troublesome smoke signals

Two troublesome things today.

A) Minneapolis' beloved Southern Theater is in danger of going under.

B) The Guthrie Theater announced its next season today. Of the fourteen plays that the Guthrie will produce in 2011-2012, every single piece was written by a male playwright. There remain several TBA directors, but as of the announcement today, only one director is a woman--Marcela Lorca, Head of Movement at the Guthrie, whose tenure predates that of the current Artistic Director Joe Dowling.

"The Guthrie is fulfilling its promise to our community," said Dowling, "deepening the variety of offerings, developing richer relationships with local artists, introducing the work of artists from around the globe, and fostering the theater's next generation." 

Let's take a look:

On the Guthrie's largest stage, the Wurtele Thrust:

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, directed by Joe Dowling
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, director TBA
Hay Fever by Noel Coward, directed by Christopher Luscombe
A Christmas Carol, adapted by Crispin Whittell, directed by Joe Dowling
The Amen Corner by James Baldwin, directed by Lou Bellamy (Penumbra Theatre Production)
The Sunshine Boys by Neil Simon, directed by Gary Gisselman

On the McGuire Proscenium:

Burial at Thebes by Seamus Heaney, directed by Marcela Lorca
Charley's Aunt by Brendan Thomas, directed by John Miller-Stephany
Time Stands Still by Donald Marguiles, directed by Joe Dowling
End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter, directed by Terry Johnson (remount from London)
Roman Holiday by Paul Blake with songs by Noel Coward, directed by John Miller-Stephany (adaption of the film)

In the Dowling Studio:

The Edge of Our Bodies by Adam Rapp, directed by Ben McGovern
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, directed by Rob Melrose (The Acting Company production)
The Birds by Conor McPherson, directed by Henry Wishcamper
The BFA New Plays, writers and directors TBA
A Guthrie Experience, writer/director TBA
...more TBA...

The variety of offerings?  The Guthrie will produce one play written by a non-white artist this season, and that's The Amen Corner by James Baldwin--in a production by Penumbra Theatre Company. While I think it's great that for the first time the Guthrie is making Penumbra's work part of their subscriber season (as opposed to the Guthrie-hosted Penumbra productions of the last several years), I can't help but feel that Joe Dowling is patting himself on the back for farming out the job of diversity and multicultural representation on the Guthrie's stages. OK, so the Guthrie is never going to do a better Amen Corner than Penumbra (at least with its current roster of artistic staff), but does that mean that it shouldn't even try to produce work that isn't written by white men, as every single one of their upcoming plays for the next season is? I'm not claiming that you can't have 'variety' without ethnic diversity, but it sure does help. Eleven plays by white dudes, directed by white dudes? As a friend commented on facebook: "Well, at least they're consistent."



Couple pictures of Sankai Juku, a Japanese Butoh company, performing a piece called Unetsu-- the Egg stands out of Curiosity.  Photographer.

Gob Squad

I saw Gob Squad at the Walker in December; they performed a piece called Gob Squad's Kitchen (You've Never Had It So Good).

Maybe later I'll write something about how influential they've been on my thinking, just in terms of seeing that piece and the post-show talkback.

They're really worth checking out. They've recently revamped their website to offer an in-depth look into their background and working processes.

Here's the link:

Gob Squad FAQ.


