November 13, 2007

Alternate Structures: Assemblies

One underlying thesis of this blog is that the play structure—as we commonly understand it—is an advanced, highly-specialized cultural artifact. Like the torque wrench or the toaster, it has been designed so effectively for its intended purpose—in this case, making the audience care about its characters—that it’s virtually useless for anything else. Were we a Pharaonic culture where art forms persisted for millennia, such an achievement might guarantee centuries of near perfect plays. But our cultural artifacts, like our toasters, tend to wear out quickly, and once the possibilities of "the play" structure approach exhaustion, theatre itself begins to feel exhausted. No further tweaking of the structure or its variants can revive the art form. New structures—and I would argue, new expectations for the nature and purpose of theatre—will be required.

But these things take time. By the middle of the last century, after several decades of mainstream representational playwriting (at least in the Old and New Worlds) and the intermittent dazzlements of a lunatic fringe, much of the energy of innovation had turned to souping-up, stripping down, boring out, chopping, channeling and candy-striping the old fleet of '97 Chekhovs and Ibsens. Lord knows, the craftsmanship was impressive. Yet by the three-quarter mark, it was hard to avoid the growing realization that underneath the hood, these were still used cars (which would make our current American non-profit theatre a virtual Little Havana!) At roughly the same time, though, an American avant-garde schooled in visual art theory began making full-length works with little or no apparent literary structure; Performance Art erupted as a rapidly mutating virus; and a smaller group of American "language" playwrights began generating scripts which sought to set aside as much of the baggage of play construction as possible. Such was the broth out of which new forms would finally emerge.

One of the most powerful, flexible and (to use the term from software development) extensible of these new structures is the assembly. In its simplest terms, an assembly is any theatrical piece composed of two or more recognizably different1 texts. For this one condition automatically subverts any illusion of textual authenticity (on which all further representational illusions turn out to depend), and shifts the author into the role of editor, selecting and shaping source "footage" to build up sequences of elements (which I call "threads") that can be further layered and intermixed. Distinguishing the shape, size and relation between disparate threads and elements is therefore critical, so the different pieces of an assembly are typically given distinct edges and joins. Other elements may even be purely formal—marking beginning and end points within the text—or function as arbitrary "markers" (see below for discussion). Narrative is often the connective thread within a source or sequence, yet no one narrative typically prevails as the story (or "meaning") of the overall piece2. The tolerance for textual variation, and the presentational stance vis-├á-vis the audience make it easier to introduce expository material alongside traditional dramatic scenes and situations; indeed, assemblies are far more effective than plays in presenting flights of ideas or examinations of history and fact.

Charles Mee's Iphigenia 2.0, Carson Kreitzer's Flesh and the Desert, and Jason Grote's 1001—all seen recently in New York—represent variants of the assembly process which I've labeled Interpolation, Tessellation, and the Looped Stack.

Interpolation

The title alone—Iphigenia 2.0—tells the audience that the piece will be a myth reworked—and for those ignorant of mythology, copious notes were provided in the program and mounted in the theatre lobby. Indeed, the beauty of Mee's method was its simplicity: using some memory of Euripides as a framework within which foreign elements could replace their equivalents in the original. Every element in the piece was either part of the "original" story or an interpolation, and the figure/ground relationship between original and interpolation was in every case indicated by emphasizing the boundary between—most often by deliberate anachronism (as in the excerpt below, when "car," "Palestinian" and "RPGs" all appear in the same sentence.)

AGAMEMNON
I was wrong.
I made a mistake.
I can't
do this.

MENELAUS
I understand the difficulty this puts you in.

AGAMEMNON
Do you?

MENELAUS
But what sort of leader do
you pretend to be?
One who can make a decision
as it were, from the
mountaintop,
but not when you imagine seeing
face to face
what
your
decision means in fact?

Is this the first you've heard what
dangers men
face in battle?

The time a car came towards us,
when, just five
minutes before, another car had come
and there were
four Palestinians in it
with RPGs
and they killed three of my friends.
So this new Peugeot comes
towards us,
and we shoot.
And there
was a family there--
three
children.

Unlike the tightly-integrated, complex-story structure of the play, where everything is of-a-piece and fits, assemblies present an audience with the overall challenge of making sense of a set of disparate elements over the course of the piece, along with the secondary, more immediate challenge of maintaining one's place in the structure (continuity) from moment to moment. Paradoxically, the use of strong boundaries—which at first glance might seem disruptive—makes it much easier to distinguish different threads (i.e., there are no RPGs in Ancient Greece); and once a distinction has been made between elements, it is much easier to drawing inferences and connections between elements (i.e., that there may be similarities in the two situations).

Mee further simplified the task of orienting his audience by adopting the schematic (and, in a sense, already interpolated) structure of Greek drama—scene, chorus, scene—each scene consisting of an encounter between two (or sometimes, three) principals, interspersed with choral "odes" in the form of extended dance or movement sequences. In both versions, this clear alternation underscores the events or elements which constitute the main story, and those which are elaborations or digressions.

Interpolation differs from other assembly constructs in that there need be no necessary connection between successive interpolations. Continuity is only maintained through the spine or principal thread; the interpolations need not (and for clarity, probably should not) constitute a second thread. The lines “What do soldiers want?/They ask for almost nothing,” spin off into a catalog of modern products (“Oreo cookies. Canned tuna. Saltines. Salami.”). Or, when the bridesmaids enter and say they have been celebrating the upcoming wedding, the first bridesmaid continues with “My friend Dana/had this bachelorette party at the Beverly Hills Hotel?”

The extreme and obvious textual disjunction reinforces the internal boundaries essential to all assemblied. In an interpolation, the boundary lets us know at once that we have gone "somewhere else," a distinction maintained through the text (i.e., content) of the interpolation. For additional clarity, the relation of interpolation to the content in the principal thread it has replaced is typically one-to-one, and associative ("this thing is like that thing.") In these examples, we understand that the modern equivalent has replaced whatever Euripides might have written. Not only is the forward motion of the story halted—and its time scale suspended— but the location of the action shifts to some other place and time; yet these extreme displacements are not disruptive because the return point is also implicit. We expect the main story to resume where it left off, unaffected by (one wants to say "unaware of") its suspension. Indeed, it is not clear—to me at any rate—whether interpolation is even possible without a main thread whose broad outlines are known a priori; nor whether a second thread can be introduced without confusion. To put it another way, the problem that arises once interpolations acquire internal consistency is really the problem of working with multiple threads.

Tessellation

How can a second thread be introduced into a performance structure? The traditional solution, of course, was the sub-plot: a second, usually overlapping, story line within the superset of characters.3 Assemblies, on the other hand, do not require tight integration, and the number of sustainable threads is limited only by the author's ability to maintain a sense of overall structure while moving between them. Tessellation (arranging small shapes in a pattern) is a generic term for assemblies in which multiple threads have been broken into smaller parts and recombined.

Flesh and the Desert interweaves a set of very different narrative (or semi-narrative) threads having little in common beyond the fact that they all take place in Las Vegas. One principal sequence recreates an extended interview with an actual nightclub musician and his singer wife (Carter and Barbara); another is a realistic drama about a boy and girl who meet by chance at night in the desert; a third is a fantasy on Bugsy Siegel and his moll, who appear as ghosts moving through a presentational landscape of history; others include a series of vignettes of Vegas performers (e.g., Liberace, Siegfried and Roy; Elvis impersonators) and behind-the-scenes personnel. Finally, there are recurrent scenes of showgirls crossing the stage which serve as a kind of ornament or punctuation.

Here, in schematic form (and with a few simplifications, for clarity) is the opening sequence:

As the performance unfolds in real time, the first three scenes are self-contained, with only incidental clues (mentions of "slot machine" and "Flamingo hotel") suggesting how they might be related. The common connection (“it happened in Vegas”) is only revealed in the fourth scene (The Panorama of History), and then reinforced in the fifth by having the characters refer to the city:

Placard: THE PANORAMA OF HISTORY

SCIENTIST
A Brief History of Vegas.
First there was the boiling earth and molten lava. Ocean. Believe it or not. All underwater once.
Then the seas parted and left for parts more pleasant.
Plant life developed patience and a long root system.

Nevada territory.

State of Nevada. Not a whole lot of difference.
Everything’s legal, because there aren’t enough people to bother legislating too much.

Lights reveal Bugsy

Benjamin Siegel.

Bugsy lights a cigarette

Known to those who don’t actually know him as Bugsy.

BUGSY
Not my name.
I’m gonna let you off with a warning this time, but—
People been killed.
People been killed for that.

SCIENTIST
The gangster so crazy he saw Las Vegas shimmering before him, like a heat Mirage. Nothing but cactus, nothing but joshua trees. Nothing but the endless Sands. And he saw electricity flowing from the yet-unfinished Hoover Dam and he saw an Oasis out here in the Desert. . In(n) the beginning it was like a collection of cardboard flats, but it became a CIRCUS CIRCUS, like CEASAR’S PALACE in the roman days, where there had been nothing but FRONTIER. Now here we have this GOLDEN NUGGET shining in the DESERT, INN the dark. the light of a thousand suns.

The strip.

Benjamin Siegel saw it rising up out of the silent wavering sand.

Placard: CARTER AND BARBARA

CARTER
What do you want to know?

Placard: EVERYTHING.

Everything? You don’t want to know everything.

BARBARA enters

BARBARA
Well, I don’t know where I put those pictures. I’ll look again later.

Did you see that one of Carter on the bandstand? Of course, that’s in the War. The ones from Vegas are all in that box…

Placard: HOW DID YOU TWO MEET?

