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This article was written on 30 May 2012, and is filed under Performance Club Events.

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Springtime in Romania

Me, Vera Ion (still in costume), Mihaela Michailov, Katrin Hilbe, Marcy Arlin

On Thursday, May 24th, the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York and Immigrants’ Theatre Project presented Eastern European Playwrights: Women Write the New, an evening of showings by the Romanian playwrights Vera Ion and Mihaela Michailov. Vera performed her one-woman show, youshine.youarebeautiful, directed by Marcy Arlin, and there was a staged reading of Mihaela’s Family Offline, directed by Katrin Hilbe. I helped to moderate a brief talkback after the performances, which offered two snapshots of life for contemporary Romanians.

A year ago on May 24th, a Tuesday, I was actually in Romania, my first visit to a country that I found utterly foreign and yet, in some small ways, oddly familiar, especially with regard to the artists I met in Bucharest and Cluj. Mihaela, who is also a theater and dance critic, was my indefatigable and ever-delightful guide.

I found Romania to be beguiling. I don’t claim to have any real sense of the realities on the ground there, and I recognize that I’m offering a romanticized, tourist’s versions of things … but despite all of the immense, obvious, glaring, etc. differences between the contemporary performance scenes there and in New York (not to mention the underlying historical differences, which make in-depth comparisons rather absurd), there was something about the hard-scrabble intensity and vibrancy of the dance and theater and hybrid work I saw there, often in run-down and out-of-the-way spaces, that seemed to possess a real kinship with what’s being made here. Not that the issues are the same, nor the ways and means. Only that, on some gut or maybe energetic level, I recognized something.

But one thing that felt very different, not surprisingly, was the explicit political critique running through much of the work being made by young artists in Romania. I was reminded of this last week, listening to these two theater pieces that so directly addressed fraught sociopolitical realities. The last time the Performance Club gathered, we discussed the difficulties artists face when earnestly tackling issue-driven performances. I feel those difficulties all the time in theaters here. But I didn’t feel them Thursday night … and I’ve been wondering about that the last few days, what that has to do with…

I’m still thinking about it. While I do, would love to hear other people’s thoughts, however tangential ….

12 Comments

  1. Zee
    May 30, 2012

    Hmmm. This is making me think of the tension between the spoken word, and the more silent way that dance or any movement, really, communicates. If I had only read or heard the text that accompanied Carrie Ahern’s “Borrowed Prey”, would I still have found it overwrought? The reason I’m wondering about this is because I didn’t find the readings on May 24th so blindly “issue driven”, even though the creators explicitly stated “this is about this particular issue relating to this particular event”. So I’m wondering if it has something to do with the fact that there wasn’t this massive physical event supporting each reading. I found the stage directions for “Family Offline” (that the actors read out loud) completely evocative, to the point where I KNOW, I just KNOW that if they actualized them they wouldn’t have been able to make it look as good as it sounded on paper.

    (Claudia, do you know the part I’m talking about? It had something to do with moving in fast-forward, as though you’re controlling the action with a remote control. That sounds great right? I would like to see them actually try that.)

    But, with Ahern’s piece the audience heard “animal” and then saw Ahern act like an animal. My subconscious was screaming: I get it!

    Anyways my thinking is obviously all over the place with this, and mostly I’m just agreeing that I didn’t feel uncomfortable with the way the two playwrights depicted “issues” either.

  2. claudia
    May 31, 2012

    That’s so interesting to think about, Zee (and yes, I do know the part you’re talking about. and I agree). I am wondering if the wording should be “competing with” each reading instead of “supporting” … if I understand what you’re saying, it’s that you’re being asked to take in work – to read it – on two levels, or with two systems.

    And perhaps these dual readings force your subconscious to slow down … it makes me think literally of reading, how it’s so hard often to listen to someone read a text aloud when you have that same text in front of you …. the eyes and mind move faster than the voice, as systems. Or, they move differently. And so, of course, the subconscious moves differently, probably faster, but certainly differently, than the rational or intellectual (neither of those is quite right – maybe I should just say “conscious,” but that isn’t right either….)

    Oh, harumph! My thinking is now even more all over the place. Which is great. Thank you.