Epilogue Project

When I think about work that I see, I think about how it affects me on a few levels.
Using my art-brain, I think about whatever I see in terms of its part within a dialogue in which I’d like to be engaged, an ongoing negotiation of what performance is and can be. Was I inspired by the work? Was there innovation of form? Was the execution solid? What were the original ideas at play? What can I steal? Work that I love inspires me, but I actually like seeing a piece that I hate—it energizes me to think about what I want my own work to do and be.
Sometimes, a piece will make me forget to consider these terms—I get lost in its world, transported to another space. It’s nice when that happens. Of course, afterwards I’ll reflect on it, dissect it, consider what it was and why it worked.
I can break apart a performance into what might be considered its component pieces—the movement of bodies, the language, the visual elements, the sound, the acting, the trajectory of event, the relationship to the audience, the relationship to the space, the use of possibilities, what I might perceive as the message or mission of the piece. There’s also the element of how the piece held my focus, and if it had grabbed me, what it did with that focus once it had it. I’m sometimes surprised by what holds my attention onstage—some performers have a presence that I find difficult to look away from. Some activities onstage are endlessly absorbing to me to watch. It doesn’t always make sense what does or doesn’t interest me onstage, but I try to clock when I find myself unable to turn away from something, when it has me on the edge of my seat.
Suspension, in a word. When a piece can achieve suspension—of disbelief, I guess, but more a suspension of ‘knowing’. If a piece can keep me aloft in a state of not-knowing, but of wanting-to-know, I find that endlessly absorbing and pleasurable. Without that buoyancy, why bother? Why bother making it, and why bother sitting through it?
Suspension can be intellectual, emotional, imaginative, physical. In some way, it’s about a belief in the possible.
On Monday night, I attended what could possibly be thought of as the last piece of 1419’s first and only Theatre Season. Jeff Shockley's Epilogue Project has been in development for about four years now. This past weekend (April 1-4) he presented work at a series of locations, including 1419, where I caught a showing. I didn't know what to expect going in. Jeff's a good friend of mine; we've hung out since sophomore year when he roomed with one of my classmates. I was impressed by his epic pipes (one in the shape of a dragon!) and we bonded. Jeff was a major influence in getting me involved with 1419, and he's been one of the big brains in my life over the last year or so. Over the last few years, the Epilogue Project has had various incarnations as a blog, a draft of a play, a series of workshops, and most recently, a facebook group, a camping retreat, and this past weekend, a series of presentation/performances by Jeff. (More on the history of Epilogue later). I was one of around a dozen people to decamp to Door County, Wisconsin in mid-March for the Epilogue Retreat.
It was a really fantastic time--a utopia project that had all the right ingredients (including an expiration date) to succeed in creating a beautiful heterotopia for its participants for the span of a few days and nights spent in cold-ass Wisconsin. [The term heterotopia is gonna get thrown around a bit here, just a heads up. Michel Foucault originated the term in his essay Of Other Spaces. In a nutshell, a heterotopia is a space where the rules of normal life don't apply, a space that is self-contained and operates under its own logic. Examples of heterotopias include Disneyland, cruise ships, and The Vatican.]   Other than attending the Epilogue Retreat, I haven't had much involvement with the project. I was so taken with Jeff's presentation at 1419 that I asked him to record a conversation/interview with me, which is quoted below and organized sort-of thematically. First off, though, a description of what actually occurred on Monday night: I asked Jeff what the 'score' for the night might be, if, say, someone else wanted to perform the piece. Here's what I asked, then what he said, and then what I said, and then what he said:  Ben: It struck me that because it was so task-based, if there was a performance score for last night--what would the score be? If you had to hand someone a script to perform Epilogue as it was last night, what would it be?   Jeff: Oh, um. The truth is that I think that it can't ever be done again. Because I made it in that moment and it happened with those people, then it was done. I could could give you the score--   B: Well, if I wanted to put it in a book about something, or for instance write something about it--  J: What happened--   B: What was the score for the night?  