Blogs The Green Room Fire Drill

Fire Drill is the artistic collaboration of Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney. They work along the disciplinary boundaries of dance, theater, and performance art, conducting experiments around the notion of contemporary and how art is meant to be watched. Their work has been seen at the Red Eye Theater, Bryant-Lake Bowl, the Ritz Theater, Skewed Visions, and the White Page in Minneapolis, along the Central Corridor in Saint Paul, and has been curated in Portland, Oakland, and NYC.

Romantic Pathologies: Fire Drill on RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on […]

Photo: Johanna Austin

Photo: Johanna Austin

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE by Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental and Wilhelm Bros. & Co. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE is a story of stories. The piece is inspired by historical record, and also incorporates several pieces of writing—many of them stories—written by Edgar Allan Poe. The history sampled surrounds Edgar Allan Poe’s final days, letters, and train rides. The story synthesized from these elements however—the Capital-S Story—is conspicuously not Poe. It is a metanarrative, The Tortured Genius, and Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental / Wilhelm Bros. & Co.’s engagement with Poe’s life and work fit him inside this narrative. The Tortured Genius is a romantic trope—in that it dates literally from the Romantic era, when our social understanding of both art and mental illness were shaped quite differently. In considering RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE, we are most curious about how the representational practice of quoting historical source material–both historical facts as well as Poe’s writing—is deployed to shape history into metanarrative.

RED-EYE is full of stunning images and considered design, and its creators clearly value virtuosity, creativity, and clarity. Relatively few set pieces are used to create a multitude of scenes—three long tables become doors, trains, a bar, a hotel room, as well as various imaginative spaces. A small number of lighting instruments create stark lines and shadows, heightening the drama and pathos of each image. Though we grew tired of the constant set transitions, the visual composition was resonant throughout the piece, demonstrating a type of formal attention. We believe these images are Lucidity Suitcase et al. at their finest, and we as an audience did not require a grounding of these images in history to appreciate their intrinsic aesthetic and choreographic value.

The stage pictures in RED-EYE were often inspired by and illustrative of the quoted text. This “physicalizing” of the text ranged from tricks like acrobatics, stilts, aerial arts, mime, and gestural choreography. The tricks were clearly physical metaphors for the text being excerpted—an ultimately self-defeating desire to be abstract with history while at the same time being very clear about how they abstracted it. The historical justification was built fully into the piece. Take, for example, the Ranger character, whose function at times was to directly address the audience, interpreting the abstractions. He explained a scene where a wearied Poe removes a sock and shoe to touch his bare foot on astroturf, and this appeared in the play because Poe was actually known to do this on grass. Not only were isolated poetic images explained by our Ranger guide, but the whole of the narrative. He telegraphed from the opening that many instances of a women characters in Poe’s work (and ostensibly therefore, the performance) were references to Poe’s dead wife Virginia. However this literal, one-to-one clarity undercut the poetry of the few, silent images. Could the images stand on their own, without justifying their existence with the text?

Ranger aside, the major tool the production used to ground the narrative in history were the supertitles, which announced every sourced poem, story, letter and essay. Why was this piece so invested in citing its sources? It wants to tell us it has done its research, shoring up historical capital. Without the supertitles, or even grounding the metanarrative specifically in an artist such as Poe, the story would read as an age-worn archetype. The historical research places it beyond reproach—perhaps instead of Colbert’s “truthiness”, here we have “historyness”. The production’s specificity about Poe’s life actually obscures its other ideological moves—and when history is used to justify a narrative that is damaging in other respects, it becomes problematic.

RED-EYE displayed classic vintage sexism, presented without comment. Virginia Poe (played by Alessandra L. Larson) haunts E.A. throughout the piece, darting in and out of scenes, under tables and past curtains. As narrative, she is Poe’s deceased wife and cousin, the young and sickly woman who appears in many of his works as Annabel Lee, Lenore, etc. As image and history, she is the classic sylph: the white female figures appearing in contemporaneous Romantic ballets, wispy, ethereal, alluring, cunning. They hover between life and death, often luring men to their downfall. Virginia traps Edgar under a table, grazes over his shoulders from behind, slides down a white fabric from a suspended bed, and plunges from a ledge into a reservoir. There’s an extended gesture phrase where her hands play as birds. In the third act of the play, she transitions into another sexist trope, the siren. Now she’s in stilts and a red dress, more overtly sexual and dangerous. Still she does not speak.

