OTB logo

An OtB Discussion
An OtB Discussion: How is text subverted in alternative performance?
December 7-9, 2005

Add a comment to this blog

Thursday, December 8
    robert wil/Son reference
    By tonya lockyer

    Richard, are you referring to the Robert Wilson piece where the text had it's source in the language of his now adopted son who has autism?  The language had a logic, it had a sense just not one most of us are attuned to. I like what you said about "where language fails, we have to pay attention."  In the case of the Wilson piece, we are invited to pay attention to things we perhaps don't usually attend to when we attend to language.  In the case of the Wilson piece I would add that perhaps the language doesn't fail, but we fail in our inability to understand it.



    posted by tonyalockyer @ 4:59 pm | Permanent link

    | post comments
    storytelling through collage
    By tonya lockyer

    Hi Vanessa and Richard. Vanessa you asked at the end of your last entry: "Story and collage or cut and paste are not necessarily at odds, right?". My response is no, they are not at odds. Collage can be another structure for storytelling. Examples that come to mind: (1) some of John Cage's Lectures where he simply tells a series of very short stories placed side by side via indeterminacy or "chance operations". (2) We have stories on the Internet where hyperlinks branch under and away from the central story until there is no longer a central story. The story is the through-line created by our journey from one bit of information to the next, and the resonance that goes on as we make sense of these fragments. (3) Stories are told on the news everyday through a cut and paste of images that repeat, accumulate, and jump-cut back and forth. Take the morning of 9/11: We get the story in fragments of images and information alleged and then confirmed: A plane has crashed into the WTC. A plane has crashed into the WTC. We now see an image of the towers burning. We now see an image of the moment before the plane crashed into the WTC. We now see the first tower crumbling. We now return to the image of the first impact. Now the second impact. We repeat this image from a new angle. Now we jump-cut to people running. Then we jump-cut back to the first tower burning. Now we shift completely to the image of the anchorman at his desk forty blocks away. Now we jump-cut to years earlier and learn about the first bombers of the WTC years earlier...The center of the story keeps shifting. Like a grid, it is a multiplicity of centers that branch in many directions of space and time. In these examples information comes in fragments and we are active in creating the "story". I would say it is even necessary to our survival that we "find" the story. Humans are meaning making, patterning seeing machines. What would happen if we were not?

    If we look at the Forced Entertainment performance where the actors scramble between costume changes and holding cardboard signs that describe their characters, we see a similar process of story building. The performers are improvising the structure. The narrative unfolds from the first image but with the audience coming and going as they please, the first image is different for everyone in the audience. The audience and actors are playing a real-time game of creating narrative based on the relationships they perceive on stage. It's a grid of constantly shifting information. The meaning happens as much in the resonance between the fragments of "information" as it does in the images themselves.

    Another beauty of collage and "cut and paste" in storytelling is the multiplicity of perspectives and points of entry that are possible.


    posted by tonyalockyer @ 4:04 pm | Permanent link

    | post comments
    I say what I mean, or at least I mean what I say. It's the same thing. Isn't it?
    By Richard Gilman

    I like Vanessa's question - Is meaning the object of text in performance? My first inclination was to answer yes. I get tired of performances that are too avant garde to be understood. But after thinking about it, I decided it aint necessarily so. Ionesco wrote a lot of meaningless dialogue into The Bald Soprano, and the sight of the English Suburban Couples talking nonsense to each other is comic and satirical. So sometimes by abandoning meaning in the text, meaning can be found in the action. I also think of a Robert Wilson piece (the name excapes me) which used an entirely invented language that no one in the audience understood. Thus, we are forced to listen to the sounds we make when we speak, the emotional world behind the text. A world that is more primal than when we rely on words to express our meanings. So, perhaps one of the values of subverting text is to free us from the illusion that we think we understand what is going on because we understand the language. When language fails us, are we forced to pay more attention?

    posted by richardgilman @ 4:03 pm | Permanent link

    | post comments
Wednesday, December 7
    theatrical languages and exploration
    By Vanessa DeWolf