  3. Siobhan Burke
    May 31, 2012

    I’ve been thinking about the “difficulties” that you mention, C, of “issue-driven” work, which, I agree, didn’t seem as present in these two pieces. The word “didactic” keeps coming to mind: I think that’s the most common problem with this kind of performance, the sense that the artist is trying to teach you a lesson, to the point where you feel suffocated by the driving-home of the message. (Cue Zee’s subconscious [or whatever layer of consciousness it may be] screaming, “I get it!”) Maybe I have already done some thinking about the issue at hand (say, the ethics of meat-eating) and I feel like I’m being re-told what I’ve heard in other contexts, or urged too forcefully to take one side of an argument, or asked too longingly to empathize with the artist, or some variation on “overbearing” which has the effect of distancing me rather than drawing me in. Even if the artist is leading me very intentionally toward a particular conclusion, I want to feel like I got there on my own.

    It’s hard to say why these two works didn’t feel didactic. They just… didn’t. Take Mihaela’s piece. It was trying to raise awareness about a particular issue—the abandonment of Romanian children by their migrant-worker parents—and for me it really succeeded (in reading-only form, at least) without any attempts at force-feeding. Rather than telling me *about* the issue, Mihaela, like any good storyteller, created a world where that issue lives and breathes and lured me into it, leaving me to ask questions and piece together answers by myself. Who are these characters? Where are they living? How are they related? Where are their parents? Why are they speaking two languages? Knowing very little about the issue prior to the performance, there was an added sense of mystery for me, which made any discoveries all the more satisfying.

    The most recent “issue-driven” work that I saw in New York was Yoshiko Chuma’s “Love Story, Palestine.” It was a kind of performance-meets-documentary in which Chuma attempted (while admitting the futility of that attempt) to recreate her experience of working with a dance troupe in Ramallah, Palestine. There were certain very powerful things about it, but in the end it felt too… educational, a lesson in the hardships that Palestinians face, made by a foreigner peering into that culture.

    I’ve never been to Romania, so it’s hard to theorize why sociopolitical critique might work better there than it does here. But from what I gathered that evening, Vera and Mihaela are dealing with topics that are very immediate and personal and not widely discussed in their country. They’re not peering in; they’re inside. But I also wonder if there’s something about our distance from the culture that makes their work, driven by issues other than our own, somehow easier to take in.

    Ok, I’m gonna end it there for now.

    • claudia
      June 1, 2012

      “But I also wonder if there’s something about our distance from the culture that makes their work, driven by issues other than our own, somehow easier to take in.”

      Yes – was thinking that same thing ….

      Also that a longer history in the United States of capitalism, which thrives on swallowing whole every counterargument, makes critique so much more difficult; the head-on attack feels terribly clumsy, and the subtle one impotent.

  4. Counter Critic
    June 4, 2012

    Artists in America are rewarded (more often than not) for being politically silent. Until that system changes, we won’t get a real culture of political dissent in American art.

    Without fail, at least in NYC, the most lauded and critically acclaimed art/performance is said to advance some conceptual territory in art; something aesthetic, apolitical, intellectual without being socio-politically specific. As I’ve said (groaned?) before, directly political art is almost always considered, de facto, bad art.

    There’s also this disturbing trend where NYC critics will hail the overtly political work (thinking mainly of theater here) from “other” countries, which we perceive to have actual politically pressing issues, but the decry or poo poo American work that is frank and explicit (even blunt) about political issues within our own borders. American artists, to be political and successful, have to dance around not the authority of the state (since we actually do have, for the most part, constitutionally protected freedom of expression), but rather, the authority of taste. It’s this bizarre, completely voluntary culture of political repression, and it’s seriously fucked up.

    My ultimate question is: WHY WON’T AMERICANS ALLOW THEIR ARTISTS BE POLITICAL?

    (I’ll end here, but might chime back in with some thoughts about the Jesse Helms, the NEA, and the forgotten history of WHY we don’t have arts funding in the United States.)

    :D

    xxxy,
    C.C.

    • claudia
      June 4, 2012

      hiya CC! Well, hmmm .. I agree with much of what you say but am not sure about the logic of those two opening sentences, or what it seems to imply (I am perhaps misreading) – one, that the motivation for being political or not is in the reward and, two, in countries/cultures where there is a stronger showing of overtly political work, that the artists making it are necessarily rewarded. Often, I think, they are punished ….

      I’m also not so sure about the Americans versus their artists … couldn’t the ultimate question as easily be, Why won’t American artists allow themselves to be political? Or am I splitting hairs?

