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Are there new modes of realism in performance?
January 10-12, 2006

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Wednesday, January 11
    By Lane Czaplinski

    Awesome comments from all. Makes me think about the playwright/director Richard Maxwell and his Mamet on acid approach to stripping theatricality from theater. His actors usually face forward or slightly towards one another and spew their lines, with each word, syllable and punctuation mark getting equal emphasis. Very Beavis and Butthead. What's strange to me, though, is how I end up hearing the language more clearly. The subject matter is usually trailer trash Americana and one leaves Maxwell's entirely manufactured universes feeling as though you've just overheard an actual conversation at your local McDonalds.

    I was going to write some thing about authenticity but that would have been lame, especially given the articulate statements below that do a good job explaining how "actor-y, schmator-y" theater of the real usually rings much more false than experimental approaches that don't give a shit about versimilitude. People are so fake, anyway, that showing the puppet strings of characterization and dramatic situations feels much more relevant to me. For example, we could take the transcripts of the Alito hearings and restage them faithfully, but what a field day we could have if we were to use some of John Kaufmann's mechanisms to show just how scary this guy really is.

    posted by lane @ 4:42 pm | Permanent link

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    me and my tv.
    By Marya Sea Kaminski

    i'm really interested in tamara's comments about being real to a performance action onstage, and how they compare to the well-rehearsed "real" moments we find in more conventional theatre that john mentions. the idea of so many consumers/audience members thinking of themselves more as "actors" or even exhibitionists has driven some theatre-makers, and i'm thinking specifically of performance art, more deeply into the autonomous experience. i sense a ramble coming on... but bear with me... reality television has almost romanticized the idea of big brother (which is scary considering what's going on with the patriot act right now). and, i might not be interpreting tamara's post correctly, but in some ways that makes the more personal, even ugly but definitely honest, moments onstage more provocative. maybe that's always been true. but my gut reaction to tamara was, what? should we forget about the audience? how can we do that? is it all about the performer? (i'm not implying that was her point)... but, geez, maybe that is our biggest leap into realism. in a culture where everyone has a sense of performance and audience... maybe realism lives in the arena where things are not FOR an audience. okay. i've gotten to a point where i don't even agree with myself. to entirely change the subject for a moment, i do think that the integration of technology into performance does tend to suffocate opportunity for "real" moments, in a strictly practical sense (john talks about this at the end of his last post). my experience is that most live performance that has integrated video, projection, or other tricksy conventions of the technological ilk have demanded an almost sterilized sense of timing. that might be why i feel like "the video's running the show" when i experienced multi-media work. this isn't always the case (live feed tends to do the opposite)... but i wish i could see more integration of these elements that left room for breath, for human error, for something surprising. i like to see some mess up there, as my own reality tends to be very messy...

    posted by maryasea @ 4:07 pm | Permanent link

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    Line One
    By John Kaufmann

    There is that paradox of an audience coming to see a performance (or sit in front of a box) to see "real life." The first Checkhov plays shocked people with how "true to life" they were (and I was there!), and now they seem very dated (the realism, not just the time and place). It's a shift in audience perception rather than finding an objective "realism" that will always stand up as such. I agree that many modes and styles can be shed light on "reality" and "truth," but there's still the audience member from a particular culture and time that goes away saying "it was very realistic." And that changes over time. It's not a sign of success in itself, but it's an interesting "style" that changes over time. So in today's world, is technology changing that, and is it allowing performance to put this on stage in a way that inspires/fools audience members into thinking that "reality has been served up to me tonight!"

    If the performers are aware of the audience, can they really be "real"? I think technology opens up the potential to create distance from this awareness. In "Line One," all the actors' lines came through a cellphone earpieces. People around town or the country would call in and speak from where they were, and the actors would repeat these lines verbatim to the audience. It allowed a diversity of age, culture and experience that's hard to get on stage (on my budgets), but I wouldn't have even wanted to really have, say, the kid describing the video-game he was playing to be onstage; it would have been less "real." (cutesy, self-conscious, phony) Since the real-time content generators were not in front of the audience, were anonymous, not accountable to anyone, they could be (closer to) themselves and still be on stage. Through the filter of the cell phone, the artificiality of an actor of a different age/race/gender, the event was somehow more "real."

    posted by sara @ 10:39 am | Permanent link

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    What's real to ME.
    By Tamara Paris

