Scavenging for Home
How I Learned to Take Refuge in Live Performance While Worrying About the Bomb
By Lisa D'Amour
JANUARY 31, 2000: I was sitting alone at a table at the Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis when I saw it. I was waiting for my breakfast dates, Sharon Bridgforth, visiting from Austin for a reading of the bull-jean stories, and Megan Monaghan, former Austinite, now Lab Director at Minneapolis' The Playwrights' Center. I was feeling downright hopeful about the world, sitting at my favorite table at my favorite diner/bowling alley with a hot cup of coffee and the sun on my face, pondering Sharon's transcendent reading the night before. As I daydreamed, I happened to glance over at the daily paper sitting on the next table. The half-page photo showed a historic building on fire. And the headline read Belgrade Bombed.
Thank god Megan and Sharon were old friends, sisters-in-art, for when they arrived a few moments later, I was a mess. I had spent a month in Belgrade the previous fall, studying with Dah Teatar, the powerhouse collaborative theatre company that wowed audiences in Austin during the 1996 RAT conference. During my visit, air strikes had been threatened, but the company members were convinced it was just government posturing. And when the bombs started dropping on Yugoslavia four months after my visit, none of us thought the bombing would reach Belgrade. It would be like bombing Washington, D.C.
Suddenly, bombs were being dropped blocks from homes of my dear friends/mentors. Their lives and their art were in grave danger. Their planned international tour (funded through the U.S.' Artlink program) was canceled. The company scattered to four countries: China, Great Britain, the United States, Yugoslavia. At home in the U.S., I wrote letters and attended protest rallies. I expressed my views on the bombing whenever I could, but for the most part, my life went on eerily unchanged. And in Yugoslavia, in the midst of nightly bombing, the members of Dah who remained in Belgrade began creating a new theatre piece.
How did the NATO bombing affect my career as an artist? Did it make me give up playwriting to become a full-time activist? No. Did I immediately change the thrust of my performance art from conceptual to overtly political? No. As a relatively itinerant, relatively poor, relatively experimental playwright, the NATO bombing forced me to examine the intention behind my art and my reasons for being an artist. My friends in Yugoslavia were making art, sincerely and defiantly, in the face of death. Their art was their means of survival. Why was I making art? Was my commitment to my craft so unrefutable?
Important Things Dah Taught Me1. There are many ways of resting, besides just stopping and proclaiming, "I'm tired." The body must be in constant motion, in a constant state of readiness. If you let yourself sink into your exhaustion, you are defeating yourself. It takes more energy to get yourself started again that it does to keep your body going.
I make my life writing plays and creating site-specific performance. Like the writers featured in the Chronicle playwriting roundtable ("Wandering Preachers, Holy Fools," Nov. 19, 1999), I have roamed from city to city, making my home in small theatre companies and organizations committed to new, often experimental work. Currently, I live in Minneapolis, where I develop most of my work through the Playwrights' Center (where I am a core member) and renegade theatre companies such as the Red Eye Collaboration. Minneapolis, however, only constitutes about one-quarter of my home base: I spend almost as much time living under the "roofs" of Austin Script Works, Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre, and my collaborator Katie Pearl (all in Austin), New Dramatists (in New York City), and my partner-in-new-Deep-South-performance, Kathy Randels (in New Orleans, my town of origin).
More often than not, I feel as though I am scavenging my career from the resources and creative support offered by these generous colleagues and organizations. All of the above-named organizations operate on a different currency than most of the United States, "buying" their place in the world with talent, energy, and hard work. It is a currency I truly believe in. However, when one is saying "fuck you" to the dominant method of getting what one wants/needs, it is easy to get exhausted. To sit around one's house and grow bitter, proclaiming oneself a martyr-for-the-cause, making loud noises about the ills of mass media and the death of live theatre in general. While sinking into such an artistic rut is easy, pulling oneself out takes quadruple the energy.
