Stage Craft

What is an artist's play and how does it differ from performance art?

Chinese translation: PDF iconstagecraft.pdf

Matthew McLean
Matthew McLean is a writer and editor based in London, UK.

To set the scene: I type an email to a frieze editor, pitching a review and posing a question, ‘Artists’ plays: the new artists’ novels?’ 

I am only half-joking. To name a few recent endeavours: March 2015 saw the debut of Ulla von Brandenberg’s first play, Sink Down Mountain, Rise Up Valley, at the Kaaitheater Perfomatik festival in Brussels (it was re-staged at The Common Guild, Glasgow, this January); in May, Edward Thomasson’s musical Escape Routes (2015) was performed at the Indian YMCA in London; in June, the London/Berlin-based Villa Design Group staged A Summer’s Rest (Je T’aime Mont Blanc) (2015) in Basel; in July, the mixed reception given to Douglas Gordon’s first play, Neck of the Woods (starring Charlotte Rampling), at the Manchester International Festival, led to some alarming headlines. (‘Artist Douglas Gordon faces repair bill after axe attack on Manchester theatre.’) Come September, in the space of two weeks, London witnessed the premiere of Jesse Darling’s reinterpretation of Sophocles’s Antigone (c.441 BCE) at the Serpentine Galleries (NTGNE, 2015) and Paulina Olowska’s The Mother: An Unsavoury Play in Two Acts and an Epilogue, based on a 1924 Polish dramatic work and performed at Tate Modern. The year was rounded off with the premiere of Erika Vogt’s Artists Theater Program (2015) for Performa 15 in New York and, in December, the opening of an exhibition by Rose English – whose performance practice has continually mined the vernaculars of the theatre, the music hall and even the circus – at London’s Camden Arts Centre.

Edward Thomasson, Escape Routes, 2015, left to right: Zoe Hunter, Carole Street and Patrick Seymour; performance documentation, Indian YMCA, London. Courtesy the artist and Southard Reid, London; photograph: Lewis Ronald

Edward Thomasson, Escape Routes, 2015, left to right: Zoe Hunter, Carole Street and Patrick Seymour; performance documentation, Indian YMCA, London. Courtesy the artist and Southard Reid, London; photograph: Lewis Ronald

Edward Thomasson, Escape Routes, 2015, left to right: Zoe Hunter, Carole Street and Patrick Seymour; performance documentation, Indian YMCA, London. Courtesy the artist and Southard Reid, London; photograph: Lewis Ronald

Of course, for every artist making a play there are many thousands who are not; but, sometimes, when you start looking for trends, they start to appear. The week I sent that email to frieze, the Whitney Museum announced a week’s run of plays by the New Theater, utilizing both the new Renzo Piano-designed building’s gallery spaces and its 170-seat theatre. A Berlin-based enterprise helmed by Americans Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff, for the last two years the New Theater has operated in an empty shop, producing lo-fi, low-key, intimate plays, regularly eschewing documentation. In 2014, frieze d/e editor Pablo Larios wrote an article, titled ‘Network Fatigue’, which shed light on this raft of theatrical ventures: particularly illuminating is his des-cription of Henkel and Pitegoff’s ‘decision to ask artists and writers – none of whom has a background in theatre – to construct and act in plays’ as ‘a refreshing mode of ego-subversion’. 

Part of this ‘ego-subversion’, to my mind, is the potential for an unlearning of skills or a challenge to develop fresh ones – like attempting dry-stone walling, or throat singing, but in a form sufficiently porous and accepting to reward the newcomer as well as the expert. As one character in Olowska’s The Mother … declares: ‘It means more to be a dilettante sometimes – sometimes, I say – than to be a specialist.’ Indeed, Susan Sontag argued in ‘Theatre and Film’ (1969) that theatre, unlike cinema, ‘allows only the loosest approximation to the sort of formal concern and to this degree of aesthetic responsibility on the part of the director.’ The quote points to the other part of ‘ego-subversion’: in requiring a cast and company, theatre deflects individual control through the social, inter-subjective nature of devising a performance. It’s the community part, in other words, of what the Whitney calls Henkel and Pitegoff’s ‘ethos of community theatre’. 

