SCENE STUDIES: Notes on Post-Living Ante-Action Adaptation Technique (PoLAAAT)

January 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Post-Paradise, Sorry Again and Again is a PoLAAT play created for the 2011 Rhubarb Festival at legendary queer theater space Buddies in Badtimes in Toronto.  As a collaboratively dramaturgical starting point, we will work with the participants in “casts” to adapt scenes from plays into PoLAAT scenarios.  Some European and American plays of the 20th Century that we have approached in the past, which might be useful to consider again, include:

Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
The Butterfly’s Evil Spell by Federico Garcia Lorca
Paradise Now by the Living Theater
Pre Paradise Sorry Now by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Le Balcon by Jean Genet (in French)
Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry

All of these plays are written by famous queer theater gods (and a pansexual theater collective) of the 20th Century.  The texts depict, describe and enact the difficult strategies of constructing a (group) identity for gays (and others) made other by society/geography/culture/etc.  The individual is a lonely figure, looking to belong – to what?  A world that erases them.   No, they are trying to invent a different experience.  They act like that to become real, to exist in reality.  And the cast and crew that put on these plays, what will be their reality?  And the audience that goes to see them?  And us?

One task of the PoLAAT is to adapt the languagepolitics, aesthetic/message, and/or fable-scenario of original theater texts (i.e. plays) into structured rehearsals of the present (i.e. play).  PoLAAT detours the play into a process, making the process speak to the audience of their own difficulty in seeing themselves reflected by what they/we are doing.

One strategy is to cast all but one of the characters in the scene.  Rehearse and memorize the adapted script, make costumes for all the characters, cast the missing part from the audience.  Give the audience member a costume and script.  Imagine what their experience of the scene would be?  They most likely have no idea what is happening, but the actors will walk and talk around them in a manner that underscores the level of preparation they have made for this very moment, a pre-destined chance encounter.

The other thing that may result in a particular estrangement: prepare everything in the scene except the actors.  The first read-through goes up in front of the crowd, with people cast randomly.  If everyone is in costume, it will at least look nice, but more importantly, the way the actors feel about the characters and scenario will be discussed as the scene is performed.   A critically engaged performer is created by the situation, one in which creating a character is impossible, and striking an attitude essential.

If the play is dense or hard to understand, try to emphasize this as much as possible, by memorizing the most cumbersome passages.  This will showcase the fact that the performer has committed to understanding something which is, to the watcher, inscrutable, or, at the very least, complex.  A well-rehearsed theater scene is loved by the people sitting in front of it, if for no other reason than the beauty of memorization.  It may seem an impossibility, a feat, particularly in this time of easily forgotten texting.  It’s impressive when people memorize large, dense paragraphs of theoretical writing, or lengthy stanzas of free verse, or songs, or raps.  Memorizing is a wonderment.  There is a sense of danger in it, too, a bit of Trapeze.  Yet it is not, in itself, considered quite enough for the theater!  It is, in fact, supposed to be invisible.  So they say.  What is seeing a Shakespeare play or Broadway musical if not a test of memorization?

Better still to make up all new words, which is another strategy: use a thesaurus.  Translate the text into another language and then translate it back.  Put your favorite lines to music.  Make up a different pose for each character, don’t let them move, arrange them around the room, among the crowds, even outside the theater.  Do the play backwards.  Facing backwards.  Do it with no clothes on.  Most effective in non-sexual scenes, particularly family dramas, or scenes of political unrest, or both.  Underwear is ok, as long as it is not too fancy.

In the spirit of Indistinction, a PoLAAT Group can try to change everything about the surface of the play, characters’ names and places and time periods, into whatever it least resembles, perhaps another genre entirely, and even a familiar one (noir, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, glam rock, disco, new wave), while adding no words at all.

Yes, add no words at all.  Remove them instead.

The other thing you can do: rewrite it entirely.  Each actor can do this for their own lines.

The process of adaptation itself is what to be foregrounded: the use of things that are just being left around, the recycling of ideas.   An engagement with these radioactivity of left-overs forces a mutation – something new, potentially even useful, will come of it. One warning: People enjoy parodies of familiar works, as in classic drag performance, but it is less interesting to the PoLAAT to merely switch words around or reference contemporary celebrities than to use the words of the original against it’s own meaning.

Perhaps it is the case that theater has died.  Yet in its post-living state theater can be used to pre-perform the action of the future by traveling through the past.  The plays selected by the PoLAAT present an unresolved relationship to the history evoked and enacted through these texts.  These particular plays also present coping mechanisms.  Whether it is the plight of young queers who are too special for the small worlds they got themselves born into (Member of the Wedding; Butterfly’s Evil Spell), the legacies of colonial adventure and crimes against humanity in the works of Hansberry (Les Blancs) and Genet (Le Balcon), or the experiments in collective identity-making of the Living Theater (Paradise Now) or Fassbinder’s antiteater (Pre-Paradise, Sorry Now) the goal in adapting these works is to look for models of action, resistance and thought that can be used now, or, at least tomorrow, and to confront the absurdity of our own utopian fantasies.

