The Spider’s Stratagem

Jan 19, 2022

Experience is a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.

-Henry James

Growing up, reading provided me both an escape from tensions with my family and school and a refuge from what felt to be the unescapable definitions of my daily life. Books suggested that my life could be quite different from what I had been expecting. Also, the act of reading offered an altered sense of time and space, and what the writer Virginia Woolf described as, singular “moments of being.” 

When I first encountered Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, I was 16 or 17 years old, and I will never forget what happened to me while reading. Little by little, the words, sentences and paragraphs lifted me up, further and further into what felt like rarified air and then, about three quarters of the way through, at what seemed to be a sudden and precise moment, Virginia Woolf let me go. I dropped, released into a web of sensations that I had never previously experienced. Later, upon reflection, in these moments of flight, yes, even moments of ecstasy, I wondered if the writer had somehow trusted me, the reader, to proceed further without her close guidance.

The experience of reading To the Lighthouse marked me, and I have spent my life as a theater director attempting to re-create for audiences precisely what I felt then as a teenager. Now I aim to construct worlds in which audiences might experience a similar thrill of emotional freefall.  I am attempting to create experiences in which the audience vibrates on a similar emotional frequency as the characters.

Every time we rehearse a play together, we are constructing an alternate or parallel universe. Each production requires its own logic, rules, and laws of gravity and yet must also, simultaneously, interconnect with the tangible realm that we inhabit in our daily lives. Venturing into the milieu of rehearsal, we must apply both excitement and restraint. We build, we layer, we arrange and re-arrange in order to find the exact balance of harmony and dissonance.  Composing the sound, light, and spatial design, we hope to create the conditions for the audience to experience singular moments of being. We choose recognizable plots, or a familiar character or a minor interaction and stretch them out, extending their patterns further in order to mine or make each element greater, more meaningful. We widen the moments of being. We stretch regular rhythms of speech into poetic meters and transform common objects and encounters into metaphor. We turn ordinary people into vulnerable heroes. We extend, we reach, we elongate, we broaden, we distend, we unfold, we expand.

Perhaps it is useful to compare what we do in rehearsal to how spiders construct their webs.

Based upon recent scientific research, it turns out that spiders use their webs to sense and to think. A web is an extension of the spider’s thought process and an essential part of their cognitive apparatus. As they weave, they show foresight, planning, complex learning and even the capacity to be surprised. A spider’s thinking is interwoven into its web, which can be seen as an extraordinary form of consciousness.

Spiders do not follow any particular shape or design, but make their webs based upon their immediate needs. Each thread is meticulously attached to specific points on vertical and horizontal lines until the web is fully completed. Their webs are a physical extension of their perceptual abilities, and they use them to expand their senses far beyond the limits of their bodies. This “extended cognition” is similar to how, as humans, we rely upon structures outside of our own bodies to connect with the environment.  We use grocery lists, computers, and GPS systems to help us think. We organize our living spaces to help us to remember where things are.  We jot notes, we take photographs, and collect mementos.  We use phones and microphones and telescopes to extend our information knowledge of the world.

A spider web is stretchy, which is what makes it so strong. In rehearsing a play, perhaps we are like spiders, constructing intricate webs and/or traps. In our arrangements and in the embodiment of plays, we must build stretchy, elastic webs that can capture nothing less than the essence of a moment of life itself. Singular moments of being.

Recently, scientist Markus Buehler and his colleagues at MIT translated the structures of spider webs into new music compositions. They did so in order to help them to better understand how spiders spin their complex creations and how they communicate. “Spiders have very keen vibrational sensors,” said Professor Buehler. “They use vibrations as a way to orient themselves, to communicate with other spiders.”  Taking two-dimensional laser scans of a spider web, they stitched them together, converting them into a mathematical model that could recreate the web in 3D in virtual reality.  The music that emerged from their experiments is unusual and eerie but also quite beautiful. Here is a link to spider web melodies created during web construction.

As we construct our productions, as we build complex and intricate systems from simple building blocks and stretchy filaments, sometimes we lose ourselves in the activity of creation. Engaged and moving within the choreography of our own constructions, the borders of our selves just might begin to dissolve. But it is often necessary to lose our selves in order to find singular moments of being. We put ourselves in the spirit of something larger and the activity stretches our brain into foreign terrain.

I am currently writing this on the South Side of Pittsburgh, where we are re-mounting SITI Company’s The Medium, our first company-devised production, based upon the insights of the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. The Medium begins previews at City Theater in Pittsburgh on January 22nd, and then, in March, will travel to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and then to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. We originally created the play in 1993 at Tadashi Suzuki’s theater compound in in Toga Village in the scenic mountains of Japan. At that time, we sensed that a technological revolution was afoot, and we wanted to imagine what might happen to the human experience. The question that animated the production was: who are we becoming in light of the new technologies that are arising? We fashioned this spider web, this production, at a time before any of us had access to email or the internet, before the invention of social media, before we were provided instant digital access to the library of the world. The process was blessed, and the production proved to have a sturdy, tensile, and resonant quality.  Not only was The Medium prescient in content, but we were able to forge a strong theatrical experience for audiences in many parts of the world. During the mid 1990s, we performed The Medium at numerous venues including extended runs at the New York Theater Workshop and City Theater in Pittsburgh as well as at a number of international festivals.

As we reexamine the original staging in order to reconstruct it, this spider web of a play takes on increasing depth and meaning. Whenever we stop to consider why it was fabricated in the exact way it was, we discover that The Medium is a map of our mental processes at the time that we wove it. Nearly thirty years later, as we re-excavate our decades old impulses for each scene, each interaction, and each gesture, the process becomes increasingly fascinating and humbling.  The threads, bridges and connectors of the production contain far more information than we were able to perceive when originally making it. Now, re-embodying these patterns, these structures, and the insights that occurred when we built it, we are inhabiting a time capsule but also accessing powerful messages and insights.  The complexity of the construction is remarkable.

Being with the actors as they reanimate The Medium, reconstructing its intricate and tensile structural engineering, I am in awe how they are able to juggle, organize, and retain as much as they do. When I give notes, the actors nod and proceed. How do their brains organize all of the minutiae of action and behavior? How do they retain information about the angle of a foot, the quality of a touch, the particular attack in a specific moment? Not only must they have the text at their fingertips, but also the thousand details that make up each performance. Their bodies and minds decipher the rules and the logic of the nearly thirty-year-old production. Yesterday, when discussing how remembering happens, Stephen Webber referred to his brain as a “memory palace.” 

As I write, we are on a journey that offers no guarantees. In the middle of a pandemic, in the midst of the ever-spiking Omicron virus, we are in a bubble together, reconstructing The Medium, a spider web that we devised nearly thirty years ago. I do know that there is a glorious freefall happening.