With its cosily direct address, West End melodies and intentionally bland set, Thomasson’s Escape Routes seemed to draw on another distinct tradition of community theatre, reminding me of amateur dramatics productions I have seen in rural village halls. Thematically, too, Escape Routes dealt with the social group: taking place in a temporary centre staffed by three nameless volunteers who are working to find a missing, middle-aged man. These characters try to piece together the missing subject’s movements, speculate on his motivations and attempt to establish an account of his life that makes sense. Switching between speaking and singing, each character lapses, at times, into sung interior monologue – about their own hopes or boredom or sex addiction, and how they cope with it. At one climactic point, they all sing over one another – their stories merging and looping into one another. There is a sort of community in aloneness: a singularity, or privacy, even in what is most common. It’s striking that Von Brandenberg’s play and English’s new work, Lost in Music (2015), also make use of ensemble singing, as does Janice Kerbel’s Turner-nominated DOUG (2014), whose nine vocal performers hark back to the classical Attic chorus in providing sung narration of the protagonist’s multiple misfortunes.

Plays answer the artist's desire to simply speak, to make a point: 'A play lets you say everything.'

The first lines of Escape Routes are: ‘We all run away/we plan escape routes every day/Some take minutes, and some take days/We all have our ways.’ It’s language so direct, simple, intimate and unassuming that it strikes the ear as almost trite, for all its truth. And this, perhaps, suggests another source of the appeal of plays to artists – that they answer the desire not to explore, question, blur, tease, engage, activate or reflect upon, but simply to speak, make a point. ‘A play lets you say everything,’ remarks a London artist when I mention that I’m writing this piece. The course of this literary turn might, consequently, be traced back further: if artists’ plays are the new artists’ novels, aren’t artists’ novels themselves the new artists’ poetry? Back in 2011, in frieze issue 139, Dieter Roelestraete argued that ‘never before, it seems, have words come more easily to art’. 

Paulina Olowska, The Mother: An Unsavoury Play in Two Acts and an Epilogue (based on the aponymous play by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, 1924), 2015, performance documentation at Tate Modern, London. Courtesy the artist; photograph: Andrew Dunklry/Tate Pho

Paulina Olowska, The Mother: An Unsavoury Play in Two Acts and an Epilogue (based on the aponymous play by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, 1924), 2015, performance documentation at Tate Modern, London. Courtesy the artist; photograph: Andrew Dunklry/Tate Pho

Paulina Olowska, The Mother: An Unsavoury Play in Two Acts and an Epilogue (based on the aponymous play by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, 1924), 2015, performance documentation at Tate Modern, London. Courtesy the artist; photograph: Andrew Dunklry/Tate Photography

Roelstraete identified the ‘whiff of anachronism and obsolescence that surrounds the art of the book’ as a ‘potent attractor’for visual artists. It’s not irrelevant that the works mentioned here by Darling, Olowska and the Villa Design Group all take historical dramas as their source material. Villa’s A Summer’s Rest was inspired by the 1930s New York collective the Group Theater. Left-leaning advocates of the Stanislavski method, the Group Theater aspired to pure collaboration, without stars and without institutional support, working with Frances Farmer before Hollywood, as well as Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets. It would take a writer with a better command of the work of Odets and the half-hidden histories of the American stage to explicate the links between the Group’s thwarted ideal and the script of A Summer’s Rest – a mélange of expatriate Arabs, textile magnates, lobster dinners and phantom pregnancies. But what is clear is that Villa’s elegant, design-conscious mise en scène – tall, white, Josef Hoffmann-ish stools and bar table surrounded by a field of ribbed Perspex screens – is one way to understand both Roelstraete’s notion of an ‘artistic cult of care’ evolving around literary history, as well as Sontag’s prediction, back in 1969, of an emerging theatre ‘which approaches the condition of painting’ – a phrase that could equally well caption images of Vogt’s play, or Joëlle Tuerlinckx’s «THAT'S IT!» (+ 3 free minutes) (2014), in which the display and re-arrangement of visual material constitutes the main ‘action’. 

Not all recent artists’ plays have shared this tendency towards the tableaux. NTGNE, Darling’s version of Sophocles’s tragedy commissioned for the Serpentine Galleries’ ‘Park Nights’ series, was performed in virtual darkness in a temporary outdoor pavilion (designed by SelgasCano), lit only by the lights of passing cars. In Sophocles’s telling, after Oedipus renounces his throne of Thebes in favour of his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, the brothers take to the sword and kill each other; the new ruler, Creon, honours Eteocles but frames Polynices as an usurper, decreeing that he shall not be honoured with burial rites on pain of death. Their orphaned sister, Antigone, feels obliged to honour Polynices, in defiance of the law and her own survival.