With its method and connective principle set forth, the play can begin to move forward by moving along and between threads; the structure may be loose but it is no longer random. The Barbara/Carter interview is interrupted, for example, by a second brief showgirl scene, easily understood as a merely interpolation with the swift resumption of the Carter thread. Siegel himself is mentioned in passing, then reappears in the next scene—a second history vignette, this time with showgirls—followed by the return of the scientist narrator who introduces a Liberace module, after which the Carter thread resumes yet again.

Once the framework and method have been well established, new threads can be introduced, letting the play unfold as a kind of structured ramble. Moreover, once the extent of the principal threads has been suggested, it is easy to bring in short, self-terminating elements (e.g., the wordless showgirl sequences, little more than a cross stage left to right) which serve as ornament; their information affects the structure or rhythm of the piece, contributing relatively little to the content. Indeed, a principal attraction of the tessellation is that it’s easy to build and easy to read. Like the chained or episodic narrative, its pleasures derive in large degree from the tension between continuity and discontinuity, between the surprise of branching out on a new tangent and the anticipatory satisfaction of the eventual resolution of any interrupted thread.

At the same time, the relaxed and discursive structure makes it easy to follow simultaneous stories. The forward motion of the piece derives from content; there is very little emphasis on pattern (which is to say that, unlike the Stack, the order in which threads follow each other is not strictly enforced). One is always curious to know what will happen next, yet there is little need to keep track of what has already happened. Some of these threads have a strongly delineated time scale, but others do not: we assume for example that the interview proceeds as it "really happened," but it wouldn't matter if the order were changed. Furthermore, the only thread with a conventional time-dependent narrative (Boy & Girl) does not define the time structure of the overall piece. Thus, by extension, the plot dynamics characteristic of the tightly-integrated play (foreshadowing, climax, reversal, etc.) are actually hard to deploy, because the overall structure of the piece is essentially flat.

All threads of a tessellation are functionally equivalent. The only way to establish even a crude hierarchy of primary and subordinate threads would be to regulate their lengths and frequencies—and, in the process, turn the assembly into a "badly-made" play.4 Instead of a hierarchy of "importance", tessellations encourage variations between threads in performance style, frame of reference, time scale and so forth--aspects of the dramatic framework which in the conventional play are typically kept constant.

Of course, replacing the expectation of unified "story" with a system of separate and distinct threads makes ending problematic; indeed, the truly cumulative resolution one expects in a play may not even be possible. At best, individual threads can be given clear endings, those ending can then be arranged to occur one after the other, and one or more threads may even be allowed to converge (e.g., by having similar actions, by introducing "connections," etc). But the true interpenetration of multiple threads requires one of two different structures: Stacks (discussed below), and a multi-threaded structure with frames or "windows" (which will have to await a subsequent post).

The Looped Stack

Like the assemblies previously discussed, Jason Grote's 1001 begins with a prolog, which itself begins with the word “Scheherazade”—who then appears—and, as in The Thousand Nights and One Night, sets off a series of stories within stories within stories. Here, for example, is the boundary between the initial framing story (The One-Eyed Arab) and the principal story of Shahriyar and Scheherazade:

B sits as THE ONE-EYED ARAB, as if in front of a tent in a bazaar. He may or may not be Middle Eastern, and clearly has both his eyes. During this, ensemble members dress C (still in bed) as SHAHRIYAR, a fearsome warrior king. Perhaps they remove the covers to reveal his costume.
ONE-EYED ARAB
Come! Come, sit! You like tea? Boy! Two teas. I see the lady is looking at my lace. For you, special price. Three dinar. I see you are looking at my missing eye. By Allah, do not be ashamed. There is a story behind the missing eye, but you are busy, we save this for another time. You like boys? Tea! Two boys. Come, sit. I shall share with you a story, bism'Allah, the story of the great Persian king and his famous wife Scheherazade. Come, sit.

Behind him, SHAHRIYAR jerks awake. Sounds of a porn film. SHAHRIYAR seethes, watching it.
ONE-EYED ARAB
There was a great king, Shahriyar, whose queen had been adulterous with a filthy blackamoor slave, hideous of visage, his lips like an open pot (etc.)

… and so the story continues, through a succession of scenes (helpfully given projected super-titles, like “THE TALE OF SHAHRIYAR, PART THREE”) , until at last, as we have known she would, the character of Scheherazade begins telling her first tale:



DUNYAZADE
(all in one breath)
Begging your pardon my king my sister tells me stories each night before we sleep I beg mercy of your greatness for I know that after tonight I shall no longer hear the glorious stories of my sister Scheherazade and I beg you to allow her to tell me one last story for I shall never more hear her tell of them was that correct sister?

SCHEHERAZADE
Yes, Dunyazade. A final mercy. Your "majesty." Before you lie with me.

SHAHRIYAR
Okay. And tell her she can take that

(loudly, as if D is deaf or foreign)
You can take that thing off!

SCHEHERAZADE
And now, a story.
Stand in front of me now king, and look closely at the pieces of my face. Look at my full red lips, my wet mouth, my nose, and each eye. Gaze like the Sufis do when they spin and eat their hashish and stare into the endless black sky of the desert night. Do you see what they see?

SHAHRIYAR
Yes it's like a. Like a screen saver or.

She picks up the tome and opens it. It as if the storm she describes is rising from the pages.
SCHEHERAZADE
A distant colorful storm, from an infinity away: is it a mirage? Watch as it comes closer, an exploding vortex, spinning forward, revealing itself to you, eating the sky, consuming all in its jagged green flames. Sit, o king, as I reveal to you: The Tale of Yahya Al-Husayni Amongst the Dead

B and E enter as FEMALE SLAVES, and begin to undress and make over D, who is now THE PRINCESS MARIDAH. F enters as PRINCE YAHYA, watching obsessively. B and E remove D's burqa, and dress her in a jilbab (a sort of Syrian pantsuit), deep blue, the same fabric as Shahriyar's silk.
SCHEHERAZADE
There once was a Syrian prince, by Allah, who from his boyhood was madly in love with his own twin sister

… and this second tale continues for a while, until Shahriyar interrupts in the middle and Scheherazade launches into a third tale before concluding the second:



SHAHRIYAR
You have to tell me what Uh happens. It sounds like something I. But. Like a movie I uh. But.

SCHEHERAZADE
If you must hear it. But I do fear the ending would surpass your understanding.

SHAHRIYAR
What is that supposed to uh. Mean?

SCHEHERAZADE
I mean to cast no aspersion, majesty. I meant only that what the Emir Ghassan did then may only be understood if one first hears another story.

SHAHRIYAR
I don't uh What do you call it Care. Tell it.

SCHEHERAZADE
(she's got him where she wants him)
Very well then. I bring you: The Tale of Alan in his Labyrinth

As SCHEHERAZADE narrates, ensemble members dress C as Alan, a modern-day hipster type who has been in a subway tunnel for some time. He has a head injury; perhaps he wears his dress shirt, the same color blue as the cloth in the earlier scenes, around his head. Dried blood should be visible through it. He wears work clothes of the type an arty temp or web programmer etc would wear. He is filthy.

SCHEHERAZADE
There once was or someday will be, insh'Allah, one Man Hat... (etc)

… and so on. Even if you didn’t know the 1001 Nights, the structure would be obvious: Each new story is, as it were, added to top of a stack and—unless another is thrown on top of it—must be completed before the stories underneath is be resumed, in reverse order. The crucial difference between a tessellation and a stack is that a time-dependent hierarchy has been introduced across the entire assembly. The very possibility of anticipating the order in which the stories will be resumed establishes a meta-structure structure and even permits a degree of dramatic tension (in this, and only this, a stack also resembles an interpolated assembly).

Unfortunately, though, stacking is essentially a delaying tactic, which is fine if you don’t want your head cut off but in the theatre runs the risk of becoming tedious. Stories at the bottom of the stack cannot simply be abandoned without undermining the very principle of stacking; if early threads are allowed to wither away, the end result is little better than a sloppy (most unsatisfactory) tessellation. Yet to avoid tedium—how nice if only there were a second principle, whereby stories could be stacked to the point of maximum tension, and then collapsed, to allow accelerated motion without breaking the rules.

The solution turns out to be opening a thread which leads back to an earlier thread in the stack, a tunneling process I call "looping", and which in 1001 takes the form of literally moving the character of Alan through the subway tunnels of "Man Hat" until he runs into the One-Eyed Arab, thereby bringing the narrative action back to the top-level thread. At this point things get very interesting.

The earlier threads are not erased—they can be thought of as running "in the background"—and indeed the story will return to them soon enough. But the looping-back creates a kind of "knot," establishing an endpoint for one sequence and the beginning of another. The One-Eyed Arab leads Alan "on" to an entry-point into yet another thread, set in modern Manhattan, which is labeled "Alan and Dahna Part 4." Together in their apartment, Alan and Dahna then re-enact a later scene from the story of Shariyar and Scheherazade (the characters they have previously portrayed), wherein Scheherazade begins the story of Flaubert in Egypt—the novelist eventually meeting a "horrible monster" who starts up the tale of Alan and Dahna from the beginning...

Would a diagram help make this clearer?

Grote's structure, in effect, moves through two dimensions. The first is the "flat" world of multiple threads, which it shares with tessellations and interpolations. The second though is a dimension of loops and tunnels in which the sense of forward motion (what would traditionally be called "action") derives not from narrative but meta-narrative. Introducing this second dimension frees the structure from having to traverse all the points in a thread; the thread need only establish certain points, which can be traversed in non-narrative, a-temporal.5 sequences. (Grote's piece actually introduces a refinement of this notion by returning, at the end, to a variant of Alan & Dahna Part 4—maybe a third dimension??) Looping and tunneling circumvent the requirement that stories cannot be abandoned. The experience of the piece depends less on the information in the threads themselves than on the pattern of their traversal.

