Thursday, February 11, 2010

Gatz, Elevator Repair Service, American Repertory Theatre, 05.02.10

The other day I subjected myself to more than six hours of continual theatre, attending Elevator Repair Service’s “Gatz” at the American Repertory Theatre. “Gatz” is a dramatization of the entirety of “The Great Gatsby” – every single word of the novel is read out and performed during a marathon theatrical experience split over two performances, Part One and Part Two.

I am not new to such extravagantly long productions: I experienced the 10 hours plus of John Barton’s “Tantalus” (and even worked with him on a part that was cut from the original performance), I spent the whole day watching as “His Dark Materials” came to life before my eyes, and I recently returned from the annual Moby Dick Marathon in New Bedford, where I sat entranced as a group of Melville stalwarts read, in short chunks, the whole of that whale of a novel. So the 6 hours daunted me not.

What I was interested to see was how Elevator Repair Service would hand the tricky act of performing a novel not as an adaptation for the stage, but with the whole text intact – all the “he said”s and “she whispered”s and what have you.

I am delighted to say that, for the most part, they succeeded admirably. The central conceit is a simple one: we begin in an unnamed office in which an unnamed employee is trying to start his day. His computer does not work (he shows us this through mime – there are no words for the first couple of minutes). Since he cannot get to business, he picks up his copy of “The Great Gatsby” and begins to read. We “hear” his inner voice as he reads to himself but, as we find out when other characters enter the scene, the “real” dialogue of his day (that between him and the other workers) is muffled and indistinct – a series of mumbles and amorphous sounds. So, rather like in Shaffer’s “Black Comedy”, where we see the stage lit up the darker it is in the imagined scene, here we hear the character’s inner voice, but are deaf to the speech which is audible in his surroundings.

This simple setup continues for perhaps half an hour – our central character simply reads the book surreptitiously while trying to avoid doing any work, and comedy i provided by the looks of disapproval his conduct engenders in other workers at the office. But slowly, the words of the novel begin to leak out into his real world – a loud bang is heard offstage, and then one is referred to in the text; the magazine another character is reading bears a headline of uncanny resemblance to some item in the novel etc. And then, in one electric moment, one of the other office characters breaks out into audible speech for the first time, addressing our narrator – and speaking words from the novel. Thereafter, the novel begins to take over, co-opting the office staff as characters, and what was a dramatized reading within a theatrical frame becomes more and more a full dramatization. This trend continues in the second part of the production, in which the frame narrative of the office is almost forgotten, and the novel runs the show.

Generally, this makes for an excellent and thought-provoking show, particularly when you begin to see how the characters of the office workers mirror the characters they will later become in the novel. Some ingenious directorial decisions heighten the effect, too. Generally, in dramatized readings I have seen, a sound effect or action will follow its description in the text. So, for instance, someone would say “and they could hear a low groaning sound”, and then the sound would be played for the audience. In “Gatz”, this trend was reversed – actions and effects preceded their novel-bound cause, so you would see key actions performed before hearing Fitzgerald’s description. This was an extremely astute decision since, before long, I found myself expectant, waiting to hear how key actions were to be described. This made me anticipate the text, and therefore listen more closely to it.

Another ingenious stroke was placing the lighting and effects technician front stage left throughout the whole performance, and occasionally taking small roles in the action. This was intriguing, since it provided another layer of narrative – we had the “office layer”, the “Gatsby layer”, but also the “audience layer”, outside of both narratives, which sometimes included the technician, but sometimes did not. So the novel, in a sense, bled through the wall between the audience and the performance by way of the technician.

Particularly powerful were the last few scenes, when our narrator simply sits at a table reading the novel and then, astonishingly, places the novel down and recites the last few pages from memory. Here, it felt like all artifice had been stripped away, and the novel was simply speaking for itself on a darkened stage.

Sometimes, there were missteps and missed opportunities. During the first part, when the office characters were beginning to take on their roles as characters in the novel, there was some hyperactive mime which, although somewhat comedic, rather broke the illusion of both levels of the theatrical reality – it is hard to imagine either the office workers or the characters in the novel engaging in some of the weird, overplayed, flailing movements which a couple of the actors indulged in for a laugh, even if they did illustrate some word or phrase in the text.

Some links between the novel and the office were overly forced, too, making the piece seem occasionally disingenuous – a little as if the cast were shouting “look how smart we are to link these!” An instance when one character far-too-obviously held up a magazine to show the audience the title comes to mind, as does a strange moment when the technician was lining up small metal torpedoes on his table, seemingly for no reason other than to provide a link to the text. My feeling is the subtler the initial transition between office-reality and novel-reality, the more magical and poignant the experience for the audience, and sometimes “Gatz” pushed too hard.

Finally, I wondered about the ending. It was certainly powerful and moving, but its very simplicity – the narrator simply sitting and reading to us – raises powerful questions. Did we need the set and the office frame at all? If the book is that powerful on its own, does it need clever stage devices to sustain our attention? I spent six hours listening to volunteers read Moby Dick aloud and didn’t get bored (I was desperate to stay longer!), so could I not have enjoyed a simple reading of “Gatsby”? I wonder. Also, there was no attempt to “pop-out” into the reality of the office again at the end. I think that may have been a great piece of theatre – the characters slowly returning to their office roles as the spell of the novel wanes. Connections could be made between Fitzgerald’s “story of the west” and the office life in which the workers find themselves, and thoughts could have been provoked.

