Amazing Untold Stories of Catalogues
By Jonathan Kalb
Sight is the Sense that Dying People
Tend to Lose First
By Tim Etchells
Portland Center for Performing Arts
By Forced Entertainment
The Works at Leftbank, Portland, OR
Recently, at the 2008 TBA (Time-Based Art) Festival
in Portland, Oregon, I saw two productions that put a serious crimp
in my long-standing skepticism about "postdramatic theater." One was
a six-hour piece (originally from 1996) called Quizoola! by
the British experimental theater company Forced Entertainment, and the
other was a new, fifty-minute work by that company's principal writer
and director, Tim Etchells, Sight is the Sense That Dying People
Tend to Lose First, written for and performed by the New York actor
Both these works were squarely in the vein of
the German scholar Hans-Thies Lehmann's much-discussed "postdramatic"
paradigm for the cutting edge in international theatrical innovation
during the past several decades. I am not a habitual user of this term,
as many have been since Lehmann's book appeared in English in 2006.
"Postdramatic" becomes a Procrustean absurdity when applied indiscriminately.
It seems to me just the right description, however, for the kind of
artist or group whose work really is driven by a loss of patience with
drama per se. Companies in the vein of Forced Entertainment have broken
faith with the very idea that staged fictional stories can ever operate
with powerful critical force in a media-saturated world where story-patterns
are cheapened by overexposure and audiences are chronically distracted
by peripheral matters like self-referentiality and celebrity worship.
Since 1984, this group has negotiated these obstacles by staging the
failure of various performances to take conventional or traditionally
In First Night (2001), for example,
eight performers were dressed up as if for a bright and lively vaudeville
performance--promising singing, dancing and comedy--but in fact they
had no such acts prepared. With their mouths frozen in broad, grimace-like
smiles, they vamped for ninety minutes with disconnected anecdotes,
verbal attacks on the audience, and ominous predictions about the future.
Bloody Mess (2003) worked from a similar premise except that
its ten performers hailed from a half-dozen different theatrical idioms:
a couple of clowns, a pair of grooving dancers, a woman in a gown obsessed
with an operatic death scene, an actor in a gorilla suit tossing popcorn
at the audience, two rock-gig roadies who played air-guitar and imposed
smoke-effects and flashy lights on the others. These figures collided,
competed for attention, and confided their various incompatible desires
to the audience.
In a public lecture in Portland, Etchells said
(quoting Baudelaire) that his company's basic relationship to the theater
was like "the child's elemental relationship to the toy: how can I break
this?" Forced Entertainment's fundamental impulse, he said, was "to
pick [the theater] up and start banging it or clanking it against the
wall or throwing it up in the air to see what happens to it, what kind
of things can be done with it, what kind of relations can be constructed
with it." The company's "breaking" impulse has been twofold, he added.
On the one hand, they have overloaded theater with "more than it can
possibly hold," more people, objects, layers of material, strands of
image or text, as in the pieces just mentioned. On the other hand, they
have emptied theater out, "slimming it down to almost nothing, to a
few people or even one person on a nearly bare stage," absorbing tedium
and "social breathing" into the experience, as in the pieces done at
the TBA Festival.
When he speaks like this, Etchells sounds like
an acolyte of Samuel Beckett, despite his evident disdain for the words
"play" and "playwright." One gathers that impression as well from reading
his remarkable collection of essays and performance texts, Certain
Fragments (1999), which contains more original and provocative
thought about the nature of pared-down performance than I have seen
from anyone else currently employing it (including New York figures
like the playwright Tom Donaghy and the playwright-director Richard
Maxwell, whose work Etchells admires). Forced Entertainment's smaller,
quieter pieces are grounded in the decidedly Beckettian circumstance
of actors deprived of fixed roles to rely on, and that circumstance,
along with their air of melancholy and mortality, operates as an unbalancing
force that keeps the audience constantly curious what will happen next
and uncertain how to measure the basic stakes of the action.
