NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
W: Art as an Engine
NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
W: Art as an Engine
You don’t know what shows you want to see in Fringe. That guide is freakin huge, the descriptions are tiny, and there are like 150 shows. And it’s coming up soon: Sept. 9-24.
For two years Curate This co-founder Julius Ferraro has leveraged his experience and knowledge of the Philadelphia theater scene to produce a series of Fringe Bike Tours, helping audiences to navigate the ocean of possibilities that is Fringe. This year there won’t be a bike tour, but you can take a look at his Fringe schedule, below.
-Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder
Fringe always reminds me of firsts! One of my first outstanding Fringe shows was Nichole Canuso’s Wandering Alice, and now she’s back at Fringe in Pandæmonium with Geoff Sobelle, whom I first saw in Pig Iron’s Chekhov Lizardbrain, also at Fringe. I first saw Mary Tuomanen perform in Vainglorious many years ago (and have seen her many times since then), and now she’s back in another immersive Applied Mechanics show.
If there’s a theme among the shows I’m seeing in this year’s Fringe, it’s that so many fall under the label of “immersive” performance. Think critically about this descriptor, which is inarguably a hot one these days. What does it mean? Is it a new way of engaging “presence” in performance, or is it a gimmick? Is it vital to the changing meaning of theater in an increasingly digital world, or is simply a new way to stimulate oversaturated audiences?
And what counts as immersive? If actors are on all sides of me and sometimes touch me, is that immersive? If I am allowed to choose in what order I see scenes, is that immersive? Or do I have to be picking fruit with the artists, or making real in-the-moment choices with my body which affect the ways I relate with other individuals, for a show to be truly “immersive”?
Look out for my reviews of many of these at Phindie and thINKingDANCE as the festival goes by. Hopefully this list will help you to navigate the notoriously massive and ponderous list of shows. I’ve also tabulated running counts of how many shows I’m seeing and how many hours that means in actual time in the theater. Just for fun.
THURS, SEPT 8
8 pm. Animal Farm to Table by The Renegade Company. Immersive theater and food together. Immerse yourself in both, like an arty jello bath.
Total shows seen: 1. Time spent in theater: 1 hr 15 mins.
FRI, SEPT 9
8:30 pm. Feed by Applied Mechanics. What’s Feed about? I can’t tell from the description and I don’t really care. Applied Mechanics “makes plays you can walk through,” and they’re good at it. Mary Tuomanen was a wonderful Napoleon in their Vainglorious so many years ago. I’m excited to see her alongside Thomas Choinacky again.
11 pm. Crave by Sarah Kane, this production by Svaha Theatre. Kane’s first major production was Blasted, a play which blew up theatrical orthodoxy by having the seedy motel room from the first act bombed by an invading army. Graphic staged (and often sexual) violence was a hallmark of her first three plays; Crave is a departure from this, with the violence still present but abstracted into language and monologue.
Total shows seen: 3. Time spent in theater: 3 hrs 45 mins.
SAT, SEPT 10
3 pm. Cellophane by Mac Wellman, this production by Jenny Kessler and John Bezark. I wrote a preview about this play for thINKingDANCE. Wellman is a master of modern wordplay, “James Joyce reborn as a rap artist.” If you think there’s something weird and wiggly going on underneath the grinning, whitecapped veneer of contemporary communication, take a peek under the sinister skirts of Cellophane.
7:30 pm. Two Stories. In a house, dance happening in different rooms, choose your own adventure. “Immersive.” Why not.
10 pm. Shadow House. Immersive opera directed by Brenna Geffers and with a libretto by Brenna Geffers. Another choose-your-own-adventure, follow the performers around the house and get a different story depending on where you go play. I saw Geffers’ La Ronde in the same building last year. My choices didn’t seem to matter because I was able to catch everything that happened, eventually . . . but Geffers is super talented and experienced so this is worth checking out.
Total shows seen: 6. Time spent in theater: 7 hrs 30 mins.
