When ‘the inherent rhetoric of youth’ has over-lived its shelf life: leaning instead on expired naivety and depleted, thread-bare charm; the ‘installation of self’ can slide into the installation of self-indulgence…
As the perpetrator of at least one such criminal theatre afternoon, I might try to beg forgiveness for myself and all my fellow transgressors. However, my guilt goes deeper than that: if honest theatre-work does indeed involve a sink or swim trial by ordeal, wasting people’s time should brand one for life. One would hope that the mortal sin of boring ones (in principle) betters, must have health threatening ramifications that slap us right in the middle of our impending grant application.
I hit an actor last night. He’d just made us suffer through an hour of him being creative: not brilliant, far from virtuoso – mostly just being minimalistically inventive. One couldn’t call it circus (one doesn’t fall asleep and miss the best parts at the circus); I’m not really sure that you could call it theatre – nor him an actor. Perhaps he was a goofy man installing his helplessness as an object of our appraisal.
It felt good to hit him. And, I hasten to add, it wasn’t the first thing I did post performance. A glass of port wine had been consumed during the de rigeur meet the artist séance at the neighborhood bistro. I’d already taken advantage of the opportunity to pelt him with one of my custom-made, inscrutable questions. “What kind of audience had we been?”, I had asked; thereby slyly luring him out onto the thin ice of diplomatically voicing his disappointment that we hadn’t been as tangibly delighted in his antics as when he last played before a group of his nearest and dearest cronies back home.
I could have heartlessly pursued this thread with a supplementary question revolving somewhere around: Since we were such a quiet, contemplative audience, did he inadvertently suspect that we were actually trying to understand him ? – and,
Was that wise, or even perhaps necessary?
He seemed to enjoy the thrashing. At least, his sound man found it amusing. I hasten to add that I wasn’t pummeling him with my fists of anything like that, I was merely thwapping him with a woolen hat in the hope that it would be interpreted as the universal gesture of misplaced gratitude. (Perhaps under the influence of a tale of a most tyrannical of directors I once knew, known for standing backstage and administrating similar hat blows to his actors in the middle of a performance?) Afterwards, we engaged in the warmest of post-performance conversation. Even more afterwards, I wondered what I was really on about…
We’ve had a spate of such shows lately: a man and his misery – or alternatively – a man and his cleverness. Or, even more alternatively – a man and his clever misery! Some are benign, others are painful; immature sketches of stand-up tragedies – The Invasion of the Wimp parading his philosophical bent, even if he isn’t really interested in it.
Sometimes theatre doesn’t work. All the ingredients are present, but the bird won’t fly. Nothing happens; the inherent dynamics of the meeting don’t ignite, the offered offerings just don’t prove sufficient to promote transferable significance. Even more mysteriously, (at least in my parts of the world) the audience feedback mechanisms are seldom barbed enough to perturb the performer’s consciousness.
It may seem much less of a fruitful journey to examine the theatre artifact when it is dysfunctional; to write about experiences while every vital nerve in ones body exerts the acute desire to forgive and forget as soon as possible. None-the-less, it can be informative to revisit occasions where one suspects that every effort to prime the fire of inspiration has not been given its due.
Fortuitously, I happen to be able to supply just such an excruciating example from my own work: infinitely well-meaning, but abysmal, exhibitionistic, underdone crap.
If I am being unduly harsh upon myself, it is not because I am excessively humble and self-effacing; au contraire, almost by coincidence, I shrewdly calculate that by initially parading my unfortunate incarnation as an Exhibit A : Horrible Example, it may enable me to discretely draw onto the dissection bench, countless further examples of other people’s highly questionable efforts…
more strip-mining than strip-tease
I hereby acknowledge, that upon at least one occasion, I have hosted a theatrical event that, for a myriad of reasons, failed to emerge from its own ‘web of very real needs’ (read: back passage). I twisted and turned as dictated by my ingenious script but, without having established enough collective understanding as to why we’d actually assembled in the room, I remained inexplicably thrashing about within the constraints of my rapidly depleting charm.
