My dissertation is about contemporary experimental performance, what I like to call “weird theatre.” I introduce myself to my students, joking that I write about weird little performances that happen in weird little spaces throughout the city. When I give this introduction, when I write on my blog, www.weirdtheatre.org, when I trudge out to these venues, I reflect upon my commitment to weird theatre. What draws me to these weird performances? How does weird theatre make meaning differently than more traditional theatrical forms? When I teach weird theatre, I often think about the politics that undergird its weirdness. To whom is this theatre accessible? Who are its intended audiences—is weird theatre only meaningful to “in the know,” experienced spectators?
Some people find experimental work hard to understand or pretentious, but I love its possibilities. As an actor and a feminist, I always found realistic theatre foreclosing; the possibilities of who I could play and what I could do onstage were limited to the realm of the real, which for me often meant sweet, femme-y ingénue characters, women I was not particularly interested in pretending to be. In college, my professors introduced me to experimental performance and feminist and queer performance art and my understanding of the possibilities of performance was forever altered. I can say with certainty that exposure to this work changed the course of my life.
I hope, in exposing my own students to experimental work, I will have some small effect on their perception of the possibilities of performance. Two summers ago, teaching an Introduction to Theatre course, I took my students to one of these weird little theatre spaces, the now defunct Collapsable Hole (sic) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to see a weird little performance called Space//Space by the critically-acclaimed experimental company Banana Bag & Bodice. It was a bit of a risk; in the intro course, many students have never attended live theatre, let alone experimental performance in an off-off-off-Broadway venue. But we had spent the semester defining theatre beyond conventional playtexts, we had discussed devised work, read Godot, and studied non-Western performance traditions. I felt they were prepared for the performance. Company members Jason Craig and Jessica Jelliffe generously agreed to stay afterwards to speak about their process and answer any student questions.
Some students hated the performance. Some loved it. But they all met the challenge of its weirdness. I had them write reviews of the production, and I was so impressed with their writing, I asked their permission to quote their work in the analysis of the assignment I knew I would someday write. The following are some excerpts from their critiques, all of which demonstrate engaged critical thinking.
Even as a student expresses the ways in which the performance falls short, she still engages critically with it and supports her assertions about its weaknesses:
Sitting through the performance I was puzzled as to what was going on and what was the purpose. Simplistic and often single-worded dialogue left me waiting for that point in which things would make sense. I learned that it wasn’t meant to make sense. . . . Portraying the human mind as it deals with isolation, loneliness, and the downward spin to insanity is hard to achieve. The performance by the actors, I felt, lacked genuineness and therefore evoked feelings of confusion rather than acknowledgement and empathy. There was not enough information to bring the performance together as a whole due to the scattered, simplistic dialogue and limited actions of the performers.
One student, a former professional dancer who felt the performance “penetrated her subconscious,” provides a nuanced reading of Lumus’s transformation from male to female during the course of the play:
By the performance’s conclusion, Jelliffe’s transformation was complete: her pale skin, long hair, and naked, pregnant body, created an angelic, Madonna impression. She finally grew into her namesake, Lumus, similar to luminescence. In physics, luminescence is a form of cold body radiation, which contrasts with incandescence, light emitted as a result of heat. Although Lumus was now physically radiant, she had also undergone a cool emotional transformation. From her initial warm relationship with, and naïve dependence on Penryn (Craig), she evolved into her own entity: standing up to him, questioning him, threatening him, berating him, destroying his life’s work, and ultimately, holding his hand to her pregnant stomach, she cradled him as he died. Her final words, “I have no husband, okay,” completed this transition, and yet, spoken with a note of sadness, they conveyed a hint of regret. Neither completely good nor completely evil, Jelliffe succeeded in portraying the complexity of the human condition . . . Space//Space is a tragicomedy; it portrays man’s limitations and failures, with moments of comedy interspersed. In true Beckettian fashion, it puts its audience through the experience of the characters. We live their waiting and sleeping, we feel their desperation, and we observe their inner struggles, finding ourselves amused by repetitious dialogue, and humbled by the futility of life.
Another, a psychology major, who changed her minor to theatre after taking my class, offers a beautiful analysis of a musical moment in the show:
. . . the performers used melody and rhythm to express their emotion. Jessica’s character sang a song about being a “space girl in space” when s/he finally accepted the change from a man to a woman. Her voice singing this song still remains in my mind as a very strong moment. I associate it with the feeling of embracing who we are for whoever we are and living with what we have.
Another reads the performance in a larger socio/political context:
Visual metaphors brilliantly included in the play emphasize the power of control the government, society, religion has upon humans. Depending on perspective the spectator takes, it can be interpreted as control of the market, power of surveillance, restricted liberty, the power of the law. For instance, “emergency sandwiches” that come from mysterious hatch, and blue liquid supply (must be water) available for the characters in “spaceship” (which looks more like a laboratory hamster cage), signify that humans throughout their lives are nothing but test subjects. Human life is represented by the roll of tape that records every step we make, and every word we say. And what we have at the end? Just a broken record . . .
The performance led a pre-med student to reflect on existential questions:
Time and time again, Lumus would ask “Where are we?” and “Why are we here?” and Penrym would respond with some frustration “We are in Space. We are doing our job.” What their job is exactly is left up to interpretation by the spectators themselves: is it to maintain society’s morals and values in space? Is it to test the effect of being in isolation from the rest of humanity? Are they supposed to give in to their natural instincts? Is their job to ponder their existence or simply just to carry out normal every day functions (such as eating and sleeping) without exercising their brain at all? . . . Space//Space brings to our consciousness the idea of how society have and will continue to shape our perspective of our existence. What the characters suffer from while isolated in space is choosing between living deliberately or serving society and it’s never ending expectations of proper conduct by doing their ‘job’ . . . Social norms and roles may appear restrictive but we now depend on them to give our lives superficial meaning by having us go to school, get educated, and create a career. These things keep us busy in the everyday, material world, but once left alone with just our thoughts our human minds seem to be vulnerable to despair and hopelessness. Space//Space showed us how outside of society, Penrym and Lumus were at a lost as to what they should do with themselves, resulting in both of them undergoing great turmoil that we don’t see get resolved by the conclusion of the performance.
My students’ inspired analyses and astute critiques confirm that spectatorship of experimental work encourages deep critical thinking and creative analysis. Their writing shows that weird theatre is not necessarily esoteric, that spectators of all sorts can find meaning in it. In fact, the variety of students’ interpretations of the piece leads me to wonder if—because of the openness of the texts—weird theatre is actually more accessible, in some ways, than realistic work. Regardless, their responses—positive and negative—reaffirm my commitment to weird theatre, and especially to making it available to all audiences of all experience levels.