Wonderfully tragic, why ‘The Woodsman’ was one of the best things I saw in NY

I gather than when texts usually begin with the phrase “on the night of Friday the 13th,” it usually precludes to something ominous or horrific. Trust that, for this post, this is certainly not the case. In fact, for me, it was one of the happiest of days.

For on the night of Friday the 13th in the month of May, I went to New World Stages, a theatre on 50th street in NYC, to see Strangemen and Co.’s The Woodsman, a journey to Oz telling the origin story of the Tin Man through the use of puppetry. I will start by saying, that after the show had ended I left the theatre with so much joy, with such an unimaginable love for theatre. The only other time I have felt such overwhelming emotion which might be pinned as happiness was after seeing As You Like It at the National Theatre (which I shall now refer to as AYLI) in London earlier this year. In fact, both productions have similar qualities to them which I will delve into later as I reflect on, as it would seem, a particular style of theatre I am drawn to.

I do recall a frantic desperation to get to the theatre on time for the show. I had taken a nap, likely waking up at around 7:30pm (the shows starts at 8pm), exclaiming “oh, crap” at my realization that I might be late to the show. There was a short debate in my head as I contemplated whether it was still worth it to go, before resolving “What the hell. I paid $37 for the show, I only have less than a week left in this city, and it’s theatre.” I grabbed by keys and headed out the door, leaving my roommate unsurprised that I was out to another show.

I hate being late to the theatre. I think it’s really terribly disrespectful if being late was avoidable. (The worst is when you have to go with a friend who you have to be nice to and even though you’re already barely about to make it he decides to get a doughnut and you can’t yell at him because he made you breakfast that day. True story.) But thankfully the show started late and the space was small so really, any seat was ideal. Anyways, I digress). Even worse, is when you’re navigationally handicapped at trying to find places and maps on your phone cans out on you, just because. For what it’s worth, I was in my seat sharply at 8pm.

As I placed my bag and jacket under my seat, and recomposed myself in my seat from the mad dash to make it on time, I took a deep breath and scanned the stage I had forgotten that I had booked a front row seat near the middle (it’s nice when you surprise yourself with such treats simply because you forget). So the stage was right there, within arm’s reach. And it resembled a quiet forest (oh yeah, ‘The Woodsman’, of course). There were just enough branches used to conjure up the imagination, but even more beautiful were the dainty the bulbs of orange light that were wrapped with little jars. For sake of production design, I made sure to note that not all of them were lit because not all of them needed to be. The set wasn’t over the top, it was just right. Even more surprising, was how it extended off stage and into the side of the audience, the magical forest reaching out along the aisles on the side.

It was perfect. And I was already completely enthralled (following my new found love for set design).

The lights dimmed, and the sounds of the forest were heard.

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Scene from The Woodsman

I’m not going to spoil it, I really will try not to. I will say though, that the show started with a tale, a prologue, narrated by the lead (James Ortiz) who would become our Tin Man. We are also introduced to The Witch, our villain and first puppet on stage. I remember being so taken aback by the quality of the costumes (they were amazing). After the prologue though, the play is completely reliant on non-verbal dialogue (by this I miss ‘words’), making use of body language, music and sounds. All sounds were made by the actual actors on stage, much like how in NT’s AYLI had actors suspended in their forest making the sounds of the birds and the wind. I was completely taken by this, and moved by the moments of melody (and indeed slightly envious of the fact that I personally don’t know how to whistle). What really struck me however, because I personally had never seen it before, was how the actors also controlled the lighting. In a sense that, they were sort of their own lighting crew. Aside from very few stage lights overhead, and the lights behind the set that would flash and become lightning for the scene, the actors would hold flashlights. These were used to emphasize a particular character in a moment, or to convey time of day. They would also use tiny LED lights as fireflies. So there would be a scene with our two main characters, and the other actors around them would gracefully move and blink their lights. I was fascinated by this, and totally captivated. I recall one scene where the theatre was pitch black (I assume the lights behind me had also been turned off as I was in the front row. So what am I to know). The girl (Eliza Martin Simpson) who is the romantic interest of our Huntsman, also the maidservant of The Witch, sat at the edge of the stage shining a flashlight on her face. She looked around, afraid and expectant of the dangers of the forest. And from the corner of her eye, snarled a giant tiger (another puppet, a huge one at that). She screamed, the theatre became pitch black again. It was an extremely cinematic moment, one that I treasure because a) huzzah for being in the front row and b) of my interest in the intersection of film and theatre.

Now, the play was the advertised as a puppet show. I will admit that I arrived being totally prepared to be completely skeptical. I was skeptical simply because I had seen the Czech-American Marionette Theatre’s show, The New World Symphony: Dvořák in America, where they used puppets. I had also been taking a workshop with Phantom Limb Company on how to make a marionette, and so I was interested to see the kinds of puppets Strangemen and Co. would use. Although The Woodsman is hyped as being a puppet show, I wouldn’t call it that. In a sense that, if I were to write a cast list, then the puppets would seem secondary. My only reasoning for this is simply because ,me having very little experience with puppetry as an art and theatre form, I define a “puppet show” quantitatively to mean that most of the show involves puppets being alive on stage. Neither would I say that the production used puppets. Rather, puppets were a part of the human world. They existed to further emphasize the magical realm of Oz. The puppets were otherworldly, they were other beings and I feel a subtle cringe to call them puppets because it objectifies them. Yes, they are objects, but on the stage they weren’t – they breathed life.