As we have seen, abstract structures which emphasize pattern over content also favor formal devices such as repetition and return, substitution (whereby one thing—be it object or actor—"stands for" or becomes another thing), and the introduction of "markers:" purely formal elements (objects, attributes, phrases, etc.) which recur, typically with variations, to create a further sense of internal consistency within the work. Thus a piece of blue cloth “the color of the desert sky at dusk” reappears twice and then, at a later point, a character standing at the top of a minaret, “could see all of everything , laid out before him against the deep blue canvas of the desert sky at dusk.” Or the actor playing the “One-Eyed Arab” (who clearly has two good eyes) reappears later as an Israeli with an eye patch. Like the shorter “decorative” elements of a tessellation (‘thread fragments”), such markers contain content of little inherent value. Their value is entirely structural, as further evidence of pattern. They can even imply causality—“Aha!” one says to oneself, “So that’s how he lost his eye!”—but of course, like so much else in theatre, it’s only a trick, leveraging our expectations to advantage.




(1) Even conventional are routinely composed of various sections of material; sometimes even writings from the same session can seem like the work of different authors. The critical term here is "recognizably;" once an audience recognizes that texts must have come from different places or, if you will, are in deliberately differentiated hands, the piece can no longer be presented as a transparent window on some virtual reality.

(2) The exception to this rule is the interpolated assembly, which I will argue necessarily requires one and only one principal thread. Despite the seams whenever the thread is interrupted or resumed, the continuity provided by the principal thread makes it easy to (mis)read the piece as the telling of that one story.

(3) The threat to internal consistency posed by the introduction of subplots is generally resolved by ensuring that the characters in all plots inhabit a common world, even if they do not necessarily interact. There can also, of course, be thematic connections, but the simplest solution is just to suggest that everyone in the play could theoretically meet each other.

(4) Once relationships are established between threads, it's hard to suppress expectations of eventual closure, and closure is perhaps the principal device of the conventional play. But closure alone is not sufficient to turn an assembly into a tightly-integrated complex story. To put it another way, identifying one thread as "principal" (and strictly speaking, there can be only one) immediately raises questions about its relation to all other threads. Interpolation side-steps this problem by ensuring that the interpolations clearly "do not belong" and do not, collectively, comprise a true second thread. And, as we have previously noted, the corresponding risk is that the principal thread will be read as the "story" of the entire assembly, thereby making the tension generated by the interpolations problematic.

(5) "A-temporal" only in the sense that the timeframes of the threads are disregarded. In fact, the threads in 1001 not only have their own internal time-scales, but are implicitly arrayed within a common time-scale wherein fictitious events might be imagined to happen on a plane parallel to historical time (this is a large part of the function of the Prolog). The looping, then, primarily moves through a multi-dimensional matrix of time.

October 22, 2007

Thinking about Writing
about Thinking about
New Plays

NOTE: This essay originally appeared in the October, 2005 issue of American Theatre.

"He's the kind of character who really deserves to be in his own play,
but we've denied him one.
"
The actor James Urbaniak, on the character of Thom Pain


It's easy to get discouraged about the theatre. I do it whenever I can, and what I find most discouraging (you may disagree) is the prospect of nothing ever changing about the way plays are imagined or written or written about or understood. How discouraging if the theatre just kept presenting the same kind of plays based on the same small set of templates—year in, year out, same as it ever was—while I grew older and older and finally … stopped going, I suppose.

But last month, I realized this was nonsense. Theatrical experiment is thriving as never before: Why, in the past year alone in one little enclave by the Hudson, we've had wildly unorthodox new plays (in the sense that everyone understands the term "play") from Sheila Callaghan, Erin Courtney, Will Eno, Madeleine George, Rinne Groff, Rob Handel, Ann Marie Healy, Julia Jarcho, Len Jenkin (a known offender), John Jesurun, Karinne Keithley, Kristen Kosmas, Young Jean Lee, Ethan Lipton, Kirk Lynn, Richard Maxwell, Charlotte Meehan, Sally Oswald, Kate Ryan, Kelly Stuart, Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parsons, Alice Tuan, Anne Washburn, Mac Wellman (another known offender), Gary Winter, Banana Bag & Bodice (sic)—and who knows what-all elsewhere (for theatre is always local) across the land. Playwriting, it turns out, is in fine shape. The problem now is the state of theatre criticism, which is largely unequipped to deal with this phalanx of new writers.

And no—I'm not going to say terrible things about critics.

But consider the case of Will Eno, who received a truly jaw-dropping rave in the paper of record, the clear and stated purpose of which was to make everyone want to rush out and see Thom Pain (based on nothing), which they did. And why would this be a bad thing? Well, the night I went, the audience was pretty much the sort of folks you'd expect to be shelling out sixty bucks for an off-Broadway show—theatre veterans, happy to have a hot ticket—and no sooner had the play begun than a miasmic pall fell over them, and there they sat glumly for another 70 minutes, resisting the show with a dull ferocity until they were released, and out they trooped. And as they trooped out, what they said to each other was some variation of: "I don't know what that thing was supposed to be, but it sure as hell wasn't a play."

An off-night, I am told. But even so, isn't this the Artistic Director's nightmare? You do a risky play (and Eno's play is, inter alia, weird, unpleasant, irritating, aggressive, manipulative and like his Tragedy, a Tragedy, a theatre of absence and withholding rather than presentation and presence); you have a critic who understands and loves the play for what it is; and then your audience comes and hates it for the very thing it is. If this is what necessarily happens—and I believe most theatre practitioners in our country have this expectation, born alas of painful experience—then why bother?

Does this mean, then, that the great bold dream of the non-profit movement—of revitalizing an art-form by expanding the definition of what's possible—stands now revealed, some forty years on, as a snare and a delusion? Is it in fact the case that theatre is so locked into a set of expectations—about what a play is, about what audiences want—that it is effectively paralyzed? It might be hard to argue to the contrary.

Of course, at any point in time, any art-form consists of expectations which establish thresholds beyond which most people cannot readily be led—the "Shock of the New", etc—and by the same token there will always be a handful of people poking around beyond those very thresholds, making unorthodox work, which at the time will appeal to only a few. The problem is not that, at any given moment, there are limits. The problem arises when, over time, those limits never change. In other word, the problem of theatre isn't that audiences will only go so far; but that over time, and despite forty years of effort, they still seem unwilling to go anywhere except where they have gone before. And this, rightly, is recognized by theatres and artists as a paralyzing condition which is bad for all concerned, especially theatres and artists, even if a preponderance of those theatres and artists are—at any given time—quite happy in the mainstream.

If the field as a whole cannot include the new—or can only include it so incrementally as to make it imperceptible and marginal and irrelevant—then the field as a whole is profoundly and inherently conservative. I believe even artists with little personal appetite for radical work find this prospect troubling. Which may be why any discussion of Problem of New Work so often takes the form of bafflement yielding to truculence: "So, is this how it is? Well, OK, then—get used to it. Unless you've got a better idea….?"

But if nothing else, framing the problem in this manner effectively guarantees that it will never be resolved. For as long as the question is "How can anyone ever get an audience to accept and enjoy new and difficult work?" the cycle of frustration is necessarily perpetuated—because the premise is based on the assumption that no one knows the solution. This formulation of the problem turns out to be nothing more than a sophisticated begging of the question. But once the question is reframed, and one inquires whether any other art form has faced a similar problem, the experience of 20th Century American painting surely becomes relevant.

I'm old enough to remember when educated Americans could claim, in print and for attribution, that Modernism (by which they actually meant an undifferentiated grab-bag of styles from Picasso to Pollock) was a "fraud," something "a 6 year-old child could do better." Today nobody would dare make that claim. Nobody, that is, who wasn't prepared to be dismissed as an ignoramus or cultural provocateur (with Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word [1975] leading that particular Pickett's Charge). Nor is the reason mysterious. Wander into any blockbuster modernist exhibit, and you will find little old gray-haired ladies going through the galleries, nattering on about "the flatness of the picture-plane." Once little old gray-haired ladies feel comfortable discussing the flatness of the picture plane, you can't write off Henri Matisse as no better than a 6 year-old.

Now I had to go to college and take an Art History class to learn about the flatness of the picture plane; where on earth do the little old gray-haired ladies come by it? No mystery there, either: they can simply rent a headset, and let Philippe de Montebello tell them what it is, and where to look for it, and why it matters so. They have, in other words, been taught to use a few terms and concepts—just as I was, just as Philippe de Montebello was, the very process Robert Hughes describes in "The Shock of the New"— and having acquired a handful of terms and concepts with which to discuss the work, they are suddenly and magically able to discuss and understand it— and lo, the scales fall from their eyes and they see...

Starting shortly after the Second World War, advocates of the visual arts in this country put an enormous amount of effort and energy into disseminating a core set of terms and concepts by which the "difficult" stuff could be discussed and understood. By the mid 1980's, their battle was essentially won, and the halls of the Guggenheims, Dias and MOMAs still swarm with gray haired ladies and their descendants. Theatre, unless I have been missing something, has spent almost no effort or energy in defining, let alone disseminating, a core set of terms and concepts by which new plays might be discussed and understood. And I believe even the gray-haired ladies aren't subscribing the way they used to.

No museum of any size, no gallery of any importance for heaven's sake, would mount a show without a catalog. And while a pricey museum catalog may sell on the basis of the souvenir value of the reproductions, or the cocktail-table value of the tome, the actual purpose of the catalog is to provide an essay which places the work-at-hand in the context of that shared set of core terms and concepts. In so doing, the catalog directly rebuts objections of fraud or technical incompetence. One need not read the catalog—I suspect hardly anyone does—the catalog does its essential work merely by existing. The catalog stands as a sentinel; its mere existence demonstrating that the work-at-hand cannot simply be dismissed. The catalog raises the bar of the discourse; it sets the tone and chooses the weaponry. One cannot impugn (let alone dismiss) the art on the walls without going through the catalog, and the catalog gives no quarter. The catalog does not even pretend to be easy or simple. The catalog merely insists that you must respond, if you dare, on its own terms.