Below are some questions asked by the PoLAAT as a means of approaching the adaptation of plays.

  1. What are the historical problems the text brings up and how are these problems depicted, that is, pictured, that is, epitomized by images and words and gestures?
  2. How does the contemporary moment address/construct/confront/enact/envision/spectaularize these problems differently?
  3. How do the politics/attitudes/aesthetics of this play, and the scenario it enacts, affect me in my life?
  4. What pleasure/entertainment/escape is the text offering?  How can I subvert that pleasure?  How can I use/amplify/re-direct it?
  5. Who is coming to see this performance and how can I use this text to communicate with them?  How will their presence make the play complete?
  6. How can I contradict the text without using words?
  7. How can I use its words to make my life better?
  8. What’s the funniest thing about this text?
  9. What is the scariest?
  10. Who do you not want to play?

For purposes of the PoLAAT production in Toronto, these plays should be adapted to no longer than 6 minute scenes.



February 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

My Barbarian, PoLAAT: Post Paradise, Sorry Again, 2-Channel video from a performance and rehearsal workshop at the New Museum, Diverseworks, Houston, 2009

Inspirational Critique

February 6, 2010 § 1 Comment

“Don’t tear me down. Why don’t you give me somethin’ helpful I can work with? Instead of talkin’ shit and making mean expressions,” he sings, accompanying himself on electric piano.

There’s been a lot of trash talking the Zeros. The Zeros! Some of us gave this decade the best years of our lives. Some of us were sexy during the Zeros, and had multiple partners at once; some of us fell in love, got married; some of us made beautiful music together; some had loving pets; some stopped watching TV; some of us cooked; some made art, and some of it was good; we all got older, and, if we managed not to die, wiser. So, wise up. Stop acting like we aren’t supposed to be dissatisfied. It’s not a burden to be critical of the circumstances of one’s existence: it’s awesome, and banal, and it’s the situation in which we find ourselves, together.

“Don’t tear me down, and I won’t make you feel bad to make myself feel good. I’ll give you somethin’ you can use to make improvements. Help me grow and I’ll return the favor. Face me critically but full of positivity.”

We return to the term ‘critique,’ because it can be inspirational. For those of us who attended and/or taught in art schools during this decade and/or others, there is ritual and revelation in the word. It describes a moment of reckoning! (“I have a critique today,” she said, breathlessly. She was defenseless, exhausted and hungry, when the group encircled her object, which inspired a stuttering cascade of concurrences and rejections.) In it’s active form, critique is the passing of judgment upon the quality of a work; in order to make this judgment, it is considerate to have a method for organizing one’s responses; and a theory to inform the method. There are those who survived art school and never want to hear the word again, but this reaction is based on a misunderstanding. ‘Crits’ (elides with the condition ‘critical’) can feel like a mortal wound, self-inflicted, accidental, or purposefully torn open by a sadistic classmate. Crits are never good; but a good critique could save the (art/life) world.

His voice is joined by harmonies: “If we’re open about it, when institutional thought is ruptured, an inspirational critique can result. A moment in which, for a second, all is questioned, allowing understanding of the situation that opens itself to new possibilities.”

We are embarrassed by the regime that occupied the US for eight years. We are embarrassed by the plutocracy that dominates the art world. As long as art is expensive stuff, this will continue, and though it’s not-new, critique is a means toward another order of things. One may worry the boards of museums have hijacked these places in order to improve the value of their own collections. Without commodification, we would escape the capitalist trap, but alternatives to commodities, such as performance art, can also be used to move merchandise. When performance artists become celebrities, they take on the aura of the commodity, and when celebrities become performance artists, the hegemony of the fame/wealth axis is entrenched. We imagine an exception: un-collectable art by no one in particular. Hence, a useful complication is collaboration: by undermining the authority of the signature/brand, we forge a collective identity that cannot be collected. Collaboration must be critiqued too: museums increasingly support collaborative projects and so are imbricated within these artistic productions. Everyone is implicated: artists become collaborators in an uncomfortable sense: they are working for a regime. Many artists who mobilize critique toward liberation fashion themselves the resistance, yet our circumstances are such that artists must collaborate with the establishment in order to be seen/heard. Political art, sold in galleries or exhibited in biennials, is not a popular front. It is a luxury good. Thanks to the critical space art objects must occupy to enjoy their status, critique is a roommate of paintings. The self-inflicted mandate of the institution to critique itself allows money for projects that address this complex. Money seemed to die this year, yet artists haven’t disappeared, and neither have rich people. We have a live/work space that can accommodate both, but the lease must be re-negotiated regularly. The privileged are often the audience for the demands made by artists, and though we may participate in protest, we find ourselves saving up for cute outfits to wear to parties where the deciders promise a temporary piece of consecrated real estate, a wall upon which to hang a note with the cleverly hidden message: “End the War, Help the Poor.”

