Wednesday, January 13, 2010

performance: the past, present, and future of art

In a recent interview with Fresh Air, George Lucas said "I always tell people, I say look, as long as Green Bay Packer fans go in the 70-below-zero weather, in the snow, to watch a game they can't actually see because they all want to be together and scream together and have a good time together, the movie industry is safe. And there will always be movie theaters. There will always be people that want that social experience, because people, human beings, are a social animal, and they will want something like the opera, like the ballet, you know, they will want to go and have this communal motion picture experience, or like plays and Broadway shows."

Lucas is reflecting one of the most fundamental aspects of live art: the commune between creator, performer, and spectator. while i might argue with him over the sustainability of high art forms, including opera and the ballet, i think his assessment of  cinema is right on the money.of course with the rise of digital video, it is easier and cheaper to make low budget movies. like Lucas, i believe these "small" films will continue to be pushed off screen into video-on-demand services.  however, in order to survive the digital age where we can carry all the latest films on our phones,  the cinema "blockbuster" is going to push the boundaries of  the communal experience.

it started simply enough with the expansion of the (outrageously priced) "snack bar."  where once you could only get hyper saturated popcorn (be careful, that stuff is bad for you), now you have everything from chicken, hotdogs, and pizza, to gourmet options like fresh baked treats, samosas, and vegan options, to a full bar. and while i fully admit to sneaking in my fair share of items, the novelty of having a beer or a glass of wine in the movie theatre still gets me. then the cinemas upgraded seats, sound systems, and projection. now finally we are seeing the beginnings of true revolution in the film experience with the meteoric explosion of Avatar. even if you haven't been won over by the slew of 3D films or haven't tried an IMAX, they are here to stay. why? because you can charge double the price for the experience.  luckily for us, greed will spur the technology forward so it becomes less uncomfortable and more enjoyable. 

but the cinema is a purely audience rooted communal experience. and if 3D is indeed the future of such experiences, we are talking about a communal experience literally behind the individual walls of glasses. yet, Lucas also mentioned the survival of opera, ballet, plays, and Broadway.  as an actress (and a pretentious spouter of thought) i have to wonder how we keep communal movies from taking over traditional art? when Shakespeare wrote, he wrote for the masses. the masses attended the theatre and his plays are rife with commentary that his contemporary audience would have inherently understood. he shaped his community with his art in such a profound way that his made-up words and phrases are still in our language centuries later. there are too many examples, but his affect is so extensive that i can't help but list a few:

Dead as a doornail (2 Henry VI)
Fancy-free (Midsummer Night's Dream)
For goodness' sake (Henry VIII)
accommodation (Othello)
assassination (Macbeth; "assassin" was already in use and derives from "hashish eater")
circumstantial (As You Like It / Cymbeline; first attestation in the sense of "indirect")
cold-blooded (King John; first use to mean "lack of emotion")
fashionable (Timon of Athens / Troilus and Cressida)
to gossip (The Comedy of Errors; first use as a verb "gossip" was one's familiar friends)
moonbeam (A Midsummer Night's Dream)
vulnerable (Macbeth; used in today's sense)

so how do we, as artists, make our art relevant? Drama 101 (or Art 101) : what is art? is art, "Art" if nobody sees it? without an audience, what is a performance?  if a tree falls and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? how do we make a sound in an over saturated world?  

well, i think the survival of performance art will depend on two very different factors. one, the generosity and desire of the upper-class to participate in an old fashioned definition of "culture."  but Shakespeare did not transform our dictionary by only performing for the Queen. so, two, the evolution of the communal experience between artist and audience. 

to stay relevant we must reach the audience. we must play off the human desire for communal experience, which means we cannot rely solely on traditional theatre. i'm not suggesting we completely abandon the master playwrights, choreographers, and composers. but unless you are only marketing to the few who can afford it, we must find ways to make it relevant. to make it better than the high definition dvd version with famous performers someone can watch close up for a fraction of a ticket price.  

in the last few weeks, i have participated in two such evolutions of live art. first as a performer with the Adirondack Shakespeare Company's production of Richard III.  this was a "raw shakespeare" performance, which means a small company of actors prepare all the lines of multiple characters on their own. then the actors come together for an incredibly intense couple of days, to review lines, choreograph fights, work on relationships and intentions, but the first actual performance of the entire script with full character intentions is done with the paying audience.