As good third wave feminists, we do not object to women being portrayed as sexual or dangerous, but the female tropes in RED-EYE are regressive and handled uncritically by the production. These tropes are the root of why women are still portrayed without agency or complexity in our cultural texts, important only insofar as they relate to men. Yes, they are taken from Poe’s work, but shouldn’t they be afforded some recontextualization in a contemporary work? Instead, they just become the most visible figment of Poe’s mental illness—which is similarly treated in a dehistoricized light. Perhaps there’s a subtext that the way we view mental illness has changed since the 1840s: Poe would likely have received diagnosis and treatment today, rather than been left to his destructive habits. But actually the production highlighted the ways in which our culture still does treat mental illness in an antiquated fashion: most crucially in the way that it links creativity and madness.

What we find most disturbing about this production is its romantic portrayal of the artist and the source of art. It promotes the image of the artist as a solitary genius, a tortured soul, a sensitive being driven to reveal their emotional truths in a hostile world. In the context of Poe’s implied mental illness, his artistic production also becomes pathologized, and his works become symptoms of his unconscious impulses. Poe’s obituary in the closing moments of the show pays homage to “genius and the frailties too often attending it”. RED-EYE caricatures insanity, gaining comedic or even poetic mileage to make behavior the right blend of tragic and zany, supporting the just-so narrative of the tormented genius.

This image is, of course, taken straight from Poe’s era–but just like the female archetypes, we must question the presentation of the Romantic model of the artist in 2015. Since then, our culture has cycled through a few other models of the artist in society, the credentialed professional and the creative entrepreneur among them. The Romantic solitary genius model, however, remains present in the popular imagination, and RED-EYE treats it more as an essential truth than a historic object. The production did not interrogate its relationship to history or to the present, and we were alarmed to experience this dehistoricized Romantic idea within the context of a contemporary art center. To perpetuate that model has dire consequences: it delimits the scope of art to the personal and the emotional, and narrows the interpretation of art to individual pathology. These ideas work against the field of art when artists want their labor to be valued as work instead of treated as personal indulgence (an issue that affected Poe as well). They work against artists who want their work to impact fields beyond art, like the social, political, or economic. This model also prevails in mainstream American culture (including among right-wing pundits who see artists as indulgent freeloaders) and contributes to the continued ghettoization of contemporary art in our country.

The slick visuals paired with the macabre narrative creates a tricky result. Poe’s alcoholism, (probably) schizophrenia, and marriage to his 13-year-old cousin are transformed into a beautiful, cathartic, digestible whole. The tension of this aesthetic treatment is present in Poe’s work as well, but in the context of the RED-EYE production in 2015, we take it as part of a different trend: the elision of art and entertainment. In week two of Out There, we discussed this issue in relation to the conceptual themes of aggression and the commodity, but in RED-EYE the entertainment issue arises from the style and aesthetics of the piece. The polished staging reminds us of commercial more than experimental theater, and the metanarrative is familiar and pleasing. The body of the tortured artist passes from this mortal coil, yet his work of genius lives on: no loose ends or productive questions remain. Frankly, we have higher hopes for art and its capacity to provoke and disturb. We also have higher hopes for the contemporary–that it will fundamentally alter preexisting ideas, rather than create slick packaging for old tropes.

RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE continues at 8pm tonight, January 30, 2015 and tomorrow night, January 31, 2015, in the McGuire Theater.

 

Tell Them What You Told Them: Fire Drill on Mariano Pensotti’s Cineastas

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on […]

Photo: Carlos Furman

Photo: Carlos Furman

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on Cineastas by Mariano Pensotti. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Mariano Pensotti’s Cineastas opens with an outrageously clear structural conceit, represented by two chairs on two stages. The real chair on the bottom stage designates the area where “real life” filmmakers will be depicted, while a life-size photocopied image of a chair on the top stage marks a space for the world of their films. It’s a simple device that instructs us how to watch the action, and our understanding of the piece begins and ends with this image. We immediately see the congruence between “real life” and the filmic world, and the double image foretells the merging of the two spaces.

Nestled neatly within this delineation of space is a similarly clear narrative conceit: the filmmakers’ lives affect the films they create, and vice-versa. The visual split-screen produced by the architecture sets up a cause-and-effect relationship between the two stages. As we see the stories unfold (there are four main filmmakers, plus their films), we hear how each filmmaker’s vision for their work is changing due to their life circumstances (e.g., terminal illness, pregnancy, rising in the ranks of a corporation) and we are invited to scan the films above them for signs of change. It works the other way too, as we similarly see a film about a long-lost father subsume its filmmaker, whose own father was disappeared.