Not that the art world is incapable of hubris or folly: You can't plop Richard Serra's aggressive whorl of Cor-Ten steel down into a corporate plaza without a reaction from the lunchtime crowds. You cannot really (and why was this ever a surprise?) expect the average sensual museum-goer to contemplate Mapplethorpe's hardcore candids of sex on the pier without flinching. But these are tiny setbacks in an otherwise triumphal campaign for mass acceptance—a campaign echoed if not quite matched by similar efforts on behalf of dance, symphonic music, the novel and poetry. Which is why I humbly suggest that if little old gray-haired ladies can be taught to "read" Pollock and de Kooning and Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter and Dan Flavin and Donald Judd and John Currin (because even figurative art dare not venture forth without a bodyguard today), they can surely be taught to "read" Mac Wellman, Melissa James Gibson, Will Eno, and stranger, wilder creatures.

A true story: years ago, the Wooster Group was invited to remount Rumstick Road at the American Place after its original run downtown. Wynn Handman thought he could serve it up to his subscription audience and I'd heard nothing but horror stories from my buddies in the Group—how almost as soon as the lights went down the audience started to get up and leave, continuing out in a steady stream until by the end there was hardly anyone left.

Imagine, then, my surprise upon attending a Wednesday matinee (!!) to find a crowd of fashionable middle-aged ladies not only sitting through the thing but paying attention and obviously having a grand time. This was so against expectation that I had to seek an answer and it turned out they were a theatre group from Westchester whose leader had given them a little orientation on the bus ride down. Nothing, mind you, on the order of the "flatness of the picture plane." The palpable pleasure these women derived from watching and "getting" the show—a pleasure indeed compounded both of enjoying the show on its own terms and feeling the self-congratulation which comes of "getting" something you've been told is "hard" and "difficult"—sprang entirely from this "explanation:" That Rumstick Road a) was a piece about a mother's suicide, which b) was made by a younger generation of artists who c) had a lot of technology and media in their lives (hence all the tape recordings and slide projections and aggressive scoring) and d) watched a lot of television and liked to switch channels all the time (hence the disjunctive and associative structure of the piece.)

That's all. Yet that simple and reductive explanation was enough to give the matinee ladies enough confidence to face Rumstick Road with the expectation that they would understand and recognize what the artists were doing. And sure enough—the lights went down and there were all the tape recorders and the slide projections and the loud blaring music and the mention of the mother's suicide and the jump cuts between the scenes—and the women were so happy they practically cut each other off in mid-sentence trying to tell me that they enjoyed the show so much because it happened just the way they'd been told it would. This fulfillment of an expectation—their recognition of what they had been told to look for—was what made the show enjoyable. Whereas with Thom Pain it was just the reverse. There was an audience which showed up to see a play (in the sense that everyone understands that term) and found something different—something which in fact was clearly not a play (though it stand in a clear and complex relationship to the sense in which everyone understands the term)—and for want of a context—the shared terms and concepts—found themselves baffled and alienated, hating the experience of being there and thus hating the "play."

So, is it realistic to expect art theory in a daily newspaper? I will let you compare level the art and theatre criticism in your local paper (I'd say the answer is a qualified "yes"), but the dissemination of shared terms and concepts doesn't depend on a newspaper. And am I seriously suggesting that difficult, strange new plays—plays which are not plays in the sense that everyone understands that term—can be presented to a mainstream theatre audience? I am indeed—presumptuously and in defiance of everything everyone "knows" about theatre—as long as one adopts the tools and techniques of the visual arts:

1) Theatres must accept that the presentation of new plays is Smart Fun, and be prepared to promote it accordingly. Theatre is so afraid of seeming "elitist" that it often pretends to be dumber than it really is, then tries to mend the damage by claiming that somehow, within its precincts, the "challenging" will be made "accessible." Which is nothing but a fiddle, which an audience will recognize as a fiddle, thereby leaving all parties to the transaction feeling sheepish.

Is there really any reason not to appeal to intelligence—or at least, to the level of intelligence which is assumed, say, by the New Yorker or the New York Times Book Review? Is anyone likely to be offput by a presumption of intelligence? Is it possible that major American cities do not host even a few thousand people who would want to see new, strange, unusual plays—people who might find the very invitation bracing—as long as it came with the assurance that they would also be provided with the terms and concepts that would allow them to follow such current explorations at the forefront of theatre?

2) (and this follows from the previous) The enterprise is not the work itself; the enterprise is creating a context for the work. Because the context is even more important than the work, and this is true even at the Performing Garage and the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre. Those venues are the context. Your experience of a production by Foreman or LeCompte stands or falls by what you make of Foreman or LeCompte themselves (which is to say, the context). The piece itself—the actual lines spoken and actions performed on stage, the "content" if you will or even, God help us, the "meaning" of the actual work-at-hand—is always understood to be secondary if not irrelevant to the ongoing fact of the theatre and the artists whose work is shown there. The piece itself is just another instance of that true and ongoing work. Just so at any theatre presenting new plays, it must be the context that the audience is asked to attend more than any particular play. It is that context which the theatre, by its existence, proposes to establish—a context of explication—which must prove itself reliable and dependable and constant. Within that abiding context, the plays themselves will come and go.

3) Therefore, (and this too follows from the previous)—the context specifically must be, and be known to be, about providing ways to read and understand and discuss the work. Before spending money on production—even before spending money on development—a theatre devoted to new work should spend enough to commission serious and substantive critical essays by smart, literate thinkers, and these essays should all be published in a big fat catalog called the Program, and every effort should be make to get this 50-page booklet into the hands of anyone who buys a ticket—if they don't, in fact, get the thing in the mail beforehand. And these essays need to be top-drawer, high-powered, literate criticism—which doesn't mean they can't be fun and snarky and even perhaps a little heavy-going from time to time. Because like the museum catalog, they are setting the terms of the discourse. I'm not suggesting anything approaching the current excesses of MLA; plain English, finely wrought, will suffice. But the writing must show evidence of original thought, and it cannot, ever, excuse or plead or truckle.

When Clubbed Thumb mounted its Wellman Festival, their program was a 50-page brochure which included essays by the likes of Marjorie Perloff (though not the essay in question, her preface to Cellophane http:/wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/perloff/articles/wellman.html should give you .an idea of the level at which her argument was pitched). Is there any reason why major regional theatres can't engage leading critics, essayists, novelists, poets and playwrights for such a project? Can you imagine a season of new plays culminating in a combined catalog, now of book-length form, with essays by the likes of Camille Paglia and Luc Sante and Dom DeLillo and Marjorie Garber and Tony Kushner and Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Chabon and Paula Vogel and Daniel Mendelsohn and ...

Wouldn’t that change forever the way new plays are presented?

And wouldn't that be pretty darn cool?

October 10, 2007

Snapshot

Back row (l-r): Ann Washburn, Young Jean Lee, Scott Adkins, Karinne Keithley, Normandy Sherwood; Front row (l-r): Me, Mac Wellman, Gary Winter, Madelyn Kent; Onstage: Kate Benson, Daniel Manley; Missing: Sibyl Kempson

performance of Zeit af der "Zeit af der K├╝rbisGeistNachten ..."
Dixon Place, New York
October 8, 2007

October 3, 2007

A Modest Question

When a drama critic dismisses a show by saying they don't understand it, why isn't this taken as evidence of incompetence?

June 30, 2007

The Uses of Story

BROOKLYN RAIL (TRISH HARNETIAUX): Too often we, as viewers and critics, get bogged down in all that "coherence of story" nonsense. How have you dealt with the evil word of STRUCTURE in your adaptation?

ERIN COURTNEY: I don’t think structure is an evil word. I think structure is a glorious word. I love patterns and multiplicity and symmetry, and these can be great structures for plays. In fact, the reason I was drawn to the E.T.A. novel is because of its complex structure. Hoffman has created a wild and absurd premise that allows him to intertwine two distinctly different narratives. These two narratives wink at each other constantly and this really satisfies my love of symmetry.

KARINNE KEITHLEY: I don’t think structure is an evil word and I also don’t give a rat’s ass for the normal ideas about coherence. Having spent years in the most heady abstract part of the dance world, I’m very comfortable working as a gardener: planting, grafting, arranging unlike things to work as a whole ... The structure then is about accumulating a sense of population in space, and attending to the play between density and surface tension.

Interview in The Brooklyn Rail, June 2007



If there's one issue dividing conventional theatre from the broad swath of contemporary dramatic innovation, it has to do with the importance of story—or to be more accurate, with the importance of recognition of story. In one camp are those for whom the value of any play is largely equivalent to the (emotional) value of its story. In the other are people like Karinne Keithley who, as she recently wrote me, are "pretty sure that telling stories is done better with movies and books than it is with theater," and don't give a rat's ass for coherence.

Underlying these two positions, however, are shared assumptions about the nature and purpose of stories which are taken by both camps as self-evident. Everyone "knows", for example, that a story isn't a mere recounting of events—just one damned thing after another. It needs to be a structured recounting; stories must have recognizable parts: beginnings, middles, ends, second-act curtains, reversals, etc. The actual sequence of events as they are told need not be linear, yet the implicit sequence is always forward, across time, and therefore implicitly (and usually explicitly) causal.

More importantly, stories have characters. Indeed, the value of telling a story may be defined as precisely equal to the consequence of the story’s events upon on its characters (hence the injunction that one must "care about" those characters), the corollaries being, therefore, that stories must have both characters and events, otherwise "nothing happens." But even more than that, everyone expects that a structured recounting of events and characters will display some further degree of internal consistency and coherence. Everyone knows, in other words, that stories must in some profound and fundamental way "make sense," and from here it is only a short step to concluding that whole point of the enterprise must lie in the very "sense" which one makes—indeed, is invited to make—of the story.

