Friday, March 7, 2008

Presenting Data and Information, Edward Tufte, Boston Renaissance Waterfront Hotel, 05.03.08

It may seem odd for me to blog about this day-long workshop, as it wasn’t a theatrical performance. However, I’m starting to look at performances more generally in the hope of uncovering a universal ‘grammar of performance’ that applies whenever someone gets up in front of someone else and presents something.

Edward Tufte (website: is an information-visualisation and design guru who has written four marvellous books, and in this workshop he presented his ideas. Most interesting for our purposes might be his six ‘principles of analytic design’ from ‘Beautiful Evidence’. The principles are:

Show comparisons, contrasts, differences.
Show causality, mechanism, explanation, systemic structure.
Show multivariate data; that is, show more than one or two variables.
Completely integrate words, numbers, images, diagrams.
Thoroughly describe the evidence. Provide a detailed title, indicate the authors and sponsors, document the data sources, show complete measurement scales, point out relevant issues.
Analytical presentations ultimately stand or fall depending on the quality, relevance, and integrity of their content.

In addition to these, we might add that Tufte, throughout his workshop, stressed the removal from data displays of any unnecessary ‘chartjunk’, which included colours that don’t add anything, pointless boxes around stuff etc. Essentially there was a kind of ‘design minimalism’ being stressed.

What I find most interesting about these six and the ‘design minimalism’ just described is that some of them can apply directly to performances, and some of them clearly don’t. A central difference between a visual display provided on paper and a live performance is that, while the display is fixed over time and can be looked at whenever one desires, the performance provides a succession of moments which will never come again. Therefore we might expect the idea of ‘design minimalism’ to be relaxed somewhat.

And, indeed, in Tufte’s performance this is precisely what we did see. In stark contrast to the ‘remove all unnecessary stuff’ approach he sticks to for his visual designs, Tufte repeated his key points many times during his performance, lightening the load with anecdotes and other ‘unnecessary’ information. These differences speaks to this key divide between data presented visually and data presented through speech, movement etc.

It is further interesting that Tufte’s first design principle, “Show comparisons, contrasts, differences”, was not followed uniformly in his own presentation. For example, I can think of no time at which he contrasted a piece of good design with a piece of poor design by placing one on each of the large screens that were projecting his presentation. This should be possible, and may well have been useful.

As for principles that might translate better, it seems to me that principle two, “Show causality, mechanism, explanation, systemic structure”, is a key concept in teaching, while principle four (“Completely integrate words, numbers, images, diagrams.”) might be extremely valuable in performances of all kinds.

In Tufte’s work, the purpose of this ‘complete integration’ is to use ‘whatever it takes’ to unlock the important information you are trying to present. The same principle might be applied, with little modification, to theatrical and other performances. The difference is in the symbolic languages we have at our disposal: instead of completely integrating “words, numbers, images, diagrams” we might look to “language, movement, lighting, costume” or somesuch. The principle would remain unchanged, however: use all the symbolic languages at your disposal (‘whatever it takes’) to create the effect you’re after, whether it’s helping your audience understand a set of quantitative data or a new interpretation of a play.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

An Evening of Toy Theatre, Great Small Works, Charlestown Working Theater, 01.03.08

This evening of Toy Theater (composed of a ‘lecture’ on the History of Toy Theater, two pieces of toy theatre and a sing-along with ‘Pirate Jenny’) was a marvel – completely wonderful. In case you haven’t seen a toy theatre, it’s a really small-scale theatre-box in which plays can be performed with mini-puppets. A few thoughts come to mind about particular effects.

The opening ‘lecture’ was extremely entertaining, consisting simply of Dr John Bell singing the words of his lecture to a very basic repeating melody (accompanied by the rest of the cast playing instruments) and pointing to various reproduced images taped to the wall. What was fascinating was the extent to which setting the words to music – music which didn’t at all ‘fit’ the words, which often overran the melodic line and altered natural spoken rhythms – made the performance compelling. This piece of music (I’m sure they won’t mind me saying) was not complex or particularly interesting in itself, and was clearly not made to suit the words being spoken (which themselves were not sung in an especially polished way) but nonetheless made the performance as a whole function extremely well.

