I've already declared my love of The Bacchae here on OJ, and I go to see many productions of it. What's always delightful is the variety of costumes and frameworks that production teams use to stage it.
A couple weeks back, I recommended David Cote’s amusing post for The Guardian on How to Write a Pulitzer-Winning Play. David, as always, is incredibly insightful, witty, and heart-breakingly accurate. How simple it is, really, to follow these rules and conventions and produce a (literally and qualitatively) well-made play! And while the Pulitzer committee does pick some lovely pieces, it is quite unfortunate how predictable they are.
But reading Neil Genzlinger’s post this week in the Times’s “Arts Beat,” “The Fringe-y Days of August,” I actually returned to David’s piece, read them side by side, and, instead of laughing, I became incredibly disturbed. Genzlinger comes up with a similar primer, an “Idiot’s Guide” if you will, to getting produced at the New York Fringe Festival. And Genzlinger, a veteran Fringe playwright, invokes similar and facile strategies to getting noticed, although instead of winning an award, the goal is to sell tickets amidst a glut of concurrent performances. Now, I have a bad history with the Fringe, and usually miss most pieces, partly because most Fringe shows are quite awful, and partly because I rarely rise from the curled-up fetal position next to my A/C unit in the dog days of August.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but take offense that the Fringe, what is supposed to embody the spirit of radicalism, experimentation, and risk for the performance community, has become so greedy and bloated and vanilla, that it has become a factory for banal autobiographical confessions, shameless and useless investigations of sex, and the never-ending stream of ironic musicals, which were never all that great even when they were new-ish (sorry, Urinetown, but it’s true).
Now I concede that, yes, some of this evolution of both Pulitzer and Fringe picks is systemic, due to the rarefied profession of playwriting, the bored, Fordist education system that teaches aspiring playwrights, and the ignorance and apathy of many audiences, to name a few culprits. But more significantly, it points more to the oversight of conventions, not to look beyond Broadway and mainstream Off-Broadway aesthetics, safe black-and-white politics, and a shifting landscape of how and where performance is produced. Do we need a new alternative to the Fringe? A Fringe-off-the-Fringe Fest? Who will support interesting, grassroots performance companies now? Or is the problem the system itself; is the very form of a festival doomed to become a bleak, homogenous output of performance zombies (who will, in all probability, sing a tongue-in-cheek power ballad about eating brains)?
Conni’s Avant-Garde Restaurant is a friendly reminder that performance can be, for lack of a better term, a pleasurable experience. The simple premise is that the audience is a group of diners at the illustrious Conni’s, where a gaggle of strange archetypes perform snippets of bygone experimental performances, as they serve you a complete four-course (delicious) meal. Ergo, the Ohio Theatre is all gussied up; it actually looks like a pretty swank dining room, despite the DIY elements. (Most impressive are the beautiful ballroom chandeliers, which upon closer examination are merely made of some wire, plastic champagne glasses, and string lights.)
The experience, not the performance alone, is exquisite. Pairing good food, with intelligent and entertaining vignettes? Delightful. Linking the delicacies to the vignettes? Priceless. The scenes of Miss Conni’s Kitchen Sink Drama à la Angry Young Men, the culturally offensive 60s multi-culti Venison: Venice, and an unaired TV pilot about baby swapping (in utero, no less) called Bathwater, are punctuated by relentless audience participation, from food service to a relentless game show with audience-contestants, “Bus That Table!” to a desperate search by Muffin to spread the love of her art. (And Miss Muffin, if you’re reading this, you’re a tremendous kisser.) The ridiculously large and wonderful and committed cast—including Muffin, Peter’s Character, “D,” Miss Goodi Two Shoes, Hunter, Sue James, “the Nurses,” Redman #2, Mrs. Robinson, Dr. Smith, and our chefs Johnny Hammersticks and the Lunch Lady—creates a no-holds-barred evening, where all is up for grabs.
Most importantly, I’ll recognize the elephant in the room: booze a-plenty. Get a drink at Ohio’s bar beforehand. There seem to be endless pitchers of sangria at the tables. And the nurses dutifully visit each table to see if anyone needs their cure for all that ails ya (Jameson, I believe). If that’s not enough, the hard-drinkin’, PBR-preferrin’ cast is always willing to share with you. Add to this the communal tables, where you can get to know your neighbors (thanks, Liquid Confidence!), and the anything-goes lifestyle of the avant-garde is recreated, if a bit dressed up. But therein lies the piece’s brilliance.
