The Remembered Past in the Observable Present

The Remembered Past in the Observable Present

The more I experiment with the theatrical manifestation of memory, the more significant the space between the remembered past and the observable present has grown. In my experience, memory is observed internally - the recollection of an event in our mind's eye. That event is "observed" only by the rememberer, and therefore is subject to interpretation, manipulation, and inaccuracy. The remembered event may be relayed to another individual - in particular, an individual who did not witness the remembered event himself - but this individual is in turn interpreting the event and creating his own memory of that memory (as well as the active recollection of that event) as projected in his mind's eye. Thus, the act of remembering may be viewed as a form of storytelling - one remembers an event and then must relay that event to another in order to share the memory. Memories themselves are not necessarily being conjured by the act of storytelling, but rather individual adaptations are being presented in order to best represent an internal memory in the external world. Individuals are then often challenging the conventional forms of storytelling as they struggle to "perform" their memories in the present moment in ways that best convey the "essence" of their remembered past. How do you relay (and thus interpret) an image in your mind's eye - an image that was created by observing what was once a present action - as a performative activity in the observable present?

Let's assume that present activity - an action that's being performed directly in front of an able and willing spectator - is observed not by the mind's eye, but by what I'll refer to as the physical eye. This assumption is inherently problematic - aren't our physical eyes constantly "projecting" and interpreting external images using our mind's eye? But let's acknowledge and accept these glaring issues, and thus assume that the mind's eye (where our internal memories are observed) and the physical eye (where the external present is observed) are separate. An activity taking place in the present can be observed by the physical eye by multiple individuals from multiple angles, and thus interpreted individually. These individual observations form individual memories of the event, which are then observed in our mind's eye. So let's then assert that the "observable present" involves some sort of external/physical action, while the "remembered past" involves an internal/intellectual action. Present action exists in the world beyond one's own self (again, I acknowledge the phenomenological "can of worms" I'm opening with this statement), while remembered action exists in one's own mind.

The performance of memory, thus, may exist in the space between the present and the past - the area between the internal recollection of a memory and the external representation of that memory. How do we "perform" the interpretative act that takes place when one attempts to convey the image seen in the mind's eye as an observable act in the present moment? In order to develop such a style or method of performance, we must first begin to explore that act of interpretation. What occurs both internally and externally when we set out to remember an event and thus convey that event to others? How are our mind's eye and our physical eyes communicating? And how might that method of communication affect the more traditional methods of communication executed by theatre practitioners?

In posing these questions, I find myself often recalling images or films that seem to pose similar questions within their own artistic mediums. The image above, for example, depicts an outstretched hand that is clearly in focus, while the head and body attached to the hand are out of focus and in the background. The definable "action" of the image - reaching out - is clear and observable, while the individual behind that action - and thus the motivation for reaching out - is blurry and amorphous. But the image itself represents a distinct memory - a moment in time captured by the photographer's lens. The physical eye observes the physical action of this memory, while the mind's eye must assume a motivation for the action. The middle ground - the space between the action and its motivation - is unobservable, but somehow becomes the focus of the image. This middle ground is seemingly where the physical eye and the mind's eye meet and communicate. It's where the past and the present merge in order to convey the memory of a specific event. 

Similar examples of this unique mode of communication pop up throughout film and television. The most glaringly obvious example is the use of a flashback (specific examples can be found in the video above). Consider the moment a character in a film begins to recall a memory to another character. The camera may zoom in on the rememberers face as the image crossfades to the scene being recalled. For several moments, the two images exist together - blurred, yet in direct conversation. How are these two images - the present action of remembering and the memory itself - communicating? And what is occurring performatively during that transition? 

Without the ability to capture and manipulate two images simultaneously, how do we begin to explore the space between the remembered past and the observable present in live performance? What does that space look like in a theatrical setting or a performance-based process? And how may we begin to set more traditional theatrical texts in such a setting? In other words, can a dramatic text be presented in such a way that both the mind's eye and the physical eye are observing the same action of remembering in the present moment?

