November 19, 2008

How Theatre Works

Let’s face it—theatre is weird. On the one hand, it's totally, often painfully, fake (as in "stagy", “histrionic,” “melodramatic”), yet we still expect it to be deeply moving and compelling (one dictionary even offers as “highly effective” as a definition of “dramatic”!) In fact, this fake/real antinomy seems built into the art form itself. Whereas literature, music, or dance have “honest” materials (i.e., can be appreciated directly as words on the page, or sounds, or movements), theatre seems to rest upon an illusion (character ≠ actor; scenery ≠ real, etc.). And unlike the illusions of trompe l’œil painting, which confer a kind of magic on the object itself (you typically want to touch the surface of a fake that looks real), the magic of the stage, like stage magic, all too easily evokes the cheap and tawdry—mere trickery, making something real seem (as previously noted) fake[1].

When we ask how theatre works, we're really asking about what happens to an audience in the course of watching theatre, which in turns means addressing this hoary old problem of theatrical illusion. To restate, how can an illusion which is so obviously crude—even Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals understand that a stage death is repeatable—be so central to the quality of our experience? And if theatre always involves a more-or-less cruddy illusion, why do we insist that plays (which, again, we know to be mere "play-acting") be "lifelike" in a way that we don’t with stories or pictures? For surely we judge the degree to which we have been caught up in a performance by the strength of that illusion—by the degree to which we find ourselves persuaded that something “real” is really happening. Yet the illusion is always flimsy. It’s never so lifelike that we truly and completely forget we're in a theatre, watching a performance[2].

At this point, you may also agree that teasing out this supposed paradox grows tiresome mighty fast
[3]. Theatre, after all, does involve real people walking and talking and generally behaving as they do in "real life." So the bonehead resolution of the dilemma is that, duh—theatre's sort of like real life (except when it's not), and we all know the difference (even if we can’t explain it). Just because somebody says their name is Hamlet and they live in Denmark, doesn't mean they're fooling you, does it? If you’re over the age of 10, you probably dispense with the so-called paradox of dramatic illusion by restating the obvious: Theatre is just pretending. An actor pretends to be Hamlet, and we pretend to believe him. Which is technically known as Begging the Question, and alas, explains nothing.

So let's come at it another way. How is it that such transparent charades even pass muster at all? What are the minimum requirements for creating a theatrical illusion? In fact, there are several basic criteria for a theatrical performance, all of which may sound boneheaded too, but begin to reveal how the thing actually works:

    B.C. #1: One or more persons have to stand up and claim to be someone they aren't (and we know that they aren't)[4];

    B.C. #2: Their claims have to be mutually consistent (otherwise it just gets messy);

    B.C. #3: These claims have to be sustained over a period of time[5], during which they must go unchallenged and uninterrupted[6];

    B.C. #4: All this bogus claiming activity has to be confined to some clearly defined, physical location in which no other, countervailing activity will be allowed to arise.
Let's unpack this just a bit more: Theatre is about watching other people (has to be![7]), who are all acting as if something is going on that we[8] know really isn't, and who are all doing it over there, while we watch from over here. On its most basic level—imagine how it would look to a Martian, materializing inside a theatre for the first time—there are two groups of people—one in the middle, active and talking, surrounded by a larger (with luck!), silent (ditto) group, watching. Note in passing how difficult it's going to be to explain to your Martian the whole "pretending" thing. But for now, focus on two groups who remain separate, never intermingle, and do not interact (laughter and applause being only responses, not true interactions, as by definition, they cannot be heard by the characters, and are therefore outside the world of the play.) Now focus on what happens at the boundary between the two groups.

Short of erecting a transparent wall between audience and stage (R. Foreman), the physical boundary in a traditional stage house couldn't be more obvious: it is a line, an edge, extending up over the proscenium and around the lip of the stage and further accentuated by a separation of darkness from light. Inside the boundary, all is theatre; outside the boundary nothing is theatre. Ah, you will say—but what about when characters (or do I mean "actors?") venture Pirandello-esquish-ly into the audience? Well, exactly—what indeed? Is the boundary ever truly violated, or is it merely stretched out temporarily, and even more precariously, into audience territory where it doesn't belong? Are these moments, where "characters" and audience supposedly "interact," convincing—or completely phony and more than a little cheesy? What happens when onstage action reaches through the fourth wall (hold on to that term, we'll get back to it, too) and someone in the audience seems to respond, on cue, with their lines? Does it "work" in any real sense, or does it make you wish you'd gone to the movies instead?

So—theatre can never be part of "real life." And when it tries, it just seems stupid and lame. What about the reverse, then? What happens when real life itself—an event which is clearly not in the script—occurs on stage? Something drops, something breaks, someone stumbles or falls or clutches their chest or … OK, just goes up on their lines? The sensation I recall from such moments is a feeling of alarm[9] that hits with an almost physical shock. When real life shatters theatrical illusion, it's far more upsetting than a missed note or a dropped step. It's like watching an accident: the stomach-churning sensation of seeing something go horribly wrong.

These boundary issues arise because theatre has a special problem: Since it can only be made out of the very stuff of everyday life (i.e., human activity, etc), it must have an unambiguous way to differentiate itself from said stuff (otherwise wouldn’t it just be everyday life, and so forth?) Hence the boundary—the so-called "fourth wall." Only an inviolable boundary can finally and permanently differentiate performance from "life itself." Note that the obvious physical boundary of the stagehouse is only delimiting the far more crucial distinction between real and make-believe. And that this fundamental boundary—this distinction, which establishes the realm of make-believe (a/k/a, the Illusion)is entirely conceptual, made not of plaster nor wood nor light, but simply of thought!

Here's the same idea, restated in iambic pentameter:

... can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields ofFrance? or may we cram
Within
this wooden O the very casques
That
did affright the air at Agincourt?
...
Let
us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose
within the girdle of these walls
Are
now confin'd two mighty monarchies,
Whose
high upreared and abutting fronts
The
perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece
out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into
a thousand parts divide one man,
And
make imaginary puissance;
Think
when we talk of horses that you see them
Printing
their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For
'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,


[10]—fancy—a more fundamental perceptual process. Of course, theatre seems lifelike—holds "as 'twere, the mirror up to nature." After all, humans and their activities are its materials. Yet the qualification implicit in "as 'twere" and "life-like" acknowledges a deeper truth. Everything onstage, "in the world of the play," must be assigned a new identity in the stage space to prevent the possibility of confusion with real life. This remapping, whereby Olivier/Burton/Branagh/Joe Blow = Hamlet and a prop skull[11]= Yorick, deploys the same mental equipment and schema we use to construct and navigate the "real" world itself. In other words, theatrical reality—the Illusion--is the result of the very process we use to perceive and understand reality itself, reapplied within a bounded domain. It is a kind of overlay, nested within the conceptual map we automatically[12] use to navigate through and negotiate with everything around us. The weird, spooky magic of theatre is nothing more than a simple recursion of the very process which grounds our everyday experience (and you can see this especially clearly in second-level recursions, e.g. the "play-within-a-play.") That's what makes theatre fascinating[13].
Yet at the same time, remapping violates the underlying continuity of reality, and thus requires an additional, inviolable rule, to wit: Theatre only happens inside the frame, and the only thing that happens inside the frame is theatre[14]. Thus theatre = "what-happens-inside-the-frame" = the remapping process. Incidentally, this also explains why the presence of the live actor is indeed fundamental to theatre, though once again the common-sense understanding (that the living actor somehow makes theatre "more real") gets it precisely backward. In fact (remember Bonehead Criterion #1: the living actor can never actually be whoever they claim to be in the stage-space), it is the presence of a "real" human that forces the remapping.

