Friday, March 20, 2009

Puppet playlist recap and London street performers

On March 12, Stolen Chair joined a group of 12 other physical theatre artists and musicians at the Tank to present pieces inspired by the work of Tom Waits (as part of the first edition of Puppet Playlist).  When we first found out about the event, we were still in the thick of Theatre Is Dead but not yet in the thick of Quantum Poetics (pitch coming soon) or the possible Man Who Laughs remount (yes, you heard it here first!).  So, as devout Waits fans, we knew we wanted to participate but also knew the whole thing would sort of be a fun one-off for us.  As a company which spends 6 months developing new work, doing a little w.i.p. thrown together in a weekend is somewhat out of character, but we'll also take any opportunity to play.  

We started working with the music, splicing together a 6 minute piece out of Waits' "Temptation" and "I Don't Wanna Grow Up."  We found ourselves continually fighting the desire to craft some sort of literal narrative (being tempted to grow up) which the music could score.  It is so so so so easy (and, forgive the pun, tempting) to fall into literal storytelling when songs have lyrics.  Music videos always struggle with this.  Do you offer a video which tells the story of the song, tells a completely different story (which will either complement the song or, in the very least, not divert attention from the song), or present a series of images which create a resonance chamber in which the sonic images and figurative language can bounce around.  We decided to do the latter, structuring it so that there was still a clear frame for the audience to grab onto (Noah's "realistic" child-like character encountering a series of arresting and bizarrely erotic images staged as automaton machines by David and Liza).  

What emerged was definitely the most abstracted theatrical vignette we've created since Portrait of Dora As a Young Man in 2002.  And you know what?  We had a damn good time doing it!  I wish we could have rehearsed it more (and, um, at least once on stage) before running it for an audience, but people seemed to dig it (a few strangers coming up to compliment the actors after the show). This was the 4th Stolen Chair event in 2 years (the Kinderspiel staged reading, the Kill Me remount at the Brick, and Theatre Is Dead being the others) which was truly "unapologetic."  We had so fully let go of any fear that the audience was not going to "follow" us that we ended up creating a much more compelling event for the audience to "follow" than if we had let ourselves worry if we were going to be liked.  Moral of the story: there really is an audience for anything, and if one creates and present work with total conviction and faith in its worth (or simply its status as an experiment), one will please far more crowds than if one tries to craft a crowd pleaser.  May seem like a no-brainer, but it's one we routinely re-discover. :)

Speaking of pleasing crowds, Kiran and I had the good fortune to catch a remarkable street performance in Covent Garden, London last week.  They were just a pair of middle aged British clown jugglers, but as we sat there for 20 minutes on the cold pavement, I learned more about theatre than a semester worth of classes could have taught me.  Some lessons learnt:
  • Wear the structure on your sleeve...and then play!  The second thing these clowns did was introduce the unicycles (pictured at right) which would serve as the routine's finale.  Of course, they prolonged and toyed with us for over 20 minutes before delivering the promised finale.  This playful dramaturgy takes Chekhov's gun theory ("If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.") one step further, and, I think, is especially vital for companies like Stolen Chair who tend to devise unfamiliar theatrical structures.  Show the audience the unicycles so they know where you're taking them.  (And don't take too damn long to get there!)
  • Define failure on your own terms.  The clowns told us to "Boo" loudly whenever they dropped a club or ball.  They then mocked us when we didn't "Boo" loudly enough.  This transformed what should be a net energy loss (the failure of a routine) into an energy gain (audience shouting loudly at the stage in complicity with the performers)
  • It's okay to remind the audience that they are watching live theatre and not television (and that live theatre is always an interactive event).
That last bullet helped Kiran and me re-realize (for the umpteenth time) that there is one thing that brings together all the theatre we want to make: it is ruthlessly and brazenly theatrical.  We don't just want to parade another art form on stage (film, visual art, and literature being three of the most commonly "theatricalized" culprits).  And the only thing which really, at the end of the day, separates theatre from these arts is presence: of the actors and of the audience.  The former is hard to quantify (though many have tried) beyond the simple existential fact that, yes, the actor is a live human being standing anywhere between 5 inches and 500 feet in front of you (depending on the level of play and the theatre's architecture, of course).  

But the audience?  That's simple.  They are simply there. You don't need to train them to be extra-there.  But you do have to encourage/demand/invite/bribe/threaten/tempt them to be an actual theatrical audience (one which implicitly accepts and savors the presence of the actor and the interactive phenomenon that is live theatre) or you can let them keep their distance like your actors are projections on a 30' screen, pretty pictures in a frame, or talking books.  I'm all for works of art that blur the lines of their genre and all for stealing freely from visual art, film, and literature (just look at Stolen Chair's body of work), but we (by which I mean Stolen Chair) kinda always need to be working to discover new ways of making sure the audience is present with us, not just enjoying us (or...[gulp] actively loathing us).  

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