Something to think about.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Humanist Civic Movement - Debunking is not enough

I have just come back from two weeks of discussing the nature of civic society and citizenship at Tufts university. It was a remarkable experience, full of new, challenging ideas and extremely smart people.

Perhaps the most striking element of the two weeks was my growing feeling that Humanists must come together to create a new civic movement to change society for the better. Why "civic" movement, and why do it at all?

There are already organisations which lobby for political change on behalf of the non-religious, and some, like the Council for Secular Humanism, which have a broader purview. What I have not seen, however, is a national movement attempting to bring Humanism into the everyday lives of people, filling those gaps which the erosion of religious observance has left.

What Humanists need to recognize is that religious institutions offer all sorts of valuable social goods to the people who frequent them. They have access to physical spaces, common rituals, artistic traditions etc. which serve to build social ties between people in a community, bringing people of different generations together, encouraging people of different social class, race, and ethnicity to share in common experiences. This is extremely valuable, in my view, for individual human beings and for the communities in which they live. We all derive significance and meaning from our interactions with others, and religious organisations provide opportunities for us to connect.

With the decline of religious observance, no secular alternative to these organizations has arisen, and this may be part of the "crisis of civic life" that some (like Harvard Professor Robert Putnam) think is occurring in many parts of the western world. People are segregating themselves on the basis of money, class more forcefully than before, and there are few safe spaces in which they can come together and appreciate each other, discussing important questions about what it means to live together with others.

I've seen (as a teacher) the effect of communities that do not have a shared identity or a common space in which to discuss existential questions. There is an almost palpable lack of "connectedness", of moral sensibility, of feelings of responsibility for others. I've also seen the powerful effect of bringing people together in a non-religious context to share an experience, most notably as a prison educator. Indeed, I've seen the value of the religious institutions "from the inside" (as a choirboy for many years). But I believe that not only do such institutions not have to be religious, but they may be even more effective if they are not, since you then eradicate the final barrier - that between people of different faiths.

In short, humanism / secularism / atheism is often presented as a negative position. We're "against" god, "against" irrationalism etc. And we often spend much of our time debunking things - religious arguments, homeopathy, pseudoscience, cults etc. Instead, we absolutely must spend more time building positive institutions to achieve social change. If we really believe that a society in which reason, rational method, clear thinking, and respect for all human beings would be a better society, we have to go out and
build it. Debunking is not enough.

Monday, July 6, 2009

27 Seconds Too Short for Art

"Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice" at Boston's MFA is remarkable, particularly for the way it has chosen to present the magnificent works it houses. Instead of lining them up in chronological order, or separating them by artist, they are organized thematically, so the visitor can see how each artist's treatment of a similar subject differs (or not).

This is an interesting curatorial decision, as it affords many opportunities for learning if one is willing to take the time over each painting - but you have to spend the time!. A number of empirical studies have shown that, in general, visitors to museums spend strikingly little time looking at individual paintings. Here's an extract from the abstract of a 2001 study:

The mean time spent viewing a work of art was found to be 27.2 seconds, with a median time of 17.0 seconds. Viewing time was not related to gender or age, but was strongly related to group size, with larger groups spending more time. There were also significant differences among paintings. (Smith and Smith, 2001)

In order to counter such tendencies, researchers (Steve Seidel and others) at Harvard's Project Zero strategies for investigating art that aim to help people learn more from the experience. Following these principles, I spent considerable time in each room observing each painting very closely. I asked myself "What do I see in this painting?" (making no interpretive or quality judgments), "What questions do I have about this painting?" (for example, "why does the upper left hand corner of the painting seem unfinished?"), and "What hypotheses do I have about the answers to my questions?" Of course, I refrained from reading the commentaries that accompanied each painting.

This was an enlightening experience. By the end of my visit, I could I found myself able to predict, occassionally, which artist was responsible for a given painting. I had identified for myself stylistic differences and similarities. I had correctly identified that some works were unfinished, and where the unfinished sections occurred in the canvas. All this from looking and thinking.

Perhaps, when you are next at an art exhibition, take longer than those 27 seconds! It can be extremely rewarding...

Friday, June 19, 2009

Teaching on the Dance Floor

On Tuesday I found myself on the dance floor in a Salsa club, celebrating my girlfriend's birthday. I'm not much of a Salsa dancer (my style is more "crazy post-modern interpretive"), so I had some time to observe others on the dance floor. What I saw was extremely interesting, from an arts-learning standpoint.

After every song, most dancers would change partners, frequently dancing with people they have not danced with before, . In a certain sense, every new partnership requires some element of learning: no two dancers will have exactly the same way of leading, no two dancers will know the same moves or execute them in the same way, and it is likely that many partnerships will have unequal distribution of ability and experience. It can be assumed that there will be a few moments of "calibration" as new pairs get the measure of each other, and that some dancers deal with this uncertainty better than others. It would be interesting to investigate the characteristics of those dancers capable of fitting seamlessly into new partnerships - they might be considered effective "learners" in this new, uncertain situation. Regardless, we can be sure that some sort of learning must occur if the partners, unknown to each other before this dance, come to dance effectively with each other - often all during a single short song!

