Monthly Archives: May 2005

oh no…

Announced on IMDB:

While imprisoned in Sing Sing on trumped-up charges, a publicist [played by Sarah Jessica Parker] stages an all-inmate musical.

First, make the decision; then you can agree.

Warning: this is long. No pictures.

Tuesday, I went to Walden House in the Mission to watch a staged reading of Cracking the Safe, a Soapstone Theater production. Soapstone (a project of Community Works) creates theater in and outside of prisons, bringing together ex-offenders and survivors of violent crimes.

It wasn’t that I came with low expectations, but I was pretty sure what to expect. Community-based theater, especially that uses personal or oral history, tends towards first person storytelling, generally spoken directly to the audience. One speaker will come forward. Then another. Over the course of the play, the multiplicity of voices and stories will build to some gestalt, revealing a collective set of truths about its community.

Think Laramie Project, or The Exonerated, or any of Jo Carson’s oral history plays. Cracking the Safe didn’t stray from that from that model (which, in the past 10 years, has become its own genre with its own apparatus, on which more later). It’s rooted in the basic democratic premise that everyone has a story worth sharing about triumph or loss or love or pain.

Is everyone’s story interesting? Perhaps. A few weeks ago, I saw a one-man show, Confessions of a Mormon Boy, which, as you might guess, is the story of a gay Mormon man as he grows up, gets married, has children, suffers in the closet, comes out, gets ex-communicated, gets divorced, moves to New York, becomes a gay escort, sex sex drugs drugs, hits bottom and turns his life around.

He’s covering a pretty action packed stretch of life here, yeah? You’d think the show would have been, I dunno, interesting or something. But it wasn’t. The entire affair was pretty self-indulgent, in that “let me tell you my entire life story in chronological order so it feels like you’re experiencing it in real-time” way. He was a man acting out his therapy, not a performer engaged in art-making.

Catharsis is one thing, and of course art, at its best, will be emotionally transformative, but I don’t like therapy in my art. (I guess art used in therapy can be ok, though I’ve never really done that.)

Cracking the Safe
certainly was influenced by a therapeutic model. Of course it was–the performers were all Walden House counselors, recovering addicts, and, by their own self-identification, survivors. One man shared childhood memories of his abusive father; another told the tale of a 1969 race riot in the Tracy, California prison. A woman traced rejection by her father to later addiction and abusive relationships; another woman talked about her infant son’s death while she was a crack addict. All the artists acknowledged, in their stories, learning to recognize and analyze the causal links between their diverse traumas and resulting patterns of self-destructive behaviors in order to create healthier lives.

Despite this, the play didn’t feel like public therapy. The stories were strong and beautifully written–well-structured vignettes of startling specificity, which didn’t need any explanation beyond the bare, heartbreaking details. The performers were all present and vulnerable, but told their stories without self-pity or the need for our approval (unlike our Gay Mormon friend; very like the new the Mountain Goats album The Sunset Tree, written in the wake of the death of John Darnielle’s abusive step-father).

Of course, a big part of the experience was the context. If a community is a set of people with shared given circumstances, this was genuine community-based theater. The audience was made up almost entirely of the Walden House members, meaning other people in recovery, survivors.

People tend to organize the narratives of their own lives in different ways: by geography, by major events, by relationships. At Walden House, the organizing principal narrative was that of recovery: first trauma (always, first trauma). Then reaction to the trauma through self-destructive behavior, leading to more trauma, hitting a bottom, then the process of recovery and recognizing the relationship between the trauma and negative behaviors.

When director John Warren (mad props, ladies and gents, please) asked the actors to discuss the process of play-making, they did not talk about theater games or automatic writing or talking circles or rehearsal or any of the things that surely happened as they generated and shaped material and came to perform it. They instead discussed the events of their recovery and how it felt to share such information.

The talk-back afterwards was a trip. A comment invariably started with “Hi, my name is [Joe],” and everyone automatically shouted out, “Hi, [Joe]!”, and Joe would share the ways he related to certain stories and experiences in the play, in terms of similar traumas and obstacles he had faced or was facing. A lot of naked, honest pain in that room. I kept thinking about the long passages about AA in Infinite Jest.

One of the actors, in response, discussed recovery, describing the point at which, in desperation, he agreed to just do what they told him in AA, without even believing in it, without even believing in sobriety. Do it first, believe it later. Fake it till you make it.

Which brings me back to Brecht, and a Brechtian contradiction. Brecht, in his High Marxist period post-Threepenny, wrote Lehrstücke, or “learning plays,” instructional and didactic fables performed by socialist workers choruses and schools in the early 1930s.