They weren’t super extravagant. They were simple, but well made. Part of this sense of life having breathe into the is not only how they were effectively incorporated into the show, but the form in which they were. The puppets were controlled by the actors – who, I should’ve mentioned earlier, are always present on stage and take on many roles – in a way that made them synonymous to each other. What I mean by this is that, the actors weren’t simply controlling the puppet, but they were embodying the puppet’s character, and that’s something I had never seen before. A prime example to take would be The Witch. What initially intrigued me was the decision to have two actresses control The Witch. Such a character could be designed in a way whereby it is only maneuvered by one actor, but it wasn’t. Here, having two actresses elevated the character particularly by the use of their voices. The actresses would hiss and gasp and exclaim as one, creating the eerie sense of The Witch’s voiced being comprised of multiple voices. Super creepy, and so well executed. The actresses were constantly animated – again, they weren’t controlling The Witch, they were The Witch.

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Image from mediatimeout.com

The same goes for the Tin Man. As he loses his real limbs and is fitted with his suit of tin, the Huntsman eventually leaves his body. At first, Ortiz moves along with two other actors who help control his limbs. Eventually, Ortiz becomes a ghostly figure on stage, not playing the Huntsman or the Tin Man, but embodying his spirited. As a group of actors now maneuver the Tin Man, it could easily have been the case that it simply looks messy on stage. On the contrary, because of the camaraderie between actors and the fact that they embody the characters of the puppets, I believed I was seeing the Tin Man and not a group of actors play him. Eventually, because he is completely made out of Tin and ashamed of what he has become, he leaves the love of his life. A controller/crutch appears from the ceiling, and the actors string the Tin Man until he in held in place. And there he stands, alone on stage, the first time a puppet is completely without a living body behind it. Completely without spirit.

When I talk to peers about this show and they ask me whether it was a funny show or a sad one, I reply saying that it’s tragic. It pulls your heart out, but it’s still super funny. They in turn, as expected, give me a really confused look. It is a tragic story, but humour is embedded in it (so at least you don’t feel like your heart has been torn to pieces by the end of it). And if I may add, my favourite character is the caterpillar-like doctor, played in fact by three actors (so characters? Or team?).

The Woodsman was ever so masterfully executed. It is clear that every decision made was thought of carefully and thought of in a way that would make sense to the whole production and not just a particular moment.

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Photo by author. I just couldn’t resist, even though I rarely take pictures at the theatre.

With the biggest smile on my face for the love of theatre, I called a friend (indeed the same one that stopped for a doughnut) because I just had to have a conversation about everything I had just seen. He too had just seen a show that he loved. So there I was aimlessly walking around Times Square talking at a million miles an hour on my phone about the magic I had just witnessed, occasionally stopping in my tracks or even jumping with glee.

He urged me to immediately write down everything I was feeling. And so I wrote, a thick paragraph with no interest whatsoever in being grammatically correct, my intention being to record how excited I was and what in particular about the show excited me. So below, for my own sake really, I will write down a more coherent form of what kind of aesthetics I discovered that I personally like.

  1. As it turns out, I’m interested in folklore. I do have a faint recollection as a child of being interested in melodies which I can only now describe as being Irish-tunes. I didn’t realize that ‘folklore’ was the word I was looking for. I previously connoted it with folk tales, which where I come from are old tales involving the personification of animals. I hadn’t really realize that folk tales were really stories that had been passed on and that folklore, as I have recently found out, means “the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth” (thanks, Google). I have AYLI in mind when thinking about this, especially the final scene with the communal dance in the forest. Key words to remember: mysticism and magic.
  2. Actors as stagehands. In The Woodsman, the actors we meet the entire cast in the prologue and they are all always on stage, save for a few moments. For the most part, they control the lighting and the sound (like having flashlights and whistling).
  3. You don’t really have to have wind, you can represent it. And I mean this for all other things and not just the wind as well. Being a film major, one of the things that I’m concerned about is making things seem ‘real’. In theatre though we can employ Brechtian techniques whereby a spectator is always aware that the performance is a representation of reality, and not reality itself (all hail Brecht). I wonder what happens if Brechtian techniques are applied to film?
  4. Something about the show was cinematic. I’m still thinking about this one, being someone who is interested in the intersection of film and theatre. I can pick out certain moments, like the moment when the theatre was pitch black and the tiger jumps out.
  5. You don’t need words to convey feeling. The Woodsman is super clever about the moments they choose to have the characters say something and moments where there are lyrics to the music.
  6. Live music on stage and keeping it simple. I just realized that most of the time, if not all, there was a violinist on stage. And only a violinist. So beautiful, so powerful, and just the right instrument for the mood of the play.
  7. No set genre. Does a show really need to have a set genre? It is what it is. To me, this was part physical theatre and part musical theatre. The physicality of the body and the power of the voice are two things that really intrigued me about this play.

 

After this long post, I really have only one thing to say: I loved it so, so much. Seeing The Woodsman in my final week in NYC was a perfect reminder as to why I am studying theatre, and a realization for certain aesthetics I am drawn to.

I would just like to thank Strangemen and Co., for taking me on a journey to Oz that spanned years, and for making me believe in magic.

 

A total mess: a review on ‘The New World Symphony: Dvořák in America’ at La MaMa

In writing another blog post (to be posted very soon), I began to write about a show I had seen in March. I realized that there were quite a few things I wanted to say about it, and thought I’d write a separate post to really pour how upset I was by it.