    Hi Braden, I appreciate your directorial comments very much I agree that as a director you have so many different tools to approach a text and that some of those are script driven and some movement driven and still some other methods are purely instinctive. Were you at the talk last night? It was really interesting that Tim Etchells described his theatrical education as unconventionally led by doing rather then the traditional reading of scripts and analyzing texts. I know when I was in college I studied and analyzed scripts both in acting and directing classes, I would even say that was the majority of my theater training. . .and now that I've been making work that is not script-based but rather body-based I wonder how my thinking about theater has changed. Certainly it seems that Forced Entertainment never turned back and felt compelled to analyze scripts as the way into making work. AND from tonya's previous entry about getting deeply into movement as language as beyond language---to the places that language fails and the body in movement is everything is all the meaning Has this research, these two areas of exploration entered into the training of new theater makers? The reason I ask this is I have noticed an either or mentality and I really think this has paralyzed the potential dialogue of approaches to text, both original and established. It seems like innovation is happening both in devised work and in the conventions of text analysis and that there must be a place of hybridization.

    posted by thefieldseattle @ 4:52 pm | Permanent link

    | post comments
    cut and paste and dada and mix and match and colllllllaaaaaaagggggge
    By Vanessa DeWolf

    hi richard and tonya, oh boy do I adore this fluid approach to text and I think we're in a time when most folks are capable of tracking multiple layers of texts or at least narratives. Television is filled with densely layered narratives (CSI, The Sopranos, etc.) and the possibilities of mixing a wide-range of texts from textbooks to the personal diary is incredible. The internet making the availability of texts even more infinite. And what about hypertext or internet forms of textual interaction? So what does come to the surface is how does language fail or succeed at conveying meaning? Is meaning the object of language in performance? And I've found when I go to the bookstore or read reviews of the latest "great" novel that we're in a very story oriented time, this wasn't so true even 5 years ago or maybe it's 9-11 that's pushed us toward stories, I don't know but I do think the power of stories is so so potent and so sought after right now. however story and collage or cut and paste are not necessarily at odds, right?

    posted by thefieldseattle @ 4:43 pm | Permanent link

    | post comments
Tuesday, December 6
    cut and paste
    By tonya lockyer

    Sean's and Vanessa's discussion of altering previous texts makes me think of the relationship of structure and content. When computer music first really got going there was alot of exploration of making new sounds with computers. (ok, I'm going back to my Klaus Schultz and Tangerine Dream Records here which I know are not the birthplace of computer music! but...) But in today's music computers are more commonly used to structure sound rather than to generate new sounds. Sound content can be appropriated from anywhere: cut and pasted. Alot of choreographers work this way too. The dancers generate the "vocabulary" and then the choreographers sturcture it; cutting and pasting, developing and reshaping. In alot of alternative and popular culture the "text" can come from anywhere. The art is in what is chosen and how the chosen text is contextualized and framed and structured.

    posted by tonyalockyer @ 5:28 pm | Permanent link

    | post comments
    the "god" in theater continued
    By Vanessa DeWolf

    Yeah I know all about that collaboration with director and playwright, for the most part it has been one of great pleasure for me but it does take into question who is the creator of the event. Nothing like the comment from an actor: But my character wouldn't say that. . .or wouldn't do that, as if this character is more deeply known by the actor then the writer. That said, I do believe, ultimately, the play lies in the hands of the actors on stage in the moment the curtain rises or a light comes on and the audience is silent. I think when I wrote earlier about "god" I really meant that the script determines the destiny and shape of journey for the actors/characters, it even guides the director's choices. It is memorized down to punctuation, the words said precisely the same way and the blocking is also memorized. It is the job of the playwright to make this map, this terrain, accessible to director and actor and then it is up to them to make it available to the audience. I always felt this pressure to write texts that seemed right, sounded right for the characters or the events or even the style of the play I was writing. My sister, who was an actor/singer in Sweeney Todd at the time, said this is the conservative nature of the play, that it's nature requires a kind of cohesion and movement. I know there are those that break with that model Becket Ionesco Suzan Lori Parks Caryl Churchill to name a few, yet when productions are mounted the question of text is still set in stone, the characters, setting, and stage directions are etched in the script. Memorize Memorize Memorize