SUN, SEPT 11
2:30 pm. The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco, created by, of course, Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium. Ionesco is the French absurdist who wrote The Bald Soprano, the anti-play which you’ve seen performed in 24-hour cycles with an increasingly exhausted and loopy cast.
7 pm. The Sincerity Project by Team Sunshine Performance Corporation. The hook: two years ago, seven performers signed on for a 24 year experiment. Every two years they’ll perform The Sincerity Project, perform the same rituals, answer some of the same questions, and re-weave their lives together.
Total shows seen: 8. Time spent in theater: 10 hrs 30 mins.
MON, SEPT 12
8:30 pm. I Fucking Dare You by The Berserker Residents. I’m going to this completely by the virtue of the company making it. Wild and wicked; “daft, ephemeral and joyous.”
Total shows seen: 9. Time spent in theater: half a 24 hr day.
TUES, SEPT 13
8 pm. Gala by Jérôme Bel. Join thINKingDANCE after this performance for Write Back Atcha: a post-show “talk-back” combined with a mini-writing workshop, exploring the language you use to describe dance. See the show, pow wow with other audience members and some experienced writers, think and talk critically, write a few lines about what you saw, and then have some of your work compiled with other audience members’ work into a crowd-sourced review like this one.
Total shows seen: 10. Time spent in theater: 13 hrs 30 mins.
WEDS, SEPT 14
8 pm. Pandæmonium by Nichole Canuso Dance Company and Early Morning Opera. Nichole Canuso is a Philadelphia treasure – her Wandering Alice epitomized immersive work for me before I ever knew what that word meant, and then The Garden blew that out of the water a few years later. See her dance with Pig Iron founding member Geoff Sobelle.
Total shows seen: 11. Time spent in theater: 15 hrs.
THURS, SEPT 15
7 pm. 7-Chair Pyramid High Wire Act by Der Vorfuhreffekt Theatre. Puppetry. Elaborate costumes. Props and dynamic sets. Super theatrical performance. This show’s been all over the world and I want to catch it while it’s here.
Total shows seen: 12. Time spent in theater: 16 hrs.
FRI, SEPT 16
7 pm. With Flint and Steel by duende. Improvised music and dance. But, like, they seem to really know what they’re doing.
Total shows seen: 13. Time spent in theater: 16 hrs 45 mins.
SAT, SEPT 17
5 pm. Speculum Diaries by Irina Varina. Varina is an engaging, present, super-talented performer who is also capable of screaming a song at her own vagina on stage. One of my top picks for the festival.
9 pm. Explicit Female by Zornitsa Stoyanova. To quote Kat Sullivan, Zornitsa is a “neo-metal monster and a futuristic Renaissance queen.” Check out my interview with Zornitsa on thINKingDANCE for more info about why I’m psyched about this performance.
Total shows seen: 15. Time spent in theater: 18 hrs 45 mins.
SUN, SEPT 18
7:30 pm. Wise Norlina by Stacy Collado, Hillary Pearson, and Kat J. Sullivan. I don’t know much about this piece; I’m seeing it because I’m interested in Sullivan’s work.
10 pm. Exile 2588 by Almanac Dance Circus Theatre. First time I saw Almanac was at Nice and Fresh; they did a little wordless ditty about a SEPTA ticket taker chasing a fare-cheat up onto the roof of the train and then into such unlikely places as the cockpits of fighter jets. Laurel and Hardy joyfulness combined with astounding circus skill.
Total shows seen: 17. Time spent in theater: 21 hrs 45 mins.
WEDS, SEPT 21
7:30 pm. One Way Red by Medium Theatre Company. Dani Solomon first created this piece for 2015’s SoLow Fest. It’s a beautiful and moving exploration of the one-way trip to Mars proposed by popular science recently.
Total shows seen: 18. Time spent in theater: 23 hrs 15 mins.
THURS, SEPT 22
7 pm. Julius Caesar. Spared Parts by Romeo Castellucci / Socíetas Raffaello Sanzio. A nice pairing with Cellophane, this is a Caesar stripped of its words, featuring characters who wrestle desperately to communicate and fail.