Beckett famously wrote that "to be an artist
is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and the
shrink from it desertion." In 2001, Etchells co-founded a quasi-fanciful
think-tank called Institute of Failure with Matthew Goulish (a leader
of the Chicago performance group Goat Island), whose published manifesto
explores the imaginative energy generated by various famous and obscure
disasters and mishaps, such as design changes incorporated into the
Tower of Pisa when it started to lean, or unforeseen consequences of
the Oregon State Highway Department's 1970 explosion of a dead beached
whale. Etchells sees himself as a sort of anti-maestro, spinning theatrical
gold out of the chaff of castoff experience: the undone, the hapless,
the incompetent, the incomplete. "You get up there (you come up here)
and you fail. And in that failing is your heartbeat," he writes in the
Forced Entertainment has devoted fans among the
theater intelligentsia. Richard Schechner once told an interviewer he'd
prefer to be stranded with this company more than any other on a desert
island. The most far-fetched compliment about them I've read was by
Hans-Thies Lehmann in a 2004 essay that earnestly compared the group's
achievement with Shakespeare's. Lehmann observed purportedly eye-opening
coincidences, such as: Shakespeare and Forced Entertainment's common
interest in unstable identity; the way the stories they tell are interrupted
and taken up again, often shifting between jesting and lofty seriousness;
their common trust in words over pictures; and a certain feeling of
"Welt-Fülle (fullness of the world)," attributed to their games
with layers of reality. To put it mildly, this comparison seemed preposterous
to me when I first read it--like comparing an automobile with a skateboard
merely because both happen to have four wheels. It was very strange
indeed, then, to find that the works at the TBA Festival to some extent
changed my mind.
One of Etchells' splintered approaches to text
has been to construct it in the manner of a catalogue or list. Both
Quizoola! and Sight Is the Sense That Dying People Tend
to Lose First belong to this class of works, which I had never
seen before, in which the performers utter long lists of similarly phrased
statements or questions, either from memory or read from sheafs of papers.
In Sight Is the Sense…, Jim Fletcher--a member of Richard Maxwell's
New York City Players--delivered hundreds of declarative statements,
more or less deadpan, as if patiently explaining the world to a Martian
or inquisitive child.
A submarine is a ship that can go underwater.
A French kiss is a kiss where you put your tongue in the other person's
mouth. A donkey is an inferior kind of horse. A lie is what people
say when they say something that is untrue. A fact is something that
can be proved. Tears are drops of water that come out of your eyes.
Your heart is in your body. The heart pumps blood around. The pipes
that carry blood are called veins or arteries. Blood is only red when
it comes out of the body. Sweat is small drops of water that come
out from different places in your skin. Urine is a stream of water
that comes out from between your legs. Cats are frightened of dogs.
Dogs like to chase cats. Some dogs like to bite the tires of a car
when it comes driving along. Mice are frightened of cats.
These statements riffed off one another in both
obvious and obscure ways, linked only by rough association and never
developing into a story or argument or evincing any overarching progression
(e.g. from simplicity to increasing complexity)--which irritated at
least a dozen spectators enough to walk huffily out of the hall. Fletcher
seemed to have been given some binding injunction to describe the whole
of human affairs, then left to wallow in his garrulous, directionless,
jump-cutting effort to comply.
His statements included clichés: "There are no
easy answers," "Life is not fair," "There is no such thing as a free
lunch." Personal observation: "Sometimes relatives take things that
do not belong to them. Sometimes adults go quiet for no real reason
during a celebration meal." Political irony: "Democracy is a system
where people have to put crosses in boxes using a pencil," "Capital
punishment is a good way to stop criminals from ever committing the
same crime again." Evasion: "Hate is hard to explain. Rats move in groups.
Knives are things made of metal." Moralistic advice: "Alcohol makes
people feel better when they are drinking it but much worse afterwards.
Children should not drink." Practical description bleeding into life-philosophy:
"Life goes on pretty much the same even when some people die. The internet
is a network of computers all joined together, mainly using wires. Computers
are thinking machines. A soldier is a fighting machine. James Brown
was a sex machine." And much, much more.
Fletcher's mild, squinting, insouciant demeanor,
standing on the large thrust stage like a nobody-Everyman in sneakers
and an untucked work shirt, gave the show a sweet, ruminative quality
and made most of those who didn't walk out (I would guess) want to listen.