In order to avoid the rut, an artist must find a way to sustain a constant state of creative energy. For me, this means identifying the principles of live performance that I hold most dear -- the principles that make what I do unique and essential for the well-being of the world. At the risk of making a brash generalization, I'll go ahead and proclaim that all the principles I hold dear can be boiled down the notion of immediacy: of the writer/director/performer's intentions, of the relationship between performer and audience, of the relationship between an audience of strangers (or friends) gathered together to witness the theatrical event, of their surrounding theatrical space.
Everyone knows that we come to the theatre to experience the unique immediacy of live performance, right? No one enters a theatre thinking they will see a TV show. While this might be true, my artistic exhaustion sets in when I feel trapped in a mainstream performance culture that takes the immediacy of the theatre for granted. The seats are there, the stage is there, the audience will come. Of course, it's an immediate experience. We will do plays right there in front of them. Plays with a track record, of course, dependable plays that "work." Suddenly, the immediacy of the theatre is squashed by strategies to make it foolproof and easy to predict.
I make art because of the artists who exploit the immediacy of live performance. Three moments in the theatre I will never forget: Being duct-taped into the theatre in Frontera@Hyde Park's Weldon Rising; watching Japanese Noh Master Akira Matsui make his Noh mask change shape, texture, and emotion by simply moving his head 1/8 of one inch; watching The Wooster Group's Kate Valk deliver Gertrude Stein's dialogue while simultaneously and exactly mimicking the movements of an actress in a Fifties soft-porn video shown on a nearby monitor, with every movement amplified by extremely sensitive body mikes turned up LOUD. In each of these examples, the intention behind the performance was so complex, three-dimensional, and fierce that I was absolutely engrossed in the action. I'll never forget these moments, but I also don't remember watching them. In each case, I was pulled so completely into the moment that the act of watching fell away, giving way to pure experience.
Important Things Dah Taught Me2. Always keep your body moving in two directions at once. The oppositions in your body create a tension that makes a performer fascinating to observe -- the audience may not know why they are looking, but they will not be able to look away.
In my continous quest to define exactly why my art is essential to myself and others, I find I feel most satisfied when I have worked to the absolute limits of my ability to bring that kind of pure experience to an audience. Working to the limits of my ability means intense, quiet concentration on my part and a great deal of intense collaboration.
My closest collaborator over the last four years has been director Katie Pearl. In our site-specific performance installations, Katie and I attempt to create complete theatrical worlds composed of bodies, story/text, visual images, and sound/ music. In each collaboration, Katie and I have made a pact with each other to create a performance that respects our audiences while challenging them and asks audiences to re-imagine the physical and emotional boundaries between themselves and the performer. We strive to create an experience that is at once intimate and communal by inviting audiences into a story-world that can only be completed by their prescence, commitment, and imagination.
In SLABBER, which I will perform for the FronteraFest Long Fringe February 1-5, audiences will meet "Our Lady," a mysterious pilgrim on a quest for information and the source of her own past. In our shared search for immediacy, Katie and I conceived of SLABBER as a series of studies; each incarnation of the piece is its own unique study of character and space, revealing different facets of "Our Lady" according to the circumstances under which she tells her story. For the Austin incarnation of SLABBER, Katie and I have taken on our biggest challenge to date: to design a study that can fit into several suitcases, to be unpacked before an audience at five different, secret locations over the course of five nights.
I am obsessed with the perpetual challenge of these studies, even though it means, essentially, that I must rewrite the piece each time we do a new production -- a process I know is impractical, time-consuming, and, well, a little bit insane. I know I cannot place the same demands on all of my plays, and I wouldn't want to. However, I am obsessed with the challenge because it is in direct opposition to everything that contributes to my bouts with mainstream artistic exhausion: The studies are not dependable; they are difficult to articulate (and market); they require the writer, performer, and director to rigorously examine their intentions each time a new study is mounted; and the studies are not in any way designed to make money. If I tried to figure a number-of-hours-worked-to-dollars-made ratio on this project, I'd sink -- no, nose-dive into that bitter artistic rut faster than you can say "Death of a Salesman."
Working on these studies, and working with Katie, helps keep me alive and filled with energy. Our work requires me to be perpetually, undeniably alert, because everything about our process and aesthetic is filled with contradictions. Success never means money. Story never means spoken narrative arc. Collaboration never means absolute agreement. Our process and performances require that we not only be open to the demands of our present circumstances, but have faith that our present, with all its contradictions, holds everything we need to create a performance that is immediate, theatrical, and, once the audience arrives, whole.
