Frames and authors

26 Feb

I was inspired to write the following by Polly Carl’s post on the new play blog, HowlRound. (After putting this in on Howlround a “comment”, realized it was a large hefty rant of its own so I’m reposting here.) HowlRound is part of a new push to extend the conversation about building new work in the American theatre; check it out here.
As Polly Carl points out, Benjamin was amazingly prescient in his prediction that every audience member would become a writer, re-wiring the traditional author/ audience relationship. I will return to this exciting idea later, but first, let’s look at how the not-for-profit theatre currently frames the audience/ author relationship.

The “frame” or “authorship” of the work of art in the age of regional theatre can be read through the physical stage, which in its architecture is a metonym of all the authorial relationships within which it’s embedded. It’s nestled within the building (product of a successful capital campaign running into the millions) which is nestled within a web of marketing, financial and programming relationships. And outside of this set of interlocking Russian dolls, the playwright and other freelance (labor for hire) artists wait anxiously.

If “authoring” means framing an experience through access to its means of production, then playwrights are less and less this “author.” The frame in many ways IS the story (McLuhan), and in the not-for-profit theatre, that frame is bought and sold by funders, boards and artistic directors, and put up in physical space. To then put a play in that space frames it as product, content, for a pre-ordered set of aesthetic rules which the theatre, not the playwright, has defined in both physical and metaphorical space. That frame may be congenial or poisonous to the play, but in either case, the play doesn’t have the wiggle room to define its own, and (as product) it isn’t supposed to.

However, the power to shape the frame around the work is a key part of authorship, because it defines the terms of engagement with the work and crucially, shapes the rules of reception and intelligibility. For instance, a proscenium space is organized around the now old-fashioned notion of a masterful perspective–a gaze that can fit everything into the frame and make mimetic sense of it. Not surprisingly, plays that draw on “realistic” tropes tend to do well in this space.

However, post-modern or fragmented or neo-expressionist work is virtually incomprehensible from this viewpoint, into which audiences are physically (and symbolically) placed. How can we know that audiences are conservative, when the theatre puts them—literally—in a conservative position? In a red plush seat overlooking a chocolate box world. They might love other kinds of work if they had the chance to see it in a framework that made sense of it.

I think most playwrights are anxious to do all they can to connect with audiences; what we don’t want to do is simply make product for a frame that doesn’t suit the work. We see part of our work as structural: to construct a frame that invites the audience into the world of the play. If that frame is disregarded or worse, dismantled in favor of the default rule-box of a given theatre, bad things will happen. The play will fail because the audience will lack the proper invitation to enter it through its own rules.

However, happily the converse is true too. Once we grasp that the organization of physical space powerfully communicates the rules of the game, exciting possibilities abound for inviting audiences into new rules, new games. Thoughtful framing can make otherwise “difficult” work intelligible.

For instance in Punchdrunk’s Macbeth, presented in Boston by the A.R.T., the audience puts on a white mask and is guided into an empty, eerie space. It doesn’t take long to intuit that we are ghost-witnesses to a crime scene. Indeterminacy, chance, incomplete story–these are effects of audience position, and part of the thrill of wandering through the elaborately installed world. A Hitchcock soundtrack cues postmodern collage and crime scene thriller expectations. And as white masks, including your own, cluster around a murder scene, you realize that you are part of this story–a blood cell in the story’s circulation.

The fragmented scenes of that work, played on a proscenium stage, would simply have read as incoherent, failed pastiche. But the audience completed the story because they were invited into the frame as authors of their own experience WITHIN the world of the performance.

I don’t think the audience desire for involvement is as facile, or even as of-the-moment, as just wanting to text through performances or be able to dance on stage. I think it’s more that the frames of our conventional theatre struggle to generate a 21st century mimesis. The rules have changed–film is (or was til recently) the medium of mimetic realism, using a photographic similitude to position the dreaming “I” in the center of its shifting point of view. Film feels closer to “live-ness” in its construction of point of view through the subject’s embedded camera eye. The fixed-perspective proscenium stage feels woefully old-fashioned for the kind of immersive, empathetic engagement that’s theatre’s core power.