[Awesome Billy Joel piano break here. That’s right: awesome. I don’t care what you think, fucking snobs.]
The most exciting course, dessert of course, is Mrs. Robinson’s lonely fruit salad, the making of which is performed via power ballad, a restaging of the number originally performed during the final episode of Miss Muffin’s short-lived children’s program, Muffin’s Magic Plantation. Why a series of men, clad in silk kimonos and bikini briefs, uncontrollably shooting off cans of whipped cream would be stripped of the airways, we might never know. Sadly, the audience is not allowed to partake in the salad, as the unbearable weight of its sadness has driven so many to suicide. We get pound cake with blueberry compote and marscapone whipped cream. But the performance’s impulse is spot on, and perhaps the most avant-garde aspect of the piece: now that the avant-garde has become untenable to the point where artists such as Marina Abramovic are re-performing performance art from the 60s and 70s, Miss Muffin and company satirize the very reflexivity of it all beautifully. And when the phone revealed in act one resurfaces toward the end, the payoff is expected yet glorious.
On a final note: don’t be fooled! As the company accentuates in their opening number, pre-seating, rule number five of Conni’s Restaurant, the most important one, is screamed in unison: “Remember: this is not dinner theatre!” But the analogy is tantalizing indeed. If there’s a B-list circuit of national tours of The Wiz or Damn Yankees featuring fizzled stars, why isn’t there an equivalent purgatory for experimental artists, a Sunset Boulevard for performance art that grew weak and dull decades ago? (Although I’m tempted to speculate on possibilities, I shall try not to bite the hands that feed the Jesters.) But because of the quicksilver evolution and the inherent loss of shock of the new, the avant-garde tends to canonize its saints immediately, then merely pretending they’ve been martyred.
He sits perfectly still, or as still as a body is capable of being. I catch the occasional twitches in his back muscles, a tensing of his toes, lifting of his heels off the floor. He is completely nude, yet sitting in a modest pose, a postmodern living Thinker, perhaps, and it is the space around, within, and through his body that is noticeable, rather than his nakedness. It is a prepositional space, one in which he is within but also one in which I am at times beside, also within, and, in the last moments, without.
I climbed the ladderlike stairs to the niche of the lighting booth in NYU’s Abe Burrows Theatre yesterday around 10.05a. Exactly twenty-four hours before I’m writing this now. He has been sitting there from 6a, and will continue until 11a. He has been doing this since Monday, and is doing this now, there, while I am in a newly rented loft in Greenpoint, watching the still tops of buildings I can see outside my window in the pauses between words, here. In writing this, I am trying to recapture something of what I felt in that space, though I know the moments he allowed me to share with him were precious and unrepeatable. As I reach the top step, hesitant both from the steep perch and a fear not of being uncomfortable necessarily but of not knowing what my work is in this performance. These thoughts are running through my mind as I stand, behind him and out of view, I think, of the vertical mirror he stares into, at himself or maybe at himself staring at himself—the double looks back. These thoughts are running through my mind so loudly I’m afraid that they disturb his silent, still space. I stand for a few moments (though even this early in my arrival, time has taken on a different modality and I’m not sure how long it is actually that I am standing) then decide that I will share this time with him; that I, in exchange for him sharing this space and time with me, will take on some of the burden of sitting, alone but with another, silent but aware of the sounds of my body, still but free to gaze at the new perspective around me, not only the immediate space but the view of the theatre from above, the view of the theatre as the space just beyond the space of performance.
I know of his interest in Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s extended duration performances, and of Tehching Hsieh’s one-year performances. I know of his interest in the tension between duration and time, and in the attempt to process the ever-fleeting now. I know these things because we spoke of them during and after the class he took with me. And knowing him that way before knowing him this way, naked in a room, also marks this performance for me. I am aware of the tension I feel about seeing a student so exposed. We can look at, talk about, objectify and subjectify bodies from archival performance documentation for an entire semester, but when the discourse begins to rub up against our own bodies, when the body I’m responsible for facilitating this discourse around is his body, my student’s body, the spaces between pedagogy and ethics, between my role as professor (a body I’m still uncertain of assuming) and as witness create a different layer of, again, not discomfort necessarily but of not knowing. Not knowing him, yet, in this way; not knowing myself in relation to him.