Total shows seen: 19. Time spent in theater: 1 day and 45 mins.
FRI, SEPT 23
7 pm. Portrait of myself as my father by nora chipaumire. A dancer who never knew her father “celebrates and critiques masculinity: its presence, presentation, and representation” by producing it in a boxing ring.
Total shows seen: 20. Time spent in theater: 1 day, 2 hrs and 15 mins.
SAT, SEPT 24
2 pm. Le Cargo by Faustin Linyekula. A Congolese dancer explores the elimination of memory and his country’s past.
6 pm. The Performers by Erica Janko. A total toss of the dice on this one. I know nothing about Erica Janko except that she describes herself as “a movement artist who researches social phenomena through performance,” a kind of personal statement which might mean everything or nothing.
10:30 pm. Martha Graham Cracker is Martha Graham Cracker.
Total shows seen: 23. Time spent in theater: 1 day, 6 hrs.
SUN, SEPT 25
2 pm. One Way Red by Medium Theatre Company. Full disclosure: I’m filming this for the artist, so I’m seeing it twice.
7 pm. Macbeth by Third World Bunfight. A bit of a cultural minefield: a South African director leads a cast of Congolese performers in an adaptation of Verdi’s opera Macbeth, translating its events to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the leading man into a warlord.
Total shows seen: 25. Time spent in theater: 1 day, 9 hrs.
You’re too busy to follow performance in Philly. That’s okay—We’ve been watching the best contemporary theater and dance for the last six years and we’ll tell you what to see. We’ve got a list of the best performers, theater makers, dancers, and Philly-famous stars that you can check out in April.
1. The Fever
By Wallace Shawn, restaged by Scott Rodrigue
PLAYS AND PLAYERS, 1714 DELANCEY PLACE
This political restaging of Shawn’s play about accountability and entitlement will feel super relevant. Rodrigue is a Grotowski-based performance researcher with extensive training, and this is his first major show in Philadelphia. The production follows socialist models, being communally directed by a variety of collaborators and offering subsidized early bird tickets. This Thursday night is socialist night.
2. Lick my Gun
By Zornitsa Stoyanova
Saturday, April 15
MASCHER SPACE, 155 CECIL B MOORE
RSVP on Facebook
Zornitsa is one of the most innovative dancemakers in Philly, and a favorite of Curate This. “For almost 3 months I have been rehearsing with a group of dancers asking the above questions and exploring ideas around female sexuality tied to gun violence. Statistics like, its almost 3 times more likely for you to be killed by your own child or any other toddler than any terrorist, strike home.”
By Brenna Geffers and the Ensemble
March 29-April 16
LATVIAN SOCIETY, 531 N. 7TH ST.
Brenna Geffers is one of the best directors working in Philly, and she’s also the author of this adaptation of Anna Karenina (which is, in our humble opinion, one of the most searing and intelligent novels ever written). The incredible cast, including the super charming and versatile Andrew Carroll, is just a bonus.
By New Paradise Labs
April 8 – May 7
FREE LIBRARY OF PHILADELPHIA, 1901 VINE STREET
Reserve a session here
New Paradise Labs has been making exciting physical theater work in Philly for decades, and this immersive performance investigates the never-ending struggle between fact, fiction, and falsehood. “Library agents will lead you through secret doors and down escape hatches into the underbelly of the building. Codes, puzzles, disguises, and subterfuge – a bobsled ride into the world of lost books.”
5. Get Pegged with Ivo Dimchev
Friday, April 14
FRINGEARTS, 140 N. COLUMBUS BLVD.
Okay, so after all that serious shit just chill out with some cabaret and sexy puns. Get Pegged is always some wacky fun but this session features Ivo Dimchev, an incredibly daring and talented theater artist.
And we can’t seriously do this without upping . . .