J: Well, you have to establish a lobby space where there's a long table, and on one side of it there's a bunch of chairs that look exactly the same that are right next to each other and are really kind of close to the table so that you're sitting at the table when you're sitting on the chairs. You have to direct people to sit in the chairs as sort of a lobby space, in the uniform chairs. And then on the other side of the room, across from the table, there's a bunch of different kinds of chairs, um, whatever chairs that you have that don't match the other chair. And you set them all up and you don't let anybody sit in those yet. And you take one person at a time, if this is at 1419, where it should be, and you walk with them all the way up to the roof, and along the way there's this little monologue thing, which is. If I don't know them, I say hi, I'm Jeff, what's your name, and meet them. I say, have you ever been to this building before? and ok, if they haven't. And I say, OK, I'm gonna take you all the way up to the roof now, and there might be some other people up there and there's some blankets up there and I'm gonna have you lay down if you could, or if there's no room to lay down, you could just stand up and look straight up. And what I actually say right before that is, the performance will begin when you come back downstairs and sit down. I'm gonna have you do something, and then you're gonna come back downstairs and sit down and the performance will begin. So you're gonna go up to the roof. You're gonna lay down or stand and look up, and you're gonna focus on a star. There's some stars out right now. You're gonna look at it, and you're gonna focus on it, and what I want you to do is to forget that it's a star, to not recognize it anymore as a star. It might take a while, it might be hard, so if you wanna take a break, you can look down or chill out for a minute and that's fine. Just keep focusing on it, the star. And when you forget that it's a star, when you no longer recognize it as a star, that's when you come back downstairs and sit in one of the other chairs. That's what you tell them. And so then they do that--you could also lay out some blankets beforehand, that would be a nice thing to do for people. And then you keep doing that to every person that's on the unified chair side of the table. And you should wait for everyone to come back. The score for the last part was, perform. For the people that have come.  B: That's it?   J: Yeah. And what I ended up doing was to arrange the chairs, sit in one, apologize for not being able to perform, and then put the chair back, and then sit down and say it's over.   B: What do you mean by 'perform'?   J: In the way that I was performing on Friday and Saturday it was existing. Performing as human in constant state of inspiration or human in completely... human constantly having new thoughts or human not having rational thoughts. It's kind of like performing being in the heterotopia.   B: Why not just be in the heterotopia? Why performing?  J: Well, it's the same thing. In this context. I mean the same thing.   B: OK. You said that's what it was like on Friday and Saturday. What about last night? Perform?   J: It was like I... in those other ones, I couldn't see the audience at first, so there was this moment of realization that people were watching me, and that was what brought me back to the real world. But this was like, right from the get-go, people were watching me, and I knew that so when I made eye contact with them, I tried to be as present as possible with them... I don't know, I came back to the real world pretty quickly. I guess I was apologetic because the people's faces... I dunno, that was my reaction. I think that that moment ended up being really profound, and I wish that I had something to say to be like, hey, this is why that happened. Because I think that it's really interesting, and I think that looking back on it, I could come up with some rationalizations for what it is and what it's about. The truth is, I had no idea what I was going to do when I got back downstairs.  B: You were up on the roof and you went until you couldn't see a star anymore?  J: No, I didn't do that.   B: You didn't do that?   J: No.   B: So were you acting as though you had?   J: No. I was--   B: So, you said to me last night, you tried to picture the star in each person's face.   J: Yeah. In their eyes.  B: But you hadn't seen the star to begin with.   J: Right.   B: So it was the image of a star:   J: Yeah. Whatever their conception of the star was, that wasn't a star, that was what I was trying to see.   B: So you were trying to see what they saw, and not what you saw.   J: Yeah.   B: And when you couldn't see it, that was when you had failed?   J: It's not like I set it up that way, but maybe. I mean, in the moment I just sat down and I looked. I didn't know what I was doing. I looked into people's eyes. I saw something that I didn't want to see, or that I wanted to change. I was like, 'sorry', and I wanted to feel compassion and I didn't and I felt like I was getting judged and I felt like it wasn't right. Yeah. I don't know, man. I don't know why that performance. That's the one I have the least explanation for. Whatever, I mean... maybe proof more than anything that anything can be a source of epiphany. ------------------------------------------------------------------------   A group of about a dozen people were there to see the performance. We were seated along one side of a long table on the first floor of 1419. One by one Jeff took us up to the roof and instructed us to lie down and focus on a star. Once we had forgotten that it was a star we should come back down to the first floor and sit on the other side of the table, at which point the performance would begin. It took about half an hour for everyone to go through this, at which point Jeff adjusted the chairs on the original (uniform) side of the table, facing the audience, and pulled one back. He sat in it, looked at each of us for a while, appeared apprehensive and nervous, and apologized several times, saying only "I'm sorry" or "I'm sorry, guys." After maybe two or three minutes, he moved his chair back in line with the others, looked more settled or satisfied maybe, and then said, "OK, that's it. Thanks for coming, guys."   