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Cool Medium: Anne Bogart and the Choreography of Fear

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in Theater, Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 55-59.

The Adding Machine

The Adding Machine

In Anne Bogart—Viewpoints, a monograph published on the occasion of her recent “mid-career celebration” at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Bogart writes, “We are born in terror and trembling.” As humans learn to suppress those feelings, “The artist’s responsibility is to bring the potential, the mystery and terror, the trembling, back.” The ATL festival this past January provided an opportunity for critics, theater students, teachers, and local residents to see how Bogart fulfills this responsibility.

Three of her recent pieces were performed: Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine and two “Theater Essays”—The Medium, adapted from the works of Marshall McLuhan, and Small Lives/Big Dreams, adapted from the plays of Chekhov. Between performances, ATL presented lectures, question-and-answer sessions, demonstrations, and workshops. Collaborators such as Paula Vogel and Robert Woodruff and critics such as Mel Gussow and Porter Anderson explained, and sometimes defended, the work to an audience that had a substantial number of Louisville residents. There was an abundance of talk. In a sense, the exploration of terror continued outside the performances; the ATL showed more than a little fear that its audience wouldn’t accept an unconventional director—one who doesn’t think audiences should come away from a performance feeling as though they “got it”—as part of a festival that in prior years celebrated the more familiar work of Molière, Pirandello, and the French Romantics. During the ten-day run of Small Lives, ATL had post-play discussions after every performance, some of which ran longer than the piece itself.

For her part, Bogart resurrects fear not only through the texts she chooses, but in a distinct method of movement training and rehearsal, called the Viewpoints, which are part of Bogart’s attempt “to undefine, to present the moment, the word, the gesture as new and full of uncontrolled potential.” In this pursuit, she operates in marked contrast to avant-garde directors such as Robert Wilson or Richard Foreman by demanding a tremendous amount of creative input from her actors and by shunning notions of the director as auteur and of the actor as puppet. Most important, the Viewpoints help create anxiety in an audience by unsettling the way it watches theatrical movement. Bogart explores terror, but lyrically; the fear in her work can be an ecstatic dance, balancing vulnerability with a frenetic excitement that verges on, and sometimes spills over into, fear’s inverse—hope.

The sessions the festival devoted to the Viewpoints training were, on occasion, indistinguishable from performance. When Bogart’s company demonstrated the Viewpoints, they improvised movements to various pieces of music and ambient sounds for about 20 minutes with such assurance and grace that they could’ve passed the whole thing off as a choreographed work. It was the equivalent of watching Jackson Pollock paint—motion relying on instinct, not always coming out the way one would plan it, but integrating “errors” into the energy of the piece.

The Viewpoints constitute a list of factors that actors must learn to address instinctively as they create moving pictures on stage. Four of them are “Viewpoints of Time”: tempo, duration, kinesthetic response, and repetition. The remaining five—shape, gesture, architecture, spatial relationship, and topography—are “Viewpoints of Space.” They have areas of overlap, and most of the Viewpoints are, in a glib sense, self-explanatory: In the festival’s monograph, collaborator Tina Landau describes repetition as the “repeating of something on stage,” either a movement “within your own body” or the movement of something “outside your own body.” Shape refers to the “contour or outline the body (or bodies) make in space.” The architectural Viewpoint requires the actor “to be in dialogue” with the physical environment and to create “spatial metaphors”—”up against a wall” or “on the threshold.”

The festival was valuable because, among other reasons, it’s necessary to see the Viewpoints in action to appreciate them. The written descriptions can sound like recipes for literalist choreography, clichéd movement, or pretentious rephrasings of concerns that would be addressed by any competent actor or director using any method of performance. Bogart and the Viewpoints stress the importance of working as an ensemble—a fine, if overworn idea. But Bogart’s implementation of the ensemble ethos is different. The actors do more than merely support one another, they coalesce with the precision of a machine that moves with precarious speed. At its best, the tightness of eth ensemble amplifies the terror of a script, as the actors themselves have a unified, quivering endurance, like Rilke’s image of the arrow that “endures the bowstring’s tension, so that gathered in the snap of release it can be more than itself.” Each performer’s tautness stems not from playing a Stanislavskian action, but from anticipating the need to release and be greater than she is—by interacting with the architecture, with the music, with the text, with the patterns that another actor just made on the floor.