Finally, it should now be obvious why theatrical illusion can never be perfect, and why the term "illusion" is something of a misnomer. What theatre really is—and has been recognized as being all along—is a model of reality. And while models are created to understand and manipulate reality, they are by definition abstract. Which, in turn, leads to an even more surprising conclusion: theatre, often considered among the most visceral and unmediated art forms, is in fact one of the most abstracted[15]. Note that "abstracted" in this usage has nothing to do with "representational." Music, although wholly non-representational, is not abstracted, since one perceives musical structures for what they are: patterns (mathematical intervals, etc.) of sounds. Theatre on the other hand, while frequently representational, is always abstracted because the things shown are never the things represented. You may think you're watching people, but in fact, you're really following an idea.

Here is a more compact and rigorous restatement of the thesis:

Theatre is a conceptual act in which every real-world element within a bounded domain is remapped to a new role or function as part of a stage-space. It involves two processes (which are really different aspects of the same process):

    (1) Creating and maintaining a conceptual boundary separating one set of real-world elements from all the others; and

    (2) Remapping all the real-world elements within that boundary to a corresponding set of stage-space equivalents.
The key word here is "conceptual." The actual remappings can be relatively arbitrary as long as they're consistent (which turns out to be the real reason for Bonehead Principle #2). In any remapping, the relation between any object and its remapped value is simply assigned or declared. Since the relation is necessarily conceptual (taking the form: "let This stand for That"), the strength of the assignment is largely independent of any actual resemblance between object and referent. (This is what my friend calls her "Magic Prop" theory, meaning that she can use almost any onstage object to represent any other object). In the curious realm of the stage-space, a wooden stick may well be a more convincing pistol than an accurate replica with one detail wrong (e.g., a bright-orange muzzle). Yet that same stick could just as easily be a flashlight or a scepter or a knife—and indeed, even "transformed" into a succession of such objects through a process of re-remapping.

And here, finally, is where the audience comes in. For as everyone suspects, the audience is doing something more than sitting quietly in the dark. The naïve explanation is that the show is for them and in a sense couldn't go on without them. But the work the audience actually does is to sustain the theatrical illusion, which it does by paying attention (and paying attention, (and paying attention)), and it's hard work indeed. Which, incidentally, explains the peculiar problem of boredom in the theatre. Why "peculiar?" Because unlike garden-variety Waiting Room boredom—where nothing happens and sheer lack of stimulus wears you down—Theatrical boredom (variant of Church boredom), arises when something happens that won't stop and doesn't go away and keeps you from thinking about anything else until … it drives you crazy! It's the boredom (more like "infuriation") that comes from an unwanted and persistent demand on your attention.

Hence, the very real concern of theatre artists over the fragility of the theatrical illusion, having (ultimately) little to do with maintaining plausibility[16], and everything to do with minimizing the audience effort required to sustain the remapping. Nobody cares if a couple of elderly gents doze off and snore gently. But once the entire audience loses focus and shifts its attention—let's say, because somebody's cell phone's ringing—the whole stage space collapses. Which is Not a Good Thing.

A lot of practical stagecraft boils down to Inside Baseball: Don't work with children and dogs. Avoid upstaging the action. Always weight the suitcase, etc… But the constraints imposed by the need for constant attention have also shaped the basic principles of dramaturgy:

1) One and only one thing should happen in the stage space at any given time.

2) One thing should follow the next as clearly and simply as possible.

3) Transitions and disjunctions can be introduced—scenes couldn't exist without them—but only within larger conceptual structures (e.g., narratives) that bind the play together.

So far, so good; but while these principles make for clarity, they won't do much to generate excitement. Enter the Greeks[17], who were responsible for one truly nutty idea—the Unities—but also came up with a killer development in the art of narrative: the Closed Form.

Think back, if you will, on Homer (doesn't matter if you haven't read him, you know enough already). Two very long, very shaggy poems. Bunch of guys hacking away at each other, book after book; bunch of guyssailing around the Mediterranean, book after book; then something really big and long expected happens (much gore, death, etc.) and it's over. Which was pretty much the way every long-form work of literature was structured (let's not even mention the Old Testament![18] until the Athenian dramatists. Sophocles, to be precise, batting second in the lineup, whose works suddenly have a Shape: episodes at the beginning influence the ending, the parts of the story fit together, extraneous detail is minimized. All in the service of holding the audience's attention by creating structures in time.

For drama—or at least, Athenian tragedy[19]—had the enormous insight that the effort of paying attention could be made to vanish, as if by magic, simply by introducing expectation. Waiting for a sermon to end is deeply, deeply boring. Waiting for a murder to be committed, for a prophecy to be fulfilled, for a secret to be revealed—now, that's entertainment! In fact, Aristotle's "Drama is the completion of an action" almost doesn't make sense without two implicit provisos

(1) That you will probably have some expectation of what completion will entail, and you may very well be wrong;

(2) That completion will take some time[20] and that there will be interesting complications along the way.

Note the particularly advantages of the closed form in time-based art, since it encourages close attention (lest you miss a tell-tale detail!) and sustains that attention with its promise that all story elements will magically come together at the end[21]. But there's a serious problem. The very qualities that make the closed form so attractive—its visible structure, its predilection for symmetry, its efficiency—work against its being in any way true-to-life. (Definition + apology, too important to relegate to footnote: I'm introducing "true-to-life" to distinguish representational fidelity—overt verisimilitude--from the more general term "lifelike," which still means anything we can accept as being like life itself. E.g., Midsummer Night's Dream is plenty lifelike but not remotely true to life. Sorry.)

The Greeks found two ways to dodge the issue: first, by recycling known stories (meaning that whatever implausibilities may be found in Oedipus belong to the originating myth and are not thus not the fault of any play retelling that myth); and second, by relying heavily on supernatural agencies—predictions, curses, oracles, Fate, etc.—which make coincidence and all sorts of irrational behavior the result of Things Beyond Our Control (You find a fair amount of this even in Shax—Hamlet Sr.'s Ghost, witches, etc.—though it was his genius, e.g. in Othello, to justify implausible causal chains as manifestations of unhealthy obsessions).

For quite a long time, literature happily worked the gray area between the lifelike and the true-to-life. Then the 19th Century novel retooled the closed form into the preferred delivery system for emotional engagement, while at the same time focused with increasing specificity on depicting The Way We Live Now. As theatre followed suit, the relative compression of drama made the incompatibility of closed form with representational fidelity acutely apparent (viz., excessive reliance on devices such as Overheard Conversation, Dropped Letter, etc., as well as famous 1st Act/3rd Act gun of A. Chekhov, awkward deployment of seagull by same, etc.). Said incompatibility was somewhat resolved[22] in the 20th by replacing intricate plot work with extended sequences of character confrontations (as in Williams, Miller, Albee’s V. Woolf, where very little happens in the way of external event and a great deal happens in the way of interpersonal bludgeoning).