He never rushed but rather proceeded thoughtfully and seriously as if
producing each statement for the first time. The text was more than
6,000 words long, plainly an extraordinary feat of memorization, but
that seemed less important than the strange, cumulative power of the
verbal picture he spun. He often paused and gazed neutrally at the audience,
at one point seeming to chide a fleeing spectator with the remark "A
fart is gas that escapes from a body." The timing there was coincidental,
though, the moment ambiguous, making him seem equally resourceful and
trapped in patterned response. By the end, the suggestion of purgatory
was patent--the actor as specter of unaccommodated Man enjoined to define
and defend himself to an unknown and unknowable judge, with nothing
but the poor resources of declarative language at his disposal. At first
the audience laughed lustily, but their snickers and guffaws gradually
modulated to titters and snorts, then to murmurs and whispers, and finally
Quizoola! had different ground rules,
involving three actors (Etchells, Fletcher and Kent Beeson), no memorized
speech, and a combination of reading and improvisation. It was also
six hours long rather than fifty minutes (the audience was told it could
come and go whenever it liked) and took place not on a formal stage
but in an old, partly demolished industrial space with a long undraped
window facing the street. Two plain wooden chairs were placed inside
a circle of bare light bulbs, and within that circle the actors, who
always appeared two at a time with their faces smeared in clown makeup,
periodically exchanged the roles of questioner and questioned. One read
from a list of 2000 questions, printed on dog-eared pages frequently
dropped on the floor, and the other provided spontaneous, unscripted
responses. The questions ranged from quiz-show trivia ("David Soul of
Starsky and Hutch fame supports which English soccer team?")
to personal opinion ("Who do you really hate?") to encyclopedic fact
("Who were the Vikings?") to temporal fact ("What time is it in West
Africa now?") to pub chat ("Do you work the night shift?" "Can you tell
what people are thinking?"). And much more. The manner of questioning
ranged from listless recitation to friendly inquiry to vicious badgering.
Unlike with Sight is the Sense..., no
fictional circumstance (such as speaking with a Martian) immediately
suggested itself with Quizoola. The conversation was in progress
as the spectators entered, the slowly fading daylight through the window
emphasized the passage of real time, and (the clown makeup notwithstanding)
one had the sense at first of accidentally intruding on a private actors'
exercise that outsiders were bound to find somewhat tawdry. Why were
these questions being asked? What was the imperative behind them? Did
their content matter at all? And what, if anything, constituted good
and bad answers? Such puzzles were plainly unsolvable, as the premise
was clearly a game that strictly followed certain rules. The rules were
easy to discern: some sort of answer to each question was required,
if only a dismissive one. And the questioner could follow up only with
questions, never statements, even if answers were phrased as questions
to invite ongoing conversation. Periodically the questioner would ask,
"Would you like to stop?" and the roles would switch if answer was yes.
The sneaky aspect of Quizoola, if I
can put it that way, was that it did allow relationships to develop
between the actors even though the one-way questioning format seemed
designed to inhibit that. It was a quiz show from hell (or a psychotherapy
session from hell, or an interrogation from hell) except that the "host"
(or therapist, or interrogator) could not be truly detached or aloof
because that role kept changing hands. Furthermore, the players coped
with so many different subjects, implications, insinuations and attitudes
that not just their knowledge but their breadth and depth of human experience
were harshly tested. (It was like a contest for who could exhibit, as
Dryden famously said of Shakespeare, "the largest and most comprehensive
soul.") The actors' exposure was theoretically limitless, since they
had no protection from the hypothetical infinitude of question areas
and they evidently felt obligated to compete with each other as
actors--i.e. for who could be most interesting and engaging. The
true substance of the action was the gradual revelation of their characters
and sensibilities through their improvised answers and their manner
of dealing with each other in various combinations.
They were a motley crew, with very different
physiques and personalities. Fletcher, who looked to be in his mid 40s,
was tall, slow, deliberate and brooding. Beeson looked about a decade
younger, was short, stocky, candid and articulate. Etchells, late 40s,
was of medium build, balding, wry and confident. Everyone knew Etchells
had conceived the piece and written the questions, so he had the upper
hand in many ways. He readily strung together questions that amounted
to judgmental harangues, for instance (Fletcher: "I love Mariah Carey."
Etchells: "Oh yeah, what do you mean you love Mariah Carey? Are you
part of Mariah Carey's street team? Do you log onto forums on-line and
make casual comments about Mariah Carey?"). He also freely veered from
earnestness to sarcasm and back again.
Beeson: How many scars do you have?
Etchells: A lot.
Beeson: Which one do you like the best?
