Monday, April 9, 2012

Social Works

“What if performance challenges strict divisions about where the art ends and the rest of the world begins?” (15)
I always feel like something of a heel using a quote from so early in the book, but I felt like this idea merited some discussion.  According to the manifesto I’m writing for Blair’s class, art is inherently liminal, in that it is always negotiating that space between real and representational.  And, on the scale of liminality, theatre is the one that spends the most space in this in-between.  And, in the terms of this book, when theatre begins to interact not only with a real audience, but with the really real social world outside the theatre doors, this line becomes ever more delicate, ever more blurry.  Brecht wanted his theatre to remain distinctly unreal so that it could inspire real action in its audience.  Augusto Boal took his theatre to society, rather than expecting society to come to his theatre.  The Tectonic Theatre Project’s use of documentary techniques in building their theatre has real people’s words coming out of the mouths of actors, hoping to challenge the audience’s perceptions of real events and issues.  Paul Chan felt the pull of New Orleans from the comfort of his New York apartment and felt that the only way he could answer that pull was to put a 60-year-old piece of European art into direct conversation with the all too real landscape of devastation in the ninth ward.  What is the responsibility art takes on when it edges its way closer and closer to reality?  And not just any reality, but the sensitive realities that surround social issues.  Art can never be really real, or it simply becomes life instead of art, so where does this kind of “experimental” theatre practice fall on the continuum?  Certainly, as Jackson points out, this is a delicate distinction as well: “Experimental art performances use visual, embodied, collective, durational, and spatial systems, but a critical sense of their innovation will differ depending upon what medium they understand themselves to be disrupting, i.e. which medium is on the other end of whose ‘post.’” (2)  So while navigating theatre that participates in social discourse, we have to take not of its interaction with reality, its interaction with issues, and its interaction with the history of the art form itself in order to be aware of all the levels of codes present in any given performance.  And all of that may well prove to be the easy part.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Everyone's a Little Bit Anachronistic

“all bodily practice is, like language itself, always already composed in repetition and repetition is, paradoxically, both the vehicle for sameness and the vehicle for difference or change.”[1]
“Of course, when playing in the crossfire of time letting anachronism do its creative work, things can feel a little uncanny, or dislocated, or unsettling, or queer.  They can also feel like downright bad art…The first time was true.  The second time is false, etiolated, hollow, or infelicitous.  The second time, the third time, the nth times are not actual.  Thus: the second time is lesser.  But…the minor, forgotten, overlooked, disavowed, unsung second, double, and ‘lesser’ gain a kind of agency in the re-do.”[2]
A couple of years ago, I interviewed a Civil War reenactor for a documentary theatre piece I was working on for a class.  I was talking to her about being a Southern woman, but we couldn’t help, of course, discussing her passion for reenacting.  As the descendant of a confederate soldier, she took the whole thing very seriously.  She led me to the air conditioned shed out back where she built and stored all of her costumes – at least two racks worth.  She spoke with pride about the authenticity of the garments, the way a dress petticoat would become an everyday petticoat once it had been worn too many times.  When I performed as her in our documentary performance, the knowledge that I was performing a performer kept tickling the back of my mind. 
Judith Butler’s discussion of identity as “a stylized repetition of acts”[3] seems to be in conversation with a lot of what I observed in my own little anecdote, and what Schneider is talking about in navigating the murky waters of reenactment.  There is something dismissive about the way most of us would talk about the second time around.  It’s an interesting contradiction of our postmodern sensibilities, in that we are so comfortable with simulacrum in our daily, mass-produced life, but there seem to be places where we draw the line and say at those things that aren’t really real, that aren’t authentic or original.  But in Butler’s sense, nothing we ever do is truly original – our very identities are a sedimentation of simulacra built up through decades and centuries of repetition.  And then, when we in the theatre rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, all in an attempt to produce the illusion of the first time, we add a layer of sediment to our behavior.  Think about revivals.  Think about tours.  Think about cast members being replaced midway through a run.  Iterations of the “original” are almost infinite in a theatrical sense.  And then, these reenactors, have their own layers to add – whether they acknowledge their touristy allure, or dedicate themselves to serious authenticity.  Historical events happen for the first and only time, but then, as the truism goes, we are doomed to repeat them – either on a historical scale or in unending recounting and reenacting.  And even historical events make reference to past events, past speeches, past people.  One would be hard pressed to point to any event that could truly stand on its own. 
But does this constant referentiality devalue the reenactment?  Is it merely a precondition of existing in a world built out of performances?  Is there ever really an original?  How far back must historiography reach to find the roots of any given historical or theatrical impulse?  Is consciousness of our relationship to the “original” necessary to give the reenactment validity?  I found myself particularly interested in the protests Schneider discusses in her Afterword for this very reason.  The acknowledgement of their deliberate anachronism is a powerful tool in demonstrating the way in which we as a people have been reenacting our own flawed history, since the same fights from the past have so much to say to contemporary issues, so by foregrounding the out-of-time-ness of the argument, we can draw attention to the repetition that believes itself to be originality. "The ‘performance’ of history can create a rupture in the safe contemporary evaluations of the past and conceptions of the future"[4]  There is something important in the conscious reenacting impulse that forces the now into a dialogue with the what was and the could be.  So perhaps it is the level of consciousness on the part of both performer and observer, rather than the reenactment itself that becomes the most compelling and useful element in terms of the effect of reenactment on history itself.  This extends queering of identity into queering of place in history and place in time, which allows us to look at ourselves in non-linear terms, feeding on anachronism as a tool for understanding rather than as a mistake or an affront against the rigid forward motion of time.

[1] Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment, (New York and London: Routledge, 2011) 10.
[2] Schneider 180.
[3] Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal(40:1988, 519-531) 519,
[4] Paige Sarlin quoted in Schneider 185.