A major theme running throughout the Lehrstücke (like “The Measures Taken,” “He Who Says Yes/He Who Says No,” “The Exception and the Rule,” etc.) is that of the Decision (itself the title of Lehrstücke). You have to make the Decision, and the Decision is always: to accept Marxism, communism, the righteous political path–at the expense of individual happiness or expression or weakness.

Brecht’s formal innovation of having community participation in these pieces reflected this didactic purpose: first the audience would say the words, (those violent, Marxist, anti-capitalist words)–THEN they could agree. But first you say the words! Make the decision first, then you can believe in it.

But Brecht was doing it in stark opposition to what therapy does. His work was explicitly against the individual: for the greater good of society at the expense, in fact, of individual needs or personalities (a petit bourgeois invention, frivolous in the face of the needs of the revolution). When Boal began doing Theater of the Oppressed, he similarly had an anti-therapy (and anti-soap opera, melodrama) bent. He was interested in community expression as the means of political action, a rehearsal for the revolution. (In his older years, he’s married a psychologist and mellowed out about it, but still.) There was no therapy in the art.

Cracking the Safe had a lot of therapy in its art. And this type of community-based theater is often considered to have potential community-healing properties, community therapy on a larger scale, therapy for people engaged. Even though I liked Cracking the Safe, and was moved by the experience, and found it to be without the indulgences of therapy, it left me uncomfortable; I was uneasy on that border between therapy and theater.

After hammering at it, I figured out why. Many practitioners of the art would disagree that’s what they’re doing, and make the distinct efforts to not be therapy (Michael Rohd, Jo Carson, Anna Deveare Smith, the folks at Cornerstone). But that’s how this type of theater is often read, and practiced; it’s how community-based theater proliferates. That’s how it is understood, that’s how people relate to it.

Community-based, educational and therapeutic theater increasingly gets what little arts funding there is in America. It’s not funding for theater qua theater; what’s being paid for is not the temporal, disappearing play–but the educational tool, that which leaves an artifact of healing, the greater good in the community. We’re funding that shadowy end result, not the art.

I find it insidious, another phase of the bourgeois capitalist corruption of art: that there needs to be a product, or commodity on the other side. In this case, community healing becomes the commodity.

adieu, Messr. Poulet Jean

Sadly, Chicken John ends his stewardship of the Odeon Bar. Tonight, for the last time at the Odeon, see Dr. Hal and Chicken John do their thing, enlightening us all with their great knowledge, possibly communicated in verse.

eating jumble pie

Not much to report. Haven’t seen any plays lately, though I will be soon enough. Right now I’m doing a 5-week Fieldwork Session with The Field SF (an offshoot of The Field NYC), an artist’s support organization that holds workshops and programming for performance artists.

It’s basically me and nine other performers/dancers/choreographers in a room on Thursdays for about 3 1/2 hours. We show work, then give notes. I performed last week for the first time in, oh, dear, so long it feels like never.

As a director, I’m used to telling actors what to do, or how to do it, and even when working with community-based actors, expect that they’ll just do it. It’s humbling, in the most useful way, to have to stand in front of an audience, even one of thoughtful, helpful peers, and have to do my thing.

Ramona: Epilogue

I read Dydia DeLyser’s Ramona Memories–and can highly recommend it. She traces a fascinating history of Southern California through the turn-of-the-century population boom, with the concurrent creation of a California myth, “old California,” land of roses and beauty and gracious Spanish living.

Meaning, as a new Southern California was violently exploding into being, tourist and development boosters had to create a romantic mythical past in order to provide some sense of continuity. Ramona and how that novel was read had a big influence on what emerged–especially with the way people so effortlessly mixed fiction with fact. It’s truly striking how so many readers, who knew full well Ramona was a novel, would still breathtakingly visit locations of her “marriage” and “birthplace”, mixing descriptions of what they saw with events from the story, as if it was real, fusing both in their imaginations. Imagination and fantasy inscribed itself on the landscape as communicated within and without Southern California.

Now, we’re left with the Pageant, with its moving picture show of spectacle, serving the same purpose: an culturally undifferentiated, romantic past that leads straight to an inevitable American present. How we want to see that region, and ourselves.

We saw it right before the show started, when the Artistic Director came onstage and asked all the military veterans in the audience to stand and be recognized. Like, they’re the reason we’re doing this show.

We saw it in the California Historical plaques sprinkling the perimeter of the theater, proclaiming that this valley area had worth not only because here “was laid part of the scene and here resided a number of the characters” presented in the novel Ramona, but because they’d been performing that fiction in pageant form since 1923, the performance itself taking on the gloss and sheen of history.