6. Parrot Talk
By Julius Ferraro (that’s me)
DA VINCI ART ALLIANCE, 704 CATHARINE STREET
Parrot Talk is a metaphysical thriller about dying on the way to the grocery store. It features some of the most talented performers in Philly, outrageous abstracted language, and fundamentals of chaos. You’ll want to be there.
At least one person I’ve asked to curate content has told me that artists in their field “don’t write about their practice.”
I’ve definitely worked with a lot of curators who have been tentative about asking too much of their friends and collaborators, either because they thought it’d be an uncomfortable relationship, or because they didn’t think those people would ever deliver.
But this is different. They’re statements like: “Electronic musicians write, but cellists don’t.”
When I hear something like that, I feel taken aback and even a little sad. After all, I’m all about the democratic powers of the web re: verbal expression. Having been a writer my whole life, it’s my experience that certain individuals express themselves in writing often, the rest don’t, and there’s a range in there of how well those individuals can do it if they want to or have to.
In launching Curate This, I expected that, for example, a playwright would be more comfortable assembling a bunch of words on a page. But I also know that that same playwright might be as uncomfortable with writing a critical essay as a singer or a model or an H&M display designer or someone who builds sculpture out of microwaved egg whites. I mean, I write all the time and I am deeply fearful of grant writing.
The thought that certain disciplines just plain don’t lend themselves to written, or even verbal exploration, that’s something I’ve never once thought about. To think that electronic music, using the example above, is bound to and inspired by words and verbal exploration more than the cello, it’s just strange to me.
So I thought I’d crowd-source this one. If you’re reading this, take two minutes, click the 100% anonymous essay below, tell me your discipline and how people in your discipline feel about writing. And have some fun with it, for Christ’s sake.
FRINGE: What you don’t want to miss.
Theater is ephemeral. We’re always saying that. It’s here only now, and when it’s no longer now, it’s gone. You can’t hold onto it. Poof! And nothing is more ephemeral than the shows you didn’t get to see.
Unless you’re some kind of Brett Mappian superhuman, Fringe—September’s annual festival of hundreds of theater, dance, and music performances from Philly and around the world—is a regret factory. I miss shows I should have seen. I miss shows I meant to see but couldn’t fit in. I even end up missing shows I never thought I wanted to see, but then found out afterwards that I definitely did.
Last year, it was Romeo Castellucci’s The Four Seasons Restaurant and Found Theater’s Deep Blue Sleep. The year before was more regret-ridden, with Bathtub Moby-Dick, The Ballad of Joe Hill, The Sea Plays, and others. These are the shows that everyone talked about afterwards. I was left out of the conversation.
Julius’ regrets this year: I think that top of that list is Greg Holt’s 2,000 Movements followed by Hannah van Sciver’s Fifty Days at Iliam and Philadelphia Artists’ Collective (PAC)’s The Captive. Holt’s proposed deconstruction of movement is exciting and I think the piece promised an intellectual challenge; van Sciver is incredibly charismatic and funny, if the ten-minute preview I saw of her Solow Fest piece was any indication; and I’ve never seen a PAC show, and I regret it every year.
But also, I thought I’d give you my three picks of this year’s Fringe, otherwise known as your big three Fringe regrets, if you didn’t see them:
As a footnote, this regret is one of the best tools I have for building my future Fringe calendars. Everyone else sees the Found Theater show, they say it was great, I want to see it the next year. Since missing Bathtub Moby Dick, I’ve seen every Renegade show. The buzz which generates this regret is far more useful than a single critic’s review, and is probably second only to actually seeing a show.
A friend of mine, who was lucky enough to hang out with certain Dutch artists after their stage performances of a certain Swedish film icon’s screenplays, in a certain performance arts festival this September, said that the actors were dismayed at our lackluster applause.
In Amsterdam, I learned, the standing ovation is a serious thing. People do it. If the performance is good, the actors get a standing ovation.
