Tag Archives: Jerome Bel

QUERY: what kinds of theatre experiences have you had?

Andrew Haydon’s last post, on what may be Nicholas Hytner’s ultimate right-wing play, has made me think about the kinds of experience one can viably have in the theatre (or outside the theatre, geographically speaking, but in a performance). This because Haydon’s post is concerned, on the outer edges, with the dangers of enjoying a play that has no moral core, or one that is dubious at best.

It’s that old Brechtian problem, on the one hand – followed through by the phalanx of post-Brechtians, who more often than not misunderstood Brecht’s original query. How does one make political theatre (which is to say, theatre that makes people do things)? Or, what happens with our social conscience once we’re in there, and what once we’re out? And what about the unintended results? What if the moral of the story grates against the audience’s sensibility? What if it insults them with simplicity, or offends with a controversial surface hiding a complexity?

These questions are as old as art itself – Aristotle is already asking and answering them. But theatre has been changing recently, moving into another kind of audience experience, and the question of effect is coming up again, with new material to work with.

I started off, fresh from reading about Castellucci’s Dante trilogy and Jan Fabre, by trying to taxonomize, in the simplest terms, the kinds of effect that theatre can have on me.

1) There is, of course, the simple enjoyment of a text – which to me is by far the simplest of them all. It’s the pleasure of being read to, in many ways, the pleasure of radio and of listening to certain kinds of pop/folk/rock music. A lull punctuated with moments of strong empathy (or humour, or aesthetic enjoyment of a well-made phrase). This is a very common effect of much theatre that strives towards literary qualities: this is how I experience a great deal of Beckett (especially late, wordy) this way, but also most monologues, Anita Hegh’s Yellow Wallpaper, performances by Humphrey Bower, the garden-variety radio play, or Abbey Theatre’s beautiful Terminus. (Not all wordy plays work their magic successfully, of course: these are the shiny examples.)

What bothers me here is that, first, the ‘being read to’ aspect of this enjoyment is fairly serious – I often find myself in a state of light hypnosis, and the soporific effect means that afterwards I often can’t tell whether I thoroughly enjoyed the experience or was bored to sleep (indeed, as much as I enjoyed Terminus I can no longer recall the first thing about it). The second problem is that, although so much theatre seems to have this outcome in mind, it is in no way specific to theatre and, were it its only raison d’etre, we would have discarded the form long ago. The third is that there is no moral aspect to it: it is a sensuous pleasure, as tactile as having a bath. Yellow Wallpaper may have had a feminist point of some sort – but all I remember is the pleasure of listening to Anita Hegh crone herself into madness.

2) Perhaps now is the time to do away with those audience experiences I think of as unsuccessful.
2a) is the technical, critical experience of someone who either makes or judges a lot of the same, who looks at the execution, the skill, whether any new ideas are brought in, whether they are developed well, what the shortcomings are, where the dramaturgy could be tightened, what useful solutions could be appropriated. This is a thankless and joyless way of experiencing a work of art, and the reason why so many artists hate theatre, music producers cannot listen to music recreationally, and literary editors watch sit-coms in their spare time.

2b) on the other hand would be the detached experience of a narrative artefact, which I relate to drawing-room plays (particularly the ‘relevant’, ‘current’ and British kind). I am pretty sure these days, particularly in Anglophone countries, students are taught in school to read literature this way, and it scares me shitless. It means watching a play with the kind of focus one usually applies to reading a newspaper: the story narrated represents, in a condensed form, some kind of real occurrence (therefore can be more or less accurate), the journalist can bring in a more of less pronounced bias (which can therefore be detected as either broadly liberal or conservative – for those are the options available to journalists), and the article is phrased in such a way as to offer a conclusion, a moral or a solution to the problem (which can be translated into this or that effect in the real world, with which we can agree or disagree, based on our own personal ethics). Finally, depending on the prominence of the article (where in the paper, what paper), the article can have an effect on the public opinion (which can therefore be assessed as beneficial or dangerous for the society).

The problem with this reading is, simply, that art is not journalism, and that the criteria of accuracy, bias or political effect do not apply. Or, they do to the extent to which any theatrical work also has an informational role in our lives. But this approach forgets every other reason why we experience art: fun, pleasure, catharsis, hearing stories, and turns it all into sheer learning. So what happens with a sci-fi or fantasy story, or a musical with only the faintest relationship to reality? It must become a guilty pleasure, I suppose. Which may be the other side of the 2b) coin.