    What a scintillating conversation! I feel like others have covered some really deep and dirty ground about the definition of "realism" from the perspective of the consumer but what interests me even is what is REAL for me when I'm onstage performing. Doesn't that seem like an entirely different angle on the question? When I am doing an action in performance art (as opposed to honest-to-goodness traditional theater with all of its actor-y, schmator-y trappings), I struggle against the impulse to "perform" and do everything in my power to stay in the moment and simply experience the action. Whether that's fighting with a folding chair or drinking an entire fifth of whiskey and eating 100 donuts. But its a fight with a foregone conclusion -- it's NOT real. There's an audience in the room and as soon as they walked in the door, realism flew out the window. It's a noble pursuit to try to stay REAL but in a certain sense Chris Burden getting nailed to a Volkswagen is as patently false and representational as a big chorus number in CATS.

    posted by Tamara @ 10:20 am | Permanent link

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    Reality TV
    By John Kaufmann

    I hadn't seen Marya's comments when I wrote my last post, and I think we had some similar reactions to the threads. Reality TV definitely affects audience's expectations, and as a result, more people have a sense of themselves as seen from the outside (as actors). But where TV tricks people into thinking that they are seeing "real life" (edited to tell whatever story sells), theatre can't hide its deception, and thus can be much more honest when dealing with "real life."

    There can be a problem with content burn when theatre attempts this level of "realism." a reality show is pretty disposable, with dozens of new shows each week. Many of the stage shows we're talking about try to recreate this realism over and over. I often find myself resentful of theatre that tries to pass off a well rehearsed moment as "real." I'm thinking "duh. but you did the same thing last night." The shows that work for me in this way find methods to bring something genuinely new to the stage every night (risking marketability) For this discussion, I wonder how technology allows theatre to bring true disposable content to the stage.

    posted by sara @ 10:18 am | Permanent link

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    what is 'realism' anyway?
    By Adam Vachon

    To be able to explore Sean's question, it is important to discuss what 'realism' is or was. Most theatre (and art) history buffs come to an agreement that 'Realism' is an artistic movement which started as a rebellion to melodrama. Realism (in many people's minds) is supposed to be an attempt to portray 'real life' onstage. But is that 'realism'? there are many scenes which I have been in which were clearly not traditional 'realism', and yet, while I was performing these moments they were more 'real' to me than many things that happen ion my outside life. I find it hard to pin down a definition for the word 'real'.

    posted by vachoal04 @ 6:50 am | Permanent link

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Tuesday, January 10
    By Matt Fontaine

    What are we talking about here? "Realism" can take three forms that I know of. There's the classic "Lower Depths"-style kitchen sink drama. This form of drama is almost less "realistic" than more straightforward dramatic forms because it displays an obsessive, fetishistic obsession with psychological and physical detail -- which in my mind excludes the possibility of chance and is actually a kind of baroque falsehood. The second form of "realism" is documentary theater, where real words are represented on stage complete with accents, mannerisms, costumes and such taken "from life." While this form is capable of capturing nuance and detail and surprise missing from playwright-created material, it is nonetheless given dramatic shape and form by its authors and creators. It's still a representation of reality; you could argue that the attempt to reconstruct the past makes it less real, not more. You could add to this bucket the incorporation of documentary video or recorded text, which is still tainted by its presence in a performative setting. The third form of realism is action-based art, where a real action is performed for an audience -- eating an apple, getting shot, scrubbing raw beef bones for days at a time. But the conceptual framework of this type of performance still separates it from "the real," and its performance context causes it to be a representation of "the real." I don't think performance can actually be performance without causing "the real" to leave the building. The dialectic between the "real" and the "not-real" is always with us; I think it's one of the things that gives live performance its electric, religious charge. The act of watching makes any live performance simultaneously totally, immediately, immanently real as well as narrated, false, constructed, imagined. As to how video or technology influences this, I think it's another layer of simulacrum rather than some kind of punching through to "the real." I don't know what's so seductive about "realism" anyway; an utterly constructed, completely fictional, totally fantastic narrative can say as much about the real and actual states of human existence and experience as a "realistic" work. It's a critic's category, not an artist's tool. But art always references, never captures, reality.

    posted by matt @ 11:16 pm | Permanent link

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    keep up with the audience
    By John Kaufmann

