The Playgoer: Two Questions

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Two Questions

by chris mills

Former: What makes a classic? Yeah, that’s what I’m asking. You may say I’m remedial (hell, perhaps you already have), but that’s today’s query. BECAUSE I happen to be in a company that is doing a production off Death of A Salesman in the fall (Oct 22, 14th St. Y theatre—c’mon down), and I read yesterday that Avery Brooks is to star in a production at Oberlin, directed by Justin Emeka, a professor of theater and Af-Am studies. I, of course, both have and am developing a set of reasons as to why this particular Miller (not my favorite), why Miller (easier for me to answer) and what the particular joy is about entering into a space SO mapped out, SO well-trod, so known. And what it might mean for both maker and viewer to come out on the other side. What do we learn from investigating what's already been investigated?

It sounds like a loaded question, but I mean it with all honesty (and weird joy, because theater is so caught up in the resuscitation of what already been done).
Latter: Information. I mentioned Jake Hooker’s show, What We Should Judge When We Judge… to you and got a chance to see it last night. And it was a delightful take on the “performative lecture,” which is a form I love and think is developing as more and more people take up its concerns. For me, it’s kind of like the explosion of “performance art” (a term I hate to use as it became—deservedly so, in many instances—a catch-all for bad work) in the 80s. It was a moment in which there was a kind of power as artists and others decided that they were able, and had the right, to make live art. But, what’s interesting and different in this 2008 performance chapter, The Performance Lecture is that it often deals with some deep or arcane or philosophically dense subject. And the subject (last night’s started with Greek Lyric poetry—remember iambic vs. trochaic? Pindar, Sappho and Anacreon?) is important to the piece and well-examined but also functions (in the best use of the form) as a springboard to ruminations that range far and wide, frequently returning to questions about “the human condition.” It’s a different form than the well-made play, say, which shows these questions; the performance lecture instead asks/asks about these questions through a veil of information, rather than through a creation of detailed realism. And what is the query, Chris Mills (you might be asking)? My question to you is: What works for you?

Happy weekend....

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Former: It seems to me as though the impact it has upon people's lives is what makes a classic. Now, I can't exactly spell out how Arthur Miller or George Bernard Shaw or William Shakespeare have touched so many people--in what ways--but it is clear that they do, and continue to. Sometimes the beginning is just luck: a conspiring of events to launch an author into the forefront of our consciousness. But in order for them to have staying power, we need to keep returning to them and finding things new. For instance, I recently read a book of Shaw's writings on theater, and he makes in it absolutely clear the impact that Ibsen had on his community at the time--he measures theater in England as being Before Ibsen and After Ibsen. And Ibsen's writing, in turn, effects those people who are effected by people largely influenced by him; Miller himself referred often to his own connection to Ibsen. And when people look at Ibsen's body of work, "Doll's House" is one of the premier works that they mention.

The Latter: What works is a human being genuinely attempting to share his thoughts an emotions with an audience. He can be as disingenuous along the way as he wants, but if it is undertaken in the spirit of sharing, rather than a spirit of combat, then it is usually better received--even if the production is disliked on the whole. Theater is one of the means of cultural communication we have, and "Performance Art" is really just a performer attempting to directly communicate; not putting part of his communciation along with the communication of a whole team of other-and-like-minded artists.

The Performance Artists (and I use that without quotation marks because the ones I'm thinking of are the ones who have ruined that term for the rest of us) who do not succeed are those who are rude to their audience, excessively cruel to their audience, and to whom the audience generally do not feel that communication is in good faith: they feel the artist is being selfish, is being aggressive, and is generally ruining things.

I could name an artist as my favorite example, because I disagree with the way she slathers herself naked in honey or impersonates people like Terry Schaivo's husband to say "I love Terry Schaivo like I love binge drinking and crystal meth, but since she and I have already come to blows on the subject and she backed down, I won't.

As for The Performance Lecture, it probably has to do with the more intellectual nature of the artist. It still has to function as a springboard to ruminate on "the human condition," because that's the conversation we're all interested in, but if the performer is the kind of person who thinks about Pindar, Sappho and Anacreon when they're thinking about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, then that's the kind of work they're going to produce.