Yet it’s important to understand that this whole so-called incompatibility is just another instance of the common fallacy whereby theatre-as-model-of-the-world comes to mean theatre-as-window-on-the-world, based on an insidious confusion over what “lifelike” actually means (especially with respect to "true-to-life!") Take, for example, Greek theatre--with its masks and cothurni and periaktoi and choruses, for heaven's sake!—which is about as unlifelike as possible to us. But we're not Athenian Greeks. There's no reason[23] to think they didn't find those plays lifelike—and not because they were forever coming upon groups of masked citizens roaming the streets, declaiming in unison. (Hence, for them, no problem w/ not being true-to-life).

Or consider puppetry, and specifically, how much can be removed from puppetry without affecting how "lifelike" (or, for that matter, "true-to-life") the puppet show will be. True, there are schools of puppetry—marionettes, Balinese shadow—which rely on mimicry, detail and technical skill to create the performance equivalent of trompe l'oeil. But there's also "Mr. Bill," from the old Saturday Night Live (or for old-timey weirdness, Google Señor Wences, who used to work the Ed Sullivan show with two eyes drawn on the side of his clenched fist, and lipstick around the gap between thumb and forefinger). If all you need to make a puppet "lifelike" is the human voice, more-or-less arbitrarily remapped to some more-or-less interesting object (and reader, I have performed this very trick, using only a crumpled Coke can, before a class at an Ivy League university,) then it should be apparent that theatre needn't be true-to-life in order to seem lifelike. Which is, of course, what this whole long essay has been about.

So, final summation with corollaries:

1) The peculiar fascination of theatre derives from remapping, which is a recursion.

2) The agency of remapping alone—assigning one thing to stand for another—does the heavy lifting and makes the overall illusion seem real.

a) Corollary: Neither object nor referent need be particularly true-to-life.

b) Corollary: As long as the remapping is internally consistent, it does
not have to be particularly true-to-life, either.

3) Hence the spell of the theatre is entirely conceptual, and though it requires sustained attention, yields a pleasure which is, in so many ways, the pure play of mind.

a) Corollary: Nobody who makes theatre needs to worry anymore about making it true-to-life, unless they prefer to.


November 19, 2008




[1] For that matter, why is so important for the actors to remain on stage, "where they belong?" Why is "audience participation" always deeply creepy? What is it about theatre that makes you say "keep that thing away from me?"

[2] Actually, it's even stranger than that, because we only half-forget, we pretend to forget ("willing suspension of disbelief," etc.) and the guilty knowledge that we're faking it right along with the actors is a large part of the cheesiness that makes theatre the Cheap Date of the arts.

[3] See, for example, the whole labored, leaden canon of L. Pirandello.

[4] In other words, the actors cannot appear onstage "as themselves." I.e., if you're Joe Blow, the well known cat-skinner, you can certainly appear as yourself onstage in a hideously un-PC lecture-demo, but you can't be in a play in which you say, "Hello, I'm Joe Blow and tonight I'm gonna skin some cats for you." Since I know you're about to object that, in fact, one could indeed do just that (who's gonna stop you?), let me add that one could—but only through recursion, which will be explained in due time. Coming out on stage "as oneself" is just a more sophisticated way of harnessing the same old illusionistic theatrical double-whammy. All theatre requires everyone on stage (no exceptions) to claim to be someone they aren't. Even if that claim is factually correct, its occurrence within a theatrical context makes the claim provisionally, functionally false. When Spalding Gray introduced himself as "Spalding Gray," there were only three possible explanations (all of which turn out to be true!): (a) "Spalding Gray" is a character in a performance by Spalding Gray; (b) Spalding Gray is giving an autobiographic lecture-demo and therefore is not in character at all; (c)(or the radical/autistic extension of (b)): everything Spalding Gray does, including the performance you are watching, is part of the life of Spalding Gray and therefore there is no theater! All of which is easy enough to work through without heavy-duty analysis, and therefore tedious to analyze.

[5] There must be a good reason why you can't do theatre in, say, 30 seconds, but it doesn't seem germane to my thesis, so I'm not going to nail it down. Still—10 minute plays????

[6] Intermission merely suspends the drama, which doesn't count. We'll get to suspense, interruption and discontinuity later.

[7]
OK—it doesn't, but it does have to be about watching representations of people—e.g., puppets—which we'll also get to later.

[8] Note how such a simple situation—one group watching another—leads quickly to "us" v. "them."

[9] Not to give the whole thing away, but this experience of alarm should be the tip-off. The gut-wrenching sensation we get when we hear or see something unexpected arises because we're suddenly forced to reconfigure the set of mental expectations with which we're orienting ourselves. Obviously, you can startle someone at any time, but it's easiest when the victim is already frantically checking and rechecking their expectations—i.e., because they're nervous. The surprising discovery of anxiety and alarm in the cozy confines of the theatre implies that cognitive processing must be actively ongoing, but we'll cover this more fully too, just a little bit further on.

[10] Shakespeare's argument is actually pretty radical. Starting with the proposition that key elements of his story cannot be represented onstage due to mismatches of scale ("vasty fields of France" > cockpit, problems w/ armies onstage, ditto actual horses, kings, etc.) he proposes to rely on words alone. This of course is ultimately what all plays do, but it is esp. obvious in his case that a "play" is essentially the public recitation of an enormous language structure.

[11] Thinking about this particularprop in its original incarnation, I realized Shax. undoubtedly intended an actual human skull to be used, and to be recognized as such by the audience—a rare and specific instance of using the remapping process as memento mori.

[12] It is far beyond the scope of this essay, and frankly of my expertise, to describe in any detail the extent to which our entire conscious identity, our sense of being in the world, is a cognitive construct. Though the evidence is everywhere—from the influence of mood swings and medication on perception, to the consequences of serious brain disorders—it is only rarely that we recognize that experience itself—being oneself in the here and now—is a mental (perceptual as well as cognitive) process. What we take for simple perception (to the degree that we even take the act of perception into account as anything other than automatic) turns out to be a much richer and more complicated cognitive activity. In fact, the process works so well it's hard to appreciate the degree to which our experience of being in the world is actually the result of "thinking up" the world. The above-mentioned stab of anxiety felt upon suddenly noticing (or better yet, merely apprehending) the presence of something unexpected, or unexpected absence of something expected, is some evidence of our deep dependence on mental maps. Terms like "weird," "uncanny" and "strange" also refer explicitly to the experience of something outside the bounds of the known, i.e., off the map.

[13] Not to undercut the wholeargument thus far, but there's a very different explanation for the slightly disreputable appeal of theatre, having to do with feigned emotion. We know—because we know what theatre is—that every single person onstage is faking their emotions throughout the play. And because we were children once, and learned that we too could fool other people by faking our emotions, and were eventually cautioned very strongly against the practice by people that we hadn't actually fooled at all… watching someone get away with this sort of thing still offers a guilty little thrill. This must have been especially true when theater was primarily a local/village/non-professional activity, and cast members were all known to the audience in their real-life identities. The phenomenon is also found in grade school drama, where kids in the audience often find an onstage classmate's struggle to remain "in character" ludicrous. I haven't pursued this argument because it strikes me as essentially a detail of theatre. The more general case of pretending, which includes not only theatre by many other forms of play, is always about consensual remapping.

