Sunday, April 11, 2010

Image/Theatre - rough thoughts on Theatres, Images, Words and Monsters

OK in the name of continuity, I propose that I update this blog ONCE a week, every sunday. Those who read this take heed, if you check Sunday (or probably Monday morning), you will have a new entry waiting for you, hopefully. I reserve all rights to revoke this rule.

Here is an essay I'm working on. It is rough rough rough, because all I write in this blog is roughish and I feel that the blog works best when it is on full-rant mode. I apologize for some of the abstruseness, that usually tends to disappear as I work on something. It's long, that I also apologize for, and has quite a bit of theory and such. The main work I'm using in Jean Luc Nancy's The Ground of the Image who got me thinking about the image in such a way - and I am certainly going along with his definition. Other books to check out: Jean-Luc Marion God without Being and Derrida Truth in Painting

Okay, here it is.


To think through theatre with the image – to think the

theatrical image – to imagine the theatre – to

theatricalize image

Last night, I had the experience of seeing a show without images. No – correction. It had images, but it had no gripping images? No striking images? No powerful images?[1] It contained elements from some Berlin theatre I had seen, whose images still resonate in my head. They haunt perplex and inspire me, and it was those images, not the images from the show, that stuck with me, and even interfered in my enjoyment of said work of theatre. The most my experience that night could do is bring me closer to those other experiences. Just a shadow – a semblance, not emulating but in search of a form. In doing so it was not effective it had no effect on me, but it was purely affect. It lingered, and it certainly affected the time I was sitting, but at the end of 100 minutes the only real change was the destroyed scenery, the two hours moving on my watch, and the color of the sky outside.

A truly potent image is not seen, it shows. It does not ask to be looked at it teaches you how to look at it Nor does it ever correspond – there is no co-respondence. Its response is unique and singular, solitary and effective, and asks the same in turn of the viewer. The image imagines.

“The image disputes the presence of the thing. In the image, the thing is not content simply to be; the image shows that the thing is and how it is,” (Nancy, 21)

An image is severe. It emerges from a series of constitutive elements. It then unifies and annihilates their separations – it cuts off. It severs the elements not just from each other, but from themselves, from what each element before it once was. It creates a singularity that speaks only of itself.

Here we can begin to think of the Image – as Jean-Luc Nancy does – together with the ‘sacred’

“the image is always sacred…indeed the meaning of the sacred never ceases to be confused with that of the “religious”. But religion is the observance of a rite that forms and maintains a bond (with others or with oneself, with nature of with a supernature). Religion in itself is not ordered y the sacred…The sacred, for its part signifies the separate, what is set aside, removed, cut off…one attempt to form a bond with the sacred occurs in sacrifice, which as a matter of fact does belong to religion…where sacrifice ceases, so does religion. And that is the point…where the preservation of a distance and a ‘sacred’ distinction begin. It is there perhaps where art has always begun, not in religion…but set apart,” (nancy, 1-2)

The Image in Theatre

Using Nancy as our stepping point, let us think through the image in theatre – think through theatre with the image. But to approach this subject which for Nancy remains always ‘distinct’ perhaps it is better to do as Nancy, and find that which the sacred – which the image, is always separating itself from. And where can we find the “rite that forms a bond” in theatre? Most of all, in narrative – through narrative we communicate to each other a commonality, we bond the audience through the ‘universal’ act of storytelling. The narrative is the rite through which we let the world of the theatre (the meta-physical) and the world of the audience (the real?) bond.

If narrative then is the coercive movement to create a communicable, relatable time-space relationship – to bridge the gap between two worlds – then the image is its interruption.

In that way, the image resembles the sacred in theatre as well. The sacred is at one the reason behind the ritual and the threat that can destroy it. Nancy talks of sacrifice, but one can also think of madness, and violence, take the religious ceremonies that thrive to contain bursts of madness – some strains of Pentecostalism, the idea of ‘possession’ – saints claiming they hear ‘voices’, and the parade of violent and dismembered figures throughout the history of religion. This is a very brief sort of dip into religion, but it suffices to say that the ‘sacred’ elements of religion are often those that are in most need of control. But it is that very threat that drives the very creation of the ritual.


Narrative, when it is placed in a theatre, is a normative coercion that masquerades itself as truth, when all it is an interiorized ritual. If narrative, is the ritual – then concurrently, the theatrical image, which interrupts the story, comes out of the story (but then can function to at once exist without the story and represent the story without being the story) is the sacred. Narrative acts in fear of and in service to the image. From the ritual will of narrative is the desire to contain the image, the potent and dangerous image. In doing so, the image is concealed in the narrative and n a way shielded from its disastrous effect. In essence, the image goes from being an effective part of the experience, to affective.