The Reconsolidation of Memory

The Reconsolidation of Memory

A recurring theme in my work, as well as an issue I often find myself tackling in daily life, is the formation of memory. As an event takes place, I often find myself recalling images or expressions from similar past events. The remembering of those images becomes a part of the current event taking place, and becomes fused with the memory of this new event. My memories often become jumbled messes of images and feelings rather than clearly defined narrative actions. And in recalling a memory, I often end up recalling not only the images from that one event, but also the images from past events that have become fused with the memory of the more recent event. This process of incorrectly recalling my memories of the past and forming new memories that are inherently fused with the events of the past is directly related to my artistic drive - my need to understand how the world works, how past theatrical events inform the present, and how I can relate to current theatrical practices by challenging my memory of the past.

Dr. Karim Nader, a researcher at McGill University in Montreal, has spent the past decade or so investigating the formation of memory from a neuroscientific standpoint. Essentially, the current accepted scientific view suggests that ...

... the brain’s memory system works something like a pen and notebook. For a brief time before the ink dries, it’s possible to smudge what’s written. But after the memory is consolidated, it changes very little. Sure, memories may fade over the years like an old letter ... but under ordinary circumstances the content of the memory stays the same, no matter how many times it’s taken out and read.
— Greg Miller, Smithsonian Magazine

Nader's work seeks to challenge this stance.

Nader believes in a process of reconsolidation. His research suggests that the filing away of an old memory after it's been recalled is achieved by the same building up of proteins as when a new memory is first recorded. Therefore each time a memory is recalled, we're able to alter the memory and replace it with a new memory - the memory of that memory. By simply remembering an event, we're subjecting that memory to a series of transformations that occur in the act of recalling the event and subconsciously comparing it to similar accounts of that event. While this may seem obvious from a psychological standpoint, Nader's work is quite radical in that it challenges scientific beliefs that have been largely unchallenged for decades - namely, that once a memory has been consolidated, it can never be neurologically reconsolidated. 

I'm particularly curious as to how Nader's research can be applied to performance, and the repercussions of such an application. Performance is often, on some level, the product of some form of memorization. Performers are often tasked with remembering a certain set of actions - lines of dialogue, phrases of movement, series of behaviors - that coincide with an established series of design choices. These actions are performed repeatedly; the performers involved are continually charged with the task of recalling their own memories of an artist's particular blueprints for the specific performance in play. And in Western theatrical practices, especially the Method acting styles applied to the American dramas of the 1940s onward, so much emphasis is placed on convincingly portraying a character and executing a playwright's dialogue as though it were truly happening for the very first time. Actors are expected to "become" their characters and trick themselves into "forgetting" the work that went into crafting their performances in order to trick the audience into believing that something unexpected and unrehearsed is really occurring onstage before them in real time.

But Nader is suggesting that regardless of your methodology - despite whatever process you may be utilizing to present a memorized performance - your actions really are occurring for the very first time, at least from a neuroscientific standpoint. By recalling the consolidated memory of your performance - the dialogue, the staging, the choreography - you are exposing that action to a potential process of reconsolidation. By enacting the memory, you are effectively replacing the original memory with the latest version of the original action. The performer and the audience member equally experience something neurologically unique each and every time the performance takes place.

And if artists were made aware of this process of reconsolidation before beginning to craft a performance piece through their individual practice, I then wonder how memory could be used to challenge established methodologies of performance? What does this process of reconsolidation look and sound like onstage? How does it affect the writing of a performance piece? The direction? The design? How does it affect the repetition of the piece over a prolonged period of time? There is, seemingly, a direct link between Nader's research and the performance of memory. I'm deeply interested and invested in the consolidation of that link through my own practice of performance. 

For more information on Nader's work, I suggest reading Greg Miller's 2010 article from Smithsonian Magazine as well as information on The Nader Lab provided by McGill University.

Valuing Inconsistencies and Repetition In Storytelling

Valuing Inconsistencies and Repetition In Storytelling

I've never been particularly drawn to narrative or plot-driven forms of storytelling. When I reflect on my childhood (or even on the events of the past day, for that matter), I tend to remember still images and emotional themes rather than the specific actions that made up an individual event or a series of events. I fixate on strange facts that most people seem to ignore or forget - facts that eventually become dislodged from any given moment in time by their bizarre singularity. And I have a difficult time conveying the jumbled product of those facts, images, feelings, themes, etc. as a complete memory. This has led to a fascination with performances, both live and in film, that follow a less linear or consistent arc - stories that are developed around mood or images rather than a strict plot driven forward by the obvious needs of its characters. More on that later.