    There are good questions about how theatre is using new media/media access to create work, but for me the challenge is simply to keep up with the audience.  People don't come to theatre to see the latest gizmos and gadgets, they come to see their world reflected on stage.  Inner and outer worlds, rather.  And technology is changing our lives in many and dizzying ways.  Theatre has a responsibility  to respond and to reflect this  An example in my work is channel surfing.  When I was a kid you had to actually get up to change the station.  With the technology of the remote control comes channel surfing.  But it's not just a device, it affects how people experience "story."  So story and plot can now come from many different sources/genres/characters etc and be synthesized in the viewer's head as he/she makes the unconscious transition to connect the chaos.  And mass media in this case becomes a very personal story, unique to the viewer.  To explore this on stage, I had a friend channel surf for 30 minutes, and then transcribe every word of text off of the video tape.  She gave me the text as a block of words, and without changing the order of the words, adapted it into a script, assigning lines to characters however it seemed to fit.  It was performed, followed by a viewing off the taped channel surfing (which the actors weren't allowed to see during the run).  The goal was to turn this most individualized media event into a communal event.
    Christine talked about chaos, and for that's a huge part of the equation.  Technology is making lives more chaotic, and theatre is THE place for gathering with other live humans to sort this out.  I'd like to add the notion of conflict to our discussion, that technology brings a potential for a new conflict to the stage, one that theatre would be foolish not to exploit.  That's the conflict between this chaos (beepers, pagers, cell phones, email, web) and structure (sustained thought, plot, story, connection).  Or conflict between one's physical presence (driving in a car/sitting at a desk) and mental presence (talking on a cell phone/viewing another person's web cam).  These are huge psychological conflicts that are new to civilization (I sound so super-dramatic!  but I have to go in a bit and i want to spit this out!) Conflicts that people don't recognize, don't have the tools to deal with, don't understand.  So theatre, a live human gathering place has a responsibility to embrace, wrestle, depict, these conflicts head on.  So technology on stage isn't to make a better show (although that's a great by-product, don't get me wrong), but to best mirror the state of the world and the psyche of the audience.

    posted by sara @ 5:07 pm | Permanent link

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    Reality Soup.
    By Marya Sea Kaminski

    I agree with Sean that, of course, the simple answer is yes... there are absolutely new modes and forms of realism in live performance. As theatre-makers these innovations are fueled, not simply by the accessibility to technology and its possibilities in a living space, but more directly by our audiences' relationship to this technology. In order to deliver realism, we need to be constantly accessing what realism is for us - in our lives, in our homes, in our relationships. In the culture, we are all constantly redefining our dialogue with technology... and that is the dialogue that interests me on the stage. Incorporating technology, or video or even dance, for its own sake into a theatrical production is doomed to be unbalanced. Redefining our forms of realism by exploring our audiences' relationships (in their realities) to video, podcasts, digital information, etc... that is where the balance is invigorating. And challenging, to use these tools and forms that have become almost commonplace in our culture to new and illuminating ends on the stage. I think the Builders' Association show was successful to varying degrees in achieving this balance. However, in some ways, it felt as though the technology/video/projections ran that production, rather than informing the performances. I mean, if the point is that we live in an age that technology is overwhelming the human experience, that's one interpretation of realism. However, I don't think that was meant to be the conceit for that particular production. On a different note, I think reality TV has deeply affected our definitions of realism on stage. And I suspect that the huge canon of reality-based/documentary theatre (Anna Deavere Smith, the Laramie Project, The Civilians' productions) that has developed in the last fifteen years has been fueled by this redefinition of reality on our televisions.

    posted by maryasea @ 4:33 pm | Permanent link

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    RE: the effective tool
    By christine ryndak

    in regards to balance, i find that when theatrical pieces embrace the chaos of technology i am more open to its use, as it helps to inform my own reality. in the most recent show by a nyc-based group, the collapsible giraffe (their shows are webcast, so you can check it out online), the use of technology is disorienting, and sometimes even abusive. the more it overwhelms me, the more interesting it seems.

    posted by cryndak @ 1:09 pm | Permanent link

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    RE: the effective tool
    By Adam Vachon

    In a production I was in last spring called 'Standing Stone' there was a great deal of varition in the forms of theatre that were implemented, including a great deal of movement work, shadow puppetry, and the use of a projector. The projector projected its images on to an RP screen, which doubled as the screen from the shadow puppets. While at first we had some hesitations as to whether or not all of the additional 'things' would drown out the performers, but as we found out it was actually very easy to find a balance. Infact, many of the projections enhanced particular aspects and qualities that were being protrated by the perfromers. In rehersals where were we found there was too much 'other' and not enough performer, moments became fuzzy. These moments were worked on until a balance was found again. While I am not sure if this can be applied universally, I found that moments that were too 'tech heavy' became readily apparent, and a balance was then easily found.

    posted by vachoal04 @ 11:18 am | Permanent link

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    the effective tool
    By Sean Ryan

    I guess I should respond to my question. I think, if the interest and exploration of that idea – a media theater – is there... go for it. However, I feel when groups begin to develop those ideas they lose track of the balancing act. For example, the Builders Association that came to On the Boards in Nov., a company that is dedicated to exploring technology and theater. According the their website, “The Builders Association’s productions feature a seamless blend of text, sound, architecture, video and stage performances that explore the impact of technology on human presence.” In aspects I believe that is true, but when does it, the technology take over and other aspects that are equally important, such as verbal content, aka drama, begin to be side stepped for the other. It is the same old issue that happens in dance theater performances and theatrical performances utilizing dance. When does the other medium become a lacking appendage rather than an effective tool?

    posted by sean @ 11:01 am | Permanent link

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    Are there new forms of realism in contemporary performance
    By Sean Ryan

    Welcome again to Blog the Boards. We have an interesting topic to discuss, “Are there new modes of realism in Contemporary Performance?” Please feel free to chime in any comments when you feel. It is exciting to create a dialogue pertaining to a topic that is beginning to shift once again; which I will get to later. So…


    Are there new modes of realism in Contemporary Performance?


