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.