All of which is long-winded reaffirmation what everybody knows—that stories make up the content.

Of course nowadays, no self-respecting theatre-goer watches a play just to follow the plot. Self-respecting theatre-goers understand that, after Chekhov, the actual story outcome can be nugatory (nobody goes to Moscow). But they expect a story will unfold nonetheless, for in Chekhov’s plays situation, character and event comprise the Action as completely as in any "well-made" play. The difference has largely to do with scale: put crudely, by scaling overt action down, Chekhov makes his plays seem not only more life-like but more nuanced. Even Beckett[1] makes use of story in this conventional sense, which is not only why Pozzo and Lucky have to appear (so something actually "happens"), but why (as we were all taught, long ago) it is crucial to understand that Godot never will. To put it another way, even in the canonical Modern theatre, story remains pretty much synonymous with content, and "what happens" in the play can be expressed—more or less—as its story.

This set of shared assumptions (story=content=emotional value) is not so much incorrect as it is drastically incomplete, and having been accepted as "self-evident," also obscures the unique functions of story in a time-based artform like the theatre.



Story as Pattern

Consider, for example, the following story, one of the lesser Grimm Bros. tales and one surely derived from the oral tradition:


Fair Katrinelje and Pif-Paf-Poltrie

"Good-day, Father Hollenthe." "Many thanks, Pif-Paf-Poltrie." "May I be allowed to have your daughter?" "Oh, yes, if Mother Malcho Milchcow, Brother High-and-Mighty, Sister Kasetraut, and fair Katrinelje are willing, you can have her." "Where is Mother Malcho, then?" "She is in the cow-house, milking the cow."

"Good-day, Mother Malcho." "Many thanks, Pif-Paf-Poltrie." "May I be allowed to have your daughter?" "Oh, yes, if Father Hollenthe, Brother High-and-Mighty, Sister Kasetraut, and fair Katrinelje are willing, you can have her." "Where is Brother High-and-Mighty, then?" "He is in the room chopping some wood."

"Good-day, Brother High-and-Mighty." "Many thanks, Pif-Paf-Poltrie." "May I be allowed to have your sister?" "Oh, yes, if Father Hollenthe, Mother Malcho, Sister Kasetraut, and fair Katrinelje are willing, you can have her." "Where is Sister Kasetraut, then?" "She is in the garden cutting cabbages."

"Good-day, Sister Kasetraut." "Many thanks, Pif-Paf-Poltrie." "May I be allowed to have your sister?" "Oh, yes, if Father Hollenthe, Mother Malcho, Brother High-and-Mighty, and fair Katrinelje are willing, you may have her." "Where is fair Katrinelje, then." "She is in the room counting out her farthings."

"Good day, fair Katrinelje." "Many thanks, Pif-Paf-Poltrie." "Will you be my bride?" "Oh, yes, if Father Hollenthe, Mother Malcho, Brother High-and-Mighty, and Sister Kasetraut are willing, I am ready."

"Fair Katrinelje, how much dowry do you have?" "Fourteen farthings in ready money, three and a half groschen owing to me, half a pound of dried apples, a handful of pretzels, and a handful of roots. And many other things are mine, Have I not a dowry fine?"

"Pif-Paf-Poltrie, what is your trade? Are you a tailor?" "Something better." "A shoemaker?" "Something better." "A husbandman?" "Something better." "A joiner?" "Something better." "A smith?" "Something better." "A miller?" "Something better." "Perhaps a broom-maker?"" Yes, that's what I am, is it not a fine trade?"


On first reading, this story appears clumsy and reductive—barely a story at all!—yet it contains all the elements of a "real" story: characters of course, situation, even the forward motion of time. But these elements have been drastically scaled back. Instead, the most striking features are elements a contemporary writer would strive to avoid: repetitive phrasing and prominent division into formulaic parts. Moreover, these features are clearly related.

If we take the first paragraph as the first story unit, we see that it first establishes character and situation with brutal efficiency, then finishes with a kind of "pointer" to the next scene ("Where is she?"). At this point, it would be hard to predict what might happen next. But as soon as we enter the second story unit, this changes immediately. We recognize, through the repetition, that this unit is almost but not quite identical the first. The prominence of patterning makes it easy to spot the differences—we have moved to the second person on the list—and with this understanding we know at once what the third and fourth story units must be, and thus suddenly become curious about the nature of the fifth.

Now one could make the case that following even this story still involves following content. Only thus, for example, do we know that the negotiation of a dowry follows the request for permission to marry. But it seems to me that what is really recognized in the second story unit is an overall pattern.[2] Not only do we know what parts 3 and 4 will be "about", we know exactly how their content will be phrased. The pattern, in other words, requires repetition. See for yourself if a paraphrased version of the third or fourth paragraphs would improve or damage the story.

Moreover—and this is unique to the oral tradition—we are now in the curious position of having to wait—in real time, without skipping ahead—for the completion of a patter to learn how it will break. The relative tedium of slogging through parts 3 and 4 is palliated by the anticipation of relief in 5. The repetitive pattern, in other words, establishes tension. (I trust no one would argue that there is any real tension derived from the content; from learning what, e.g., Sister Kasetraut is going to say.)

And indeed, the fifth part recapitulates the first four, and proceeds immediately to the sixth which, necessarily, is different not only in subject (moving on to the next stage of the negotiations) but structure. Here again, pattern shapes content, but this time the form is the list, which is freer than the first pattern since it basically takes the form of "one-thing-after-another-until-the-end." The list pattern, in fact, encourages variation between the elements, and one would expect that the actual contents of the list would be further varied, for effect, in each retelling. The same is true of the seventh and final unit, which combines both the list and repetitive pattern ("Is it X?" "No" "Is it Y?" "No?") to make a chain which must continue, however improbable and incongruous the sequence, until the answer becomes "Yes."

Clearly it would be a waste of time to dwell on the characters, situation or even the outcome of this story, as they are beside the point. Some might even claim that reading it is a waste of time as well. But unless you are prepared to claim that there is no pleasure in the story whatsoever, I think you would agree that its pleasures would be greatest in oral form, where the various enhancements unique to performance (giving voice to various characters, punctuating the lists with one's delivery, and modifying their elements to amuse a specific audience) are supported by those very properties—repetition and visible structure—which make the written version dull.[3]

When a story is told in real time, it demands constant attention. This, in turn, causes a kind of friction. This friction can be relieved by letting the audience know where it stands at any point in time relative to the story as a whole. (This is why pieces performed without intermission often include the running time in the program, and why the perennial question of the summer road trip is "Are we there yet?"). As we shall see in our final story, this can be achieved by shaping content to conform to well-understood story rules. But it can also be achieved without regard to content, through the application of pattern.

The great usefulness of pattern lies in its flexibility. It would be a trivial matter to extend the story of Pif-Paf-Poultrie; one could even improvise it on the spot, by simply adding more family members (e.g., uncle, grandmother, dog). Similarly, adding, changing or removing whole episodes could easily be abstracted into new groups of patterned story units (e.g., the Wedding of Pif-Paf-Poultrie). Indeed the malleability of pattern derives precisely from its abstract nature: once the pattern is understood, it can be projected in any direction, over any terrain.

One final point: pattern also clearly demarcates the parts of the story which can accept extraneous detail (the lists) from those where extraneous detail must be suppressed. As we shall see, other story types will be more or less tolerant of extraneous detail.



Story as Chain

Now consider a second story, also a Grimm Bros. tale, where the story units are less patterned, and the characters, situation and events become more prominent and significant:


The Straw, The Coal and The Bean

In a village dwelt a poor old woman, who had gathered together a dish of beans and wanted to cook them. So she made a fire on her hearth, and that it might burn the quicker, she lighted it with a handful of straw. When she was emptying the beans into the pan, one dropped without her observing it, and lay on the ground beside a straw, and soon afterwards a burning coal from the fire leapt down to the two.

Then the straw began and said, "Dear friends, from whence do you come here?" The coal replied, "I fortunately sprang out of the fire, and if I had not escaped by sheer force, my death would have been certain, I should have been burnt to ashes." The bean said, "I too have escaped with a whole skin, but if the old woman had got me into the pan, I should have been made into broth without any mercy, like my comrades." "And would a better fate have fallen to my lot?" said the straw. "The old woman has destroyed all my brethren in fire and smoke. She seized sixty of them at once, and took their lives. I luckily slipped through her fingers." "But what are we to do now?" said the coal. "I think, "answered the bean, "that as we have so fortunately escaped death, we should keep together like good companions, and lest a new mischance should overtake us here, we should go away together, and repair to a foreign country." The proposition pleased the two others, and they set out on their way together.

Soon, however, they came to a little brook, and as there was no bridge or foot-plank, they did not know how they were to get over it. The straw hit on a good idea, and said, "I will lay myself straight across, and then you can walk over on me as on a bridge." The straw therefore stretched itself from one bank to the other, and the coal, who was of an impetuous disposition, tripped quite boldly on to the newly-built bridge. But when she had reached the middle, and heard the water rushing beneath her, she was, after all, afraid, and stood still, and ventured no farther. The straw, however, began to burn, broke in two pieces, and fell into the stream. The coal slipped after her, hissed when she got into the water, and breathed her last.

The bean, who had prudently stayed behind on the shore, could not but laugh at the event, was unable to stop, and laughed so heartily that she burst. It would have been all over with her, likewise, if, by good fortune, a tailor who was traveling in search of work, had not sat down to rest by the brook. As he had a compassionate heart he pulled out his needle and thread, and sewed her together. The bean thanked him most prettily, but as the tailor used black thread, all beans since then have a black seam.