Finding myself with nothing to do one afternoon in March, I decided to buy a ticket to whatever was showing at La MaMa. A rather impromptu buy but hey, when in NYC you gotta see as much theatre as you can. I bought a ticket to see the Czech-American Marionette Theatre‘s show, ‘The New World Symphony: Dvořák in America’. Simply said, I thought it was an absolute mess.

The show’s log-line reads that it, “explores the influence of African-American and Native American music upon the work of the famed 19th century Czech composer Antonín Dvořák and consequently on music development worldwide.  Performed by Czechoslovak American Marionette Theatre with puppets composed of musical instrument parts, live actors, and musicians, and with an original hybrid score of classical, jazz, and rock music”. It was pretty much advertised on La MaMa’s site as being a puppet show, and I was really keen on seeing one.

I felt cheated.

I thought I was going to go see my first ever puppet show. I ended up seeing a show where they almost never used puppets and when they did, they served more as props than anything else. They had displayed some beautiful and hilarious puppets in the foyer, and here were there puppets being used nothing more than for a moment of amusement or variety. I mean it quite seriously when I say that, this isn’t fair for the puppet! If the objective was to show how puppets are secondary and are just objects, then fine. But it seems to me that that really was not the intention.

As a general comment to the whole show, I think they had a lot of ideas and hadn’t figured out the structure of the play. Which is fine, there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be a lot of ideas put together and no sense of structure. I just think that at some point, they focused too much on being humorous and making the audience laugh to the point where it was just plain silly and they lost the essence of their show. It also became such that certain moments which might have been funny, simply weren’t because they seemed out of place and overdone.

While I don’t think theatre should ever be talked about in a way that comments how a show ought to have been a certain way or done certain things, rather than having a conversation on what it did do, I do think that the Czech-American Marionette Theatre got it all wrong. They seemed to be hoping for the exotic quality of their puppets to sell rather than the story of Antonín Dvořák (or whatever they wanted to convey). They also had an insanely huge warehouse-type space to performed in, which in hindsight was terrible for when it came to showcasing their small marionettes (well they looked small from afar). Perhaps the only choice I found interesting in the entire show, was the decision to have one of the African-American musicians stop playing whenever a racist comment was made in a scene and approach the character who made the comment. In fact, the musician would take a violin and – in slow motion-like movement – strike the character who made the comment, on the head, whereby after which the violin would break into pieces and the character spin dizzily. I liked the sense of intrusion, for the musicians to intrude on the scene because it befit the play, but it was well overused. After the second time, it just became a “really, again?” moment. Another decision which made sense to the play, was how Native Americans would be referred to as. A character would call the ‘Indians’, before later adding the phrase “who would later be known as Native Americans”. I quite enjoyed this, as it in some way made aware that the play was historical yet relevant to our time by making these ‘futuristic’ references.

Aside from these moments though, the actors seemed almost like caricatures. The actors on a stage with no real sense of a well-rounded character in a structure-less play by a theatre company which might have simply been happy to have received such a big space at La MaMa. While I do understand that shows at La MaMa are typically works in progress, this one has a lot of work ahead of it.

For me, the best shows are when I lose track of time; when I am completely absorbed in the world of a performance. But at this show, time couldn’t have moved any slowly. I was waiting for it to end. Usually I stay to here the last routine of the orchestra or band, but I’m sad to say that as soon as the actors bowed, I made a dash to leave. I was utterly confused by the show, and to be frank, so bored. Did I come away learning anything about Dvořák? Aside from the fact that he was a Czech composer who came to ‘America’, nope, not really. This comedy, had far too many errors.

 

‘As You Like It’ at the National Theatre in London

(Heads up – this is going to be more of the commenting and reflecting kind of post, one based on memory and feeling rather than trying to intellectualize everything.)

This January, I travelled to London for the first time. I spent a good three weeks there and when I wasn’t taking my class on portraiture (aptly called “Idea of the Portrait”), I made sure to catch as many theater shows as possible. All hail student discounts and London’s efforts to make theater affordable and accessible.

The one show that I went to see twice was “As You Like It“, which showed at the National Theatre (NT). It was the first time in thirty years for the NT that this Shakespearean play was going to be enacted. And for me, it was the first time I had ever been to the NT. A friend had luckily been able to get me and another tickets at the last minute. So fast-forward to another friend and I making a mad bus ride and epically (yes, it was a pretty epic adventure) running in the rain, we finally made it to the NT. Granted, we were a couple of minutes late, but thankfully at the sixth minute into the show the music would change the lights would go off, and kind NT staff would escort us to our seats.

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Picture from officiallondontheatre.co.uk

We were in one of the few last rows in the orchestra, and they were probably the best seats in the house. From here, I could soak the whole stage in. My mind tried to make sense of why a Shakespearean play had a Star Trek-meets-The Office-like set on what appears to be disco dance floor. Everyone wore casual attire – Rosalind for instance, wore a simple dress before wearing a hoodie when she disguises herself as a man. Within a minute of sitting down, the stage transformed to occupy a wrestling ring, and a great Mexican wrestler emerged.

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Picture from officiallondontheatre.co.uk

Needless to say, I was so engaged in the hilarity of it all.

I had never seen such a contemporary reenactment of a Shakespeare play. But let’s talk about set design specifically.

