Not Interactive Theatre as in "some unfortunate schmuck gets picked out of the audience and is forced onstage to do the Can-Can only to be sent home with a humiliating Polaroid snapshot and the laughter of a thousand strangers ringing in his ears." No, I mean the kind of interactive theatre where the actual mechanics of the art form are challenged. Where the Brechtian notion of alienation gets stepped up a notch and the performance is created by both the audience and the actors in full collaboration.
I produced this kind of stuff for years for Sausalito-based Antenna Theater. They're known for putting their audience into headphones and then sending them through intricately constructed theatrical environments -- sometimes prefabrications, sometimes pre-existing sites like the County Dump or Alcatraz. The "play" is created individually and uniquely every time a person goes through the environment guided by their headsets. Their actions become the performance itself ("Reach into the box...Take the necklace...Go on, do it before anyone sees you. That's right, now put it in your pocket..."). It's public spectacle, but also has an unnerving psychological element -- no one will know if you're giving it your all, but the more you "let go," the better the "show" becomes for you. You're the performer and the audience all at once, so the success of the piece lies as much in your own hands as in the hands of the "director." Quite provocative.
I bring this up because last weekend I attended the first-ever SoWat Now! Festival of Contemporary Performance in Santa Cruz. It was a three-day showcase of local and international talents, offering a multitude of performances, workshops and panel discussions, much of it interactive. I took in as much as I could.
First, a few highlights: Anne Randolph's solo performance Squeeze Box was a poignant & hilarious living-memoir based on Randolph's experience working the graveyard shift at a homeless shelter for mentally ill women in Los Angeles. Randolph narrated and played all of the characters a la Anna Deveare Smith, and the kaleidoscopic journey she wove for us was both personal and political, funny and desperate, and remarkably genuine. I heard it was a hit in New York and has since been optioned for a film. I hope it gets made -- but only if she plays every character on screen.
Another unforgettable performance was by San Francisco dance troupe Scott Wells and Company. Collateral Damage was a violent, comic, full-body contact chessgame of a dance that involved two men, one table, a bowl of pretzels and numerous flying, slamming movements sure to induce bruising on the parts of the performers. It left me gasping for air.
From there, I walked into Shiver Thy Timbers by Malaika Sarco, a Brussels-based performance artist. She was not in attendance, but sent a PowerPoint presentation to direct the audience on how to perform the piece in her absence. Ha. Right up my alley. There were 10 other people there, a small but committed group of theatrical adventurers.
Suspicions arose quickly that we were not actually going to be in a theater piece but some sort of PERFORMANCE ART when the PowerPoint presentation began with a didactic manifesto about how the artist refused to be personally responsible for consuming the 2,246 gallons of oil required to fly a plane from Brussels to California. She berated our government and its policies on the Iraq War, the Middle East, our over-consumption of natural resources, and on and on and on. We all stood silent and somewhat puzzled reading this rather long "preface," since this was Santa Cruz after all. Talk about preaching to the wrong audience.
We were then separated into three groups: Movers, Watchers, and Poets. The Poets were to read the text aloud as it appeared onscreen while the Movers (my group) responded to their words using our bodies, faces, essences -- while the Watchers would be, you know, watching us. And thus we began:
"The intellectual may feel enslaved in matter. If only she could escape from the body. But the mind will not fly unless we embrace the body as a path to freedom."
For the next 35 minutes, my fellow Movers and I did our best to express things through our bodies other than "What the hell is going on?" and "OH MY GOD, how long can this possibly LAST?" My lowest moment found me intently scrutinizing a plastic clump of dusty white carnations attempting to absorb their "secret hidden emotions," which I was then commanded to enact physically for my fellow participants. (For those of you who care about such things, it was a Pinnochio-esque yearning to be real. Try dancing that in front of your mirror sometime.) Later, we were directed to merge into a "flock" while being lectured about the precarious state of some rare mushroom found only in the jungles Bolivia. It was everything everyone fears performance art will be: bewildering, self-important, embarrassing and pointless. At the climax, I was actually instructed to "shiver my timbers" -- at which point, I began shrieking internally "WHAT AM I EVEN STILL DOING HERE?"
Ah, but there was the rub. Even though it was excruciating, I couldn't abandon my fellow participants. We were all equally drowning in absurdity, gamely acting as "the wind, the mite, the music of the flute." When it was finally over, I felt an intense hatred for the artist and a huge swell of love for those 10 people in the room. I appreciated how willingly they gave of themselves, and treasured them for not abandoning me in the middle of it all. Stunned, I felt that my earlier question -- What the fuck does this have to do with anything? -- was answered in that feeling. It was in the not-abandoning of each other that this experience transcended its own arty pretentiousness. We each put the group's interest above our own; as a collective, we spontaneously created something both ephemeral and lasting (for us anyway), and only as a collective did we manage to survive the ordeal with some grace. It was impossible to tell from all of her muddled enviro-prose, but I wonder if this could have been the artist's intention all along?
In any case, I guess that's what you risk when you attend a festival full throttle, whether it be film, theater, music, or performance. There will always be the good, the bad, and the ugly. That's what exploring an art form is all about.
Learn more about Santa Cruz's SoWat Now! Festival of Contemporary Performance (at scica.org).