— From the Fool —
This week was heavy rain where I was under it. My umbrella kept my hair good and dry but the rest of me needed to be a fish. I won’t write much because I don’t feel artistic in the role of moldy dog. I spent a lot of time yesterday sitting there wondering why I’m sitting there. Some people get paid for that. For me it’s just a hobby.
And then some big news comes along like a million people get shot or Uncle Sam secretly overthrew the population or a little girl lost her kittycat. Then I know I should have paid attention to prevent the week’s catastrophes but I didn’t. I might not next week either.
The king might do it if we had a king or he might just sit there eating popcorn while he watches his toenails grow.
But I’ll dry out by next week and commit some creativity, whether felonious or misdemonic.
— From CB —
Last night I attended a performance in Merida, a batch of short Mayan stories told by four actors with puppets. My rudimentary Spanish doesn’t allow a critical assessment, but it was one of those rare evenings — ever more rare — when I actually enjoyed being in the theatre. Funny, energetic, but what I think spoke to me was the immediate presence of the actors as *performers*. The realistic theatre has lost that, mostly, as has most of the “alternative” theatre — much of it dedicated to finding radical new modes of obscuring the story, or its absence. Only the players in musicals seem to permit themselves to declare honestly, “Now I’m singing, now I’m dancing, now I’m acting the way this character would act but we all know this is a performance.”
Certainly I’ve had profound experiences with realism, and I applaud experimental ventures in expanding the vocabulary of dramatic expression. But the vast majority of live performances I see are no more “alive” than if they were on film. I pay $20 minimum to see a show in a little black box or $8 to see a film that’s had a budget of millions with highly skilled, experienced artists working a year or two on it full-time, and then I attend theatre conferences with panels on why people go to the movies instead. Those panels have been blabbing for forty years and show no signs of arriving at the obvious answer.
I don’t really care that much. There will always be great theatre, but not much of it. There will always be theatre artists earnestly doing their best with limited resources — if there’s reincarnation I’ll probably sign up for another hitch. And there’ll always be stupid movies that we point at in derision. But I wish that my own art form, my own work included, produced a more nourishing crop.
As I write, I’m near the Plaza Grande outdoors watching a terrible clown. Loud recorded music, red plastic clown shoes, plastic nose, mike, funny voice to clue us in that he’s funny — you could can him and put him in the supermarket. Rape by comedian, pushing his energy like a hard stool. I can’t say that popular entertainment offers us too many positive role models.
How to pinpoint what makes a performance alive? Our current show GIFTS achieves that to a degree, I think. There’s no audience participation, no improvisation, no significant difference from one time to another in line inflections or timing or emotion. No gimmicks to “relate” it to the audience, except for the fact that usually we’re in someone’s living room and we’re all in pretty much the same light — the standard practice of theatre, in large part, up to the 19th Century. It likely has to do in part that we’ve created our roles, every line, we haven’t auditioned for them, so we believe absolutely in the truth of everything we speak. There’s no illusion, we’re always two actors, sometimes with puppets, at one end of a living room, in the same clothes the viewers saw when we greeted them beforehand.
Or rather, it’s an experience of duality, the same weird experience as watching a puppet come alive. We know it’s fake dead thing, but when it’s brought alive there’s a sense of the miraculous. It is illusionistic, but not in the sense of convincing us it’s part of our real world, rather in sucking us into a place we’ve never seen before.
This is an incredibly complicated question, so I’ll ring off now, with a warning that I’ll continue next week. Not intending to make theatre-lovers discontent with theatre, but just chronicling my own struggles with finding a sense of shared presence in the act of theatre. It’s a struggle I’ve engaged in for more than 50 years, but certainly our current work on KING LEAR is its greatest challenge.
— From EF —
I took a chance on theatre again, and went to see “Wrestling Jerusalem” for its final performance. Aaron Davidman is someone we knew from back in his days with the Traveling Jewish Theatre — TJT and Dell’Arte and the Eye are all veterans of the days when our theatres roamed the roads and took risks in fellowship halls and high school gyms and community centers. Like all veterans, we appreciate our shared battle scars.
This was a solo piece, written and performed by Aaron, and it was extraordinary. Ninety minutes of high-velocity high-intensity witness of the deadly struggle that amplified to warp speed in the Gaza war. For much of the performance, I was on the edge of my seat and on the edge of tears.
An image from the beginning: light has gathered itself into a container, which shatters, flinging shards to the far corners of everything. Watching the performance was seeing a film of that explosion being run in reverse: the shards came hurtling back into the center of the performer, one character at a time, and commanded attention. Google Tikkun to get a sense of this.
From Aaron’s journeys to Israel and his many intense personal exchanges, perhaps fifteen characters have condensed into vivid life. Israeli, American Jew, desert Arab, IDF soldier, grieving Palestinian farmer, one after another they are given speech — passionate, combative, personal.
There is a prayer, Shema Yisrael, that is a centerpiece of Jewish observance. Shema is translated as “hear”, and it is also translated as “listen”. I think there is a difference, and the theatre to which I have given my life votes for “listen.” That word implies access to the heart.
I applaud Aaron. I applaud our friend Eliot Fintushel, who performed the entirety of the Book of Revelation solo. I applaud Tim Miller for having created My Queer Body. I applaud myself for creating Dream House. It’s a big risk, inviting an audience to stand in front of the nozzle of your fire hose for an hour and a half. When Lear comes to life this spring, please listen.
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© Bishop & Fuller 2014