And in case either of these conceits fail to dawn on you initially, you are guaranteed to understand them thanks to Cineastas’ underlying performance conceit: constant narration. The narration is intended to evoke the sense of a voice over, but the narrators, who distinguish themselves by speaking into handheld mics, are nearly always onstage as they describe what is going on in the filmmaker’s life and their films. This narration is oftentimes crucial: with four filmmakers plus their respective films, we have somewhere between 7-9 mildly-interacting plot lines and probably 40 characters among the 5 actors. With every shift from filmmaker to filmmaker we need to be reminded who this new filmmaker is, which film is theirs, and brought up to speed on what has happened since the last time we saw them (e.g., they are now in Russia).

Their ability to shift seamlessly and even playfully from character to character, storyline to storyline, and narration to narration borders on the virtuosic. However, this sense of constant exposition extends to the point where it becomes an omnipresent oral history, telling everything that it’s showing, and then some. The performative conceit intended to evoke cinema ultimately lands it in another form, a lecture–or rather, a book, since those who do not speak Spanish will find themselves reading the subtitles projected between the stages.* The text would easily stand on its own as a printed publication. We are all about drawn-out structural conceits–but the question is: to what end was this conceit stretched? When the format refuses to change, how do we as an audience change in response? Perhaps apropos to movies, when we are constantly told what’s going on, what to look for and each character’s every action and motivation, we become much more passive and absorbent–not only to descriptions of what happens to the characters, but also when the piece tells us how to interpret it.

We can easily draw connections between the “real” lives of the filmmakers and their filmic creations, like relating fast food worker’s discontent with the character in his film who is kidnapped and forced to work as Ronald McDonald. Elements of the plot are often predictable–we are not surprised when the script exacerbates the filmmaker’s father issues. And yet the characters repeatedly comment on the obvious interaction of film and life, driving home just how meta they can be. To wit: “We know places by their fictional output.” “Two images come together to form a new meaning.” And the most obvious: “We live the way films tell us to live.” There are visual metaphors like this as well, such as the character in the film world who photocopies an image over and over until it’s faint and blurry. The production is eager to tell us that filmic life bleeds over into real life–so much so that the play includes not one, but two mentions of people literally walking onto a film set and believing that it’s real.

Many contemporary works of art ask whether art can have a true and profound effect on our lives. While we (Fire Drill) are more compelled by works that hold this question open rather than answer it, Cineastas makes a clear, partisan argument in the affirmative. We find this to be an interesting contribution to current discussions about the role of art in activism and civic life that are taking place locally and nationally. (Though we can’t speak well to the context in Argentina, that this show was curated here qualifies it as part of the conversation.) Cineastas makes a strong case for the material impact of art on life, with political threads tied throughout the work. No doubt this is inspiring for many viewers, fulfilling hopes that the time they’ve spent in the theater really does make a difference. As for the Minnesotan context, we see this piece as yet another work directly arguing for the importance of art via its content rather than its form. We wonder if these works would be more powerful if they didn’t try so hard to shore up their own powerlessness.

Another note on Cineastas and its contemporary context: The lower, real-life stage contained a laptop, which was sometimes used by the characters to view their own films. While it was somewhat out of place within the visuals of the piece, it served as the sole window into the contemporary. The play delimits film strictly, looking at cinema proper as opposed to the broader, more interesting question of how screen time and filmed media in general affects our lives now. Cinema has been around for roughly 100 years and has clearly impacted our sense of time and narrative, but Cineastas turns a blind eye to the contemporary manifestations of the omnipresence of film. Making films is no longer an esoteric activity, so what does it mean that everyone now carries a camera in their pocket? Focusing the piece on characters for whom film is a vocation and a profession, rather than an integrated part of their daily lives, actually seems out of step with the main argument of the piece.

We believe in evaluating work on its own terms, or watching it the way it asks to be watched. Cineastas is a work in which the form matches the content: the concept of the piece serves the narrative and vice versa. (Granted, that’s no small thing.) The structure is so airtight, however, that it forecloses the viewer’s ability to connect the dots on their own. It becomes didactic, spoonfeeding interpretation rather than suggesting pathways toward meaning. Rather than “show, don’t tell”, Pensotti’s code seems to be, “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them”–a rhetorical strategy, not a filmmaking one. But who is not aware that we live in a mediated reality? If art is going to change our lives, it needs to give the viewer more credit, and make space for a different kind of understanding.