Etchells: I'm kind of past liking any of them much. I have a sternotomy
scar where they cut down through my rib cage in order to do heart
surgery. So that was fairly dramatic. I have another one in my neck
from where they did a biopsy. And I have two or three on this side
from pacemaker operations . . .
Beeson: Which is faster, a cheetah or a gazelle?
Etchells: A gazelle.
Beeson: Which is faster, a cheetah or a gazelle?
Etchells: A gazelle.
Beeson: What do cheetahs eat?
[Pause. Laughter from audience.]
Beeson: What do cheetahs eat?
Etchells: Um, antelope. [Pause, more laughter] Or monkeys,
many monkeys. [more laughter]
Beeson: You really believe that?
Etchells: Yeah. They eat children.
Beeson: Whose children?
Etchells: The ones that people leave in their car with the windows
[Note: quotes are from notes I took during the performance.
Beeson came off as contentedly subordinate to
both Etchells and Fletcher, resigned to play straight man or assert
himself occasionally through flashes of cleverness and contradiction.
Fletcher, in contrast, posed persistent, determined challenges to both
the others with passive-aggressive self-absorption, controlling the
pace of the conversation with long pauses.
Etchells: Do you think Leonardo DiCaprio would
make a good King Lear?
Fletcher: I think he's [long pause] he's very pretty. And
he tends to be solemn. And [long pause] maybe he would make
a good King Lear but I don't think so.
Etchells: Do you think people have sexual fantasies about John McCain
and Sarah Palin?
Etchells: What kind of fantasies?
Fletcher: I think [very long pause] I think people have a
lot of fantasies about Sarah Palin. And I think John McCain gets dragged
in there by proximity. [audience laughter]
Etchells: Do you think that some of the FBI guys around also get dragged
Fletcher: [long pause] I never thought about it but now that
you mention it, maybe. FBI guys.
Etchells: How much would I have to pay you to eat a plate full of
Fletcher: [very long pause] I would . . . I would do it for
A favorite topic among the many critics who have
written about Quizoola! is the ambiguity concerning whether
the answers are fictional or drawn from the actors' lives. A number
of answers in the performance I saw certainly sounded autobiographical
(such as Etchells' description of his scars) but there was no way to
tell for sure, and that sort of uncertainty has been frequently read
as a neat trope for the duplicity of the theater in general, a signature
Etchells theme. There is something arid and unsatisfying about appreciating
such a grueling marathon show primarily for such abstract reasons, however.
What seems to me the true "plot" of Quizoola! is the actors'
arc of invention, and their arc of exhaustion, as they move through
what becomes a rather brutal endurance trial. This is the story that
asserts itself and stands in for the organization and development that
never arise in the questions and answers. (I watched the show for the
whole six hours, incidentally, not because I intended or wanted to but
because the line outside for re-entry was so long that leaving meant
waiting hours to return.)
Each actor endured the physical and emotional
strain differently, but each also did his best to measure up to the
nonstop onslaught of queries ranging across the vast expanse of human
affairs. When their creative energy flowed, the performers grew expansive,
eloquent and funny, and when it flagged they grew curt, glib and evasive.
The clown makeup lent them a slightly pathetic, self-sacrificial air.
I made a note to myself at one point that the waxing and waning of their
exertions (their strivings, as Goethe's Faust might call it), which
were obviously doomed to failure, resounded as a poignant echo of life
as a whole.
Which brings me back to Lehmann's comparison
with Shakespeare. What Quizoola! and Sight is the Sense
that Dying People Tend to Lose First principally shared was their
quixotic effort at comprehensiveness. That is the ambition that can
be meaningfully help up against Shakespearean Welt-Fülle. Both
works took on the absurdly monumental task of limning a complete world,
in all its bewildering variety and ungraspable detail. More precisely,
they each set theatrical traps for such a world through an absurdly
prolonged and obsessive gesture of listing. The daring behind that effort
was astonishing and endearing, in no small part because it was bound
to fail. After all, fashioning a complete world is really a craving
from another era--from Shakespeare's or Dickens' time--and those who
attempt it today tend to be Apollonian novelists, not low-budget, warehouse-dwelling,
experimental theater-makers with spiritual ties to Beckett. Against
all our puny expectations, Etchells' sly, humble, post-dramatic art
serves momentous ends.
Ed. Note: This article first appeared
in Performing Arts Journal.