PROCESS//False solutions to a genuine problem: Attempting to Make A Difference. Part I.

 Photo by Charlie Winter

 

You Will Make A Difference is a theatrical work that performed eleven times between October 19 and November 11, 2012. An ambulatory performance staged progressively through several spaces in the West-Park Presbyterian Church, where the audience moved together through a prescribed path following the main actions of the performers, it was created through a six-month process with a group of actors and designers from an initial structure I had devised. Rather than only entertain or convey a message or story, it investigated a series of questions in a loosely scientific approach. Indeed the entirety of the creative, production, and performance processes undertook these questions about the ways we currently make theater performance, why we do it, and if we might do it differently.

 

In an overarching way, I was attempting to create a work of performative art that tried to do something, to effect an event, rather than describe, depict, illustrate or express ideas or sentiments. To create theatre as a possibility for direct action. I have no interest in didacticism – where I as the creator of a work offer to sell you something I have that you don’t, where you give me money in exchange for this thing, where we commodify ideas and sell them to each other – What do I get? Do I get it? I hoped to create a gentle and gradual involvement or participation for the spectator, a closing of distance for both spectator and performer, and to open a possibility for action. This is, of course, neither a new nor a novel endeavor; others are undertaking it as we speak. However, I think it a necessary endeavor for us now, in our society of unbridled commodification, of a divorced and, ultimately passive experience of ourselves and our lives, of a separation from each other even in extreme proximity.

 

In this article, I will lay out the questions the piece investigated and give a brief recounting of the ‘results’, which appear in anecdotal form. I will not attempt here any substantive analysis or make any specific conclusions but only reflect the some of the experience of the work in the hope it might prove to add, from a practical rather than theoretical perspective, to the current discussion in performance around issues of participation and production and their serving as a microcosm of our present society outside of art. Attached you can find the score of the piece, to serve as a reference in understanding the observations. I will start with the questions investigated and discuss the results of, first, the production process, second, the creative process, and, third, observations from the performances themselves. 

 

This is not intended as a defense of the endeavor, which in certain ways was not successful and in other ways was. But I will make some rationale for some of the criticisms of the work, where they pertain to the questions investigated by it. I consider the failures productive, after all.

 

Questions.

 

My experience in ‘experimental theatre’ is that it’s rarely experimental. When we say ‘experimental’, we tend to mean ‘strange’ or ‘unconventional’ or ‘new’. First of all, it’s rarely or, dare I say it, never new. (I don't find it productive for me to try to 'break new ground'; in fact, I'm more interested in contacting the very old ground and in exploring the known.) Secondly, there is rarely a sense of actual experimentation, usually just self-indulgence. This is a tough line for us to walk. In our constant, internal battle between wanting objective truth and wanting to indulge our every impulse or express ourselves, we tend to end up in some muddy middle ground that ends up with the latter winning out. At least in the United States. Our cult of individualism leads us to believe in the supremacy of our personal feelings and the conviction in our democracy that, as Isaac Asimov said, “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge” – that what I think is right because it comes out of me.

 

And, yet, it is precisely through the subjective experience that the transformative powers of performance function. People are fundamental to the work. So we have a paradox. To paraphrase Polina Klimovitskaya: I must use my personal shit, yes, but not get stuck in it; instead, I must burn my shit in sacrifice to the universe – I must burn. It need be a deeper experience that moves through the confines of the personal, the persona, the ego, and touch into something more primal, more universal, more human. I don’t know how to do this. So, I have to experiment, to ask questions and search for answers, rather than starting with a message that I must share – which is to say, without starting with a story I must tell. So, we proceeded to address the following questions.

 

From my initial proposal to the A/M/P Residency:

How did we arrive in this place? As individuals and as a society, our generation of what should have been the next leaders, this nation, swaddled in the dreams of the system, gestated in the insular womb of 1990s prosperity and then birthed into the bright, unbound day of adulthood and shattered promises and chaos where we find ourselves now, the sky open, stands on the threshold of something undefined and asks ourselves this.

 

From the research packet provided to the actors at our dinner before the first rehearsal:

How did we get to this place? What happened to all they promised and we believed? Now what?
Arising out of our current moment, this performance-installation after medieval miracle pageants explores the promises society makes to itself and, particularly, to its children – and what happens at adolescence when the veil of belief in those promises might tear. Drawing on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, puberty rites, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and the performers’ own stories, this festive experience invites the audience to move physically through an immersive and participatory progression from past to present, attempting to bring us fully to where we are.