It’s more complicated here. The currency of standing is costlier. A show can be perfectly good and get a seated ovation. This is matter of cultural norms, of trigger points. The Dutch have a lower trigger point of quality for a standing ovation. In Philadelphia, we need to be actually launched out of our seats, practically holding ourselves back from running onto the stage to hug the performers. And even then, we often don’t stand until many others are on their feet. There, it’s simply a matter of expressing admiration for a work.
This performance got a sort-of standing ovation—some people stood, and others didn’t. I didn’t, not because I didn’t like the performance, but because A) I’ve always got a bag with me and this one was sitting in my lap, along with my notebook and pen and water bottle, and I was anxious about losing one or all, and B) I’m a little confused about my own standing ovation currency. I’m a tightass about my personal taste and I get myself into these uncertain situations.
Anyway, these actors had to be mollified a bit. This is a cultural division. Symbols like the standing ovation are important, and even sincere, objective proof that it’s simply a matter of cultural norms and is not personal might not do the trick in easing the emotional blow.
The whole discussion made me think about something far more awkward than the standing ovation. It’s the mid-scene applause. Goddamn. I mean, a scene or a song has got to be amazing for an audience in Philadelphia to unselfconsciously applaud at a blackout that isn’t the end of the night.
If you go to the theater with any regularity, you’ll have been in an audience when a scene ends, there’s a blackout, it was a good scene, there’s an expectant pause, and a little too late someone starts clapping. We do this because televised versions of plays tell us we should, not because we’re inclined.
So there’s one person clapping in the dark, then one or two other people join in, and then suddenly the next scene is starting. At the next scene break, everyone tries to be better about it, and even if the scene wasn’t so good, a fair set doggedly claps on.
Americans are passive viewers, no doubt. We, and probably a growing number of Europeans, learn to watch not in a live format but in a home one. Outside of a ballgame, we don’t go out and get wild with our applause. We enjoy within, not without, and then we politely applaud at the end of the show. Not in the middle.
In Philadelphia, we don’t applaud in mid-scene.
This is not a bad thing, and you know what? Chronologically, it’s directly linked to a decrease in built-in rests in shows. The mid-scene blackout and intermission breaks are built-in rest points for audiences to gather their thoughts, express admiration, and get ready for what’s next. New plays for younger audiences rarely include intermissions, and the trend is away from scene breaks.
Underground Railroad Game was one of the unqualified successes of this year’s FringeArts festival. The play’s been presented in development (read: unfinished) in Philly and across the country over the last year, and when I asked Scott Sheppard what the biggest change was that he and co-creator Jennifer Kidwell had made to get it ready for Fringe, he said, “We rounded off the edges. There was a lot of stopping and starting between scenes, but that didn’t feel right. Our goal was to make it more fluid.”
I’m in my home with my laptop on my lap, writing an article while Spotify plays Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift and, if my mind begins to drift, I read an article on my cellphone. My TV is on in the background. More and more people consume this way—without breaks, fluid, connected, overlapping—and theater which touches on those tastebuds is what’s going to catch.
So here’s what I have to say about mid-scene applause in Philadelphia, and if you’d just join in with me:
Please, hold your applause to the end.
And if it’s silent in a blackout, and you’re asking yourself the question “Should I start the applause?” Just take a deep breath, remember who you are, realize that you don’t actually want to applaud, and don’t.
In Anklam his unconventional productions troubled the East German police, the Stasi, from the beginning. His first production, Othello, was played in semi-darkness, with the dialogue reduced to scattered half-heard mutterings in English. The production attracted the close attention and the condemnation of the Stasi, whose secret reports complained that it was equally offensive “to Shakespeare and to the public,” that it “deprived the play of all human values,” and, most damning, that it “undermined socialist cultural politics” by emphasizing “the impossibility of communications along with a blighted view of humanity.”