As luck would have it, this occasion coincided with the visit of the ‘critics’. In a pique of misunderstoodedness, I don’t seem to have retained the press-clipping in question. It’s essence was unmistakable; my efforts provoked the b-word from an over-exposed theatre critic attempting the intrinsically damaging, marathon effort of covering some 40 festival performances in the run of 3 days. Mercifully, he kept his critique concise: Our man reported being “bored“. I strongly suspect that this was accurate; he was bored.
And quite rightly so. The performer in question was not Transcending the Room, but was rather wallowing in his own misery. Despite my best of intentions, the fever pitch of me juggling my most precious bonsmots repeatedly left me colliding with very real psychic short-comings. The piece wouldn’t gel. Worse got worse; the actor’s acquired last line-of-defense left him defensive. (My tortured chicken story could go here, but no, another time.) And worse it could be yet… Glorifying the thematic helplessness that spread from the fear of coming up empty, provoked creeping memory lapse, provoked flimsy improvised transitions, provoked much flailing of limbs. That which was intended as an artful revelation of the intricate layers of the fragile inner self, became more strip-mining than strip-tease. I slowly sunk…
NB: I hasten to add, that this exploration of a self-implosive trap lay pivotal to the play’s themes and ethos, and that on 6 of 7 nights, I managed to turn the tide of deep personal despondency into vigorous, infectious concern for the plight of my attendants. This 86% success rate is not to be sneezed at; it is a pity that the bald-headed, Mr. Capital-Letter Bored with his notebook in the sixth row, just wasn’t capable of recognising integrity when he saw it! — So there!
It is this vulnerable territory between self and presentation of self that is the subject of this exploration. When indeed does an installation of the self become merely an installation of self-indulgence?
A Conglomerate Case Study:
The contract of the theatre moment was familiar: more or less at the announced time, a constellation of literate adults, group for some 55 minutes around an eager young man with something on his chest. We are willing to be moved/touched/carried/challenged, but rapidly resign ourselves to emerge pacified/bored/unembraced.
Or – if one insists upon dwelling upon the positive – we emerge refreshingly cleansed of our own expectations. Something hasn’t happened. A vapid, unedited mundane stream of consciousness has usurped the stage.
What? me? perform?
For those too calcified by layers of appropriate behavior to proffer themselves as laughable, there has emerged the performance genre of non-comic stand-up: lecture theatre with only the thinnest of narrative invention — the mild musings of the author/performer. The rationale is a known commodity: Death to All Artifice. I, unadorned, bepimpled, slouching artist person, rather fancy myself as a going concern – Make way for my Inner Life! In the name of integrity, and employing miserly proportioned generosity, the practitioners of this esthetic affect indifference to all attention that would fall upon any narrative, their performative selves, or a fiction of discovery. They are their story. Perhaps militantly minimalistic, though often well propped up by flashy media loops, we may be given a presentation of journal notes, the theatrical equivalent of the published diary. But, robbed of the impulsiveness of pen scratching rabidly across paper, these meanderings inevitably prove to be inorganically edited Greatest Hits. Sadly, it can easily be the case that these ‘good bits’ fail to reach critical mass.
I experience this trend to present this introspection without effort, as anti-theatre: a self-defined esthetic that borders on paralysis; a lazy theatre of ‘buddhist’ indifference or equanimity to the petty demands of an outer voice; a usurping of the stage by performance artists who shun the implications of selling tickets, and who don the spatial rhetoric of one to be adored. We get offered the false neutral mask of the innocent perpetrator, a Miserly Anti-Theatre of the disinfected self: — My earnestness is universal; my inner stuff, being the raw material of all acting, is therefore in its unadulterated form, the stuff of fascination.
Au contraire, it may be just possible that the prosaic, unadorned exposition of self is beneath consideration? Repeatedly casting the audience in the role of patient uncles and aunties, is beyond contempt.
