Monthly Archives: May 2013

Drawn Dead, Storytelling, Identity and the Folly of Cultural Narratives

For a formal performance the average storyteller devises and finalizes a script, then learns it as close to verbatim as possible. The storyteller then frees him/herself to deviate and diverge naturally from the script to suit the flow of the given moment, knowing they can then come back to the foundation and score of that script as necessary.

I did a bit from Drawn Dead for the Minion Showcase, and basing a process around the above approach freed me from a lot of the anxiety that used to cloud me before performances of my own work. The bit being a true story obviously helps because it makes remembering the story easier, but telling it within a framework keeps it in control and on track, keeping the audience engaged.

Drawn Dead went from being many things to being a thing that interacts with other things as needed. It is now forming into a storytelling show interjected with dramatizations, dances, demonstrations and a disowning of conventional story structure or hero’s journey style plot.

Much of this material is based on a true story. Real life and the choices we make don’t follow Joseph Campbell’s templates unless we make it so. Those templates can inform the narratives we choose to overlay on the stories of our lives, but otherwise creatures of free-will live more impulsively than characters in standard linear plots.

This is actually a key reason why marriages, relationships and dream situations fall apart: Storybooks ignore relevant, impact details if they don’t drive the narrative, they tell stories featuring stock characters that exist in a vacuum and think/behave somewhat predictably, and they don’t deal with what happens after happily ever after (which is where pretty much everything of note happens in a real relationship).   This is also the folly of seeing the world in the binary context of good versus evil. Humanity is much too complex to fit into such binaries. Yet people religiously try to live their lives according to, or in contrast to, the ideals set in fairy tale narratives they repeatedly see in books, movies, theatre and television.

On a couple of occasions this past month I have explored trying to collect these ideas, bits and scenes into a cohesive screen/play style script, before realizing that as a story it does not fit the archetype of a typical two act stage/screen story. The protagonist sure as hell is not a hero. There is no specific antagonist; in fact the protagonist himself may be in various ways his own biggest antagonist. There is in a sense a sort of final battle (and no it’s not the scene I perform at the Minion Showcase), but it comes more as a personal, defiant act of closure than a resolution where the good guys win in the end. I tried to see it as an allegory but it doesn’t appear that there is a single, concrete takeaway message or cautionary tale within.

Amidst all that, there is a center arcing story carrying it all like a sort of suspension bridge. A fool chases the answers to his ambitious questions as well as a desire for personal closure to Pendleton, Oregon to play a poker tournament festival he always wanted to play but never did. In courting disaster he not only answers his questions but discovers answers to burning questions he never asked. Plus, he learned from playing poker a latticework of life lessons that impacted the rest of his life and forever changed how he interacted with a fractured world, and the piece serves to share some of those discoveries.

Is he a better person after all this or is the world a better place? I don’t know and neither will anyone else who sees it… though I do hope it leads people to ask similar questions of themselves and what they do with their lives.

That’s something you sure as hell won’t get out of a storybook.

The process, Drawn Dead, and why I choose to work alone in development

I had two bits from my upcoming show Drawn Dead that I was putting together for the upcoming Minion Showcase, but with a packed show (that was cramped for time) and one of them producing more questions than answers right now I pulled one of them back.

This decision works out for me because I’ve been playing around a lot with that bit, Deuce is Coming, over the last couple weeks, changing the presentation of the scene: The scene plot and characters themselves are clearly defined to me, but I’ve toyed with having me narrate the scene and interject with character work (a storytelling piece), having it be a set of interchanging monologues, having it just be more of a scene between the characters with audience asides, how much of the poker in the scene to show (it does feature a poker hand played out, with chips and cards), etc.

There is also the challenge of the logistics of playing out a poker hand out between the characters, while making sure the audience (many of which don’t play poker) understands the context of what’s happening while not deflating the scene with exposition. I just recently got the chip set I’ll be using in the show, and the staged mechanics remain a work in progress before they become seamless.

Also, some of these scene options make the scene a bit long, and I wanted/needed to only do 3-5 minutes. All of those approaches present possibilities that I want explore more before refining the scene, so rather than present an incomplete scene just to do something I decided to shelve it for the Showcase and keep working on it. After all, with the actual Fringe show I can ultimately make the bit as long as I need to, or even disperse it throughout the show if that’s the best way to present it.