Despite its unusual characters, this story seems not only more "story-like" but more "life-like" than Pif-Paf-Poultrie, simply because of the attention paid to rendering the mise-en-scene. The story parts are clearly demarcated,, and correspond nicely with the cinematic vocabulary of scenes framed by establishing shots and jump cuts:


SCENE 1: Medium shot. A cottage. Zoom in on old woman preparing a meal. Jump cut to:
SCENE 2: Close up on Talking Straw. Business. Jump cut to:
SCENE 3: Long shot. A bridge. Zoom in on the three comrades. Business. Jump cut to:
SCENE 4: The riverbank. Pan to tailor. Zoom in on sewing. Fade out


This story unfolds as a sequence of clearly defined scenes. Each scene takes place in a different location, with a different focus and point of view. Characters may or may not carry over from previous scenes; thus the old woman is discarded, and the tailor introduced, as needed. Within each story unit, there is no doubt what is going on. But without the clear pattern of Pif-Paf-Poultrie (or, to anticipate, the recognizable plot lines of Sylvester), it is impossible to predict what will happen in the next story unit. The story as a whole has a rambling, episodic feel—who could predict the path from old woman to tailor—and its twists and turns account for the variety and surprise which constitute so much of its charm.

Here I must mention, in passing, my debt to Arthur Applebee’s invaluable The Child’s Concept of Story, and in turn, his debt to the Russian Lev Vygotsky, for the concepts of Focused and Unfocused Chains.


[In an unfocused chain], each element shares a clear concrete attribute with the next, but this defining attribute is constantly shifting; the result is a chain in which the head bears very little relation to the tail… the incidents lead quite directly from one to another, but the attributes which link them continue to shift—characters pass in and out of the story, the type of action changes, the setting blurs. The result is a story which, taking its incidents in pairs, has much of the structure of a narrative, but as a whole loses its point and direction… The amount of material managed in a story such as this can be quite large, but the lack of a center or "point" prevents it from becoming a structured whole in which the various parts can all be related to one another. [In a focused chain] the processes of chaining and of centering around concrete attributes are joined within one narrative. In its most typical form, the center is a main character who goes through a series of events linked one to another just as in the unfocused chain. This produces a focused chain narrative of the "continuing adventures of..."type. (It is quite common in such adult genres as radio serials and adventure stories...)


Since episodic structures have a rich literary history (Odyssey, Pickwick Papers, Huckleberry Finn, etc.), but it's worth noting they violate some basic principles of conventional dramaturgy: consistency of character, and the delineation of a story arc with through-line and payoff. Chain structures are by design loose and free, and actually reward unexpected transitions and changing sets of characters (only a seriously autistic or post-modern author would create an episodic chain of identical situations.) Straw, Coal & Bean could easily have ended without the appearance of the tailor, and with minor addition (e.g., the Bean thanks the tailor and reveals its magic powers) could have continued after. Indeed, endings pose a special problem. They will be unsatisfying if they appear to be just another episode, and must either be overtly prefigured (as in Odyssey) or treated as a formal device (hence the "problematic" ending of Huck Finn). That aside, all other constituent "parts" (which will now typically conform to more familiar story elements like "scenes," "chapters," or "episodes,") can be more or less uniform. It is the difference between the episodes that gives the story its shape and tension. And because chains are a kind of magpie form, it is hard to imagine a case where extraneous detail couldn't be worked in. Rather, the compositional challenges have to do with one's richness of invention, and ability to gauge the tolerance of the audience's attention span.




The Tightly-Integrated Complex Story

Now, finally, we can consider the story as it is commonly understood in its broader context. My last example is William Steig's Sylvester, which is worth tracking down in book form for its illustrations, which do so much to further clarify the articulation of the narrative:


Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

Sylvester Duncan lived with his mother and father at Acorn Road in Oatsdale. One of his hobbies was collecting pebbles of unusual shape and color.

On a rainy Saturday during vacation he found a quite extraordinary one. It was flaming red, shiny, and perfectly round, like a marble. As he was studying this remarkable pebble, he began to shiver, probably from excitement, and the rain felt cold on his back. "I wish it would stop raining," he said.

To his great surprise, the rain stopped. It didn’t stop gradually as rains usually do. It CEASED. The drops vanished on the way down, the clouds disappeared, everything was dry, and the sun was shining as if rain had never existed.

In all his young life Sylvester had never had a wish gratified so quickly. It struck him that magic must be at work, and he guessed that the magic must be in the remarkable-looking red pebble. (Where indeed it was.) To make a test, he put the pebble on the ground and said, "I wish it would rain again." Nothing happened. But when he said the same thing holding the pebble in his hoof, the sky turned black, there was lightning and a clap of thunder, and the rain came shooting down.

"What a lucky day this is!" thought Sylvester. From now on, I can have anything I want. My father and mother can have anything they want. My relatives, my friends, and anybody else, all can have everything anybody wants.

He wished the sunshine back in the sky, and he wished a wart on his left hind fetlock would disappear, and it did, and he started home, eager to amaze his father and mother with his magic pebble. He eould hardy wait to see their faces. Maybe they wouldn't even believe him at first.

As he was crossing Strawberry Hill, thinking of the many, many things he could wish for, he was startled to see a mean, hungry lion looking right at him from behind some tall grass. He was frightened. If he hadn’t been frightened he could have made the lion disappear and he could have wished himself safe at home with his father and mother.

He could have wished the lion would turn into a butterfly or a daisy or a gnat. He could have wished many things, but he panicked and couldn't think carefully. "I wish I were a rock," he said, and he became a rock. The lion came bounding over, sniffed the rock a hundred times, walked around and around it, and went away confused, perplexed, puzzled, and bewildered. "I saw that little donkey as clear as day. Maybe I'm going crazy," he muttered.

And there was Sylvester, a rock on Strawberry Hill, with the magic pebble lying right beside him on the ground, and he was unable to pick it up. "Oh, how I wish I were myself again," he thought, but nothing happened. He had to be touching the pebble to make the magic work, but there was nothing he could do about that.

His thoughts began to race like mad. He was scared and worried. Being helpless, he felt hopeless. He imagined all the possibilities, and eventually he realized that his only chance of becoming himself again was for someone to find the red pebble and to wish that the rock next to it would be a donkey. Someone would surely find the red pebble – it was so bright and shiny - but what on earth would make them wish that a rock were a donkey? The chance was one in a billion at best.

Sylvester fell asleep. What else could he do? Night came with many stars.

Meanwhile, back at home, Mr. and Mrs. Duncan paced the floor, frantic with worry. Sylvester had never come home later than dinner time. Where could he be? They stayed up all night wondering what had happened, expecting that Sylvester would surely turn up by morning. But he didn't, of course. Mrs. Duncan cried a lot and Mr. Duncan did his best to soothe her. Both longed to have their dear son with them. "I will never scold Sylvester again as long as I live," said Mrs. Duncan, "no matter what he does."

At dawn, they went about inquiring of all the neighbors.

They talked to all the children—the puppies, the kittens, the colts, the piglets. No one had seen Sylvester since the day before yesterday.

They went to the police. The police could not find their child.

All the dogs in Oatsdale went searching for him. They sniffed behind every rock and tree and blade of grass, into every nook and gully of the neighborhood and beyond, but found not a scent of him. They sniffed the rock on Strawberry Hill, but it smelled like a rock. It didn’t smell like Sylvester.

After a month of searching the same places over and over again, and inquiring of the same animals over and over again, Mr. and Mrs. Duncan no longer knew what to do. They concluded that something dreadful must have happened and that they would probably never see their son again. (Though all the time he was less than a mile awav.)

They tried their best to be happy, to go about their usual ways. But their usual ways included Sylvester and they were always reminded of him. They were miserable. Life had no meaning for them any more.

Night followed day and day followed night over and over again. Sylvester on the hill woke less and less often. When he was awake he was only hopeless and unhappy. He felt he would be a rock forever and he tried to get used to it. He went into an endless sleep. The days grew colder. Fall came with the leaves changing color. Then the leaves fell and the grass bent to the ground. Then it was winter. The winds blew, this way and that. It snowed. Mostly, the animals stayed indoors, living on the food they had stored up.

One day a wolf sat on the rock that was Sylvester and howled and howled because he was hungry.

Then the snows melted. The earth warmed up in the spring sun and things budded.

Leaves were on the trees again. Flowers showd their young faces.

One day in May, Mr. Duncan insisted that his wife go with him on a picnic. "Let’s cheer up," he said. "Let us try to live again and be happy even though Sylvester, our angel, is no longer with us." They went to Strawberry Hill.

Mrs. Duncan sat down on the rock. The warmth of his own mother sitting on him woke Sylvester up from his deep winter sleep. How he wanted to shout, "Mother! Father! It's me, Sylvester, I'm right here!" But he couldn't talk. He had no voice. He was stone-dumb.

Mr. Duncan walked aimlessly about while Mrs. Duncan set out the picnic food on the rock - alfalfa sandwiches, pickled oats, sassafrass alad, timothy compote. Suddenly Mr. Duncan saw the red pebble. "What a fantastic pebble!" he exclaimed. "Sylvester would have loved it for his collection." He put the pebble on the rock.

They sat down to eat. Sylvester was now as wide awake as a donkey that was a rock could possibly be. Mrs. Duncan felt some mysterious excitement. "You know, Father," she said suddenly, "I have the strangest feeling that our dear Sylvester is still alive and not far away."

"I am, I am!" Sylvester wanted to shout, but he couldn't.

If only he had realized that the pebble resting on his back was the magic pebble!

"Oh, how I wish he were here with us on this lovely May day," said Mrs. Duncan. Mr. Duncan looked sadly at the ground. "Don’t you wish it too, Father?" she said. He looked at her as if to say "How can you ask such questions?"

"I wish I were myself again! I wish I were my real self again!" thought Sylvester.

And in less than an instant, he was!

You can imagine the scene that followed—the embraces, the kisses, the questions, the answers, the loving looks, and the fond exclamations!

