Getting Lost

Jan 21, 2015

Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.  (André Gide)

In 1947 Nina Vance, who at the time had only $2.17 in her handbag but was determined to start a new theatrical venture, emptied the contents of her handbag onto a table and proposed that with that available money she would found a new theater company.  Postcard stamps at the time cost one penny apiece.  She and her friends addressed 217 postcards inviting people to gather at a particular time and place to discuss starting a new theater.  And thus was born the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas, one of the nation’s leading regional repertory theaters.

The history of human innovation is the history of using what is available in the present moment to make new things.  Of all the historic, artistic and scientific periods, our own postmodernist era has probably most enthusiastically embraced the idea of making new things out of old ones. Postmodernists tipped over the fortress of hierarchical principals, of modernism, of classicism, of romanticism and so on and picked up the pieces, bit-by-bit, looking anew and with great interest at each building block as a separate phenomenon. Without a singular, dominant point of view, and declaring that no one part was more important than the next, the postmodernist aesthetic evolved.

Scenic designers, who know me well, are trepidatious about what might already be present in the rehearsal studio at the beginning of any project.  My tendency is to incorporate whatever object is lying around into the composition of the play.  A lopsided chair easily becomes the perfect tool for storytelling and for aesthetic arrangement.  The chair can become art. 

Computer scientists and evolutionary neuroscientists have popularized the word kludge, (alternately spelled kluge or klooj) to embody the idea of a clumsy, cobbled together contraption, assembled to fulfill a particular purpose.  The word is perhaps derived from the German or Yiddish klug, meaning clever, or possibly it comes from the Scottish word for an outdoor toilet. Some evolutionary scientists describe the human brain as a kludge because of the way it altered and adapted to changing circumstances over great swaths of time. 

Perhaps the most well known kludge was the device that rescued the imperiled astronauts of Apollo 13.  An accident crippled the spaceship more than two hundred thousand miles from earth, taking out its two main oxygen tanks.  But having enough oxygen was not the issue, rather having too much carbon dioxide that came from the astronauts’ own exhalations threatened to kill them. 

There is a short scene in the Hollywood film Apollo 13 in which a group of engineers in Houston hastily gather in a conference room, to come up with a solution to the leaking oxygen and the toxic carbon dioxide problem. After dumping a box full of flimsy objects onto the table, an engineer says, “I don’t care what anything was designed to do.  I care about what it can do. We gotta find a way to make this … fit into the hole for this … using nothing but that.” They went to work using only the type of equipment and tools that could be found onboard, including plastic Moon rock bags, cardboard, socks, suit hoses and duct tape.  They had to work quickly and they could only use what was available on the spacecraft.  They succeeded and it ended up saving the lives of the astronauts.

Perhaps the notion of kludge is a perfect trope to examine the proclivities of postmodernism. 

The human brain was developed over time in order to make useful predictions about the future so that we may successfully negotiate an increasingly complicated environment.  The brain learns from each life encounter, forming models in order to confront and succeed in complex surroundings.  We use what we know to fend off danger and harvest reward.

In the theater one of the recurring challenges is the necessity to strip away the meanings that have calcified over time from past productions, and to loosen the expectations that audiences bring with them. 

In the creation of new work, it is necessary to get lost. And yet getting lost runs contrary to my nature and to the way that I was raised. Growing up in the Navy, every year or two my family moved to a new state or country.  If by the second or third day in the new environment I was not able to point out north, south, east and west, if I did not interiorize a map of the land, if I did not know how to negotiate the streets and geography, my brothers and my parents would ridicule me. I grew up scrambling to study maps, to understand the lay of the land, and negotiating the best way to speak to and get along with strangers.  I had to make new friends fast.

I became a theater director partially due to my continuing need and compulsion to control things. Generally I choose the project, I prepare for rehearsals and I establish the rules and the circumstances of the rehearsal hall. I largely determine the politics in the room, encouraging a respectful social ambiance.  Ultimately I am the decider-er.  

And yet the concomitant requirement for the craft of directing is the ability to allow for the unforeseen, for the happenstance, for associative flights of fancy.  For things you cannot explain.  I need to be able to get lost in the process, welcoming the release of control over orientation and stability.   Despite my longing for security and decisiveness, I need to free every aspect of the process from the accumulated meanings and assumptions that have been heaped upon them.