[14] This isn't completely accurate. It turns out that anything outside the boundary can be remapped within the play (e.g., audience plant joins action on stage), but if so, must remain thereafter a part of the play (audience plant cannot go back to being "member of the audience.") Nothing can ever escape the remapping process. Whatever escapes (imagine play involving business with actual audience members), was never truly part of the stage-space.

[15] Profound apologies for an infelicitous phrase, necessitated to avoid confusion with "abstract," which has a well-defined, but completely different, meaning in the visual arts. All paintings can be read as an arrangement of colored shapes; when the arrangement can also be read as an image, the painting is representational; it is abstract when it can only be read as an arrangement of shapes.

[16] For if Theatre had to be plausible, Musical Theatre would be impossible.

[17] I cannot pass over the Greeks without mention of D.F. Wallace's exceeding useful insight that their passion for abstraction made them hate chaos in any form, and thus develop a deep, abiding need for boundaries.

[18] Unless you're prepared to wade through Leviticus and Numbers with the inestimable Mary Douglas.

[19] For reasons I once again don't pretend to understand, Athenian comedy managed to drift along as a ramshackle, plot-free, shaggy-dog vaudeville for another 150 years, but eventually shaped up, as the New Comedy, into a set of clockwork operations playing out within a confined space.

[20] There's that minimum time requirement once again. See also my wife's One Minute Seagull joke, which goes:


MEDVIEDENKO: Masha, why do you wear mourning?
MASHA: Constantine Gavrilovich has shot himself.
Curtain

[21] Think how many times you've waited through a mediocre play just to learn how it comes out, and how that expectation presupposes that there will be some eventual resolution, and not just an end point.

[22] Medium-length digression/rant on the practical implications of deploying the closed form for narrative purposes. Every dramatist who has wrestled with the "naturalistic" genre knows how fiendishly difficult it is to cobble together a complicated story where everything "pays off" convincingly at the end. Still, it's worth disassembling the standard representational play to see how unsuitable it is for any kind of faithful depiction of actual experience. The structure starts with a presumed substrate of continuous activity, corresponding to actual experience, but of course the substrate is never presented whole, or "as is." Instead, it is sectioned and shaped into scenes so that only the most salient material remains. Note that when we say that a real-life event feels theatrical, we usually mean that it conforms to the conventions of scene structure: choreographed entrances and exits, foreshadowed confrontations, snappy comebacks and punch-lines, etc. This is already at some considerable distance from real life, yet the scene structure represents only the middle tier of a play. There is, beyond, a macro structure (corresponding roughly to the "Acts") where the overarching themes and patterns of the play become manifest—and in particular, where the manipulations of expectation occur. Note also how the structural hierarchy mirrors the pyramid of disjunctions. Within any scene—that is, within the "flow of events" of the play—it is only necessary that characters and events be separated enough to time out properly. This level of discontinuity is almost imperceptible, except in rare cases, e.g. when someone goes off to eavesdrop or hide, and it's crucial that they come back just in time. The discontinuities between scenes, however, are not only apparent but actually drive the play forward. The information gap between scenes is always perceived as a temporary increase in expectation level: e.g., What will happen next? Within the macro structure of the acts, of course, the disjunctions (which the English actually call "Intervals") are so great that the audience traditionally is expected to gets up and leave the stage space for a while. All this is really exceptionally weird, when you get right down to it, and only makes sense if you understand theatre-going as an extended act of concentrated thought, with the breaks providing essential boundaries and guideposts. Just as the 18th Century used to refer to the narrative arc of the whole play as "The Argument," so each act curtain forms an interstitial summation, recapping what has happened so far, and suggesting what is about to come.

[23] According to an "unreliable" late biography of Aeschylus, the appearance of the Chorus of Furies made children faint, old men pee, and pregnant women go into labor.

October 9, 2008

When Bad Things Happen
to Horrible People
Sarah Kane's Blasted at Soho Rep, October, 2008

NOTE: This essay was written as an introduction to the "catalog"
created for the Soho Rep premiere by The Program, a joint venture
with David Cote and Helen Shaw of Time Out New York.

Blasted is a deeply European work“—Michael Billington, The Guardian

While Blasted is only now receiving its New York Premiere, in England it’s generally considered one of the most important plays of the 1990’s, and has generated a considerable body of critical writing. The excerpts you’ll find [in the hard copy of the Program catalog] reflect a critical consensus about what Kane’s play means, and how it should be understood—as a political statement equating masculine violence toward women with warfare; as a formal breakthrough whereby the form of a play can shift from heightened naturalism to the theatre of the Absurd; and as a seminal work in a broader school of transgressive theatre. We’ve chosen the opening section of Alex Sierz’s In-Yer-Face Theatre to provide an overview of the context in which Blasted first appeared, while Graham Saunders’ ‘Love Me or Kill Me :’ Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes offers enormously helpful information about the text itself.

These insights will surely make it easier for American audiences to see Kane’s play, and her intentions, more clearly than British critics did in 1995. Nor do I expect Soho Rep. audiences to be so shocked they storm out of Blasted screaming “this is a ‘disgusting feast of filth’.” But the play does force you to watch a steady stream of gross and gamy activities, and that I think may pose some uniquely American challenges.

Everyone knows that Americans (and let me just say, up-front, I’m using this term as loosely as possible) don’t feel comfortable with Art (another term I’m tossing around in a dorm-room bull-session way) for Art’s Sake. That’s something Europeans do. We Americans insist that our Art be useful, that it have something to say, that it teach us something about ourselves, appeal to our finer instincts etc., and generally behave itself in a decent, civilized manner.

Which is a totally bogus generalization, by the way—we’re fine with lots of gross, gamy and even European-style art in literature and movies and so forth—but it does hold true for the theatre. Perhaps because theatre is a public art form, perhaps because of the way theatre is taught to most of us, we still instinctively evaluate a play in terms of its moral pedagogy. Listen carefully the next time you sit in on a post-play discussion: you may be surprised how often questions about the play (be they questions about the contents of the play—e.g., what happens to the characters--or about how the play struck the particular audience-member) are framed in terms of “what’s the lesson here? What do we learn?”

And you can, certainly, ask “What’s the lesson of Blasted?” and look to Sierz and Saunders for answers. But if, afterward, you still don’t find yourself wholly convinced—if you find yourself muttering “OK, I get that it’s all about Bosnia, but why do we have to see somebody shitting on stage…” let me suggest that you’re asking a uniquely American question, which requires a uniquely American answer.

Let’s start by trying to clear up what Kane herself was up to when she wrote this play the way she did. First of all, it’s significant that all of the ghastly behavior onstage is undeserved. Ian is an appalling human being, but that doesn’t mean he “deserves” to be anally raped and have his eyes sucked out. Terrible, terrible things occur in this play, but Kane very carefully avoids making any of them “justified.” A second and related point: None of these people is particularly nice or good or admirable. You could argue that Cate is more sinned against than sinning, but even her story is not exactly the Book of Job. If Cate were a better class of human being, we might be tempted to seek redemption in her fate. If she were even more pathetic, we could even feel sorry for her, But Kane deliberately closes off both possibilities by making Cate as borderline-unattractive as possible. You will read Kane quoted as saying she finds her play “optimistic.” With all due respect, this is ludicrous—at least by any commonsense definition of “optimism.”