When they had eventually calmed down a bit and had gotten home, Mr. Duncan put the magic pebble in an iron safe. Some day they might want to use it but really, for now what more could they wish for? They all had all that they wanted.

The End.


Here, finally, is a "true" story, one in which the emotional outcome is of greatest importance. Here we have characters we care about, locked into a tightly-plotted narrative. So compelling is the whole, so firm the momentum with which we are propelled from beginning to end, that the individual parts may seem less important.

But in fact, the effects of this story depend entirely upon the configuration of the individual parts—both in relation to each other, and to the well-known pattern of a moral tale in which a protagonist gets into trouble, and is eventually rescued.

At the outset—and the illustrations make this even clearer—a happy family is shown at home and together. But almost immediately, the child goes out into the world, separate from its parents, and embarks on an adventure which, we recognize from our knowledge of the form, has to do with access to forbidden powers. The absurdity of the introduction of a lion ex machina is mitigated, again, by our recognition that this another required element of such stories. The end result (of what in theatrical terms would be Act I) is the prospect of an irreparable separation of child from parents. And here, this story too introduces deliberate delay, contrasting the forced inactivity of the child with the feverish and futile activity of the parents.

The tension of the story at this point comes from the discrepancy between two projected endings—the course of the story as it has transpired so far (the parents will eventually die and Sylvester will spend the rest of eternity as a semi-sentient rock) and the course we anticipate from the form itself, which is that such a resolution is untenable and that a happy ending must somehow be brought about. Here again, the dynamics of the story are mainly concerned with the postponement of the inevitable resolution. Once the time for resolution arrives (when spring comes round, and the parents are on the verge of giving up) , the actual reversal and denouement are managed with efficiency.

Stories of this kind are expected to be highly coherent. Their design is necessarily complex and sophisticated, making it also brittle and inflexible. All the pieces have to fit precisely, and while there are a few limited areas for elaboration and extraneous detail (as when, in this case, the parent go from place to place seeking help), the story as a whole requires that all principal elements conform to a pre-existing story pattern, with few distractions or discrepancies.[4]. Events must follow in a certain sequence and at a certain rate. Nothing would ruin the story more effectively than for Mrs. Duncan to sit on the rock the very next day, and that is because the course of the narrative is itself in service of moral imperatives. If Sylvester (and, by proxy, we ourselves) is ever to appreciate the consequences of an ill considered wish for forbidden powers, we must be made to think about it for a while. And because, as in all moral stories, the protagonists are proxies for our own impulses, we quite naturally find ourselves having an affective response to their travails.

These are the only kinds of stories—with sympathetic characters built on well-understood patterns of moral consequence—that are considered suitable for conventional plays. And not surprisingly, conventional plays are judged successful to the degree they elicit sympathy, empathy and affect. For conventional plays are, finally, moral tales (this is the assay Aristotle performs in the Poetics, with its weighing of Good Outcomes to Bad Men vs. Bad Outcomes to Good Men, which may account for its curious currency.) And just as one must concede that a moral tale must be affecting to be effective, so one must accept either the baggage of articulated-tale-with-affect as a whole, or take none of it. There is no middle ground. No one would dispute that such stories can be highly affecting. But by the same token, that is all they can do. And whether the impulse is to break free of narrative or to shed the constraints the moral tale, contemporary dramatic innovators have consistently realized they must also find alternatives to the complex articulated story.

Fortunately, as we have seen, this kind of story turns out to be only one point on a much broad spectrum. The episodic chain structure has already yielded the multi-threaded narrative [the subject of a future post] which is the form of plays as different as Len Jenkin's A Country Doctor, Complicite's Mnemonic, and Kirk Lynn's Lipstick Traces. Pattern plays are only beginning to be explored, but Anne Washburn's Apparition and I Have Loved Strangers strike me as excellent examples.[5]





[1] This is grossly unfair to the Beckett of Play, but the man is dead and I’m arguing a point.
[2]If you want to respond that pattern is surely content too, you may skip the rest of this post. You have understood everything.
[3]A further gauge of the difference between written and performed narratives is the problem of the ending, which is too abrupt to be satisfying as it stands. If one understands the text as just the framework of a performance, however, it's obvious that the story can be resolved in any number of ways—for example, by treating the list of possible occupations as a rhythmic structure which leads to a purely formal climax, or by making sure that the actual occupation will be particularly meaningful (or ludicrous) the audience.
[4]Conventional dramaturgy is often taken to task for its homogenizing influence. Questions of foolish consistency aside, the problem of "coherence of story" really rests with the choice of story type, and the unspoken assumtion that complex, tightly-integrated stories are the most stage-worthy type.
[5] The model of ring composition, advanced by Mary Douglas in Thinking in Circles and others, is also highly relevant and, as Douglas suggestively notes, well suited to cut-and-paste composition.

May 20, 2007

What I Learned in the Theatre:
Lisa d'Amour & Katie Pearl's BIRD EYE BLUE PRINT (05.15.07)

For reasons that must await a subsequent post, theatre is thought to require an establishing frame of reference as precondition to the presentation of action. This frame of reference establishes the "reality" in which the action itself occurs; it essentially represents coordinates of virtual space and time. Sometimes, as in the opening Chorus is Henry V, this is done overtly ("Suppose within the girdle of these walls/Are now confined two mighty monarchies," etc.) More often, though, playwright and director can assume the audience will do the work of identifying an establishing frame of reference on its own.

The "work," to be clear about it, consists of the audience agreeing that space and time, for the duration of the performance, will be whatever the play says they are, coordinates which will always, necessarily, be different from the space-time coordinates of the actual performance[1]. The value—even, the plausibility—of the actual coordinates is less important than the act of assignment, which is considered essential to maintaining the so-called theatrical illusion[2]. Theatre says, in effect, "All this stuff you're watching takes place HERE and this place we're calling HERE is really real."

In practice, plays often leave out a lot of specific information about the frame of reference, confident that the audience will not question that the action is taking place somewhere, and that "somewhere" (within the terms of consensual illusion) is "real." Yet in a representational theatre, the fear that everything is based on fragile illusion runs deep. Efforts to erect and maintain a "grounding" reality extend throughout the art form: actor training for example (at least in this country) is based on situating the character in space and time, as if this too would make fiction "more real". And certainly contemporary playwrights (with a few recent exceptions which have stories running inside other stories, e.g., Len Jenkin's A Country Doctor; David Greenspan's Second Samuel II, etc., Daniel McIvor's In on It; Complicite's Mnemonic), are scrupulous about maintain a single, fixed frame of reference[3] throughout the play.

So it's striking that performance is completely free of such baggage. Performance almost always happens in the here and now; actions occur in the same space-time as the audience. Which is not to say that performance is therefore more concrete than theatre. On the contrary, performance typically relies upon its own symbolic grammar to allow any association made vis-a-vis an element or image transmutable into (and transmittable onto) any other image, element or association. The pretense of theatre rests paradoxically upon a non-negotiable assumption that events are "really" happening in some made-up place; performance, paradoxically, presents things "as they are" in order to invite a free play of inference and association. All frames of reference are (by and large) the work of the percipient and thus not only contingent but fluid and mutable.

In BIRD EYE BLUE PRINT, d'Amour and Pearl—frequent collaborators, both with backrounds in theatre and performance—were able to use the theatrical device of establishing frames of reference as an element of the symbolic grammar of performance. The piece took place in an abandoned office suite, and after an introductory prelude, started a space where d'Amour, sitting behind a desk, welcomed the audience to "her space"—a classic instance of an establishing frame. As the piece went on, however, both the identity of d'Amour's character, and her relationship to the physical space, kept shifting. At one point, the audience was led into a "private" room, decorated with various artificial plants, where d'Amour sat on the floor as if in a virtual jungle (the room being simultaneously either a literal or metaphorical extension of the office). At another point, using only sound and vivid, non-realistic light cues, d'Amour shifted the action into a kind of ritual, performed in a virtual theatre space.[4]

The result shouldn't be surprising—if theatre is a cognitive act, then the establishing framework is only an idea, as mutual as any other idea—but the demonstration of it carries enormous implications for a new kind of playwriting, where the action takes place across multiple, fluid frames of reference.




[1]To those who object that several well known plays, e.g. by Pirandello, set the reality of the play equal to the reality of the performance, I would counter that they invariably fail to do so convincingly—and indeed, for reasons outlined in the second footnote, below, cannot do so convincingly by definition.

[2]A moment's thought makes it evident this so-called illusion wouldn't fool anyone over the age of five. "Willing suspension of disbelief" comes closer—since willingness implies both agency and consent—but errs in suggesting disbelief as the default reaction to theatre. Surely it is more accurate to say that theatre is an artificial, conceptual and consensual relationship much like a conversation. The act of theatre requires a cognitive distinction between the words and actions of the people that "in" the play, and the words and actions of everyone else "outside" the play. Theater is only possible inside such a conceptual frame; representational theatre, uncomfortable with its dependence on a conceptual process, tries to "normalize" the framework as an establishing frame of reference.

[3]A fixed frame of reference doesn't prevent the action of the play move around in space and time. Any frame of reference—unless specifically defined otherwise—is presumed infinite. The problem isn't having a scene in New Orleans followed by a scene in Ancient Rome; the problem would be having a scene in Streetcar followed by a scene in Julius Caesar. Strictly speaking, the frame of reference extends far beyond space & time to the mode of the play. It would be like trying to imagine a scene from Streetcar followed by a scene from Streetcar in which someone named Stanley Kowalksi had never existed.

[4]These descriptions are so poor as to be almost useless. The larger problem is that the event was so dependent upon the confluence of text, performance and the manipulations of light and sound in actual space that no verbal description or script excerpt would do it justice. My point is that these things were possible, but you will have to take my word for it.