3)Theatre as the movies (or dinner & theatre). The lower-brow form of the above, and about as common, depending on a cinematic theatre production (for example, an upbeat four-hander involving one adultery, one misplaced diamond necklace, one murder and a number of witty remarks); the default form of enjoyment aimed at by Brecht’s kitchen theatre and everything serious people don’t like. Also: musicals and most stand-up comedy. For two or so hours we are thoroughly diverted from our lives, distracted from being aware of our relationships, our shortcomings and limitations, our bodies. An exercise in transcendence common to all good stories. When it’s over, it is over – the only way to recreate the experience is to find another, equally good story. The same won’t do. Except in the case of circus, in which the adrenaline rushes back and forth just the same each time.

4)Then there is that form of high empathy, ending in shall-we-say catharsis (but it doesn’t need to: Brechtian theatre has managed to wrestle the audience without it). It happens with cinema as well, but not as strongly – so much so, that I wonder if it doesn’t deserve a separate category. This is one of the strongest emotions art can provoke, very specific to theatre as an artform, and certainly one of biggest reasons why I go to the theatre. It’s quite distinct from just any empathy with just any human story, in which (as Salinger and Kundera have both noted) one is crying in the stalls deeply moved by being deeply moved by such a deeply moving human story, and therefore assured of their own depth and sensibility (all the better if the weeper can personally relate). It is that intense, heavy and complicated tangle of emotions which can be perceived as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, but are mainly just complicated. I have found Brecht-informed theatre to be particularly good at producing this effect: Brecht’s own Mother Courage, Kantor’s last production of Happy Days, Andrews’s War of the Roses or Sasha Waltz’s Medea have all had that effect on me. I suspect it’s what Alison Croggon referred to as ‘grief’ in regards to Barrie Kosky’s Women of Troy. In cinema, Lars von Trier achieves the same effect (and von Trier owes a lot to Brecht). Quite apart from our usual misunderstanding of Brecht as cold and unemotional, I would say that he was among the first to understand the theatrical power of pushing the audience through a quick succession of highly diverging emotional states, until a moral and affective disorientation of sorts if achieved: very rich and language-less at the same time.

It is the point where theatre most closely resembles ritual. It is collective, for one thing: the sheer emotional assault on each spectator means that your individuality cannot be contained, your sense of self capitulates and spread over the surrounding seats. The other thing is that it cannot be verbalised easily. It often results in rapturous applause, and yet audience members cannot talk about it later. It makes one think, though. Its effect lags – like one of those very deeply affecting dreams. It is possibly the strongest effect that ‘traditional’ theatre can have, but I have also found it in Tanztheater, and in a lot of postdramatic theatre. I also suppose this effect can be to some extent induced, as in horror films and theatre, or by incorporating obscene or abject elements.

5)Theatre as text. Postmodern theatre, highly referential, can consciously work to create that detachment that critics and practitioners often feel. The smarter such theatre is, the more pleasure an audience member can get from reading it as a series of references to other works, other concepts, to ideas. It provokes an intellectual, rather than emotional engagement. Performance essays, conceptual dance, and anything with a stronger formalistic bent can work this way. Rather than gushing with feeling, in these works one reads the stage like a visual essay, and one leaves feeling smarter, fuller, more conscious of the world. Works that strive for this effect can let signs be signs – such as in Wooster Group or Elevator Repair Service, in which a cup of coffee is primarily ‘a cup of coffee’. Like any pomo art, it depends enormously on the general education of each audience member – some Castellucci works, for example, are nearly meaningless without the right frame of reference.

6)Games or experience. There is a transformative quality to a lot of contemporary performance that is based around the audience: not merely interactive, but working on the audience. The stage itself can be completely empty, the effect entirely performed on the audience’s bodies. Bettybooke’s brilliant en route and numerous other audio tours, site-specific this or that, durational theatre, being blindfolded, having a one-on-one performance in a hotel room, children’s theatre, and even works of Jerome Bel, a wide gamut of contemporary theatre seems particularly interested in being an experience, the way climbing up the Eiffel Tower or bungee-jumping, a walking tour of Melbourne or a gig is an experience. Much children’s theatre is so too. And whatever insights you are supposed to glean through the experience (about yourself, about the world, whether you’re meant to come to terms with your prejudices or feel liberated, lengthen your attention span or genuinely experience boredom, or just play – as in Panther’s Playground), the constellation of signs, or the depth of your emotions is secondary to the experience of having had an experience – it is the only kind of theatre that can lay a legitimate claim to changing its audience. It seems to me unwise to even differentiate between a 15-minute thing in a booth or an 8-hour durational event: what happens in both situations is that, unlike in the ones above, one is made acutely aware of oneself – your body, your voice, your entire life – and of the situation one is in – the theatre, the seats, the building, the city. At its best, the effect is deeply empowering and somehow wisening. I have sat through 3-hour explorations of boredom which resulted in an almost religious ectasy. I have climbed laneway walls in Melbourne wearing headphones, feeling that the entire city was mine. I have done and said things with complete strangers that felt absolutely natural – and yet, of course, my entire life was transformed by doing so.