      I also am thinking of what the Croatian choreographer Ivana Muller said to me once in an interview (uh-oh, typing this I have the sneaking suspicion that I have quoted this exact line in a comment earlier on this blog. Ah well. Goldfish-brain): “First of all, I think that being political in theater means we don’t employ the same ways, the representation of the political – it doesn’t really work to scream slogans anymore, because the publicity industry does this already. Every single advertisement on television screams slogans. I think we have to be in some way like smooth operators.” …this is a very particular reality that artists (citizens, too) are grappling with now; the head-on attack no longer works, or there is no longer faith in it, in the way there was decades ago.

      (Your end parenthetical makes me think of another CC, the great Cindy Carr, and her writing on the NEA imbroglio and wider Culture Wars….)

      • Counter Critic
        June 4, 2012

        L. Ro.! Are you asking me to be logical??? ;)

        I’m not saying one ever includes political content for reward (other than the reward of standing up for something one believes in, and, hopefully, changing the way people look at things), but there is absolutely reward for not being political, because there are always rewards (shallow and terrible rewards) for going along with the status quo.

        It’s funny, I almost wrote “WHY CAN’T AMERICAN ARTISTS BE POLITICAL?” Then I realized my beef (in part, at least) is with a social/cultural context that penalizes overt politics in work (“Don’t wave the flag”, “No slogans,” etc.). So I wrote “WHY WON’T AMERICANS ALLOW THEIR ARTISTS BE POLITICAL?” It’s a provocation, for sure, but one we should consider as we continue to trot out these aesthetic or theoretical restrictions on overt politics in artwork.

        This was my whole issue with the YJL talk-back, where she basically said making a piece about an overtly political subject (black identity, feminism–if she had actually said “gay identity” was a terrible idea for a piece of theater to be based on, I think it would have come across as pretty offensive; no?).

        Bottom line is, I’m working from the premise that there is a dearth of overtly political artwork in the U.S./NYC, especially in theater and dance.

        Muller is right. We do have to be “smooth operators” in order to couch politics in work without drawing censure from the state or the critics (same thing?!). But then that’s the entire context of people who live on the receiving end of bad politics–watch your mouth, and keep your eyes down.

        • claudia
          June 5, 2012

          Hmmm … I am not sure by smoother operators she meant keeping eyes down and mouth shut. I think it was more about finding smarter ways to get the job done … but maybe that seems like semantics to you, or quibbling.

          And yes, of course, the rewards play a factor. An insidious one.

          I’m curious what you think about the Mike Daisey and This American Life dust up.

          • Counter Critic
            June 5, 2012

            Yes, I think it is semantics to a certain degree. I’m not distinguishing between censoring political content for aesthetics and censoring content for survival.

            OMG MIKE DAISEY DON’T CHANGE THE SUBJECT!!!

  5. Counter Critic
    June 5, 2012

    Yes, I think it is semantics to a certain degree. I’m not distinguishing between censoring political content for aesthetics and censoring content for survival.

    OMG MIKE DAISEY DON’T CHANGE THE SUBJECT!!!

  6. claudia
    June 6, 2012

    Ok ok, no Mike Daisey.

    Moving on … here’s something interesting that a Romanian artist friend of mine sent me with regard to this exchange:

    It’s amazing to see how perspectives in America can be so similar actually to the ones in Romania (there was also this recent Michael Billington article in The Guardian about performance perception in Britain: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2012/jun/06/political-theatre-changed-its-tune). And this “political” label that usually goes hand in hand with the “social” one, even if great theatre has always been both political and social. There are critics in Romania who’d state that real “political” plays/shows are actually rare, or non-existent. Or that there’s not enough “political” theatre (Gianina Carbunariu has been doing some great work in investigating recent memory – such as the Political Police and the Romanian–Hungarian street fights in 1990, and Mihaela Michailov also did with her docu drama about the Mineriads in the 90s). There is truth in the fact that artist stay away from current politics (there haven’t been any “Stuff Happens” done yet). It’s very interesting how we all feel like current events in Romania (which are actually a huge gruesome circus by themselves, and it really feels the nation has lost its compass), actual “politics” and real political leaders and parties are not material we want to show on stage (the argument is they’re flooding the TV screens all the time, people are tired of them, etc.).

    I think this would make an awesome debate in Romania. The second one would be about Religion – another taboo in Romanian plays and performances. (As opposed to Poland, for instance, where religion is a big subject in the theatre. I guess this is the difference between Catholicism and Othodoxism. In Romania religion is the biggest taboo.)

  7. [...] Cultural Institute New York for a reading of contemporary Romanian plays, an event which has sparked lots of interesting discussion about art and [...]

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