    posted by thefieldseattle @ 5:15 pm | Permanent link

    | post comments
    body vs. language
    By tonya lockyer

    Great discussion. I very much agree that on one level, text in alternative theater has been highly influenced by the postmodernist desire to destroy heirarchy and bring many expressive elements equally into play.  However, when I was a performing dance theater work in Canada, Boston and New York in the late 80's to mid-90's there were artists (and I was one of them) who were interested in the dictomy or expressive struggle between the body and language. We didn't want a level playing field. We were out to destroy. We worked to "conceal" the words and reveal the embodiment that was the source of language. We revealed the sensation of words and the physicality that went into the production of words.  We wanted to burn the feeling behind the word into the word until nothing was left but the shadow of that word and the explosion of sound that destroyed it. We shredded words, or spit them out, or sucked them in until they were not recognizable as the original text but had become something else. Something we believed could be transrational, primal, universal.  We wanted to reveal the limits of words and explode them into groans, shouts and hisses. And we wanted to reveal when and how language was useless or failed outright. This boundary of the body, the flesh that makes us all foreign countries to each other, could not be crossed by words in the face of physical pain. Words failed in the face of conveying the experience of torture or trauma. And words often failed us as we tried to cross boundaries of culture and gender. Texts were seen as bodies themselves, that could be grown, changed, developed, mutilated, transformed. And the body was itself a book which had it's own text, written in history, sensation, memory, imagination... Derrida revealed the dance in the text, and choreographers began to reveal the text in the body. A text which I strongly felt at the time had been suppressed by our culture in favor of an often cruel emphasis on rationalism. 

    This seeking of the "language of the body" was not only seen in the physical explosion of text, but in the sources of text used by dancemakers. The body speaks in many different ways through the senses. A text of recipes reveals the language of taste. A text of taboos reveals how many of our common swear words have their source in basic bodily function. A fragmented text on the qualities of silence reveals the language of listening.

    I saw a performance in France in 2000 where a famous French dance critic gave a critque of the performance while the performers smashed tomatoes into her face. The critics "text" seemed absurd, limp and ridiculous inside of the living breathing poetry of the live event.  

    Back to the postmodernists: I have always felt that movement in space is a text in itself. Not only is it a nonverbal communication of gesture and posture, but choreography literally means to "write movement".  In my recent work I use language text to expose that dance has it's own "thought" process and therefore requires it's own non-linear language structure. The language text reveals the subtext of the movement which includes layers of sensation, feelings, memories, images, actions and thought. There is the technical terminology of the movement; the metaphorical associations; and the layers and layers of cultural "text" that the audience brings through history, politics, pop culture..the list is limitless. As Tere O'Connor once said, "dance lives in subtext land". Now, instead of only concealing the text inside of the movement, I also work to reveal the text inside of the dance.

    posted by tonyalockyer @ 4:40 pm | Permanent link

    | post comments
    investigating theatrical languages
    By Braden Abraham

    The central question emerging for me is: what is the point of departure?  Or, what's the way in?  Is it text? characters? movement? Sound? Light?  The hierarchies of theatrical languages in any process are set up arbitrarily in order to best serve the exploration at hand. This is the question I ask myself when I start any process as a director. When I directed True West last year, I found my way in was through the text and the actors.  I knew that Shepard had revised the play heavily, simmering it until he arrived at the essence of the opposing forces shared between the two brothers, (or the two sides of one person).  So everything decision I made during the process was informed by that central idea.  The set was stripped to the essentials and the actors were evenly matched and complimentary in their abilities.  The process was focused on seeing the play through them, and what they were discovering in the text.  No matter what the process, the goal for me is to set up a situation in the rehearsal room where beautiful accidents can occur and then to capture those accidents before they evaporate.  The trick is in concocting a recipe actors, writer(s) and designers that allows for the imaginative spark. Sometimes a reverential treatment of text can  restrict the theatrical exploration of a certain theme or idea...but not always.   The obvious example for me is Shakespeare's language, whose restrictive forum generates a rich palette of lyricism, meaning, and infinite possibilities for interpretation.   When creating devised work with a company, I look at text with a much more egalitarian eye.  Through arbitrarily matching movement with text, it's possible to find fresh interpretations of dusty plays; through improvisation and juxtaposition of styles, it's possible to peal away the layers of mythical narratives.  But for me deconstruction of text and narrative is not enough to make for a satisfying theatrical experience. There has to be a clear intention of building something new.  It's easy to fracture the language in order to create ambiguity, but harder to build it into a mosaic that has a clear purpose, and a unified voice.  This doesn't necessarily mean I'm after clear answers to solvable problems -- life tells us otherwise--but I've noticed that the artists I admire are always striving to articulate focused questions from a messy reality, whether it's primarily through text or other theatrical languages.