-Marvin Carlson, Theatre Is More Beautiful than War
It’s the line “offensive ‘to Shakespeare and to the public'” that is most striking to me. I’m not saying that I want the secret police to be all up in my theaters. I don’t; the above passage, from Carlson’s overview of deconstructionist theater director Frank Castorf, is a relic from an era of repression, censorship, and fear. But it’s also from an era where theater and art mattered heroically. To the Germans especially, who see supporting the arts as to be responsibility of the state, the stature of Shakespeare was something worth defending, with dirty tactics if necessary.
In this time of furious presidential campaign news, I can’t help imagining the America where Hillary’s publicly released emails bitch about the offerings of the D.C. theater scene, or a news flash alerts us to The Donald calling Anna Deavere-Smith an idiot and Sam Shepard a winner (he would totally like Sam Shepard). I’d actually love to read about Jeb backpedaling on accidentally saying he didn’t like August: Osage County.
Our politicians don’t know a proscenium from a prostate. This may not be bad. What’s definitely true is that our theater is not an engine of the state, nor does it have the power to seriously affect public opinion. Public opinion moves too quickly now. Policy is dictated by the catchiest 140 characters. What politician could justify taking the time to sit down with Three by Tennessee, much less Faust?
But the next necessary question becomes: with theater freed from the presence of politicians, is it possible that it can ever be an engine of revolt again?
Television is by nature more conservative and commercial than theater. The comparatively massive cost—on average, $2 million to produce a network TV episode—puts producers in a position of having to justify their budgets, and justify them with viewers (8 million viewers, for instance, saw the first episode of Game of Thrones this season).
A network, which presents and bankrolls shows, is a commercial enterprise. Networks take a subservient role to audiences, doing whatever it takes to add a thousand viewers—and to keep them in their seats for the full 21 or 44 minutes. Producers must always work to grow audiences, thus eliminating their ability to experiment—try untested structures, language styles, visual worlds, physical styles—and do what art, necessarily, must always be doing: trying both the boundaries of the medium and its audiences. In art, experimentation is the opposite of commercialism.
The range of programming, and the emergence of what feels “new” in TV, reflects, more often than not, a progressive and inevitable acclimatizing of audience sensibilities, an arms race to break through thickening viewer skin. Take, for example, Breaking Bad, which is hailed for its gritty realism. This is a trend which has been moving forward since before Mary Kay and Johnny first portrayed a married couple sharing a bed. Even watching a show like House of Cards I find my mind instinctively turning off in response to the high emotional stakes and flashy visuals. It’s delicious, but it’s not engaging intellectually, spiritually, ethically, or aesthetically. Like any other TV show, like even the news or a political debate, the House of Cards producers know that the audience can change the channel.
If a show does not function in the way mentioned above, it gets cancelled. Twin Peaks entranced an unexpectedly large viewer base with its self-aware, genre-influenced dialogue, surreal sequences, and unusual stringing-along of audiences (they refused to answer the question the show started with: Who Killed Laura Palmer?). The network hassled creators, forcing them to tweak the uncomfortable format, until it was effectively no longer itself, failed, and was cancelled.
What’s not guaranteed very rarely even gets tried.
Television is not bad, but it is nearly uniform in its message: you are here, you are safe, turn off your mind, turn off your thoughts; all revelations will be irrelevant to your life, all questions will be answered, the women will be unrealistically sexy, the language will be like yours, the last ten minutes will be hypercharged, you won’t feel stupid, this is not a dangerous place. As Donald Trump knows, an idea doesn’t have to be right to be appealing.
In his overview of the television medium, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman (a student of media guru Marshall McLuhan) posits that TV speaks the language of entertainment, and that all of its success is based on its ability to entertain. Unlike the written word, the power of which lies in exposition and reasoned argument, television exists startlingly in the moment, turning off our thoughts of past and future and dazzling us with an anodyne but delightfully saccharine present.
And he’s not just talking about sitcoms and TV dramas. He’s talking about political debates, the news, music, even religion.
“Because of the way [a medium] directs us to organize our minds and integrate our experience of the world,” Postman points out in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “it imposes itself on our consciousness and social institutions in myriad forms. It sometimes has the power to become implicated in our concepts of piety, or goodness, or beauty. And it is always implicated in the ways we define and regulate our ideas of truth.”