At a journalists’ roundtable on the last day of the festival, Bogart recalled one of the first criticisms she received in the New York press, which “haunts me ot this day.” In The Village Voice, Arthur Sainer described Bogart’s work as having “a visual intensity without the inner necessity.” “I thought he put his finger on it,” Bogart said, “and I think about it all the time.” Finding an inner necessity for the performers compromises the abstraction of her work, which is also tempered by Bogart’s predilection for using stereotypical gestures grounded in specific cultural contexts. “I’m interested in embracing stereotype,” she said, “not in inventing new shapes, but in waking up the ones that exist by turning them slightly.”

Making the familiar strange is hardly new, and Bogart is the first to insist that none of her ideas is original. She claims that the Viewpoints come from the work of a dance teacher at NYU named Mary Overlie, and that most of her thoughts about composing for the theater were learned from Aileen Passloff, who taught a course at Bard when Bogart was an undergraduate. And yet, while one can identify familiar cards, the hand Bogart deals is a fresh combination. One can locate the postmodern in her work—in the “sampling” by which she created The Medium and Small Lives, each an “original” work relying on found materials, and in her antipathy for art that directs its audience towards a single interpretation or master narrative. But she does not deconstruct a text so much as reconstruct it, regardless of whether she is staging someone else’s play or assembling samples to form one of her own “Theater Essays.”

Rice’s Adding Machine was not absent from Bogart’s staging; there were no disorientation or distraction tactics à la the Wooster Group. But Bogart’s fundamental respect for Rice’s play—or for Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime, which she directed at the A.R.T. in 1990—meant that the end result was not altogether surprising. Judging from descriptions, there have been instances where Bogart’s re-staging of an established text did show off a more drastic and exciting reinterpretation. Her 1984 production of South Pacific, for example, set the action in a post-trauma clinic for veterans who reenacted the play as a form of therapy. The Medium and Small Lives refrain from undermining their source material, but both have a freshness, a specificity urgent to our time, that neither The Adding Machine nor Once in  a Lifetime attained.

The Medium

The Medium

Bogart figures that 60 percent of The Medium is taken from McLuhan’s essays; the rest comes from Jean Baudrillard, AT&T ads, and magazines such as Mondo 2000 or Wired. And yet it all feels like McLuhan, even though vocabulary such as “internet” and “virtual reality” entered the language long after McLuhan’s death in 1980. This lends an air of prophecy to McLuhan’s works, but more important is the sense of being in a society swept away by huge, scarcely controllable and barely comprehensible forces. The character presenting McLuhan insists there is no inevitability—”I want to study change in order to gain power over it,” he says. A nameless character cites a well-known experiment that found that if you put a frog in water at room temperature and heat it to a boil, the frog won’t have the sense to leap out.  The character then says, “Is it just me or is it getting warm in here… Moral: WAKE UP!!!” But one of the many terrifying things about hte piece is the way change is portrayed as utterly overwhelming.

The Medium‘s action takes place in McLuhan’s mind as he suffers a stroke. We hear McLuhanesque ideas spouted repeatedly, frantically—”You don’t like those ideas? I’ve got others!”—via a variety of stereotypical entertainment genres. Talk shows, televangelists, westerns, the evening news: a series of often humorous, but always haunting icons from the “hot” medium McLuhan deplored parade across the stage, leaving the professor, who had been our loquacious guide, finally speechless, gagging on his tongue.

In a section of Understanding Media not cited by The Medium, McLuhan writes,

The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to  encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.

