TBA:13: The end that is about the end and the beginning?

We have reached the exciting meta conclusion of TBA:13. Fortunately, Nim Wunnan and Andrea Stolowitz were on hand to dig into two of the last performances, Karen Sherman’s “One with Others” and Ivana Müller’s “We Are Still Watching.”


Cardboard props, a collection of overhead projectors, and handmade wooden contraptions sprawled across BodyVox’s wide stage for the audience to contemplate before Karen Sherman’s “One With Others” started. Perhaps they were to prime thoughts of “what did I sign up for,” easy to think at TBA, where you can usually hit another show that night if the first one didn’t do it for you.

Karen Sherman's "One With Others"/Photo by Jeffrey Wells courtesy PICA

Karen Sherman’s “One With Others”/Photo by Jeffrey Wells courtesy PICA

Sherman and her dancers answered this question as their first act on stage. Instead of any kind of introduction, they walked straight to the central, office-grade projector and presented the audience with an ELUA (End-User License Agreement), outlining the terms they agreed to by reading the document. The three dancers perched carefully, needlessly adjusting the transparency and checking on us, the End Users, to make sure that we read all the way to the lines at the bottom. These lines declared that reading them constituted signing—and dating—the document. It was easy to tell when viewers got there by tracking the laughter through the seats.

Reading between the ironic lines, the document told me that we were in for a large portion of self-reference, possibly some send-ups of office culture, official contracts, or other things that take themselves too seriously, and an alternation between dry language and exciting stage devices. Laid out like that it sounds fairly third-year-in-art-school. However, something about the attitude of the final lines of the opening document and the laughs they got suggested that things would get more complex than that. They did, and it got interesting.

The show included monologues, live and dubbed musical performance, self-referential improv, “pure dance” with and without mixers, a recording of a critique of the performance itself, anecdotes about previous performances and practices, and precarious operations involving homemade props. In less capable hands, all that could easily turn to mud. The individual passages were performed thoughtfully with care and talent, but the pacing was perhaps the deftest trick of the show.

The irony mixed with grace and ambiguity and avoided mugging. The props set up physical games for the performers to play, while the self-referential passages outlined what sorts of things could pass through the fourth wall (backhanded compliments from previous audiences, arguments at dance practice, lonely self doubt of the performers, comments on the dancers’ bodies, etc). The barrage of forms and contexts worked well to prevent the more abstract aspects of the performance from reading simply as illustrations of the texts. The show was full of fun, but rarely without a sense of something more pensive below—just the right amount of bitters in the cocktail.

The dialogue between dance and text created a space that recognized and played with the strangeness of people dealing with each other, people watching other people operate in the displacement of a stage, and people trying to make something together. As dance extends language in such a conversation, the devices extended the dance. Some appeared flimsy or goofy at first, but in the world built on stage they served necessary, bizarre purposes.

Sherman piloted the most elaborate of them through a tooth-scratchingly-raw operation. While she used a large cantilevered wooden armature to precariously hang a rubber glove full of a dark liquid over dancer Joanna Furnans free hand (the other was bound in a wooden press), dancer Jeffrey Wells slit the glove with a scalpel and siphoned the liquid through one of the other devices (which looked a little like a wooden version of Helper from the Venture Brothers). Later that device served as a stand-in for a fourth member of the troupe in an ad-libbed argument about how one of them was always asking another one for a ride home from rehearsal. The beauty of the show was how much sense that made once things came to that point, and how difficult it would be to explain why.



Ivana Muller's "We Are Still Watching"/Photo Sanne Peper courtesy PICA

Ivana Muller’s “We Are Still Watching”/Photo Sanne Peper courtesy PICA

Walking into the Coho Theatre at four in the afternoon on a rainy Sunday in Portland towards the end of the TBA festival, I was not sure what to expect from Ivana Müller’s “We Are Still Watching, “billed as “a play in which the idea of ‘spectacle’ slowly shifts to where we least expect it”. Since we needed to have reserved our tickets in advance, there was none of that last-minute ticket scrambling frenzy that usually accompanies final TBA events. There was a feeling of calm intimacy in the Coho lobby, maybe something akin to having been invited to a private party.

Once we did enter the theater we were given a piece of paper with a seat number on it and told to sit there. The chairs were set up to follow the perimeter of the stage allowing for one row of seating in which we could all see each other.

We all waited patiently until the the stage manager came out and read aloud a list of seat numbers telling those people to reach under their seats to get their script. And with this, the reading commenced. The characters in the script are people very much like ourselves, people who’ve come to the Ivana Müller event and don’t know what to make of it. We are asked to read characters who are trying to make sense of what the event is while we ourselves are trying to make sense of the event.

As we all read aloud together, followed the prompts, gave other audience members our scripts as per the instructions, something interesting began to happen; we were getting to know each other and the characters. In the script there’s the girl who came looking to meet someone, the guy who came because this is supposed to be an important event, the person who had nothing else to do today, and even the ornery audience member who wanted to know what this piece was about. As we played these characters we were also creating an event together as ourselves, deciding how to decide what to do and how to keep the momentum going, and whether or not to keep participating in this exercise.

The high point of the show came towards the end, where a percussive chanting is called for in the script. We were still somewhat self-conscious but all followed the directions, participated, and slowly created an event and a play where what was happening was becoming more and more unscripted. Without any actors, playwrights, or directors present the chanting took on a life of its own; something that was wholly ours. We became both the participants and the creators and at that moment, with the theater vibrating as the chanting continued, there was indeed a true breakdown of order and we were no longer simply watching, we were doing.

If there is a political or social message in this piece it is that we all have the voice, the agency to be both a performer and creator in the political and social world. Our destiny and indeed the destiny of the world is in our hands and we are our own agency of change. So the question, are we still watching or are we participating is in fact an extremely important one and this piece asks us to consider participating.


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