But if we look at the history of drama (which is a history of narrative theatre, mostly) we see what is at the heart of all great dramatic literature is a strong image. An image that transcends the text, which at times seems to serve to contain this image, hiding it within the hole and unleashing it at its most pivotal points.

But within theatre – what is the image? We have spoken of the theatrical image – what kind of image does the theatre produce? To answer this question we must delve deeper into the imagination of the theatre and theaters in general.

Before Anything

To begin with, theatre proposes a stage. What is a stage? A place where things happen. But things happen regardless of a stage being a stage. All a stage needs to become a stage is for us to acknowledge it as such. As audience members we perform a series of acknowledgements to determine that it is a stage. A theater is constructed with that structure in mind. We enter the theatre, and suddenly things are different. The house “opens” to us, the house “closes” we are locked in. Once we affirm that this is indeed a stage we allow things to happen as if they were on a stage. A theatre creates a happening that acknowledges itself as such and only a happening and in doing so separates itself from all other happenings. What happens onstage – it never really happens – except onstage. Here now we have created a structure where things never happen by making them happen. We can write historical plays and put things in the mouths of persons long deceased and make them do what we will , because we know this was not the case – or was it?

But how can the stage do this? Before anything, before any word is spoken and any person enters the stage creates an ‘image’ of itself. Our first sight then is a re-seeing. It is a seeing again, of which the first “the seeing of a stage as a stage” always precedes it but can never acknowledge itself as such.

When we ‘stage’ something outside of a theatre, we falsely do it. We do something that does not have its proper effect. The truth of the event is existent since it does occur, but it is negated because it never really ‘happens’. What is happening – unspoken is the truth of the theatrical image, what is hidden onstage is the the very thing being presented. The staging of it is what makes it not happen.

The stage preceding the theatre, and it is the stage that always precedes a theatre – the stage opens a space, otherwise there is no gap between theatre and reality, and if there is such it is only to the extent that the other ‘realizes’ the game (many artists have exploited this weight, Boal’s “invisible theatre” is a favorite example) is actually being played on them.

This image that is not seen but is necessary – image because it creates a cut-off space, (stage breaks the proto-narrative of reality) – is part of an unseen image, that Nancy, drawing from Kant, names the schema: “The subject produces unity – that is, its own unity as subject-of-a-representation – a successive. That is its primary schematism, or its pure imagination, the condition of possibility of any image, any (re)presentation: the condition for their being an image, and not chaotic flux,” (Nancy, 81-82). For Kant, and Nancy, this is tied to setting the conditions for experience. The reason this is particularly relevant for the stage – is that if in experience we determine certain ways to establish ourselves in reality (through modalities like number, time-space, distance, etc.) the stage opens up the place for an experience that allows interruptions of this reality. The stage interrupts what we call experience by positing a different kind of experience – the same way ritual-time and ritual-space serve as interruptions of the chronology of life, so does staged-time, staged-fact, staged-being, all of these elements require us to think of the stage as the enabler of all experience, an experience outside experience.

- The stage, like the image, is a monster – its consequences are monstrous. What is monstrous about the stage is all it allows by negating itself from the usual. By preceding what happens, it makes possible any possibility. There is therefore no greater fear for an audience than an empty stage.

(Not) Looking Under the Covers

How do we fill a stage?

With people. With scenery. With light. With sound. But most importantly (and most effectively) with words.

On a stage words are the only thing – words, and signs – that can draw meaning away from space, that can distract us fully from the stage.

The stage is monstrous because by making everything possible, by “unhappening” every thing, every thing re-enters the stage, and is reseen in the context of this alternate experience. So even signs – things we immediately resonates with us as information in reality, become something else onstage.

Here is an example. If I place a yellow upside down triangle in a road, cars will think to yield. But if I place it on a stage something strange happens, we may think that but we may also be confronted with the presence of a yellow upside down triangle in a place where anything is possible. There is something monstrous about a place in which out of anything appears a yellow triangle, it is suddenly imbued with meaning, its own meaning. Everything presented onstage threatens to become full of its own meaning – everything presented onstage threatens to become a (sacred) image.

A word fills the stage precisely because it has nothing of which to refer to itself, it ‘presents’ nothing but information, and a sound that our minds already bypass it. The word is already on a stage, a different stage, the logos, that allows us to bypass an image, a sign and rebirth it in meaning. A word has difference, but that difference – as Derrida notes (citationpending) is lost if the word is not written. This is partly why Artaud, who claimed so virulently for a sacred theatre – wanted a mostly wordless one. He saw that theatre was telling novels – was making plays into novels- mostly because novels are the privileged domains of words. There it is only words which are staged, and there words too can become monstrous.

But onstage the word is image-less color-less sight-less. All it offers are ideas, concepts, maybe sounds, to tease the understanding into a categorical framework that erases and replaces images in the guise of another truth, narrative truth. A word says: “listen to me - if you follow me you can divine your distractions and find a meaning.” A word is imageless, precisely because it tells you what to imagine what it is not –it is a devised deviation of imagination.

