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Book Selections

August 2017

What do we imagine might happen in a theatre, that space devoted to nightly appearance and disappearance? What other worlds might we fabricate there and how might its acts redress our own world? What does the theatre as a tradition and medium allow us to imagine? The book version of Imagined Theatres: writing for a […]

  • Prologue

    What do we imagine might happen in a theatre, that space devoted to nightly appearance and disappearance? What other worlds might we fabricate there and how might its acts redress our own world? What does the theatre as a tradition and medium allow us to imagine?

    The book version of Imagined Theatres: writing for a theoretical stage was published in the spring of 2017 by Routledge press; it brought together short conceptual performances written by close to one hundred artists and theorists of the stage. With few exceptions, these contributors hailed from the US, Canada, the UK, and Ireland. Each writer offered a text one page in length, describing an event that may or may not be performed in some future theatre to come. Another single page text faced each theatre, written by the same author or another: a gloss outlining a critical context, a history, or a personal reflection, which models one of many possible responses to the hypothetical event. This volume was shaped and oriented by the book format, the limits of a single page dictating the bounds of its many stages.

    But the theatre keeps imagining itself anew. Every time we return to the rehearsal room or settle into our seats, we imagine a difference, however small, however subtle. This need not be a matter of disruption; it may be a gesture of conservation or repair. The open-access e-journal Imaginedtheatres.com extends the prospect of its precursor in new directions. It looks out toward communities and geographies that the book could not address; and it invites readers to contribute to its universe.

    To inaugurate the release of the journal, and to foster connections between the printed page and the digital network, a selection of pieces from the book have been republished here: 11 out of 121 pieces. I am grateful to the contributors for allowing their work to be disseminated in this manner, and to Routledge press for encouraging their reproduction.

     

    Daniel Sack

    Editor

     

  • No one sees it coming. We behold a stage bisected by train tracks that run straight toward the back wall. As we look into the distance where the tracks seem to meet, we presume we see a painted backdrop of a central vanishing point perspective. (In fact, we are wrong. Real tracks disappear down an actual four-mile corridor visible through the missing back wall of the theatre. The meeting of tracks is an illusion of convergence caused by distance—not, as we believe, an illusion of distance caused by convergence.)

    Stage right of the tracks: a long, immaculately laid table with an overabundance of doilies, linens, teacups, carafes, tea sandwiches, vases, all white. A fine family sits around, silently sipping, cutting, passing the butter.

    On the other side of the tracks: a vulgar slab, a great gnarled oak roughly split. It is heaped with oversized mugs of ale, straw, rusted goblets, dung, two great hogs farting and shitting. Servants laugh, belch, and weep silently as they spill beer all over themselves and take bites out of mutton legs.

    Read over the microphone, passages from Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”; “Not one word, not one gesture of yours shall I, could I, ever forget….” And so on.

    When we see a train in the distance, headed straight for us at full speed, we realize that the central vanishing point is not painted but real. The train comes closer. The tables begin to rattle. Stage lights crash to the ground. Finally, the steam locomotive rushes into the theatre building, down between the tables and straight into the auditorium. The ensuing catastrophe is shocking beyond all comprehension.

    After the smoke clears, the two tables continue to dine as if nothing had happened.


    About the Author

    Kyle Gillette is the Director of Theatre and Associate Professor at Trinity University, where he writes, directs, and teaches about theatre as a laboratory for perception and thought. His scholarship includes the monograph Railway Travel in Modern Theatre (McFarland, 2014), a short volume on Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (Routledge, 2016), and articles in Performance Research, Modern Drama, Comparative Drama, and elsewhere. He has directed the work of Beckett, Brecht, Euripides, Handke, Vogel, Williams, Wilder, and others.

     

    Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Samovar

    (with apologies to Kyle–and William–Gillette)

    Where is the samovar, my dear Watson? There is no samovar, I can hear you saying, and you’re perhaps technically right, but as we look at what’s clearly in front of us, it’s evident that there is a samovar shaped hole stage right; squint and you too can see it. As we watch the “fine family” seated there, I’m reminded of the negative space between two faces that becomes a wine glass in that immediately recognizable optical illusion. While this isn’t typically the type of trompe l’oeil in which the theatre specializes, it’s appropriate given the centrality of the “illusion of convergence caused by distance,” which is also not typical theatrical fare. But this realism, these tables, and Tolstoy cement us firmly in a Chekhovian universe, the worlds of the servants and the masters both entirely separate and simultaneously intertwined. The servants are perhaps Rabelaisian or Falstaffian interlopers here, but their presence is utterly necessary. It is indeed Firs who outlives the catastrophe of the destruction of the Cherry Orchard, serving as witness to the end.

    But Holmes, when finding myself audience to this moment of fin de siècle realism, and this non-illusory train, my mind automatically turns to cinema, and what Martin Loiperdinger has called “cinema’s founding myth,” the oft-repeated story of the audiences fleeing in fear from the train appearing to crash through the screen at screenings of Louis Lumière’s L’Arrivée D’un Train En Gare De La Ciotat. Loiperdinger suggests that this is actually perhaps an imagined theatre of its own, since there is no contemporaneous evidence to demonstrate its veracity. Mustn’t we consider the possibility that this is all merely the imagination of an overzealous newspaper reporter?

    Ah, as you yourself noted in “A Case of Identity,” Watson, when we have “realism pushed to its extreme limits… [too often] the result is, it must be confessed, neither fascinating nor artistic” and so, as I suggested, we must “never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details.” What you’ve clearly missed is the question of the imagined time of the theatre. So here we are in Russia, with a train destroying the audience, and we have immediately leapt forward 100 years or so to October 23rd, 2002, in the Dubrovka Theatre. On the positive side, for Masha, Olga, and Irina, we have finally made it to Moscow; although in the words of those Chechnyan hostage-takers who themselves appear to cite Chekhov, “we have nothing to lose. We have already covered 2,000 kilometres … Our motto is freedom and paradise. We already have freedom as we’ve come to Moscow…” Indeed, the advent of realism out of the ashes of melodrama perhaps demanded that eventually the train destroy the audience, while the real of the stage continues on. As I said in our very first adventure together, “where there is no imagination there is no horror,” and it is precisely the theatre that allows for that collision of time and space—all because of that missing samovar and the thundering 9:14 to Moscow.


    About the Author

    Joshua Abrams is Deputy Dean, Academic, at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London. He is completing a monograph on theatricality within the restaurant as well as editing a forthcoming issue of Performance Research, "On Taste." He regularly publishes and speaks widely on food and performance, philosophies of ethics and performance, and identity politics.

  • Note: The company delivers the following text in whatever form they want to. They are encouraged to illustrate, add to, and/or deviate from the script as they see fit, and to insert details about the means of production relevant to their particular circumstances.

     

    * * *

     

    All artists and/or workers involved are paid a living wage for all phases of pre-production and production. They are also allocated “parachute payments” for a period post-production if they are temporarily out of paid work (like English football clubs relegated from the Premier League). They are entitled to: pension benefits; paid leave schemes for parents and other carers; paid support for continuing professional development; paid leave for periods of, for example, illness, holidays, and research; and, if required, support in securing affordable housing.

    The funding for the work is provided by fair, universal taxation. This is likely to require significant systemic change. Some suggestions for such change include:

     

    • raising the top rates of income tax to further address inequality;
    • properly taxing large corporations which exploit globalization to avoid paying reasonable local taxes;
    • requiring comparatively wealthy for-profit parts of the cultural sector (e.g., professional sport, West End/Broadway theatre, Hollywood cinema, major social media companies, fashion retailers, casinos, and providers of new media technologies such as smartphones) to pay significant dividends to the not-for-profit, state-subsidized, and amateur cultural sectors which feed them;
    • requiring corporations which parasitically exploit the arts to sell their products (e.g., alcohol producers) to pay significant dividends to the arts; and
    • requiring corporations based in the same place as the producing company, and reliant on the cultural vibrancy of that place to attract and retain good workers (corporations in the financial industries, for example), to pay significant dividends to the arts.

     

    Everyone working on the production has some autonomy but also collaborates and compromises. Individualism does not trump teamwork and collectivism. All participants are encouraged to be ambitious, whatever that means to them. Time and resources allocated to pre-production are sufficient, not inadequate.

    The production’s run is long enough that the makers can have satisfaction exploring it properly, and audiences have decent opportunities to see it. As much as possible, the production should incorporate opportunities for creative development (including during performance), allowing the makers to experience the work as constantly interesting. The production period will not be overly long. The production schedule will not put undue pressure on the makers.