Yet there these things are—the blowjob, the baby eating—and there’s no way around the fact that Kane wanted you to have to see them all, all played out, right in front of your eyes. Which is why, IMHO, it is a complete waste of time to argue that the play is or isn’t naturalistic or expressionistic or absurdist. Regardless of its genre, this is the rare play where physical actions—the depiction of actual events in real time—are more important than any other aspect of the dramaturgy—language, dialog, situation, character, etc.—including “meaning.” Sierz rightly points out that Blasted is, above all else, experiential. Its primary purpose, its primary meaning, is the experience you get sitting through it.

Some works of art are abstract, referential, symbolic or allusive; other are concrete. Some use their physical presence as a kind of “pointer” to thoughts, ideas and emotions; others present themselves as object, as fact. One of Kane’s most telling quotes (about her play, Cleansed, which features impaling, dismemberment and a broomstick up a rectum) is “I tend to think that anything that has been imagined, there’s someone somewhere that’d done it.” which pretty much sums up what Blasted is all about. This play drops you into a terrible world where ghastly things happen, one right after another, in front of your eyes. Nothing has much of a rhyme or reason, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. The actions are grotesque in the extreme, but the implication, surely, is that whatever Sarah Kane is capable of putting onstage can be (ergo, probably has been and is being ) acted out in real life, too. Blasted says, in effect, “see for yourself—here’s how bad it can get.”

For all kinds of reasons—very, very good reasons!—Americans reject the extreme, nihilistic Continental vision that insists the world is, en fin, a cesspool teeming with various species of vermin. Outside of Ambrose Bierce, Jim Thompson, Jonathan Edwards (and possibly General W. T. Sherman), I cannot think of an American who has even come close to such a bleak, unsparing and merciless world view. We—who believe ourselves to be uniquely good, and capable of solving anything—quite literally do not want to go there. And if we’re led there, our automatic reaction will be to challenge the premises of (in this case) an artist claiming our attention. We ask “What’s do we learn here?” because our every instinct is to try to make things better (our success rate may not be so hot, but that’s another story). And if there is no lesson—if there is no way to make things better—the default American response will be: That’s just not the way things are (or if they are, at various times and places, that still doesn’t justify anything).

Or to go back to the idea of moral pedagogy: Americans have no problem at all with artists who make beautiful things, inspirational things, transcendental things. But an artist who deliberately makes ugly, terrible and troubling things, setting them before us for our contemplation, risks being judged irresponsible at best, and at worst, just plain “sick.” We Americans famously want to imagine ourselves free from the dead weight of history. Blasted, on the other hand, asks us to consider what kind of creatures we truly are, and what kind of world we have made for ourselves. The honest answer—the historical answer—isn’t exactly reassuring.

June 30, 2008

Objets trouvés
(in memoriam Milton Rauschenberg)



ROSETTA BROOKS: For some reason, I've always thought that your Combines came about because you had a habit of walking round the block before the trash was picked up in the city, collecting what interested you and taking it back to the studio. Is that true?
RAUSCHENBERG: Yes. That's right. I wanted something other than what I could make myself and I wanted to use the surprise and the collectiveness and the generosity of finding surprises. And if it wasn't a surprise at first, by the time I got through with it, it was. So the object itself was changed by its context and therefore it became a new thing.
RB: Why a surprise?
RR: To feed my curiosity. The objects uniqueness were what fed my curiosity. They didn't have a choice but to become something new. Then you put them in juxtaposition with something else and you very quickly get a world of surprises.
RB: So by combining junk objects, you were making connections between objects and images that were normally enclosed in different private spaces and you were making new connections. When objects are thrown out as trash, they are also closed down spatially. Your juxtapositions and contrapositions in the Combines opened the space up again to reveal hidden connections in peoples lives, possessions, objects and spirits that had previously remained separate. By the same token, the process you used to create the Combines opened us up to what the street really is and what the city really is. Our perception of both street and city changed. And by extension, the Combines also opened up the studio to its spatial surroundings. Like the street and the city, the studio then became a social gathering point. And your studio has continued to be that way ever since. The idea of the social is a significant factor in all your work, isn't it? Throughout your career, you go through periods where you both surround yourself with junk, and you surround yourself with people.
RR: Its the same thing really, isn't it? They're both full of surprises.

Walking down Seventh Avenue in Park Slope one morning this winter, I came upon a large stack of magazines set out on the sidewalk. They turned out to be back issues of The Drama Review from the mid-Seventies to the early Eighties—a time when ideas seemed to matter in the theatre. So I took a few home to re-read at leisure. Of course they turned out to be dated, and of little interest. But in TDR #72 ( the Theatrical Theory Issue of December, 1976), in an essay by Michael Kirby entitled "Structural Analysis/Structural Theory," I found this, which seemed to inform everything I've written in this blog to date:

Webster defines “analysis” as “a separating or breaking up of any whole into its parts so as to find out their nature, proportion, function, relationship, etc.” “Theory” is defined as “an idea or mental plan of the way to do something.” Thus intellectual analysis involves the creation of a system of ideas by which an existing phenomenon can be “separated” or “broken up” mentally; theory provides an intellectual base for the creation of phenomena. Theatrical analysis examines existing or historical performance; theatrical theory provokes and originates performance.

Since both the analysis and theory of theatre involve more or less coherent systems of ideas, analysis and theory might be thought to be identical or interchangeable. Analytical systems might be expected to be useful for creating performance; theoretical systems might be supposed to function as well for analysis as they do for creation. In fact, interchangeability exists in only a limited fashion. The criteria for analysis and theory are quite different. Although one would like to think that any ideas could become the basis for some act of performance, there is no reason to believe that useful analytical theories are equally useful for creation. Theatrical theory might be tremendously stimulating and fruitful—as Artaud’s, for example, has been—without being comprehensive or coherent enough to apply to the analysis of all performance.

Nor can it be claimed that theory and analysis should be interchangeable or that one intellectual system should serve both functions. It is a possibility, however. One may attempt to make any theatrical theory into an analytical system, any analytical system into theatrical theory. One may test the creative applicability of any analytical system by using it to generate performance; one may try to apply any theoretical ideas to the analysis of performances never considered by the theoretician. It one is interested in innovation, more new ideas may come from the suggestions and indications of an analytical system (where no creative stimulus was intended) than from theatrical theory (where it was). When theory is “borrowed,” the result is usually predictable.

If one is interested in innovative theatre, a possible approach is to develop an analytical system that can later be used as the basis for creating performances. Analysis should be objective and comprehensive. If it is worked out in detail, it should apply to all performance—that which exists, and that which does not yet exist. A complete analytical system should indicate possibilities that have not yet been attempted as well as categorizing those that have. It should point the way to the unusual and the unknown in addition to organizing the familiar and the commonplace.

The problem is that many analytical systems are inductive. They reason from particular theatrical facts or known cases to general conclusions. Thus they may be useful in analyzing existing performance but they offer no lacunae where the unusual or the net-yet-known can be discovered. They reinforce the status quo. They codify tradition and rigidify convention. If turned into theatrical theory and used as a base for creation, these inductive analytical systems only justify more theatre like that which already exists.