For this reason it is ths word, the poeisis that has become the vehicle of narrative onstage. Aristotle’s Poetics though they addressed theatre, bore the mantle of poetry, for it was the vehicle of poetry that allowed theatre to act in such a way, and it is a relationship to the word that allows narrative its power of distraction over the stage. And narrative, which has become the all-powerful vehicle of ‘drama’ – which as Hans Thies-Lehmann notes has been our theatrical tradition for two centuries and only recently has become challenged by the post-dramatic (citationimpending).

Here is a proper parable.

The monster is under the bed, under the covers. The child is scared, he or she is afraid to look under his bed and cries and asks for the parent to come in. What does the parent do? The parent tells the child a story. Soon the child falls asleep and forgets all about the monster and goes on dreaming.

In this parable, the story is caused by the monster, but at the same time the story exists to hide the monster. The imagination is activated in the child to get him out of thinking of the monster, and soon falls asleep.

Note that it is not enough to lift the covers and look under the bed and show that there is nothing there. If there’s nothing there that means that the chance of the monster appearing is always there. For all a monster needs to do is show itself. The story does not try to show the monster, nor does it try to show the monster is not there, it lulls the child into a state of comfort and sleep so that the monster can remain, but never appear, under the bed.

The time has come in theatre for the monsters to come out…

Any image is wordless. It is a word from a language that it creates in its own vocabulary that only it knows, but in the moment it opens up, it teaches you everything you need to know about it, except how to say its name.

(C) Julian J. Mesri 2010

[1] “Violence always makes an image of itself, and the image is what, of itself, presses out ahead of itself and authorizes itself” (Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Ground of the Image. Fordham University Press. New York, 2005, 20). Concurrently it is so interesting how the very words one uses to describe effective images borrow from violence.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Today, my workshop with Hans Thies Lehmann, Helene Varopoulou and Josef Szeiler had its beginning. I really didn't know what to expect - Lehmann's book is full of all sorts of diverse and exciting examples of what constitutes "postdramatic" and Szeiler, best known for TheaterAngelusNovus - was a shining example of this, his work specializing in changing our conceptions of time and sound, and the spectator/actor divide. But the question remained: how the hell do you TEACH this kind of stuff? Say what you will against the "dramatic" form that has permeated our culture for the past few centuries, and seems to endure endlessly over here in the states (and I have said plenty), but what it offers (and perhaps this is why it still is the norm) is a specific pedagogy. This pedagogy, allows one to create works that are "dramatic" (i.e. the well-made play), creates actors that are modeled after structures of character based on natural life (method or some forms of Stanislavski), and allows directors a clear direction in which to go and train themselves. Of course, the problem is with such a specific aim, what becomes obscured is the sameness of the experience. Sure, we have a beautiful target and a clear bout of open air with which to aim our arrows, we have the tools and training, but soon it gets boring to watch arrow after arrow hit a bulls eye, soon we begin to wonder why we decided to put that bulls eye there in the first place, when there is literally all of nature around us, and we were just aiming on a small circular space among it.

OK - enough digression. What did we do? Well, if you look at it one way we did nothing. I mean, we didn't accomplish any mind-bending emotional revelations (at least in any particular way), we did not learn what "Seneca's Death" (or Senecas Tod - in German, the Heiner Müller text we are using for our workshop) means, or come to some literary revelation as to the "story" Müller is telling us. So what did we do? I can break it down in one sentence.

We walked in slow motion and we might have said a thing or two.

All that? For a day's work. Yes. And it was exceptionally difficult. And we did not succeed. And you ask yourself, if you want to create something amazing, something exceptional that really brings us into an understanding with ourselves, and we want to use our bodies and voices to create this something - and we can't even Walk in Slow Motion or Use our Voices correctly - what does this mean for when we try to do more? When we try to create an entire work? Or, you can ask it this way - why even bother with drama if this is much more compelling, much more challenging - the act of walking slowly, not stopping movement, toward one point, and not doing anything but walk - it brings up so many questions, it tells so many stories, but what does it say? In the words of Szeiler, words which he repeated throughout the over evening "It means nothing...".

Even the beginning of the workshop, where we spent probably close to half an hour warming up in the dark empty room that was the Wyoming building - asphalt and white walls, and a strange Iron-circle that was either for Ballet Dancers or Black Masses. And I sat there trying to first remember all my warm-ups that I've ever done, back in Usdan, back in Sloan's or Kennedy's acting classes, all the warmups I led with my actors, my Seido Karate warmups, and I was thinking so fast, too fast. I felt like I should be taking my time, then I felt like I was doing nothing. And suddenly I also became aware of everyone else, and wondered whether I was embarassing myself, and of course Szeiler would walk by us and look at us, his expression blank but instantly you feel he is judging you.

