I spent the morning with Joe Culpepper of Ars Mechanica, looking at the role of magic effects in theatre. I really went along out of dorky fascination with magic, and in memory of the kid who bought terrible magic kits way back when. And that kid was pretty satisfied by the workshop: I learned some cut-and-restored rope effects that were tremendously fun and I hope will stick in my mind.
At the same time, though, there’s a body of theory to chew about what the particular role of magic is. One of my preoccupations in performance theory is the Stanislavski-vs-Brecht dialectic: whether theatre is reminding the audience of its artificiality, or seeking to make them forget that they’re in the theatre at all. Are they suspending disbelief and having critical distance, or are they caught up in illusion and belief? And in any given show, what can a magic effect do? It can have narrative power and spectacular delight, but what does it do to the audience’s experience? When the audience has forgotten they are in a theatre, does the effectiveness of its illusion remind them again? When the audience is knowingly suspending disbelief, does an effective illusion make them believe again, and is that itself a kind of estrangement?
Jane Lawson talked us through her art project Bioremediation – a combined portrait series and durational piece, in which she painted almost faceless portraits of architects of neoliberalism and then introduced oyster mushrooms to eat away and thus detoxify their images. Bioremediation is a name for the process whereby fungi clean toxins from an environment – in a way, their application to the portraits was a simple metaphor for cleaning up capitalism, but at the same time the portraits served as a food source to produce a viable mushroom crop for the future. Beautiful, beautiful! I thought a little about the role of useful and useless acts in arts-activism: this in a sense was both. The metaphor has no direct productivity – all its results are emotional, psychological, in a way indirect – but at the same time the food of the mushrooms has a more direct, physical effect. But then which is the more effective? Which, if either, changes the world more?
Some of the organising collective, under the name UnRuly Women, presented a first draft of a performance called “Mother Courage Can’t Stand Her Children”. It’s a contemporary version of the Brecht original, in which Mother Courage sells merchandise to profit from the Occupy movement, and her feckless children are gradually persuaded by its ideas. The metaphor works, and the choice of source is a strong way to look at the inter-generational conflict which characterises much of the more psychological discussion of Occupy. Here I thought less about the politics, though, and more about the artistic effect. What does it mean to reframe an established text or myth? When does it work, and when doesn’t it? The thing I thought most regularly was that direct parallels could sometimes be a very shallow aesthetic device, but could sometimes be a hugely productive metaphor (“carrying over”). For example, when this Kattrin banged on the car (cart) roof at the cops’ approach, it served no dramatic function because there was no village to warn, and so to me seemed for shallowly aesthetic; but when this Mother Courage did not push her car manually at the end, but instead leaned against it and lit a cigarette, it meant something very powerful indeed.
As with yesterday, I’m not blogging the discussions of the performances separately, instead writing up that later discussion through my thoughts on them.
I was first up. I gave what might have been the strongest performance if This is not a riot, which is good, considering it might be the end of the project. Perhaps me deciding it would be the final performance freed me or made me less anxious – either way, I had a blast. My performance was tighter and more invested. I changed and added some elements – for those who know the show, during “Ultra Violence Pop Quiz” I had the audience answer verbally rather than physically, which made it both more fun and more confrontational, and I added an Epilogue in which all the stuffed animals were given away is talismanic “riot bears” for the audience to take with them to give them strength on future protests, which finally gave the show a strong dramatic, or in this case ritual, ending. Anyhow, I couldn’t be happier to say goodbye to the piece, and this was the perfect context to wish it a fond farewell.
Commentary later gave me three key criticisms which I’ll take with me into further pieces. First, in my discussion of violence, I entirely overlooked gender violence, which I really should have talked about given the context – gender is a big issue for the politics off riot. It’s important for me to realise that, even as a committed feminist, I can forget about gender dimensions in politics if I’m not careful. Second, I was brought up on my disingenuousness: I keep claiming that I try to give space for the audience to disagree with my arguments, but I definitely didn’t give enough space in this show – something I’ve already started addressing in Class Act. Third, someone very perceptively spotted an inconsistency in my dramatic motivation: for most of the show, I’m very clearly trying to open up the audience’s idea of what a riot is, but in the final third my aim is more clearly to train them to deal with one fixed idea of riot. I know how this happened during development, and I know that to prevent this happening again I need to bring trusted, incisive outside eyes in earlier. The depth of that commentary shows that I couldn’t have hoped for a better audience, something I haven’t felt since Buzzcut.
Second was a pair of dance pieces from Joan Gavaler. Both explored the combination of poetry and dance. As a poet, this was fascinating. I wrote yesterday about how dance excites me for its ability to open up contradictions and problematics in its subjects through the freedom of abstraction; these were both interesting in that they took a much more illustrative and representational approach to the texts – more beautiful than challenging. More important, though, was how Joan introduced them: “I’ll come clean,” she said, “My crisis is professional stagnation.” I was very moved by this honesty, and reminded of the many roles a laboratory like this can have: while I was seeking to make an argument for a particular type of performance, and sign off on one edition, she was seeking something more processual, something more about personal discovery.
Finally was a performance by Greek company Angelus Novus of a text loosely translating as Damn You, Sons of Bitches. It was physically and musically beautiful, but of course all Greek to me, so it’s hard to discuss to explicitly political context, though there was much to think about artistically. Most of all, though, without being overly aesthetic, something about a person talking passionately and urgently to you in a language you cannot understand is impossibly tragic, in a way that says something perhaps about the tragedy of all art.