*For those fluent in Spanish, there is a good deal of spoken dialogue that remains untranslated and subtitled. In the performance these were often punctuated by the laughter of the handful  of audience members sufficiently fluent in Spanish to catch a joke or reference. I highly recommend brushing up on your Spanish–particularly Spanish curses–as well as the recent geopolitical history of South America with particular emphasis on US interventionism and local resistance to globalization.

Cineastas continues tonight (Friday, January 23) and tomorrow night (Saturday, January 24)  at 8pm in the McGuire Theater.

Tender Aggression and Commodity: Fire Drill on Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido’s Still Standing You

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on […]

Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido. Photo: Phile Deprez

Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido. Photo: Phile Deprez

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on last night’s performance of Still Standing You by CAMPO/Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

The audience for Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido’s Still Standing You on Thursday night did not behave like a contemporary dance audience. On a visceral level, we behaved more like we were watching a circus or a wrestling match. We gasped, we winced, we recoiled, we craned our necks to see the action. We heard a few obliging gagging noises when a performer’s mouth was full of underwear. As a group, our timing was impeccable–we made rowdy laughs as if on cue, and we fell to a hush together. If typical contemporary dance audience behaviors include focused contemplation, parsing of references, and ironic chuckles, this behavior belonged more to an arena. They were the gladiators and we were the masses.

In Still Standing You, two men build a vocabulary of competitive behaviors that push physical and social boundaries. After an opening bit that establishes a) a gently antagonistic relationship between the performers and b) casual banter between performers and audience, the two men merge into a state of deeply performative play. They grunt like bulls, they strut like lions, they hiss like lizards. Garrido puffs out his chest, playfully winks at the audience, and wipes his sweat onto Ampe’s face. They fake each other out, pretending to be hurt or pretending to say sorry. The scenario escalates as they rip off their clothing, whip each other with their belts, and toss their pants into the audience. Ampe puts his Superman underwear on his head and Garrido chews it like a goat until he has (impressively) stuffed it all into his cheeks.

Steve Paxton is famously quoted as saying, “If you’re dancing physics, you’re dancing contact [improvisation]. If you’re dancing chemistry, you’re doing something else.” Ampe and Garrido are not dancing physics, nor chemistry–they’re dancing anthropology. While they’ve certainly upped the ante on partnering technique, they’re not doing it to explore weight shifts or body mechanics. They’re in the realm of the social. They hark back to the animal roots and the childhood memories of play, transposed into highly able adult bodies and keenly adjusted for pacing and format. This is what we would see if adults with post-pubescent strength continued to play, using the abandon that children exhibit.

Ampe and Garrido ape the behaviors of masculinity and expose the constraints of homosociality. Garrido tells us about his recent trip to Deja Vu–a moment that both places the performance here in Minneapolis in a casual, somewhat improvised statement, and announces that he’s into women. This prompted an ickier “no-homo” feeling initially, but it made the extensive penis play later in the piece a lot less sexual. And it is important representationally that we don’t see it as entirely sexualized. The penis play isn’t the sexual culmination of a playful meet-cute, and they don’t propose their aggressive play to lead to anywhere romantic. The one-upmanship logically extends their feats of physical endurance and line-toeing from subjecting each other to belt lashings and drop kicks, to foreskin-twisting and, well, more drop kicks. It wasn’t asexual in that it definitely recognized the naughtiness of nudity–much in how it relished the naughtiness of saliva and bravado–and they deliberately focus on the weirdness of penises as opposed to, say, the weirdness of earlobes. But based on their approach, it feels wrong to even delimit “penis play” with their other play. It is all the same research and relationship: how many ways can we relate to our bodies and each other?

In addition to avoiding an oversexualized lens, the playfulness also keeps the power dynamics and aggression readable as temporary competitiveness, rather than a character or even a performer in distress. They put on airs and knock each other down a peg, only to change the situation and dynamic immediately. The choreography often dictates that one of the men is horizontal while the other is vertical, in a shifting exchange of dominance and temporary power. This is a crafted give-and-take, and we as an audience understand that everything is consensual. These moments of combat are often peppered with a word or two of banter indicating the scripted nature of the tricks. (“Onion rings,” moans Garrido as Ampe breathes in his face, with the comedic timing of a Benihana chef.) There are also several moments of truce–a literal time-out is called at one point–and affection between the exhausted bodies as well, before launching into the next bit or provocation. We can laugh because we’re confident in the performers’ comfort and execution.