How? My best guess at the moment is along these lines: by superimposing a musical structure onto a linguistic structure that doesn’t suit it the listener is forced to try to maintain the peculiarities of each in their mind. We not only have to listen to and recognise the musical structure presented but, as the music messes with the rhythms and intonations of the spoken word, we have to work hard to understand what is being said as well. Thus, the words don’t simply ‘wash over’ us – we work to uncover their meaning and thus they impinge upon our consciousness more dramatically.

Another great effect: in their first Toy Theater piece, ‘Blue Skies’, a tornado was created out of a cone-shaped piece of fabric attached to a hand-drill. The frantic whirling of the tornado made the whole scene shake, and eventually picked up a house! The effect was extremely convincing and demonstrated how much can be achieved due to the miniaturisation of the form: in a full-sized theatre such an effect would be far more difficult to produce, and may have been less powerful, as you would lose a sense of scale that the toy theatre allows you to achieve.

Also, the pieces raised interesting questions about the relationship of live performance to projected image, as here the performance was projected onto a screen above each toy theatre in real-time. Despite having a clear view of the theatre itself, I found myself looking up to the screen and back again, to compare the two experiences offered. I was surprised by how different they were: the slightly unfocused projection lent an air of dreamlike ‘reality’ to the scenes while watching the toy theatre itself allowed one to observe the performers manipulate each object. Often this added to the performance considerably: knowing that the person on stage-right was about to introduce a new character, say, or bring down the curtain infused each scene with a sense of anticipation that would not have been present if the performers were hidden. In addition an appreciation of the extreme skill of these performers added to the power of the piece.

Finally, I found myself convinced by the argument, raised in the preceding ‘lecture’, that the toy theatre mode represents a step away from mass-produced, impersonal art that is made to be consumed. In a surprising parallel to today’s user-created-content the toy theatre represented an opportunity for people to create their own entertainment from basic tools supplied by others, and this message was reinforced in these performances by the simple materials used by the performers to create their remarkable effects.

Go see Great Small Works!

The Divine Reality Comedy, Bread and Puppet Theater, Boston Cyclorama, 10.02.08

Bread and Puppet Theater is clearly a great American institution with a long-standing history of producing thought-provoking, politically astute work within a well-defined and original aesthetic. It was therefore with great anticipation that I attended ‘The Divine Reality Comedy’ at the Boston Cyclorama - an astonishing cylindrical space built to house ‘The Battle of Gettysburg’, a huge depiction of a central battle of the US Civil War.

All started well with joyous music provided by the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band and the arrival of a crazed Santa Claus narrator figure played by Peter Schumann (the founder of the troupe) himself. However, here things, from my perspective, began to go downhill. At the end of the evening I felt somewhat baffled, and had to admit that at times during the performance I had been bored.

What might have been the problem? Terry Byrne, writing in the Boston Globe, points the way with this opening comment: “"The Divine Reality Comedy" is not as sharply focused as some of his [Schumann’s] past efforts”. And although Byrne feels that the piece eventually redeemed itself, I’m not so sure. Part of the problem was that the expected resonances with Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ were almost entirely absent: Bread and Puppet’s version followed neither the structure nor, really, the tone of the original.

Furthermore, the succession of images was at times so obscure, so abstracted, that it even seemed self-indulgent. The following quote, from Claudia La Rocco of the New York Times, is telling: “a wondrous dance occurs between large white equine cutouts and their handlers, the [chorus]. These horses, with their wise eyes and impossibly arched backs, were half Chagall and half Steig in appearance. Who knows what allegorical purpose they serve; they seemed far too real to serve any purpose but their own.” The problem is that if we can’t see ‘what allegorical purpose they serve’, they will have difficulty functioning effectively as a symbol. And, while it may well be useful to occasionally encounter images that have no symbolic connections we can relate to our own experiences, in this case I felt there were too many of them to create a coherent piece.

During one of many interludes in which the part-volunteer group brought together for this performance (who generally played their roles excellently) walked aimlessly about the stage I had the feeling that this was a performance on behalf of the performers, rather than the audience – precisely the opposite of what I expected to find at Bread and Puppet. So, while there were moments of beauty and power, I was left feeling somewhat let-down.