    Each production has a reasonable budget and its makers know what that budget is in good time, providing the security that enables proper planning and experimentation.

    Resources are recycled wherever possible.

    In the wider theatre ecology where this production takes place, resources are shared. Bigger, wealthier theatres are required to share with those that are less well-resourced. This is intended principally to benefit the less well-resourced institutions. The bigger ones may benefit (for example, by seeing interesting experiments and outcomes); however, they must not exploit the smaller companies by attempting, for example, to take any credit for the smaller companies’ work, or to make claims to being risky or innovative simply by association.

    All tickets are genuinely affordable.

     

     


    About the Author

    Jen Harvie is Professor of Contemporary Theatre and Performance at Queen Mary University of London. Her monographs include Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Theatre & the City (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), Staging the UK (Manchester, 2005), and The Routledge Companion to Theatre and Performance (co-author, Routledge, 2005). She co-edited Making Contemporary Theatre (with Andy Lavender, Manchester, 2010) and The Only Way Home Is Through the Show: Performance Work of Lois Weaver (with Lois Weaver, Intellect, 2016). She co-edits Palgrave Macmillan’s series Theatre &. Her current work examines austerity economics and feminist theatre.

    From the start, she asks: What would it mean for theatre to produce a living wage? She dreams of a world in which the making of things—metaphor, movement, breathing and breath—would extract from surplus a structure that more robustly sustains the lives of all of those who live and work within it. She sketches that world as if thinking, and dreaming, and feeling, and love were made fully accessible, were more fully valued, as tools of all trade. She stares at her screen. What would this take? Her fingers trip over numbers, doing their sums; then they freeze. She deletes, deletes again. She abandons all math, its logics too restrictive for the world she’s invoked.

    But they beckon her back, those numbers: and she sets in place a scheme that would make this world both the dreamed-of and the done. Tax all who have excess not for war but for art—or for beauty, shared feeling, provocation, or whatever theatre may set out for itself to do. Make theatre as a system of roads, or bridges, or power lines strung from every pole: core to the infrastructure, the heart, the goings-on of the social world. Essential trumps exceptional, she thinks, in a world so wholly steered by cost. She rewrites austerity as, instead, the obligatory cost of to live.

    Throughout, she demands: What would it mean for theatre to be a living wage?

    She turns from her screen, sees the world as it is.

    When she wakes, she tries again. It all comes out the same. She sleeps, wakes again: writes the same. And again, and again. It would all be so simple; it is all so viable, so imminently concrete, but for will. But for will.

     


    About the Author

    Jen Harvie is Professor of Contemporary Theatre and Performance at Queen Mary University of London. Her monographs include Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Theatre & the City (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), Staging the UK (Manchester, 2005), and The Routledge Companion to Theatre and Performance (co-author, Routledge, 2005). She co-edited Making Contemporary Theatre (with Andy Lavender, Manchester, 2010) and The Only Way Home Is Through the Show: Performance Work of Lois Weaver (with Lois Weaver, Intellect, 2016). She co-edits Palgrave Macmillan’s series Theatre &. Her current work examines austerity economics and feminist theatre.

  • I welcome you. Go for a walk in the field. In the woods. Meadow. Desert. Street. Bring a roasted chicken dinner. Share it. All night there are sighs amongst us, a caress. Fingers moving. Skin touches, enters skin. Fish are caught. Gutted. Wrapped in aluminum foil, sprinkled with lemon, a little butter, salt. Put into ready coals. The birthed take a first deep breath. Our stresses leave. We fold and unfold napkins. Our hearts, too. We unfold these. Blood seeps through panties and drips down legs. Rocks pool from our mouths. Our breasts are milking. We stand. Together. I welcome you. Lay down. Rest. Gather what you need to know. Whisper then hum and sing and watch the kids run around, they laugh playing Star Wars. We will not end racism. Or heartbreak. We will not bring back the dead. We will not wrest the pain from ourselves. Not to mention from each other. All these wolves howling, they are being hunted. There are always these little things we miss. Ha. How the arm raises. How the head tilts down. The gentle sway. Lay your arm across my chest. Leave it there to rise and fall. I welcome you. See the red deer. The violently red deer. Hold her tongue in your hand. In your mouth. Take a sip of water. Let your tongues swirl. Let your drink be hers. Breathe blood and dirt and shit and air. And hold the newborn. Hold her. She is us. I welcome you. And when someone else is holding the newborn, get drunk. Get fully loaded. I do sometimes. Not so much any more. Count 14,000 steps. One day. Rest. Sleep 12 hours. I do. Have. Well, have done. Not so much any more. Count 14,000 ticks. The sound first then the bloodsucking creatures. Do they suck blood? One day. I want you to bite my shoulder. Again. Kiss the back of my neck. Again. I want to come with you. Again. On your chest. My arm lays still. Someone I love said, “at least we get to live it all.” I welcome you. Take up your arms. TAKE UP YOUR ARMS. Leave the guns on the ground. Fight not with strength but with grief. Your curled up, crawling, kneeling grief. Count 14,000 steps and ticks (the sound) and 14,000 killed. Again. I welcome you. Howl with the hunted wolves, sing with nothing you remember, but remember the boy the woman the man and child and girl. The missing and murdered, when none of them found you in crawling pain. Remember? They thought you were not real. They find you there now or rather it finds you—the ground—holds you. And you look at the sky. You lay back. You see stars that are eyes that are souls and you see your own soul up there and your arms are up and they will never be down again. Again. The red deer jaunts away. The newborn. At least she gets to live it all. I hope someone gathers up the quilts. Disrupts the meticulous Ojibwe floral pattern. Piles a bunch of them in a jumble. Lays down in them. Drools on them. Lifts themselves up into a heavy type of lighting; thick, thick sleep.


    About the Author

    Originally from Alaska, Emily Johnson is an artist of Yup’ik descent, who has been making body-based work since 1998. She is a Bessie Award-winning choreographer, 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, and recipient of the 2014 Doris Duke Artist Award. Her written work has been published in Dance Research Journal and Movement Research Journal, and has been commissioned by SFMOMA and Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

    I imagine everything is possible. I’ve always done this. As a kid, I wrapped potatoes and put them in drawers. I’ve always enjoyed tasks—ones that lead to tangible outcomes and ones that don’t. And I ran through the woods pretending I was a deer. I ran as fast and as far as possible, hopping logs, ducking branches, imagining I had four legs. And I kind of grew up in a bar—the one my grandmother owned and lived in, in Alaska. So amidst climbing the tree and watching the beavers, running the woods, kicking rocks and stacking wood and cutting fish, spooning one teaspoon of oil into each jar of kippured red salmon—I would listen to stories. Some I probably shouldn’t have heard. True stories and made-up ones, jokes and drunken tales from neighbors, family, strangers. The stories and voices mixed with the work and our play, with our actions and the actions of the strangers (kind actions and also sometimes cruel ones), and with the clams squirting saltwater—cleaning themselves in the bucket where they were stored until the freshwater in grandma’s pot boiled.

    I make dances now. And I see dance in everything—in the blood moving through our bodies, the synapses of our brains, the sway of trees, and the migration of fish. I see dance in the theatres of our world, in the community centers and gymnasiums and back roads and bedrooms. And I view our bodies as everything: culture, history, present, future at once. Out of respect for, and trust in, our bodies and collective memories, I give equal weight to story and image, to movement and stillness, to what I imagine, and to what I do not know.

    Sometimes I make dances that include feasting, stories (mine and those of others), volunteerism, performance. Sometimes I make dances that last all night. I make dances to conjure future joy. I make quilts upon which to host the audience and the dance. I make fish-skin lanterns to light us. (In actuality, a lot of us get together to make these quilts and lanterns.) I invite stillness, an awareness of the periphery. I invite you to turn your head to notice what is happening next to you. I adore endurance and struggle and know that sometimes struggle is not going to be resolved via physical manifestation. So sometimes the struggle is to stop. Let others care for what is being made, hold it. Invite others to be at and inside the core of the making.

    And we gather. To share food on the banks of Newtown Creek or Tuggeght Beach, at Foxtail Farm or Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center. We restore dunes by planting native shrubs, we clean oysters in the New York estuary, we daylight streams, clean up parks. These moments by my definition are dance, are theatre, are the sharing and making of story and life: action, purpose, non-purpose, possibility.

