Valuing Inconsistencies and Repetition In Storytelling

Valuing Inconsistencies and Repetition In Storytelling

I've never been 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 ignore or forget - facts that 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 rule - for instance, every time performer "A" faces downstage the other performers 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 the majority of the cast to drop to the floor. This inconsistency then challenges the audience's basic understanding of the rules, 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 most likely be open to interpretation.

Of the several definitions of "story," I'm most drawn to Merriam-Webster's:

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

If we're adhering to this definition, then a story simply needs to consist of a statement - a clear expression of the facts - that pertains to a particular situation that is being questioned. This expression requires a clear structure, but that structure does not need be constructed by following the blueprints of traditional performance 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 build to express a statement tend to resemble something other than the familiar two-story house many other artists are attempting to build. But this abstract structure is just as much a home for storytelling as any other artistic expression.

Of all of the artists creating their own structures for abstract forms of storytelling, I'm most interested in 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, 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 in an unusual twist of fate, I'm able to not only remember the events of Twin Peaks but find comfort in conveying those memories simply because they're not reliant 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 form a complete artistic statement, but only in the individual interpretation of those moments by audiences who are challenged by the inconsistencies found within. 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 inconsistencies and repetition, forcing myself to acknowledge my strained relationship with memory and the ways in which that relationship manifests in my own work. In many ways, I find myself repeating certain moments or phrases and purposely creating inconsistencies in order hold on to each 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.

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 can only lead to exciting and unexpected discoveries the further I explore and investigate.

Practice as Research and the Ambiguity of Invention

Practice as Research and the Ambiguity of Invention

Grasping the basic concept of practice as research is a bit tricky, and is something I'll most likely be struggling with for some time. It seems as though it's a phrase constructed to simultaneously represent several forms of connective tissues between artistic practice and research. From what I've been able to gather thus far, these connective tissues may take the form of a more formal research process that eventually produces an arts-related project, an art project that is merely one component of a larger research process utilizing a range of methods, or a research process that is conducted entirely through an artistic practice. Regardless of what form the process may take, the end goal is seemingly the same - to bridge the oft-separated worlds of art and knowledge, studio-based inquiry and research, experiential learning and logic. 

Estelle Barrett (Associate Professor of the School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University, Australia) and Barbara Bolt (Associate Dean of Graduate Research at the Victorian College of Arts and Music, University of Melbourne) co-edited a collection of essays expounding several modes of creative research entitled Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. The first essay in their collection, written by Melbourne-based artist and writer Paul Carter, considers the problem of assessing the value of practice-based research within the context of what he considers "the ethics of invention." In describing the universal condition of invention, Carter writes:

In the process of invention the heterogeneous interests of the poet, the choreographer, the hip-hop deejay, the AutoCad designer and the landscape architect display their common interests. The condition of invention - the state of being that allows a state of becoming to emerge - is a perception, or recognition, of the ambiguity of appearances. Invention begins when what signifies exceeds its signification - when what means one thing, or conventionally functions in one role, discloses other possibilities.
— Interest: The Ethics of Invention

I am particularly struck by Carter's description of invention as a state of becoming that emerges from an acceptance of ambiguity. Ambiguity seems to be a common thread in the study of practice as research, or at least in my understanding of practice-based research. As I stated above, the very concept of practice as research is ambiguous in form and structure. And while ambiguity may prove problematic in more rigid practices (ie. science, math) I believe it to be an essential component of my own artistic practice, and most successful arts-based processes. The inability or unwillingness to define or interpret any given artistic expression may lead to further exploration of that expression and unexpected observations of the expression. Or creative inventions, as Carter might argue. An acceptance of ambiguity as part of an artistic practice might not be a revolutionary notion, but ambiguity as a function of a research-based process is more shocking and, quite frankly, exciting. 

Carter later suggests that in practice-based research ethically-sustainable invention responds to three conditions:

It has to describe a forming situation. It has to articulate the discursive and plastic intelligence of materials. And it has to establish the necessity of design.
— Interest: The Ethics of Invention

He suggests that in forming a situation, the impulse to create generally stems from a sense of silence, loss, or absence that originates outside the artist. This silence establishes an environment in which the impulse to invent can occur. The "materials" used to carry out the practice of invention are then to be chosen with regard to interest - utilizing an anything-goes mode of speculation - over more conventional systems of classification. Again, an acceptance of more ambiguous notions of reasoning may lead to unexpected discoveries. The necessity to invent should then emerge from a balanced dialogue between the artist and the environment - the commissioning organizing, the museum curators - that allows the artist to create without adhering to predetermined conditions of the environment.

Again, there seems to be a strong emphasis on ambiguity as a necessity of possibility. In order to invent - or in other words, in order to create - there must be a desire to reject more conventional and limiting notions of practice. While a, b, and c may equal x, y and z in most standard practices, the creative researcher must be willing to accept that a, b, and c may reveal more about the practice at hand if allowed to no longer equate to anything. Semiotics then begins to play a crucial role in the understanding of practice as research as a practical artistic process. As I mentioned earlier, grasping the basic concepts of practice-based research is tricky, and merits further investigation and study with these basic interpretations in mind.

Thoughts on Schechner and Performance Theory

Thoughts on Schechner and Performance Theory

Over the past few years, I've developed a growing need to fully define and better understand my own practice as a theater maker and performance artist. I spent the majority of my time as an undergraduate student single-mindedly preparing myself for a career in acting, paying little attention to other areas of study. The initial spark to direct or create or experiment ignited just before graduating from NYU, which has led me to rely heavily on my instincts as a theater maker. And while my instincts have allowed me to develop my own process of experimentation, instinct alone is not enough to fully comprehend that process and how it fits into the greater spectrum of performance.