Of course, the tenderness and aggression that Ampe and Garrido display are conceptually, experientially, and aesthetically tied. Theorist Sianne Ngai links these affects to our relationship with commodities in late capitalism. Objects that call for our protection (think of babies, animals, stuffed animals) simultaneously inspire feelings of aggression or the desire to possess and to dominate. For Garrido to caress Ampe’s beard and then try to suffocate him with it does not display two conflicting desires, but rather they are integral components of the same impulse. Moreover, this twinned motivation “depends entirely on the subject’s affective response to an imbalance of power between himself and the object” (Our Aesthetic Categories, 54). The performers display shifting balances of power between themselves, but there is also constant interplay between them and the audience. Their tender/aggressive relationship and the framing of this work for the audience both have a close relationship to the commodity.

We consider this piece’s inclusion in a festival of performance alternatives–because Still Standing You is the most accessible contemporary dance work we’ve seen in a while. We find it accessible because it depends on comedy, physical feats, and culturally broad experiences of play, intimacy, and aggression. Appreciation of this piece doesn’t rest on one’s knowledge of form and the history of its innovation. The performers (particularly Garrido) often appeal to the audience for recognition, and we as viewers are not especially asked to shift our perception or mode of viewing.

Although some level charges of elitism or esotericism at contemporary art in general or the Out There festival in particular, Still Standing You does not support those claims. Instead, we’re reminded of Ben Davis’s assertion to the contrary:

One major contemporary trend in art is away from difficulty, toward really big objects, toward fashion: splashy gestures that go down easy. The old charge that museums are “elitist” doesn’t really feel totally right to me. MoMA’s doing a Björk show. The big institutions have found that buzz and long lines can replace intellectual cachet at a certain level, for the purpose of pleasing funders.

Still Standing You does not exemplify this form of celebrity pandering, and it may or may not be creating buzz. Discussions of accessibility, however, are always bound up in discussions of the bottom line.

Here’s another way to illustrate this tension, taken from a performance we saw last week at American Realness. Ivo Dimchev’s Fest (also presented by CAMPO) stages a conversation between the artist and a festival director who wants to present his work, an interaction that becomes increasingly warped and sexualized. The curator tells him that she thinks a lot of people in Copenhagen will want to see his work. “Are you saying my work is commercial?” he asks. “No, I’m saying a lot of people will want to see it,” she responds. Ivo concludes, “It’s the same thing.”

For Fire Drill, this piece’s accessibility creates a small crisis, because we actually liked the piece. Still Standing You bears many hallmarks of entertainment, and we get suspicious when they are mixed too liberally with art. If art must appeal to the widest possible audience, then how can it produce experiments that fail? If art can’t produce experiments that fail, then how can it produce new forms of thought and experience? But does that mean art has to be tedious and unappreciated within our culture? Still Standing You, in the context of the Out There festival, offers a kind of middle path to those questions. It appeals to a general audience without going for the lowest common denominator; it’s inventive and well-crafted without being obscure. When we view performance, we hope the work will revise our definitions of what art can be and do. As wary as we are of the proximity of art and entertainment, Still Standing You did challenge our definitions of both categories.

Still Standing You continues tonight (Friday, January 16) and tomorrow night (Saturday, January 17)  at 8pm in the McGuire Theater.

The Limitations of Theater Are a Gift: Fire Drill on Richard Maxwell’s The Evening

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on […]

The Evening by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Photo: Sascha van Riel

The Evening by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Photo: Sascha van Riel

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on The Evening by Richard Maxwell/New York City Players. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Let’s place comic books on the proverbial opposite side of the coin from theater. Both media have intuitive mechanisms for engaging the reader and audience, respectively, with medium-specific holes or gaps in what is presented to the viewer. In both, the audience looks for cause-and-effect relationships to imaginatively fill in these gaps–which skilled artists and writers in either medium exploit and leave open to the imagination. In literature, for example, readers imagine the sights and sounds of books with only the printed words as suggestions. The holes in theater and comics are particularly interesting since they seem to be close inversions of each other.