But first, this interest has also led to a fascination with inconsistencies in performance, and repetition as a tool for the dislodging of moments from one particular period of time. In thinking back on my work over the past decade, I've often felt most connected to the moments I've created that have conveyed partially constructed truths or events. These incomplete truths are never completed in the piece, but rather they're challenged by a slightly altered repetition of the original moment or by new "phrases" that exist solely to "discredit" the earlier moment. The simplest execution of this phenomenon tends to require the quick and simple establishment of a repeatable action or rule - for instance, whenever performer "A" is facing downstage performer "B" must drop to the floor - and the eventual abandoning of that rule, possibly for no particular reason other than that the latest moment doesn't require performer "B" to be on the floor. This inconsistency then challenges the audience's basic understanding of the rules as they had previously been established, and continues to dislodge the actions of "facing downstage" and "falling to the floor" from any particular moment in the performance - those actions no longer belong to a threaded event, but rather exist as actions that once took place and could take place again.

Now while some may argue that these inconsistencies are representative of an egotistical favoring of "art" over "story" (I can't tell you how many times I've been urged to "think of the audience," as though I had no intention of creating work for an audience) I argue that these inconsistencies are actually creating their own story. This story just won't be communicated by the linear enactment of a plot told through the actions of a cast of characters. Instead, this story will consist of contradictory images, facts, themes, moods, stillness, movement, etc. that together create a complex impression that will undoubtedly be open to interpretation.

Of the several definitions of "story" floating around the internet, I find myself reflecting on the following more frequently than the rest:

story: a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question
— Merriam-Webster

If we're adhering solely to this definition (and I acknowledge the danger of limiting ourselves to any single definition of a complicated artistic concept, but shall proceed nonetheless), then a story simply must consist of a statement - a clear expression of the facts - that pertains to a particular situation that is being explored or questioned. This expression requires a clear structure - an inherent clarity of intention - but the form of that structure does not necessarily need to adhere to the rigid blueprints of more traditional performance practices as passed down by commercial institutions. Facts create rules. Rules can be broken. New facts arise. And we then can interpret those facts in any number of ways. As an artist interested in inconsistencies, repetition, imagery, soundscapes, stillness, etc. the structures I invent and erect in order to convey my own artistic statements tend to resemble something other than the familiar "two-story house" many other artists are attempting to build. But these abstract structures are just as much homes for storytelling as any other forms of artistic expression.

In attempting to identify with other artists who are creating their own structures for abstract forms of storytelling, I've lately found myself reflecting on the works of filmmaker David Lynch - specifically his method of telling the consistently inconsistent story of Twin Peaks. Unlike many fans of the original show (and Lynch's work, in general), I'm particularly enamored by the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and the latest season of Twin Peaks: The Return - specifically the ways in which they challenge the original series. I can't help but notice, and subsequently find great beauty in, the inconsistencies that arise throughout the twenty-five years worth of story that Lynch has crafted. Characters come and go. Images morph and transform. Events are misremembered or significantly altered. Facts are no longer factual. And while at times Lynch may simply be revealing additional information that forces us to question our original position on (or understanding of) a particular character or moment, he is more often than not purposefully ignoring information he once conveyed - facts that we as members of a culture that seems to universally embrace plot and narrative accept as universal truths - and creating inconsistencies within an already challenging world of complex storytelling. These inconsistencies, as far as I've been able to observe (take this statement with a grain of salt), tend to reflect Lynch's need in that moment to express his current artistic interests. The plot of Twin Peaks has never dictated the progression of the story. Lynch is utilizing imagery and mood to convey a statement on life and death, good and evil - a statement that has changed over the years as he's grown and developed as an artist. Therefore inconsistencies, and even repetition of images and themes, become valuable tools - they point out these changing moods and force us to focus more on the new images being shown than on the plot being expressed in tandem with these images. 

