News Performance Techniques

She and the Empty Living Room

My blogging will continue to be intermittent now that our October production approaches. We’ll be headed up north to Ithaca for rehearsals in September. Before we leave we will host one more Avant Yarde event, so stay tuned here for that announcement shortly.

Markus drove Carolina to JFK Monday night, so she is back in Argentina now. She is gone and present at the same time. I am meditating on her performance with Markus in She and the Empty Living Room. How do such performances function in the relationships we build over the years with friends and peers? Life and art entwined into the same tapestry.

The experience of “the other” is the most absolute knowledge we are allowed in our lives. Theatre and art can act as conduit to that experience but their rituals often function best as extensions of our everyday ceremonies.


She and the Empty Living Room

Conceived and Directed by April Sweeney
Text by April Sweeney and Carolina Sotolano
Performed by: Carolina Sotolano and Markus Hirnigel
Film by: Miklos Buk
New York Premiere

markus and carolina

An exploration of (anti)communication, disobedient tongues, a missing left foot, a dance, a relationship, a poem, or a broken heart. She and the Empty Living Room is a play in translation (literally) about the act of translation, repression/oppression, and the language in your head that turns you into someone else.

She, and the Empty Living Room is a chamber play that looks at the (de)evolution of a relationship and the language it inherits. In loosing your language by trying to replace it with another you loose yourself and appropriate the other. Pretending to be someone else until you are forced to be the person you didn’t know you were.

backyard Avant Yarde

It is a play performed live by two actors in Spanish and English with simultaneous translation delivered via subtitles across two monitors on which also a film is seen. It is this film that is inherently translating the image (the play) before your eyes. It takes place in an almost empty room. A room in a house that is lived in.

Afterwards the public is invited to stay. There is a salon of sorts, hopefully on a divan with red wine and banana bread. This interaction is the end of the event and just as important as the event itself.

markus and carolina

markus and carolina

backyard avant yarde

markus and carolina

More photos of the production

Performance Techniques Theatre and Culture

The Last Rat Conference Comes Home Again

The RAT Conference from 1994-2004 was the single most transforming element of our theatre ensemble’s history. Our present day aesthetic and ethic developed directly from that ten-year collaboration with other theatre companies and individuals from around the country and the world. For many years we found our strength of purpose and community in this “Regional Alternative Theatre” confederacy.

Our theatre instigated and led many of the conferences including the final one in Argentina. Company members Melanie, Gabriele, Markus and I all were part of the RAT contingency which produced the Macbeth Project at El Rayo Misterioso’s 2004 Experimenta and then traveled to a farm on the outskirts of a small city thirty miles outside of Buenos Aires to collaborate further on the project with the theatre/art collective Willaldea.

Old friends from Willaldea are now in New York performing She and the Empty Living Room, produced through El Taller Latino Americano as part of the Underground Zero festival of experimental theatre tonight and at our Avant Yarde on Monday night.

I had traveled to Argentina three different years to work with the El Rayo and Willadea artists. Through them I also met many other artists who work in physically based international theatre. Following are my reflections from five years ago on what would be the last Rat Conference. (Of course indie theatre producers — rats — still exist across this country, perhaps in greater numbers and more vibrant than ever, even without the Rat Conference promoting, advocating and networking for their existence.)

The pilgrimage and its return to home works well as metaphor for our individual ensemble’s continuation of the work we and other theatres had begun with the Rat Conference.

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El Rayo and Willaldea, Argentina
December 7-17, 2003

Cindy’s question at day’s end of the Argentina rat meet was sharpest. “How does one integrate the experience into one’s life without romanticizing it?”

RatMeet as pilgrimage as training technique.

RatMeets function less within memory/documentation and more as part and parcel of an ongoing process/journey. Likewise, rat is best without a past. Its present is prologue… with new pilgrims regularly joining the enduring procession defining and redefining motive and direction. So now Argentine, Mexican, Basque, and other new rats are able to lead the pilgrimage and training technique back into USA rat and elsewhere.

