by Collin McConnell · January 17, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #36: Collin McConnell looks at #aspellforfainting "It starts with..."
...It starts with an intriguing press release. It starts with a theater's closed door, the audience gathering in anticipation. It starts with a sparse playbill: nothing to hint at what might be to come, nothing to help digest whatever it is we might witness. It starts with a 'doctor' doling out free 'medicine'.
It starts with a dark room. A runway, and a line of chairs on either side. A woman standing before us, a large red hat shrouding her face. A man in a metallic-looking hoodie coming to tell us, "sit in the front, you'll see better."
And it starts with a note:
Audience members are encouraged to use their mobile phones (please turn ringer and flash OFF) to record photos, videos, or sounds and Tweet them using the hashtag #aspellforfainting.
The lights dim, and the woman doffs her hat, crawls on the floor, and on the back wall scrawls in chalk:
A friendly reminder to, again, live-Tweet the show.
What follows is difficult to describe. She - Gillian Chadsey - begins talking until she's struck, paralyzed, faints. The music begins, and doesn't stop (save for one brief interjection). The stage turns into a color visualizer, often intricately following her every move. Props start pouring onto the stage - some used, some not. Chadsey strips down into spandex shorts and a corset. Chadsey speaks, occasionally with a southern drawl, references to Hamlet, or some self reflection, but we're lucky if we hear her. Chadsey moves (with incredible commitment and violent grace), but we're lucky if we see more than her back (I didn't need to just sit in the front row - I needed to sit on the other side of the runway). And then it ends. In short:
I have no idea what I saw.
That being said, let's go back. It started with an intriguing press release:
Using Charcot’s Tuesday night lectures at the Salpêtrière and his instigation of hysterical performance as a leaping-off point, WaxFactory traces the lines of fainting, hallucination, delusion, and love letters that run through the source material. #aspellforfainting vividly celebrates the live, raw neurosis of being a performer: the crippling of an artistic block, unforeseen circumstances, nightmares, getting out of one’s own way... and what happens when one confronts the reality of what was created, exposed, capsized, deconstructed, demolished, and uprooted.
This was exciting. This got me in the theater. And all of this might be true of the show. The problem is, I didn't see it. "Wait, stop, that's not in the script. That's not in the script."
Instead, I watched a beautifully dizzying array of lights and images (created by Shige Moriya / LEIMAY) inlaid with a shattering amount of sound (thanks to fantastic mixing by Ivan Talijancic), while Gillian Chadsey moved - flailed, pulsed, throbbed - and spoke. I had no context.
Context is interesting, and I have some mixed feelings regarding what I should and should not know before seeing any sort of art. Generally, as a spectator, I want almost nothing. I want whatever it takes to get me in that door (in this case, the colorfully-worded press release), and then I want to let go, allowing the artists to bring me on their journey. I trust them, just as I expect them to trust me. Of course, I am a rather curious person, and so I want as much information as I can gather, too. But this is dangerous - it gives me more (or rather, different) expectations for the artists to fulfill who cannot possibly know what it is I expect from them. What I do varies from show to show, and in this case, I went with only what they gave me: I expected a celebration of the "raw neurosis of being a performer," I expected nightmares, hallucinations, confrontation.
I also went in knowing I knew nothing about Jean-Martin Charcot - France's first professor of neurology - and his Tuesday night lectures - which were based on his work with lower-class female patients' hysteria at the Salpêtrière (for more information on this wildly fascinating character, read Jonathan Marshall's Nervous Dramaturgy: Pain, Performance and Excess in the Work of Dr Jean-Martin Charcot, 1862-1893 here: http://www.doubledialogues.com/archive/issue_four/marshall.htm). But this was a "leaping-off point," and so, again, I expected the performance to take me on a journey that did what it needed to in order to share something with me.
But there were no nightmares. The visualizations were 'hallucinatory', but there were no hallucinations. And whatever confrontation there may have been was lost among the noise and the clutter of random props on the stage.
Maybe I needed that context. Maybe I needed more in a note than an encouragement to promote their show by live Tweeting it. "Maybe this never happened."
But it did.
The individual elements of the show - the artists in their element - are excellent. It is very clear the show is built with precision, and the commitment on Chadsey's part is impressive. It is simply that they are stuck in a world without context.
Context here does not mean story. Squonk Opera (http://www.squonkopera.org/) with their show Mayhem and Majesty invited me along with them to 'visualize music', and not to search for a story - this was wildly engaging, as through all of their different approaches to visualizing music, I slowly found little bits of a story for me to chew on - where I found them, I relished them, and where I did not, I allowed the music and visual stimulus to wash over me, evoking all sorts of different thoughts and feelings. Bread & Puppet Theater (http://breadandpuppet.org/) in their Shatterer of Worlds asked me to witness a series of movements, small theatrical vignettes, and large-scale puppet processions with the thoughts of "naturalization" and "citizenship" rolling around in my brain - allowing for me to see a rich tapestry describing the difficulty of immigrating and living a simple life (http://nytheaternow.com/2013/11/13/the-shatterer-of-worlds/).
But here, nothing stimulated. Nothing surprised. Nothing evoked. The first prop laid out on the stage was a skull. I was excited, but nothing ever happened with it until, at the end, it was swept away with the hundreds of other props. When the play was filled sexual language and lap dances, a large, black rope was laid on the stage. I was curious, but nothing ever happened with it until, at the end, it was swept away with the hundreds of other props. At one point, Chadsey put on a hot pink wig, but it fell off, and it laid there on the ground until, at the end, it was swept away with the hundreds of other props.
The play ended, and Gillian Chadsey gratefully acknowledged all of us in the house. And then, in a beautiful turn, made sure to encourage us to see all the other amazing theater happening in the city this week. I certainly will see what I can, and this show will simply be swept away with the hundreds of other plays...
A Note on Tweeting, Hashtags, and Using Your Audience:
I think live-tweeting a show is great. I have seen it fully integrated in amazing ways - having a live feed for the whole audience to follow what's being said, characters integrating the tweets into the play, characters live-tweeting from off-stage, etc. Twitter is also a great way to get people talking about the work they saw, especially if they're given the tool - the hashtag - to direct all the conversations regarding the work into one place. This is community-building in the theater like we have never seen it before.
"A Spell for Fainting" is an intriguing title. #aspellforfainting is even more so, forcing me to acknowledge the modern age and the ways we connect, pondering just how this piece of theater may grapple with it. But this piece of theater has (as far as I can tell) nothing to do with technology and connection through our contemporary 'social networking'. The title, then, is irrelevant. This does not matter, however, because the title is useful, doubling as the marketing tag. The note in the playbill is more than an invitation, it is a request (made even more jarring by the fact that it is the only note regarding the show in the playbill, when other information would certainly better serve the audience's experience). And the scrawling of #aspellforfainting on the back wall was as disconnecting as seeing an Apple or Coke product in a movie - it has nothing to do with the action on the stage or the screen, taking me out of the experience.
I think there is a line between encouraging your audience to engage and using them. This line is drawn by being conscious of the artistic choices a production makes. Give an audience something to tweet @. Give an audience a hashtag. But don't plead for your audience to do your marketing for you.