Experiential Theatre

“In the true theatre a play disturbs the senses’ repose, frees the repressed unconscious, incites a kind of virtual revolution (which moreover can have its full effect only if it remains virtual), and imposes on the assembled collectivity an attitude that is both difficult and heroic.” -Antoine Artaud

I had the unique pleasure of having Barbara Robertson, a veteran Chicago actor who can currently be seen in the Goodman Theatre’s Camino Real, sitting in on one of my rehearsals for Kabuki Lady Macbeth a few weeks ago, and she said something very interesting to the cast as we gathered around her at the end of our run. “The audience wants to go with you, they want to take the journey with you, but you have to invite them in. If you go 60% of the way to them, they’ll give you the other 40% and meet you there.” It was a concept that made perfect sense, and I’ve been considering how audiences are incorporated into live theatre since that evening.

For four years I’ve been training to be an actor, which is ultimately training yourself to connect with people for the biggest H/R job that exists on the planet, and the those moments where I’ve “forgotten” the audience was watching because I was so “in it” in my scene are the moments that I’ve been striving to get to. Because if I was so engaged with my scene partner on-stage, then that meant that I was really “Acting” and the audience would see what a good actor I was and they would like me and so on and so forth until I’m famous.

A few recent experiences have me questioning the role of the audience in live theatre, and this question is a big part of why I want to re-open The Defiant.

First, I had the opportunity in New York City to see Sleep No More, a fully immersive, interactive re-telling of Macbeth set in a lavish hotel in the 1920’s. The show, produced by the British company Punchdrunk, has it’s audience walking around a five story warehouse converted into the McKittrick Hotel, with the performers moving from room to room and floor to floor acting out the story. What this means, is that you as an audience member have a choice of who you follow and what you see. And this is not a sit back in your seat with a gin and tonic type production. It’s a full on sprint to keep up with Macbeth or Lady Macbeth. The performers can reach out and grab you, and often do, to dance or whisper in your ear. (Lady Macbeth grabbed me after Duncan’s murder and the subsequent fight with her husband and whispered to me, “My hands are of your color, yet I shame to wear a heart so white.” Hecate gave me a ring she produced from a piece of passionfruit, I’m still trying to figure that one out…). The show was supposed to have a two month run, and they’ve been performing for a year straight at this point. Why? Because they force the audience to engage. Every audience member is given a mask and ENCOURAGED to explore rooms, drawers, alley-ways. They’re given free run at a theatrical playground and as a result, each person’s experience is unique and memorable.

A few months after Sleep No More,  I saw Burning Bluebeard at The Neo-Futurists. The show is a recounting of the Iroquis Theatre Fire that killed nearly 500 audience members, and one performer in 1903 Chicago. The show begins with the performers of the show at the Iroquis that day climbing out of body-bags and asking the audience’s permission to put on the play, in an attempt to get to the second act and prevent the fire from happening. The premise itself is haunting, a troupe of theatre artists trying desperately to prevent the fire that killed their audience. In typical Neo-Futurist style, the audience is pulled, poked, sat on and coerced into becoming part of the production. There was no ignoring their presence, and their engagement with us automatically made us engage with them.

Finally, this past Thursday I attended a preview of Cascabel at Lookingglass Theatre. The production, co-produced and co-directed by Lookingglass ensemble members Tony Hernandez and Heidi Stillman and James Beard Award winning chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill/Topolobambo/Xoco. The show blended circus acts, a love story and chef Bayless’s incredible cooking into an evening of theatrical amazement. Not only was the audience eating as the characters were served their meals in the story, but during those times, the cast members would walk among the communal tables set out on the main floor, chatting, asking how the food was, commenting on what went on moments before and generally integrating themselves with the audience. What worked about Cascabel, besides the amazing food, was the fact that there was no fourth wall. So when Tony Hernandez is walking on a wire above the heads of one of the tables, he wasn’t pretending those people weren’t there. He was acknowledging that he may in fact fall onto them (he didn’t.). There was a danger and a reality to that performance across the board. It wasn’t the audience sitting, watching and eat. It was the audience and the performers spending time together in an engaged, relaxed and entirely realistic way.