    posted by sean @ 4:07 pm | Permanent link

    | post comments
    Is subversion about revolution?
    By Sean Ryan

    Thinking about this question brought me to look at Richard Schechner's Environmental Theater - Considering he brought his own type of revolution to theater in the late 60's early 70's. What I found curious is how he can’t quite commit to his own personal view of being a theater director and, “a master of the whole,” making the necessary adjustments with text that allow the performers to pull, push, and punch them out of shape: “transformed into sounds without regard for denotation; made into guts, extruded from guts.” (Yes, this is remarkable to do, and do as he may with text that he referred to as “pure literature” or text that was never intended for the theater - and was in the public domain); and then when it came to working with an actual playwright, Sam Shephard’s The Tooth of Crime. In there dialogue from letters, Schechner felt the pull to work in the same capacity as his previous works and look at the play “nakedly, approaching its language not as a dialect but as a way into the heart of the play…We start with only what is there, the barest facts: seven performers and a collection of words organized under role heading.” However, Shepard felt conflicted considering that the play he wrote was “pre-conceived,” and later wrote his main reluctance he had was that the play would “become over-physicalized and the language will fall into the background.” As Shepard gave his okay for the production with his reluctances, a review by Ron Verzah of Vancouver’s The Peak, stated, “Tooth was a combination of sights, sounds, experiences from the past and mysteriously from the future puddinged together and stirred – constantly stirred.” This pleased both for the plays accomplishment in how both contributed being aware of each others positive and negative intentions.   


    So, in regards to subverting text, sometimes it may happen as a result of a particular vision, and succeeds; however, sometimes it happens subconsciously by being overpowered by elements of the performance that the director or group feels should be on the forefront – say for example technology.


    posted by sean @ 3:39 pm | Permanent link

    | post comments
    the "god" in theater
    By Sean Ryan

    In response to vanessa's statement regarding characters as "god", there is also the director as "god". As I was doing research, I came across an article published by the QUT Law & Justice Journal Vol 2, 2002 regarding the intellectual dispute between playwright David Williamson and Director/ Producer Wayne Harrison over the production of the play Heretic. Both had decided to collaborate on the play, however when it came to the final weeks of the production the playwright felt the director was taking extreme liberties with the script and making such liberties withour his authorship was "a breach of the ethical norms and standards that governed the theater." And in response, the director, "was distressed that his authority as the director of the play had been compromised...the interference of the playwright in the direction of the cast was a breach of the protocols and conventions of the theater."

    So, who is really the "god" of theater. Is itthe characters, the Playwright, the director, or god forbid may it be the "act" of theater. -  

    posted by sean @ 3:05 pm | Permanent link

    | post comments
    What is subverted text? A continuation of destruction and democracy
    By Vanessa DeWolf

    I'm home resting with the beginning of a cold so here I am adding again to this discussion. Sean, I think you and Richard have hit upon some vital ideas about subvert and text >>subvert= destroy or corrupt >>the "new" democracy of text in performance >>relationship between language and movement Okay, so then I got to thinking about texts that I would identify as subverted, like Kathy Acker who used plagarism/appropriation to change the narrative tidiness of Don Quixote or the "plays" of gertrude stein without characters, setting, or stage directions and my thinking is that even with these two examples the subversion is the very action of innovation within the textual form. To me these examples are neither destructive nor democratic but more revolutionary, about changing the conditions. Kathy Acker was consider the punk rock destroyer of the dead-white-male sensibility, so I guess she could be categorized as a destroyer. Gertrude Stein was rethinking the components of language and grammar and in some ways deconstructing the conventions to uncover the meanings of those conventions. So both of these women are setting out to change to alter the available stories and language that had become cultural oppressors. okay so is subversion about revolution? Does subversion require this kind of intention? Can subversion change the way we use text? I wonder if one sets Hamlet in the 1950's and some inadvertant connections to the 50's are uncovered through the production, is this is in some way subverting the original text? Which takes me back to what is the function of the text? Sometimes it's like a clothes-hanger, a place to hang a slippery black satiny number that doesn't really want to be hung in a closet---a loose collection, a loose connection of people,places and things. And sometimes the text is like a familiar slice of apple-pie that ties the viewer/audience together in various ways, sometimes its familiar stories or emotional truths or universal ideas or even some shared empathy or sympathy.

    posted by thefieldseattle @ 2:23 pm | Permanent link

    | post comments
    Is it about Destruction or Democracy?
    By Sean Ryan

    Hello and welcome to Blog the Boards. I have invited some special guests to ponder this question of subverted text: Theater artist, director, performer Richard Gilman (Boston, MA), Choreographer Tonya Lockyer, Installation and Performance Artist Vanessa DeWolf, and Theater Director Braden Abraham. Please feel free to enter in on the conversation and respond with your reactions and comments…


    When I began to ponder the question, I was having a conversation with Richard Gilman (fellow blogger) regarding the word: SUBVERT = destroy or corrupt. In some capacities I have never felt that in alternative performance it was to destroy language. I felt more that artists were interested in allowing other aspects of performance to become more recognized. I remember taking a work shop with Mary Overlie, the creator of the Six Viewpoints, (which later Anne Bogart borrowed, manipulated, and expanded upon) and she posed that these six elements of performance: Space, Shape, Time, Emotion, Movement, and Story be laid upon a table of democracy; that no one element have more or less focus than the other, or that each is looked up on with the same intention and awareness.

