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CrisisArt: Day Three

Morning Workshop

I spent the morning workshop with one of the Masters students, exploring partnering with objects in movement. It’s been far too long since I did a movement workshop. I spent a good amount of time in them while training in directing, and found them vital and liberating. But my theatre is led by the verbal and intellectual impulses, and that can lead me to forget the body. That’s a disease of British theatre. Because of course body is where the rest is grounded, and I’m always physically present in my shows, and understanding your movement can provide you security and strength for all the rest, and all these skills need refreshing. Especially when I’m doing so much talking and thinking here, I’m glad this workshop came at the moment it did – refreshing, enlivening, calming, grounding.

Morning Discussion

We chewed over the shows from yesterday again. The discussion of Ars Mechanica’s piece focussed on the stand-out formal feature, which was its live use of contemporary communications technologies. Everyone found this exciting and conflicting – on the one hand, it showed us and asked us to be part of something very real about modern life; on the other, it’s aesthetically messy, and difficult, and problematic. I really embrace this latter aspect – if the theatre is strong, I’m excited by what aesthetic failure means, what it tells us, how we live it. I keep returning to a phrase from Darren O’Donnell: “The innocent gestures of the spontaneous will always tell us complex and politically-charged things about this present moment.”

I and another of the British delegates, Jane, asked a sort of standing question for every show: “How does it challenge the dominant power structures, and if not then why not?” Because I’m always thinking about power and hegemony, I was surprised at how difficult or problematic people  find this question – but then we do all approach art and politics in different ways. Scott McGehee suggested that one of its key roles is to “reframe reality” – show us a different way of seeing things. He had I had an extended metaphor of tools through quotes and epigrams. “The point is not to represent reality, but to resignify it.” “Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” I’m excited by artistic hammers – I keep returning to the idea that they may not be subtle, but they can certainly be complex. We reached a resolution by agreeing that we could have all sorts of tools in our toolbox, hammers included.

On the Rose Parade, a lot of the discussion focussed on the relationship between the performers and the subjects. In documentary or verbatim theatre, how do you represent your subjects faithfully? How do you do them justice? Are you speaking for them or about them? What is your editorial role? How is this role different in theatre than in journalism? Because so much of my own work is historical or didactic, much of this applies to me: How do I say that I’m telling a historical story accurately, but loaded with my own ideas and prejudices?

We also spoke of the specific ideas of telling women’s stories, and how to make these about survival and not about victimhood – or, more specifically, how to present them as stories of living and continuation rather than of being defined by the moment of victimhood. This is important anti-patriarchal work; I’m also still chewing over intersectionality, the specific relationship to capitalism here.

Afternoon Presentations

First in the afternoon were two films from Serbian filmmaker Vojin Vasovic. Both were essentially about the role of individual power and creativity in an alienated society – though with a delicious bleak humour. Dashak, based on a Pirandello story, was about a man who discovers or comes to believe he can kill people with a puff of air. The story is great, all about power and responsibility and why we come to do violence (and many other things); I was also excited by the oblique, almost anti-dramatic editing, which continually reframed action or cut away to strange phenomenological moments – while always being more humorous than elusive. The second, an animated short called 5 Minutes Each, was a simple fable: a queue of ;people, each of who had a communication medium for a head (newspaper, radio, TV), waits  to enter a mysterious door with artistic materials from a vending machine. On entering, they plummet to their inevitable death, all the while making art (painting, writing) depicting their fall. Then they die. I don’t think I need to comment, except to say it was hilarious.

Second up was Chloe Whiting Stevenson, who gave a graceful solo butoh performance exploring human responses to conflict, searching for the specific sadnesses and joys of violence and defense against violence. The whole had a sort of mythic narrative – birth and return, change and growth through time – and this led me to think about the relationship of myth to rebellion. So many of our myths reinforce standard paradigms of power, but there are ways of telling and retelling them that can reframe archetypes in an empowering, rebellious way. How does are ability to do so change as our work becomes more mythically abstract?

Evening Performances

The Raving Jaynes do comedy improv dance theatre, which is certainly a new form to me, if not entirely new to the world. It’s always exciting to discover a totally new way of doing performance, and the clash here between improvised dance and comedy improv games is aesthetically very productive. I was interested in the way the necessary abstraction of dance juxtaposed with the concrete, narrative humour of improv – though of course spontaneity, response to the present moment, is core to both. The results are necessarily unstable and uncertain, but because the form is new and various, reliably exciting.

Metatesta gave a highly skilled piece of dance theatre responding to The Unbearable Lightness of  Being. It was explicitly framed as exploring Eternal Return – but more specifically and presently, as with the book, looking at weight and lightness in living, and at jealousy and violence in human relationships – all well-suited to the dance form. The dance itself was spectacular and beautiful, with many exhilarating moments. This is very much responding to crisis by exploring the human condition, the condition of living, as has been much of the festival. This is good for me, because it’s very much not what I do – but it’s still what I’m allied to.

Tut’Zanni do contemporary Commedia dell’Arte, which was a great way to end the night. They combined three different types of mask theatre, which was very daring, but paid off – very good to see. Their show portrayed a theatre company struggling to put on a show, its opening ever interrupted by a profiteering manager and by their own egomanias. This was all played for laughs, but as with all comedy there are solid political ideas at play. Mostly, for once, I was able to turn off that part of my brain, though, and just enjoy a well-paced, ever-surprising Commedia show.

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