Rooted less in the mutually irresolvable political and ethical demands of Antigone’s position, Darling’s interpretation – performed on 11 September, 14 years after the terrorist attacks in New York – instead seizes on the character’s fatal recognition of the imperative to mourn. As conveyed by a disjointed, spoken-word track, chants shouted en masse by performers among the crowd, and pre-recorded news bulletins in the movie-version-of-CNN-mould, replete with American accents and mind-numbing taglines (‘Thebes News: Your Only Legitimate Truth Source’), the Thebes of NTGNE is struck by an outbreak of grief, lamentation spreading like infection until it becomes a kind of protest movement.

Not wife nor mother nor daughter, Sophocles’s Antigone decides her kinship is with the dead. ‘I’m a strange new kind of in-between thing,’ she says in Anne Carson’s 2015 translation. With the audience lying on the pavilion floor side-by-side with strangers, Darling’s piece gestured towards its own kind of in-between thing: a public space made intimate. 

From lost fathers and brothers to all-too-present matriarchs, Olowska’s The Mother: An Unsavoury Play in Two Acts and an Epilogue was staged within Tate Modern’s collection hang, in a room dedicated to ‘Poetry and Dream’. Along the walls hung eight paintings, ranging chronologically from Henri Matisse’s Portrait of Greta Moll (1908) to Sidney Nolan’s clay-hued wonder, Inland Australia (1950), which, in their odd shared qualities, presented a kind of interwar, painterly Esperanto. It was weird and refreshing to see Pablo Picasso’s Seated Woman in a Chemise (1923) alongside the polite, art deco portraits of Meredith Frampton and the relatively obscure but subtly unsettling work of Meraud Guevara. The display was also a domestication of the gallery, an adjustment of values implicitly questioning the relation between art, design, biography and lifestyle.

An improbable, manic-depressive melodrama pivoting on the ambivalent dynamic between the titular mother (drug addict, pimp, compulsive knitter) and her aspirant, creative, womanizing son, the plot of The Mother was almost beside the point. David Gant as the mother was an extraordinarily lugubrious apparition; swathed in classical drapes up to his raptor-like jowls, he looked like an ageing Jack Smith who’d joined the Tanztheater Wuppertal for a production of Pina Bausch’s Café Muller (1978). Valerie Cutko, as the son, moved with an arthritic, bow-legged grace that, in tandem with her ‘cor-blimey’ accent, put me in mind of none other than the late Amy Winehouse. 

The best words to describe The Mother may again come courtesy of Sontag, who in ‘On Going to Theater, etc.’ (1964), wrote of the ‘wholly comic use of the mask, the cliché of character […] charming people coming and going, reclining in various tableaux’ in Home Movies – a Rosalyn Drexler-penned musical performed at New York’s Judson Memorial Church. Home Movies was not, Sontag admitted, ‘strictly a play’; rather, it was a theatrical event ‘of a use-and-throwaway kind – spoofs, joyous and insouciant, full of irreverence for “the theater” and “the play”’.

What does it mean for Sontag to so uncannily pre-empt Olowska’s generous but discerning brand of high-cultural burlesque? Is this spate of artists’ plays simultaneously ‘now’ and innovative yet also nostalgic? I would think more about it, but I hear a bell. Ladies and gentlemen, please resume your seats ...

Annie Baker, Circle Mirror Transformation, 2009, left to right: Deirdre O'Connell, Tracee Chimo and Peter Friedman, directed by Sam Gold; performance documentation at Playwrights Horizons, New York. Courtesy Playwrights Horizons; photograph: Joan Marcus

Annie Baker, Circle Mirror Transformation, 2009, left to right: Deirdre O'Connell, Tracee Chimo and Peter Friedman, directed by Sam Gold; performance documentation at Playwrights Horizons, New York. Courtesy Playwrights Horizons; photograph: Joan Marcus

Annie Baker, Circle Mirror Transformation, 2009, left to right: Deirdre O'Connell, Tracee Chimo and Peter Friedman, directed by Sam Gold; performance documentation at Playwrights Horizons, New York. Courtesy Playwrights Horizons; photograph: Joan Marcus

Stephen Squibb
Stephen Squibb is based in New York, USA, and is a founding member of Woodshed Collective theatre company. His book City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis, edited with Keith Gessen, was published by n+1 and FSG in 2015.

In the taxonomy of villains, it seems that the calculating and malevolent artist is up there with the calculating and malevolent scientist. ‘I am the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist,’ said Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman (1989). ‘I make art until somebody dies.’ We have just watched his gang destroy a museum’s worth of painting and sculpture, saving only a Francis Bacon. ‘I kinda like this one Bob,’ the Joker says, stopping his lieutenant’s knife just before it touches the canvas.