    I have felt that ever since the 60’s the awareness of reducing the hierarchy of language/ story has become much more of a cornerstone in contemporary theatrical performance. Here we have a interesting development. Because while alternative theatrical performance was looking to incorporate movement, and lessen the role of language, dance was making strides in bringing out the relationship between language and movement – and both had its limitations. However, since that time, 40 years has passed and this development is still figuring itself out. I must say, on a personal level, I have more affinity to the democracy idea of performance. By allowing the equality of attention revealed, only brings more revelation to the audience in their experience.


    What also has been interesting has been to witness how language can be corrupted in how we hear or experience it, whether it be through amplification, sound manipulation, or projected text.

    I remember watching Canadian theater director Robert LePage’s Seven Branches of the River Ota. One of the scenes begins with a nurse walking on the stage in a hospital coat and a stethoscope, the scene is a café in Amsterdam. Sitting in the cafe chairs are characters we have met from previous scenes, as well as, the protagonist of this particular act: a man diagnosed with HIV who is there to tell his girl-friend he is committing euthanasia. Through out this scene the nurse is making the decision on what we hear via the stethoscope as she walks from table to table revealing snippets of conversations that are in play, some even in other languages. And at one point the nurse goes to the table with the man and his girl friend and leaves right at the moment just before he tells her, and we see the action of her reaction – trying to convey her feelings, we barely hear her text from the audience due to the amplified language from another table, yet we witness pure physical emotion as she confronts the man and runs out of the scene, as if witnessing from across the street from another café.  It brought a concrete awareness to how we experience feelings in the body. This made me feel more, rather then being right in the action. It gave me the distance to have an experience. Thoughts?

    posted by sean @ 1:10 pm | Permanent link

    | post comments
    How can improvisation change the relationship to language in performance?
    By Vanessa DeWolf

    I began my performance carreer as a playwright and have become a movement/text improviser. As this transformation has occurred, I've given a lot of thought to the script of performance, which has brought me continuous inquiry into where the present moment resides. As a playwright I believed the present moment came from actors experiencing the stage space through my written text. A present experienced through a pre-existing set of circumstances namely a script. How has improvisation changed my relationship to language in performance? Because the source of the performance event is, in my practice, physical and related to the body in movement and the sense of the body, there is no pressure to even bring forth words, yet I do. And I'm very interested in how this action differs and is related to writing plays. Here are some of my thoughts: The text has become uncontained by known events, this does not mean that memory or even recitation can't pop into the improvised moment or that the performance is any less structured. So in some ways it used to feel like within the plays I wrote, that the script, the dialogue and those sets of characters were like the "god" of that particular performance world. . .the actors used it to filter all of their experiences, like destiny. I find as an improviser that there is no central destiny for either character, setting, or script and in fact often the opposite is true, a spontaneuous noticing can easily take center stage. As a playwright I found I needed to consider narrative in a very particular and kind of predictable manner. That events and relationships needed to add up in a particular, emotional, kind of manner. That I needed to understand something about the inner life of the characters so that I could shape them into a story and relationship, as if the characters needed to have a certain kind of movement. The narratives of my improvisations are often less controlled and result more from the cumulative buildup of juxtapositions of quite opposing images or words. In some ways I believe my improvisations are more poetic more metaphor driven . . .certainly the relationship to sheer descriptive language is different . . .as a playwright I felt bound to active language, as if the language made the doing happen. okay I think this is a start in this dialogue. vanessa

    posted by thefieldseattle @ 12:18 pm | Permanent link

    | post comments
    How is text subverted in alternative performance?
    By The Administrator

    This discussion will start at noon today! Hooray!

    posted by sara @ 9:45 am | Permanent link

    | post comments


Who better to write about what happens at On the Boards than the people who support and attend our performances? Making art is part of a dialogue between artist and audience, and so we've created Blog the Boards... More