The passage underlines why McLuhan is an ideal choice for Bogart to explore. Both have a primary interest in configuration. McLuhan believed that configurations and pattern recognition were the keys to organizing knowledge in an electronic age. Similarly, the figure into Bogart’s Viewpoints—the interest in tempo and duration, kinesthetic response, and repetition patterns applies to the organization of a large number of rapidly moving variables that could potentially yield to the “information overload” referred to by McLuhan. By welcoming unconventional approaches to finding patterns, Bogart never lets the stage’s variables appear chaotic. Compare this to the Wooster Group, which integrates the electronic media into its performances, but usually does so in a way that creates a sense of overload and fragmentation, as though they were caught in the friction of moving from one age to another. Bogart shuns the use of video but integrates the electronic age’s patterning of perception—at least as McLuhan might have envisioned it. The Medium fears electronic media but embraces their “message,” in McLuhan’s sense of the word, while the Wooster Group embraces the electronic media but does not explore the implicit ways in which they configure information.

Small Lives, Bogart’s most recent work, is another instance of fragmentation followed by reconstruction. Five actors each speak lines from a different one of Chekhov’s five major dramas. Chekhov’s conventional notion of character has been torn down; in its place arises the sense that works of art themselves have character. The plays are personified as victims of a trauma, suffering from varying degrees of aphasia and amnesia. The stage directions suggest they survived an earthquake, but in performance the devastation is more ambiguous—perhaps they survived an air raid or war, perhaps a riot of some kind. Bogart fills the stage with disparate images of turmoil that avoid any clear connotation: Wounded people are aided off stage, while a man drags by the feet a small resisting woman, whose head he proceeds to pound repeatedly into the floor.

After the introductory choreography, the character representing The Seagull comes out with his head bandaged, carrying an empty bird cage and a cane. The bandage immediately evokes not only Treplev, but a casualty of some greater cataclysm. The Cherry Orchard character, whose graceful Victorian dress is countered by the rings under her eyes and an overall sense of imminent collapse, carries a basket of banged-up china. The Three Sisters is embodied by a male actor in a green skirt, who nevertheless captures the martial spirit of the original play. As portrayed by Will Bond, The Three Sisters is an unshaven man, alternately numb and anxious, a veteran whose sunken brown eyes stare out into space; his expression reminiscent of a Bill Mauldin “dogface.” On his back he carries a trunk—a disturbing, pathetic image of drift—and as he enters and exits he pounds his feet rhythmically while he walks, which again evokes a martial air, or slaps a stick against the floor.

Small Lives is difficult. I missed it completely when I saw it a Louisville, getting bogged down, for much of the show, in trying to recall the original contexts of the quoted lines. Upon second viewing at P.S. 122, numerous layers emerged. On one level, Small Lives functions as commentary on the plays themselves. At the end of the performance, each personified play resolves at last to move forward or back; Ivanov alone moves backward, choosing death as that play’s hero does. The Seagull, labeled by Chekhov a comedy, is seen as a more affirmative play in spite of Treplev’s suicide, and the emblem of the work leads the other play/characters forward into new life.

Personifying Chekhov’s dramas not only works as an experiment in exploring the “character” of each play, but begins to paint an interior landscape of the playwright. What were the cataclysms, sociopolitical or personal, that influenced Chekhov’s creations? And then: How have our own cataclysms led to these re-creations? Structurally, the piece has four movements, as the plays had four acts. The use of the word “movements” in the script for Small Lives is a deliberate evocation of musical structure; my far-more musically literate friend who accompanied me to P.S. 122 spent much time after the show trying to explain to me its fugue-like characteristics.

The piece also leads back to Sainer’s comment about visual intensity without inner necessity. Kelly Maurer, the actress playing The Cherry Orchard, and Will Bond bot distinguished themselves from the rest of the ensemble by filling their abstract gestures and fragmented speech with a rich and connected inner life, a true compulsion to say and do each word and movement. Both have a vulnerability, in the conventional sense of psychological realism, that did not merely aid their Viewpoints work—it seemed prerequisite, or at least post-requisite, to the movement. The other performers were more than competent; one of the most disturbing and memorable moments of the piece happens when Karenjune Sánchez, as Uncle Vanya, puts a gun in her mouth, pulls the trigger, and, heartbroken, says “missed.” On occasion, though, the other actors show that it is possible to “indicate” even when doing performance that tends to abstraction. The consistency with which the actors fuse the more objective principles of shape with a subjective sense of emotional need is what ultimately allows the ideas of The Medium and Small Lives to come across with vigor.

Read the interview with Anne Bogart that appeared with the above essay in Theater.

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