This is the sort of artistically laboratorial experimentation my process gives me the chance to do. Others and I have called into question whether or not I should work closely with a director in developing the piece. Having both worked in tandem with directors and by myself on solo pieces I have found that working with a director is great when you have a solid, defined piece of work done under a solid, defined process. Right now this work is still being defined, and a director would annihilate much of my needed flexibility at this time. Should the show solidify, a director may be helpful to smooth things out, but for now it’s important to keep my creative options open, develop this on my end and show parts periodically for feedback.

Also, this isn’t just a stage play or your typical solo show. The process let alone the material encompasses a lot of undiscovered territory for a typical theatre artist. In not understanding the process they may try to break it and hen it into what they think a process should be. That helps no one.

Four Lenses: Saint Genet’s Paradisiacal Rites

Inspired by an idea cultivated during a Studio Current session, I have decided to do any further writing on shows I see through the POV of separate “lenses”.

Each of these lenses approaches different perspectives on a show and offers a more complete view than just writing a review and trying to cram all those ideas into one cohesive piece. In some I grant myself the license to judge the show while with others I look at the show more objectively.

The four lenses are:

1. Observational Survey – Here I just describe key details and ideas viewed throughout the show. There is little to no attempt to attach meaning to anything witnessed beyond labeling clear aesthetics or moods.

2. Critically Editorial – Here I take an analytical and philosophical stab at concepts and artistic choices in the show. Rather than label items good or bad, I instead offer interpretations of concepts and themes presented.

3. Investigative Curiosity – Seeing work invites questions and ideas. I ask those questions and explore those ideas.

4. Viewing For Pleasure – The easiest and least objective of the lenses features my personal opinion on how I felt about the work. Again, I seek to avoid labels like good or bad but I don’t shy away from describing ideas the work invited or things I liked or didn’t like.

One important note before I commence: All of this is merely my opinion + observation and nothing greater. Please do not take it too seriously or initiate any conflicts over it.

*Observational survey*

Paradisiacal Rites is a trio of extended imagery-laden dioramic presentations that combine dancing and movement sequences plus sonically overwhelming background music/noise performed by a group of musicians upstage left, and incidences of text and occasional moments of provocation. In the front of house and entryways are a latticework of wine bottles, plus a glass containing a group of leeches. The bar, usually situated in the front of house, is now stationed in a side room stage left from the house. Onstage during the production, a diverse group of performance artists carry out what are effectively extended rituals (per the title Paradisiacal Rites).

Erected reeds cover the stage in act one. Various sequences commence separate from the focal action throughout this act (e.g. a man blowing up balloons in a chair stage left) The key focal sequence: Two men (one of which is show lead Ryan Mitchell) lead an extended but clunky movement sequence that includes female dancers walking towards them, getting spit on by one of the men, and then carried on the shoulder of a shirtless man across the stage.

After being put down each dancer wanders slowly through the reeds onstage. Eventually the ladies (and one man) make their way to other male dancers situated amidst the reeds and commence a sequence where the walking dancers pose gracefully while held aloft by the standing dancers. One man stands center stage and rambles into the microphone as he attempts to recount past Academy Award winners year by year (as another performer stands at a backstage right podium with a mic and occasionally interjects to help him along). He eventually drops to his knees and dissolves into more random babbling, at one point leaking spit onto his microphone as another male artist drops his pants and exposes his genitals to the speaker as he continues talking.

Dancers soon take beer cans and commence a curious sequence of drinking and spilling various powders and liquids. One particular action features spiking a hole in the side of beer cans and drinking from it, beer spraying all over the floor whenever one isn’t consuming.

Each act is separated by an active interlude referred to as a “Knee”. Audience is allowed to move freely as the action continues onstage. During the first Knee the reeds are cleared by all on stage in segueing to act two.

Once the floor is cleared the four dancers find their way to center stage and commence an extended choreography sequence, which produces movement sequences repeated throughout the remainder of the show. Spilled alcohol and powder from the first act litter the stage and dancers occasionally slip while dancing in the mess.