Or consider the evil art student Evelyn in Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things (2001). Or evil accident-artist Trevor in Sheila Callaghan’s play Roadkill Confidential (2010). Or Ed Harris’s evil artist-mastermind, complete with black beret, in The Truman Show (1998). Or Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Aleksandr Petrovsky, the Russian artist Carrie dates in the last season of Sex and the City (2004). When he admits that death doesn’t disturb him as it does her, she leaves him for a financier. Today, whenever a drama wants to put the frightening, abstract, alien side of humanity on stage or screen, it is often an artist who gets the part.

Apparently the feeling is mutual: frequently, when an artist or an art critic attacks the fake, the grasping, the deceitful or the slow, it is enough to label the offending phenomenon ‘theatre’. Critic Michael Fried made a career out of misreading Bertolt Brecht in order to attack the ‘theatricality’ of various artworks. ‘Visual art has long drawn upon theatricality as a straw man to bolster its own insistence on authenticity and the reality effect – on being and doing rather than merely representing,’ Claire Bishop wrote in The Brooklyn Rail in 2011. And frieze itself recently featured Lynne Tillman defending theatre in her article ‘Play for Time’ (issue 175). Her argument is illuminating: she’s compelled by good writing and hearing people speak it: 

A play is words, also intensely physical, with actual bodies in space, and a viewer must watch and listen hard. A play foregrounds thinking. Words cause other words to come and actions happen […] Some can’t accept looking at people on a proscenium stage, the artificiality bothers them and they can’t suspend disbelief. 

The difficulty with theatre lies in this imaginary causality that is enabled by the proscenium and realized in language: it requires the suspension of disbelief. It asks that we interrupt the sequence of life we came in with and invest in another, and this desire to do so is suspicious to some. Tillman’s subject is the playwright Annie Baker, best known for Circle Mirror Transformation (2009), a play set entirely in an acting class, a choice that slyly acknowledges the resistance Tillman describes even as it evades it. Everything we see and hear is causally justified and consistent within the frame of the play as a series of performance exercises. The characters are actors, albeit amateur ones, who are working, quite literally, on their performance art. This absolves us of the need to imagine that the words we are hearing mean what they claim to in order for the sequence being presented before us to make sense. This is also true of self-identified performance art, which, like the visual art whose context it emerged from, has no script, no additional or supplementary language, and so doesn’t require a proscenium to signify the beginning of a different causal or temporal sequence from the one that surrounds it.

Still, it often seems as though theatre and performance art were heading in the same direction from different starting points. For LevelFive (2001), the artist Brody Condon restaged a Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT) at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. LGAT was the kind of self-actualization seminar made famous by Erhard Seminars Training (EST) in the 1970s, and Condon worked with live-action role players, who came to self-actualize in character. As with Circle Mirror Transformation, LevelFive consists of a communal acting exercise, only here the transformation aims at achieving the self, rather than escaping it. Unlike Baker’s play, LevelFive has no script and never repeats itself, even if repetition is internally present, even constitutive, of the overall course of the event. Condon was influenced by Ann Hamilton whose work – laying 750,000 pennies, end to end, in honey (privation and excesses, 1989); smoothing 6,350 kilos of blue work clothing (indigo blue, 1991) – he has described as ‘kinetic sculpture enacting a repetitive motion that changed slightly with each variation, all within sculptural installation environments’.

Sheila Callaghan, Roadkill Confidential​, 2010, Michael Drysdale as the Government Agent, directed by Michael Dean, performance documentation from 2015 at Kings Cross Theatre, Sydney. Courtesy Kings Cross Theatre and Lies, Lies and Propaganda productions;

Sheila Callaghan, Roadkill Confidential​, 2010, Michael Drysdale as the Government Agent, directed by Michael Dean, performance documentation from 2015 at Kings Cross Theatre, Sydney. Courtesy Kings Cross Theatre and Lies, Lies and Propaganda productions;

Sheila Callaghan, Roadkill Confidential, 2010, Michael Drysdale as the Government Agent, directed by Michael Dean, performance documentation from 2015 at Kings Cross Theatre, Sydney. Courtesy Kings Cross Theatre and Lies, Lies and Propaganda productions; photograph: Emily Elise

It is crucial that these environments never become proscenia; they do not signify an interruption in a causal sequence or a shift in temporality. Art performance strives to be self-evident in this respect, which is what a backstage and a script are designed to defeat. One of the last moments of Sarah Kane’s 1998 play, Cleansed, involves a torturer gently sucking on the nipple of an exotic dancer. Earlier, someone eats an entire box of chocolates one at a time. Kane used behaviours that can never really be acted – how can you fake sucking on someone’s nipple? – to puncture the suspension of disbelief, and to replace the question of veracity with one of intensity. In other words, she included performance in her theatre.

