Out-of-Towner Showcase

ME: Is this your first time in Minnesota?
HER: Yes, it is.
ME: How is handing out postcards going?
HER: What do you mean?
ME: Y’know, are people making eye contact? Smiling?
HER: Well, they’re kind of fake-smiling.
ME: (spreading arms) Welcome to Minnesota!

I attended the out-of-towner showcase on Wednesday. To be honest, I was far too fatigued to form a fair or coherent response to everything I saw. I would like to toss out the following Quick Thoughts™:

– There was one piece called Habitat: A Documentary Theater Project. The basic thrust of this one is that the text is largely stapled together from a series of interviews with homeless folks in Duluth. So the project looks fascinating, and like something I’d really like to read — but I was really struggling with the performance aspects of it. Why?

Okay. I’m going to jump back for a moment to that old debate about music stands — storytellers tend to get very dogmatic about whether or not their use is appropriate in live performance. I’ve used both — roughly half of my storytelling shows have been memorized, and half have been read. It’s a fairly calculated decision based on what I’m doing at any given time, often driven more by instinct (with a retroactive rationalization) rather than reason.

But one thought strikes me: every autobiographical show I’ve performed has been performed with notes as reference. The one time I tried to do one without, I was extremely uncomfortable with the results.

Now, this was flashing through my head as I was watching the preview for Habitat. There were a number of actors onstage, playing a number of the characters who had been interviewed. And I found myself growing — as I often do with docudrama — extremely uncomfortable with the artifice: that each performer chose some kind of over-the-top physicality or voice to represent each character. Except that these aren’t fictional constructs: they’re people.

If I’m telling you about something my dad said or did, I don’t want to create a walk or an accent or something: I want to just tell you. And I found myself wanting, rather, to be told about these people, rather than watching someone attempt to counterfeit the reality of their experience.

Of course, everything we’re doing is counterfeit: but I’m comforted by the reminder that we’re experiencing reality filtered through another’s perception. I’m uncomfortable with the exercise of theatre tricks and illusions on a project that is — at least theoretically — documentary.

– On the flip side, the high point for me was Was My Brother in the Battle? SONGS OF WAR, which is really nothing more than an extremely well-done song recital. One of the draws is definitely that I’m pretty sure I know the lyrics to every damn song on the bill, but another — after last night’s performance — is the fact that the key performer is not only a skilled singer but able to effectively emote through the music.

And tying back to my earlier point — the song he chose to preview with was And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, a fairly intense little war story narrated from the point of view of a crippled veteran. He at no point pretends to be this crippled veteran — he doesn’t limp or sit in a wheelchair — but he speaks in the first person, and nevertheless emotionally engages in the song, and engages with us — but as himself, and through the music.

– It is not impossible that I’ve read far, far too much Brecht.

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