And when it comes to recalling the story of Lynch's sprawling work, I'm not only able to vividly remember the events of Twin Peaks but even find comfort and ease in conveying those memories simply due to their lack of a strict reliance on plot - on a series of cohesive events. The story of Twin Peaks already exists as a jumbled product of images, moods, sounds, etc. and therefore can be viewed as a series of dislodged moments that have the ability to form a complete artistic statement, but only when processed as an individual interpretation of those moments by audiences who are confronting the jumble in their own unique ways. And after recently watching the latest series of Twin Peaks and revisiting the film, I've done little else than reflect on my interest in the inconsistencies and use of repetition found throughout - the jumbled mess that has grown so significantly over the years - forcing myself to acknowledge my strained relationship with memory and the ways in which that relationship manifests in my own works. In many ways, I find myself repeating certain moments or phrases and purposely creating inconsistencies in order hold on to each dislodged moment I create onstage - to establish strange fact after strange fact so that the performance onstage represents the "memory" of the performance that will eventually manifest. The story I am telling has little to do with an overall plot, but rather moments I'm hoping to remember as singular facts that somehow convey a statement I'm attempting to make, whether I'm fully aware of that statement or not. I'm attempting to pass on these series of dislodged moments to audience members who can then discover their own methods of piecing together the fragments of a complete story for themselves. 

Transforming Practices & Process as Performance

Transforming Practices & Process as Performance

Working within a community that embraces a systematic and homogeneous process of theatrical development and production, I often find myself struggling to reconcile the rigid structure of that process with my own desire to create freely, without any predetermined artistic or institutional restraints in place. In my experience, work developed through a free and informal process tends to be more courageous - is this the word I'm looking for? - and revealing than work created through a more standardized process. As a theater artist interested in utilizing my artistic practice as a mode of research and investigation, the three-week rehearsal period established by various theatrical unions does not allow for the level of research my work demands. "Playing by the rules" often forces me to alter my practice and make structural choices based on institutional expectations and commercial restraints.

In a perfect world, I would somehow find a community completely free of those institutional restraints. But I doubt that mythic community exists. So the goal then must be to transform the practices and customs that have become standardized without removing them completely. In other words, how can I simultaneously play by the rules and break them in order to create the type of work I want to create?

This process of transformation begins, in my belief, in the rehearsal room with my own artistic practice. There is a universal - well, universal to standard American rehearsal practices - structure in place that most theater makers must follow. This structure consists of rules and regulations that we often take for granted, or accept without giving much thought to their intentions or origins. Take, for instance, the union requirement of taking a ten minute break for every ninety minutes of rehearsal time. This has become such an accepted and standardized element of any theatrical rehearsal practice, but has anyone actually given much thought to its original intention? And if so, does that intention support the needs of any given artist's overall intention for being in rehearsal to begin with? If not, could the practice of taking a ten minute break be approached with a different intention in mind? There must be a way to bridge the rules of the institutions dictating the commercial elements of the process with the rules of the artistic practice in play.

I'm then encouraged to wonder more about process as performance. If I'm beginning to bridge standardized rules and my individual artistic practice, am I then incorporating those rules into an eventual performance? If so, when does that performance begin? Do I invite audience members to my rehearsals as a means of understanding the performance as a whole? By opening up the standardized rehearsal process to outside spectators, am I then successfully transforming that process into a sustainable artistic practice? Can the transformation of traditional theatrical practices be presented as its own performance?

I also seem incapable of suppressing this overwhelming need to reclaim the rehearsal process as my own, as well as my unavoidable anxiety towards deviating from institutional rules and regulations. Whoever first stated "rules are meant to be broken" could have easily been attempting to reclaim his or her own individual right to create freely. But let's not forget that rules have been established for specific reasons, and are traditionally meant to be followed. I fully acknowledge that this attempt to "transform" institutional standards is my own way of reconciling both the desire to develop my own rules for an individual artistic process and my deep-rooted fear of breaking the rules. I also acknowledge that this fear, and any artistic suppression resulting from it, could be preventing me from unlocking my true potential as an artist and researcher.