The pilgrim takes leave from a specific state, searches and researches for a way, beholds the new vista, and then returns back home. Each will then bear witness to the pilgrimage, performing before the unique hometown audience. In this way home also becomes an evolving place (and condition) layered with the instructions from the pilgrimage.

A pilgrim is not a guru or master teacher. He has no disciples or followers but only fellow travelers. To elevate one rat over other pilgrims is to actually degrade that rat into tour guide. The pilgrimage holiday also then becomes equally debased into a vacation. The RatMeet is the movable dojo. The school where peerless masters may transform themselves into adept peers and back again.

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I travel from a place of privilege and I wear my origin almost indelibly. Most intricate and difficult to cast off is the image of tourista Ugly American. Like a mark of Cain it separates me from them as much if not more than my gringo lingo does. Apt metaphor then the necessity that half of our actual baggage would be shed on the difficult road leading to Willaldea. In trying to deliver it, Gabriele and I separated from the group and got completely lost in the dark countryside. We walked in circles for what felt like half a lifetime alternating between emotions of anger and panic. By the time we finally arrived at the circle of familiar faces eating dinner next to the fireplace, all elements of tourista had been stripped from us. Hugging friends Bruno, Yolanda, Guido, and Fabio, we knew we were home.

The naturalness in which they pursue their life in art is what inspires me most. Bruno has an injured hand so Guido now is the one who needs to get up at dawn for the milking. He explains how the cows accept him and Bruno almost as replacements for their calves that have been weaned. The cows need to be milked twice daily at twelve hour intervals otherwise their udders will dry up. Yolanda will feed the chickens and ducks each morning before she leads the actors through their training which is as physically intense as any that we found at Experimenta. The hours that we will schedule for our training and meetings are coordinated to the times needed to stir the milk and complete the other processes that will transform it into Mozzarella cheese. After their performance the actors will fashion this cheese into baked pizza to then serve with honest joy to their audience.

This naturally balanced rigor at Willaldea is in contrast to the narrowly stringent physical discipline I find at El Rayo and forces a comparison. El Rayo’s future goal is to be able to train as actors daylong instead of performing the multiple tasks they now do in order to keep their theater running. Monks in a monastery studying and training in a martial art would be one model for their actors’ laboratory. Aldo has expanded his traditional Kung Fu training by inventing a kata from studying the butterfly. He teaches these movements to Natalia who then teaches it to certain members of the ensemble. From the writings of Artaud he has abstracted certain tension/release exercises combining them with selected physical methodologies of early Grotowski. The ensemble also uses basic acrobatics, shamanism, massage, tarot readings and other practices as part of their daily training.

Guido migrated to Argentina more than 25 years ago with a small group from the original urban art village in Milan, Italy. That Milan collective still exists and member Roberto gave a presentation at this year’s Experimenta. The ostensible artlessness of Willaldea’s life style is actually grounded in a complex philosophy that studies the relationships found within the microcosm/macrocosm and finding a balance between the economic, social, and artistic realms in life. The individual’s ability to contaminate and alter the whole is a principal concept and is evidenced by how much influence the arrival last year of Yolanda and her Odin based training has transformed the theatre.

A constant element in Willaldea’s soundscape was the young calf bawling daylong. Roped off to the tree to be weaned from milk, alone and separate from the herd and mother, the plaintive wails were perfect articulation of the fear and pain found in all experiences that truly transform. Both of these very different ensembles of Willaldea and El Rayo have proposed avenues for future collaborations. Rat has contaminated each of them and vice versa.

Current Production Performance Techniques

The Big Suit

The scene staging for Marina “finding the lost key” as she is putting on her dress exemplifies how Brechtian and naturalistic performance could at times meld within the production. Petra’s portayal of Marina was intersting to watch in that scene as it evolved throughout the production. Although never moving outside the parameters of realism, “the actress playing Marina” became more and more present in a very subtle way.