I think writers know this and are writing for new frames, new points of view (and I don’t mean “opinions”–I mean literally, positions to view from). But the chocolate-box theatres struggle to stage these plays because they don’t fit the frame. Sooner or later, the frame will have to melt and refashion itself around the work, instead of trying to lure the flown bird back into an ornate but rusting cage.

2 Responses to “Frames and authors”

  1. David Brenner June 11, 2011 at 7:47 am #

    As a frequent theatergoer, neither young nor thin, who values the intensely personal, sometimes transcendent experience that live theater can provide, I have to admit that I enjoy my “red plush seat” and the comfortable point of view that it provides.

    – much of the theater I see is not behind a “proscenium space” at all – much of it is in open space with the audience on one, two, three, or four sides, facing the center
    – most of my non-intimate, non-athletic, significant life experience plays out in a (visual or auditory or olfactory) space in front of me, like a conventionally staged play: when I look at a computer display, or read a book, or talk to one or a few people (standing facing each other, or across a table or seating space), or look both ways before crossing the street, or urinate, or watch TV, or eat a fine meal, or listen to live or recorded music, or look intently at a painting on a wall – there is a reason that my eyes and ears and nose and mouth and genitals face front, and why my attention is generally focused in that plane – this is my nature as a human being.
    – immersive experiences like fighting my way through a crowded bar or subway station are stressful and irritating; performers running around behind me, or doing things directly to my sides may be cute for short periods, but are usually something to be tolerated, in the hope that it will soon be over
    – virtually all of my most meaningful live performance experiences, whether drama, or musical, or opera, or music, or dance, or dramatic reading, have been “framed” in a plane in front of me, moving mostly side to side, and occasionally up and down or forward and back – just like most of my meaningful non-theatrical life experiences
    – alternatively, most of my “immersive” or differently-framed theatrical experiences have been distracting, unsatisfying, or downright painful
    – item: A.R.T. in recent seasons: at “Sleep No More” – which was NOT “ Punchdrunk’s ‘Macbeth’ “, but rather a combination of the Scottish Play, Hithchcock’s “Rebecca” and other influences – I was virtually blinded by the mask I was required to wear, unable to focus my progressive spectacle lenses through the eye holes, and so had to hold it against the elastic away from my face throughout; limited to blurry vision, I was unable to see the props and written materials on display in the darkened spaces; so in addition to being uncomfortable and too long on my feet, I missed a large part of the visual experience (though I enjoyed the olfactory and auditory experience). Because Shakespeare is so text-based, there was virtually nothing left of his play (the stories, of course, are almost all borrowed – the Shakespeare is in the performed text, of which there was none), and because I’m not a crowd follower, I encountered the action only in passing (most people followed the actors around the space like the Pied Piper’s captive children – a real turn-off for me) – the Hitchcock influence was much more effective, with rarely-heard period music, props, and settings evoking an era, along with an appropriately desolate and creepy mood. Still, all in all, one of the most physically unpleasant and frustrating theatrical experiences I’ve ever had.
    – item: A.R.T.’s otherwise excellent production of the musical “Caberet” was degraded by the club setting at Oberon, with action moving 360 degrees around an audience seated on folding chairs at tightly-packed cabaret tables. Since there was no room to swing one’s feet around to face the swirling action, one was required to twist the upper body this way and that (uncomfortable for me), and at my weight the resulting stress on the chair frame eventually caused it to collapse, leaving me trapped in a standing room only crowd and having to hold up one side of the chair with my hand, painfully pinching a nerve in my hip, and unable to turn at all to see the remaining action. Embarrassing, infuriating, and intensely painful.

    Enough. Artists who go to war against human nature – like Marxists who go to war against economics – are bound to fail (and blame others for the results). I may not be able to use “mimetic” or “tropes” in a sentence, but I do know that innovation for its own sake is just new – not necessarily good; and in art, as in life, intellect is an untrustworthy master.

  2. xtine3 June 11, 2011 at 1:20 pm #

    Thanks for your response, David. I have to say I’ve also endured sore feet and frustration at many “immersive” events, and sometimes feel the thinking behind the work is— well–thin.
    And I agree that “innovation for its own sake is just new–not necessarily good.” I have also seen many, many plays I love in proscenium–including some of my own.

    The point I was aiming to make is simply that the work and the frame need to fit one another, and if they don’t, the result is lack of connection between writer/ performance and audience.

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