 

What is it like to gradually enter from receptive into more active mode? How do our own projections and expectations effect our experiencing? How can we experience our experiences? Can we sit still long enough to dig below the surface? How will each of us react when we encounter this particular structure? Can we create this work that is really beyond our means?

 

The ultimate unknown: What would result from the attempt to enact these admittedly idealistic questions as they contacted the realities of our circumstances?

 

 

Production.

 

The creation of a performance work in New York is a string of acts of commerce. We must advertise for actors and find designers, sell them the work, negotiate financial terms, seek out a venue, more negotiation, the same with PR, market the work to the public, and so on. Much energy goes towards fundraising and then box-office draw – even in so-called non-commercial theater. Four weeks in, four weeks out, buy sell sell sell. I wanted to see if we could make some headway against this, mainly because it’s unpleasant, also because that slight shift in intention – from artistic goals to financial ones – cuts the legs out from any work of art. A worm in the heart. 

 

Many more questions came up along the way: Is there a contract created in the buying of a ticket? What expectations do we create by asking attendees to pay? And how do those expectations change with the price of a $5 ticket? An $18 ticket? A $25 ticket? A $100 ticket? How does the language we use in describing the event create audience expectation? What happens if we choose not to meet those assumed expectations? To offer not something lesser but simply something other than the expected or assumed? Can we break through the critical mind with which so many of us encounter a work of art to allow for the possibility of deeper experience? How does this relate to the “American dream” and the other promises of our society with its Puritan-work-ethic heritage and the guarantees we assume if we do what we “should”, if we follow the path laid out for us? Can we create a production process not desperately focused on money?

 

These were among the major points of discussion in AliveWire meetings over the production of You Will Make A Difference. In terms of production, in large part, I think we did not ultimately manage to embody these questions, to attempt to answer them through practice rather than theory. We chose more of a middle road, a safer path that reflected funding needs and current theatre convention. A reasonable path.

 

Of course, in a society with few resources or possibilities for non-commercial art, we as creators find ourselves having to beg for money in order to create art directed at the broadest possible populace. In that situation, how could we free our spectators from the burden of expecting a product in line with the price tag and allow the possibility for another kind of experience?

 

It was proposed that we needed to have one night of performance as a “benefit night”, in which we would charge a much higher ticket price to help fund the production. To balance this, we decided to offer a meal – instead of the kind of ceremonial food that was already in the piece – as part of the performance that night. We decided to have two such nights, since I insisted on offering half of the those evenings’ tickets to non-paying attendees.

 

I’d hoped these could be people who worked for social-justice organizations or who were clients of such organizations, and otherwise people who could not afford the ticket. Particularly because these evenings – thanks to the sit-down meal – would afford spectators a chance to contact each other, I had hoped for a real convergence between people who had paid in some cases $100 and those who had paid nothing. Not much effort went into these outreach attempts, and very few such people were actually brought in the door. I consider this a major opportunity missed, though the meals would ultimately serve in some cases as a real coming together of people in an inclusive and refreshing way.

 

Similarly, to the question “Who is your intended audience?” I’d responded “everyone”. It was a real goal of mine to move beyond or at least away from the regular downtown-arts crowd, from the perspectives of location, pricing. I’d rather no one came than only the regular crowd. However, “everyone” is not an acceptable answer to “Who is your intended audience?” when talking marketing. The idea of a popular work of art – at least in these circumstances – was not only implausible but, from the reactions of some of my colleagues, not within the realm of consideration – in fact, absurd.

 Photos by Shelley Molad

I had hoped also, along with trying to mitigate the prime focus on money – which we did to some degree by getting the development residency at CAVE, the artistic team’s working for little money (some of us for nothing), getting some of our materials for free from donations (often provided by the designers themselves) and reuse organizations, and finding the church, a non-professional performance venue – to take self-aggrandizement out of the intention of our work. In this vein, I asked that we include the names of no individuals – even me – on any of the marketing materials, online or printed, but rather attribute it to the collective. This was rejected out of hand. Individual names would bring in more donations and audience and make our artistic team feel good.

The choice of West-Park proved proper for You Will Make A Difference. Working in a progressive, community space -- but an old one -- rather than an performance institution or venue -- meshed with both the ideals and aesthetics of the piece. (And, working in a church when so much of the underlying structure of the work came from medieval pageants was ideal for a rooting in tradition.) The hope of a more community-driven (rather than "professional"-driven) process came closest to realization here, particularly in some moments of coming together of a rather unofficial (if meager) build team to support the designers -- AliveWire, cast, friends, and a church member. Integration with the living church community (and its attendant moments of chaos) were essential.