    We need this: time together and also time together, alone. It’s so basic it makes my head spin. We need one another. We need one another in a sweat-inducing, vulnerable proximity and we need one another in a quiet, settled distance. We need time to let our stories settle and be heard. We need to practice telling them and by practice I just mean tell. We need to listen. We need the listening to intertwine with action—action we witness and action we take into and onto our bodies. We need to acknowledge where we are and whom we are with and what ground we stand, lay, sit on. It can be meticulous, this work. Or miraculous. Or both. I think it can be both. I imagine it is possible.

     

     


    About the Author

    Originally from Alaska, Emily Johnson is an artist of Yup’ik descent, who has been making body-based work since 1998. She is a Bessie Award-winning choreographer, 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, and recipient of the 2014 Doris Duke Artist Award. Her written work has been published in Dance Research Journal and Movement Research Journal, and has been commissioned by SFMOMA and Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

  • She calls them to her, conferral, you do not know what is going on
    there is code and negotiation
    How will you begin?
    Woman with big silver chains over a lilac patterned blouse gestures
    man speaks low, tie straight down and sharp
    bewildered clients stare straight ahead
    Was the performance in line with or a departure
    from what you experienced?
    he pressed down there, and over, the muscles strain
    liquid darker this hurts, he does not care and presses, inches
    note the finger down and into tender
    my breasts mine again now really
    spots sore inside bruises
    not for any hospital
    telephone chains, survivor language, note to speak note
    police station marble floor echoes when I make my report.
    How will you live now?
    No. I did not ask
    my breast felt, bruised, squeezed hard
    fibers spring out of their sockets
    shape new contours.
    Body I do not know
    Naked. My wheelchair outside. I can’t run. I am bound
    to these words,
    my neck bristles, right now, I write down
    these glimpses of memory
    words I remember dredging up
    for the police woman,
    the guy at the station, the man in the suit,
    How did the site influence your performance?
    The prosecutor in the courthouse.
    The corridor.
    Outside the bathroom,
    consultation, ties, high heels.
    Tell me what you know about dismemberment.
    We sit here, legs crossed. She sits. He sits.
    We hear stories of robberies.
    Is your client pleading?
    What was it like for you to see what you said
    through another person’s body?

    we wheel into the courthouse and I swat away sensation and the pressure the pressure the blood comes to the surface again, and prickles in my neck hairs upright, and “this is a classic PTSD episode,” she says, watch the light go and go and go and go and No. I say, I know I said that, and I repeat it, and you better listen to me, man tie.

    I am pleading to let me out.


    About the Author

    Petra Kuppers is a disability culture activist, a community performance artist, and a Professor at the University of Michigan. She leads The Olimpias, a performance research collective. Her Disability Culture and Community Performance: Find a Strange and Twisted Shape (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) explores arts-based research methods. She is editor of Somatic Engagement (ChainLinks, 2011), and the author of Studying Disability Arts and Culture: An Introduction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), a book of practical exercises for classrooms. A new poetry collection, Pearl Stitch, appears in 2016 with Spuyten Duyvil. As an artist, she works interdependently, and makes use of artful support: this poem cites lines from fellow queercrip dancer Marissa Perel’s performance experiments and from experimental writer and bodyworker Bhanu Kapil’s interviews from The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (2001).

    I — After another trial has failed, in the midst of mass outrage, I read Petra’s text again, buffeted in analysis. A lawyer grilled on the news: polarizing tempest.
    “Was the performance in line with or a departure
    from what you experienced?”
    Bewildered, survival carries a paradox: “he does not care” versus the violation, the performance, the detail, the injury over time, over an ensemble of times, over an ensemble of iterations.
    Testimony is not one act (against assumed impunity),
    It is all increments:
    the legal report,
    the repeating detail,
    the scrutiny,
    beyond
    “Body I do not know” recounts visceral, hair-on-end memory. Dredged memory. Betrayed care. A prevalence of abuse. A reel. Telephone chains, surviving, a language.
    II — A costume of professional justice: heels and ties. Sprung embodiments. A small code, a lever against the weight of harm, this mnemonic storm.
    Hair on end,
    Unwilling repetition.
    Delivered:
    The cast, the code of figures, the license, the act, the score, the sequence.
    Nested in tender enchainments: scenarios of court and theatre, performance and role, decentering “the.” Always.
    III — A remember of swatted sensation, liquid rise, the foreground of the felt—the lengthening, repeating dialogue of tides, forces, and fleshy time.
    Here an imagined theatre extends a circle of support and confidence, lifting a norm of silence. Performatively and in community, it challenges a siloing of the law to act and the theatre as a hollowing. With testifier’s labor, it circulates the entanglement of words, art and body, the court and theatre, in words dredged with bruises.

    About the Author

    VK Preston is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Theatre, Drama, and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto. She writes on performance, politics, historiography, witchcraft, and dance. Her work appears in TDR / The Drama Review, The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theatre, L'Annuaire théâtral, TheatreForum, and History, Memory, Performance.

  • A golden canyon in the desert: the walls of the narrows are this theatre’s doors, giving way onto a wide wash—a playing space—in which a low rock formation provides the audience with its bench. They have arrived for a strange, moonlike production of The Cherry Orchard. Say it isn’t raining (it never rains here). Say the actors are late for their first cues. Say one of the audience muses aloud to a colleague, waiting.

     

    PERFORMANCE THEORIST

    What must a now-facetious, now-earnest lament for an orchard’s loss mean here, a place empty (barren, desolate, remote) and full (colorful, sun-kissed, granularly textured)?

     

    Say the actors are not late. Say they have not arrived. Say they never will.

     

    Say it was never Chekhov: gradually, the audience realizes that the rocks are this canyon’s performers: slow… and, so it seems once the audience is conscious of the performance, yet slower… and slower, still. Still. It is the slowest performance to which this audience has ever borne witness.

     

    It is the last performance to which they will ever bear witness. Determined to watch, to sense, until its end, they are outlived by the performance, by the imperceptibly moving rocks.

     

    The dead audience debates the meaning of the performance with the other ghosts in the canyon. For whom or what or how is rock performance?

     

    SHOSHONE WOMAN

    The universe.

     

    MORMON TREKKER

    God.

     

    PROSPECTOR

    The devil.

     

    BORAX COMPANY SHAREHOLDER

    Capital.

     

    TOURIST I

    Me.

     

    TOURIST II

    My camera.

     

    PERFORMANCE THEORIST

    Not me. … And not not me.

     

    PERFORMANCE THEORIST II

    It. Just it.

     

    The rocks do not hear them. And they do not not hear them. Still, there is rock performance. Still.

     

     


    About the Author

    Nick Salvato is Professor and Chair of the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University. He is the author of Uncloseting Drama: American Modernism and Queer Performance (Yale, 2010), Knots Landing (Wayne State, TV Milestones Series, 2015), and Obstruction (Duke, 2016). His essays have appeared in a number of venues, including Critical Inquiry, Criticism, Discourse, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Modern Drama, TDR, Theatre Journal, and Theatre Studies.

    Say the first Performance Theorist in our cast of characters has a friend. Say she is a theorist of vibrant matter. Say she asks, “Does life only make sense as one side of a life-matter binary, or is there such a thing as a mineral or metallic life, or a life of the it in it rains?”

     

    The theorist of vibrant matter never unpacks this rich and suggestive question. She’s packing for a trip to Death Valley.

     

    If we did unpack the question, we might take a different trip—as theorists are wont to do—in French. That language gives us two different constructions potentially equivalent to it rains: il pleut (closer to the English it rains or it’s raining) and il y a de la pluie (more like, there is rain).

     

    There is a potential shift when we move from the former construction to the latter. Maybe we are no longer so prominently invited to wonder after “a life of the it.” In moving from French to English, let’s put aside the proposed translation of the second construction, there is rain. Let’s use instead one or another awkward—generatively awkward—transliterative approximation: It has there rain. Or it has there raining. Or worst, by which I mean best, of all, it has there a performance of rain.

     

    In this case, the it that we have to consider is not one to which we are likely to attribute life in the usual senses. It has there a performance of rain—or, to stick us even more firmly in what some may take to be a dead zone, it has there a performance of rock. What, exactly, are the elements that constitute the performance in question?

     

    There is a there, or location; there is a thing (it). The thing, precisely situated in its scenic environment, is endowed with a quality (performance), arguably predicated on the thing’s placement in the scenic environment. And that quality of performance, that having (rather than being?), redoubles the thing-ness (rather than life?) of the thing. It, the rock, is—of rock. We may point to this it, and its of rock-ness may be attributed descriptively, by a sensate observer. Yet the observer’s presence is not strictly required for the thing’s “having of performance” to unfold, processually, in time’s duration.