I remember wondering why the set was so contained and narrow. In the sense that, there was a ceiling above the whole set that made the office-like space seem very narrow. Not too long after I thought this, was I to be amazed as the ceiling started to rise. The desks began to lift off the ground, any plants and computer screens on them falling on the ground – the pots of plants breaking and dirt crumbling to the floor. Before my eyes, what was once an office was transformed into a forest. The space had expanded and the audience was transported to the depths of a dark forest. Here was a forest made not by trees, but by the tables and chairs that hung from the ceiling. And seated on the chairs were people who would make sounds of the wind or the chirping of birds. It was otherworldly, and simply magical.

In hindsight, the entire first act that exist and play well without the office setting and with people typing at computers, printing and passing sheets (I’m sure this is borrowed from another work, though I know not which). The second act though, cannot play without the forest as it almost becomes a character in itself; it is a place of secrets, of rendezvous, of desire, and even danger. The forest transforms at the end into a place of celebration as basically, everybody finds someone to marry. Colorful lights that appear seemingly out of nowhere decorate the forest (this part reminded me of the film ‘Tangled’ to be honest). Coupled with the choreography of the festival dance that follows, it was a perfect way to end the night.

The second time I went to see the show, I was seated in the third row. Here I was able to truly absorb every little detail and begin to understand how the set might have been built. When the stage began to rise, it stopped – technical difficulties. No matter as the show resumed in five minutes and let’s face it – whenever technical difficulties occur, it is just a reminder of the elements of theatre and the fact that we are in a constructed space.

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Picture from colloquy.eu

I’m not going to go into analyzing the piece. It’s Shakespeare, and whatever I have to say would already have been said. I could talk about the understudy of Celia who I saw the first night and the ‘real’ Celia who i saw the second time. I could go on about how much I loved the portrayal of Jacques, and how I could not forget the talented singing voice of Amiens. But I do want to say that going to see this show at the NT, especially the first time, and feeling everything I felt after is something I will always treasure. I was in tears when it was time to leave simply because I was happy to be studying theater. I was happy to be in a field of study that is constantly evolving. I was happy to be able to create work and transform a space.

I was happy to have found a place where at least momentarily, magic was real.

 

 

Surveillance, Secrecy, and the Spectator: ‘Astro Noise’ by Laura Poitras

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but what a year of theatre it has already been! In January, I spent three weeks in London. This was my first time to London, and I absolutely loved it. It was also the first time I had ever dedicated time to theater, because there’s always a show happening somewhere in London. The same goes for New York, which is where I am currently. I’m still processing everything I’ve seen, and everything I’m feeling. But first, I spent time writing a response to an exhibition for my Live Video Performance Art class in New York, which I would like to develop further here. Last week I paid by first ever visit to the Whitney Museum in NYC to see a video installation by Laura Poitras. Even though this post is related to an installation, I believe it incorporated theatrical elements to the point where it can be considered a theatre piece that used film and interactive media elements. So here goes:

I could write several pages on Laura Poitras’ recent exhibition titled Astro Noise at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Primarily known for her work as a documentary filmmaker, Poitras’ work revolves around how geopolitical events touch people on a human scale. Astro Noise is a cleverly assembled immersive installation incorporating the use of videos – both shot and archival – and government documents and surveillance footage. My primary focus on this response will be to discuss how Poitras plays with the relationship between the spectator and the object of viewing, with specific reference to the first installation.

The first room sets the tone of scrutiny over the act of viewing. Titled “O’ Say Can You See,” there is a huge projection screen hanging in the middle of the room with clips of individuals of varying ages engaging in the act of viewing. The room sounds eerie, the clips are slowed down, and the only light emanates from the videos being played. The only information Poitras provides in the video, is a text that appears at the beginning or the end of all the clips, identifying the sound to be the United States National Anthem playing at the Yankee Stadium. The anthem however is distorted, barely comprehensible. The individuals in the clips can be said to be at a game in the stadium, yet they look up towards a corner of the screen. The sequence of clips are in fact of “people gazing at the unseen remains of the World Trade Center” following 9/11. Through the juxtaposition of the visuals and sound, Poitras creates a social commentary on how the act of viewing is a source of amusement that is passive. On the reverse side of the screen in contrast, plays low quality footage of Afghans being held captive by U.S. military. An audience views the footage by sitting directly in front of the screen, the ambient sound being heard from behind the seats while the eerie anthem fills the room.

The sound design of the piece cleverly plays on the relationship between private and public space. We as an audience are viewing something that is not meant to be seen. The idea of the hidden being made visible is incorporate through the sound design. By not incorporating the use of headphones and having the sound emanate from behind the seating bench, the distorted anthem becomes the first sound the audience is introduced to. The anthem is still clearly audible, as it fills the room, when viewing the footage of the captives. Poitras is able to evoke a sense of helplessness when seeing the aggressive treatment of the captives. This has to do with the information Poitras chooses not to give the audience. It is firstly not known that the captives are accused of being members of Al Qaeda initially, and so first impression suggests they are innocent civilians. Secondly, it is not known that the interrogators, who speak Arabic to the captives, are from the U.S. military. Over the distorted anthem, which fills moments of silence, Poitras is able to challenge actions taken towards supposedly preventing terrorism. What does it mean if the U.S. military is seen as terrorists themselves? The information Poitras chooses to leave out in the installations is included in the brochure of her show. The experience of walking through the installation can be different depending on whether one reads the informational pamphlet before or after.