to some extant, this is a bit closer to the way shakespeare would have performed his pieces. the performances were "raw," minimal costume and costume changes (by today's standards), minimal sets (the words describe the settings), and rambunctious audiences (the Globe resided in basically the red-light district, surrounded by cock fights and bear baiting and the "pit" was the standing room cheap seats). as for the actors, they pretty much only had their own pieces of the script and all the rest would have been new to them in the moment.  (of course, the company-The Chamberlain's Men- would have performed the play many times, so after the first few performance we can imagine that the company would have been very familiar with the whole thing. it is also said that shakespeare wrote some what with his company in mind. that is, his actors would probably have played their "part" in every play. Richard Burbage, the tragedian played Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Richard III.  Will Kemp, the comedian, played Bottom and Falstaff. later Robert Armin succeeded him and played Touchstone, Feste, and the great Fool of King Lear.  in other words, they knew their stuff and ol' Bill would have known what they were good at, and together they made each others' lives easier.)

this was my first experience playing "raw" and i think it was eye opening on a number of levels. one, it revealed to me how much of my process of learning my character and the play has become wedded to the exploration in rehearsal. now this isn't necessarily a bad thing, that is after all the point of rehearsing. but knowing your lines can't be dependent on your blocking or on a set piece. my process of physical life has overwhelmed some of my basic prep, which is inexcusable. so this was a return to basics.

now, heck, i went to grad school. i'm not saying you just learn the lines and throw someone up to say them and you make good art. better, as a trained actor ever questing to perfection (ie communication of truth), this quick and dirty process forces you to have excellent preparation of lines and intentions (actor speak for why my character is doing what i am doing). the process, if fully prepared, gives you the chance to really live in the moment, open your heart to instincts, and as shakespeare instructed:
 Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. For
anything so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both
at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere, the mirror up
to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image,
and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. 

i'm not going to lie. it was also terrifying to perform to a full house without the safety net that set repetition and fancy accouterments allow.  

as for the audience, i don't know how this type of performance affected them. but it did seem to me that there was an electricity in the air. that we were all in this together. that not only the company, but also the audience was pulling for Greg Davies, our Richard III, to make it through the intensely difficult role. they weren't drunk, to my knowledge, or cock-fighting, but they were more audibly present than my last several shakespeare pieces. plus, we did find a drunk man passed out on the stage and a naked couple in the booth prior to performing, which added to the atmosphere.

my other recent communal live art came as an audience member to the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet Company's recent installation piece. in this instance, there were no seats. the audience quite literally became part of the dance, as the dancers performed all around us. they took this even one step farther by dancing on multiple planes: around us, through us, in the air (with ropes), on the walls (with strategic foot holds), and even with preshot digital projections.

personally, i loved it. this is something i could not have watching PBS. it was challenging and engaging, even if you can't possibly see everything at the same time. it was even slightly uncomfortable, standing relatively still for 45 minutes in your heels. yet, even that discomfiture both put me physically in the dance, a part of the group movement, and metaphorically highlighted the supreme example of body and motion the dancers exude compared to my own ill developed self. the piece, like much contemporary and evocative art, is what you make of it, subjective to how each individual interprets what they see.  i saw a long board room table, a people attempting to break out of the reality (that i myself represented throughout) and a struggle against controllers (leaders, bosses) and controlling forces (self consciousness, even gravity). in this essence, the audience is an integral part of the story being told.

wow, that's a lot of meandering today.


  1. I agree with much of what you describe here about the art forms. A thought-if indeed Shakespeare was writing to, about, and *with* his audience in a contemporary does such development of art continue in a world outlined in 140 word bites? Breaking the proscenium is a wonderful thing, when done well.

  2. that's actually part of my point. there is so much being fed at us all the time, including the twitter storm, that it is hard to get heard.

    you don't nec. have to break the 4th wall, but make an impression that will break the noise. our shakespeare didn't truely break the wall (though we did use the house for entrances creating more a theatre in the round feel)

    i think "making an impression" is something as theatre makers we have to think about. how do you make G&S relevant in a way new people will want to be a part? (ie not just the same group of people who have bought tix for 30+ years and will do so just because)

    do you do it with "interpretations"? with sets? lighting? casting? "reinventions"? i don't have an answer, but i think it is worth investigating.

  3. "making an impression," to me, is another way of saying "get them to REALLY listen." there's so much interference noise in our lives, getting someone to be still and listen to what's right in front of them is sometimes the biggest challenge; be it as actor, writer or simply with our friends at times! thanks for this, chrissy. this piece reminds me of the importance of art that breaks thru the noise of life, and the importance of just listening.

  4. One of the most insightful posts I've read lately. (Although, since I have no training in the performance arts, some of it was over my head.)I plan to link to it on my site.



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