     

    The extent to which this commentary strains semantics and syntax is an index. It points to our linguistic resources’ relative impoverishment in helping us to grasp how a scene (whether of rocks, or otherwise) may be possessed of, may have, performance. All the same, we may grasp how performance is directly related to, indeed resultant from, the presence of the thing in the scene. And so grasping, we may grapple, epistemologically, with the presence of the thing and the quality of performance in the scene without necessarily granting, ontologically, any specially marked vibrancy, vitality, liveliness, or agential action to the thing.

     

    In rock performance, there is motility. There is theatre. Whether there is agency or action is a question for the ages and their ghosts.


    About the Author

    Nick Salvato is Professor and Chair of the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University. He is the author of Uncloseting Drama: American Modernism and Queer Performance (Yale, 2010), Knots Landing (Wayne State, TV Milestones Series, 2015), and Obstruction (Duke, 2016). His essays have appeared in a number of venues, including Critical Inquiry, Criticism, Discourse, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Modern Drama, TDR, Theatre Journal, and Theatre Studies.

  • Participants are screened based on their ignorance of beetles.
    A and B walk onstage and are each presented with a small, opaque box.
    They are informed that their boxes contain a “beetle.”
    Neither is allowed to check the other’s box.
    At a signal, each checks his or her own box. They can check it as often as they like.
    A and B describe their beetles to each other.
    Following the performance, every spectator is handed his or her own beetle-box, along with strict instructions never to reveal its contents.
    Some boxes are empty. Others contain, say: a paper clip, a rose, a starfish.
    The performance continues until everyone in town has received his or her own box.
    The title of the piece is “Pain.”

     


    About the Author

    Andrew Sofer is Professor of English at Boston College. His books include The Stage Life of Props (Michigan, 2003); Wave (Main Street Rag, 2011); and Dark Matter: Invisibility in Drama, Theater, and Performance (Michigan, 2013). His essays have appeared in Theatre Journal, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Modern Drama, Comparative Drama, English Literary Renaissance, The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theatre, The Blackwell Companion to Twentieth-Century American Drama, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Directing and is a widely published poet.

    For Wittgenstein, truly private definitions of words or symbols preclude intelligible meaning. Language is a kind of (public) theater. For instance, in Philosophical Investigations 1.257 he claims that “a great deal of stage-setting in the language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense. And when we speak of someone’s having given a name to pain, what is presupposed is the existence of the grammar of the word ‘pain’; it shews the post where the new word is stationed.” Later, at 1.272, he states: “The essential thing about private experience is really not that each person possesses his own exemplar, but that nobody knows whether people also have this or something else. The assumption would thus be possible—though unverifiable—that one section of mankind had one sensation of red and another section another.”

     

     

    Beetle Haiku

     

    A word like “beetle”

    can’t refer to a critter

    that only I know.

     

    So a word like “pain”

    must refer to something else

    than my sensation.

     

    What I alone feel

    is, then, quite irrelevant

    to the word’s meaning!

     

    Theatre as black box:

    actors perform how pain feels.

    Perhaps they’re lying.


    About the Author

    Andrew Sofer is Professor of English at Boston College. His books include The Stage Life of Props (Michigan, 2003); Wave (Main Street Rag, 2011); and Dark Matter: Invisibility in Drama, Theater, and Performance (Michigan, 2013). His essays have appeared in Theatre Journal, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Modern Drama, Comparative Drama, English Literary Renaissance, The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theatre, The Blackwell Companion to Twentieth-Century American Drama, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Directing and is a widely published poet.

  • There is a gun in the first act.

     

    In the second act, the actors admire the gun. They comment on its luster. They take turns polishing its stock, barrel, and handle, and admiring its lack of nicks, scratches, or blemishes. They can see their faces in the barrel. All agree that it is a fine example of its type, and the virtues of guns in general are extolled.

     

    The third act follows from the second without a break: the actors begin to bleed from their noses, mouths and ears. They take care not to dirty the gun, wiping away any droplets that fall on its fine steel. The actors rebuke one another, voices thick with blood, for exhibiting such carelessness around the gun. Surely, the gun is appalled by this foul display. They rend their clothes, attempt to plug themselves with rags, but the blood forces its way out. They apologize to the gun as they fall, dying, to the floor.

     

    The actors lie still. The gun gleams in the spotlight. The audience begins to murmur, one to the other, about the gun and its obvious potential.

     

    -originally published in Jonathan Ball’s Clockfire (Coach House, 2006)


    About the Author

    Jonathan Ball holds a PhD in English and teaches literature, film, and writing at the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg. He is the author of the poetry books Ex Machina (Book Thug, 2009), Clockfire (Coach House, 2010), and The Politics of Knives (Coach House, 2012), the co-editor of Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Poetry (Insomniac, 2014), and author of the academic monograph John Paizs's Crime Wave (Toronto, 2014). Visit him online at JonathanBall.com, where he writes about writing the wrong way.

    The Play had stood—A Loaded Gun

     

    Like many of the exquisite impossible dramas in Jonathan Ball’s Clockfire, Gun holds the funhouse mirror up to theatre, magnifying a conventional element until its inherent oddity becomes monstrous. When Anton Chekhov insisted that a gun appearing in the first act must go off before the play’s end, he acknowledged the extent to which the tight causal structure he and his audiences inherited from the pièce bien faite converted theatre into an all too predictable time machine that generates its own future. From this perspective, a play, like a gun, is a well-oiled mechanism for potential violence. To put a gun on stage early in a play loads the play’s chamber and cocks its hammer. Disobey the machine at your peril.

     

    Ball begins by distilling Chekhov’s maxim to absurd purity, offering a first act that is nothing other than the appearance of a gun. In the second act, the actors lavish the gun with the outsized attention it has already demanded. As surrogates for an audience’s attachment to an onstage gun, the actors fetishize the prop and so contribute to its power. Andrew Sofer reminds us in The Stage Life of Props that a gun stands out from other stage properties in that its “power to destroy human time is potentially limitless.” As players in a gun-driven drama, Ball’s actors recognize the gun as their god, their prime mover, and also their oracle: they see their faces in its barrel but fail to read their fates.

     

    The third act begins at the precise moment when blood emerges from the actors’ noses, mouths, and ears. We might say, adapting Lessing’s famous line from The Hamburg Dramaturgy, that they die of the third act. They are victims of the tyranny of dramatic closure itself, or perhaps of their own attachment to it. Like all figures on a stage, they sacrifice themselves at the altar of dramatic necessity. Guns don’t kill people, plots do. The actors die, like Marie Curie in Adrienne Rich’s “Power,” denying their wounds came from the same source as their power. They revere the gun, but fail to realize that its ultimate power lies not in its detonation but in its “obvious potential,” its capacity to generate virtual violence. The gun’s power—like theatre’s—is virtual in the oldest sense of that word, meaning full of power or potency, capable of producing a result in the future, and by extension, operating in effect rather than in reality.


    About the Author

    John H. Muse is Assistant Professor in English and Theater and Performance Studies at University of Chicago. His research explores work that tests the perceived boundaries of media: plays that resemble visual art, poems, or novels in dramatic form, metatheatre, and digital, impossible, or otherwise virtual theatre. His first book, Microdramas (Michigan, 2017), explores brevity in theatre since the late nineteenth century and argues that very short plays reveal fundamental assumptions about theatre's limits and possibilities.

  • a pale space without distinguishing feature or end.

    blankness.

     

    a dull throb of a sound always present, barely perceptible.

    a whining that ebbs and flows, always there.

    blankness.

     

    dull time.

     

    more whining, like sound complaints of tedium.

    blanched air, the smell of acrimony.

     

    pale space, dull time.

     

    whiteness without end, smelling tired of itself.

     

    black objects appear throughout.

    hazy first, falling into focus.

     

    they are tables, chairs, stoves.

    brooms, lawnmowers, whips.

     

    they litter the space, all black.

    the whining acquires pulse, becomes rhythm.

     

    vibrating against the pulse, the objects spin, pop, and dip; they whirr into life.

    they become young, vibrant Black people.

     

    Chicly-clad and extraordinary in appearance, powerful, casual and cool.

    Strong. Surprised.

     

    They see each other.

    They see the expanses of pale.

    They listen.

     

    the pulsing sound devolves into the dull throb.

     

    They see you.

    They consider the expanse and its sounds, its smell.

    They stand in formation.

