Risk/Reward – A “Theatre Person” on an Evening of Performance Art
Has it started yet?
Is it over?
Did they mean for that to happen?
Was that supposed to be funny?
As primarily a practitioner of “theatre” (put in quotes because a single evening of performance art seems to have left me shaky on what that term really means), but as primarily a practitioner and purveyor of pretty predictably text-driven, “traditional” theatre, if our audience was asking these questions, we would worry we had not done our job well. We would worry our play lacked clarity, specificity, accessibility. It’s fairly rare (though not unheard of) that we seek to confuse or confound our audience. We want to “tell a story,” (does “story” necessarily imply narrative? Suddenly not so sure) for which we expect our audience to be decidedly passive receivers.
Performance art seems to be completely intentional about audience experience, with the audience being a vital and essential ingredient in the artistic moment, while simultaneously not caring in the slightest if the audience understands what the eff is happening. This was a challenge for me, and some of my more traditional theatre-going companions. In the theatre, everything on stage is information, but these performances offered endless streams of information I had no way to decode. Five minutes into the first piece, a music-less modern dance piece scored by an ever-increasingly cacophonic sound collage, I started to panic. “How am I going to write anything intelligent or useful about this? I have no context or appropriate aesthetic criteria from which to form an opinion on this art! Deep shame will befall me if I try to discuss this!” I got into more of a groove with the second piece, and at intermission I proudly shared with my companions that I had totally understood it, only to be told that if I was trying to “figure it out,” I was missing the point. Drat.
My deepest engagement with performance art before last night was when an organization I worked with brought in a guest artist to lead a workshop with incarcerated youth and we required them to demo the workshop before taking it to the youth. The workshop consisted of her having a room full of graduate students and professors clap for 30 minutes straight. No talking. No stopping. No rules. No objective. Just clapping. For 30. Minutes. Straight.
It was actually amazing.
Those 30 minutes contained multitudes in ways I could never have imagined. I went through the full range of human emotion. I decided I would stop about forty times, and didn’t stop, and didn’t know why I didn’t stop, and wondered what that meant about me as a person, and whether I was angry or enjoying myself, and what was happening for everyone else, etc, and that was only the first five minutes.
The Risk/Reward Festival took me on a similar ride of varied emotions and freely associated responses. Presented with the unexpected, the grotesque, the beautiful, the spectacle, the obtuse, without any story to follow, any characters to relate to, any recognizable concrete human experience to relax safely into, my mind went everywhere and asked so many questions. I was leaning forward. A small smattering of people would laugh and I didn’t know why. Occasionally I would laugh and not know why.
Despite having never attended a festival of performance art, it had everything I never knew I expected a performance art festival would have. Live multimedia/performer interaction, varying degrees of nudity, assaultive noise and frenetic movement followed by prolonged moments of stillness and silence, durational tests of endurance, genitals in hats, and of course, Trump masks.
For this traditional, narrative-driven frequent theatre-goer, the risk of unknown was well worth the reward of the unexpected, unexplained, uncategorizable experience. Thanks, Risk/Reward, for another year of making this festival happen!