Context matters. A gesture means one thing here and now and another thing entirely there and then. My choices happen in a context – a relationship to history and influence. I don’t have to acknowledge the context or even admit it’s existence to myself – but it’s there all the same. Others, with their own contexts, will perceive them.
The same is true for influences. We all have them and our work reflects that. We can work in opposition or adulation or both. This is true whether or not we know it, whether or not we know who influenced our influencers. This can be paralyzing, but it can also be liberating and empowering.
Understanding the relationships between current practices and the past is important. For me (and that will be the starting place for this seminar) understanding the relationships between the New York downtown scene and Grotowski reveals meaning and possibility. Drawing lines between Video Cabaret and Joan Littlewood and Brecht tells me something about who I am as an artist. Reflecting on all these connections in their specific times and situations inspires me to see my time and place clearly and be able to best respond.
In talking to theatre and dance makers over the past few years, I’ve expressed and heard a desire to share and learn more about contexts and influence. Specifically, Jordan Tannahill at Videofag and I got to talking about a seminar series where we’d read some articles, listen to podcasts and watch some video and make some connections between lines of thought in contemporary theatre and contemporary living.
Also, I’m a bit of theatre nerd when you get down to it and what’s the good of having all these books and links if I don’t get to share them?
Context Seminar: (non-Main)Streams of thought.
A mangled journey through influence and Western theatre — Centuries 20 and 21. Led by Jacob Zimmer of Small Wooden Shoe with a couple guest spots.
Funny to be writing this as Morris Panych and Kelly Nestruck argue over what kind of context is important to a production. Panych’s dishonest question “How can we address this paradox of a thing being both now and then[…]?” is, despite himself, a great question – especially for a festival like Shaw.
How much discussion of “Why this play now?” happens in the meeting rooms or the rehearsal halls of the festival? And what are the contexts and influences discussed? ↩
Dr. Andrew Irving looks at stories differently than most people. Whereas many would think of their life story as a series of events, Irving spends more time thinking about what is skipped over. “Storytelling is like walking,” he suggests, “It’s not a straight line.” Rather, you skip over non-noteworthy events with each step.
Irving has spent many years collecting the stories of those affected by HIV and Aids—always concerning himself with the gaps between words. His ethnographic work frequently centres on death, and particularly, the inner worlds of those facing their own mortality or that of another. How do these people move through space and interact with the world as they undergo “radical changes in being, belief and perception” in confronting the end of life? And how do those thoughts and actions affect other people they happen to come across? These are the questions Irving’s research has explored in Kampala and New York, respectively.
During his talk in April at the Centre for Imaginative Ethnography Symposium at York University, Irving introduced us to Sandra, an HIV activist from Uganda. Her story is a fascinating one, and it demonstrates Irving’s process of identifying how one’s outward performance of their inner life directly alters the lives of those around them.
Sandra grew up in a hotel where her father worked; it was a nice home. At age 17, she eloped with her boyfriend—who turned out to be a Ugandan spy—and moved into a crowded army barrack. She disliked the place and they eventually moved into a slum community of Kampala with their newborn daughter. One day, her boyfriend returned home, walked past her into the house without a word, and revealed to her that he had tested positive for HIV. He had undergone routine testing as part of his military training in Cuba. He died eight weeks later. Then his family took Sandra’s baby away from her.
This is the story Sandra recounted to Irving, not just verbally, but also by leading him through each of the significant spaces: the hotel, showing hime the fence through which she and her boyfriend would talk until the early hours of the morning; the barracks, where she likely contracted HIV; and their home in Kampala. She concluded the story-tour at bed #9, the hospital bed in which her boyfriend passed away. The site Irving was most concerned with for the purposes of his talk, however, was a piece of grass where Sandra recounted this story to a group of activists from around the world on September 11, 2001.
One of these activists was a woman named Emily visiting from New York. Later in the day, she walked out of her room and turned right just as Sandra came out of her room and turned left. Their conversation at that moment went something like this:
Emily – By the time I come back next year I hope you’ll have gotten your daughter back.
Sandra – I’m not sure I’ll be around next year. My health is getting poorer, and I don’t think I have much time left.
Emily– Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.