A deductive system—one that reasons from a known principle to an unknown one, from the general to the specific, from a premise to a logical conclusion—is one alternative. Another is to use or modify analytical systems set up for other disciplines and other phenomena. In both cases, the result is the same. There is the possibility that the unknown and the uncommon as well as the ordinary will have a place within the system.

Let us consider the analysis of only one aspect of theatrical performance: its structure. Traditional approaches to structural analysis are primarily inductive. They create rules or principles by generalizing from particular examples—classic Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, the “great” plays. Other forms of theatre are ignored. The emphasis on narrative (and on the script rather than on theatrical production) makes theatrical structure similar to literary structure. Line graphs like those that, at least in cartoons, show the fortunes of Wall Street or the health of a hospital patient are proposed as abstract illustration of theatrical structure. Even when such thinking is relevant to the type of drama from which it is derived, it is useless when applied to other forms of theatre—to dance, variety shows, circus, etc. Thus all inductive dramatic structural analysis is, at best, incomplete. It may apply to at least some plays, but it does not consider those aspects of structure that plays share with other forms of theatre.

One approach to establishing a deductive system for the analysis of theatrical structure would be to make the area under consideration as broad as possible and to work, at least in part, from general principles outside the area itself. We are concerned, then, with the structure of theatrical performance, not merely the structure of drama, comedy, ballet, etc. We may look for principles in sciences such as psychology and in other arts such as kinetic sculpture. We are concerned with any and all principles for analyzing the structure of a phenomenon in time and space.

“Structure” is being used to refer to the way the parts of a work relate to each other, how they “fit together” in the mind to form a particular configuration. This fitting together does not happen “out there” in the objective work; it happens in the mind of the spectator. We do not have (or need) equipment such as a microscope or procedures such as chemical analysis in order to understand the structure of theatre. We are not concerned with a mere description or inventory of the elements of a performance, but with a study of what the mind does with those elements. This is subjective. Of course, it may, and probably will, vary from person to person; each person may perceive a somewhat different structure in the same performance. But the same problem has not prevented psychology from attempting to be an objective science. Like the psychologist, we may set down certain general objective structural principles that are concerned with subjective functions.


The distinction between analysis and theory seems especially useful (and for the time being will have to serve, however obliquely, as my response to Gus Schulenberg's post this past February), but if I have set out to do anything here, it is precisely to suggest the possibility of a system for structuring phenomenona in time and space that includes a place for the unknown. Imagine my surprise, then, to find in the same issue a second article ("The Visual Script: Theory and Techniques, by David Cole) with dramatic structures expressed as pictures. Here are some of the most suggestive:


Finally, working on this post, I picked up a program insert from the Playwrights Horizons production of Dead Man's Cellphone this spring, which had been lying under a stack of papers on my desk. It contained a long interview with Sarah Rule, which I hadn't finished reading. When I did, I found this:

SR: “[Mac Wellman] would have you draw the structure of your play and say, ‘ Maybe it looks like a vase and maybe it looks like this,’ and he’d make a strange squiggle.”

May 1, 2008

The Poetics of Grief
Listening to Pattern in Jenny Schwartz's God's Ear

This piece was created for the Vineyard Theatre production of God's Ear as part of THE PROGRAM, a joint effort with Helen Shaw and David Cote of Time Out New York. Armed with pre-show discussions and supplementary dramaturgical materials, THE PROGRAM roams from theater to theater, providing context to audiences at selected experimental productions. Our goal is to make the widest possible audience feel welcome at the widest range of dramatically ambitious work.

We’ll get to what actually happens in this play in a moment. But it isn’t giving much away to reveal that God’s Ear takes place in the aftermath of its principal event—the death of a child—and that its subject is grief.

Grief turns out to be a tricky subject for the theatre. Moving laments are common onstage, yet bear little relation either to the events or the experience of actual loss and grief. They undoubtedly represent what we would like to say under the circumstances, yet few of us are afforded an opportunity to throw ourselves on a bier. For most people, the events following a catastrophic loss are little more than the routines of everyday life.

These routines, however, are utterly transformed by the experience of an acute—and agonizing—form of clinical depression. Time stands still or moves in torpid loops; human interactions all feel flat and fake; inside one aches and at the same time feels paralyzed and numb, listless, exhausted. Meaningless thoughts chase each other to no purpose, while speech requires so much effort that it easily becomes rote, mechanical, affectless. An honest depiction of ordinary, devastating grief thus cannot rely on events alone without introducing “theatrical” moments—stagy confrontations, revelatory breakdowns and so forth. Good drama, perhaps, but dishonest. As for depicting the experience of grief, that would seem quite literally beyond the scope of expressive language.

Virtually everyone who’s written about this play has noted how the dialog has been built out of clichés (I am going to use the term “catch-phrase” instead, to avoid the other meaning of cliché as “stale and formulaic description.”) Many often point out that the dialog is rhythmical, too—almost musical. But in fact, Schwartz has developed this highly-structured language and syntax—a kind of verse, really—as a radical way to depict, and recreate, the experience of grief. And as with any verse, listening requires a shift of appreciation that include the rhythm and pattern as much as the literal sense of the words themselves.


Patterns and Speech

When we hear a catch-phrase, we automatically understand that the words are not original with the speaker. They have not been not thought up in the moment; they don’t take that much effort. When we hear, or overhear, an exchange of catch-phrases, we likewise realize that conversation has been reduced to an exchange of tokens.


This is still a conversation—information is still being exchanged—but the amount of information is far less than the verbiage required to convey it, and the words themselves are little more than a form of decoration, a deliberate distraction from the underlying poverty of the coinage. Finally, when speech is reduced entirely to catch-phrases, we experience a form of entrapment. The sentences can only end in one way—pigs can fly, but not soar; cows come home, but not back—and as the phrases pile up we experience their deadening predictability. Schwartz however counteracts this fundamental regularity by overlaying a tracery of pattern:

This is now recognizable as poetry: a quatrain in which a matrix of repeated words (“and”, “that”) contains a shifting set of terms (“bridge”, “cross”), using the rule that the second term in the lead phrase moves to the first term in the following phrase. The effect of this rule is to use the deaden-ing conclusion of each catch-phrase as a springboard for the next, thus introducing (along with the perceived positional shift of the terms themselves, from 2nd to 1st) the illusion of forward motion.


Patterns and Loops

In order to really understand what Schwartz is doing with language, we must first understand more about her use of pattern. The simplest form of pattern is repetition:

Literal repetition creates the experience of being stuck in time—which, unfortunately, isn’t parti-cularly dramatic, and if sustained soon becomes excruciating. The repetition of alternating phases, however, makes a Loop, which is sustainable. The effect is not so much being stuck as hovering in time, circling around and around—dithering. One might also say, “echoing:” hearing apparent responses where there are none, the sound of another’s voice when there is only one’s own.