     

    They gasp, grasping for air.

    Resisting arrest.

    They collapse.


    About the Author

    Thomas F. DeFrantz is Professor and Chair of African and African American Studies at Duke University, and Director of SLIPPAGE: Performance, Culture, Technology, a research group that explores emerging technology in live performance applications. Books: Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance (Wisconsin, 2002), Dancing Revelations Alvin Ailey's Embodiment of African American Culture (Oxford, 2004), Black Performance Theory (co-edited with Anita Gonzalez, Duke, 2014), Choreography and Corporeality: Relay in Motion (co-edited with Philipa Rothfield, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

    Philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of the “ready-to-hand” suggests an unconscious operation turning object into process, through the figure of the tool. I’ve been thinking about Black presence within varied histories of the United States as an operationalized manifestation of tool; as a presence created “ready-to-hand” as an extension of the will to power that white systems of domination and capitalisms enjoy. Black presence in the US continues to be operationalized as a method of quantifying and qualifying; distinguishing and diminishing; denying, exploring, and wondering at. Seldom celebrated or allowed a full measure of complex humanity, Black presence occurs contingently, made manifest as legislation for access to voting and quality schools; as protest and disruption; as ludic celebration destined for transference and disappearance. Theatre tends to operationalize Black presence as well; to treat it as a cypher or a ghost in the machine.

     

    When is Blackness ever unmarked? Black presence inevitably seems to mean in and of itself, as a thing that can be mobilized by others.

     

    August Wilson’s plays resist this tendency, through a surplus of wordplay. In the way that Shakespeare’s characters are not marked as white, necessarily; not materialized in terms of racial dynamic (excepting Othello, of course), Wilson’s theatre proposes Black presence without Black subjugation. Allowed to speak, at great length and depth, toward the terms of their own conception, Wilson’s characters instrumentalize language to confirm their ability in the world. Wilson’s theatre, like Shakespeare’s, doesn’t seem to care about who we are watching it, listening to it, experiencing it. Black presence becomes ontological fact, rather than alternative othering.

     

    With words as tools employed among each other, the Black people breathe.

    We debate, we assemble, we disagree. And inevitably, we establish rap music, to emphasize the ready-to-hand of language.

     


    About the Author

    Thomas F. DeFrantz is Professor and Chair of African and African American Studies at Duke University, and Director of SLIPPAGE: Performance, Culture, Technology, a research group that explores emerging technology in live performance applications. Books: Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance (Wisconsin, 2002), Dancing Revelations Alvin Ailey's Embodiment of African American Culture (Oxford, 2004), Black Performance Theory (co-edited with Anita Gonzalez, Duke, 2014), Choreography and Corporeality: Relay in Motion (co-edited with Philipa Rothfield, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

  • Lights up. Surf’s up.

     

    The first waves of letters surge onto the stage. Mixed with them are garlands of glistening seaweed, clusters of clattering shells, and multicolored tendrils of micro-degraded plastics.

     

    The letters are no longer in envelopes. They have been opened, unfolded, and their folds smoothed out. They have been heavily annotated: some words are underlined, a few words are circled, and many words have been joined together with arrows. The margins are covered with signs and inscriptions: some are shaped like fish, a few look like humans drawn in stick figures, and many contain shapes like waves. The annotations are written in an ink that changes now that it’s exposed to air and sun: the inscriptions—signs, lines, circles, arrows, figures—boil on the surface of the letters. They sizzle. They spark.

     

    Blackout. Lights up. Surf’s up.

     

    A second wave of letters arrives. They come in dribs and drabs this time—no surges, no sizzle. Each letter has a single marking on it: a sign that looks like a double wave. Some of the double waves have another symbol following them: a circle with a horizontal line through it.

     

    What does it signify? Wave, wave, two halves of a whole? Bye, bye, hemisphere? Goodbye to half the world?

     

    The letters begin to dissolve. The paper they are written on becomes mushy, the words on it blur together. The double waves and half circles float away from the pulp. They grow in size and begin ranging themselves in rows, rising until they form a barrier in the place where, in an old-fashioned theatre, the curtain would have been. The waves undulate. The divided circles rotate.

     

    At first, both waves and circles move simultaneously, and a sound like a muted roar can be heard. Then the movements take turns: first the waves, undulating. Then the circles, spinning.

    The undulations make a sound like gentle questioning; the circles, like urgent whispering. The dialogue goes on and on…

     

    Questions: soft, hopeful, wheedling, impatient, fearful, hopeful again, hopeful again, hopeful . . .

    Whispers: quick, insistent, sibilant, staccato. Desperate?

     

    Blackout. Lights up. Surf’s up.

     

    The eleventh surge of letters washes up on the beach. Each one is inscribed with two words, followed by a simple drawing of a container of some kind: a gift wrapped box, a vase, a casserole, a beer stein, a kettle, a hookah, a goblet, a lantern, a tea cup, a martini glass, a pitcher, a cocktail shaker, a salad bowl, an umbrella stand, a waste bin, a string bag, a dumpster, a paper sack, a tureen.

     

    As for the two words on each letter, the first word on each one is “Dear.” That’s followed by a name, a different name on each letter: Dear June, Dear Alia, Dear Vikash, Dear Ivan, Dear John, Dear Angel, Dear Lise, Dear Jeong, Dear Guillaume, Dear Juanita, Dear Marina, Dear Youssef, Dear Ondine, Dear Hari, Dear Chen, Dear Sumitra, Dear Joy, Dear Maryse, Dear Velma, Dear Yu, Dear Dionysios, Dear Fatima…

     

    Yes, of course your name is there… But you may pick any letter, and open any container. The contents are intended for you, you alone.

     

    Blackout. Surf’s still up.

     

     


    About the Author

    Una Chaudhuri is Collegiate Professor and Professor of English, Drama, and Environmental Studies at New York University. A pioneer in the fields of eco-theatre and Animal Studies, she published books in both these fields in 2014: Animal Acts: Performing Species Today (co-edited with Holly Hughes, Michigan), and The Ecocide Project: Research Theatre and Climate Change (co-authored with Shonni Enelow, Palgrave Macmillan). Chaudhuri participates in several creative collaborations, including the multi-platform intervention entitled Dear Climate.

    Philadelphia-based artist John Peña began his creative project entitled “Letters to the Ocean” in 2003. Every day, he wrote a letter to the ocean, put the letter in an envelope, sealed it, addressed it, wrote his own address on the top left-hand corner of the envelope, pasted a stamp on it, and put it in the mail. The letters were returned by the post office, with various official “return to sender” stamps or notes to the effect that “no such place exists.” One envelope was returned with a note saying: “The ocean is no longer accepting mail.” John Peña has over 3000 returned letters, which he has exhibited in various shows and galleries.

     

    Intriguingly, all the letters identify a single location as their intended destination. Every one of them is addressed to: “The Ocean, 5 miles S Westport, Grayland, WA 98547.” When I asked John about this, he wrote: “I always send it to the same place. I have considered sending it elsewhere but I really like the idea that the ocean is so vast and ubiquitous that if I send a letter to one part of its body, it’ll eventually hear about it.” He later added: “Also, I came up with it because it is near a nice little spot I used to camp out near the beach.”

     

    John’s image of the ocean as a vast, ubiquitous, and above all fully networked body is not only apt but of increasingly urgent consequence. The vastness of the ocean is rapidly moving, in human consciousness, from the status of an empty cliché to the basis of a statistically verifiable planetary emergency. As the landmasses we inhabit reveal their dependence on and vulnerability to oceanic conditions—reminding us, as Thoreau said long ago, “that the earth is not continent but insular” we awaken to the realization that our star-gazing species knows much more—and spends much more on knowing—about outer space than about the ocean. As James Nestor writes, “If you compare the ocean to a human body, the current exploration of the ocean is the equivalent of snapping a photograph of a finger to figure out how our bodies work.”

     

    Yet the ocean is speaking to us loud and clear, with superstorms and tsunamis and bleached coral reefs, apparently responding to the “messages” we’ve been sending, in the form of oil spills, toxic dumping, overfishing, and islands of plastic waste the size of Texas (the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). One imaginative response is to speak for the ocean, imagine what it’s saying to us. A recent public service video has the ocean scarily scolding us in the stern voice of Harrison Ford. John Peña’s approach is the opposite: he addresses the ocean, privately, incessantly. “Ocean Oration” is located somewhere in between these two contrasting options. It has us imagine ourselves receiving messages from the ocean, but the messages are not as loud and clear as the one we heard from Ocean Harrison. Rather, they are enigmatic, intriguing, promising messages. They draw us towards a new language: an emerging system of signs, rhythms, and feelings. As we listen and try to decode the messages, they offer each one of us unforeseen gifts.