So how does all of this fit together? I’ve come to think that theatre can no longer be about the performers confined to stage, and audience confined to their chairs. We must engage audiences, directly, openly and as ourselves (or ourselves inside our characters) during performance. While we have them and while they’re still awake. I know, I know. Audience participation is just the worst. But not really. I’m not asking anyone to jump through hoops.

I’m just asking that you give me that 40%. We’ll do the rest.

There Are No Shortcuts Mr. Daisey

“I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard…” – Mike Daisey to Ira Glass, This American Life episode 460 “Retraction”

I’ve been following the fall-out from Ira Glass’s retraction of This American Life episode 454 entitled Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory about Mike Daisey’s trips to Chinese electronic manufacturing plants, specifically those that supply parts for Apple iPads and iPhones, and the subsequent monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs he has written and performed since 2011 about what he supposedly witnessed first hand Hopefully you’ve been following this story as well, especially if you’re a theatre artist because I believe what Mr. Daisey has done directly affects our craft, and calls into question our place in society as theatre-makers.

Ira Glass and the producers of This American Life have retracted the story, the full audio of which can be found here because the stories that Mr. Daisey purports as fact don’t add up. This news story broke six days ago, and in that time Mike Daisey has performed the monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at Georgetown and continued to perform the monologue at The Public Theatre in New York City until it’s closing this past Sunday. This morning Woolly Mammoth Theatre, where the monologue was workshopped and premiered in 2011, stood by their decision to remount the production this coming summer with Mike Daisey performing. I believe that this decision is the wrong one, and I find any theatre company willing to produce his work at this point in time guilty of allowing a sycophantic, pathological liar to get away with willfully deceiving the American theatre-going public.

I’ve read the The Agony and the Ecstasy, because it’s available as a free download from Mike Daisey’s website (google it, I’m not going to link his drek here) and in fact can be performed royalty free by anyone who wishes to do so anywhere in the world. I’ve read the transcripts of This American Life, of both the original broadcast and the retraction. I’ve read commentary from both Alli Houseworth and Brooke Miller, the former marketing & communications director and current press & digital content managers of Woolly Mammoth Theatre. I’ve read op-ed pieces from just about everyone I could find, including Howard Sherman’s and The Guardian’s Michael Wolff. And the more I read and hear, the more I am sickened by some people’s assertion that Mike Daisey did not lie to his audiences during The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and the willingness to excuse a clear breach in artistic integrity as simply “good storytelling.” That conclusion, that Mike Daisey embellished to create a theatrical work, would be stomachable had he not gone on MSNBC, CNET, WBEZ, Bill Maher and countless other news outlets shouting about the work of non-fiction he had created. And I do mean shouting. And then when he is found out, instead of owning up to his lies, he hides behind the veil of taking theatrical liberties.

No, plays don’t have to be pure fact, and they can in fact embellish to create stories that are captivating, mystifying, delightful or terrifying. And those stories can contain truths, though they are not strictly the truth. Truths about human nature, or moments in our lives that we can connect to as being honest. When Richard recognizes his failures, and chooses to fight in the face of them at the end of Shakespeare’s Richard III, there is honesty and truth in what he does, even if the historical figure of Richard of Gloucester never did those things. However, Mike Daisey positioned his theatrical piece as a work of NON-FICTION. He had that printed in playbills, and went on talk shows describing his entirely true and factual experiences in China. But when it was revealed that some of the things he described in his monologue were not, and could not be true, he immediately went to the fact that he was producing a piece of theatre and therefore was allowed artistic liberties and could not be held to journalistic standards of fact. I hope everyone else can see the hypocrisy in this…

Perhaps what upsets me most about all of this is the fact that Mr. Daisey won’t just own up to making a mistake. Because that is ultimately what he did to begin with. He made a mistake in performing a piece that was advertised as non-fiction that contained non-truths. Then another one in performing it again the next night and so on and so forth. But his refusal to admit his mistake at this point, when the FACTS are on the table makes him a liar. He still has not apologized to the audiences who saw the original run of the show. He has not publicly apologized to Woolly Mammoth (Brooke Miller informs me he has apologized in-house to the personnel there), the Public Theatre or any other venue that he has preformed The Agony and the Ecstasy at. The closest anyone has come to a sincere apology is Ira Glass, when Daisey says to him

“I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work. My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”

But now after that half-apology, Daisey is taking shots at Ira Glass on his own blog, which is unfortunate and only reveals Daisey’s own egocentricity.