We can also zoom out of the situation, considering the whole room rather than the single dancer. During each dance both partners will undergo a particular dancing experience. As Dewey notes, each experience we undergo colours our future experiences - crudely, we learn something from everything we experience. Perhaps a dancer learns a new move, or a new sequence. Perhaps they are led in a slightly different way than they have been led before. Whatever their new experience, each dancer carries it with them to their next partnership.

Imagine looking down at the dance floor from above - focus on the lady in the red dress. Watch as she moves from partner to partner, learning a little something each time, each new partnership coloured by the one before. Now zoom out again and observe all the shifting partnerships as they evolve throughout the night. We might conceive this as a social web of informal micro-learning, in which different individuals collaborate to create an experience that is fulfilling for all.

Finally, I noticed some less experience dancers being offered assistance from veterans - one gentleman in particular was helping other couples develop their Salsa skills. This is an interesting phenomenon - a peripatetic pedagogue, presumably with no formal training, offering his services for free simply because he knew things other people wanted to know.

I wonder if any studies have been done on the learning-dynamics of the dance floor? This is REALLY informal learning!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A broader stage...

I've slightly altered the description of this blog in order to highlight a change in perspective: instead of "just" investigating theatre, I intend now to discuss broader issues of human culture and human development. This change reflects the broader nature of my current research. I'll begin soon with some thoughts about informal education.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Around What Can Humanists Congregate?

If we humanists cannot congregate around religion, around what can we congregate? This is a question I frequently return to when thinking what it might mean to create a humanist community. For it is clear that, despite the religious paraphernalia, religious institutions offer a means by which people can satisfy fundamental human desires: the desire for community, to address significant issues (birth, death, marriage), to think deep thoughts and generally to attempt to make meaning out of the world in which we live. The ritual of church-going, with its sermons, music, communal speaking and opportunity to sit together with friends and enemies has much value, and there is a danger that a secular worldview might fail to realise the importance of such spaces.

One possible answer to this conundrum struck home forcefully this evening, as I watched Joss Whedon receive the 2009 Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism – we can congregate around art. Art, especially the narrative arts, can provide an arena for the exploration and appreciation of life’s complexities without needing to claim the mantle of “truth”. We can all agree that Whedon’s narratives, in “Buffy” or “Firefly” for instance, are not real. We have no need to believe them. And yet we can learn from them, use them as stimuli for discussion, to get to the heart of the issues we wish to face.

Of course, many people do this already on coaches across the world. Book clubs come together to discuss novels, and film clubs convene over movies. But what would it mean to take these congregations to the next level? Could we have “secular sermons” based around some work of art or performance that is experienced communally, and then open discussion around the themes involved? I think the opportunity for discussion would be essential – the point is not to “receive wisdom” from the artist but to use the work as a starting point for deeper engagement with meaningful questions.

This is precisely what I witnessed this evening as people asked meaningful, penetrating questions in response to Whedon’s TV work. It may seem odd that Buffy the Vampire Slayer should be the catalyst for ruminations on human mortality, but why should it not be? It was effective enough tonight.  

Saturday, May 10, 2008

QED, Underground Railway Theater (Catalyst Collaborative), 04.05.08

It’s been a while, but this production really sparked my interest. As part of the Catalyst Collaborative, a partnership between MIT and the Underground Railway Theatre, this production sought to bring to life renowned physicist Richard Feynman.

Essentially, the play was a collection of Feynman’s stories drawn from his various memoirs, fused into a two-act drama by Peter Parnell and directed by Jon Lipsky. Many of the stories seem to have been drawn verbatim from Feynman’s published versions, so anyone who had read those books will have been familiar with much of the material. The lack of any new material, although not surprising, was perhaps somewhat disappointing – it would have been fascinating to see a more private side of Feynman on the stage, perhaps drawn more from his letters, than the bombastic figure he presented himself as.

More interesting, the play centred around a crucial moment for Feynman: his decision whether or not to undergo a dangerous operation that could potentially extend his life or end it. To see Feynman struggle with this decision produced some much-needed pathos and led to a moving climax. It helped that the role was well performed by Keith Jochim, who managed to add a certain level of multi-dimensionality to what otherwise could have been a rather flat character.

What I think most disappointed me about this (admittedly enjoyable) production was the lack of attention given to scientific ideas except as elements for exposition. There was, as one audience member noted in discussion after the show, “a lot of science in it”, but the scientific concepts never truly served as a motor for the dramatic action. Instead, this was a rather traditional piece about a man confronting his own mortality. Feynman’s profession almost seemed incidental – one imagines many would have felt similar feelings.

I would like to see a complementary piece developed which tried to dramatise the complex scientific concepts raised more explicitly. That might, perhaps, more fittingly demonstrate the benefits of scientists and dramatists collaborating in common endeavour.