The artist David Levine has executed a similar operation in reverse, placing theatre in the middle of his performance. For The Gallery Will Be Relocating Over the Summer (2008), he hired actors to play living artists, had them make art in character, and then showed that work in a gallery. His audience watched the actors play the artists at the opening party from across the street, through the windows of the gallery. In Bauerntheater or Farmers’ Theater (2007), he directed an actor to farm in the style of his character, in character, for eight hours a day. This delicate line between art and labour recalls ‘The Glorious Whitewasher’, an episode in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Sentenced to paint a fence as punishment, Sawyer acts as though it is the highest honour until, eventually, his friends begin paying him to share the privilege. What was labour off stage can become art when people arrive to watch: the presence of an audience is ambiguous and common both to demonstrations of skill and of suffering. If Sawyer turns the latter into the former, performance art seeks the reverse: demonstrating, if not always suffering per se, then certainly capacities no less universal, in places where skill would be expected. Performance has made a skill of de-skilling, a mental hopscotch designed to move the marker of authenticity without falling over or touching the line.

Theatre asks that we interrupt the sequence of life we came in with and invest in another; and this desire is suspicious to some.

We can locate a similar desire as least as far back as the Protestant Reformation, which manifested a preference for the immediate, transparent and often out-of-doors performance called preaching in place of the decadent, figurative obscurity of the Catholic Mass. Alain Badiou, in his 2008 essay ‘Rhapsody for the Theatre’, feels the need to distinguish his beloved along these lines:

Bad theatre is a descendant of the Mass, with its established and substantial roles, its natural differences, its repetitions, its falsified event. It is where one gobbles up the virgin, the ageing hysteric, the tragic actor with the loud voice, the virtuoso of lamentations, the shivering beloved, the poetic young man, just as one eats, in the guise of the host, God. One comes away from this with one’s dispositions taken care of and put on display. One obtains salvation on the cheap. Genuine Theatre turns every representation, every actor’s gesture, into a generic vacillation so as to put differences to the test without any supporting base […] there are noximages only sensible combinations whose perception, if it is sustained with exactitude, clarifies the moment.

This doubling of theatre into a good kind and a bad often accompanies a desire to be free from images, words or both. ‘All true feeling is in reality untranslatable,’ Antonin Artaud wrote in The Theater and Its Double (1938). ‘To express it is to betray it […] It is not a question of suppressing the spoken language, but of giving words approximately the importance they have in dreams.’ Hence the idea of a performance against language, an act without words, as Samuel Beckett would put it, long before such a practice was institutionalized as performance art. And it is this suspicion of language’s ability to depart from its immediate context that separates performance art from theatre more generally. The former believes, along with the rest of the late 20th century, that ‘there is something of every description that can only be a trap’, to quote the artist Gary Hill. This is an understandable response to a larger shift in the postwar political economy away from problems of labour and production and towards problems of value and representation, a shift reflected in the substitution of monetary policy for industrial policy. Visual art’s historic proximity to power makes it particularly sensitive to such transformations. The theatre is more sanguine about them.

I recently forgot this distinction to my peril when I invited some art-world friends to my theatre company’s latest show, Empire Travel Agency (2015), a romp that took an audience of four people, for each performance, all over Manhattan’s financial district in search of a mythical drug. My friends were polite but uncomfortable. Still, they stayed for drinks with the cast afterwards. One of the secrets about actors is that they are actually more emotional and performative in life than they are on stage. They aren’t faking anything, merely focusing energy and turning down the volume. My lasting memory of the evening was a critic trying to keep up with a young comedian. Flying between characters, dropping in and out of sarcasm and seriousness with unrelenting speed, she swam through words and images as quick as a fish. Later, my critic-friend texted me: ‘That actress is so hilariously an actress,’ and then: ‘Great show man.’ I’ll take that as progress. 

Matthew McLean is a writer and editor based in London, UK.

Stephen Squibb lives in New York, USA, and is editor at e-flux journal

Issue 177

First published in Issue 177

March 2016

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