ESSAY // The Performances of Odyssey Works: Toward an Audience-Centered Art

The Performances of Odyssey Works: Toward an Audience-Centered Art

by Abraham Burickson


What would happen if an artist made art based entirely on his knowledge of his audience?  What would the artist have to do to create an environment where his work was fully received and felt by that audience?  How might the art come to involve an audience-member’s inner world and her outer world, her psychology and her community?  What would such art make possible?

These questions spurred the foundation of San Francisco-based performance group Odyssey Works, in 2001.  Matthew Purdon, a visual artist and performer, and I, a writer and architect, were both frustrated with the anonymous and isolated nature of our work.  We felt that the gulf between what we created and how it was received by our audience was too great, too outside our control.  We wanted to figure out a way to overcome the vicarious quality of performance and art-viewing.  As a writer I found myself writing for an “ideal reader” who, of course, would never actually read my work.  I rarely spoke with the people who did read what I wrote and when I did, more often than not, they had an entirely different reading than what I had intended.  Matthew spoke of the passiveness of the audience on the other side of the fourth wall.  How did creating become so bounded, so isolated?  There had to be a way for art-making to be live, affective communication.  We needed to make our audience, their community, and ourselves part of a more dynamic creative process.

In 2001 we created our first performance: a 12-hour piece created around a single participant.  We gathered many of his friends into the production and used their relationships with him as material.  He traveled around the Bay Area in an episodic series of improvised scenes and encounters designed to engage the images of death and rebirth that had been dominating his life at the time.  His day began with the discovery of objects from his childhood and ended with his digging a grave six feet deep and being buried in it.  The results were exciting, and we began to gather artists we knew who were interested in creating in this fashion.  Then we started planning the next piece.



“Henry’s Doppelganger at Yerba Buena” was a scene from Odyssey Works’ fifth production, on May 24, 2003:

It is a perfectly sunny morning in Yerba Buena Park in downtown San Francisco.  Tourists stroll in and out of the Art Center or across Third Street to the SFMOMA.  Henry is wearing the tasseled leather jacket he picked out for the day

On a parkbench a friend of his is sitting with an attractive young woman.  The friend calls his name.  Henry comes over to speak with her.  Introductions are made.  The attractive woman tells Henry that she has heard about his two-headed calves.  Could he tell her more? 

Of course he could.  Henry is a great storyteller.  He has told the story a thousand times.  He loves to tell it, and people love to hear it.  It’s not so much a collection as a herd – he has the biggest herd of two-headed calves in the country.

Soon, strangers gather around to eavesdrop on the conversation.  Henry includes them; he is generous with his story.  He tells them about traveling around the country to find the specimens, about afternoons spent negotiating with two-headed-calf salesmen, how this one was too poorly preserved to be worth such a price, how this other one died with an expression of sadness on one face, of perplexity on the other.  The audience grows, and soon there are over a dozen strangers listening in, appreciating, laughing.  This is Henry’s best telling of the story yet.  Then a man dressed in black approaches.  The man is wearing a red hat that Henry recognizes as his own, and he walks with the same slight arch in the back as Henry.  For a moment the man listens, then the man steps in front of Henry and continues the story of the two-headed calves. The transition is seamless.  The imposter Henry speaks with the same inflection and attention to detail as the real Henry, and the audience shifts its attention and appreciation to the new storyteller.  He tells how the calves ended up in his office, how collectors from around the world have approached him to make offers…. 

When Henry’s story is taken from him he stops speaking.  He has become invisible to the audience.  A reporter from the SF Bay Guardian addresses the new speaker as Henry, asking questions about the calves.  How does your wife feel about the calves?  Your children?  The real Henry listens.  Soon a camera crew arrives.  Then a woman in a white dress taps Henry on the shoulder.  She takes him to the water fountain, gently pushes him under the water and gives him a white robe.   As he dresses, the news crew is asking when they will be able to see the calves.  Tomorrow…, they are told, you’ll have to get up early.


Henry’s story was stolen at hour four of what would become a twenty-four hour performance generated entirely out of material we had gathered from him.  Six months earlier, Matthew and I had met Henry and asked him to open up his life to us.  Previous performances had taught us that we needed to get as much information about him (and those around him) as possible.  We interviewed him, filmed him, interviewed his friends and family, even sent people to spy on him at parties.  We learned all his stories, made elaborate maps of his social networks.  We took notes on the workings of his business, his health, the tensions within his family.  His secretary granted us access to the five-story warehouse where he and his family lived.  We gathered up our notes and brought the information to the other Odyssey Works artists.  Then we began to brainstorm ideas.


The early performances – the four we produced before Henry’s piece –  led us to elaborate upon our initial questions.  We found that we had to re-think our method of preparation and our utilization of time and interpersonal relationships.  What followed were a series of experimental performances based on five what ifs:

1.What if our audience were small enough to permit us to know enough about their psychology, history, aesthetics, and community, that we might create specifically for their subjectivity? We could limit our number to a handful, or, even, to just one.  These people would be less ‘audience member’ and more ‘participant.’