I was very moved. First of all, going up to the roof and focusing on a single star until I could believe that it was not a star... I felt very unsettled and a little twitchy coming down the flights of stairs back to the first floor. I had convinced myself that I was seeing a shuttle, or space ship. Somehow, that manufactured belief felt very destabilizing. Definitely a suspension. I couldn't remember how many flights down I still had to go to get to the first floor (and I lived at 1419 for about half a year; I know those stairs up and down, through a whole spectrum of intoxication.) This simple exercise had recontextualized for me my surroundings, offering me a fresh and unfamiliar look at my world. I was in a heterotopia of one. The sense of possibility awakened by this exercise was perhaps what Jeff referred to as the audience’s epiphany. It’s a really lovely idea of what the relationship between the ‘performer’ and the ‘audience’ can be—the performer facilitates the audience member’s imaginative epiphany—they are asked to suspend their disbelief, as I suppose audience members in most theaters around the world are asked to do. In this case, though, the performance would not go ahead until that suspension had been accomplished. And the sole judge of that having been accomplished was the audience member her/himself. I thought it was considerate and respectful—asking the audience member to participate in the piece in this way, and allowing them to be the judge of when they were ready.
Knowing the performance was about to begin, and having prepared myself for it in this way, when Jeff reappeared after all the audience members had gone through their own suspensions, there was another suspension—that of waiting for the promised performance to begin. What I thought I was witnessing was the preparation for the performance—and Jeff’s inability to actually go through with it. And his unwillingness to abandon it. I was on the edge of my seat. Having gone through my own little process of committing to the piece, I wanted it to succeed, and I tried to send Jeff some encouragement. When he moved his chair back into line with the others and seemed finally settled and comfortable, there was a brief moment of triumph (it’s about to begin! Here we go!) and then, suddenly, it was over. It was a little bit of a roller coaster ride. I wouldn’t have thought so, and it may not seem so from the vantage point of reading this description, but having invested myself in the act of suspension, I was ready to be totally present with Jeff—and I was. To then find out that what I had witnessed was Jeff’s attempt to reconcile his own imaginative suspension (which was actually his imagining of what each audience member had created for themselves) with reality provided me a framework to organize my impressions. I could imagine that the piece was about the tension between epiphany and reality. Or the nature of epiphany—impossible to communicate.
The point isn’t that Jeff’s piece was actually about those things. The artist’s intentions ultimately count for nothing if the audience doesn’t get something out of the work. But Jeff had created the circumstances for me to experience something and then the conceptual framework that allowed me to organize that experience into thought. That’s what I like for art to do—to facilitate an experience and also provide a framework by which an audience can process that experience for themselves, and reach their own conclusions. Sometimes that framework is the artist’s bio. Sometimes it’s simply the title of a piece. Sometimes it’s a complex theoretical basis that produced the work. Access to this helpful framework varies—if a reference to something outside of the piece is necessary to contextualize the content of a piece and you don’t get the reference, well, you might not get the full content. I have a bit of an issue with work that depends on references that are overly esoteric or exclusive, by which I mean work that can only be fully understood by a tiny body of people. Art that only artists can understand runs the risk of solipsism. Sometimes art needs a bit of explanation, though, and I don’t begrudge that. I think it may be easier to work within those parameters in visual art rather than performance—an average ‘audience member’ is more likely to read a placard at an exhibition than to stay after a performance for a talkback. Could the helpful framework have been incorporated more fully into Jeff’s presentation? Maybe. The atmosphere after the performance was certainly conducive to a discussion of the piece, so it wasn’t such a big deal in the end. And had I known what was actually going through Jeff’s head during the ‘performance’ part, I probably wouldn’t have experienced such a provocative suspension; I might have known too much.
Below are further excerpts from my conversation with Jeff:


Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his own vomit. --Samuel Beckett

Jim Lasko of Redmoon Theater of Chicago gave this talk at My City's Still Breathing, a symposium examining the intersections of the city and art. In it, he talks about how performance/spectacle is necessary to break habits of perception. And I'm all about breaking habits of perception.

The symposium happened this past November in Winnepeg, but the Canadian government has facilitated the hosting of videos and audio from the conference on this nifty website. Well played, Manitoba.

[Woops, apparently I'm not allowed to embed the video. Here's a link instead.]