Soon the sequence breaks into a simulated party as beer and wine get passed around, drank and spit upon the stage while everyone simulates rocking out in a wild party. Soon, the awards speaker from the first act is bullied towards the middle of the room, commencing a sequence where he is held down seemingly against his will, his pants are pulled down revealing his bare ass and then another person runs up and spits onto said ass. This is repeated at least a couple times, and during one of these sequences one of the men flashes his genitals mockingly at the victim before he is given the treatment again.

Memory of the following sequence of events gets fuzzy, and I’m not completely sure what took place in act two and what took place in act three. Bags hanging from the stage are cut open, revealing a stream of oil that pours onto the stage. Wine bottles that contain oil are poured onto other performers by our male leads. The female dancers are disrobed and sent to walk around the perimeter of the stage topless during an extended sequence to start act three. They are re-dressed as an elder bald man emerges from his hidden prone position stage right and commences a lengthy, mournfully bitter movement and text sequence with the other performers. One notable sequence: He is held while oil is poured into his right hand by one of the leads. After a certain point he pulls his hand away, then slaps the lead with it. The lead returns, resumes pouring oil and the sequence repeats. Eventually the stuffed birds hanging from the ceiling are extracted by dancers held aloft by other performers.

Two by two performers slowly drift from the stage, and the show ends with show leader Ryan Mitchell giving a small, cursory bow in the darkness before his exit.

*Critically editorial*

This is a show of ritual rather than narrative, though through all its convoluted imagery and sequences it follows a general life to death arc. It is designed to be a spectacle, and thus criticizing its narrative or lack thereof is folly as narrative was not the company’s intent.

The performers through the mayhem gave tremendous focus and commitment to all  moments onstage, a clear exhibition of the fruits of months (in some cases years) of practice. Their engagement became our engagement. I find no issue with their efforts.

Saint Genet created the impression in various interviews and dramaturgy that they were aiming to make a work that is provocative and possibly to some degree offensive. So in that light criticizing the work’s more alienating qualities also misses the point: The work and those who made it in large part intended to create those emotions.

So this leaves a tough spot. Along with being a fascinating show, it’s also in various ways a mean spirited and otherwise misanthropic show that’s very easy to hate. Indeed many audience members left the theater during the first knee interlude. If there are deeper messages or concepts within, the need as a patron to wade through the misanthropy to get there is inevitable and undeniable. Anyone who dares to claim there is no such misanthropy in this show is definitely lying to you and probably themselves.

Saint Genet is forthcoming about accepting the risk of alienating their audience in this production. It’s a colorful and sensory-overwhelming production, one that makes a lot of noise (visual, musical, physical and verbal) under the premise of making statements. Any statement made is very difficult to hear clearly over the din. You are there to witness rather than interpret.

It is a spectacle for fans of spectacle. With regards to making spectacle it succeeds wildly. With regards to creating an environment unlike any other it succeeds wildly. With regards to provoking an audience reaction and unearthing their insecurities it succeeds wildly. If it came in with any intention of accomplishing or discovering anything beyond that, it definitely did not succeed there.

Don’t mistake this as an effort to damn the production. It sought and did a lot. It forged its own expectations and soared to meet them.

*Investigative curiosity*

(Note: I don’t give much thought to program notes or prior interviews when seeing a show. The work should stand on its own. That said, I did read the notes and accompanying essays and am familiar with what Saint Genet seeks in their work. However, I choose to approach this section of curiosity as an otherwise uninitiated observer.)

All of the below are simply questions of my own curiosity. They don’t demand answers and many probably don’t even have an answer.

How much of this production was a collection of individual threads, group discoveries and pieces combined into a large scale show? How much of it was created in a top down fashion and how much of it was culminated from organically created pieces from the ground up?

Why the nudity? Gratuitous nudity is a growing meme in contemporary performance art and I’ve now seen it featured in several Seattle shows. Is it an attempt to culturally desexualize the nude human body? Is it a device, a faux-creative gadget of provocation? Is using it seen as a badge of artistic credibility? Is it merely an act of taboo self-indulgence?

If it is meant to spur a discussion about whether it’s any of these things, why is that intent not made more clear? If every artist in the show who disrobed had stayed clothed, how would the show have changed? Would it have ruined the show?