Lehmann and Varopoulou didn't say much, they stayed with the other half of the workshop group who focused on Müller's text and was (I guess?) supposed to memorize it. But most of the time Lehmann would walk, like Szeiler and watch us. It's strange, but so much of today was about being watched and watching, and it wasn;t because we were bored in either sense, even though not "much" was happening, but because watching became an intrinsic part of the experience. Watching was the experience, like every other element - each introduced as itself, and in turn opening and uncovering and unleashign worlds upon itself that didn't dare be touched lest we focus on one and lose them all...

Then we walked slowly. First three of us, me included. I was all the way on the other side of the room and had to walk to the window. It should take me "two-three hours," Szeiler joked, but meant it, he was serious. And you saw it possible, you saw time different in that space. The doors were glass, the window was a storefront, and you could see outside and everything moved fast and was loud, loud and brash and not stopping to think, not stopping to walk slowly. Walking slowly is not boring, and it is not easy. It is exceptionally maddening and exceptionally difficult. I broke out into a sweat and felt my entire body tense up. I had moved 3 feet, and was trying to keep moving, never stop, and I felt like I couldn't do it. I either moved too fast or too slow or I stopped, or my shoulders slunched or my face scrunched or I had to wipe sweat off my face or I suddenly caught Lehmann staring, or Szeiler staring or my colleagues staring and everyone - and I had to keep watching the light ahead of me. And soon I found it, I found that there is a curious suspension of gravity that goes into walking, right between where you shift the weight from the one foot to the next - the place when one foot is being viciously pummeled by gravity and the other foot bears all the weight. When we walk normally we bear it effortlessly, but when we walk slowly and constantly it all becomes your weight and you become aware of how little of your weight you can control, how little of your body you have polished. You feel that as an actor you need to rediscover your instrument. Slowly you realize that by walking slowly you have more control over everything - who needs a character when the purity of movement, of one singular movement towards an empty space followed by a simple spot, says everything. It says everything and it is "beautiful", but it, as Szeiler tells us "means nothing". We are doing nothing. There is nothing we feel, we merely walk. And it should be the easiest thing, and it is the hardest thing.

Szeiler took a cigarette break, and I took a chance to speak to Lehmann and Varopoulou - he said something that lingered with me "There you go - the critical in action -". And it is true, without realizing, all these movements, this concentration, it said everything theory did, it merely enacted it, the empty space becomes endless becomes that space of endless possibility - the silence becomes that which unsettles everything but also the birth of the voice, and the gaze, that fractured, intense gaze that we take for granted, it comes to life, it comes to life more than any Foucauldian panopticon you can imagine - you can see the gaze, you can feel your body change as the gaze meets you - and you become aware of your gaze, you become aware of the power it has on others. End break.

Finally one more exercise. Those who studied the text must stand against the wall or stare at the table and speak one line of the poem. Those who acted must create an improvisation (move around the room - - total freedom) and only say "Senecas Death" or "Senecas Tod".

First we, like overexcited schoolkids went wild with it, we thought it was like those repetition exercises where we showcase all the different intense ways our voice can act. Soon the room was alive, and cluttered with Müller's text, a mess of adjectives that soon lost meaning. Szeiler soon stopped us. "no, no, you are speaking too soon, too easily - the important thing is to listen for the silence, it is where the sound comes from, the silence, really hear the silence, then finally the voice can emerge. Use the whole room, learn the whole room, the way the voice effects the entire room. It doesn't need to do much, it is enough. But it is nothing. Do nothing with it. Just speak..." (I paraphrase... of course)

Silence, so much silence, I walked through the room and every now and then an overexcited word, but soon there was nothing but silence. Every now and then I heard the words "Tears are not philosophical" - that was perhaps the only constant. I spoke "Seneca" then "Tod" - but my words shocked, me, the voice, so much presence, so much power. I couldn't hold it in, I said it a few times, but suddenly I realized that the more I did not speak, the more I did not say anything but listened through the silence, felt the space that every now and then spoke a few words to me, I could feel my own voice getting more and more powerful. To speak it would ruin it, it's like putting out a fire, and of course it would be powerful, but then it would disappear, dissipate into the room. Szeiler was right, it was the silence that was holy, the silence that was the birthplace, the silence that was the incubator. I held silence for so long, the exercise ended, but I was scared of speaking - I gestured to my colleagues and friends, I mumbled, finally outside, into the cold rainy New York air where words were tossed off carelessly, I spoke. But I felt so conscious about it. I decided to be silent more often.