    Well, in my opinion, the simple answer would be yes. The curious aspect of theater and performance that its always shifting and taking on new shapes, styles, manners, or modes – especially in realism. 

    In certain aspects, Yes, new modes of realism challenge the existing form, as all new modes do. When I think about American theater of the 50’s and 60’s and what new modes came bursting onto the scene, I think of the Living Theater’s performance of ‘The Brig’, and the work of playwright Peter Weiss’s documentary drama The Investigation. These were two modes of realism both using documentation of live real events in totally different aspects. The Living Theater created realistic, yet ritualistic performance in non-traditional theater spaces using an in-your-face sensory experience style based on the investigations derived from the prisons of Brazil to the gates of the Pittsburgh steel mills, and from the slums of Palermo to the schools of New York City. The performances were happening around you, through you, in you and was affecting. Peter Weiss, on the other hand, created a drama from actual newsprints, films, war documents, criminal investigation reports of the Nuremburg Trials, and records left at multiple prison camps in his play The Investigation (1965) to create a drama about death camps in Germany during World War II and the crimes against humanity.

    So, we can see how these new forms stem out of response to other forms, which is happening right now. Now we see a new form of exploration happening. Theater companies, for the past fifteen years, have been exploring how to incorporate video, film and technology to bridge the gap between film and theater. My question is are they bridging that gap and is it necessary to bridge that gap? Is it necessary? When does the balance begin to shift and it becomes more about the technology and less about the content and energetic experience of the audience? Which is where I begin to see my purist roots in performance.    

    posted by sean @ 10:50 am | Permanent link

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Monday, January 9
    Blog starts Tue, Jan 10th at noon!
    By the Administrator

    To inspire dialogue, we are posing some over-arching questions related to the work we are presenting this season. With each topic, we invite peers and collegues to join us for Opening Night Pre-Show Talks, and Blog Discussions.

    For our run of Kassys, we're posing the question Are there new modes of realism in live performance?

    Beginning at noon on Jan 10, 2006, several individuals will begin discussing this topic. We invite you to read and join in the discussion by pushing the "Add a comment to this blog" button at the top of the page. Sean Ryan, OtB's Northwest New Works Festival and 12MM coordinator will begin the discussion with a question/statement on Tue.

    Thanks to our bloggers:

    Adam Vachon is a Theater Arts student at Juniata College in Huntingdon PA, studying Performance, particularly in the field of movement improvisation, though he in no way intends to limit himself in the theatre realm. Adam has undergone training in Fitzmaurice voice work and Skinner releasing, and intends to continually broaden his knowledge in various theatre practices.

    Christine Ryndak is a performing artist based in NYC currently working with the ensemble theater company, The Gravity Project, and has previously worked with Confluence Theater Company in NYC and the Pittsburg City Theater. She is a graduate of Point Park University’s Conservatory of Performing Arts.

    John Kaufmann developed programming for the Smith Planetarium at Pacific Science Center and was on the creative team for Cranium Cadoo and other games for kids. He developed Starball, a musical comedy for the planetarium and Line One, a live performance where all the lines the actors spoke came to them through the earpieces of their cell phones.

    Marya Sea Kaminski is a performer, director, and writer based in Seattle. She has created over twenty solo shows and her original work has been seen at ConWorks, Rebar, and the Ethnic Cultural Theatre in Seattle, the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, and PS122, Urban Etcetera, and on subway platforms across New York City. As an actor, Marya Sea has performed at ACT Theatre, Lincoln Center, in The Time of Your Life with Tina Landau at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, and as the First Lady in Jane Martin’s national premiere of Laura’s Bush at the Washington Ensemble Theatre.

    A Founding Member and Co-Artistic Director of the Washington Ensemble Theatre, Marya Sea directed the West Coast premiere of Adam Rapp’s play Finer Noble Gases at WET and recently appeared in WET's critically acclaimed production of Sarah Kane's Crave, both of which closed to sold-out houses. She will participate in OtB's Northwest New Works Festival in June.

    When Matt Fontaine & Tamara Paris are not making wicked cool advertising, they make wicked cool contemporary performance with their scrappy little collective HKPG (High Kindergarten Performance Group). They are expecting a tiny new performance artist to join the family in July.

    posted by sara @ 12:48 pm | Permanent link

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