Why oil? The oil like all else is clearly a symbol of some sort to Saint Genet. It’s also very messy and makes footing difficult, and the symbolism it serves is vague and self-projected at best. Can that symbolism be made more clear without a dismissive request to reference the program notes?

The people who left after the first act… what proved the impetus for their departure? Was it provocation from the nudity, slapping, etc? Was it just the sensory overload that lacked a clearer narrative? The realization that dioramic spectacle was the scope of the show, that said spectacle did not suitably capture their interest and the realization that they had almost two more hours of this to go if they stayed?

Who among them will complain to On the Boards and who among them will do nothing? Given much of the audience enjoyed the show, is Lane Czaplinski even going to care or let it affect his decision making going forward if people do come forward to voice complaints?

What does Lane think about the show? As the AD for On the Boards it’s his professional duty to defend and champion the work. Deep down, does he see a path to cutting edge creative and cultural progress, a path to a future style of performance, through this type of work? Or is it a strange bird he is, for any positive feelings about the end product, glad to leave behind and move on?

Obviously there is a comfort among the ensemble that makes these sequences of cruelty, spitting, slapping and in one case simulated sexual assault acceptable to those doing it. But to uninitiated witnesses it looks like abusive behavior. It appears that Ryan Mitchell has been exploring the theme of abuse (via self abuse) in installation performances during production. He has fed himself to leeches, cut himself and even shot himself with a rifle during the production. Cruelty, both towards the self and towards others, is clearly a prominent theme throughout the production.

Given all this, are the acts of cruelty in this production done for their own sake, to display and provoke a reaction, or does Saint Genet seek something greater in exhibiting this? Is the audience supposed to witness this and be moved to some sort of action? Look at themselves in a distinctly different way?

This Antonin Arnaud quote in the program sums up the apparent modus operandi of Saint Genet and this production. “I propose a theater in which violent physical images crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator seized by the theater as by a whirlwind of higher forces.”

Okay, I can buy this as a sort of mantra fueling and underlying the production. But what is sought? What is the greater motivation aside from mere self indulgence? All art is ultimately self indulgent at its core, but lots of art also seeks a greater reach and purpose beyond the mere indulgence of the artist’s desires. What exactly is Mitchell and Co reaching for, and did they get it?

*Viewing for pleasure*

This lens is important, as I feel people struggle to separate their personal feelings about a show from more objective and potentially useful observations.

I didn’t hate this show, and I didn’t like it. And it definitely wasn’t just a meh show I have no opinion on. The other interesting thing is that this is a show that is designed for a polarized reaction, from a company that thrives on polarized reactions.

Though I completely understand why Saint Genet and OTB stretched this show of rituals to 150 minutes, the show was just flat out too fucking long for most witnesses. In this day and age of faster living and faster minds, attention spans max out at 90-120 minutes and even that is pushing it. By act three many of the remaining audience members were just indulging the conclusion rather than eagerly awaiting it.

There were definitely plenty of empty seats by act three, which is saying something given the show I attended sold out and those seats were filled at curtain. I can see how some people would hate this cruelty-themed spectacle, and I can see how some people would love the sensory overload and provocative aesthetic.

Some parts offended me, but I realized at the same time that this was by design. The show to some degree intends to offend. Instead of driving me off, the show’s artistic choices fascinated me enough to see what happened. That doesn’t mean I loved it. I was curious about where they were taking what was becoming a deliberately created artistic mess.

I’m a believer in artistic risk, and this production was definitely a comprehensive series of artistic risks. I also worry that it will purvey a trend of defining artistic risk among artists as cruelty, nudity, violence and shock images for shock’s sake. And artistic risk requires none of those things to constitute artistic risk. Merely making a show without a director can be a significant artistic risk, as can generating a script or choreography through improvisation instead of producing a conventionally casted and rehearsed two act play or 60 minute dance production.

But I worry shows like this further the idea that the way to go is to shock and offend your audiences, and that true art is about causing yourself or others pain. Shock theatre is at its core sophomoric, and it is almost certainly an outdated and culturally vapid approach. It can be an option, but it would be quite damaging for artists to consider it the default approach to taking risks, or one side of an artistic binary of choices that includes tired, formulaic performance.

