Copyright 2013

I wrote this essay, given as a talk, in response to the prompt from Gavin Kroeber and Quill Camp, around which the excellent day of roundtables and propositions was organized: Why do the experimental performing arts persist in making “shows,” rather than encounters, parades, meals, businesses, vehicles, protests, games or vacations? Why, after turning away from “theatre” and “drama” to terms such as “contemporary performance,” are artists still performing for theatrical audiences in black boxes?

Karinne Keithley Syers

I was asked to contribute to this event just as I was in the middle of making a show. At various speculative stages of that process, I had imagined the show to run along very open lines, like my very own Museum of Jurassic Technology built into the event space, punctuated by occasional and discrete performance acts: songs, dances. But as I persisted in the process, I decided to embrace all the techniques that theater offered, unabashed, in front of the young people.

I tried to articulate what is different between a SHOW and the other forms this conference lists as potential places into which theatrical thinking moves: events, parades, meals, businesses, vacations. I think what is at stake in segregating these manifestations, is the presumed role of the audience in relationship to the object of theatrical thinking. This includes the work done by the audience as well as the demands I can make of the audience of my show: to submit to my controlling navigation of a speculative object, for a discrete period of time.

I know we are in the age of participation. And I love to touch you and take your photograph. But I cannot see that we should abandon theater in favor of a presumed stock of collective meaningfulness or contemporary relevance that more overtly participatory forms have. I do not mean that we should not make events, parades, meals, vacations, businesses, or museums. But when it comes time to make the show, make the show. Shows are healthier when they are rare. They require so much investment, and they perish so quickly. At least mine do, at an average rate of four nights every three years. Each show marks the calendar, as a kind of high holiday, a ritual of both humiliation and success.

There is a book called the anti-theatrical impulse that Mac Wellman had me read. In it, the author traces the long history of the denigration of theatricality. In it, the author traces the long history of theater's attempt to renew theater.

Why should we not also have an original relation to the universe, said Ralph Waldo Emerson.

If I defend theater, then, if I speak on behalf of theater, speak as a lover and a partisan, you should know that I am not talking about what we know about theater, but about the theater toward which we gesture, at the outset of any speculation that becomes a piece. I imagine it as a chamber where a form hovers in a real, plain room. Or in a real, embellished room. Hovers by the grace of our collective attention, which is an underestimated form of participation.

Stanley Cavell, a philosopher who has written much about Emerson, has also written about opera, and about the act of raising of the voice as gesturing toward an intervening realm, a realm of significance which always remains prospective, but to which, in the gesture of singing, we feel ourselves pressed, existing in both places, in the world and in the significance of the world, like a harmonic overtone.

I persist in thinking that theater is a name we give to one of the venues in which we hope to have that experience. I persist in believing that the changes we make in our techniques and our consensus about what and what is not moving and real and significant, is not directional, is certainly not representative of a progress, but just a condition of staying in motion, a condition necessary to any living thing, be it organism or group endeavor.

There is a form wagered. The form itself, though we might find ways to map or describe it, is immaterial. It is a reference point between ranges of matter. It feeds back into us. It hovers there like a spinning plate, for as long as we will concentrate on it. What happens may not survive the experience.

An audience is needed. An audience has a job, to be the second of three terms in the support of the spinning. Maybe an audience that is eating or walking or patronizing a business can do this job. I have seen such things happen. But if the question posed is about the migration of theatrical thinking into venues that do not look like black boxes, I make the case for privileging the role and work of the audience in our migratory considerations, make the case for considering this shared work to be the principle good of our trade. I remain convinced that the work of the audience takes place best in a condition of intense receptivity, which is why we generally expect audiences to stay quiet; convinced that that receptive work is structured and validated by the neutrality, before we assemble, of the possible combination of people in that gathering, always unknown until the particular night and always potentially different. I remain convinced that quiet is necessary because an audience joins in a group tone, a room tone, while simultaneously adding energy to that room tone through the experience of solitude within a crowd that underwrites the energy of the group.