Postman is talking about the power of dominant discursive medium—a mode which dominates our way of communicating messages, such as the the written word did after the printing press, the spoken word did before that, and television does now—to not only tell all messages in a certain kind of way, but in the end, to only be able to communicate certain kinds of messages.
So entertainers, politicians, newscasters, preachers—all of us turn to entertainment to reach our audiences and maintain a market share. And in doing so, we either learn to speak its mass-audience-appealing language or perish.
This twists the TV-watcher’s (all of our) expectations of every mode of discourse, from political debates to the news to music and, eventually, to theater. Thus the 15-second TV twitter vid supplants the 7-hour Lincoln-Douglas debate as popular recreation.
Time and again, I see a play and it says to me: art must monitor your mood, art has to make sure you are smiling, art has to make concessions moment-to-moment to make sure you remain engaged; art entertains. Plays ape the quick-fire dialogue, oversimplified solutions, cliché wisdom, broad comedy and low audience expectations of TV.
In his First Prologue to “The Bite of the Night”, English playwright Howard Barker tells the story of a woman who is taken from the streets and cajoled into watching a play. She leaves, puzzled, but finds herself drawn back, and this time brings friends with her, one of whom says “because I found it hard I felt honored.”
What’s commercial is what’s successful, and it’s successful because it is in demand. There is a deep human need for art that engages and switches off our minds.
There is, on the other hand, a need for art that challenges. That denies emotional subterfuge. That puzzles and confuses. That leaves us out, a bit bored or worried, and makes us try to re-connect. That doesn’t answer every question, or requires work from us. That isn’t afraid to speak over our heads. That doesn’t dance more quickly because that will keep us in our seats. That challenges us to stand up and leave.
Shakespeare, I will be reminded, entertained. But in his best plays, clowns and idiots sideline stories which poke at unknown quantities.
Theater exists differently than television. It is present physically, and it is insanely cheaper, therefore able to speak to individuals rather than demographics. Television doesn’t work if the hundreds of highly-trained people in the credits don’t get paid; theater can be made by a single amateur, or five, or seven highly-trained people, or twelve, something we often forget in our fiscally crippling search for spectacle.
Even more than in the 80’s when Postman wrote, TV as a medium is defining the way consumers consume. TV isn’t even TV anymore, it’s the internet, its seductive clichés have crept into our pockets and even our prescription glasses, they creep into every aspect of our lives, so even in the impoverished arts culture we’re trying to make theater in, here, in Philadelphia we attempt to cajole audiences into theaters by providing spectacle, entertainment, mindless joy. By maintaining the old forms which work. Endlessly bashing away at naturalistic acting which looks like what we’ve been taught to expect. By making theater a province of TV, with canned philosophy and plastic morals.
TV’s great at this, it’s got the budget and the convenience to boot. Theater isn’t; it can’t cut quickly, can’t give a convincing zoom-in to add the emotional impact that unbelievable writing needs in order to land properly, and it takes a lot more effort to go out and see it. But because we are trained to look for TV everywhere, we have actors and plays aping TV’s tropes like dodos flapping their wings.
Often, theater grows best not in the gardens but as a weed through cracked sidewalks. In Philly, the capital-T Theatres which produce their own work in Philly are pretty consistently not nurturing new forms; experimentation, instead, happens in basements in South Philly, in hallways between Kensington studios.
Theater must be its own medium. It must argue for its existence on its own terms, not on the terms that TV sets for it. It must allow itself to say new things, allow itself to create new forms, and allow itself to eschew entertainment in order to truly challenge, and let audiences turn on their minds.
Transcending Medium is a prompt which asks artists to create a work of art in a non-preferred medium and treat it as critically as they would a project in their chosen field. I chose poetry, which I haven’t touched since college, but thought was close enough to my preferred medium that I could treat it critically.
The wide open sky.