(Click the image to enlarge)

Loops of all kinds appear in this play, from simple loops in which a minor variation is introduced on the second pass:

To loops in which the starting point alternates between the speakers (technically known as a “phase shift”):

As noted, another common device is the Reverse Loop, in which the second pass contains a negation or reversal of the first:

(Click the image to enlarge)

Naturally, it is also possible to flip and reverse (a device which classical rhetoricians loved so much they named it the chiasmus, or “criss-cross”, but we can refer to as a Flipped Loop):

Yet another way to build up patterns is through Concatenated Loops, in which new elements are inserted into the base phrase with each new pass:

(Click the image to enlarge)


There are also loops which count up or down (Enumerations) and loops which build up lists of similar terms (Elaborations). All these advanced loops, which depend less on literal repetition and more on perceiving relationships, approximate the experience of completing an essentially meaningless task. Note too, how within each list repetitions of individual words and word pairings (“Just” “two/too”, “cocktail” “paper/plastic”) augment the pattern:

(Click the image to enlarge)

Finally, there are constructs which, for want of a better term, I call Free Loops, in which the matrix (“Does X have a name”) contains a random assortment of terms, creating an additional sense of tension and surprise that fights against the confining structure.



Patterns of Sound and Sense

So far, I have focused exclusively on the patterns of meaning derived from the words themselves, but of course Schwartz’s poetry is also highly metrical, and the rhythms of her sentences (which are typically very short) follow similar patterns—loops, reversed loops, concatenations, enumerations and elaborations. In this example—which is a kind of skewed variation of the English sonnet (ABAB/CDCD/EFEF/GG)—I adopt a binary digital notation for stressed and unstressed syllables instead of the traditional — and U, because it seems to make the patterning even clearer:

(Click the image to enlarge)

As you can see, 3- to 5-line pattern structures are the building blocks Jenny Schwartz uses to create much larger patterns in which forward action is continually being retarded, then advanced against resistance, then turned and shaped into whorls and arabesques which not only signify but express the ever-shifting interplay of attention and distraction, impulse and inertia, as time hangs heavy.

And it is helpful here, I think, to propose an analogy to music—not in the way that music is all too often invoked in literature, as a justification for sloppy writing—but as a reminder that the patterns here (of meaning and meter) are far more important than the literal sense of the words in conveying what is really going on. Here, then, in schematic form, are the basic patterns of God’s Ear:

(Click the image to enlarge)

Thus armed, it should be possible to follow, in far more detail, a passage like the (fairly astonishing!) opening of Act 1, Scene 5, which consists of five passes through a basic pattern of two sub-loops (the “Four Whys” Elaboration, “I want X for Y/Y is over” Concatenation), with additional optional sub loops:

(Click the image to enlarge)


Patterns of Events and Expectations

As long as loops repeat in close succession, pattern is apparent and easy to follow. But Schwartz also repeats entire exchanges (“Are you hungry”/”Starving”/”Don’t say starving.”) (“Did you go duty free? Did you buy me my perfume?”) at unexpected times throughout the play. Typically, one expects a repeated set of sentences to provide demarcation, or to emphasize a recurrent idea. This is the case, for example, with the description of Lanie’s birth (“On the night you were born, it was snowing and raining at the exact same time./And it looked like the lake was boiling…”). But more often, the sporadic repetitions create a further echo, a kind of déjà vu. We recognize the passage—we’ve heard it before—but we can’t quite remember the context. This leads to the larger question of how Schwartz handles time in the play, and what events actually occur during its passage.

The short answer, as I noted at the outset, is “not much.” Ted, the husband, is traveling on business and may or may not be dallying (how wonderful that the word means both “dawdling” and “fooling around!”) while his wife and daughter wait for his return. But in fact two very specific events do occur, and they are responsible for the appearance of the two non-human characters in the play. Lanie loses a tooth at the beginning of Act 1, Scene 1. And in Act 1, Scene 3, Mel decides to bury an action figure she’s stepped on—hence The Tooth Fairy and GI Joe. It is significant that these are both objects that belong to a child. It is even more significant that one is lost, taken away, and cannot be returned while the other is buried, but magically “escapes,” not only coming back but coming to life. Substitute child for object and the meaning becomes self-evident.

Ted, too, returns eventually—but it’s not entirely clear when this happens. Early on in Scene 1, for example, Mel announces “I’m glad you’re home,” to which Ted replies “I’m glad I’m home too.” The scene itself appears to loop through the moment of Ted’s homecoming, and it ends with Ted saying “I came all the way back here and I’ll be damned if I can remember why.” Yet Scene 2 starts with Lanie—awakening in the middle of a night because she’s heard a voice which Mel says is “Dad’s”—being told “Go back to bed and Dad will come home.”

So what has actually happened?

There are various possible quasi-explanations—that Lanie has merely overheard a phone call (but then why would Ted say “I’m glad to be home?”); that Scene 1 is a kind of fantasy sequence; that time itself is out of joint—but here again, I think the most sensible answer is that Schwartz is creating the same kind of loops and patterns with time and causality that she does with language. Ted, in other words, (almost) comes home over and over, just as, out on the road, he (possibly) cheats again and again, until he finally and absolutely does return, and the play can be over. Just as the linguistic patterns of the play delay and advance forward action, so the action of the play itself moves two steps forward and one step back until all the members of the family are finally reunited. As with the profound temporal disorientations and displacements that grief can occasion, so it doesn’t make sense to ask how much actual time elapses in this play. Even though time stands still, virtual events keep happening and unhappening and happening in reverse until finally, magically, time itself—and normal life—can resume.

I will not give away what happens when time resumes, except to say that it involves a memory, and an event—an event which in a sense never happens, yet continues to happen over and over—an event which must not happen, yet did. This is, to be even more specific, a two-act play in which the most important thing that happens is a recollection which, like the lifting of a spell, seems to return us to everyday life, and the promise of a good night’s sleep.

Brooklyn, NY
April 27, 2008

January 4, 2008

Abstract Theatre: Behavior in No Dice

"I fill my notebooks with stuff that grabs me, and I basically spend the rest of my process desperately trying to figure out how these things all go together…"
--Getting Cosmic with Kelly Copper, by Kelly Copper and Amber Reed

My bonehead definition of theatre has always been that it's basically just watching other people on stage talking. But while other people are intrinsically fascinating to (most of) us, what we're watching when we watch them is their behavior. And herein lies the central problem in creating an abstract theatre.

Abstraction--breaking representation down to its constituent parts-- is arguably the central modernist impulse. But while it was possible to reduce any representational painting to an arrangement of colored shapes, it proved far more difficult to "abstract" theatre without reducing it to nonsense. Ages and ages ago, in the full flush of the 60's, some Young Turks in the Pomona College theatre department staged an "abstract" theatre piece in which a great many co-eds in leotards manipulated sheets of (donated) Dow Styrofoam while shouting nonsense syllables. My buddies and I, getting stoned in the light booth, concluded it was just about the dopiest thing we'd ever seen.

The problem is that we human beings have pretty-well defined expectations for human behavior, based on our real-world experience. We make sense of other people by drawing inferences about their (necessarily hidden) thoughts and feelings from their manifest actions and utterances. This meaningful relationship between outward actions and intent is what we call behavior, and over time--usually between 2 and 10 years for most people--we work up a rich but essentially stable and consistent set of interpretations of the most common behaviors.