Addendum to the Previous Points: On rewarding an artist’s hard work

One misconception to my previous points is that, in calling out creative stagnancy in theatre, I am also dismissing the work that goes into theatrical production.

Actually, if anything, this raises the importance of producing innovative and relevant work. The average cast and crew works for two months on developing a production, often rehearsing 4-6 days a week. The sad reality is that many rehashed, forgettable productions were prefaced by a shit-ton of work and sacrifice. This is one reason actors, directors and designers bristle at their work being called into question. No one wants to work hard for weeks and not be rewarded, or have their work dismissed as worthless.

But a lot of their work goes into retread productions, forgettable work, pieces that break no new ground and honestly never needed to be made or demands no real audience whatsoever. Everyone wants to believe the vapid Yasmina Reza play they spent two months working on or the end product of the city’s umpteenth production of Much Ado About Nothing is a beautiful, amazing work of art. No one wants to spend two months working on something forgettable or missable.

But the reality is that, despite everyone’s best efforts, the end product to the patron’s POV is often forgettable and missable, no matter how much advertisers, companies, friends and family do with word of mouth to dress up the creative turd.

Let’s never mind dead end arguments about the validity of anyone’s sense of entitlement. Yes, we all have one. The reality is that artists want to be rewarded culturally and spiritually for their work, just as audiences want to be rewarded for spending money and time to see performance art. And if there’s a better way to ensure they self actualize on that front we ought to make a real effort to leave the safety of our habitual shells and find it. I want artists to be rewarded, but I’m not going to eat shit as a patron of the arts (and certainly not as an artist) and pretend that vapid work deserves to be rewarded just because someone I care about worked on it. Your entitlement as an artist to immunity from criticism ends the moment you demand people spend money and time to see your work.

I would rather promote the discovery of progressive, improved approaches to making work that culturally and artistically rewards everyone, the cast and crew as well as the community paying to watch the show… that takes chances and pushes our limits intellectually, spiritually and culturally. And I certainly would rather promote work that does take legitimate chances than champion work that adds nothing just because someone I care about is working on it. That’s not fair to them, not fair to myself and certainly not fair to a community looking for an objective view on what in this town is worth checking out and supporting.

We all only have so much time and money, and with the volume of art in this town our choices are precious. I believe theatrical productions and their artistic choices should operate in kind. Make something no one else is making, and that doesn’t mean make a stage play or musical about X New Topic. Do something risky, challenging, DIFFERENT. Theatrical artists pour weeks of hard work into every production. They ought to be pouring their heart into challenging work that’s breaking new ground and taking new risks, work that succeed or fail will be remembered years later… unlike the latest remount of an off-Broadway musical or another vapid play about vapid people.

Voice Recognition Software and an artistic epiphany

Last night I discovered that my OS has built-in voice recognition capability. I tested it briefly with the laptop’s limited onboard mike and found it worked, but was hard to use. I decided to go buy an actual microphone headset and put it to real use.

I bought a basic $20 model and was delighted to find that it worked much more easily with the laptop’s VR system. There are still clunky obstacles to negotiate (I need to learn the commands and the VR system needs to get used to my voice, which it has the capability to learn), but now I can use a headset to dictate my thoughts onto a word processor in lieu of typing as well as navigate my system to some extent.

I also realize that voice recognition software work can be a form of training. We tend to separate how we create in writing from how we create on our feet. Part of that is that writing is done mentally and transcribed through typing, while we use different faculties to speak. This has been my biggest challenge in creating material. I write material that feels clear and easy from a writing point of view, but is very clunky and doesn’t quite work when spoken aloud. This is a challenge I have faced even when developing plays and monologues. As a reader, you develop one idea. And then you try to physicalize and verbalize it and what you get is dramatically different from how you previously envisioned it.

This leads to an epiphany: We separate the process of assembling material from how we produce performance. We could actually streamline the two processes completely together if we think outside the box.

As a baseball blogger named DrDetecto once said, “The X’s and O’s always move differently once the ball is snapped.” This means a football team draws up a play that appears on paper to be effective. They run it in practice and discover the players can’t run or block exactly the way the play is designed. A live defense running its strategy, with players following their instincts, produces variables the play is not designed to address.