Poitras creates distinct rooms, each offering different content and a different way to view it. Yet each room is informed by the previous one. The second, being that it involved lying down to look up at stars in the sky, is perhaps to continue the U.S. national anthem from the previous room whilst challenging notions of what it means to be an individual in a space. The last thing one would have seen before walking into this room, would have been the footage of an individual in captivity. What does it mean to you are grounded on a planet shared by others? What does it mean to be able to look at the stars and know that someone else is being tortured and imprisoned? What does it mean to know that there are many things that are not visible? The videos of the stars, and the edges of buildings, are shot in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and the U.S. Where does this place the viewer? Who does the viewer become? Interestingly, the sound design is of distorted sounds of drones flying, voices of drone pilots and radio noise.

To go from gazing at a timelapsed video of the night skies to having to look through slits on the wall in order to obtain information, juxtaposes the accessible to the confidential. It is certainly amusing to see, with the third room, each person standing at varying heights around the narrow space, looking in to see the confidential documents or footage. Poitras is able to not only curate content dedicated to surveillance, but structures an exhibit that critiques the right to information and the extent to which we want to be ‘in the know’.

As I stepped into the last room (though not the last installation), it did not occur to me initially that the television screen was showing a live feed. This was the only screen showing realtime content, which was an overhead camera fixed on the individuals lying down in the second installation  (in a highly saturated and colorful manner). As one journeys through the installation then, an audience member is unaware that they are actually being seen by other audience members.

Poitras’ installation, which is her first solo exhibition, is the most cleverly structured installation I have ever personally seen. She not only structures content, but plays with how each installation is seen and how one informs the another. Having been through the installation once, I certainly need to visit it again and see how my experience of it changes (the installation is on till 1st May 2016). As a photographer who would like to move into installation work that uses the tools of film and theatre, Poitras certainly gave me a lot to think about not only in term of the theme of surveillance, but her medium of choice to represent her experiences, research and documentation.

Existential | a live installation

This post is unlike my earlier ones because this time it’s about the first time I ever directed and performed a piece of my own.

Existential is an immersive installation that explores what it means to be from two different places and how perceptions of the ‘self’ are influenced by the ‘other’. It is an exploration into how identity is anything but static. The performance used projection mapping techniques, where I projected primarily text on my body and in the space.

Peter Brook in The Empty Space says that “A man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged” (Brook 11). Existential was based around the sense of being interrogated with questions pertaining to one’s identity; questions that are simple and common by nature, but can have complicated answers attached to them. The set up involved a small blackbox space with no lights except a spotlight that focussed on a chair that was on one end of the room. An audience member would have to sit in the chair in order for me to respond physically in some way and for something to happen in the space. I knew I wanted to incorporate Boal’s notion of a ‘spect actor’, where the audience is both a spectator and a performer. The result was a piece that was intimate and became a shared experience between me, the performer, and the audience member(s).

Photography by Gaar Adams
Photography by Gaar Adams

 

To create this piece, I drew inspiration from the work of Ignas Krunglevičius, Tsang Kin-Wah, and Adrian Piper. Ignas Krunglevičius is a Lithuanian artist who works primarily with video and sound. I specifically looked at his video installations which only involve text and play with font size and screen colour. Of particular interest to me were his Interrogation and NWUO text based video installations. Chinese artist Tsang Kin-Wah has video installations where he plays with the movement of text in a room, The Infinite Nothing (2015). And finally, I investigated Adrian Piper’s performance art work. Her work prompted me to think about:

  • What is my socially constructed identity?
  • What are the implications of our public identity?
  • How can the body be seen as an art object?

It was interesting to hold the performance on two nights because though it was the same content being shown, both nights felt very different. At 7pm, I entered a completely different zone mentally. I was not always aware of how many people were in the space or who. The performance relied on me as the performer following my own impulses. There was no script to the progression of the night, and so I never knew what was going to be projected in the space and when and for how long. It was improvised based. It also relied on the audience and how they  moved in the space and interacted with me. I realized at one point that I was essentially creating a space for play. It really depended on who was in the space and when. An audience member could enter and leave the space whenever they wanted. On a few occasions, an audience member would choose to sit on the floor opposite to me and make physical contact by holding my hand. Another chose to lie   having a barcode projected on him, and another – before she left the space – took off her ring and placed it on the chair. There were times when I would engage in eye contact with someone for quite some time, yet not being fully aware of the passing of time. This lack of awareness would also be when I would stare at the chair, waiting – and not sure for how long – for someone in the room to sit on the chair. The first night was about feeling vulnerable in the face of the roles of the interrogator and a responder. Yet the second night became about the reversal of these roles. Again, this has to do with how the audience interacts in the space. On the first night there were people who would approach me, sit very close to me and grab a hold of my hand, to which my body responded with a release of tears that I could not control. But on the second night, it felt as though the audience was making promises – that they had impulses they would not follow perhaps because of the idea of a distinction between audience and performer, or a sense of fragility. I had tears in my eyes that would not fall, my eyes becoming very watery until I would lie down in a space where the words “Where are you from?” would be projected on my body.

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Photography by Gaar Adams

 

There were interesting moments of being observed as the audience would approach me to read the text, which further emphasized the notions of identity and gender that I wanted to convey. The piece was really about what it means to be a girl who comes from two distinct cultures, and the emotional response to being alienated from a culture one was born into because of she does not fit the stereotype of what a local sounds or looks like (whatever that means). The idea of projecting text on my skin was to convey the sense of being marked, yet having a choice to identify or defy the text by staying or leaving it behind.