2.What if we put aside any personal artistic agenda and allowed the information gathered from our participants to determine the media, the locations, and the narrative for the piece?  This would be a kind of form-follows-function, necessitating collaboration with outside artists.

3.What if we engaged community members as performers or ‘actors,’ allowing their actual relationships to become the material upon which the scene were to hang?  As we got to know our participants we would develop relationships that could also serve as material for other parts of the performance.

4.What if we removed the performance from traditional theatrical settings and located it in sites with specific relevance to the participant?  These places would be pre-supplied with meaning with which our performance might interact.

5.What if we allowed the piece to go on long enough to completely immerse the participant in the world of the performance?  This might be a whole day, or a day and a night, or even longer.

Over the course several years, Odyssey Works created a series of productions for small audiences.  These were designed by a core group of artists in collaboration, as necessary,  with outside dancers, filmmakers, actors, performance artists, and musicians. One man found himself blindfolded in a roomful of friends, instructed to conduct an orchestra of their laughs, coughs, cries, and screams of pleasure.  One production involved nine people who were whisked out of San Francisco on a fantastical journey in search of Center City.  Another saw a woman slowly transform into a grub, gestate overnight in a giant cocoon, and emerge miles from her home as a brilliant-winged butterfly.  Some productions were created by a half-dozen artists while others involved fifty or more.  Each was an experiment and a learning process, as each participant required an entirely different approach.  All the performances were one-time events, completely free, and focused on the participants and their community.




At hour twelve of the performance, Henry is in a hallway in the lower deck of an enormous military ship.  He has been through several scenes since the doppelgänger.  Most recently, he has been blindfolded and transported down a mountain inside a coffin loaded into the back of a truck and brought to this ship.  The ship is a sort of an underworld.  Coming from the floor below is a cartoonish bleating, clearly the product of a human throat.  He follows the sound, leading him to the end of the hall where there is a light and some angry mumbling.

The light is coming from the ship’s sick bay: a fluorescent-lit room with a reclining medical bed in the middle and metal counters all around.  The mumbling is coming from a French butcher.  The man is drunk.  He has a cleaver in his hand.  He is lopping pieces off an enormous hunk of meat and taking generous swigs from a bottle of unlabeled but pungent whiskey.  He shouts imprecations, thrills at Henry’s arrival. Occasionally he howls.

The butcher places Henry on the table and then knocks on the wall.  A panel slides open and out of the darkness a hand passes a new hunk of meat to the butcher.  He takes the meat to Henry and lays it on his chest.  He turns the meat around and measures Henry’s chest.  Henry is thin, almost fragile.  He has bad lungs.  He is pale.  When he goes to the beach he loads up on sunblock and hides beneath a black umbrella.  He avoids bars where people smoke.  The butcher takes the meat to the table and begins to hack away at it, mumbling, shouting, singing the French national anthem.  He compares the meat to Henry’s body again.  He chops more off.  Soon it is the size of a human heart.  Red liquid from the meat is all over the counter, all over Henry’s white robe.  The meat-heart is put in Henry’s hand and the butcher bangs on the wall again.  A red-headed nurse with an impenetrable smile comes into the room holding a giant roll of Saran Wrap.  She makes Henry sit up, then wraps the plastic around his body, pressing the meat tight against his chest and telling him: This is your new heart.  Protect it.


From Henry’s questionnaire:

What are your sexual preferences?

Rampantly and frequently heterosexual.


Would you be willing to fight someone?

If I had to.  I actually was in my first fight about a year ago, thwarting a thief trying to steal my children’s’ bikes.  I prevailed.


What is your biggest unlived dream in life?

That everyone I love and who loves me would love each other.


What do you do well?

Tell stories.  Make love.


What is your relationship to nature?

I have improved my love of nature in recent years.  Mostly it has frightened me and been inconvenient in the past.

The answers lead to more questions: what does it mean to be frightened by nature?  Why does he use the term ‘love’ so much?  We are making Henry’s acquaintance through these answers. It becomes clear that we are not creating a piece about Henry alone, but about how he is seen.  Each member of Henry’s community adds his own filter to the image, and each of the artists with whom we collaborate creates for Henry out of their own particular vision.  Layers of perspective begin to accumulate.  In the end we have a collection of information that is a pile of data as well as a map of relationships.  We set out to create a performance which is as much about ourselves, about the community that surrounds the participant, and about a structured web of relationships, as it is about the participant himself.

What happened after Henry received the hunk of meat was unexpected.  He took the nurse’s prompt and invested the beef with all the desperate hope that a ‘new heart’ might contain.  The item became, after this investiture, a symbol and a talisman, the protection of which (according to after-performance feedback) would occupy his every thought for the next several hours.  This event, half a day in, marked Henry’s transition to complete immersion, complete participation with our created world.  After this, he engaged with every performative element as if it were emerging from his own subconscious, and each performer not as an actor but as part of his community, as, indeed, some of them were.  “The hand behind the journey, guiding it, was really my own,”  Henry would later say.


