronwen Weber is always going to do something unexpected.  (I told you that I watch too much of this stuff.)

Anyway, my point is, that experimental performance needs a cable network.  We need a way to sneak into people’s living rooms and hook them into our world at 3 in the morning, when they least expect it.  Or at least we need to find some way of connecting to folks outside of our tiny community, while maintaining the specialization that makes our craft, well, special.

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Flocking with the Crowd

APAP is upon us!  The yearly festival of performance gluttony has arrived in all its schedule-busting glory.  For its out-of-town target audience, it might be a great time, and a useful way to grab a Cliff’s Notes version of the New York performance season, but for those of us who work in the NY performance community, APAP becomes a bizarre competition of who can see the most and get the least amount of sleep during the ever-expanding “weekend” festival. 

It’s an amped-up version of the status quo in the NY performance world, come to think of it.  Consume, consume!  Don’t be the only person who hasn’t seen THAT show!  If you miss THIS one, you might as well hide in your room for the next month!  The quantity of performance work presented in this town is the reason we’re all here, but it can also be self-defeating.  How much can a person actually engage with a work, if s/he is headed to the theater again the next night?  The experience of watching performance has become practically disposable. 

What is to be done?  Every year around this time, I think about making a New Year’s resolution to see less, and engage more.  Every year, by the first weekend of January, my resolution has gone belly-up, because I just don’t want to miss anything.  Yet, I couldn’t tell you what I saw at APAP last year.  Perhaps the only thing to do is to keep going and hope for that rare performance event that stops you in your tracks.



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Stop, Look, and Listen

As the New York fall performance season gets gets underway, I can’t help but notice (again) that most of the folks watching so-called “downtown” (nee “experimental”) dance and performance are the same folks who make the stuff.

As the political campaigns reach a fever pitch, I can’t help but notice that the people most interested in watching either candidate are those who have already fervently made up their minds to support the one they are watching.

How is it that so many of us end up only preaching to our respective choirs? Is it because we’ve lost our ability to listen that we all end up just talking at people who are talking at us about the same things – leaving anyone without knowledge of the conversation (be it performance-related or political) to scratch their heads and walk away?

Leaving the political arena to other blogs, how can we as performance-makers find ways to interest those mythical “general audience” members without stooping to pandering? Do we even know what its like anymore to watch something without secretly thinking, “Well, I would have done THIS instead of THAT?” Are we even in touch with our experience outside of mental critique when watching performance?

Recently, as part of the discussion portion of THROW, the works-in-progress series I curate at the Chocolate Factory Theater, one of the artists showing work asked the audience to tell her what they FELT when watching the work she had shown. The responses were nearly all things like “I felt like you were trying to…” or “I felt like you were saying that…” When pushed to use emotional descriptions, only one person could respond in kind.

So, here’s my challenge to you (and myself): The next performance you see, focus on your emotional and physical response without immediately judging it mentally. Just like a meditation when you notice your thoughts and let them go, notice your mental comments and let them go. See what’s underneath. Are we capable of feeling anything? Are we capable of making things that inspire feeling beyond understanding? Until we can do both, I think we’ll have a hard time enticing anyone from the “outside” back into our audiences.

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I’m working on a new performance project that is an investigation of time, and it has me thinking a lot about linear narrative.  It’s interesting that our macro experience of life (birth into death) trumps the cyclical, sun-driven structure of our day-to-day existence.  If my boyfriend read that last sentence, he would say, “What the hell do you mean?  Why can’t you just put things more simply?”  Well, I think I mean this: Linear narrative is satisfying.

Cyclical patterns are comforting, but we get bored with them after a while.  We grow up and we don’t want to be rocked to sleep anymore – at least not every night.  Other patterns (and non-patterns) can be interesting, intriguing, exciting, but it’s the linear narrative that (for better or worse) is our native language.  No matter how simplistic or unadventurous it may seem in certain contexts, linear narrative has a pull.  We recognize it emerging from chaos (or we invent it to keep ourselves from chaos) and we are relieved, just as we are when hearing our native tongue used in a foreign country.  Sometimes that relief is followed quickly by annoyance at the loss of a desired challenge; it depends how long we have been travelling alone in the strange land.

As I develop this piece, it is of course important to investigate the linear as an invented structure and take it apart, reconfigure it, all those post-post-modern standbys, but I’m also finding that humanity of the linear narrative, of the concept of “story” is interesting and worth another look, despite its recent status as, well, “totally uncool.”

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this is not a manifesto

It’s so easy to be angry.  I’ve started numerous posts over the past few weeks, none of which have made it past “draft.”  Why?  Well, I started the Owl as a way to investigate performance through writing, but I’m finding that it’s much easier to write a manifesto than truly investigate.  If this site was called The Ranting Owl, I could probably post six times a day, but even fewer of you would be interested in reading.  In a field rife with gossip and jealousy, it challenging to stay positive.  (I don’t mean “stay positive” in an after-school-special kind of way, but rather in a way that is actually productive, open-minded, and curious.)  So, in the spirit of cultivating wonder for the holidays, here are some things about which I am curious:

1. I noticed in the amazing production of Black Watch by the National Theater of Scotland at St. Ann’s Warehouse, that the Scots say “That’s so magic” the way that we say “That’s so money.”

2. Commedia dell’arte in Italy was the beginning of the professional actor, and I wonder how that contributes to the split between active and passive witnessing by the audience.  Further, I wonder how the introduction of producers in Elizabethan England contributes.

3. I saw a woman on the train this morning telling the story of Cinderella to her son, who sat mesmerized, staring into space, seeing the story in his head.  Is that theater?  I’m curious about the relationship of storytelling and theater.  I think it relates to the active witness conversation as well.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Performance, once removed

Cool Op-ed article in the NY Times today.  It goes along with Sarah’s chorus idea that the arts more moving when the audience can feel they are participating– not necessarily as a put-on-the-spot individual*, nor in a forced structure**, but as a spontaneous individual part of a whole.

*Anyone who knows me knows the hyperventilations and palm sweats I go through when performers start dragging audience members on stage.

** As much as I love the Flaming Lips, the only time I ever saw them live was perhaps one of my least favorite concert moments ever: Wayne Coyne berating the audience for not singing along more and pleading with them that “if you’ve ever wanted to sing along before in your life, now is the time. You’ve got the sing guys!” The result was the audience singing the way one would sing so as not to be beaten; it was kind of pathetic. I’ve been assured not all Flaming Lips shows are like that.

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