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Photography by Gaar Adams

I think I want to experiment with language for a future project or version of Existential. I projected primarily text which was in English, but I do want to experiment with Spanish where the words carry so much weight in meaning.

Before closing this post, I would like to express my tremendous gratitude to Attilio Rigotti who acted almost like a mentor in the process of developing the work, and also helped me learn Isadora; Garreth Chan for his amazing work in sound designing the performance; Grace Huang for her support and time committed in helping me set up and technically directing the performance nights; Walter Ryon for all the technical knowledge and support provided; Simon Wilkes for the continued support along the process; and Mateo Molina for all his time and knowledge shared. Special thank you also to Tomi Tsunoda, Debra Levine, Abda Kazemi, Gaar Adams for the photographs and everyone else who supported me along the way. This project would not have been possible without the NYUAD Theater Program.

 

Works Cited
Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. London: Penguin, 2008. Print.

Yong Jean Lee’s “The Shipment”

Performativity is separate to performance, affirms Butler. When it comes to the performativity of gender, she believes that “gender is a stylized repetition of acts… which are internally discontinuous … so that the appearance of substance is precisely that — a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and perform in the mode of belief.” Butler is speaking to the idea of gender being constructed by society rather than naturalized at birth. Gender is not a biological recognition, but a constructed concept. This is in much the same way that race is also constructed. With a cast of five people, Young Jean Lee’s production of The Shipment put together five distinct parts to their production. The first being movement on stage by two of the actors, then a stand-up comedy show with just Douglas Scott, a short skit with the entire cast, an acapella performance by two male actors and the only female one, and lastly a short play performed by the whole cast. Their work speaks to the ‘script’ that is often tied with race and the acknowledgement of race as a constructed word that has become normalized.

The show opens with one black male actor moving energetically on stage. He is soon joined by another actor. The two imitate each other’s movement, at times performing in unison or even individualizing their movements. Their movements are directed to the audience, often turning to face them or even shaking their bums right in front of them. The opening can be seen as recognition of the form that the production is following by having an all black cast on a stage and where there is a frequent acknowledgement of the audience. It parodies the concept of minstrelsy and how black bodies were a source of entertainment for a white population, to the point where blackfacing was even done. In his stand-up comedy solo performance, Douglas Scott ties his comedy to specific kinds of terminology. For example, he openly acknowledges the use of the word “nigger” and uses it frequently in his own sentences. Douglas energetically says that he “needs to talk about race because white people are stupid motherfuckers”. He attempts to highlight a hypocrisy that exists amongst people who are white. Although he spends a great deal of time blaming white people for their opinions on race, also acknowledges that “black people are stupid” as well. Although he uses race as a target point to build his rants and discussions off of, it would appear that he aims to place blame on people and not a racially specific people.

I recall moments when watching the final short play with the whole cast where I questioned who it was that they were playing. I remembered Cloud 9, where the black slave is played by a white actor because it represents the black man conforming to what whites want him to be. There were moments where I thought the all black cast was playing all white characters. Part of this assumption lies in how the cleverly the stand-up comedy component of the show was a kind of set up for the final play. Douglas spoke about how “white people don’t want to hear black people whine” and that white people are probably the biggest whiners. In the last act we have Omar for instance, who whines about people invading his personal space or how he avoids certain foods. Douglas’s acknowledgement of stereotypes of both whites and blacks allowed for the characterization of the actors into their final roles at the end. Rather than each segment of The Shipment then, being distinct, each one builds off of the other. The sheer absurdity of these aggrandized characters highlights the expectation of the audience to see black people perform in a grand, stylized and humourous way. When they begin to play a game and the prompt is “the negro believes,” there is a similar sense of normalcy similar to the beginning when Douglas openly uses the word “nigger” in his speech. This plays on the notion that it is perfectly fine for blacks to use these terms because these are the terms that that are associated and imposed on their ‘identity’ as blacks. However, when Omar states “I don’t think we’d be doing this if there was a black person in the room,” it completely turns the whole scene on its head. The production blurs the lines of the actions, gestures, language and characterizations that are associated with blacks and imposes them on whites. In doing so, they present that race is not determined by birth but by language. Note that the transition between scenes into the last one was incorporated into the performance. Rather than the set up of the stage being a moment the audience is not supposed to see, the transition is made visible. In fact, Mary J. Blige’s “Ooh” song is played, and all the lights on stage are kept turned on two older white men who take their time in moving everything into place. White men are literally constructing the set which then black actors perform in. As one can see in the play Our Town by Wilder, whiteness is always defined in relation to its other. The black actors never change anything on set and are restricted to furniture on stage, elevating the idea of conformity within societal structures and the normalcy attached to constructed ideas of race.

The Shipment speaks to the stereotypes that are associated with African Americans. More than this however, it is a portrayal of what is thought of that happens when people do talk about race, and how this conversation differs between white people, black and white, and black people. The discussion of race is considered taboo but also privileged; only white people get to talk about race. Only do the whites get to feel victimized and targeted when in a room with blacks. As Douglas says, “for white people the sense of persecution festers”. However, as Douglas acknowledges in his stand-up comedy, black people are also afraid of other black people. What this speaks to is not the nonsensical stereotype that all blacks are dangerous, but that people are dangerous. We tie these stereotypes to race in order to feel like the victims or have a sense of authority over a scapegoat, but humans in general have the potential to be dangerous. Race does not determine action. However, the associations – the ‘script’ – that are tied with race have been normalized to the extent that one can come to believe that race does inform action. The Shipment attempts to rewrite this script by following it and performing it differently each time so that its absurdity can enlighten the audience to question the identity of the self and the other.