Sky as broad and blank as the earth
As the sky
a great, wet sky
What is a play without a vision.
What is a vision without a dollar.
What is a dollar without a passion.
What is a passion without a body.
What is a body without a liquid.
What is a liquid without a pool.
What is a pool without a cutting oar.
I wear these sunglasses
powder just by looking at you.
Poetry of the moral Universe,
I got seven glimpses of the same thing at the same time.
Hot motion peace has no place.
Growl at it
Slant not known
Guns are significant
Where the whores won’t go.
Encounter night slippage
men have curves
cooked brass shapes on my night eyes blue yanked out on grids blue whale harmonics
taking up two taking up.
Looking out over the arc
A pitcher of pounce
(god grant me)
Brought on blue wails
. The great American wails.
I we don’t half open think
around ten tonight
I’ll be here
the earth is
he stands before me living
all a dreamy rules
somewhere else, you see
a hand, he take
. a deliberate
. a cheese sandwich.
I have hands
(see through white)
(and peruse online catalogs)
that says it all.
night cats on blue paper the Finnish product is awful kind.
he’s talking about
that doesn’t rhyme
isn’t a vegetable
inside joker Orlando
the greener pastures
the one that’s true
that much is true
the hot hands a clinical approach a God it’s hot a many kind a people
the next good thought
In a recent interview with FringeArts CEO Nick Stuccio, The PEW Center for Arts and Heritage asked how mobile technology has changed outreach and audience relations for Fringe. “The availability of information at our fingertips at any time,” says Stuccio, “has raised the bar on the sophistication and depth of context materials we need to offer. Audiences know more and seek to know more about what they want to consume or have consumed.”
God he’s right. My mobile phone has me reading more reviews, previews, interviews, and overviews than ever before, and I wonder if this is a good thing. Recently I was reading Jerzy Peterkiewicz’s biographical introduction to Witold Gombrowicz‘s Three Plays, where he concludes that the Polish playwright/novelist/journalist “tended to over-explain” himself. Gombrowicz enjoyed a minor vogue in Philly, with a major production of his Operetta as a curated Fringe show in 2009 and a Pig Iron adaptation of one of his novels the same year, followed by a few productions in the Fringe regular.
Gombrowicz wrote meticulously in his Diary, a weekly column for Polish literary journal Kultura. Alongside pieces of poetic prose and to-do lists, he included essays and op-eds, fulminating against the Polish literary establishment (among many other things). He used the column to outline his philosophy, and to cement his own place in the future of philosophy and art, basing these predictions on patterns he had recognized in history. The present, of course, was not quite prepared for him.
Basically, he wrote his novels and plays, then interpreted them for us. And Peterkiewicz believes that this constant self-editorializing eventually hurt Gombrowicz’s career and his reception. “Gombrowicz was so much preparing himself for the hostile world that he tended to over-explain himself,” Peterkiewicz recalls. “Sometimes he seemed to forget that words too have their built-in obsolescence. They corrupt the sincerity that pushed them out.”
And then just yesterday, before I saw Nick’s interview, I read about Peter Zadek’s 1958 production of Jean Vauthier’s Captain Bada, where the young German director had an actress speak a single line, “Where is the exit here?” 300 times. Lots of audience members left, apparently, some responding that they knew where the exit was. Reading this, I couldn’t help but think that if someone were to do that today in Philly, they would announce it first. Everyone would know, going into the show, that there was a line which, in a slight tweak of the original script, would be recited hundreds of times, and that the director is “not sure if people will leave,” but “that’s not a part of the consideration for the moment.” Maybe they “hope people will have diverse reactions to the moment.”
Discussion is vital to theater, and previews, press releases, and interviews can comprise a key part of that discussion. But in attempting to answer to the increasing demands of mobile media, and intensifying “hype” trends in entertainment, artists struggle to define the unique selling point of their production in tweetable statements. Some things, when revealed out of context, come across as gimmicks. And reduced to that level, they lose their ability to be compelling, insulting, moving, beautiful, or strange.