Permission to Speak, Sir?
The practitioner hopping over the essential negotiation of collective relevance, instead opts for a presumed ‘Right to Spout’: I am fascinated by myself, ergo isn’t this fascinating? Whether we will or not, we are offered premature reminiscences; a talk show, whose congenial host, taking all the difficult questions with them, has taken refuge cowering behind the drinks cabinet in the dressing room.
This is not to say that: stages are for actors, actors have make-up, make-up makes you sweat etc; but the inherent dynamic of standing before the seated, brings more than a responsibility to deliver the goods. Failure is permissible, but the act of entering the stage is predicated upon a humble subjection to the synergic contribution of the audience…
The formula for successful theatre can be expressed thusly:
the Artist’s invaluable observations
X number of attentive brains
X number of minutes
= the Potential Miracle Quotient (PMQ)
To this may be factored in the inherent rhetoric of youth (discussed elsewhere), but once the performer has left the creche, this PMQ provides a realistic measure of this critical mass. A healthy PMQ level invokes generosity, invention, identification and more grist for the mill; a dangerously low PMQ, leaves us bathing in truisms. Without reaching positive figures, we can scarcely perform at all.
This sin of omission, of failing to negotiate a meaningful we — and instead proffering something so inconclusive as a meaning-full me, might be a symptom. One is tempted to observe that this may just be almost exclusively a male phenomena, and likely a by-product of an over-indulgent education. Which ever the case, the extension of the juvenile ‘look-at-me dramaturgy’, inevitably becomes the winding, self-absorbed monologue.
The Rite of Me
Slouching, hands in pockets, electronically modified, cool, distanced, non-engaging; presumptive of the blessings of a peer-pressurised venue, the perpetrators seldom get beyond their raw material. Sketching their profound content without the exertions desirable to give it form, they opt for indicating significance without the bother of establishing it. Falsely secure in the knowledge of their intrinsic goodness, the alchemical results of their experiment fail to generate the necessary heat to sustain any reaction.
I read this tactic as anti-theatre. The notion that, given the paradigm of televised perfection, so much of the theatre is blatantly rife with falsities; I shall therefore avoid falsities at all cost… If I don’t attempt character, plot, fiction etc., my pure self will manifest itself appropriately.
While theatre can of course exist without fiction, without plot, etc. What it can’t abandon are moments of inspired recognition. Significance cannot be assumed, it must be cultivated.
The tools are many. Conceptual artists, desirous of the crucible of the live theatre exchange, but who usurp the disciplines of writer/director/performer without in the least having acquired the capacity to spontaneously perform these functions, risk performing in a black hole of negative fascination.
Of course, the negotiation of significance and the Creation of the We are not done at the flick of a wrist (is this the metaphor?). The act of performance costs. During the weeks, days, hours and minutes before actually standing up on stage, the performer encounters a serious array of demons. Choices have to be made, a pathway charted, armour pounded, and security nets fastened. No one would deny that assuming the position of host of the attention of the assembled multitudes requires bravery.
But, when does true bravery become obnoxious audacity? Sometimes the props and movement aids, hastily grasped in order to bridge the chasm between an illusive vision and its playable manifestation, don’t really prove that fascinating. They may, in fact, resemble mere props and movement aids hastily grasped in order to bridge the chasm between an illusive vision and its playable manifestation. It is not to be taken for granted that by surrounding oneself with more or less convincing symbolic scenic elements, they will miraculously become invested with social therapeutic powers through the magic of metaphor…
In the absence of this illusive metaphorical level, the personal confessions are dependent upon the person him/herself. Having transcended the inherent charm of childhood, the self-portrait theatre requires a successful negotiation of some kind of resonant emotional matrix. One can invoke a spectrum of accessible frequencies; but not every scenic persona is an unbridled darling.
And while antipathy may serve as well as empathy to generate a playable dynamic, apathy doesn’t really rock…