Plasticity, lights, Chaka Khan and red stockings

Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend a staged reading at NYU Abu Dhabi of Dry Land, a play by Ruby Ray Spiegel. The play is set in a highschool girls’ locker room, and is a coming of age story centered on the topic of abortion. Having grown up in a conservative culture, one can imagine my initial surprise when hearing the word ‘vagina’ being spoken aloud. Other topics of conversation include sex and their period. It occurred to me that I had rarely, if ever, heard these topics being spoken aloud openly in public with a mixed gendered audience (though granted, a closed space may be considered a private space). But wait, what’s wrong with saying “vagina” anyways? Honestly, absolutely nothing. My reaction however is a testament to how its meaning goes beyond a simple definition that is tied to the physical body.

Beyond being simply words, they are identifiers; labels attached to an individual. Yet they drag a whole script along with them. To be a girl, is to have grown up playing with Barbie dolls, wanting to live in a princess castle, being good at cooking, etc. When Simone de Beauvoir claims that “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman,” she appropriates gender to be an identifier that is not static. From the moment of birth – and perhaps even before – there is a gender label attached to the body. “Is it a boy or a girl?” is a simple question that can be translated in many possible ways. On a biological and physical level, it asks if the newborn has a peinis or a vagina. On a familial level perhaps it means whether parents invest in football or ballet. Should the socks be blue or pink? With the association of a gender comes a whole series stereotypes and perceptions attached with it. These can exist within a large community or even between two people, representing that there is ultimately a cultural governing system enforced on the body. Narcissister exaggerates the body and sexuality to convey the absurdity of gender as a social construct.

One could only imagine my reaction to the work of Narcissister. I do not recall quite exactly what my first response or feelings were. I do recall, however, being incredibly confused as to what I was seeing. Her work is bizarre, expressive, outspoken…. and also enlightening. Having been tagged as ‘the topless feminist superhero New York needs,’ Narcissister is an anonymous performance artist whose work centers on race and sexuality. She frequently wears plastic and a mask that bears the likeness of a Barbie doll. What plasticity, lights, Chaka Khan and red stockings all have in common is that they have a strong presence in Narcissister’s performance titled Every Woman. Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” plays throughout the piece while Narcissister, who appears like a live mannequin, moves to the music while she places her hands below her hips and near her crotch. She then begins to perform a reverse strip tease, “slowly redresses herself from clothing she pulls out of various bodily orifices” (Narcissister). Here, Naracissister is seen critiquing society on the ways the female body is sexualized. As she pulls the red stocking out from her and wears them, she empowers her own self by being the source of the clothing and also the ones who gets to put them on. She has her own agency in what she wears, how she wears it, and what she chooses to do with it. Instead of teasing her clothes off, she chooses to start naked and covered in plastic. This sense of a being a live mannequin whose face resembles some Barbie dolls, announces her identity to be conflicted between what femininity means to her versus what is means societally. Her body is torn both real and ‘fake’ yet ultimately the human body is material. This is reminiscent of Riviere’s notion that “femininity is a masquerade” (Hughes 90).

We grow up with thinking gender is simple to understand. It is not complicated. It is as simple as walking into a toys store and there are sections marked clearly labeling which toys are for the boys, and which ones are for the girls. Gender and its associations are dictated for us. If we defy or step out of this script that is constructed for us, it is out of the ordinary or even taboo, and we risk exclusion from society. The truth of the matter is that gender is complicated. What if I have a vagina but choose to identify as male? Or do I really have to fit into either male or female tick-boxes? Narcissister’s exaggerative style of performance art is indeed provocative. She has chosen a style and forms within her pieces to express the absurdity of the definitions tied to gender. Butler speaks of how to “de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty, the body is understood to be an active process of embodying certain cultural and historical possibilities,” which is what Narcissister attempts to do as well (Butler). She recognizes her body to be her own, but also uses her body as a text to speak for the influences society has. She recognizes her body as material and uses it to represent the conflict of self-identification.

So then what exactly is gender? Is it the label or the associations made or both, none, something else? Gender is complicated, but in trying to understand it, I choose to side with Butler’s take on its definition. Butler believes that gender is simply “the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of sub- stance, of a natural sort of being” (Salih 1).

 

Works Cited
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519. Web.
“Every Woman.” Narcissister. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.
Frank, Priscilla. “Narcissister Is The Topless Feminist Superhero New York Needs (NSFW).” Huffpost Arts & Culture. The Huffington Post, 30 June 2014. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.
Hughes, Athol, ed. THE ININER WORLD AND JOAN RIVIERE. Collected Papers: 1920 – 1958. London: Karnac Book, 1991. Print.
Salih, Sarah. “On Judith Butler and Performativity.” (2008): n. pag. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

If Beckett’s ‘Waiting For Godot’ was based in Sri Lanka….