Jonathan Edwards described the furnished room of elemental relations as “the room of the idea,” a conceptual chamber of meditation upon a word or an image, a chamber in which an idea is staged, an image space which to persist until it strikes the physical, nervous, hormonal, conceptual, and for him religious “sense of the heart,” which is full-bodied understanding. Theater as room recreates these conditions, in company. It speaks to the plural. In chambers, in camera, light and sound and image and the feeling of near bodies strikes sensitive matter. It thrives on your willingness to persist in the dimness, so as not to ruin the exposure. The print that comes of it is not part of the room. The print is transmissible, equipped to survive in time, whereas what happens in the room always lasts for a while and then recedes. We gather, close the door and occupy the room together. Something shows itself, we hope.

Wallace Stevens writes that the task of the poet is to makes the invisible visible. It is one of the refrains of the seminar I took here at the Grad Center with Joan Richardson for several years in a row, an experience that I found a close cousin to attending the theater. In the theatrical room of showing, how do we make the invisible visible? I like to experiment with the gathering itself as the medium of that rendering. Dancers tend to know about this emerging visibility of the invisible, and train to become attentive instruments registering the tiny sensory feedback of spectral images. Our bodies experience these shifting, living moods as new regions. Many dance techniques develop approaches to finding new moods, through image work. In Ohan Naharin's Gaga technique, a rare bird that combines astonishing prowess, articulate expressiveness, and expansive strangeness, one practices interior decoration, visualizing ornate embellishment of one’s body’s interior, producing a baroque and sensuously delightful private shine that transforms the dancing body, elevates and tilts it as it makes its way through more traditionally describable movement sequences. You couldn’t necessarily identify, say, that the dancer is experiencing feedback from an overlaid image of his internal organs slowly revolving in a fluid suspension permeated with specks of gold leaf, but you do identify an opening and softening and radiating of that body, note its proprioception apparently extending well beyond large descriptions (“my arm is behind me”), toward a depth-map of responsive fascia articulating joints, of waves of electrical energy coursing through the nervous system. This is not a dancer’s hallucination; it is an increase of range and capacity to act. To get a chance to experience this opulence is one of the better reasons to be a dancer. Deborah Hay practices something similar, working with annual meditations, to which she invites her body to make a cellular response. After reading about Hay’s work, I adapted the meditation to something that could be played in the relational space of gathering, the feedback loop between my body and the audience’s bodies as I am seen and return the gaze. I see you experiencing my care. I see you see me as a tree. I see you see me see you as an abominable branch. To do this, I impose the image on the circuit of the returned gaze, register my own body shifting in the embrace of that image, and trust the body of the audience to respond affectively; the image hovers and transits, signal of “the more than rational distortion” that takes place in a “radiant and productive atmosphere” (more Stevens, more of Joan’s refrains).

Instead of abandoning the show, let us think more about what shows itself, and how to make it more than rational. Let's think about the wager of inviting being seen as something while plainly not being that thing, about the value of a collective etude in seeing something as also something else. Projecting a third term, an intervening realm of speculation, fiction is a float across scaffolds of possibility and in the theater we are asked to register that floating speculation as a beholding of a possible world, register it in our bodies, which we can do because we are near it. So theater is a venue for the experience of multiplicity, of a prospective commons. Making the show, we address ourselves to a neutral, unknown combination of people. As an audience, we locate within or just beyond ourselves, that neutral, unknown possibility, and agree to be addressed there. What will you allow it to address in you? I prefer not to be addressed as a consumer, but as a member of the wedding.

Let us abandon “contemporary performance.”
Let us abandon the god damned art world.
Let us abandon critique but not severity.
Let us abandon our seating arrangements for seating arrangements that let me see you better.
Performance does not matter, except to those who do it and see it.
Performance is for us, but we cannot know where that us begins and ends, or what us will look like in the future.
What will show itself? How can we keep trying to see it?
We do not know what the old things looked like.
We cannot compass what the old things thought.
We cannot assume we are smarter or better.
We cannot assume we are not.
Paint the black boxes white, the better to see each other.
That is enough progress.
Instead of moving forward, let us remember we don't know what we are doing, and let us be cheered by this thought, into more of this divine puttering, taken up in whatever kind of room we can afford to gather in.