The power of a word in an empty space, a space completely awash in silence is a thing of great beauty, a human miracle - to realize the power of this should be a new categorical imperative for a new theatre - to rediscover the simplicity of movement and the power of each and every gaze - this also. Perhaps it can be said as this - to never take anything in experience, anything convivial, for granted - each is a beautiful thing, each is a miracle unto itself...each is worthy of its own moment, privileged to whatever time it needs to become - (as Szeiler would say, just do this, 2-3 hours, sure.)

On one of the exercises two of my colleagues walked towards each other in slow motion but in constant movement, finally meeting then passing each other then looking past each other held by each others bodies, both in mid walk. Szeiler stops us and says this - this is beautiful, and can go on for hours - after the audience has left, thats when the true theatre begins...the true moment becomes beautiful. That is of course to achieve the impossible in theatre, our greatest goal - to make the audience leave, but keep them in their seats...keep them watching...

Not bad for two and a half or so hours.

More tomorrow.

- J

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mad as Hell

Uh oh.

So I just saw Network. Incredible. Incredible film. If you want a film that predicts our current entertainment situation, heck, our current cultural moment see this film. 34 years ago Paddy Chayefsky got it scarily right. Not to mention that news has become the absurdity of what the news program in "Network" good friend Naren rightly pointed out that Jon Stewart and Colbert are rightly criticizing and making fun of this phenomenon (happening on CNN, MSNBC and god help us, FOX NEWS). I mean, is there anybody who is more the next coming of Howard Beale than Glenn Beck?

I could go on about the whole movie, but it's late and there's something that sorta terrifies me. (spoilers? maybe).

The scene where William Holden's character is breaking up with Faye Dunaway's...basically he explains to her that she's completely incapable of real human connection. She's a humanoid - like Finch's character (howard beale) says we've all become. But it goes deeper. Howard Beale says in one of his rants: None of us are human. It's the end of the human being, we are humanoids - it's the beginning of the "network". And Chayefsky gets it right - since that film we have consistently deteriorated the human-ness within us, and replaced it either with commercialized versions of ourselves (facebook) or with the models and idols of Reality television, which rather than imitate the reality on which it is based, turns everything else into Reality. (we may laugh at outliers like Jersey Shore, but they shape our culture more than we care to realize). Anyway, back to Holden. He tells Dunaway that life isn't a script, it's got real human beings in it. Well, in the end he tells her he's human, he can still feel, have good old 'traditional' emotions. She's incapable, she's been raised on television narratives, on flattened ideas of identity, that create someone extremely successful but also completely amoral to the pointing of talking about the murder of a man as if it were just a network merger, perhaps with even less zeal than that.

What does this matter? Why am I writing this on a theatre blog?

Well - unfortunately for us theatre makers, theatre relies on real human beings. The point of theatre is the presence of people onstage and other people playing the audience (sure we can play with these parameters, but after the dithyramb this is what we got). But what happens when we no longer behave like "human beings". When we are more humanoid? We get what happens now, reality tv appeals to us more, formula appeals to us more because believe it or not, I think we've lost WIlliam Holden - we can't really feel. We say we feel, we obviously "feel" in a biological sense, but any feeling we have is unfortunately conditioned by the idea of what we're supposed to feel. We're all either building melodramas or romantic comedies, or sitcoms or reality shows in our head whether we want it to or not. That's what appeals to us how can we create a theatre with real people and not seem like we're playing false to those who are already playing false by playing "real"? The sad part is that the "real" is now the false, the fake the constructed. None of this is new this was made in 1976, 30 years ago.

Let's take a back track for a second, and say that slowly with our jaws agape and confusion in our eyes. That was 30 years ago. And we didn't somehow annihilate ourselves (though it was a distinct possibility and still is). So that means 30 years. 30 years of becoming falser and falser and more constructed and more separated from our own ideas or senses, but now we can't even go back before then and say whetehr these ideas were ever authentic or whether we were guided by stronger more traditional and conservative social values...and maybe that's also true. But think about it, Holden is talking to Dunaway as if she's from a different generation, but now we're all this generation. Perhaps there are outliers, but we are completley and utterly consumed, to the point where this consumption is not just old news, it's the status quo.

It makes no sense to talk about postmodern this or postmodern that, we are living in postmodernity, in a world devoid of the 'real', and when something is being "postmodern" (as in the way that some oft pretentious artists tend to use it) that's not necessarily true, it's acting 'postmodern' that is, it's imitating a social movement that once used to demarcate an idea that is now the status quo. It's inescapable... this is where we are now. So what happens now? What do you do when your theatre is incapable of real? What do you do when the crux of your art, the ontological reason for it existing somehow presupposes real flesh and blood people capable of being people - narrative as the essence of human experience, god how many times have you heard that? Except humans have become inessential, our humanity, our human-ness, has become inessential to us. How can you create naturalism, when the very bonds of our culture, the very way we conceive of ourselves is completely unnatural?