Many consider this week’s THIS AMERICAN LIFE episode one of the most painful they’ve ever listened to. In particular the segment with me is excruciating—four hours of grilling edited down to fifteen minutes. I thought the dead air was a nice touch, and finishing the episode with audio pulled out of context from my performance was masterful.

That’s Ira’s choice, and it’s his show. He’s a storyteller within the context of radio journalism, and I am a storyteller in the theater. (via Mike Daisey.)

He then goes on in that same post to once again posit that everything in his monologue is factual.

Mike Daisey will continue to perform his monologue this summer at Woolly Mammoth, no longer under the guise of non-fiction, but behind a false shield of “artistic liberty”. He will continue to make money off of the story he partially fabricated and then force-fed the American public, all because it was easier than actually working to create a piece of theatre that truly was non-fiction, and likely would have been just as powerful and moving.

There are no shortcuts in theatre, Mr. Daisey. It’s a painful, dangerous and sometimes tedious journey to create a piece of art with integrity. But that’s a big part of what makes it worth doing.

I hope you’ve learned that. Though it would appear you haven’t…

A Bloggining

Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.“   E.L. Doctorow

I’ve been reading the “How to start your blog” blog that WordPress directed me to, and this quote came up on one of the pages. It’s funny to me, because they spend about three pages giving your brainstorming exercises (which require me to go find paper and pen) but they provide a quote which is the best jump starter I could ask for.

Good theatre, like good writing, doesn’t show or tell the audience what to believe or think. It gives them an opening to feel something. A brief glimpse at all of humanity. And it is our privilege as theatre-makers to show humanity itself.

This blog is going to be official blog of the (soon-to-exist-and-survive-I-swear-it) re-opened and new Defiant Theatre. For those of you who don’t know/remember the Defiant Theatre was a company that started in Chicago in 1993 when a group of alumni from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign theatre training program decided they needed their own space to produce work that challenged the borders of traditional theatre-making. This was at a time when places like The Hypocrites didn’t exist, and The Neo-Futurists were still focusing primarily on Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. The city needed a company that was willing to go to the wall and back, drive a car blind-folded and then jump off a building to make theatre, and Defiant was born.

They lasted eleven years before closing their doors with “A Clockwork Orange” in 2004. I plan on re-opening those doors in 2014.

So why the Defiant? Why now? Why again?

Because I see a problem with Chicago theatre right now. It’s gotten safe. It’s gotten stagnant. And it’s starting to become very insular and limited in it’s scope. Gone are the “rock ‘n roll” days of Steppenwolf, now they’re more interested in producing plays that keep their season ticket subscribers gently bobbing along the calm waters. For example, Steppenwolf’s 2012-2013 season features two shows that were produced on Broadway this past season. When did one of the country’s leading theatres become a retread of Broadway? This focus on subscriber status quo is growing more and more prevalent as these big budget theatres in Chicago try to grasp as much donor money as possible. This issue is much less of a problem in the storefront community where theatres like Halcyon, Steep, Trapdoor, The Neo-Futurists, Profiles and the like continue to commit to the risky business of producing stimulating, challenging live theatre in houses that usually seat no more than 100, where a single busted show can be a death knell for an artist’s outlet and livelihood.

But I want to take theatre to the wall and back. I want to jump off that cliff blind-folded and then laugh about it. And the Defiant is the place to do it in. It may be young, brash and raw, but in that the immediacy that is so vital to live theatre will thrive.

The droogs are back in town.