In sum, however, we ultimately attempted to do things the ‘right’ way. To actually break the box of our field, our art form, our collective mind and not just tumble around in its confines takes a much greater effort, as well as the risk of entering an unknown and potentially unpleasant place, which our fears make us so reluctant to enter. So, before beginning the performances, we were, in a sense, a leg down.

Creation.

 

In April I cast a group of 12 actors, some I knew already and some I found through a workshop-style try-out we advertised online. I asked all the actors who applied to “audition” to submit written answers to three questions.

 

  1. What are you searching for yourself right now in art and life?
  2. What is your experience with the American Dream?
  3. And, what about the '90s?

 

The letters sent me by some of the actors who responded – most of whom were young – proved very interesting and struck to part of the heart of my purpose: Could we work in a way that valued the intent of the work over money and the thirst for success? Could we in New York City sit still long enough to do one thing for real, rather than skating through dozens? Could we do this as, primarily, a group of young actors from the United States? The letters are worth reading in their entirety. For now, some excerpts:

 

From Question 1:

 

“What I am searching for in the artistic work that I do is inextricably linked to my life goals – that is to create a space of joy, a space of heightened inner and outer awareness. A freeing experience. Never holding back. Feeling all feelings: anger, vulnerability, ecstasy… Celebrating the purging of inner demons. Sharing the joy of the creative act. Creating a community of friends and artists. Being a badass or collectively being bad-asses. Not totally anarchic, but like a 90s movie where the punks ride through town smashing mailboxes with baseball bats. Running through the woods at night with a loved one.”

 

“Moving to the city has proved to be an eye opening experience. I moved with an open heart and a mind full of optimism, but every day it gets a little harder. Being a young artist today, fighting to see the inspiration of waiting in lines at all hours of the morning, the subways, the streets, and in the faces of thousands of strangers, is so hard. But there is still something inside of me that screams out “I have a voice. I have things to say, I have stories to tell, I have something special to offer.” It’s that voice that keeps me going when that alarm rings at 4am. I am searching for a place and a group of people that make me feel artistically satisfied.”

 

“I feel that the world around me has become so flat, even my own mind, that I am experiencing things on mostly a superficial level which is very unfulfilling. I find myself so caught up with trying to maintain this thinly stretched veneer of interest that is afforded by my access to so many things and people, via the computer, mostly, that I have no mental capacity to truly delve into a topic or interest. I’ve become an armchair observer, with a superficial opinion, on so many things, and I feel this is symptomatic of an overall cultural drift.” [This actor quit the process after several months of work.]

 

From Question 2:

“As far as the American Dream, I think America needs to refine what its dream is, because the shit-on-each-other-for-money thing isn't working.”

“It's really strange to realize you're living at the poverty line; I had always assumed I'd be middle class forever.”

 

“I have a deeply conflicted relationship to what it means to be an American. I dream. I project my dreams. I get swept away by the current of my dream river and its raft of idealism. And then I hear the roar of America, the inevitable waterfall. My dream—which I now recognize as a poorly sketched (but vibrantly colored!) cartoon will uncrumple in the hands of the curious, and will flatten under the wisdom of hefty libraries. My dream will become America as she slips on her prom dress, and waits for the limo, corsage in hand (trembling hands!) and the map of her destiny—and that treacherous waterfall—always drifting in the back of her gin-stained mind.”

(Photo by Charlie Winter)

From Question 3:

“As far as the 90's, I was 11-20.  In many ways it was the best years of my life.  I listened to rap, was a nerd, then a class clown, and learned about sex.”

“Truthfully, I didn’t listen to Green Day. And I didn’t care about Nirvana, though I did love Weird Al’s parody of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. I grew up in my own way. I discovered theater in the 90s, and this consumed me. I read “Death of the Salesman” on my own in the 90s. And I loved it. At the age of 14 I could relate to Willy Lowman [sic]. I had fantasies of grandeur, and a fearful, growing reality of my own inconsequence. Yeh – that’s what I remember most about the 90s – feeling insecure. But hey-I was growing up. It comes with the territory.”

 

“Also, I am ready to start a cultural revolution, one where love and brotherhood overtake haterd [sic] and division.”

 

I cast the actor who made this final statement; he accepted; and, he quit before attending a rehearsal. He was not the only one whose stated desires lost out to something else, which we’ll call the practicalities of his life situation. This was a part of our questioning and one that sprouted perhaps the most heartrending “results”.