It is this understanding of real people which we deploy in watching theatre, but representational theatre takes an obvious proposition--that we understand people by interpreting behavior--a (crucially fallacious) step further, insisting that the actions and expressions of an actor can only be "truthful" to the intentions of a character when they conform to the behaviors of everyday life. From this follows the modern day actor's desperate need to "justify" everything said and done, the wretched normalization of "psychology" in conventional play development, etc., etc.

Most theatre traditions, on the other hand (and to the extent we can claim to know them), have been stylized. Stylized behavior is similar to any other behavior in that outward actions "reveal" inner thoughts and feelings, the difference being that the visible actions not only need not resemble real-world behaviors but can, in fact, make up a set of essentially abstract signs and signals. Of course, this theatrical code must also be learned, but once acquired it becomes as valid a set of behaviors as any other--with the added value of being simpler and more internally consistent than real-world behaviors (and, because stylization assigns "meaning" to behavior by rule, it also simplifies the effort of reading a performance.)

The problem facing abstract theatre, then, is that you can't just have actors declaim nonsense and manipulate styrofoam because (a) this is obviously not real-world behavior and (b) there is no apparent way to otherwise decode such random behavior on the fly. Absent a long tradition of styrofoam manipulation, this sort of thing can never be theatrical. It may (or, in this case, may not) be possible to read this sort of thing as dance, but it can never become behavior which, I am arguing, is the fundamental constituent unit of theatre. From which it follows that abstract theatre can only be rendered from abstract (or, to be more accurate, non-representational yet seemingly "meaningful") behavior.

The pursuit of abstract behavior has long been evident in theatre. But with the exception of Richard Foreman (about whom more later) and performance-based theatres such as LeCompte, Squat, and Stanya Kahn, historical precedents have generally been reducible to high-art nonsense (Dada, Bald Soprano, Handke's Lake Constance) or dance (Sakonnet Point, Robert Wilson). Yet this may be changing, for in the last month alone two New York productions--Joyce Cho's revision of Running Commentary No. 4 by Scott Adkins and Pavol Liska & Copper's No Dice--have shown, using similar techniques, how theatrical behavior can become sustainable and evocative while remaining non-representational.

No Dice is an assembly in which the constituent threads are not text, but distinct performance elements[1]:

  • Dialog compiled from transcripts of recorded telephone conversations
  • A set of purely theatrical elements--such as bad accents, figure groupings ("blocking"), intonations and expressions enacting "emotions"--deliberately evocative of hammy, amateurish productions.
  • A codified set of expressive and complex hand gestures, apparently assigned at random, but used in the conventional sense, as emphasis

Because these threads are not all text (i.e., are not all made from the same "material), they can run simultaneously, in parallel. At any given moment, then, the onstage "action" consists of characters (a) speaking more-or-less verbatim dialog (which, given its usage and references, is automatically read as "real") , in (b) extremely "fake" poses and "situations," (which, by quoting theatrical cliches, suggest "intent" while resisting any sense of realism), punctuated by (c) occasional random, weird and "inappropriate" gestures, which both articualte the supposed "intent" of the text which further emphasizing the strangeness of the overall behavior.

At first, the experience is primarily "goofy," and the audience laughs. But over time--and time, the irreducible vector of all theatre, is essential to the experience of No Dice--pattern and order appear. At first, this is simply the recognition that we have seen the same random gesture before; that some of the phone conversations seem to describe the actions of the piece; that the splices in the dialog can be read as shifts of "scene" (thus approximating the discontinuities of pure-text assemblies, which are also experienced as edits). After about 45 minutes, it becomes apparent that the set of gestures is not infinite; that the set of poses and expressions is equally limited (most characters maintain one basic facial expression over the course of the entire evening); and finally that the overall method of the piece isn't going to change.

This is essentially what happens in the ninety minutes of first "act", and it is all prelude. For the second act consists almost entirely of conversations already heard in first, repeated with different actors and different behaviors. This not only further establishes an internal consitency, but introduces a sense of familiarity. And it is here, once the vocabulary of behaviors has acquired regularity and become familiar, that the effect of abstract behavior is possible. The events on stage become freighted with meaning, a sense of import which resists any attempt to identify exactly what the characters might "really" be thinking and feeling. The audience knows perfectly well that the disparate elements are essentially meaningless in and of themselves. They are just "stuff." They cannot possibly be what the moment, let alone the overall piece, is "about."[2] And yet--and especially whenever Kristin Worrall plays, once again, the trite, haunting Gnossienne Nr. 1--it is impossible to resist the feeling that something significant, even moving, is happening.

How on earth does it work?

As Copper's quote in my epigraph implies, the method is Richard Foreman's, but because Foreman's work is so well known, and these results are so different, a comparison may be instructive. There are three principal differences:

  • Continuity: The extended phone conversations of No Dice give an audience something to "follow," the sense of continuity Foreman deliberately subverts. Continuity in any form, however, not only makes the action more "plausible" (only in the sense that, as with real-world conversations, characters seem to answer each other and we can follow what they're talking about) but allows the audience to drop in and out of the action without losing their place. Continuity, if you will, establishes the rate at which information flows in the piece, and in No Dice the flow is pretty much of a trickle.

  • Bounded Heterogeneity: As noted earlier, the three principal threads of No Dice are not only made of different "stuff" (words, poses, hand-gestures) but have different "textures" (conversational/real vs. theatrical/artificial vs. gestural/inappropriate). Yet they are also revealed, over time, to be extremely limited. The formal system of the piece, then, consists of threads with little internal variation which are also significantly different from each other. Since any assembly is necessary read by inference, the "distance between" various elements is crucial to establishing tension, which in turn regulates the degree to which attentioncan be sustained. Foreman's work, which feels all-of-a-piece, is relatively dense. No Dice is, by comparison, lighter and more opened-up.

    Once the elements have become familiar, each thread assumes its usual role. We read the text (dialog) as the matter or content--"what is going on;" we read the poses, intonations and facial expressions as expression of the character's feelings, with the gestures as punctuation or emphasis (here, as much a formal device as supplying additional meaning). More importantly, we disregard the obvious inconsistencies between our perceived correspondences. The piece begins to make sense to the very degree that we no longer try to make sense of it.

  • Tone: Almost every description of No Dice mentions its charm. This is not simply a matter of the humor inherent in the continual mismatch between word and deed, action and intent. The deliberate invocation of "coarse" (i.e., amateur) theatre prevents the piece ever becoming too arty. To the extent that our beloved R. Foreman ever seems starchy and ponderous, it entirely due to the fact that he is so obviously making Art.

Despite such formidable accomplishments, it might still be possible to dismiss No Dice as a stunt or a fluke by assuming that its structure and effects depend on the specific materials chosen. One would not, after all, want to see unlimited productions of recorded phone calls, coarse acting or very strange gestures. But it seems obvious to me that the implications extend, radically, to both playwriting and directing, and specifically to the question of when, and how, behaviors are created. If it is now possible, as No Dice certainly suggests, that the actions of actors can be separated from the meaning of the dialog they speak, the very foundations of theatre have shifted.





[1]Those wanting a fuller description of the piece may refer to any of the reviews readily available online

[2]This was the seeming paradox over which even the friendliest of critics stubbed many a toe, attempting to read one or another "meaning" into the text, knowing all the while that this was beside the point.