Direct Encounter

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At the Theater Communications Group Conference in Baltimore in 2009, “Generation Y” representative Nadira Hira bounded onto the stage and announced that she would not be using any PowerPoint in her talk.  Hooray. What a relief!  After several days of presentations and lectures with endless visual information displayed behind the speakers, I was relieved to be spoken to without technical support and accouterments.  Hira went on to explain that her generation is moving away from PowerPoint lectures because they understand the physical intensity of speaking directly to an audience.

Expectations Create Experience

Anne Bogart's picture

Human beings are expectation machines. We are constructed physiologically and neurologically to anticipate what will happen next.  This human trait, which almost certainly originated in ancient survival tactics, makes time-based performance a fascinating field and suggests that every theater person embark upon a lifelong study of how human beings perceive events. Alfred Hitchcock, in an interview with Francois Truffaut, explained that if a character appears screen-left, the audience tends to trust and like the person.  If the character arrives from screen-right, we worry that he or she might be dangerous.  These expectations are physiological and probably originate in the fact that in the west we read from left to right. In his film Rebecca, the forbidding Mrs. Danvers always appears unexpectedly from screen-right and then is motionless.  We worry about her.  We expect something bad from her.

Fact and/or Fiction

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Election season is upon us.  I watch HBO’s Bill Maher bang his head on the “Real Time” table in despair at the lack of communication that is possible between parties.   We wade into a season of debates, hearing persistent expressions of surprise that the “other side” does not recognize the logic of a particular argument.  But perhaps the surprise is unwarranted because, in fact, it is nearly impossible to convince anyone of anything via facts, charts, numbers or even abundant proof.  People are not persuaded to change their opinions with facts.  The brain does not respond vigorously to facts alone. But when facts are contextualized with stories, it is possible to effect peoples’ minds via the emotion and empathy engendered in the telling.

Unplugged

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Not long after the cataclysmic events of 9/11, I launched a series of one-on-one conversations between myself and various artists and theater people I admired. Open to the general public, the talks took place in the SITI Company studio in midtown, Manhattan. I did not know that these conversations would fulfill a palpable need for substantive discussion in a room with no separation between the audience and the speakers. We all sat in the same light, breathed the same air and followed thoughts as they developed through the art of conversation.

Reading and Writing

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We read and we write.  We read the world and at times we write upon it.  In order to write effectively we must learn to read well. It is impossible to write without reading first.

Great writers are effectively great readers.  To read teaches one to write.  In a broad sense, we are all readers and we are all writers. A baby swiftly learns to read the surrounding world and begins to write back. The human mind is tuned to detect patterns.  In “writing back,” the mind attempts to craft ordered narratives out of random input. The brain circuitry pores over incoming information, filters for patterns, and arranges those patterns into narratives, into stories. This inborn appetite for meaningful patterns translates into a hunger for stories. 

Cafe Culture

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Artists and inventors rarely create something out of nothing, but rather they use the components that exist already their environment to forge new territory. Innovation results from re-combining things. Playwright Chuck Mee excavates the world to scavenge for bits of pieces of what delights and energizes him.  He organizes these bits and pieces into the content of his plays.  For our new production, Café Variations, we have excavated the scripts of Chuck Mee to make our new play.  We also scavenge through You Tube clips of Apache Dances from the early part of the 20th century, Edward Hopper paintings, old romantic movies, the catalogue of George and Ira Gershwin and we sample liberally from these rich sources. The result of this rummaging will premiere on April 13th at ArtsEmerson in Boston.  I hope you will come to see it.

The Why

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The playwright and performer Taylor Mac is constantly developing multiple new projects. He is at work now on a twenty-four hour concert about the history of popular music.  He spoke to my students at Columbia University recently and told us that he is looking for two hundred and fifty songs from twenty-four decades, music from the 1770s up to the present decade.  I asked Taylor how he choses the songs. He said that he looks for songs that create community. 

Oh, a song that creates community! I asked Taylor what kind of songs creates community. He said that some music tends to make the listener internal and contemplative and other music connects people. He is choosing music that connects people.

Being Stuck and Getting Unstuck

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In early January, during the APAP (Arts Presenters) Conference in New York City, I enjoyed a few quality moments with my friend Mike Ross, Director of the Krannert Center in Champaign-Urbana.  We sat together on stools at the corner of a bar in a shady midtown pub.  Over the years, Mike has been a great supporter of SITI Company, hosting us many times at his beautiful performing arts complex in the flatlands of Illinois.  He is a tall, handsome, intelligent glass of water, always insightful and philosophical about the world we live in.  I mentioned to him that touring and commissions were finally looking up for SITI Company after several years of struggle and lack in a difficult economic climate.  I asked Mike if he thought that this positive change is due to general expectations for a better economy. “No,” he said, “the economy is not improving much, but people are simply adjusting, becoming more optimistic, going on with their lives and making plans again.” 

The Blank Page

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SITI Company has just completed a two-week “creative lab” period in which we laid down the initial strokes on the canvas for a new project entitled Café Variations.  Committing those first strokes is absolutely terrifying. At least that is my experience.  In the weeks and days leading up to our collective launch, I was nervous and jittery.  As much as I prepared, nevertheless I felt the real lack of firm ground.  Armed with the theme of the alchemy that occurs when one human being makes the heroic effort to reach out to another, we began with no set script, rather a collection of short scenes from many of Chuck Mee’s plays, songs from the American songbook, a few ideas and notions, trust in my colleagues and the years behind us and our general respect for one another.  From this, we presume.  From this, we proceed. 

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