Is there anything that I’m missing? Even excluding all those half-experiences, in which nothing satisfactory happens, is there anything missing from this list? I have excluded happenings, for example, because I’m not entirely sure whether there was a political aspect to them that would separate them from being just an ‘experience’. I haven’t overtly included visual theatre in any category, because I’m not sure there is a particular kind of experience associated with it. I suspect there is a lull of imagery as well.

I am interested in this because we so often seem to discuss the moral, emotional etc effects of theatre (or any art, for that matter), yet it seems to me we have not fully figured out how theatre (or any art) actually affects us. In particular, some of you may know that I’m very interested in pornography. Well, pornography is often subject to ludicrous statements on its effect on people all the time, and often equally ludicrous defences (I happen to think pornography is experiential, rather than semiotic or a work of non-fiction). I first ran into this knowledge gap when trying to define the experience of consuming pornographic artefacts, which I thought was much less reflexive, or self-reflexive, than literature would have it, and much more interesting.

It also crops up in political theatre, for example. What does it mean for theatre to be political? Is it supposed to rally the masses, or just toe the liberal party line? What is a right-wing play? When should the masses rally? At the opening night, or three years later? Is Doll’s House a political play? And then obscenity. What is offensive in theatre? How does it offend? Who does it offend?

The other is that the same theatrical work can be a complete success or a failure, depending on what interpretive frame we’re applying. A 7-hour performance installation can have zero semiotic content and wasteful dramaturgy, provoke no emotion, and yet be a magnificent experience. One man’s unengaging play can be another’s brilliant essay into the techniques of staging. There are ways of seeing, I’m sure, that need to be learned before we can properly understand certain works.

I am hoping to get a few additions to my categories. So this is an open call. Your help would be most appreciated.

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Jerome Bel: The Show Must Go On

the water does not intend to reflect the moon
nor does the moon intend to be reflected in the water:
how calm and serene rest Hirosawa's waters!


18.x.2007. The Show Must Go On
Concept and direction: Jérôme Bel. DJ and Technical director: Gilles Gentner. MIAF. Playhouse at the Arts Centre. 16-18 October. Co-produced by Théâtre de la Ville, Paris; Gasthuis, Amsterdam; Centre choréographique national Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon; Arteleku Gipuzkoako Foru Aldundia, Donostia, San Sebastián; and R.B., Paris.

In 2006, my Croatian friend Petar insisted that I be his delegate at MIAF '06 and witness Jérôme Bel. He was adamant. I had to see him. Unqualified, unmodified by adjectives, this Jérôme Bel. Except, of course, that he was crazy, but madness is a constant in art. So I went. And to this day I cannot define what it was that I saw. I walked out with a strong feeling that everything was beautiful and life worth living. But why?

Recently, I saw Thom Pain, a play meant to break conventions, tear through the form, show us raw feeling, but also a play endlessly plagued by acting. I witnessed it as spontaneity enacted, performed, and unconvincing, a quirky but superficial recombination of formal clichés; the paradox exploded in full force when the actor interrupted the final applause to ask for donations, explained the history, operation and purpose of the fund in question, and gave an example of an acting colleague struggling through illness. This sudden moment of real life on stage had me in tears before I realised what was happening. It was as if the emotions of the play, behind the play, finally found a suitable release point.

May I compare it to Kim Ki-duk and his elaborate constructions of situations, situations improbable, unrealistic? In Kim Ki-duk's world, grandiose combinations of people, places, events, emotions, serve to illustrate comparatively small intellectual points (intellect being but a fragment of human reality). The problem is that so much of life, of humanity, of existence, is fundamentally indescribable, unshowable, unrepresentable, comes out spontaneously when nobody is looking, nobody is acting, nobody is writing or directing. The truth of art – for myself, of course – is born in the moment the artist forgets the artist, the work and the purpose, and expresses some of that light of life. I'm sure there is more than an element of fairly simple Euro aesthetics in this, but think Zen: He who deliberates and moves his brush intent on making a picture, misses to a still greater extent the art of painting. Draw bamboos for ten years, become a bamboo, then forget all about bamboos when you are drawing. In possession of an infallible technique, the individual places himself at the mercy of inspiration.