Moral of the story - rules are tricky and worth exploring. The practices that have become standardized in response to institutional rules may seem limiting, but small series of transformations within those practices may eventually lead to larger changes beyond those practices. And the process of developing those transformations - the exploration of the rules and their intentions - may make for an interesting and exciting performance piece.

Questioning My Own Practice, or My Practice In Question

Questioning My Own Practice, or My Practice In Question

An overarching goal nestled within my quest to learn more about performance theory and practice as research is to better define and understand my own artistic practice. As a theater maker who's fundamentally less interested in "making theater" and far more driven by a need to learn more about theater and performance through the art I make, my process tends to take shape as a playful and intuitive investigation of an ensemble's collective response to a culturally agreed upon practice. But hidden beneath this playful exterior is an ongoing rigorous and critical examination of theatrical traditions and preconceptions of performance. This process eventually results in a theatrical performance of some kind. But more often than not, that performance is merely an expected result of the prior investigation established by the larger theatrical community. In truth, the investigation - the playful examination of our theatrical roots carried out by an ensemble of artists - is at the heart of my practice. And within that practice is an ongoing research project - a project that I now find myself questioning and "defining" through a series of questions.

In Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry, Estelle Barrett outlines a proposed process of practice as research meant to standardize critical responses to artistic practices. I've been using her outline as a basic model for defining my own practice, which has resulted mostly in a series of questions rather than a list of statements. At the core of my practice is an overwhelming need to challenge the potency of culturally or institutionally embraced theatrical traditions or practices. Areas of interest within that need are the critical comparison of dramatic and postdramatic theatre, the separation of drama and script from theater and performance, and my own anxiety toward deviating from theatrical traditions. Previously, my practice has consisted of the deconstruction of canonical texts and theatrical traditions, the collaborative investigation of those deconstructed texts, and the reconstruction of those newly perceived texts into original works of devised theater. This practice in many ways was born out of my own anxieties surrounding the desire to be accepted by my theatrical community in relation to my interest in deviating from the standards of practice and performance established by that community.

But this examination of my own practice - this questioning of where I've been and where I'm heading as an artist - has allowed for the formation of a number of questions that can only be "answered" by carrying out my practice and encouraging it to transform as I continue my investigations. Below are just a few of the many questions I'm now considering, and will continue to consider for the foreseeable future:

  • How does the continued embrace of culturally agreed upon practices of performance by larger theatrical institutions strengthen the potency of largely outdated theatrical traditions, thereby influencing the creative practices of emerging artists within that culture?
  • Does my own deviation from many of those standards and traditions actually challenge that potency, or does it merely fan the flame of institutional and financial support for those standards? In other words, is my artistic deviancy partly to blame for the strengthening resistance to postdramatic works?
  • How can I manipulate the tools I've forged over the years as a theater maker in ways that support my growing desire to deviate more fully from those standards, while simultaneously creating work that also acknowledges my own anxieties toward deviating from theatrical traditions?
  • Why are certain formal theatrical traditions or practices embraced by my own theatrical community over more "experimental" practices, and what perpetuates the continued execution of those practices?
  • Can the various results of my artistic deviations from those practices be strung together into works of theater or performance (without the conscious use of drama or script)? 
  • What happens when those deviations are placed before, alongside, or after the fully realized practices their attempting to transform?
  • What happens when this same process of deviation or transformation is applied to dramatic text?

This line of questioning has led to me to reflect on my own journey as a theater maker over the past decade or so, and especially on my role as a performance artist working in New York City. And I can't help but wonder ... If I've only ever attempted to make work that fits into one very specific and fairly conservative community's perception of theater, and if that community seems resistant to the type of performance practice I'm interested in carrying out, then how do I know what kind of artist I really am? Maybe I'm not a theater artist. Maybe I'm more of a performance artist. Maybe I'm more of a researcher. How can I truly comprehend my own artistic practice when I've never been allowed to create freely outside of a community that will seemingly never embrace my work?

As of this moment, my investigation into my own artistic practice seems to be generating an ever-growing list of questions. My practice is truly in question, which should hopefully lead to exciting and unexpected discoveries the further I explore and investigate.