postmodern theater

TBA:13 gets “meta.”

Observations about observation, and interactions about interaction.

You’re about to read an article about some interactive theater…that’s about the theatrics of interaction. (Got it so far?) And this theater was part of a festival (TBA:13) that is—broadly—about the present. Of course that festival is now in the past…and the future presumably, because nothing stays in the present for more than an instant. So now we’ve entered the twilight zone where art gets “meta.” Plots are about aboutiness, and thoughts are about thoughtiness. Rod Serling says hi. George Carlin says hi. The snake says nothing, because it’s eating its own tail.

In Ivana Müller’s “We Are Still Watching”…

arguably there are no actors and nothing happens. Let me explain: The audience takes assigned seats. A few are instructed to pull scripts from under their chairs. They begin to read the lines highlighted in their respective copies, and the lines are things like*, “We are here. We are reading this script. Why are we here? What’s going to happen?”

Our group is peppered with leadership types: a haughty, thin young man wearing all black, an older wispy-haired woman with a commanding tone and a mischievous inflection, a professorial older man in glasses, a young woman with an unimpeachable bun, cardigan, and cameo. These, then, become the characters—or, rather, their character becomes the focus.

As for my character: The fact that I’m there in an official capacity weighs on me. Probably because I so desperately DON’T want to get it wrong, I immediately do so, sitting passively when it’s my turn to read a line because I’ve incorrectly associated the numbers on the seats with the numbers on the script. My scene partners wait politely for what seems like forever for Person Three (me) to say a line…while I silently scan the room and wonder which culprit is holding up the show (me). Maybe whatever this tells me about myself, I don’t want to know. Or maybe it’s a broader comment on humans and culpability.

Finally I fall in line, and then—again, arguably—nothing happens, except that the audience keeps reading aloud, passing scripts around and following written instructions, all while sizing up other audience members, forming tacit prejudices and timid alliances. Briefly, two people begin a romance scene, only for another voice to skeptically dismantle it. There is repeated but idle mention of starting a revolution. A few more detailed musings emerge, as noted by the Mercury. But most of the lines are about how we’re in this moment; it’s happening; we’re talking.

Suddenly, everyone gets a script—at which point we all simultaneously discover that these new pages say simply “Person” in front of every line, forcing participants to decide of their own accord which lines they want to take. If you want to speak a line, you have to decide to, and either be reasonably sure someone else won’t chime in on it, or be okay with it if they do. Declarations like* “I came here to fall in love,” or “I wish I hadn’t come,” are spoken by whomever chooses to say them.

The next evolution is mass-unison, managed by a metronome. What was a script morphs into a self-referential chant about chanting:


Finally, a rhythmic rest is introduced which, if followed by readers, turns our chant into a round. “Boom boom!” say several, resting as others echo “Boom boom!” The pace and the canon proceed for a couple of pages, and there’s a feeling of momentum and camaraderie in the face of increasing pressure and complexity. We’re all racing to keep up, and striving not to mess up, and the text is encouraging this overtly, reminding us that we’re reading together and it’s working. After this triumphal finish, people seem energized, refreshed. This may be the closest thing to a high school pep rally that any of us have experienced in some time.

Is narrative beside the point?

Was “Watching”’s lack of story necessary to convey its message? If we’d been chanting about rowing boats and twinkling stars, would those images have clouded our awareness of our camaraderie–or simply enriched our experience with a sensory element? Are choirs unaware of their connection because they’re too preoccupied with the meaning of the word “Allelujiah?” Would an interactive script that delivered the hinted-at romance or revolution distract too much from its own interactivity? Have we gotten to the point where a plot of any kind is too polarizing to all get behind? Do we have to keep reminding ourselves that we’re existing and interacting, lest we forget?

Maybe so. In a speech that’s recently caught like wildfire, comedian Louis C. K. discussed his aversion to smartphones, saying: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something…that’s being a person…to just sit there, like this.”

On the other hand…“Fiddler on The Roof,” on stage now at PCS, jumps with team spirit for a relatively small sector of the population and its highly specialized set of concerns. Many of that show’s audience members, and surely even a few actors, are interlopers in the Shtetl, alien to its ways–and yet the story is universally appreciated. Humanity is the essential ingredient, but plot certainly sweetens the pot.

No matter how “meta” we get, we’ve yet to outsmart a good story. Still, the experiments continue, pointing out existential truths so obvious that they’ve evidently been overlooked and come as revelations when mentioned: We are here. We are together.

On TBA’s closing night…

we were there and together, too. And lest we forget ourselves in the thumping R&B of Natasha Kmeto and dance music of Rap Class, the watchers (still watching) were there to remind us. The gear and concept from Mariano Pensotti’s “Sometimes I think, I can see you” flanked the dance floor. Two large screens at the back and side of the room scrolled text generated by writers observing the scene. Silently but conspicuously, they called out individual members of the crowd, complementing, insulting, and merely documenting their behaviors as they chatted and danced.

“You in the blue dress,”* flared the white text on the black screen. “Yes you. You came here to let loose. So did I.”

“Guy in the tie, did you mean to wear it so well? Close your eyes and the world disappears.”

“You learned to dance that way from Sesame Street. And YOU learned to dance that way when your mom took you to ballet lessons.”

One of the messengers, PICA’s Institutional Giving Manager Kate Merrill, looked gleefully mischievous in her corner. “Do you see me?” she sometimes typed, daring the crowd to confront their appraiser.

Yes. I see you seeing me. We are here, mutually watching, mutually interacting. Existing as people in our minds, and actors in the world-space. And…what of it?

*Because note-taking wasn’t possible, all quotes in this story are approximate.


A. L. Adams also writes monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury

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