Then we are really 'acting'. The lie takes place on both sides of the stage. And perhaps this isn't a bad thing. Perhaps it is merely the madman looking at his own shadow before realizing that the whole world is thrust in darkness. Shadows don't matter.

I am being exceedingly nihilistic. Maybe the result is resignation? No, that would be easy.

I don't have answers, it's sort of a black hole. But I want to keep doing theatre? Why? Madness probably. Some light one though nothing heavy. Maybe if we keep throwing paint on a canvas we'll make a shape, learn a lesson, create something meaningful. Maybe we'll just waste a lot of paint.

Let's hope for both.

- J

rant rant rant, but we'll get somewhere i promise.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The State of the Form (not good...)

Before I go into what I think it a bit of a bummer of a post, I want to state my absolute and total happiness with what was a wonderful weekend for THE KING IN EXILE. Great turnouts, thoughtful and enthusiastic crowds, and a great chance to see this work which is challenging, entertaining, and my first foray into the intense world of downtown NYC theatre. More to come later...but after such a lovely time it's important to do some much needed reflectin. It's not great, but I hope that by highlighting what I feel to be some of the challenges before the genre that we can begin to make theatre important again (I don't know why, but thats a question for another time...).

I think we can all agree at this point that theatre is not a dominant cultural trend. To be truthful it hasn't been for a while. Here is what I think defines a cultural trend. Art, when it is a dominant (and popularly consumed) trend both synthesizes and reflects upon culture. It is in this way that you see the cross-genre influence of film, television and popular music and art on the way we think of ourselves, the way we define our generations, and the way that we make our art. The effect of films transcends its own genres, in such a way that you see their influence on everything from other popular art forms to even our dialect and the way we speak.

When's the last time you saw a theatre production having that kind of widespread cultural effect? Perhaps Angels in America may be the last one - (maybe musicals, but I'm not well versed in them and will let someone else opinionate on them).

I'm not saying that theatre has to have the same pull of reality shows, but even high/low aspects of the genre become dominant culturally. Look at the indie-music blast in rock, or the indie-film phenomenon in cinema - a movie like Little Miss Sunshine, nominated for an Oscar, featuring indie music in its soundtrack, and reaches widespread audiences. Television that is critically acclaimed such as The Wire, or Arrested Development or Mad Men or Lost, all these things as well becoming part of a national artistic narrative that theatre is not participating in.

Let's face it, when less than 10% of the American public goes to the theatre we are in crisis mode.

Instead what do we have? Rather than have a cultural art-form that participates in the national cultural narrative while also in some way constituting it, we have a cultural-diasporic form that is relatively tiny that synthesizes its own narrative, creating a group of artists and theatregoers that are increasingly invested, even while their own numbers are shrinking and being increasingly ignored by the populace. The result is higher numbers of people making theatre, a more competitive market to get this theatre made, and increasingly conservative and minimal abilities for this theatre to be made by institutions that are both overwhelmed and economically struggling.

Yep, it's dire straights. I don't mean this to be a condemnation, just a reflection, and perhaps I am being to harsh, or perhaps I am woefully uninformed, but it doesn't look very good; and judging by the blogosphere's reactions to Outrageous Fortune (I havent had time to read it), it's not a very good time to be a young playwright who creates work certainly out of the mainstream.

I know I've only talked about pretty mainstream things in this post, this is not to say follow the mainstream it's all that matters, I actually avoid a fair amount of the mainstream and spend most of my time at underground theatres...

But the problem is that even the theatrical mainstream is out of the main mainstream! The only way high-falutin productions seem to make money is when they borrow from Hollywood's thunder - (A Steady Rain does fabulously featuring two famous Hollywood actors, while classic shows such as Brighton Beach Memoirs fall flat).


There is also the problem that both film and theatre are mediated experiences. Theatre is not.

In fact theatre requires the unity of time, place and MONEY. All this is out of an audience member's control. With something like Hulu, all of these variables can be controlled by the audience. The entertainment is provided at an audience's convenience. Even a three-week or longer run, is just an extended event. It occurs then it dissipates and if you've missed it, unless it does extremely well, you've missed it. There is no Hulu, no reruns later that night, no dvds to purchase (usually).

The problem is how do we make theatre attractive as an event, how to generate the excitement that hollywood award shows gather, or rock concerts do, how do we generate the numbers of a political rally? There needs to be a way for theatre to continue to be an unmediated experience, while at the same time participating and perhaps expanding into a mediated place, so that the participation expand beyond the stage.

I don't know. There are too many questions at this point unanswered, this is not meant to answer anything, just meant to reflect and perhaps build a way towards answers.