     

     


    About the Author

    Una Chaudhuri is Collegiate Professor and Professor of English, Drama, and Environmental Studies at New York University. A pioneer in the fields of eco-theatre and Animal Studies, she published books in both these fields in 2014: Animal Acts: Performing Species Today (co-edited with Holly Hughes, Michigan), and The Ecocide Project: Research Theatre and Climate Change (co-authored with Shonni Enelow, Palgrave Macmillan). Chaudhuri participates in several creative collaborations, including the multi-platform intervention entitled Dear Climate.

  • The lobby is a locker room. Individual cubbies await each audience member. GUIDE—later CAPTAIN, later MASTER, later SHERIFF—enters.

     

    GUIDE

    Please silence your cell phones and unwrap any candies, cough drops. Today, we’re going on an adventure. We’ll explore foreign countries, sail across rough waters, meet a few interesting characters, and, perhaps, experience the fullness of life. You have a role to play. In fact, we cannot begin until you are in character. In each cubby, there is a costume. One size. It stretches. Slip it on. Over your clothes. Ask a neighbor to zip you in. You have 5 minutes. (GUIDE exits.)

     

    In each cubby, a neatly folded brown, leathery clump, “the costume,” sits on a shelf. Nearby, an audible gasp. Someone just realized that the clump is the skin of a black person minus the bones and innards. The body is intact, head to toes, fingernails, hair. A flesh costume. Most audience members are not fazed. This is theatre—and the skin probably isn’t really real (but it is!). They get dressed—putting on black skin, zipping each other up, delighting in their blackness—their saggy, misfitting blackness. A spectator tries on a faux dialect, “Jive turkey” or something along those lines. Another shushes. One of the two has brown skin under the costume. GUIDE, now CAPTAIN, enters with a whip.

     

    CAPTAIN

    In line! In line! Faster Negroes! Yes, you, faster!

    (CAPTAIN cracks the whip. Maybe someone gets hit, maybe the skin costume rips, maybe blood appears)

     

    Shit just got real. And audience members are loving it: the immersion into blackness and the world of the play. A line forms. CAPTAIN spews increasingly offensive racist epithets before settling on the N-word, which gets repeated a few dozen times, and clasps a chain around the ankles of a few audience members. Most won’t get shackled. They feel disappointed. CAPTAIN marches the audience through a doorway, into a dark “theatre.” Maybe CAPTAIN makes an offhand comment, perhaps pointing to the entranceway and declaring “The Door of No Return.” Maybe not. The sound of rattling shackles. The “theatre” smells like a latrine. It stinks. The floor moves. It rocks.

     

    CAPTAIN

    The journey begins.

     

    The play continues


    About the Author

    Harvey Young is Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University. Prior to this position, he was Chair of the Department of Theatre at Northwestern University, and Professor of African American Studies, Performance Studies and Radio/Television/Film. His books include Embodying Black Experience (Michigan, 2010), Theatre & Race (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre (Cambridge, 2012).

    In writing about black experience, scholars often center upon the compulsory visibility of diasporic African bodies. As a consequence of centuries of human bondage, legal limits on citizenship rights, and stereotypical popular representations, brown complexion—inaccurately labeled “black skin”—has been accorded a monitored status. A police officer is more likely to stop a motorist; a prosecutor to seek a tougher sentence; a shopkeeper to follow a customer if the stopped, accused, and followed has been recognized as black. It is for these reasons that writings on racial identity often emphasize the excessive attention (and violence) that greets the black body in innumerable public settings. This emphasis can be seen in sociologist W.E.B. DuBois’s theorization of “double consciousness,” the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” It appears in author Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “letter” to his son in which he observes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

     

    In critically engaging the attendant experiences of blackness, it can be helpful to spotlight an individual. Focus on a person. Tell his or her story. Try to relay the perspective of folks who inhabit environments in which others look upon them with distrust, disgust, skepticism, and often fear. Share the anxieties that surface from knowing that they could be the target of violence, a verbal or physical assault, because of their skin complexion. These personal accounts, anecdotes, memories, and stories can be gathered to create a mosaic of a diverse community united by similar experiences of race.

     

    The arts have played a significant role in relaying embodied black experience. In literature, authors have long understood that a novel offers an opportunity to mine the psychological interiority of characters in a manner unparalleled by other artistic media. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, for example, grant the reader the chance not only to see the world through the eyes of their protagonists but also to hear their comments on the many slights, injustices, and outright prejudices that they encounter. On the stage, playwrights (and production teams) have attempted to offer a sense of embodied black experience by creating characters who speak openly about their perceptions on the world in which they live. For example, the character Wolf, in August Wilson’s play Two Trains Running, observes, “every nigger you see done been to jail one time or another. The white man don’t feel right unless he got a record on these niggers.” Always aware of the precarity of blackness, he warns others, “you always under attack.”

     

    In Character imagines a scenario in which anyone can gain access to the experience of being seen and treated as black. It invents a way to encounter history, including the past abuses that targeted diasporic Africans. From one perspective, In Character is a far-fetched play. No theatre is going to invite audience members to don the flesh of another person and role-play “black person.” From another, the play could happen but with a slight difference in staging. Immersive theatre is gaining in popularity. In addition, virtual reality (VR) technology seems to improve with each new year. It is just a matter of time before an enterprising developer creates a way for us to put on VR goggles, assume the stead of a captive, and experience the hold of a slave ship. The result will be a form of theatre.

     


    About the Author

    Harvey Young is Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University. Prior to this position, he was Chair of the Department of Theatre at Northwestern University, and Professor of African American Studies, Performance Studies and Radio/Television/Film. His books include Embodying Black Experience (Michigan, 2010), Theatre & Race (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre (Cambridge, 2012).

  • A dinner party in a sitting room embellished with worldly items. The guests sit about a roaring fire on low cushions.

    James Baldwin
    (Hoping to spark interesting conversation)
    I want to be an honest man and a good writer.

    Anton Chekhov
    (to Baldwin)
    Write only of what is important and eternal.

    Hannah Arendt
    (to Chekhov)
    Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.

    Virginia Woolf
    (to the room)
    To write weekly, to write daily, to write shortly, to write for busy people catching trains in the morning or for tired people coming home in the evening, is a heartbreaking task for men who know good writing from bad.

    (An uncomfortable silence)

    Randolph S. Bourne
    (Retrieving the dignity of the room from its bewilderment)
    History remembers only the brilliant failures and the brilliant successes.

    Napoleon
    (Counter-attack)
    History is a myth that men agree to believe!

    James Baldwin
    (Catching himself in the mirror, eyes wet and glassy)
    You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.

    Harry Truman
    (to Hegel)
    It’s what you learn after you know it all, that counts.

    Hegel
    (to Truman)
    The learner always begins by finding fault, but the scholar sees the positive merit in everything.

    James Baldwin
    (Unlit cigarette in his mouth, searching his breast pockets for a lighter)
    A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled.

    Hegel
    (Bored with the conversation, flipping through a book plucked from a library shelf)
    There is no proposition of Heraclitus, which I have not adopted in my logic… the least of which is that children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.

    Alvin Toffler
    (Throwing his wine glass to the floor)
    The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

    Oscar Wilde
    (Plucking a flower from a table arrangement, pinning it to his coat’s lapel)
    Everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching.

    Eartha Kitt
    (Making her entrance late, a fur draped about her shoulders, plucking the flower from Wilde’s lapel and tossing it into the fire)
    I am learning all the time! The tombstone will be my diploma!

    Black Out


    About the Author

    Carl Hancock Rux is a playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, performer, theatre director, and recording artist. He is the author of several publications including a book of poetry, Pagan Operetta (Fly by Night, 1998), the novel Asphalt (Atria, 2004), and the OBIE-award-winning play Talk (TCG, 2003). He is the recipient of numerous awards including the Doris Duke Awards for New Works, the Doris Duke Charitable Fund, the New York Foundation for the Arts Prize, and the Alpert Award in the Arts.