We, as audience, seeing something that the character Paul does not see as Marina “dresses” herself to manipulate her circumstance and/or environment. So not just getting dressed within the habit and function of getting dressed, but with the deliberateness and purpose of preparing for a presentation. In this case “the actress playing Marina” will present “the key”, the gestus, to the character Marina.

My thought was that the dressing of the actor/character should present a puzzle or dilemma in every instance it occurs on stage. So as opposed to this natural or habitual act, getting dressed becomes this calculated donning of a representation of self.

The suit jacket struck me as the most potent icon. The heavy metaphor, Kalowski’s jacket could almost fall from the flies into the water with a big splash. Of course this is the “real suit” that Paul got married to Kathleen in, not that gray suit made by Kathleen’s relatives. Paul has stolen nothing, unless everyone who marries into money is stealing. (Jackie Onassis, the icon of such a marriage. Marina and Kathleen, with their trench coats and sunglasses were “well suited” at the airport.) So this “real suit” could be made to visually haunt the production, similarly to that shadow in Paul’s motel room.

Chris doesn’t need to don a gun to kill, but only the suit built out of a perversion of his childhood fantasy of Africa. He very deliberately and purposely dresses himself in the Safari jacket and hat of the Great White Hunter. He is dressed to kill.

Not meant as something to mimic, but this old Talking Head video (David Byrne in his famous Big Suit) evokes in visuals and gesticulation, Paul acting/performing/living in a suit too big for him. Wife of Kathleen, heir of Kalowski. His only option is to escape into the pseudo reality of a pulp fiction hero.

Current Production Performance Techniques

Gestus for characters

Andreas is right when he says this is complicated. Usually when we talk about a Brechtian actor or Brechtian performance, we’re stuck with opening up a very dense can of worms that is the Brechtian paradigm, the whole “historical materialistic perspective.” It would be nice to bypass all that and start getting at some acting and performance alternatives to naturalism that reference Brecht but don’t get all bogged down in theory.

Of course this play about how capitalism has infiltrated the most personal parts of our lives happens to also be the most Brechtian of subjects, which should serve any referencing of Brecht we ultimately decide on. From talking with Petra and Stephan, they also understood how this Brechtian perspective might be interesting to an American audience, if not to a German one. I think in many ways this could become the real heart of the aesthetic to explore in the production. We’ll give the Germans the inheritance of Brecht and the Americans the inheritance of realism via O’Neill, Miller, Williams, etc. and have the core investigation of the project by the ensemble exactly this dialectic.

Kathleen is probably the best character to examine in this discussion. From a purely psychological dimension, the text gives her the most baggage. But if we just keep her on the psychological level, we miss how her “gestus” informs the larger picture.

Kalowski is not just Kathleen’s unknown father, but as “the German,” the ultimate capitalist, the Darth Vader (dark father) of our globablized world, he is every one’s father. He’s the ruthless businessman, whose only ethic is the bottom line.

Kathleen is looking for the mother that abandoned her. But the whole world is motherless, if by mother we mean the counter to the “breadwinner” — the parent who nurtures home and hearth, “family values,” the ethical value of friendship. Everyone in our hypercapitalistic society is forced on some level to “calculate” the bottom line value of their personal relationships, even marriage and family.

“It can’t get any better for him. I am the heir to Kalowski Incorporated.”

Kathleen’s actress needs to be fully knowledgeable of this aspect, this gestus of the character Kathleen. Within the production, the actress should be able to put this BIG SUIT on the character of Kathleen in full view of the audience. The audience should find this suiting up of the character as interesting as any naturalistic portrayal. Even more interesting would be the interlacing and detailing/delineating of these Brechtian and naturalistic techniques.

foto: Marek Soból

“Paul doesn’t seem particularly comfortable in his skin that day.
I am content.”

