Beating the Bushes — an Installation of the Self

Old friend and collaborator, Steven Bush is getting his latest play published by Talon Books, Vancouver.  I requested permission to write an introductory preface…

The Installation of Self
A script in book form remains desiccated theatre.  It lacks the man.  
A playwright, when fortunate, can sketch the reach of a personage and indicate manifestations of a breathing character, but by definition the writer remains perched at an objective distance.  The contribution of the director can be documented in descriptions of artefacts of invention but, without having been there, it is harder to transmit the atmosphere of this invention.  The electricity of the theatre is provided by that which prods the actor beyond his comfort zone – good theatre is built upon meticulous, orchestrated, cyclical infractions upon this comfort zone.  The actor squirms.
I witness theatre as the most human of ‘rites’. Mysterious forces cause human beings to stand forth, naively offering themselves as objects of public consideration.   The pure soul of a performer enters a pact of interdependency with the audience.  If we are sufficiently open and vulnerable, we will be met with encouragement.  Buoyed by this encouragement, we can negotiate areas of empathic agreement wherein as we can safely unfold the raw material and circumstantial evidence that is our very being.  The synergic effect of the audience’s contribution can then carry us beyond the bounds of our rehearsed pathways, and into realms of fresh, infectious understanding.
If we fail this negotiation of empathy, we fail.  But, as a distilled proto-theatre of the dramatic exchange, at the most archetypical manifestation of this interdependent relationship, lies the one-person, shamanic installation of the self.  Examples of this installation are many:  the naked Diogenes in his barrel, the inspired ranter on his/her soapbox, the decorated madman/madwoman at the end of his/her tether.
This impulse to stand forth as oneself, whether pathological or not, has a certain logic.  As infants we are singularly equipped to capture and retain the attention of our caregivers.  The primary modus of the education system involves standing front and centre as an object of appraisal.  Of course, such exhibitionists may not always meet with our approval.  The title of self-proclaimed artist is far from a passport to profound human exchange.  Amid the crowd vying for our attention, are some (with or without image managers) that one feels can safely be ignored; not all selves prove equally fascinating.
Nevertheless, there seems no shortage of those making the attempt.  Installation has in itself become a certified genre where dissatisfied artists have attempted to accompany their artefacts into the breech of potential human connection.  Within living memory, our proto-theatre practitioner has been encroached upon by the mystique-encrusted ‘performance artist’.  Perhaps spurred on by the desperate, driven quality that is generated by the gallery group show where the tendency is for ones statements to be submerged in the crowd, some astute artists have taken the reasonable choice to stay with their works to the bitter end.  If the object couldn’t be separated from its creator – the creator himself, either orchestrating accessibility or extending the metaphor, became the subject of the event: I am my work.  The task of the spectator became to project upon the event their own selves in an attempt to extract meaning.
The common ground of these examples of installations of the self is that these are theatres without fiction. However, not everyone is dependent upon non-fiction.  As professional theatre artists, some of us have stretched and pummelled our very being through repeated decathlons of fictive selves.  To then choose the direct form of I am my work, is to abandon the advantage offered by the acquired dexterity at circumventing the literal self.  As playwright, one wields considerable advantage in creating a multi-voiced world that allows the parading of extreme perspectives.  As actor, one possesses an arsenal of tools with which to externalise human foibles. What then are the mechanisms at play when such a conscious and consummate actor-person as Steven Bush chooses to make a spectacle of himself  – to surrender the safety precautions of his trade, and abandon all capacity to hide behind clever poetry or his own scenic savvy ?
It is not difficult to ascertain what has pushed him to this extreme.  From an actor’s view point, theatre mirrors an existential crisis.  Upon the stage, and in the rehearsal hall, we approach our drama through a series of nagging, unanswerable questions:  This is me ? –  Is this me? Am I me? Am I also to some degree not me?  Do you see me/not me?  If you see me, do you also at the same time see yourself?  Am I therefore you?  Does being you, make me more me?  If I am me, am I thus, mostly me on your behalf!

In the more cumbersome world of dramatic fiction, these quandaries recede.  The questions of identity get absorbed by notions of character.  I may very well be me, but that endless existential appraisal is subservient to the chores of being the version of not-me called for by the writer.  However if, for various reasons, we dare step outside of fiction, these core existential questions reemerge with a vengeance: This is me; it could be you. This unadorned rhetorical stance embodies the theatrical artefact at its most pure state:  we shall be together for some minutes, hours or pulse beats; I am partaking of a journey –  you may accompany me; the further you come along, the further I may get.

This theatre of this stripped down social contract requires an act of generosity.  The actor/theatre person provides the very fibre of their being as the conduit into deeper truths.  The more one’s naked self can enter the playing space, the more the audience can reflect.
A raw text version of Beating the Bushes cannot conceivably do justice to the event. Even for theatre people conversant with clothing a play in script form with dramatic atmosphere – this is not first and foremost a performance; it is an installation of the self.  Seemingly an invitation to Bush bashing, it becomes a deeper journey towards the unpalatable conclusion that the millions upon millions deprived of their optimal life cycle by Depleted Uranium bombing, emptied state coffers, emotionally compromising military service, uninvited mass migration etc., could have been spared these agonies, had the American Press Corps used half the energy upon gathering material for a comprehensive psychological profile of presidential candidates,  as they do upon trawling for sexual peccadilloes.
It is not a comfortable text – the very act of glancing southward so intently, builds upon a degree of digested imperialism that a Canadian would rather not swallow.  That Steven Bush’s place of a non-Canadian childhood has a story to tell, gets up the national nose, provoking our defensive parochialism by presuming we might know the location of obscure geo-political entities such as Mississippi or Ohio states.  That Bush himself is of a subset of original draft-dodgers who, while welcome as individuals, always represented a dilution of the Canadian Essence among we who sang the wrong words to This Land is your Land, is only barely bearable.
If Bush is to beat anyone, it is of course himself.  His is a theatre of penance, of self-flagellation.  Bush rants and rails and bears witness for a kind of rigour of distilled principles that can stick in the throat of those whose compromises take a different shape.  A holy man offering the warm, comforting earnestness of one who volunteers to pray for our sins, he performs painful, ritual ablutions and bloodlettings to purify and concentrate our souls.  In the Spring of 2003, at the very moment when the ‘Attack on Iraq’ had the rest of the literate world reeling from re-traumatised PTSS; Steven climbed humbly from his hermitage and into the breech of one person theatre.
This Sadhu, holyman, shaman  resolutely held open the door to his personal bunker,
proclaiming: I am also Bush; can the other one possibly, inconceivably also be us?

About bembodavies

Theatre worker who long ago abandoned theatres, I remain adept at fabricating projects out of thin air. All proposals welcome.
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