I've made it my mission this summer to read as many works surrounding performance theory and practice as means of research as possible in an effort to build up my vocabulary surrounding these practices. I'm hoping that a greater understanding of these theories, and the work carried out by the artists and researchers that have come before me, will allow me to develop my own practice as I enter the next stage of my artistic career. I'm using this platform to share some of my musings regarding what I've been reading, and to help myself work through some of the more complex theories I'm newly encountering.

I've started this journey with Richard Schechner's Performance Theory, a collection of essays written over the course of several decades in response to his work as a theater director with The Performance Group (later The Wooster Group), and his research into the larger notions of performance and ritual. Now I'm not going to even begin to break down the entirety of his work (an entire blog could be devoted to such an endeavor), but I wanted to focus on two concepts that have lingered with me since finishing the book. The first is a mapping out of the various levels of performance. Schechner examines the relationship between drama, script, theater, and performance by establishing how each fits into a larger system dominated by performance:

In this system, Drama is thought of as a tight, verbal narrative that exists independently of any sort of transmitter. Think of the work of the author or composer. Drama is a part of the larger circle of Script, which is a looser plan for an event developed through practice. Think of the director's interpretation of a text established before rehearsals begin. Or the teacher preparing for a course of study. Drama and Script are contained within the circle of Theater, which is a visible set of events often carried out by performers - the script in action, so to speak. All three are part of the largest and least defined circle of Performance, which occurs once an audience engages with the event.

My work as a theater maker has often been in response to, or in direct conflict with, our culture's obsession with script and drama. It seems to me that our entire system for creating and producing new works of theater stems from the idea that at the center of the theatrical process is a play (or drama) written by a playwright, and that this drama is essential for a performance to eventually occur. The director's interpretation of that drama (which Schechner might refer to as the script) is then the next piece of the puzzle to fall into place, and must be established before the rest of the process can occur. This direction is then physically carried out by performers and designers in a theater or performance venue. And with the invitation of and attendance by an audience, a performance occurs. Performance is then only the result of a written drama. Essentially, it feels as though we've created an inverted map of Schechner's theory that has established the drama (or text) as the largest circle, with performance at the center.

But since viewing Schechner's map, I've begun to wonder what would occur (and often does occur in many other parts of the world) if you remove drama and script entirely from the equation? Since they're only smaller circles within the larger circles of performance and theater, couldn't a work of theater be performed without either drama or script present in the process? Would the work of theater created by this process then be considered a play? Or are we too focussed on defining theatrical works by seemingly outdated terms? By viewing performance as the largest circle, Schechner is placing a strong emphasis on the audience in relationship to the work on view. In this mapping out of the theatrical process, the drama is no longer the dominating factor but just a possible component of a performance. Essentially, it's the conversation between the theater artist and the audience that occurs once a physical set of events is enacted in a chosen space that matters most to the successful execution of a theatrical performance. This understanding of theater and performance, and how they both can be separated from drama and script, is extremely intriguing and worth exploring further in my own practice.

The second concept I keep returning to is Schechner's idea of cooling off post performance. Essentially, Schechner views this activity as a means of getting the performers and spectators out of, or down from, the experience of participating in a performance. This might occur over drinks at the bar across the street, or in the performance space itself as actors are exiting from their dressing rooms. But it seemingly requires that both performers and spectators meaningfully engage once the performance has ended in order to complete the full cycle of the performance and thus reenter the world beyond the performance.

Schechner at various points throughout his essays emphasizes the need to study the entirety of a process to fully understand the impact of the final performance. So often we go to a theater to see a play performed, during which time we are separated from the performers by walls and curtains. We're expected to believe that these performers are the characters they're portraying (or at least that's often the case with commercial theater). We haven't been in the rehearsal room with them during the weeks leading up to the performance, and we often only have a fleeting moment to connect with them as they quickly leave the theater. Our two paths are purposefully separated and kept at a considerable distance from one another. But if we had been let in beforehand - allowed to sit in on rehearsals, given opportunities to discuss the work with the artists involved - how would that shape our experience of the final performance? And what happens then if this cooling off period is just a part of that process?

I keep imagining what it would be like to develop a piece in full view of an audience in a space built specifically for the purposes of eventually cooling off. Artists and audience members gather in a cafe or bar to introduce themselves to one another, or catch up over coffee, or simply eavesdrop from a nearby cafe table (art is not necessarily the central topic of discussion). They then collectively enter a rehearsal or performance space attached to the bar. The artists get to work - they continue to develop some form of performance by means of their own unique practice. The audience members observe, knowing full well that what they're witnessing is not a finished product but merely a work-in-progress, or an artistic investigation not meant to be performed. The rehearsal ends, and the artists and audience members reconvene in the cafe/bar. They then discuss the work together over food and drinks. This continues for some time, with audience members rotating in and out. And eventually a set performance is scheduled. These same audience members attend, along with spectators who may be completely new to the work, and they all are given the same opportunity to cool off together afterwards. How would a work created by this process shape itself in response to its relationship with the audience? And how would the performance itself be treated by the performers knowing full well that they are playing to a crowd dominated by "collaborators", many of whom will continue to "develop" the piece with them by cooling off afterwards?