In The Diary Project, Renata Cuocolo pointed out: What has always fascinated me is the way in which people can stay at the window or on the veranda all day long, looking outside not getting bored, but if they go to the movies or to the theatre they immediately complain about feeling bored. Renata Cuocolo, herself an artist.

The Show Must Go On, this year's gift to us (and might there be more?), explores this front line between the real and the artificial image, and real and artificial experience, and creates something very special in the process. Most of the art, contemporary art, that does work on this distinction, I find displeasing, self-conscious, banal, and not bringing anything new into the picture, just the insistent, insecure clamor of why do you look at me? am i special? am i that special? just how much? i'm not! or am i?. Like the reaction of one confronted with someone else's love. Not Bel, though. For whatever reason, he succeeds. I find it hard to paint a picture of why?, therefore!, by these means!, this is his secret! But it works for me, for the person sitting next to me, for that guy behind me giving the standing ovation at the end, for the excited 12-year-old. Perhaps it's the sweetness. I myself am not a fan of brutalism in arts, of that in-your-face violence towards the spectator. Why not try to reach the television-viewer instead, the computer-game player, the sports audience, or at least those who go to musicals? Theatre bunch, themselves attending theatre very rarely for pure spectacle, are already likely to be engaged in arts production, asking themselves the same question. And that is, after all, why a theatre performance would have any more significance than watching the street.

So in a sense, The Show Must Go On makes us watch like we would watch the street. He pokes the theatre form just enough to get us there, and yet not forget to be engaged emotionally and intellectually, to give it the importance we rarely give to street-watching. He does that by doing all kinds of unexpected, un-theatrical things to the stage, performers and the audience, but there is never brutality to it. He plays pop songs. Performers assemble on the stage only to put their hands in their pockets and look at us, the audience. They lights go off. The performers will leave the stage, then come back. Dancers without ballet training will perform ballet clichés. Performers without singing talent sing. People will hug, and dance a sentiš under muted red lights. At one point, even the audience is given a chance to perform, with the lights on us, and the entire performing ensemble looking attentively. (To Matt's dismay, only some use the opportunity to dance a dance back. He has since suggested attending another performance only to right this wrong.) It's all unexpected, it's all vaguely puzzling, but there is the same sense of purpose that exists on the street at any given hour (even 5am). It's some sort of life on stage, but not as a representation of some off-stage life, it's performers living on stage, being what they are and doing what they do in the most honest way. The sound technician comes on stage to dance alone on Only You, and after a minute, having had an idea, he jumps off the stage to his technician desk, turns the volume up and the lights down, and returns. After an entire songful of random actions, jumps, clenches, bangs, finishes, the dancers not only stop performing, they take a minute to be tired. They take their jumpers off. Go off-stage and come back with bottles of water. They breathe heavily. They wait for the next number. There is no affectation to it, but no purposeless banality either. It's Bel saying, these are performers, you are audience, i direct: let's see the possibilities of the situation.

In fact, what's most compelling about the performance is its ability to glean most spontaneous audience reactions. In a less benevolent world, this would include a great number of patrons leaving, but this night, instead, there are people rocking on their chairs in beat with the pop songs; patchy singing along; laughter on all sides, and it's the most beautiful thing, bursts of laughter from a person or two, contagiously spreading over the auditorium and dying quickly, then again; there is a final applause that in itself could be a staged scene, with standing ovations on one side, people leaving on the other, and groups of happy patrons simply sitting in their seats, enjoying what's certainly not the end of the show. Until everyone has left, it's not over.

There is no incitement to grand collective audience participation, and none is likely to happen in a city like this. It's not a show of universal love&collective harmony. There are witty moments, and happy moments, and moments of individual responsibility. But there is never despair, never any suggestion we might be better off observing the street outside. Afterwards, there is palpable joy in the air. Joy. There doesn't seem to be in Bel's work any intention to teach us, and nor does the audience seem to intend to learn secrets about life. But in the end, how calm and serene rest Hirosawa's waters.

by Jana Perkovic

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