Time and time again, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) has been enacted within a political context at varying degrees. In 1984 in Haifa, Ilan Ronen had the protagonists Vadimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) be Arab construction workers in Israel, who would wait to be hired. Donald Howarth’s 1980 version in Cape Town was meant to make a statement about relationships between black South Africans and white South Africans during the Apartheid era. For Susan Sontag’s production in Sarajevo in 1993, it was an “act of defiance against a world which appeared content to stand by and watch” during the Serb bombardment of Sarajevo (Bradby 165). She pushed for her performances to be “full of anguish, of immense sadness, and toward the end, violence” (Bradby 166).

If I were to produce my own take on Beckett’s classic, it would be set between 2010 and 2014 and take place in the popular Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf café in Colombo, Sri Lanka. These specific years are in reference to a time when the country was in its last years under ‘a failed dictatorship’. I chose these years specifically because I was living in Sri Lanka up until this time, and so have not experienced conditions under the new government. To begin with, Pozzo and Lucky would be a comedic duo of politicians who represent both the ignorance and the idiocy of the government. Didi and Gogo however, would represent the Colombo youth.

Coffee Bean, as it is referred to, is a popular café for people of all ages to meet for casual or professional reasons. It is also a common meeting place for high school students or college undergraduates as it is the perfect place to have a formal meeting without any sort of pressure attached. Over mochas and lattes, seated on the comfy leather chairs, is where the youth of Colombo organize conferences that aim to empower the youth or plan events to help the local community in some way. To speak in general terms, the problem with Sri Lanka is that there is much talk but little support or action taken. Kudos to the youth of Colombo for finding a time to meet to discuss some cause, like finding ways to promote unity in the multiethnic country, but in a group of ten or fifteen only a third will show up and only a couple will actually turn words into action. There is a desire to delay words that should be spoken now, and actions that need to be taken now. Far too often does sheer laziness get in the way of any meaningful change being made.

On a much more personal note, I cannot help but imagining Didi and Gogo as an elderly heterosexual couple. In their late seventies, Grandma Didi and Grandpa Gogo want to leave their home and explore, but there is always something holding them back. Pozzo and Lucky would signify younger versions of themselves, full of energy and going where they please and saying whatever they please.

In all honesty, the idea of Didi and Gogo being played by an elderly couple is based on my parents. My parents are near their sixties but they seem like they are in their thirties. They are not afraid of anything or anyone. Most of our family though, lives on the other side of the world. Torn between Sri Lanka and Peru, my parents always talk about one day leaving and moving to live in Peru, but something always keeps them from going; the reasons have mainly been work related. They are waiting for some miracle to happen that will force them to leave. As much as I would like them to drop everything and just go, I understand that they cannot afford to without securing employment, or maybe winning the lottery. The more they wait, the more I feel like perhaps it is not in their hand of cards to leave. Perhaps they are condemned to live alone together in an island to which their children will never return to. We have our lives to live and as much as Sri Lanka will always be a home, it is now a place to go for holiday, but not to live.

 

Works Cited:
Bradby, David. Beckett: Waiting for Godot. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

Tehching Hsieh and the Experience of Time

My initial impression on the work of Tehching Hsieh, a performance artist known for his ‘One Year Performances’, was awe. I could not imagine doing one thing the same way continuously for a year. Yet in some way, we all have our markings of time. We all have a ritual that we carry out every day, whether it is brushing our teeth every morning or eating rice everyday for lunch or going for a walk outside to bask in the golden skies of a sunset. Time is essentially a construct of man that our bodies have become programmed to respond to. The experience of the passing of time is central to Hsieh’s work.

Hsieh arrived to the United States in 1974 as an undocumented immigrant from Taiwan. Beginning in 1978, Hsieh had six various one year performances. In particular, it was in 1981 where he decided to spend a whole year living outdoors. In “One Year Performance 1981–1982 (Outdoor Piece),” Hsieh would not enter any sort of shelter, whether it was a building or a cave, and survived with money he had hidden beforehand in various places. Hsieh’s work can be seen as representative of a life of monotony or survival that some migrants go through. More than being specific to the theme of migration however, Hshieh’s work is a testament to the weight time can have on the body. Ngũgĩ eloquently defines performance to be a “representation of being – the coming to be and the ceasing to be of processes in nature, human society, and thought” (Thiong’o 11). In living life as a performance, Hsieh carves an existence that acknowledges time as a part of life. Far too often do we take the time we have for granted. Hsieh mentally and physically subjects his body in a way that acknowledges the space around him and yet rejects it through his willingness to be isolated and exist in another state of living.

In defining space, there is no one set interpretation to his work. Space can be seen as New York City itself and how the constructed environment overwhelms the individual to the point where the body can feel insignificant. Space can be seen in terms of the unknown; the idea that one migrates to a place for a purpose and tries to integrate into the society but feels alienated. Hsieh’s work is going to mean different things to people because he is going through an experience that we try to understand through our own experiences. Even more importantly, we each have a distinct relationship to time. The duration of Hsieh’s performances of lasting one year is representative of human existence itself and how it is connected with the earth. We are all pulled by the same gravitational force but (and this may be related to the Platonic ideal) we attach our own meanings to time. Time is the ticking of a clock or the movement of the sun; it is the weight of the past affecting our choices in the present; the rumble from hunger or the closing of eyes; it is a measurement of distance.

 

Works Cited

“NYC-Based Artist Tehching Hsieh: When Life Becomes A Performance.” The Culture Trip. The Culture Trip Ltd, n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2015. 
TEHCHING HSIEH. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.
Thiong’o, Ngugi Wa. “Enactments of Power: The Politics of Performance Space.” TDR 1988-) 41.3 (1997): 11.Web.