The two women parted, neither having any idea that hours later the World Trade Centre would be struck. Emily’s father worked in the second tower. As soon as she heard the news, with no chance of a Ugandan phone call reaching New York in the midst of the chaos, the women at the retreat came together to dance, chant and pray for the well being of Emily’s father.
He did survive. As it happened, he had been out of his office that morning. When Emily got the news, she went to Sandra and told her that her father would pay for her retroviral medication, so she would live to see her daughter again (at this point, according to Irving, retroviral meds cost four times the monthly salary of a university lecturer, making them inaccessible to most of the continent).
Both Sandra and Emily recounted this same story with large degrees of difference both in terms of where, spatially, this final conversation took place, and in Emily’s motivation (in Sandra’s version, there was far more of a religious impetus—in Emily’s version, she acknowledged that she’s an atheist, but nonetheless felt as though the women’s actions “did something”), but the facts are the same:
Had Emily walked out of the door that morning and turned left, Sandra would now be dead.
Had Sandra walked out the door and turned right, she would be dead.
Had Emily’s father been in his office and killed during the September 11th attack, Sandra would be dead.
This story highlights the large consequences of small, everyday, even subconscious actions—events that Irving sees as exposing the limits of contingency between individuals. These contingencies, suggests Irving, inevitably bring us to the limits of logic and into the realms of the uncanny, the inexplicable, and the metaphysical. When we reach these points, the only response is to pencil in a narrative that ascribes meaning to the events.
According to Irving, there are three ways in which we shape the events of the world:
1) Trying to make the future known—trying to affect agency over future events 2) Retrospectively—making meaning out of past events and acting accordingly 3) Turning right and left
Take Neil from New York as another example. He lived near a drag cabaret restaurant at West 52nd Street called Lucky Chengs (which has since closed.) This was a bathhouse when Neil arrived in New York—it is also the place where he believes he contracted HIV. So, as revealed to Irving during another personal-narrative walking tour, Neil quite often walks two extra blocks on his way to the subway station so as to avoid walking past Lucky Chengs—a move that often puts the memory of that place more firmly in his mind by consciously avoiding it.
From the experiences of Sandra, Emily, Neil and others, it became clear that so many of our external, performed actions are based on these inner worlds and private narratives.
There is so much to learn about the visible world from our invisible motivations and vice versa. Quite simply: Neil’s thoughts shape his interaction with the city, which in turn, shapes the urban environment itself. This reality got Irving asking a simple question of the people he encounters on the street: what is this person thinking?
Inspired by Joyce and other modernist writers who explore the city through inner monologues made up of perpetually inchoate thoughts, Dr. Irving took to the streets of New York to examine the city through its residents’ inner lives in a project called New York Stories: The Lives of Other Citizens. He asked strangers to wear a microphone and continue on their way while speaking their thoughts out loud.
The resulting recordings are complex tales of people preoccupied with everything from their friend with a recent cancer diagnosis to the smell of noodles wafting onto the sidewalk. What I find most interesting is the different timbre of dialogue as the strangers move through different spaces. The project purposely looked at different environments—parks, intersections, bridges, etc—all revealing a unique rhythm both in thought and action.
Inner worlds remain largely unaccounted for in the humanities and social sciences, and since thought/emotion/sensation is simultaneous, the project of charting it at any given moment is quite impossible. But the hope is that in accessing even glimpses of interiority, it might be possible to see more than half a story—to fill in the gaps between the words, and the space that is stepped over.
Kallee is a graduate student in theatre and performance studies at York University. She’s most interested in the intersection between contemporary choreography and neo-liberal politics, and has a cat named Lucy.
Hospitality 3: Individualism Was A Mistake by PME-ART, Photo by David Jacques
by Jacob Wren
Authenticity is a feeling. There is no such thing as ‘real’ authenticity. Something is authentic when we feel it to be so.
I have been making performances for almost twenty-five years. If I think back to the beginning, I recall I started because I was searching for an experience that was considerably less mediated, less passive, less alienating than watching television, movies or listening to the radio. (Experiences that, for the most part, made me feel I was living in a world I could barely relate to.) At the time I believed, or at least hoped, that performances might be an art form that provided a more immediate experience; more live, more communal, less distancing. All of these youthful desires were also tangled up with questions of authenticity.