We saw it in 200 local kids, mostly white, dressing as Injuns and standing in the landscape, receiving their due, inheriting the chapparal-covered earth.

Mother’s Day in the Bay

Jane Chen and her mom Tair do their fabulous Chinese Clown Cabaret show at the Asian Art Museum on Sunday at 12:30pm. Don’t ask questions–just go.

Ramona: The Pageant! (Two)

Notable about the musical numbers was the utter conflation of all cultural distinctions into sameness.

The dance sequence at the hacienda, for example, features all sorts of dance—high Spanish flamenco and cape dances, early 19th-century European partner dancing (with castanets?!), fancy folklorico footwork, all punctuated by gunshots and olés and rope tricks. It wasn’t from the time–but from an imaginary Spanish/Mexican past, where there were no distinctions between classes, or californios and Spaniards and mestizo Mexicans.

The Indian dance sequence followed with a montage of traditional dance from tribes who never stepped a wee moccasin in this part of the world. We saw fancy dancing and hoop dance and grass dance—and while the program noted from which tribes these dances emerged, it was without of acknowledgement that Native American tribes were different peoples entirely, with different traditions and cultures and languages, their most binding commonality being the manner in which they all were royally screwed by European invaders.

Not only have the richly diverse and complex Spanish-speaking and Native American populations been melded down into one thing each—the two populations themselves are conflated with blithe ignorance. Meaning, the brown people speak and sound and look pretty much the same. Check it—the four young men who did the drumming for the Indian dances looked like honest to God SoCal ese vatos. Also, a Spanish accent is used by indios and californios interchangeably.

Spanish as a language appears in the script entirely for exclamations and ejections and as tag ends of sentences to remind us that hey! they spoke Spanish. Ah, the old days. It was a Spanishy time.

In this version of reality, it’s the californios and indios verses the encroaching americanos: “Since the americanos have come and under the new laws, no one can call his land his own,” says Mr. Exposition, skipping the part about how local indigenous peoples hadn’t called the land their own from the conquista onwards through the Mission fathers and the californios.

(FYI: americanos, in case you were wondering, weren’t bad people for taking Indian and californio land—they simply had no choice, as they were trying to do right by their families. Sure, there were a few bad apples, but most of the white settlers were racked with resigned regret).

Details? Whatever. The pageant melts difference down and forges a mythology of a common Southern Californian heritage through our shared enjoyment, our shared pleasure in spectacle. At one point, we may have been separate, but our fates always were connected; we were always manifestly destined to be here together as Americans.

The mythology gains authenticity through the final, if not the ultimate, spectacle in the show. It’s not the singing or the dancing. It’s the people.

And that, my friends, is what struck me by the end of the pageant: the main event of Ramona comes from watching lots of bodies onstage, and those bodies onstage in the wide stretch of nature.

Ramona opened with the “traditional annual procession,” which is nothing more than the cast making a simple stage cross. But the cast has over 400 members, including 200 local kids. Wearing colorful Mexican dresses or in Injun loincloths, or set up as cowboys on horseback and carrying flags—they all emerge from the bushes stage right and march slowly across. The cast is thick on the footpath, colorful and bright, and the procession just lasts and lasts, while the audience gasps and laughs and points at the cute little kids. The opening has no purpose in the show except for that.

In the first act at the hacienda, opportunities for scenes of dramatic import or transition are instead used to shoe-horn in large group scenes of little kid hijinks. And both dance numbers are as much for the people not dancing, crowding the stage in costume and number, as for the main performers.

The Indian dance number culminated in a prayer to the four winds or nature gods or whatever (because all Native Americans worshipped the same gods in the same way, of course). The forty performers onstage who have been dancing turn to all four corners, and reach up to the sky and the earth and whatever—and suddenly they’re facing upstage, looking at the big foothill stage right, when:

From behind trees and rocks and corners you never even expected to look, at least 80 actors in “native” garb emerge. With the late afternoon light hitting their bodies, suddenly the flat pastoral plane of nature gains depth and movement—everyone gasps, and looks for more life in the landscape, and everywhere you look, there are more—crouching and standing, the silhouettes of at least twenty lining the top of the high hill, just being there. It’s a breathtaking sight.

It’s as if, by placing these bodies enacting life on the familiar California chaparral scrub brush hills, we are seeing the real past.