 

An actress with whom I’d had a long, passionate conversation in which she’d conveyed her excitement about the piece, then wrote me:

 

Is the stipend $250 a week or is that the total compensation from now until October? If it's the total payment, I really hate to say it, but I'm going to have to decline. If I were still comfortable living with my three roommates in Brooklyn, I'd take this offer in a heartbeat. However, my fiancé and I are planning on moving into our own apartment July 1st and are also planning our wedding…. Needless to say, that means I need to seek a larger income right now. As much as I'd love to experiment with my art form and discover where we can go with rites of passages by incorporating the audience, I also know that my American Dream at the moment is working towards a more comfortable future with my soon-to-be husband.

Another wrote in his initial application:

 

A five month rigorous, exploratory and joyous process that strives for to communicate with society in a "Connective, Charged and Current" fashion sounds like the opportunity I've been searching for as a person and an artist. Let's make a difference together.

 

In his letter accepting my offer of casting:

 

I have a lot to learn as an artist and as a human being. And I have a feeling this sojourn (a new word I've welcomed into my vocabulary) is a safe boat that will travel on a insightful journey. Consequently, I'd love to participate and share with you and your team.

 

The next morning, he wrote me again:

 

I thought I had spent enough time thinking about my participation in You Will Make a Difference, but after I sent you the email I started to doubt my decision. After thinking on it for the majority of the night, I realized that I'm too consumed with the idea of and worried about my path as an actor. And I don't want to bring in that energy into your rehearsals. My gut knows that this project will nurture me in ways no other project will, but my mind is the "commanding officer" dictating me to expand my resume, get enough material to cut a reel together in order to get representation. …. It makes me feel terrible, but it's the truth, I'm just not strong enough for a five month commitment.

 

Three of the people who accepted casting offers did not come to a single rehearsal. One disappeared some time into the process, really without a word. Another left about halfway through because he’d taking on a paying job that conflicted with rehearsals.

 

Of those who made it through the five months of nine-hours-per-week rehearsal, all took some time off for a vacation and most for some the occasional miscellaneous reason, as well. The one night I ended rehearsal early there was cheering. It was interesting to watch the struggle in the actors, the fight, in some of them, to return night after night. Through that struggle, I could see some of them touch into deeper realms in themselves. Some, I think, really moved into that place. Some touched it and retreated, at least for the moment. Some perhaps did not glimpse it. Yet, seven of the initial twelve made it all the way through. And, the handful we brought in just before opening, to perform a secondary but vital role, despite some of their own struggles to accept the task at hand (one of them quit after the first weekend of performances), were quite remarkable in the way they left any sense of ego at the door and plunged into something quite unknown with clarity and workmanship rare in our profession, particularly in these circumstances.

 

One of the most heartening moments of the process came in the final week of performances, when three of the core performers when given a choice insisted on rehearsing – the only mid-run rehearsal the group managed – despite snow and a lack of other actors in attendance. It proved perhaps the most beautiful – and effective (in terms of their performances) – of all our work sessions.

On the design side, my colleagues worked with me for months to create the environmental facets of the work, not only ambiental or immersive but in some cases interactive, and in all ways integrating with the dominant landscape of the church. This included engaging several unconventional spaces of vastly differing sizes at once, among that creating an entire false kitchen that could fall apart during a scene and a large moveable wall – with little budget and nothing mechanized, to create a unified channel of chambers, each with a distinct tone and function, which in fact guided the entire arc of the work. In a sense, the changing space itself – changing in style, function, and relationship to performers and spectators – was the “script” of the piece. A small, dedicated team created certain wonders in this regard, which we embodied intentionally through a do-it-yourself aesthetic, not trying to impress or be slick – even through the struggles to create a design scheme that didn’t adhere to conventional theatrical needs and do so in rather short order since we couldn’t rent much time in the church. 

 

Ultimately, despite falling quite short of the ideal, the creation process was a great act of passion from the whole creative team – actors, designers, builders, all – that this work beyond our means happened – especially since Hurricane Sandy hit in the middle of the run of performances. (Team members took bus, train, ferry, and feet, from homes without power, one flooded, to make sure we missed only two performances in the unheated church.)

 

The artists involved created a dynamic and physical structure that left space for the unknown to happen each night within it. With that, we set the stage, so to speak, for the public phase of the experiment. For what actually occurred during these performances, you’ll have to read the second part of this piece. Coming soon.

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