May 11, 2007

What I Learned in the Theatre:
The Experimental Text Festival at the Ontological (05.10.07)

You always go hoping for the best, but in the nature of true experiment, the event this time served as one more reminder (if such were needed) that viable—i.e. "interesting"—alternatives to the conventional play are neither easy nor obvious. Which is not to say there were no interesting works, only that the overall event was particularly useful as a demonstration of known issues which continue to dog experimental playwriting.

The Whimsy Tradeoff

A fundamental limitation of the conventional play is that it makes too much sense. Time and again, a play will seem to exist for no other reason than to make sense—indeed, to make the specific sense its author intended, to the exclusion of everything else. And so it is that one of the more common strategies for circumventing this limitation is to make less sense—specifically by introducing elements that don't "belong together."

Artists have known for some time that people will infer (perceive) relationships between a much wider set of objects (and by "objects," I really mean "data-points;" I could as easily have said "experiences") than those they consider to be related in-fact. But once a set of disparate elements has been deployed and a chain of strange or random connections grows, an kind of engineering issue emerges.

Making sense is always work, even when it seems obvious and automatic. Making sense of things that don't belong together begins to feel like actual work, and at some point fatigue sets in, any tolerance for sustained weirdness collapses, and the whole enterprise crashes to earth.

The engineering question is, how can the tolerance be maximized?

Just as audiences often reconcile the act of reading meaning into strangeness by invoking dreams, so artists themselves often extend strange chains by deliberately invoking whimsy or the fantastical. This seems like a good idea, since by definition, anything in a fantastical world can be connected to anything else. But the trade off turns out to be extortionate, for any work accepted as whimsy is thereby degraded, all too often into a subset of kitsch (cf. selected Magritte, or virtually any Dali.) Artists, I suspect, attempt a bargain with whimsy, hoping that charm will somehow transcend kitsch. It's the difference between Borges and Kafka; it almost never works.

Information Density

Proposition: The density of information may be expressed as the product of a given quantity of information and the time necessary to process it.

Plays, being time-based, have always been sensitive to density, but conventional plays—aiming to be transparent—usually find an appropriate density without much effort (if only by lagging slightly behind the estimated processing time of an imagined audience), and then strive to maintain uniform density throughout the work.

Once theatre starts making less sense, managing density becomes critical because things which are less and less obvious need more time to be processed. The most common problem with fragmented or nonsense language, for example, is that it goes by so fast and goes on so long that it becomes impenetrable—i.e., too dense (cf. Washburn's Internationalist for a better approach[1].) Yet slowing-down seems to work against another fundamental dramatic principle: that tension is best generated by speeding things up.

The solution turns out to be manipulating density itself, because an increase in density is typically perceived as "speeding-up," while a decrease is "slowing down."

As the current experimental vocabulary matures, it is entirely possible that deliberate fluctuations of density will become as much a stylistic signature as plot development in the conventional play.

Reading is not Watching

It is physically (or at least, perceptually) impossible to read projected text while watching live action. This is no doubt a well-understood psychological phenomenon—probably evidence of the fact that reading and watching are fundamentally different mental processes. But the fact remains: If you project text behind action, your audience will have to choose between reading the text or watching the action. (Some interesting questions remain: which will prevail and why; and is there a density level at which very simple text can be sustained against actions, and/or very simple actions against text?)

An explanation of why it is nonetheless possible to follow a subtitled film will have to wait for a subsequent post. Suffice it to say that film is read as a single image (including any captions) and is thus essentially flat, whereas in the theatre, projected text acts like a book set up next to live action. You can see the same thing by looking at the pictures and words on the front page of a newspaper, then holding the paper at arms length and trying to keep reading (even large headlines) while looking at the world around you.

Splitting Focus

Something of a corollary of the last two points, yet worth separate mention: conventional theatre is rigorously and relentlessly single-focussed. There is never more than one point of focus, and everything else onstage enforces—"points to"—that focus.

Once additional foci are introduced, an even greater effort must be made to prevent audience confusion. Because confusion=exhaustion=collapse.

Acting vs. Indicating

At its best, performance art invokes a symbolic grammar to support extremely fluid and flexible transformations of images. A performer lying in a certain way against a surface suggests a patient on her death bed; with only a few adjustments, she becomes a woman on the deck of a sailboat. More perhaps than anything else, it is this level of abstraction which distinguishes performance from the clumsy apparatus of the theatre.

These transformations, in turn, depend upon a lack of fixity which is antithetical to the basis of theatrical acting. Theatrical acting proposes to establish, however lightly, however fleetingly, "moments of reality," and reality (at least in this sense) cannot then transform into something else or—more to the point—form the basis of such transformations.

This is only one of many reasons why theatrical acting, as commonly understood, carries too much baggage to be useful to an alternative theatre. To put it a slightly different way, this is why, of all the things that Beckett has to answer for, Lucky tops the list[2].


Structure & Time

Someone—let's call him "Aristotle"—once defined drama as the completion of an action. Setting aside the interesting question of whether action can ever be incomplete, the definition implies that completion is always the expected outcome of action, after some passage of time. Drama, then, is the process whereby an expectation of outcome is resolved; the manipulation of that expectation (if only by withholding) and its subsequent gratification.

This, in turn, is a pithy summation of one of the most basic requirements of any time-based art form, which is the perception of structure. Without the perception of structure, it is literally impossible to follow an art work of any complexity over time (the problem disappears in works which are not time dependent, of course, such as painting). The greatest single argument in favor of the conventional play may be the richness and complexity of structures—expectations, really—that have been worked out within its rules and assumptions (the greatest single limitation being, of course, those same rules and assumptions).

It is as essential to understand that experimental text-based theatre requires exposed, perceptible structures as it is to understand that the completion of an action is always conceptual. True, completion can involve an individual's fate or the course of true love—but it can just as easily be the resolution of an abstract proposition.

Consider, for example, the text of Johanna Linsley's Learning Skills Program, which begins with the taped voice of a lecturer:

Johanna DSL standing in profile, head back, sleeping. Whiteboard USR.

VOICE: Often, the simplest way to solve "ax2 + bx + c = 0" for the value of x is to factor the quadratic, set each factor equal to zero, and then solve each factor. For ax2 + bx + c = 0, the value of x is given by:

(Johanna finishes writing. Board flips revealing Quadratic Formula.
Nat and Julia step in, erase back side)

VOICE: x = [-b ± √(b^2 - 4ac) ]

Once the premise has been established, the action can continue as follows:

VOICE: Let’s solve for the unknown quantity x, using the tools at hand.

(Pause)


VOICE: Watching.

(Pause. Natalia slips Eye image to Julia-tape.)

VOICE: Moving.

(Pause. Natalia slips Ship image to Julia-tape.)


VOICE: Wanting.

(Pause. Natalia slips Hellmouth image to Julia-tape, exit behind board.
Natalia slips Johanna the chalk. Erase equation.)

VOICE: In this case, A=EYE, B=SHIP, C=HELLMOUTH.

(Johanna writes “A=B=C=”)


At this point, the course of the action has been established. We now understand and expect the piece to continue to its completion, solving the quadratic (where A=eye, B=ship, and C=hellmouth).

Two further points must be added, though they are surely obvious: (1) This action and its completion are entirely abstract, non-figurative and non-narrative; and (2) whatever other actions and tasks the performers may undertake in the process of arriving at completion need not be illustrations of the premise or the act of its completion. For example:

VOICE: A SUBMARINE squared is an AIRPLANE.

(Paper airplane flies on from offstage right. Beat)

VOICE: The negatives - again! - cancel each other out.

(Johanna opens to reveal Airplane- Julia drops mobile –
Nat & Julia watch Johanna bends over to touch mobile. )

VOICE: It’s time to reduce. Notice that 2 can easily be removed from every unit of the equation except the SHIP. Use force to remove a 2 from the SHIP and get a SHIPWRECK.

(Natalia snaps book shut, with a cloud of flour. Julia stops with the Baby,
goes behind board to get placard, Natalia continues to remove the Baby)

Furthermore, such a structure of action & completion is so clear and simple that it's possible—as it is in good plays, like Shakespeare's—to suspend the action for a time and introduce diversions, which in this case consisted of spontaneous questions derived from a rule-sheet, posed by an audience member to the lead performer. Again—and this is part of the value of structure—diversions within a structure of completion need not be reconciled with the dominant action, because they have been so clearly delineated as separate[3].

And thus one arrives at the (possibly counterintuitive) conclusion that structure, properly understood, not only does't have to enforce homogeneity or consistency, but actually supports (and, I would argue, is a requirement for) bricolage.





[1]This is little better than a straw man, for the known solution to nonsensical language is to enhance it with some other dramatic element, like the moment patterns and encounters of Foreman, or the virtual psychological throughlines of the Wellman/Mellor collaborations. The audience follows the secondary element, while language, freed of the burden of meaning, becomes decorative.

[2]The trouble with Lucky is that character can only be acted (even thought his famous speech is written simply to be performed). Whereas Didi and Gogo exist simply as givens, free-floating within whatever locale they inhabit, Lucky—who seems to come from a different universe—needs to be "grounded" in order to exist plausibly within the world of the play. The problem—which Beckett never seems to have fully understood, though his later works resolve it—is that one cannot simultaneously erode the plausibility of a frame of reference and ground a character within it. Beckett the playwright—to say nothing of Beckett the director—never felt comfortable with the ironic, distancing strategies that are the basis of so much contemporary theatre and performance. And of course his late-career battles over control of the stage directions were essentially about maintaining his original establishing frames of reference.

[3]A second point, which will have to await a subsequent post, is that delay is consensual on our part. If an action and its expected outcome are welcome set up, we welcome a lengthy process of completion, filled with surprise and reversals. Even as very small children, we take enormous pleasure from the Game of Pretending Not To Know How This Game Can Possibly End.