    In writing about black experience, scholars often center upon the compulsory visibility of diasporic African bodies. As a consequence of centuries of human bondage, legal limits on citizenship rights, and stereotypical popular representations, brown complexion—inaccurately labeled “black skin”—has been accorded a monitored status. A police officer is more likely to stop a motorist; a prosecutor to seek a tougher sentence; a shopkeeper to follow a customer if the stopped, accused, and followed has been recognized as black. It is for these reasons that writings on racial identity often emphasize the excessive attention (and violence) that greets the black body in innumerable public settings. This emphasis can be seen in sociologist W.E.B. DuBois’s theorization of “double consciousness,” the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” It appears in author Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “letter” to his son in which he observes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

     

    In critically engaging the attendant experiences of blackness, it can be helpful to spotlight an individual. Focus on a person. Tell his or her story. Try to relay the perspective of folks who inhabit environments in which others look upon them with distrust, disgust, skepticism, and often fear. Share the anxieties that surface from knowing that they could be the target of violence, a verbal or physical assault, because of their skin complexion. These personal accounts, anecdotes, memories, and stories can be gathered to create a mosaic of a diverse community united by similar experiences of race.

     

    The arts have played a significant role in relaying embodied black experience. In literature, authors have long understood that a novel offers an opportunity to mine the psychological interiority of characters in a manner unparalleled by other artistic media. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, for example, grant the reader the chance not only to see the world through the eyes of their protagonists but also to hear their comments on the many slights, injustices, and outright prejudices that they encounter. On the stage, playwrights (and production teams) have attempted to offer a sense of embodied black experience by creating characters who speak openly about their perceptions on the world in which they live. For example, the character Wolf, in August Wilson’s play Two Trains Running, observes, “every nigger you see done been to jail one time or another. The white man don’t feel right unless he got a record on these niggers.” Always aware of the precarity of blackness, he warns others, “you always under attack.”

     

    In Character imagines a scenario in which anyone can gain access to the experience of being seen and treated as black. It invents a way to encounter history, including the past abuses that targeted diasporic Africans. From one perspective, In Character is a far-fetched play. No theatre is going to invite audience members to don the flesh of another person and role-play “black person.” From another, the play could happen but with a slight difference in staging. Immersive theatre is gaining in popularity. In addition, virtual reality (VR) technology seems to improve with each new year. It is just a matter of time before an enterprising developer creates a way for us to put on VR goggles, assume the stead of a captive, and experience the hold of a slave ship. The result will be a form of theatre.

     


    About the Author

    Harvey Young is Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University. Prior to this position, he was Chair of the Department of Theatre at Northwestern University, and Professor of African American Studies, Performance Studies and Radio/Television/Film. His books include Embodying Black Experience (Michigan, 2010), Theatre & Race (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre (Cambridge, 2012).

    A party, a room, a fire, low cushions—the spare setting is the mise-en-scene for Carl Hancock Rux’s riveting and perfectly imagined dialogue between an unlikely set of characters. In this space-out-of-time (a feature of dramas of the page) James Baldwin, Anton Chekhov, Hannah Arendt, Virginia Woolf, Randolph S. Bourne, Napoleon Bonaparte, Harry Truman, Georg Hegel, Alvin Toffler, Oscar Wilde (of course!), and Eartha Kitt debate history, narrative, and other matters. Staged for the page by the multitalented Rux (musician, librettist, director, actor, and writer), who is known for his irreverent intellect, this piece of imagined theatre is comprised of a “cyclical conversation” upon which the audience eavesdrops. The impossible discussion is by turns irresolute, iterative, and unresolvable. Each of the aforementioned historical figures contributes a distilled line about one of the following topics: the meaning of writing, the epistemology of history, or the significance of education. The dialogue consists of actual aphoristic quotations uttered by the characters in question. The focus of the dialogue is historical narrative—how the past resonates in the future. The stage directions provide apt action and affect for the discussants. For example, Virginia Woolf speaks “to the room” as if to recall her famous feminist tract, A Room of One’s Own, Napoleon “counter-attacks” in his comment; and Wilde tellingly “plucks a flower and pins it in his lapel” as he quips, “Everyone who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching.” The dialogue ends with the conventional “blackout” which we may read in a new, unconventional manner. This is to say in the imaginary of the West, the likes of Baldwin and Kitt are not usually spoken of alongside (let alone speaking with) writers and thinkers such as Hegel and Arendt (even if they were always already in dialogue!). The piece makes us think with and about historiography and its discontents and leaves us, like Kitt, exclaiming, “The tombstone will be my diploma”; thus, the entire dialogue is set to start again.


    About the Author

    Jennifer DeVere Brody is Professor in the Department of Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford University where she is affiliated with in the Center for Comparative Studies of Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE). Her books, Impossible Purities (Duke, 1998) and Punctuation: Art, Politics and Play (Duke, 2008) both discuss relations among sexuality, gender, racialization, visual studies and performance. Currently, she is working on the re-publication of James Baldwin's illustrated book Little Man, Little Man and on a new monograph about the intersections of sculpture and performance.

  • I

    The lights rise on a perfect replica of your childhood.
    It’s all overexposed and slanting askance.
    So that the grass is too green, and your parents are
    So young the scene shivers.

    Everyone is there:

    Friends and neighbors, piano lessons, the boy who moved away, the barn still standing, the man looming too tall behind the counter, photographer that never got developed, her promised and baby teeth in small Ziploc bags, and whole states of Oklahoma with graveyards of neon light, and trees at every window, that morning and that door left ajar, that game of hide and seek you kept playing long after everyone else went home.

    Hold. (The director looks around.)
    Ah, nostalgia. (A faint smile.)
    And yet, something is still missing.
    Let’s try this again tomorrow.

    II

    In the years since the artistic director first proposed the idea, the company has settled into a perfect schedule for the repertoire: a production may only be played once every six months,; brush-up rehearsals are strictly forbidden. When a new actor is invited in to take over a part, they must fully learn the role, but then are given an appropriate span of time to forget it sufficiently.

    At first the reception was cold; the critics panned the work as amateurish. And for a time hecklers composed a sizable portion of the audience, but soon they too watched with bated breath as the actors stumbled over lines and entrances, or alighted on a sudden inspired recollection. The beauty in such moments transfigured all. It was on the best of these nights that the audience would spontaneously run to the stage to hug the actors, or scream in horror at the tragedy before them, or sit long in silence forgetting what they were meant to do, how to clap or even how to move – all habits broken – but alive, so alive.


    About the Author

    Daniel Sack is Associate Professor in the Department of English and the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of After Live: Possibility, Potentiality, and the Future of Performance (Michigan, 2015) and Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape (Routledge, 2016). He is the editor of Imagined Theatres: Writing for a Theoretical Stage (Routledge, 2017) and imaginedtheatres.com.

    Let us remember how to live through forgetfulness. In his short study of marcel proust, the lone book written during his abbreviated academic career, Samuel Beckett posits that “the man with a good memory does not remember anything because he does not forget anything. His memory is uniform, a creature of routine, at once a condition and function of his impeccable habit, and instrument of reference instead of an instrument of discovery.” There is a lesson to be learned here about acting, which, like living, requires us to forget our part in order to implement the “instrument of discovery.” Actors who do not forget what they are supposed to do sacrifice their liveliness to habit. And, as Beckett tells us elsewhere, “habit is a great deadener.”

    The first of these imagined theatres replicates the past perfectly, but it is a past that never completes its form, a past that retains an uncertain relationship towards the future it was always touching. It must, in other words, keep forgetting itself in order to keep desire moving. That is the way with nostalgia, which fractures us afresh with every passing day. Such memories are overworked, overexposed, and yet never held in hand. We may rehearse them daily, but we will never get the scene down correctly, never get in the habit. Something is just beyond us, over the horizon, the door standing ajar. The intense privacy of this first theatre means that it will only work for “you.” Each feature is designed with your attention in mind.

    The second theatre moves the art of forgetting into a public sphere, teaching us once again how to behave as if for the first time. The mistake, the forgotten line – these puncture our habits of watching and acting with sudden appearances of life unscripted. We wonder at these irruptions of potentiality in any performance we attend. This theatre is a studio for the art of forgetting, where trained professionals practice for our pleasure, so that all of us, in turn, might forget our social selves and roles. The repertoire of our daily lives, its routines and phrases, systematically abandoned. What actor has not been asked: “How do you remember all those lines?” Instead, we will ask: “How do you forget all those lines?”


    About the Author

    Daniel Sack is Associate Professor in the Department of English and the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of After Live: Possibility, Potentiality, and the Future of Performance (Michigan, 2015) and Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape (Routledge, 2016). He is the editor of Imagined Theatres: Writing for a Theoretical Stage (Routledge, 2017) and imaginedtheatres.com.