Kathleen is more comfortable in Kalowski’s BIG SUIT than Paul ever could be, The gestus of the Paul character is his infatuation with Celebrity Culture through Hollywood movies. Of course this infatuation with movie stars and their lives is another one of the prevalent conditions in the broader population of the modern world. We can know as much or more about lives of the rich and famous than the people we see and relate to on a daily basis. Memories of reality conflate with memories from the media which engulfs our lives.

“Kids hanging out, laughing, throwing things on its bed.
The driver comes out of the bar and they run.
They’re fifteen, sixteen at most.
Reminds me of a movie I saw long ago.
Damn, what was the name of it?
I still remember the next scene. The driver starts the truck and the whole thing blows up.
I look at the truck –
– hold my breath.
The truck starts –
– and drives off.
I wonder if they have a movie theater here?

For Paul and many others Kalowski is best understood as the Donald Trump type businessman. The businessman for Paul is a part to be acted, some scene from a television reality show or movie in which he needs to deliver a performance as worthy as the The Donald (the nickname given to Trump by the media after his ex-wife Ivana Trump, a native of the Czech Republic and only marginally fluent in English, mistakenly referred to him as such in an interview). This reality show is a apt reference for the play. All the characters at some level are competing as The Apprentice in Kalowski’s world.

“I wanted to live with it.
But I couldn’t live with it.
It almost drove me insane.
If only it wasn’t with this goddamn nigger.”

Chris’ gestus is his romance with — or is it hatred of — the alien or the “other.” Again, a prevalent condition in the world. It is also why I strongly believe that Chris, on the psychological level, has layers, is conflicted, is not purely evil. But on the gestus level, we highlight important aspects of the text’s plot and themes. The borders that separate us from the other. Geography mirrors economics: The world is divided between the North and the South, Europe and Africa, US and Mexico. The display of our wall maps, with the North above and the South below, emphasize and reinforces the geography dividing the have from the have nots.

Analyzing the killing of Phil (interesting that the name of the tribal African is a Christian diminutive. why?) at the psychological level, impotent Chris’ wounded macho is tinged with race hatred to the point of insanity. The N-word is probably the most politically potent word in America today. Of course that potency is mostly diffused if its utterance arrives on stage only from within the crippled psychology of a particular character. But it speaks to the power of words in our social relationships, that even within the safe haven of “it’s the character saying it, not me”, Roger as actor has been struggling to spit it out in some “natural” way. If the N-word were taken out the safety box of naturalism and employed as gestus, the whole of the production would need to struggle with its presence.

The character or story of the Great White Hunter has many variations. Exploits were romanticized in adventure novels that became the so-called “Lost World/Lost Race” genre. The phrase was coined in the late nineteenth century. Although often used in parody or jest, it also symbolized the discourse of colonial power and dominance of western colonial powers over other parts of the world. The character to the left is the pulp fiction hero Doc Savage, and as the name and image suggests, projects the Aryan as superior in both intellect and physicality to the other races and primitive peoples. (What’s that black thing in “The Man of Bronze” right hand?)

As gestus Chris’ “heart of darkness” belongs collectively to mankind under Capital, not merely the function of his individual metaphysical or psychological nature.

How and why does such a gestus in Chris impress Kalowski?

How does such a gestus inform the infamy of a businessman known simply as “The German” in the world of high finance.

The gestus of Marina is the use of her sexuality as her commodity, her bottom line. The first thing she bought with it is Chris, from his wife. Then Phil, then Paul from Kathleen — all destroyed lives she’s left in her wake. She’s literally a home-wrecker. The perversion of the mother that should be the counter to the ruthless business(wo)man.

“The wind lifted me off the ground.”

So each character should have a psychology (in the dramatic dialogues) as well as the gestus that overtly informs the characters’ social relations, especially the causalities of their behavior. They are all the children of Kalowski.