Simultaneous with the play’s action, throughout the big dramatic scenes, they have Indians (children and adults) “living” and playing in Indian huts stationed upstage and opposite from the hacienda, in the foothills. The stage focus never goes to them, so it creates an illusion of seeing things as they were.

We get the delicious shock of watching people actually walk through the hills—when the Padre leaves the hacienda, he really hikes away. It actually takes a while for him to get offstage to where we can’t see him—which makes it so much realer. Later in the show, cowboys on horses descend from the tip top of the foothills, the horses picking their way through steep and narrow paths. At the very end, when Alessandro is killed, a man on horseback shoots him from across the stage—and we watch Alessandro roll down. Left on the rock near where he was standing when shot, we see a large smear of very real-looking blood.

Ramona: The Pageant! (One)

The Ramona Pageant has basis in Helen Hunt Jackson’s book, of course—and the script distills the novel into its major events quite concisely:

Ramona and Alessandro (a) meet, (b) fall in love, (c) run away together, (d) bear a child, and (e) get in trouble with the white people, leading to, (f) Alessandro’s death.

Note how the old ad promises a show that “features incidents” from the novel. One event doesn’t develop into another; instead, each incident emerges with fan-fared separateness: a burst of live trumpet opens and closes each act; the beginning and end of each scene demarcated with the ringing of an “old ranch bell.” The incidents are sewn together with big chunks of Mr. Exposition-style dialogue, plot-establishing lines like, “After all, he is only an Indian, por supuesto,” and “Alessandro went home to see his father a month ago, and Ramona is getting sadder and sadder.”

Wrapping around the skeletal body of plot information, we have the muscle and connective tissue of moving pictures: dance, music, bodies on stage and melodramatic acting.

The last is the easiest to mock, but let’s be fair: it’s hard to turn in good acting in this type of situation. Psychological subtleties and fine shades and delicate comedic turns and quiet agonies—characters that ring with any truth beyond one note, really—those things simply don’t read on a stage this big and exposed, what, with the bugs and traffic noises, the actors’ voices picked up by a couple of standing microphones wrapped in bougainvillea stage center.[1]

The actors are stranded with nothing to swing them from big emotional peak to big emotional peak but a bad script and their own histrionics. The florid exclamatory performances become their own spectacle: “I do not offer my services for wages!” (what, then, does he work for?) “Your Indian Lover is gone!” “As long as I never see a white man again!” (“Word,” said Ben). It didn’t seem like the director probably even tried to get passable performance out of these actors.

This was initially off-putting to me, and I spent the first few scenes grumpily scribbling down notes straight out of Directing 101:

  • If the script calls for someone to mention how noisy the house is, you should probably start that noise before he says his line and not after.
  • If the clownish “old farmhand” character has a broken leg, then even while being comically chased about by the hot-tempered fat old maid (Pat’s daughter, if you remember), he shouldn’t be able to scramble about so youthfully and handily—plus, he should probably decide just which leg is broken and stick to it.
  • If Margarita, the sexy sassy servant daughter of the above maid, is supposed to be a MAID, she probably wouldn’t come out wearing a new dress in every scene.

But the mistake was mine—and my notes mattered exactly nil. This isn’t a play about accurately nailing class differences—it isn’t a play. Margarita wears a different dress in every scene because she’s the sexy taste in the moving picture show—the yummy flirty eye-candy.

Not that story and spectacle aren’t connected: both of the extended musical sequences (of which there are two), get justified within the plot structure. In the middle of Act One, the Senora holds a fiesta at the hacienda, which necessitates a good half hour of dancing; Act Two opens with all the Indians coming together to celebrate the birth of Ramona and Alessandro’s child.

But again, the plot isn’t the story, the spectacle is the story. And looking at it that way, the song and dance montages bear the heaviest dramatic weight: the most time used onstage, the most stage used at one time, the most performers, the longest curatorial notes in the program.

There’s a palpable sense of relief when we get to the first dance number. It’s like we’ve waded through all that darn plot and story, even boiled down as it is, and it’s hard work. Pairs and threes of actors, at sea on a stage the size of a football field, straining their voices and dramatic abilities to hold our attention; audiences, straining to stay interested and pretend sympathy with Ramona and Alessandro.

And then two servants cross the stage with a stuffed deer hanging upside down from a long pole (the men were out hunting, you see), and everyone cries “fiesta!” and dozens of actors pour out onstage, all in colorful costumes;—and now we can just relax and have a good time. The pressure is off. The characters cease being characters and become emcees, entertainers, facilitating the big party.

[1] The sound emerges from a huge speaker parked front and center in the stage, unsuccessfully swathed in green cloth and covered with a potted plant.