This kind of personal engagement was essential to making our participant more receptive to the performance as a whole. The person begins to share responsibility for the quality of the experience.  According to Nell Waters, subject of an Odyssey Works production this June, “When a person knows that every act has been created for her and that each subsequent interaction, conversation, even the slightest turn in events has been crafted for her or simply is for her… [she] opens up to a newer, fuller self expression, and the ability now to engage with what is right before her eyes.”

“The Book Signing” was a scene from Nell’s performance. In it, Nell is dropped off at Browser Books in Pacific Heights in San Francisco.  A crowd is already gathered, eagerly awaiting her arrival.  When she enters the bookstore a professional-looking woman – possibly her agent – directs her to sit behind a table covered with books.  A line forms, and, one by one her fans approach with books Nell has supposedly written clutched in their hands.  The first one is entitled The Zen of Doing it All. The cover design recalls new-age books by the likes of Deepak Chopra.  On the back is a photo of Nell the Yoga expert, smiling on a mountaintop.  Nell reads the book-jacket blurbs and remembers having spoken some of the words to friends.  The next is entitled My Fucking Life, Jerk.  Featured are pictures and quotes from an ornery Nell who doesn’t suffer fools.  The woman holding this book approaches, confessing that “until I read your book I was knotted up inside, but, thanks to you, I learned to say Fuck You.  Thank you, Nell Waters, thank you.” 

Nell embraces the role we have thrust upon her.  She engages her fans in conversation about the books, signing copies of Underneath the Waters, the Unauthorized Biography, and INC Magazine.  The fans are a mixture of friends and strangers, some of whom just happen to be in the bookstore at the time.  They are full of adulation, speaking to Nell about the books, about the different sides to Nell as if they are all there is to her.  Nell pursues each conversation, citing imagined passages, discussing the next publication, holding forth on topics as they are framed in the books themselves.



Over several years and several different performances it became clear that time and intimacy would be required on a new scale.  “Up until Yerba Buena,” said Henry, “I was trying to second guess…but once the other me came up — the imposter — I never tried to second guess again.”  We found that people wouldn’t fully drop their guard – their own internal fourth wall – for at least four hours, and only when the narrative and symbolic aspects of the performance were taken from their real lives. The first production, in 2002, lasted eight hours, and subsequent pieces rarely clocked less than twenty-four.

We also found that the ideal audience size was, indeed, one.  Several other sizes were attempted – two people, five people, as many as nine.  The larger the audience the more difficult it was to make our participants psychologically open to moments of personal value and meaning. This openness, this “ability to engage with what is right before her eyes,” as Nell Waters puts it, has been described as a meditative state simultaneously introspective and immersed in the world.  After several hours of performance, the external world transforms into a scattered projection of the internal world.  During her book signing, Nell knew that she hadn’t written any of the books, but they “resonated with a part of me I had never known. For a few moments I was that writer. I was responsible for witty lines and loquacious passages. And somehow the opportunity to both be that and not be that was the gift of the moment. There is a point in your day when you accept your circumstances as all that there is to your life.” One’s history and psychology may be read on the landscape,  continuous and overlapping.  The two worlds approach one another as they would in a lucid dream or a daydream.

And then there is the effect of being the center of attention.  The lone participant is seen by the whole world.  The lone participant is seen.  Seen, perhaps, even by herself.  No fourth wall, but one big mirror.  She becomes the protagonist in the play.  There is no question of believability because the performance is derived from her real life.  The joys are her joys.  The possibility of character transformation is, potentially, her own character transformation.  “Not a day goes by,” said Henry after his performance, “when I don’t think about it….Now I see the past disappear behind me and the future rise up to meet me.”

Because each participant is different, each Odyssey Works production must be different.  As we change and our audience changes the work must continually strive to avoid formulation, and, though we learn tricks and refine methods over time, the continuing challenge is to find the appropriate structure for every participant.  Whether this means we should focus on deep psychological patterns or create a day-long detour into the reverie of one piece of John Cage piano music depends entirely on the participant and our ability to develop a more comprehensive picture of her world.

In the end, the only consistent element is a mode of performance in which the final product exists only in the experience of the audience.  In this it is entirely unreproduceable.  In this, also, it is like life: a one-time event that occurs (mostly) outside the theater and that involves the people one knows in essential roles.  The difference is that the world of an Odyssey Works performance is an egocentric one whose goal it is to hold a mirror up to the self, to make everything, suddenly, personal.  And what is personal for the audience is personal for the artist, and what is personal for audience and artist becomes personal for everyone connected to them.  Thus it is that by narrowing our focus we may broaden our impact to a whole community. Thus it is that art may energize a random world with meaning. 


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