Congratulations on another year older and another year closer to 120. But on this occasion it is important to remember where you came from. And where you came from is a direct descent from me, my choices, and my outlook. Throw your memory back to the Fall of 2015, when you took Devising with Michael Rohd and worked on The Terror of Another Ordinary Day with Paul Edwards.
This quarter you felt the need to come up against the idea of authorial control and question your place as a generative artist. In the very first reading of Heddon and Milling and in class with Michael Rohd, you found an emphasis in hierarchy that rubbed you in the wrong way. In the readings of Arnold Aronson, who wrote that directors could supersede playwrights as the founts of creation, I found that there was a hierarchy that troubled me. Questions of power, authority, and leadership, which had already been bubbling in my relationship with student theatre at NU came to a head. And what I found is that humility and patience are necessary. I watched Caitlin and Lee, my directors, as a cub watches lionesses. I watched Caitlin and Lee struggle with which direction to lead us, with how to best boil down what we created, and with how they could secede control of the final performance. While sometimes I chafed to be told what to do, I also witnessed the opposite issue in the room with Paul Edwards. I have come to understand that leadership is a reciprocal relationship with the led. Remember Andrew (28) that a leader is not just someone who is appointed to be one, but someone who invests in the led to give an experience both to the creative generators/performers and, eventually the audience. Remember the idea of the invigilator, that we as directors are leading experiences.
While the discovery of Ranciere’s The Emancipated Spectator predated the Fall 2015, the lessons really started to settle in in this quarter. In the second week of class, I came across a quote from Kali Quinn. “At the beginning we are standing in the middle of a dark, wide-open field of unknowns. Instead of going running away screaming into the dark night, we must turn on lanterns of known and little by little we start accumulating questions and new findings around them”. This seemed like it came right out of Ranciere’s Emancipated Spectator or The Ignorant Schoolmaster. In my understanding of his argument, the students (or audience member or cast member or creative generator) learns by going out into the forest of signs, returning and confirming with other people who have gone out into the forest, and little by little building a map of where things are, just like Kali Quinn, her lanterns, and the dark open field. This model stands against the idea that there is a right and straight road of knowledge that can be taught by rote.
This was an important revelation for me as an artist and a consumer of art, because it changed/challenged my understanding of who has the power and authority within a work of art. This quarter I vacillated between thinking the audience and then that the artist has the power. And in the end, I think I’ve settled somewhere in between. The audience has the power of interpretation. The meaning of a piece is settled in the mind of the audience member. The intention of the artist is only superfluously important and only when it is made known to the audience. I came across the works of Umberto Eco this quarter and found his theories of Open Work to be incredibly on point. The audience has the power because they are the ones exploring and looking for meaning. However, this doesn’t let the performer off the hook. In fact, not having the interpretive power means that the artist has more responsibility. If we take a moment to think of ourselves as the Ignorant Schoolmasters, then we realize that we have a responsibility of watching over the audience as they explore the piece. The real challenge and obligation on the part of the performer is not to interpret the work for an audience member, but rather make the environment of the performance conducive for exploration. I asked myself this quarter why it was important to make the audience feel comfortable (and by extension why was it important to explain the rules) and the conclusion I came to was that the greatest challenge to artistic exploration was not an audience member coming to the wrong conclusion, but rather the audience member not coming to a conclusion at all because they had disengaged from the work. Brecht’s theory of alienation leading to critical thinking only works if the audience stays engaged. Remember Andrew (28) that as an artist, your job is to open up the field, give the audience the tools that they’ll need, and create a site for reflection and discussion so that interpretations can be found.
This quarter was also the quarter when you explored the theoretical and experiential nature of immersive theatre. Immersive theatre questions the 18th and 19th century assumptions of audience/performer interactions. What does it mean for performance when the performers don’t conform to the expectations of the audience that they will be able to sit in silence and watch from the dark? Jeff Mosser put it best when he wrote, “ask yourself: ‘can this story be told on stage?’ If the answer is yes, what are you hoping to accomplish by putting it elsewhere?” Mosser seems to be responding to is the plethora of new performances that play with new audience/ performer interactions without understanding why they’re doing it at a fundamental level. The challenge of new work in the immersive style is that they run the risk of alienating audiences. Jones describes this alienation as “SSA (Site Specific Angst), where the audience has no idea what is going on or even how to follow the action. I think that the remedy for SSA is the clear and intentional formation of rules of the space. And that’s why Mosser’s expression of warning is so important. Immersive theatre does not mean less work for the artist, but rather more work, both in practical and imaginative terms. A key example of this necessary work was the significance of the coins in Lee and Jacob’s Underworld piece. When we started working on this piece, we had this idea that the audience would (or wouldn’t) give their coins to the undeserving sinners waiting in the Underworld. We had a very specific image of how the piece would go down. But when Michael came to watch, he criticized the lack of audience investment in the coins. This was something that we hadn’t even considered. Thus we spent a lot of time finessing how the audience interacts with the coins and what emotional investment we were trying to invoke. In good, thoughtful, and intentional immersive theatre, every choice has this level of thought.
Also this quarter you questioned the value of failure and fear of failure. This was your second to last quarter at NU and you faced the prospect of failure in your future. But this is also the quarter where I learned to value failure as part of the journey. The opposite of success isn’t failure, but rather giving up. To fail is to find one way that doesn’t work for you, a single dead end in a maze. But life is not a videogame; if you come up against a dead end, you have learned something. You have learned one more way not to go. Remember the analogy of Montanaro and the blue paint and the advice of Kerrigan to just begin. Start a path, don’t judge it; explore it. If there is no failure but giving up, then think of what can be learned by just doing. Remember that Michael Rohd said, “I had it wrong”. With time, the context will have washed away, but the idea stands resolute. Admitting that something is wrong doesn’t make you bad or a failure. If you admit that you were wrong about something, that one path didn’t work out for you, then you are freed to explore the next one. Remember that.
This quarter, you also started your education of working with writers and directors in a collaborative processes. I found that working with writers who are ingrained in the processes much more satisfying that working with writers who at a remove from the process. For future reference, I hope that you’ll have continued working with Jacob because he really was a great artist and a great collaborator. Also you learned that directors who make the experience of creation as important as the final product to be more enjoyable to work with that those who solely focused on the end result. I hope that you’ll be the sort of director who makes the choice to be process oriented rather than product.
I hope that by the time I reach your age, Andrew (28), that I will have learned to better trust my instincts and my artistic impulses. I hope that I will have continued to synthesize information and started to generate original ideas of my own. And I hope that you look back on the journey that brought us together as one of exploration and growth.