Twenty-five years is a long time to struggle with a single question, and my feelings about performance today are considerably more complex – a complexity that, at times, verges on bitterness. My work took place in a culture that clearly preferred the experience of watching movies to that of watching performance. This may simply be because movies have considerably more resources at their disposal, the stakes are higher, and these (plus other) factors attract a more skilled/brilliant set of artists. It might also be that the most recent art form wins. Or that movies are better. (Cinema is like a dream, and in a dream nothing can hurt you.)
However, I have also come to believe that the inherent fragility, the awkwardness, the vulnerability of a live performance is an uncomfortable space in a world filled with images. In most performances I see, the artists do everything possible to armor themselves, to protect themselves from the discomfort and judgment of the audience. This is more than understandable, and is often referred to as quality or professionalism. Nonetheless, for me, trying to make a performance perfect only makes matters worse.
In my work I have instead tried to engage with performance’s inherent weakness, to embrace the always-present fragility of doing something in front of other people who are watching you, the very quality that is, in fact, what makes something ‘live’ most different from the mediated world that surrounds us.
In his book Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, Philip Auslander historically demonstrates that the term ‘live’ was never used, in the sense we understand it today, before the invention of cinema. A performance is only ‘live’ in relation to a movie. In the theatre, rehearsal is simply an earlier form of reproduction. Making a performance exactly the same every time is a trick the movies can do so much better.
Where are the artists, working on stage and off, who are willing to take the risk of leaving things open, of allowing the performance to be as different as possible each and every time we come to it anew? Of allowing themselves to be vulnerable in the face of an experience they have no absolute way of knowing will work out for the best? (These questions are directed primarily at contemporary theatre, but it also seems to me that, more and more, performance art needs to engage in a similar struggle.)
Photo by David Jacques
Of course, like everyone, I often prefer to watch something that ‘works’, whatever that might mean to you at different points of your life and artistic understanding. However, for me, a performance can only work if there is also some possibility that it might (at least partially) fail, if it is open to this possibility, if this is one of the ontological reasons that interests it in being a performance in the first place.
I now suspect the intimacy I was originally searching for in watching and making performances is the very intimacy I had already found in reading literature. (These days, I am also very much addicted to the internet.) Yet reading was my way of avoiding people, performance a way of bringing myself closer to others.
A performance is live when it feels live. For me, this feeling has something to do with taking an artistic risk, with avoiding the safety of over-rehearsal, avoiding a safety that often expresses itself as a desire for perfection, of asking oneself what is possible in a live-space that is simply impossible in a movie theatre (or on the internet, etc.), of not being too afraid when things go wrong, of seeing that when things go wrong it is actually only the beginning.
Photo of Jacob by Brancolina
Jacob Wren is a writer and maker of eccentric performances. His books include: Unrehearsed Beauty, Families Are Formed Through Copulation and Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed. As co-artistic director of Montreal-based interdisciplinary group PME-ART he has co-created the performances: En français comme en anglais, it’s easy to criticize (1998), the HOSPITALITÉ / HOSPITALITY series including Individualism Was A Mistake (2008) and The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information (2011) and Every Song I’ve Ever Written (2012). He blogs here.
He will be participating as a Team Leader in Volcano Theatre’s inFORMING CONTENT, a three-day creation lab combining an exploration of experimental approaches to theatre-making. With inspiration provided by a group of scholars giving short presentations from their various expert viewpoints, inFORMING CONTENT aims to expose young theatre-makers to forms of creation that are outside the scope of most traditional training in Canada. Click here for more information. May 3-5, 2013.
So, this makes it 3/3 – with the date of each of our first three debates being rescheduled due to issues with participants and availability.
Sorry. Thanks for playing along with us while we discover how running a community debate series works. One of the things we’re learning is that we can’t announce a debate until the participants are all confirmed. This gets a bit tricky when we are trying to have discussions about things that are A) Timely and B) Led by people who are very knowledgable on the topic.
The closest model we have for this as theatre companies is The Wrecking Ball – which announces a date three to four weeks in advance before writers, cast and directors are added to create the event. To secure expert speakers, often going outside the theatre community, this model has essentially proven to be challenging. We’re adjusting.
Stay tuned for more info on what we plan for this debate in the future. We ‘re really excited by the enthusiasm for the first two sold out debates, and committed to rigorous discourse led by compelling speakers on a host of topics in the future.