Likewise, a polished written piece becomes something much different once on its feet. The current process of playwrighting, however, is a separate and distinct activity to producing a play. The stage play is written and honed by the writer first before it’s brought to life at full speed in rehearsal and performance (often by completely separate cast of performers and directors). It may receive a reading while in progress, and may receive a handful of edits during production if the playwright is involved. But the playwrighting process is otherwise a separate one: This fragments the creative process of making theatre.

To present a piece as written, I can practice it until I speak it textually and contextually verbatim. But I must shut a part of myself off creatively in order to achieve that objective. I have to eschew impulse and instinct to instead honor the intent of the text. I could work from instinct and impulse, get the contextual gist of the text and wing it, paraphrasing as needed as I follow my instinct and impulse. The end result may be more true to life, but may also lose a lot of the written context as I eschew memory of the text as written for following divergent nuance.

What happens if we combined the act of playwrighting and production? Various Seattle groups have tried this to a limited extent, usually in a more abstract fashion.  But I have seen some more integrative and narratively committed examples: Much of the Satori Group’s work is developed in a more integrative fashion, with playwrighting being a product of ensemble generated work. Market Theater residents Unexpected Productions produced a noir themed version of the Wizard of Oz, Scarecrow For Hire, back in 2010: Playwright Tony Beeman used the scenic improvisation of his cast to develop the final script. And Jenna Bean Veatch’s Sideshow was the product of a year of improvisation and development by her core cast.

I’m not arguing this type of work is perfect and superior. Satori’s had their share of whiffs, Scarecrow had its qualities and drawbacks, as did Sideshow. But the process and its risks led to work we would have never seen had it been conventionally composed in the maker’s own privacy and separately produced later. And, most of all, they successfully challenged the notion of a fundamental or essential process for producing theatre by producing theatre in a completely different way.

On its surface, voice recognition software is a different way to write. But a closer look shows it offers way more possibilities than a different medium for writing. It offers a chance to bridge the gap between writing and performing. In turn, it’s a metaphor for the possibilities that exist in performance art. Can artists find bridges of their own, or are they content to stay on their islands?

Designs of a 14/48 Version 2.0

After a year of experimental dance and theatre work, with its discoveries, frustrations and epiphanies, I came back to watching conventional theatre and was shocked to discover how much even the best work bored me. The archetypes and forms feel so creatively lazy and predictable, layered beneath the tried and practiced structure and clunky square peg writing rammed over two months of production into a round performance hole. Even the acting found familiar habits and forms that translated between actors and actresses. I felt like the average talented actor figures out the methodology and then spends the rest of their careers in artistic cruise control, making no more than artistically cosmetic adjustments to their practice.

I like the spirit of 14/48 but also think it’s no longer the risky endeavor it originally was. They have long since cultivated a streamlined process that makes the whole proceeding predictably reliable. I actually feel like it’s a tremendously accurate reflection of what Seattle theatre is now: A community that fancies itself as far more innovative and daring than it actually is, one that may have been daring and innovative a decade ago but is now just an exciting, hip and formulaic rite of passage for people who gain admission to the theatre’s community’s inner circle.

I want to see a 14/48 sort of event where, instead of a playwright running home and writing a play overnight for a separate cast to produce… the playwright, director and cast all sit together and generate the play from scratch on their own. Everyone collaborates as an ensemble to develop a story and script, rather than a single person writing it on their own. One person can sit down to do the typing, but this person is merely a transcriptive parser of group work rather than a decisive author. Ideally, the group will sit or stand at a laptop and assist in the textual composition of the final script, a la the writing process of the Sketchfest MashUp.

(This is not to say there can be no solo writing on the side in this process, so long as it’s brought back to the group to be shared as part of the development process.)

To be honest, I don’t have a problem if 14/48 stays the way it is and continues to successfully run. People like it and want to do it, and people come to see it, so I say go for it. Don’t let any of the above stop you. But there is a golden opportunity for a group of performers to take a new and exciting risk with tremendous potential for theatrical innovation. A 24 hour ensemble based production process could be just as fun, exciting and lucrative.