  • 1

    Floor, a small box, a giant hand. The hand slowly pulls the box toward the audience, Maru looks at the audience through the box, crawls into the box. Curtain.

    Floor, a small box, no hand. Maru runs and slides into the box, the box slides with Maru inside. The box with Maru inside hits a table leg, which the audience only now notices. Curtain.

    Floor, two small boxes lined up one next to the other. Maru runs, slides into both boxes. The boxes stay put, Maru stays put, tail twitching. Curtain.

    Floor, Maru lying down, his torso contained within a small box that is open on both ends. His front and back legs extend from either end of the box. Maru stands up, wearing the box, exits. Curtain.

    2

    Bright lights, the sound of purring. A figure comes into focus. It is Max-Arthur dressed as a Great
    White Shark. Lights out.
    Lights up on Max-Arthur in his shark costume. He is sitting on a Roomba, which describes
    fragmentary circles across the stage. From stage left, a Baby Duck enters. The Baby Duck scampers
    across the stage, pursued by Max-Arthur on the Roomba. The Baby Duck pauses at the center of
    the stage. Looks out at the audience with black, inscrutable eyes. Beat.
    The Baby Duck turns and pursues Max-Arthur on the Roomba. Max-Arthur rides into the horizon,
    collides with the back wall. Enter Sharkey, from stage right. He is dressed as a Hammerhead
    Shark. Max-Arthur, the Baby Duck, and Sharkey begin an oblique trio. Then, the Roomba stops.
    Silence. Max-Arthur, Sharkey, and the Baby Duck all turn and gaze out into the audience. Beat.
    Max-Arthur licks his lips. Sharkey licks his lips. The Baby Duck stares. Beat. Curtain.

    3

    Lights up on Goo and Yat Jai, upstage, facing each other in profile to the audience. Behind them,
    two large computer screens. From the rear, light floods the stage.
    Goo and Yat Jai each raise their front paws. They reach out and their paws meet, first Goo’s left
    paw and Yat Jai’s right paw, then Goo’s right paw with Yat Jai’s left paw.

    VOICE FROM ABOVE: Patty Cake, Patty Cake, Baker’s Man, Bake me a cake as fast as you can.

    VOICE FROM ABOVE: Patty Cake, Patty Cake, Baker’s Man, Bake me a cake as fast as you can.

    Goo and Yat Jai play patty cake. They stop, then begin again. They stop, then begin again. They stop, then begin again. They stop. Curtain.


    About the Author

    Minou Arjomand is Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on political theatre and the public role of art institutions.

    I imagine everything is possible. I’ve always done this. As a kid, I wrapped potatoes and put them in drawers. I’ve always enjoyed tasks—ones that lead to tangible outcomes and ones that don’t. And I ran through the woods pretending I was a deer. I ran as fast and as far as possible, hopping logs, ducking branches, imagining I had four legs. And I kind of grew up in a bar—the one my grandmother owned and lived in, in Alaska. So amidst climbing the tree and watching the beavers, running the woods, kicking rocks and stacking wood and cutting fish, spooning one teaspoon of oil into each jar of kippured red salmon—I would listen to stories. Some I probably shouldn’t have heard. True stories and made-up ones, jokes and drunken tales from neighbors, family, strangers. The stories and voices mixed with the work and our play, with our actions and the actions of the strangers (kind actions and also sometimes cruel ones), and with the clams squirting saltwater—cleaning themselves in the bucket where they were stored until the freshwater in grandma’s pot boiled.

    I make dances now. And I see dance in everything—in the blood moving through our bodies, the synapses of our brains, the sway of trees, and the migration of fish. I see dance in the theatres of our world, in the community centers and gymnasiums and back roads and bedrooms. And I view our bodies as everything: culture, history, present, future at once. Out of respect for, and trust in, our bodies and collective memories, I give equal weight to story and image, to movement and stillness, to what I imagine, and to what I do not know.

    Sometimes I make dances that include feasting, stories (mine and those of others), volunteerism, performance. Sometimes I make dances that last all night. I make dances to conjure future joy. I make quilts upon which to host the audience and the dance. I make fish-skin lanterns to light us. (In actuality, a lot of us get together to make these quilts and lanterns.) I invite stillness, an awareness of the periphery. I invite you to turn your head to notice what is happening next to you. I adore endurance and struggle and know that sometimes struggle is not going to be resolved via physical manifestation. So sometimes the struggle is to stop. Let others care for what is being made, hold it. Invite others to be at and inside the core of the making.

    And we gather. To share food on the banks of Newtown Creek or Tuggeght Beach, at Foxtail Farm or Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center. We restore dunes by planting native shrubs, we clean oysters in the New York estuary, we daylight streams, clean up parks. These moments by my definition are dance, are theatre, are the sharing and making of story and life: action, purpose, non-purpose, possibility.

    We need this: time together and also time together, alone. It’s so basic it makes my head spin. We need one another. We need one another in a sweat-inducing, vulnerable proximity and we need one another in a quiet, settled distance. We need time to let our stories settle and be heard. We need to practice telling them and by practice I just mean tell. We need to listen. We need the listening to intertwine with action—action we witness and action we take into and onto our bodies. We need to acknowledge where we are and whom we are with and what ground we stand, lay, sit on. It can be meticulous, this work. Or miraculous. Or both. I think it can be both. I imagine it is possible.

     

     


    About the Author

    Originally from Alaska, Emily Johnson is an artist of Yup’ik descent, who has been making body-based work since 1998. She is a Bessie Award-winning choreographer, 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, and recipient of the 2014 Doris Duke Artist Award. Her written work has been published in Dance Research Journal and Movement Research Journal, and has been commissioned by SFMOMA and Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

    What accounts for the astonishing proliferation of “performing cats” on the Internet? The current consensus, according to Bryan Lufkin in Gizmodo, is that cats don’t seems to be performing. Whereas dogs are like shabby vaudeville front-cloth comedians, constantly looking at the audience and begging for approval, cats are the Naturalistic, fourth-wall ideal actor in furry form. Dogs are Seth Rogen, cats are Heath Ledger. Cats simply behave: they don’t seem aware of whether this behavior is “twice-behaved” or not.

    Minou Arjomand’s Animal Friendship: A Docudrama presents three of the Internet’s most popular cat videos live onstage. The subtitle, “a docudrama,” provokes us to consider the relation of documentary theatre, and by extension, the theatre itself, to reality. it is, of course, an impossible piece. Watching cats on the Internet is pleasurable specifically because the minute-long YouTube clip reframes “natural” behavior as performance: Maru playing with a box becomes a spectacular circus act. But the animal onstage becomes a theatrical problem. As Nicholas Ridout writes: “the impropriety of the animal on the theatre stage is experienced very precisely as a sense of the animal being in the wrong place” (2006: 98). It is in the wrong place because it cannot have intended to be part of the dramatic fiction, and thus troubles the “psychological illusionism” of the stage. For Ridout, these moments point back to the economic conditions of the actor’s labor, for the animal does not participate in these conditions. More accurately, it has different economic conditions – a treat upon completion of a trick – an economic model that in some ways seems far preferable to profit-share.

    Despite their troubling nature, this hasn’t stopped theatre makers from putting animals onstage. Horses, cats, dogs, and other nonhuman animals have appeared in the theatre of Romeo Castellucci. In 2010, French theatre company Footsbarn presented Sorry!, which featured, intriguingly, a “Dressage of Cats” by Marie Werdyn. When I quizzed producer Leanne Cosby at the Barbican (who co-produced the London presentation of the piece) about this aspect of the performance she was rather more circumspect: “the cats just walked across the stage … Some nights they did, some nights they didn’t.” The Belvoir Theatre’s stunning adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, played within a plexiglass box, featured a live duck that flapped its wings at inopportune moments, interrupting monologues by splashing water over the actors.

    However, Animal Friendship, by re-presenting celebrated instances of cat performance, goes beyond these examples of the animal onstage. It raises issues of acting in documentary theatre: if these cat videos are taken to be documentaries akin to nature programs, would different cat-actors be performing in the staged piece? And if cat-actors are acting in Animal Friendship, what do we value in their performance? Is it simply that they go through the motions of riding a Roomba or jumping in a box, or that they create the psychological illusion of this act taking place for the first time and its associated emotions; joy, terror, pleasure? This impossible piece, then, makes us question what it is we desire and value from the actor in the theatre. Is it that they simply represent “reality”? Or that they betray some excess, some remainder of intention and will-to-please – what we might call “theatricality”?


    About the Author