Sunny needs to talk about what’s happening, but he has to do it where no one will find him. Because Sunny, aka rihannaboi95, made some videos and while yeah, they’re getting lots of hits, some people at school found them too and now the eggshell world he so carefully treads is threatening to collapse beneath him.
Cloistered within the bedroom of his friend Keira, a Shopper’s makeup queen, Sunny records a video for his loyal viewers, invoking his YouTube namesake when he needs her most.
Dealing candidly with bullying, queer identity, and the pain of self-invention, Jordan Tannahill’srihannaboi95 invites viewers to watch a live performance from the privacy of their own computers. Directed by Zack Russell and featuring Owais Lightwala as Sunny, rihannaboi95 will be dispatched nightly from a Toronto bedroom at 8pm from April 23rd – April 28th 2013.
What do Ingrid Bergman, Italian statues and Occupy Wall Street zombie walks have in common? They all problematize the relationship between ‘performance’ and the ‘live’ according to performance theorist Rebecca Schneider, Chair of the Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies at Brown University.
Academic conversations about the performing arts can seem dry at best, and completely detached from any practical relevance at the worst of times (particularly in a Canadian context where critical recognition of the arts isn’t easy to come by). Enter the Performance Studies (Canada) Project, a SSHRC-funded research project headed by York University Professor Laura Levin to chart the development of performance studies in Canada. As part of the project’s 2013 speaker series, Schneider was at Massey College last week delivering a talk entitled “Acting in Ruins: the Interval and the Loop.”
Performance theorists have long been interested in questions of what constitutes a ‘live’ performance. As Schneider pointed out, “live performance” is a little like saying “feline cat”—it’s redundant. Whereas, “recorded performance” is an oxymoron. Performance has always been predicated on the now. But in an era of re-enactments and re-performances, “live art” has become increasingly interested in rendering live what was once dead and in the past. It is the interim space between performance and reenactment (the interval as she calls it), and the loop between them that Schneider’s most interested in.
Ingrid Bergman considers Italian statues. Which one is more ‘live’: Bergman or the statues?
“Acting in Ruins” could justifiably be divided into two parts; the first, a call to question our strict division between what is live/not live and animate/non-animate in performance; and the second, an analysis of these binaries in relation to the neoliberal economy. To make the first point she showed a clip of Ingrid Bergman in Journey to Italy in which Bergman is wandering through a statue-filled museum in Naples, making wonderfully dramatic gasps every time she gazed into their painted eyes. The question, of course, was “who was live?” We’d never hesitate to say, “Bergman gave a great performance,” but was her recorded image any more live than that of the statues? Furthermore, as Schneider notes, theatre has always had a close relationship to statuary—from the Greek and Roman statues of players surrounding classical stages to Tino Sehgal’s recent performance at the Guggenheim embodying images from visual art and turning himself into “living sculpture.”
The academic discourse on ‘liveness’ has gone through various iterations—from thinking of performance as resistant to material documentation (completely ephemeral), to thinking of documentation as reiterative (as re-performing the performance in another context or medium). Schneider now wants us to think about performance as remaining, as an event that inevitably leaves traces affecting each subsequent performance as well as the previous document on which it was based. In her most recent book, “Performing Remains: art and war in times of theatrical reenactment,” she explains this using the example of Hamlet’s play-within-a-play. Hamlet worries about speaking the words “set down” in a manner of which he can approve. He realizes, in his concern for speaking the words “trippingly on the tongue” (Hamlet, 3.2) that the transition from text to performance creates instability. Schneider makes clear that it’s not just performance that is shifty and mobile, but that any text or document is subject to alteration in the “volatile” temporal space between an ‘original’ and its re-performance.
This scene from Portlandia illustrates a contemporary example of a digital loop.
Schneider is concerned with this interim space between performances for political reasons. She asks “how we might approach intervals between performances as important sites of analysis, or, conversely, how we might think about the “loop” in many (re)current performance-based works?” She answers this by looking at the links between ‘performance’ and its increasingly prevalent connotations in a neo-liberal economy in which “high-performance” refers to high-productivity and efficiency.