Important Things Dah Taught Me3. Always make your body as precise as possible. In striving for precision, the body becomes alive, filled with energy.
Perhaps the thing that irked me most about the NATO bombing was that it was so damned easy to ignore. I remember when Belgrade was hit for the second time, I walked into the common area at the Playwrights' Center and said to a group of people hanging out in front of the copy machine: "Y'all, my friends just got bombed again." I think one person looked up and said, "Really," as two other people banged on the automatic feeder, trying to get the copier to work again. That night, as I thought about the incident, I realized that what made me the most angry was not their indifference, but my walking away without saying a word, as though I expected nothing less from them.
It is easy to monkey around in this country, especially for an overeducated upper-middle-class white girl like me. It is easy to say things like "I am a playwright," "I am experimenting with the form," and "I am challenging my audience," without ever following through on the full intention of those statements. As I follow in the footsteps of my mentors -- steadfast itinerant playwrights of the big cheap theatre, Eastern European experimental artists salvaging art from the rubble, Japanese Noh Masters summoning beauty out of rigor -- I try to the best of my ability to do precisely as I say.
I agree with playwright Erik Ehn when he says in "Wandering Preachers, Holy Fools" that "the culture that once received plays has evaporated and has been replaced with commerce." I would even take his words a step further and say that commerce creates and thrives on distance. As we make our lives in this country, more and more distance is spreading between what we buy and who makes it, what we watch and who creates it, what we live in and who builds it. This distance brings with it fuzzy intentions, botched communication, and the ability to ignore anything that isn't causing us immediate pain.
My current quest for precision in my own life is connected to my longing for a culture rooted in awareness and immediacy. Live theatre is one of the last venues in this country that demands such immediate consistency: Saying and doing exist in the same moment, face to face with your witnesses.
If I am going to participate in creating the kind of culture I want to live in, a culture that will appreciate my craft, I must act out my values as precisely as possible, with the blind faith that others will follow in the way that I have followed those who have inspired me.
Important Things Dah Taught Me4. "Dah" means "breath" in Serbian. For the artists of the group, Dah means to breathe in, to gather strength, to persevere, to be spiritual, to keep the spirit of life-warmth, movement, and creation.
Dah Teatar is coming to the United States on Friday, February 24, to begin a U.S. tour. They will be touring Documents of Times, the piece created during the bombing by the members of the company who remained in Yugoslavia.
Dah calls the performance "a record of lived-through reality bites, carved on the performers' bodies, vanishing when they leave -- the record that remains in the souls of the audience who witness the piece." The members of Dah could not stop creating, even when their country -- indeed their lives -- were in danger of disappearing at any moment. And as soon as traveling again became an option for them, their U.S. company member, Kathy Randels, began organizing a six-city U.S. tour (which includes a stop at the upcoming Iowa RAT Conference, thanks to Erik Ehn) by herself, in her office/bedroom in New Orleans. When I look at the international collective intention of Dah, how can I possibly allow myself to sink into the rut, or whine about the difficulty of my chosen path? How can I do anything but stay fiercely true to my intentions and create, forging relationships and homes as I work?
The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia brought war home to me ... which is a silly thing for me to say, really, because I was so very far from danger. But for the first time in my life, cities I had visited were disappearing and people I knew were in grave danger, and I was forced to examine the way I live my life and the ways I stand up for the things that mean the most to me. The bombing, and Dah's perserverance throughout it, forced me to reckon with the complexities of my chosen path, and in this examination, gather strength, determination, and a deep respect for the people and organizations that I hold dear. My wish for us all: That through tireless, precise work, we will gather the collective strength needed to create a home for ourselves -- a home that crosses international boundaries, a home that welcomes contradictions, a home that allows us to create and share the work that we love in awareness and peace.
Dah Teatar will tour to New Orleans, Iowa City, Minneapolis, Connecticut College, New York City, and Atlanta in February. For tour dates and information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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