The mechanism of comic books engages the reader by showing framed, still images of the world it presents–the environment, the characters, what they say and think–leaving the reader to fill in how the characters move between frames, how they speak and sound, and justify the larger-than-life actions that occur. An example:

Frame 1: Character A rears back from Character B, fist clenched.

Frame 2: A zoomed-in image of Character A’s hand making contact with Character B’s face. (“Pow!”)

Frame 3: A zoomed-out image of the entire planet Earth as seen from outer space. Character B flies into the frame, as indicated by a motion line originating somewhere in the center of the North American continent.

What a gift! We don’t say, “That’s impossible,” “Nobody could…”, “Nobody would…” It’s up to the reader to justify the physics of the situation. Conclusion: He was punched into space. Corollary: Superpowers. It’s why the ideal medium for space opera and mutant heroes is the comics: the most delicious action happens between the frames. There could be a series of frames between 2 and 3, showing “how” it happened–maybe breaking through the ceiling, or passing a flock of birds on the way up–but the closer to 24 frames per second, the closer to the comparison with real life (here, real physics). It says, “This is how it happened,” and it cannot be as grand as we’d ever imagine.

The mechanism of theater, on the other hand, shows how the characters speak and move, and suggests what they look like, but it is up to the viewer to build the world. The audience of The Evening fills in the details–not just the architectural details of the bar the characters inhabit (and mountain and ocean and outer space, but more on that later), but also their interior worlds, the emotional landscape that propels them to the behaviors they perform. Rather than actions in between frames, we fill in the emotional past and narrative future outside of the stage picture. An example:

Scene: Character A and B are dancing together. Character C joins them, instantly provoking a fight between B and C, which is just as quickly won. Cash is literally thrown around, they reconcile over jello shots, and then character A pulls a gun on them.

What a gift! Instead of saying, “That’s impossible,” “Why would she do that?”, “Where’s the motivation?”, we are invited to connect the dots on our own, through our own emotional and narrative understanding. This is what theater does best: the most delicious action happens in the interior worlds of the characters. How appropriate, then, this acting style that refuses to justify these (here it is again) larger-than-life emotions and behaviors. These are emotional superheroes, and they are capable of much more than justifiable in systems of realism, any more than we can justify punching someone into space. From Sarah Benson’s interview with Maxwell on the Walker blog: “Yes, things can happen to characters that can’t happen to people. You can put characters in situations that we aspire to or are afraid of and can’t embody as people.” So this acting style is not merely a neo-Brechtian withholding of catharsis, this is giving us (like the comics) the imaginative license to fill in the gaps without showing us “how it really happened”. The beauty of archetype is that we’ve seen these characters before, hundreds of times. We don’t need Richard Maxwell to insist they actually sound like this, they move like this, etc.

So these archetypes—who are they? First we have Cosmo, the pleasure-seeker, the free-loader, the one who’s given up. “I want to get high. I use people.” He’s old, he wears a velour track suit and a gold chain, he’s carrying a pizza, he doesn’t give a shit. Then we have Asi, the fighter—a literal fighter (UFC) and an emotional fighter (misogynist). Cosmo tells him he should retire and Asi boxes his ears. He feels loss as a threat, he’s one of those insecure macho dudes, he feels the pressure of time running out. “I want to fight. I want one more fight.” Something has happened with him and the woman and he’s full of regret. Last we have Beatrice, the lone, young female—the seeker, the restless, the escape artist. The men order her around and she’s not surprised, she just gets them another beer. She wants to go to Istanbul, she’s been saving up. “I need to change camp.” She wears sequin shorts and she’s too big for this small town.

We’ve met them all before, and we’ve probably been them all before. They form a smooth surface for emotional projection. They’re a triangle of crossed desires, base-level drives that bounce off each other and ricochet off the drab walls. Both men kiss the woman the first time they enter. There’s a complicated history between them—Asi refers to when he and Beatrice used to live together, but they don’t anymore. Cosmo has given her money to go to Istanbul and Asi wants to know what she did for him that he gave her that money. They’ve all wronged each other but they’re resigned to sharing space.

And these archetypes, they’re like action figures that repeat one of five phrases every time you press a button. “I want to get high.” “I want to fight.” “I use people.” The woman mechanically opens a beer. The fighter draws back his fist again and again. The pleasure-seeker action figure is one of the kind that would walk straight into the wall and keep walking till his batteries ran out. We know who these people are because they tell us over and over. They can’t help themselves. “I want to fight one more time.”