If performance is taken to mean live and happening now in the current moment, it enforces a progress-driven linearity, but if we follow Schneider in troubling the relationship between past and present performances, and if we take her suggestion that a performance always leaves remains that can alter both preceding and proceeding performances, we end up with the complicated temporality that theatre is based on. Thanks to theatre’s reliance on a fictional reality, Schneider suggests we can refer to the temporality of theatre as a “live non-now”. In this way, theatre cannot be productive (in the economic sense of the word), and if something is “not productively performative than in it must be theatrical”. The point here is that theatre can be used to challenge the progress/performance driven neo-liberal economy.
Schneider brings all of this—theatre’s ability to complicate the relationship between past and present, and what is live/not live—together in the image the zombie. In a recent article in TDR entitled, “It Seems As If…I Am Dead: Zombie Capitalism and Theatrical Labor” Schneider looks at the Occupy Wall Street zombie walks, and examines how they function on multiple levels of metaphor. She says that if we agree the zombies may represent consumers then:
“more than 99% of Americans have succumbed to a zombie apocalypse. Suffering without infrastructure to support their deaths, they disastrously walk, which is to say they respect no distinction between public and private. But for OWS, the zombies are reflection machines, flexible theatres of the crowd, aimed to catch the visages of those who worship corporate wealth. The multitude of money-munching zombies marching on Wall Street, then, represent the few global hoarders themselves.”
The OWS protesters embrace the theatricality of a zombie walk with its props, costumes, makeup and all to highlight their resistance to the neo-liberal economy. By showing themselves as dead, they resist the call to act as live, productive labourers. The major question implied throughout Schneider’s talk is how theatre, more generally, can act in this same way. How can we embrace the instability between one performance and the next, the living and the dead, and use this loop to challenge ideas of necessary progress and productivity?
Kallee is a graduate student in theatre and performance studies at York University. She’s most interested in the intersection between contemporary choreography and neo-liberal politics, and has a cat named Lucy.
Co-ED Note: This post is the first in a series by Kallee Lins that seeks to bridge the intellectual divide between academic and online discourse on theatre by presenting her interpretation of research of note. Enthused to have her on board with a new approach to ideas and discussion in this space. mw
After the debate, there was a lot of continued discussion, as debaters and attendees hung out and continued conversations that could not be accommodated by the strict one minute, timed question-and-answer format that shaped the final section of the event.
We changed our voting format for #CivilDebates 2 Arts Boards:
Attendees were polled upon entering the debate as to their position on the resolution. The initial result was:
36 Yea – 10 Nay
After the debate, attendees also registered their position on the resolution as they left. The post-debate result was:
56 Yea – 9 Nay
What does this mean? First of all that some people don’t want to register an opinion if they are uncertain about a proposition. Also, there were more than 65 attendees, so some people don’t want to vote at all. Finally, it indicates that after hearing the debate and the discussion that followed afterwards, more people were swayed to vote in favour of the resolution.
Thanks to all who participated. It was a very *civil* event on what has been a contentious issue.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: Be sure to pick up your poker chips on the way in. You’ll be asked to vote on your position as you enter with one chip, the 2nd chip will buy you 60 seconds of speaking time to either make a statement or ask a question, and the 3rd chip will be used as you vote on your position as you leave. Check back here later for the results of the two votes.
*NOTE: We’ve moved into a larger space right next door to the Pop-Up to make sure everyone can get in.
PWYC at the door. No RSVP required.
This evening Gideon Arthurs, Franco Boni, Brendan Healy & Jini Stolk will debate the resolution:
Be it resolved that Boards of Directors have the right and responsibility to overrule the Artistic Direction of a theatre company.
How does the debate work?
Hosted by Theatre Centre Managing Director Roxanne Duncan
Moderated by Praxis Theatre Artistic Producer Aislinn Rose
The event will be live-tweeted via @praxistheatre & @theatrecentre. The Debate Hashtag is: #CivilDebates.
Not on Twitter/Don’t want to be? Below is a livestream of the tweets and pictures using the #CivilDebates hashtag, feel free to follow along live from this post.
Click here for a backgrounder on the topic, or here for more information about the debaters. CLICK PIRATE & NINJA for more info on the series and structure.
“After the years and years of weaker and waterier imitations, we now find ourselves rejecting the very notion of a holy stage. It is not the fault of the holy that it has become a middle-class weapon to keep the children good.”