How do we change this? And if we can't change it (which I feel to be the case), what should theatre's purpose be. Why make theatre when we know it can't have the dominant cultural effect it used to have - why is still important? I don't know. All I know is I want to keep making theatre. Theatre is essential and important to me, and hopefully to other people, but I don't know why. All I can do is convince myself that I'm not deluding myself - then again, we entrust ourselves to the world of illusions, hard not to live in them sometimes...

- J

Thursday, January 7, 2010


I have decided to return to this blog. Perhaps it is because I am finally becoming settled into what has been my new lifestyle in New York City, or perhaps because I find the theatrical situation in the city at once so dire and so inspiring.

I have returned, but no one knows I'm here. Probably because I don't really tell people about this blog, nor do I participate in blogger communities, but perhaps I shall change that.

The goal in this blog is to provide critical reflections on theatre and the state of theatre in New York City (or wherever I happen to be at the time). I feel that it is necessary sometimes to engage with work honestly and openly through linguistic expression, and I also feel that I have not reflected enough on what is happening. Something, I feel I am beginning to regret - so many wonderful theatrical experiences this year (Prelude, Lipsynch, Witness Relocation, Int'l WOW among others) that memory is already beginning to tarnish. And, as I become more aware of my fellow community, I feel that there are so many debates I want to start taking part of, and learning more about.

So here is my birth, or rebirth if you will, into a world of reflection and art! Let us commence!


- J

Thursday, March 26, 2009

M4M, Chashama, 3/26 (Quality Meats)

My veritable panzada de teatro continued today with a visit to Chashama and Quality Meat's fascinating production of Measure for Measure named M4M.

First the location. Chashama, like so many heroic organizations in NYC helps young artists of all kinds, by offering spaces all around the city. The spaces themselves are scattered throughout. This one, in the heart of a truly non-theatrical area, the cold, business-like tall-building and expensive-hotel laden East midtown area. Forty-second street. The theatre is next to a pret a manger, one would look at it and think it were an out-of-business store. The theatre has a storefront window (more on that later). We enter with my two friends and it is an intimate welcoming environment with free-wine. It feels as if you've entered into a secret-area (out of Super Mario 3 or Zelda) in a totally unknown world (I excuse my years of nintendo for the videogame reference). Theatre was small, a chair, a television (of course it will be videotaped) and a camera. There are two levels. On the upper level a trunk stands.

The blurb promises a melding of an S&M situation between a man and a woman and Shakespeare's oft bizarre play about sex, the law and the quality of mercy (there are actually a few about that).

As a director of an at-times bizarre and experiemental Shakespearean production (King Lear! April 23 at Goodrich Hall!!) I'll tell you this, it's very hard (as in you should not try, usually) to out-bizarre Shakespeare. One quick glance at the Wikipedia page (get a nice quick plot-summary) of the play will show you that, one quick read will convince you.

The director Meiyin Wang, a young artist originally from Singapore, infuses the world of paid, controlled sex and ritual with this play about the limits of order, and does so eloquently and subtlely, quite humorously. The male character (Ben Verzbow) makes his entrance and gives us a good 10 minutes as he sets up the camera, sanitizes his hands (multiple times) and gives us a few glances at his concentrated, nearly psychotic face.

Soon, the entrance of the female character (Mary Jane Gibson) happens on an inopportune moment where the man tries to lock himself in his trunk. He sprints out (one of many times he'll do so), and we're immediately prefaced the awkward, slightly funny, slightly terrifying relationship they shall develop.

Money changes hands, she strips (only to her normal clothes, no nudity here), instructions are delivered. And we see the anxious man hand clothing and such to the woman. He then directs her, in a very costumed garb to imitate a blind liberty statue by holding two glasses up. We see her hands tire, trying to hold it up and him forcing her to continue. We wonder when the sick sex will begin. It doesn't. An ipod is played. And one could not imagine a more Renaissance-faire schlockly Shakespearean straight-from-the community theatre production of Romeo und Juliet lute inspired, insipid guitar in some medieval mode. Large credit to Mark Valadez's excellent sound-design which provides us with this wondeful punch-line in the beginning and later, helps mimic the breakdown perfectly with electronic touches.

Almost on cue, the man, begins reciting in perfect Shakespeare the lines from Measure for Measure. He, of course plays all the men. Mr. Verzbow recites his Shakespeare quite well, Peter Hall would be impressed. The delivery however is wonderfully doubled by the intense sexual pleasure or relief that this following of order leads. This manages to mimic Angelo's nearly perverted obsession with order wonderfully and brings the world of the play together. The woman, placed as an object (literally, her arms forced to remain non-moving though they fail at that as well). Her delivery starts, stilted and startled, her confusion echoed by the initial powerlessness of the Shakespearean heroines.

