Wicked funny

Last week, Obehi and I sat down to talk about storytelling, WGD, and the Boston scene. Comedy has a particular connection to WGD: in addition to being an actress and playwright, Obehi is also a comedian, and music director Steve and drummer Ethan are both involved with Improv Boston. Obehi reflected on the comedy scene in Boston:

“You name any comedian right now and they were here at one point. Boston is more like a training ground or an incubator, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I love the fact that the comedy scene in Boston is literally about, “Try out your jokes here.”

We’ve also discussed the style of local comedian Mike Birbiglia, a favorite of both Obehi and Connectivity Managar Jessie. Birbiglia is a Massachusetts native who honed his craft in Boston before rising to fame. His long-form, rambling storytelling style is similar to the style of WGD, where the stories  often meander to an unexpectedly tragic conclusion or promise a punchline that never comes as the story turns bittersweet. With his awkward delivery and self-conscious demeanor, Birbiglia could fit right as the singer in WGD.

 

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Ordinary Dance

The production team had a fruitful conversation the other day about the possibilities for the play’s final movement section. We explored terminology, as well as atmosphere, emotion, and the qualities this section wanted to emphasize. One of the most interesting threads had to do with the nature of the movement itself — there isn’t anything traditionally dancerly or polished about it. There’s an awkwardness, an ordinariness at its heart.

The conversation put me in mind of Yvonne Rainer’s seminal work from the beginnings of postmodern / avant-garde dance: Trio A. Choreographed in 1966, this piece still has the power to unsettle viewers as it argues for the value of everyday motions and gestures within a dance event. Regarding a different, later project, Rainer famously penned her No Manifesto, which I think sheds some light on her aesthetic generally:

No to spectacle.
No to virtuosity.
No to transformations and magic and make-believe.
No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image.
No to the heroic.
No to the anti-heroic.
No to trash imagery.
No to involvement of performer or spectator.
No to style.
No to camp.
No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer.
No to eccentricity.
No to moving or being moved.

In essence, Rainer treats dance as (in her words) a “neutral object” — a collection of (often rigorous) motions that does not by its nature inherently carry meaning or emotion. Rather, it becomes a container for the event, the audience, and the experience in that moment.

Though the movements in Trio A can seem random, they are specific, codified, and repeatable. The piece can be performed forwards or backwards. To music or to silence. The experience of the viewer is one in which our own frame of mind — our concerns and preoccupations, our expectations and assumptions — becomes the material from which we make meaning.

 

A more modern take on ordinariness in dance can be seen in Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Poetics: a Ballet Brut (they’re not from Oklahoma). Following in the footsteps of artists like Rainer, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and other members of the New York avant garde, NToO used chance operations to create a physical score for this work. Chance Operations requires that a series of gestural, textual, spacial, or audio vocabularies are designed, then are implemented in random order. So, for example, in Poetics: A Ballet Brut, NToO divided the playing space into a grid pattern, and assigned each square to one side of a die. Similarly, a collection of ordinary physical movements (walking, opening a shopping bag, moving a chair, etc) were assigned to another die. Rolls of the dice determined the order of gestures and locations on the stage, and thus a “script” of choreography was created, memorized, rehearsed, and performed. The fascinating thing about it in performance is that as audience members we search for patterns, narrative, and meaning. We make it up when none is embedded. Here’s a sample of Poetics: a Ballet Brut:

Neither Rainer nor the members of Nature Theatre of Oklahoma “look like” dancers, as we’ve come to understand that ideal. They look like average people. They move like average people. And yet, this is dance. It’s very ordinariness is the essence of its message.

In the case of We’re Gonna Die, the non-specialness of the movement section pulls on some of these same ideas, rooting us in the ordinary, heartbreaking, awkward, funny, sweet, strange, totality of it, and preparing us for the moment when we all sing together, cheerfully, about the inevitability of our own demise.

 

Destroying the Audience

The mission of Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company — which originally created and produced WE’RE GONNA DIE — is “to produce the work of Young Jean Lee,” and the mission of the work of Young Jean Lee is to destroy the audience.

YJL 3

Young Jean Lee in WE’RE GONNA DIE

Described as “the most adventurous downtown [New York] playwright,” Lee roots her playwriting process in fear, starting with the story she thinks she is least allowed to tell or the one that scares her the most. She says:

“When starting a play, I ask myself, ‘What’s the last show in the world I would ever want to make?’ Then I force myself to make it. I do this because going out of my comfort zone compels me to challenge my assumptions and find value in unexpected places. Our goal is to find ways to get past our audience’s defenses against uncomfortable subjects and open people up to confronting difficult questions by keeping them disoriented and laughing. My work is about struggling to achieve something in the face of failure, incompetence and not-knowing. The discomfort and discovery involved in watching this struggle reflects the truth of my experience.”

Because of this fluid aesthetic, a Young Jean Lee play looks different once piece to the next. She’s tackled the Korean-American experience in SONGS OF THE DRAGONS FLYING TO HEAVEN (Lee herself is Korean-American); she’s written King Lear totally out of King Lear in LEAR; explored black identity politics in THE SHIPMENT by merging vignettes that are uncomfortably close to a minstrel show into an absurd drawing room comedy; turned the trappings of female submissiveness into empowerment by stripping performers of clothes (and dialogue) via dance in an UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW; and went inside the pysches of straight white men in a play appropriately titled STRAIGHT WHITE MEN.

Lee created WE’RE GONNA DIE, a theatrical memento mori wrapped in self-conscious cabaret and pop music, to overturn the universal human desire to be special. Her goal was to create a piece that any ordinary person could perform, and to back up her point, Lee herself took the stage in the original production. The idea of WGD is not to affirm the talent and special performance abilities of a singular star but to create a connection among the audience by creating space for honesty and vulnerability. The stories in WGD could happen to anyone. Assuming we’re special protects us from tragedy — or so we think. Lee turns this assumption on its head.

Not being special is both a comfort and, in the world of WGD, a death sentence. Yet everybody dies, and this fact connects us to every other human being on the planet. So we truly aren’t alone.