All together now: “La la la la La la la la la la la la la la la la la la la La la la la la la la la la la la La la la la la la la la la la la la la.”

The inspirational is an embarrassment that shocks the affected into the productive aspiration to modify behavior. Inspiration suggests our own condition is conditional. Critique is motivated by and towards inspiration. Inspirational critique flourished in the Zeroes (thanks, in part, to the clarity of opposition to it), and will continue into the Teens, hopefully.

The most inspirational aspiration is the conditional phrase, “I could love you,” which, when sung aloud, becomes a refrain worth repeating.


The 5 Principles of the PoLAAT

February 4, 2010 § 1 Comment

Central to the PoLAAT is a performance lab in which participants are trained in the tactics and techniques of the Post-Living Ante-Action Theater. Classes are comprised of exercises designed to educate the participants in the five principles: 1) Estrangement, 2) Indistinction, 3) Suspension of Beliefs, 4) Mandate to Participate and 5) Inspirational Critique. Songs based on these principles are taught to the group. What follows are notes on these five principles, using examples from the Living Theatre and antiteater to illustrate:

1. Estrangement
The performer acts out the distance between themselves and what they are doing. An adaptation of the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, often translated as the Alienation Effect, Estrangement also incorporates elements of camp, which uses an ironic displacement or disidentification to critique the action represented. The audience, it is hoped, will be similarly engaged in an active critique of the performance and the questions it poses. Estrangement is evident in the antiteater’s use of the Alienation Effect as a performance of an ‘attitude, not a character.’

2. Indistinction
Contradictory formal and institutional distinctions are set in oppositional motion. The performer does two things at once, such as singing a love song and paying taxes. The play itself refuses to be a play and becomes a caucus, the narrative explodes with extraneous plot points and goes hyper-narrative or the signifiers of pop music are short-circuited by art-historical classification, etc. Theater as process is exemplified by the practices of antiteater. Plays were made into films and television series; films were adapted as plays, with cast members serving as both administration and crew for these various productions. This blurring of disciplines, forms and roles provides a model of production in which all participants are expected to invest their talents in a group effort that may fail, but do so spectacularly and with political commitment to democracy intact. Implicit here is a willful disregard of audience expectation, not to mention taste.

3. Suspension of Beliefs
A truism of theater is that it requires the suspension of disbelief, but in the PoLAAT model ideological and aesthetic assumptions are questioned. The performer must consider all options. With so many contradictory political positions represented by the attitudes (not characters) onstage, the effect of their technique is the suspension of beliefs, when the actors and audience find their ideological and aesthetic concerns caught in a field of contemplation. This principle is exemplified by the Living Theatre’s attempt to levitate a person in the performance of their play Frankenstein (1965).

4. Mandate to Participate
Audience and performer are the same thing. All is rehearsal and rehearsal is all in a reconfiguration of event as process. The theater is made into an open system, disrupting the hierarchical structure of the stage, where the actor is speaker and public is listener. Structures for the inclusion of participation must be made clear; chaos can be managed. The audience becomes the cast and the cast gets naked with the Living Theatre. Democracy is alive again.

5. Inspirational Critique
When the structure of institutional thought is ruptured, an inspirational critique is the result: a moment in which, for a brief second, all is questioned, allowing for an understanding of the situation that opens itself up to new possibilities.


What is the PoLAAT?

February 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Post-Living Ante-Action Theater, or PoLAAT, continues our self-conscious translation of 1960s countercultural theater into a performance of the present. In excavating theatrical tropes associated with that era, including resistance and radicalism, we situate a contemporary quest for agency against a backdrop of previous struggles. A critical view of the late 1960s and early ’70s illuminates a range of performance practices that share a hybridized approach to leftist politics, disciplinarity, artistic authorship, racial and sexual identity, and the positioning of the self among cultural fields inherited from Modernism. The successes and failures of previous countercultural movements offer models from which we may organize our own lives in the face of an increasingly powerful hegemony.

The title Post-Living Ante-Action Theater references two radical avant-garde performance collectives of the ’60s: the Living Theatre, which originated in New York, and Munich’s Action Theater, which became known as antiteater under Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s direction. The Living Theatre’s Paradise Now(1968) leads the audience through a series of ritualistic improvisations, using group encounters with Kabbalistic and Hindu texts to conjure a lived experience outside of the artificiality of traditional theater. Pre-Paradise, Sorry Now (1969) is antiteater?s response to that work: a series of randomly sequenced scenes of bourgeois life intersected with readings from the diary of a child murderer. The Action Theater started after members saw the Living Theatre perform in Munich, reinterpreting the collective ethos as a means of addressing their own cultural moment in West Germany. Both groups were dependent upon collectivity as a mode of production, a model for action, but while the Living Theatre sought radical liberation, antiteater performed radical critique.