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.


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.)


(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:


(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.


Rob Handel said...

Why does Lucky need to be grounded to exist plausibly in the play in a way that Didi and Gogo don't? Could you unpack this thought a little?

Jeffrey M. Jones said...

God only knows why Lucky came to mind. Maybe the fortuitous arrival of this month’s American Theatre magazine. The cover picture comes from a Romanian production, but Lucky looks pretty much the way he’s looked in every other version I’ve seen. I frankly assumed the whole hangdog rigamarole was part of the stage directions, but I was wrong, (Beckett only stipulates the rope and a hat). Regardless, a Google search will demonstrate how codified this role has become:
   More Acting
   Acting with Suitcases
Let me begin by explaining that if I say Didi and Gogo don’t require “acting,” I’m not suggesting no artistry is needed to play the roles. I’m using the term “acting” in the very limited sense of working up a character or persona in which both actor and audience are supposed to be deeply-invested or, to use the term of art, "grounded." Gogo and Didi, it seems to me, could be played in any number of ways, but they’re breezy, they’re written presentationally, and most importantly, because they’re the framing or establishing characters—because the play is literally their world, and everyone else is just passing through—there isn’t much work involved in justifying their existence in the world of the play. They don't need any grounding and you could, if you wanted, approach either of these part by just saying the lines (and, from that, figuring out how to make the lines zingier etc—all without ever having to wonder who each of these guys “really was.” What’s going on inside, what they're doing there, what their motivations are, etc…)
Pozzo is different, a bit more eccentric and much more effusive (also much more mannered) so in relative terms Pozzo requires a bit more “acting,” but because it‘s also a broad part, because he either declaims or participates in the ongoing banter of Didi & Gogo’s basic routine, there isn’t much more acting required here, either.
Lucky, on the other hand, just stands there; worse, he stands there and suffers. And it is some combination of his silence and his suffering that requires the support of “acting.” (Try to imagine a totally impassive Lucky and I think you’ll see what a bummer that would be). Roles which consist of surface behaviors can be performed; but whenever a role invites us to speculate about what is going on “inside” a character, it has to be acted.
Lucky’s only purpose in this play is to elicit our sympathy. In order to play Lucky, the performer has to invent not only specific business but the poses and attitudes which, taken together, will portray this whipped character effectively—which is to say, sympathetically. (Beckett loved playing the craggy old cuss, but he had a mawkish streak, too, and until he opens his mouth, Lucky could be a character right out of Dickens.)
Now, there is nothing wrong in this—except (and this is a matter of taste, of course, so you may disagree) the rest of the play really doesn’t support this rather naked invocation of degradation and solicitation of sympathy. I think it’s significant that Lucky’s famous speech takes off on a different tangent altogether; it’s a hell of a speech, of course, and as I noted, one which is probably better performed than acted. If Lucky came onstage and just fiddled around with a yo-yo before breaking into his rant, there would be no need for acting (or grounding) at all. But he doesn’t, does he? And it’s all that long, forced (and might one add, tedious?) humiliation and suffering that’s the problem.
What the hell was Beckett thinking, trying to drag Little Nell into A Night At The Opera?

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