More on …”is it a performance?”
Some people like to entertain themselves with this question of what box to put Axolotl and similar events into. This can be an interesting pastime, but in the end the event is what it is and that is the interesting thing, the phenomenon, rather than the semantics.
That said, Axolotl is a performance. It challenges typical patterns of theater making, but does not stretch an envelope in terms of what theater actually is.
I think we can agree that Peter Brook is somewhat of an authority on theater, so let’s look at his definition of theater. In his research to find that which is essential and particular to theater, after stripping everything he could away, he found that the essentials consisted of simply two people…a performer and an audience member, where the performer is acting with an intent to affect the experience of the audience and the audience is there to take in and react to the actions of the performer. We have that. Axolotl is theater.
Now, because our frame is atypical, people have a hard time accepting this simple fact, so a walk through a list of typical objections is useful.
The audience can’t see anything…The audience hears and takes in things through sound. Even more interesting in this regards of what senses we work with is the idea of performing for touch. As a performer in the piece, I not only perform for someone’s ears, but for the senses of touch, kinesthesia (perception of one’s own motion), and even smell. Moreover, one wouldn’t say that a concert wasn’t a performance if the audience wasn’t watching the musicians.
The audience is active… I hope that my audience, even when i am performing on a stage for a seated watching audience, is always active. The whole point of performance is an alive connection, which requires an audience to be actively responding to me on stage, unless you are interested in a more fascist approach to art making which tries to force the audience into a particular reaction. There is always in a healthy performer/audience relationship a mental and emotional activity a sense of personal volition in the audience in terms of reaction. Having the audience be overtly physically active is just an extension of this same mental motion. The work of the Living Theater is one reference point. The contemporary work of Felix Ruckert is another. Take for example his piece, Secret Service. The audience is blindfolded and invited into interaction with a performer who performs a set of interactions with the audience member… performing for touch and for sound through conversation, the audience free to respond in different ways and the performers adapting to and performing within the contexts of these reactions. The audience is active and alive in their response, and clearly the performer is performing, acting with an intention to affect the experience of the audience. This is a performance.
There is no set sequence of events or aim... the performers don’t have a clear aim. A free jazz musician going into a performance doesn’t necessarily have a set of notes he wants to play, but that does not mean he is not performing, just because he can’t say ahead of time exactly what he will do. We accept that performance can be improvised and that intent can arise in the process of performance. Similarly, in Axolotl, the actions of the performers are improvised, but clearly acted with an intent to work with the experience of the audience
The audience isn’t aware of who the performers are. This is perhaps the most interesting point, actually.. the audience does not know how to evaluate the actions of the performers, as they don’t know who is responsible for what part of their experience. We could just throw out this argument by saying that they do know some of the interactions are from performers… being greeted at the door, being led into the space, the overall soundscape and musicians (although we do have audience members start to play music, which can be delightful!), and the occasional interaction with someone who is ascertained to not have a blindfold on. However, i would be more interested in challenging this objection fundamentally on several grounds, first by looking at the assumption about that which is to be evaluated and then secondly by challenging the notion that rational evaluation by the audience is necessary for it to “be” theater.
First… What is to be evaluated? In a stage performance, there are certain things which one can obviously gravitate towards evaluating: what words does the actor say, how does she speak them, how does she move and act on the stage, how is the timing of transitions, etc. However in Axolotl, most of the physical interactions and thus some of the most important ones are actually between audience members. These interactions, even though not directly with performers are actually the result of the performers. First and most obvious… we invite you into the space. Beyond this, we set the atmosphere of the space, starting with how we communicate about the event through fliers and conversation. we not only invite you to the space but influence how you come to it. This is already part of the performance. We set an atmosphere of interactions, we interact with some audience members and affect their thoughts, actions, moods, intent as they then go out to interact with others. We actually perform to one audience member through another. Obviously this is collaboration and so not solely the responsibility of the performers, but it is at least partially their responsibility. Thus in addition to the things one might evaluate on stage, here in Axolotl, there is this amorphous but clear process of performers shaping and canalizing audience interactions. Thus, although one audience member’s most important experience might be with another audience member, one could at least theoretically track back and evaluate how the performers either positively or negatively affected the event’s occurrence and subsequent processing and framing.
Second… Is analysis necessary for something to be theater? No. Theater criticism is only important to itself, not to whether it was a theatrical event. Post performance analysis of the mechanism of performance, while useful and interesting, is not essential for the performance event to have occurred. Most audience members are not intimately aware of the details in practice of performing theater or dance, yet certainly they can experience a performance. While an audience member’s explicit memory may take them to a turn of phrase or a physical relationship, what may have made the whole experience for them could be some details of lighting or how the actors were using their breath… things which effect them unconsciously. Though the effect is unconscious (and thus not analyzed and assessed by this audience member, they have still experienced the performance of the lighting person and the actor. Thus, this analysis, though interesting, is not necessary for it to be performance.
What happens is the result of the audience’s actions and choices. Yes, this is true, but it is also the result of the performers’ actions and choices. It is a collaboration. In this sense, it is much like an improvised site specific performance in an unpredictably dynamic environment. For example, if one performs in a busy street, the performance will be hugely impacted by unpredictable traffic patterns. Yes, the drivers will be responsible for much of what happens, yet the performer is also making choices which result in the performance. It is a collaboration with the cars, which are not intentionally performing, but it is still a performance. Another take would be to look at a dance concert. The band plays for a dancing audience. Someone dancing will have their experience hugely shaped by the other dancers, yet the band also shaped that experience. It was a collaboration. In Axolotl, the audience might not be intentionally performing — that is concerning themselves with the shaping of other’s experience — but the performers are, and their choices have ramifications throughout the space.
Axolotl is a piece of theater… improvised, participatory, and blind, but still theater.