The play begins to unfold, and it becomes unsure, as the plot develops whether we are in the world of Measure for Measure or the paid S&M game of the man and woman, and the brilliance is that it's both. We get thrust rudely back into the world whenever the woman over-reaches her bounds and touches him. HE freaks out in OCD fashion and runs away or screams or nearly hits her. I wish there were more moments like this - the breaking almost became too ordered. The discipline of the production sometimes hindered the ability for Angelo/Man (who also played the Duke and Claudio) to break back into pure-Man, except for those weak, being touched moments.

The camera, was also not truly exploited, used a bit, but the screen was so small it almost became a nod to multimedia rather than a true exploitation. But to be honest this is a minor gripe of a spectacular staging of Shakespeare.

The end of the play wins the most theatrical moment I've seen all year award. We reach a point of tension, she leaves, he begs, she returns, but now the tables are turned. The play really loses its point here, the weak-seeming Isabella doesn't get to fool Angelo (the play ends way before we get to the trickery in the resolution) instead the woman comes back and she is the powerful ones. Lines are delivered out of spite and necessity. The man gives the word and lets her tie him up. We think she will kill him, she doesn't, in spite of its liminality, there is still the apex of control. Cold money has calculated (once again, when he offers her more money) that this will end with no bloodshed and a measured amount of perversion. She ties him up, leaving him strung up, left to his own order.

Here comes the theatrical moment of the year - Chashama reveals its shop-self, as the woman pulls away the curtain and reveals the street. The world of the street, the world of 42nd street blocks away from UN (the global law) and across the street from the law of money and power, and men in suits leaving work or going to a bar. The set, through a window becomes long and endless and rainy. A truck's lights backlight the set. As the people walk by (and we see a good 10 or 12 people walk by) nobody notices the man who is strung up like a stuck pig, nor do they see the crowd of people watching. They keep walking, perhaps performing their own fantasies of order.

Meiying (and her partner in crime in Quality Meats Javierantonio Gonzalez) graduated from Columbia school of directing and though I'm not sure if Viewpoints was actually used in the production there was certainly a Bogartian treatment of space and silence - though not to obnoxious effect (as happens when Vpoints is overused) but rather to highlight the tension and illustrate the role of space between these two characters. The play of bodies in a tightly controlled sexualized environment made not only for great Shakespeare, but great, effective, and thought provoking theatre.

It's refreshing to see theatre that makes one conscious that the people presenting are definitely thinking about something other than themselves or obsessing over the play they are presenting - they are thinking about people, they are thinking about praxis, and most importantly they are thinking about theatre, goddamnit.

If you are in New York tomorrow 3.27 or 3.28, take an hour and see this play! Get your tickets at Highly recommended.

Kudos again for the second shakespeare(esque) play that hasn't put me to sleep (Ostermeier's Hamlet at Avignon was the first).

All the best, next up on theaterfest-new york: Richard Maxwell and the New York City Players, People Without History

- J

Das Rheingold, Met Opera 3/25


I never realized how onerous a task this blog could become. It stares at me from the corner of the room, while I'm just innocently brushing my teeth. Alright, alright. I'll put the ace of cakes on mute.

I've seen many more shows than this since I last posted, but I will start with the Wagner I saw yesterday, and then move on to the whacked out version of Measure for Measure.

I went to the Met and had spectacular seats for Das Rheingold, the 'preface' to the Ring Cycle. I didn't have the time or the budget for a 'Ring' yet, but since Tristan and Isolde last year nearly brought my artistic self to near-fulfillment I needed to sate my late-epic German Romantic opera with slightly overly ambitious tendencies.

I don't really know what to say much about Das Rheingold. It was fabulous, but it wasn't extraordinary, but it didn't have to be it was a preface. I would sum it up as a lord of the rings with better music (much better music) and a bit more obvious anti-semitism. The nationalism bursting at the seams even as the Rhinemaidens sang so sweetly was a bit sickening. Especially since the music was reused by Hitler (i'm pretty sure it was in a Leni Riefenstahl film)...

The production was the kind of production that makes you wonder how else anybody would want to produce it 'realistically'. That was it. Gorgeous, romantic, epic and sumptuously detailed and realistic. The sets seemed to go on for miles and had this epic-nearly starwars-like haze. (do you see how many times I've used the word 'epic' so far?).

the singing, was good of course (it was the Met), but once again it was a preface, it didn't reach the ecstatic unreal heights of Tristan, but then again it didn't have to. It certainly did whet my appetite and I have to give Wagner (and Otto Schenck the director) credit for not making me at all sleepy even at 2 hours and 45 minutes with no running time. Kudos.

Moment of the opera: when Donner (basically thor) starts up a storm, one could not choose more amazing flowing extravagant strings and building chromatic swerves that brought to mind not only a spectacular storm, but a divine one as well. The effects were very cool, but the music, as oft happens in Wagner, overshadows the action. If anything it made me certain that I must find myself a ring-cycle as soon as possible (I won't hold my breath for Bayreuth).