His big toe on his left foot tenses and before I have more time than to wonder at the largeness of such a small movement he’s shifted his entire body forward, resting his elbows on his knees. I can see his entire face in the mirror now, whereas before I caught only a fragment, though I do not know yet if he can see me. The room is vaguely shadowed, and his eyes are caught in a dimness so I’m not sure of where he is looking, at himself or perhaps permitting quick glimpses around. His intent is to stare at himself, to become his own double, and I wonder if, at this point into the performance, it is he that is looking or the he in the mirror. And if that he, that reflection of the self-reflexive, wants to glance around, is it permitted? Does the reflection acquire its own perimeter beyond the edge of the mirror? Does it acquire its own agency? Is it not an it but in truth, for these five hours over five days, another he? Deb Margolin, whose essay we read in our class, writes that to bear witness is the most generous thing we can do for another, that we take on responsibility for that person in the act of witnessing. I want to touch his arm as an act of letting him know I’m there, I’m sharing the burden. But witnessing is different than staring, and while I feel all the responsibility in the world for him at that moment, I also know that neither he nor his reflection bear responsibility. Theirs is an exchange beyond that. They are the bodies performing, they are the only bodies in the room. I, as witness, remain just outside that space, just outside the perimeter of the mirror, and as such maintain the responsibility of this moment. Of being within it, of being allowed to be within it, and, now, of recording it. Though, it must be said, these are only responsibilities I read onto what I’m experiencing. Neither he has established rules for any body outside the mirror.
We are sitting, and I am aware of my body in itself. I expect this—expect to be aware of every breath, of every time by stomach grumbles because I skipped breakfast, of the slight creak of my purse strap caught between my shoulder blade and the wall whenever I inadvertently shift—and I know the words to describe it (intersubjective, intercorporeal) and context in which to place it, yet I am struck by just how quietly powerful it is. I think about not thinking, which results in my thoughts drifting away from my body but to the potential of other bodies. Of the potential of using this new loft space I’ve just moved into as a sort of salon in homage to those unorthodox sites of the early Happenings. Of the potential to write about this later. I’m not, really, thinking about what he’s thinking. Which, in retrospect, seems a little strange.
I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies since I taught the class on solo performance art a few weeks ago. Not in the usual sense, but in the overlap between the intersubjective and the sexual. I’m frank about the fact that I’m hot for Vito Acconci, and my students had a chuckle over that. I had a conversation with a man I know well the other day that threw me completely off guard when he said that he responds to Marina Abramovic sexually, that he finds her incredibly attractive in performance. I’ve been thinking about the relationship between obscenity and nudity, and this post will eventually be a post-prescript for a longer piece on that. But right now, that now before this now, I am thinking of how very very nice it is to have this moment. This quiet, still moment, in which to think.
No matter his nudity, this is not a performance about the sexual. There is a frankness to it, but a frankness of self that is less confrontational than meditative. I’m relieved, not only because the possibility of experiencing the sexual in a dim, small room with my naked student disturbs me even more than the most provocative performance art but because I was beginning to fear that the sexual was inevitable. I’m relieved to know that it is not, and that the object of our gaze is not always objectified, that the act of looking at bodies is not always already eroticized.
That he is not looking at me relocates the notion of the gaze in this performance. He is the object, but his own object—objectified only, if at all, by the reflected double. He is his own subject as well, as I become my own object in the act of witnessing. The mirror is both tangible and metaphoric. He shifts again, resting his elbows slightly further down his knees and for the first time I wonder if my presence is a disruption of his space. Duration becomes time again and I wonder how long I’ve been there. Wonder how much longer I’ll stay. Realize it is time for me to go.
I carefully climb back down the stairs and, trying to be quiet, search in my bag for a pad of paper. I scribble a thank-you note onto a page and leave it for him at the bottom of the stairs. I almost wish I hadn’t: perhaps this is Derrida’s gift that is only gifted if the exchange isn’t acknowledged or even known. Perhaps that is something to write about at another time. I leave the building and feel time differently around me. When I get home, intending to write, quietly, about my experience, I’m confronted with the chaos of the ongoing construction in my apartment building, with people I don’t know coming in and out of my apartment—in and out of my space—and with a letter that reads that the bank is beginning foreclosure litigation against my landlord. I, too, it would appear, am currently living within a prepositional space, yet it is one, particularly in such close juxtaposition with the space my student just shared with me, I resent. I feel a loss, not only of the performance slipping away, but of the experience of it. A loss beyond the ephemerality of the moment, but of the possibility of such a moment to exist. And of how fleeting yet beautiful that moment was.
(oh, and yes, it would seem that sharkskin has returned from her virtual hibernation. welcome back…)