The setting itself forms a spatial archetype in much the same way. We see terrible beige flats, the outline of a standard-issue small town bar. A TV plays sports silently in the corner, but it’s greenish like an Instagram filter and it blends in with its surroundings. A generic band plays off to the side, just loud enough for the performers to need to raise their voices, like you do. It’s just a sketch but we’ve been at that bar hundreds of times.

In fact, the quality of “sketch”–vis a vis these archetypes–is a mechanism to help viewers relate to the characters and situations. Comics use a range of drawing techniques, from photorealistic images to an outline as simple as a smiley face. The conceit is that the less “photorealistic” the image, the more relatable it’s supposed to be–so we see the bad guys drawn specifically and the protagonists drawn sketchily, and the reader identifies with the good. Functionally, the more specific they get, the less we can fill in, because they become objective realities rather than a subjective canvas. This extends to our trio in the bar: Any details, a hometown, a sibling rivalry, a favorite color, a penchant for scrapbooking, any desire beyond the most broad archetypal yearning, would make these characters into more objective “others”.

When you start looking, it’s hard to miss other connections to representational practices in comics. In addition to these open, pulpy characters, the exposed frame of the flats suggest a comic panel frame. The poses and choreographies of the characters are chock full of Brechtian gestus, gestures and still poses that show the “gist” of a relationship or attitude, distilling power structures into tableau-like arrangements. This recalls the still frames of comics, where position in frame must convey relationships and psychology when movement can only be represented by motion lines.

Maxwell’s gestus lives even through movement; when the men are fighting, Beatrice places a hand on both of their chests, simply conveying her intimacy with each of them as well as her efforts to keep them apart. Realistic physical exertion or realistic caressing would destroy this double-image and reduce it to one or the other. It’s very Brechtian…but then again Maxwell ultimately out-Brechts Brecht because in the end there is no clear pitiable Mother Courage or detestable Ui, no side you “should” take, just three archetypes lost in space and each other.

The Evening by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Photo: Sascha van Riel

The Evening by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Photo: Sascha van Riel

Yes, by the end they’re out of the bar and in outer space. So this huge changeover provides an interesting catharsis–but rather than a narrative catharsis we get an aesthetic catharsis. Clean bright light, camouflage suits, no architecture, three figures evenly spaced against a white wall. The representational practice of the first 5/6ths of the piece is about visually defining the characters’ positions in space (a bar) relative to where they are onstage, and the duration of the performance is equivalent to the amount of time that elapses in the story. When the changeover occurs, however, the rules change as well: we are wherever and whenever Cammisa says we are. They are doing whatever Cammisa says they’re doing: climbing a mountain, diving into the ocean, etc. It becomes an oral comic book. The frames change as she speaks, and we imagine these impossible stage directions, over great amounts of time. Really, it’s Maxwell giving these stage directions (they use actor names instead of characters now.) If this were a comic book the narration would simply appear in bubble text hovering above the image, rather than spoken by any of the characters.

The representational practices following the changeover, while it definitely breaks from the preceding performance, does so with tactics that strike us as precious, tasks we’ve seen a lot of: speaking stage directions, using actors’ names instead of character names, use of a live band. It dips into the twee instead of taking us to outer space. This is in contrast to an earlier moment in the bar, in which both men reveal the blood packs used to simulate their gunshot wounds. They didn’t need to reveal artifice throughout, because this significant yet understated moment accounted for all of it. Once they got to the white environment, there should have been even less need to tell us how to feel.

The style of performance deployed in The Evening is not just stylized in order to be different or avant garde; the techniques offer negative space for the viewer to interpret and project. Maxwell offers a formal alternative for live performance that is opposed to the hyper-real standard set by television and movies, rather than trying to replicate it. In the same way that impressionism reacted to the rise of photography by seeing what painting could do that photography could not, The Evening shows what theater can do that film cannot. It is formally generous, in that it allows the viewer’s experience to diverge from what is actually happening onstage. Because our contract as the audience is to submit to theater time as it unfolds (we aren’t going to close the browser window), we can project our own emotional fictions and personal associations with the archetypes. This ultimately feels more “real” than the real sweat on the football players on the TV screen. Maxwell’s work trains us as viewers to connect the dots ourselves, although the alternative remains present for those viewers who don’t want to do that work. If you want everything to be justified and given to you, there it is on the screen in the corner, in full color HD.

Note: Fire Drill is on tour during the performance weekend, so this blog is in response to the dress rehearsal on Wednesday night.

 

 

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