The Rise and Fall of Dramaturgy in Live Art

by Jack Beglin

Before the performance…

I enter the NCAD white box gallery space  that overlooks Thomas Street from a panoramic window.  Photographers mill about the place adjusting their cameras while writers patrol the area jotting notes in their notebooks.  A series of objects are placed in the gallery space with a focal point of two black blocks in the centre of the room. I walk around the space inquisitively looking at the objects: a piece of clay on a white plinth, a green rope that smells like the sea, beet-roots in a glass jar, pudding in a plastic bag, a bag of plain flour, a cluster of small pink and white stone sediments, a white cloth spread square on the floor & a large roll of drawing paper.

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Objects in the Gallery Space

As the co-curator of Anticipation: Actualisation, Muthi is concerned  with the status of the objects in performance art. She suggests that the prevailing discourse in live art theory is the dialogue around the performing body and the politics of embodiment. Muthi suggests, however, that there is little discourse surrounding the material objects used in performance art. She states that these objects have both an intimacy with the artist  and  a performative dimension of their own . These objects become the ‘traces’ or ‘afterlife’ of the work post-performance.

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The traces of the performance

During the performance…

Audience members gather in anticipation outside the gallery space. I exchange small talk with a trendy art student in a pink hat. Our attention shifts to Muthi and Dr. El Putnam as they  introduce the performance as an in:Action event. The audience enter the space to sit or stand  in different areas of the gallery. The performers enter; Leann Herlihy wears a long flowing taupe coloured dress,  a large muzzle on her face and black boots on her feet. Rachel Rankin wears a long white cotton blouse, three quarter jeans cut at the knee and bare feet.  Ciara McKeon wears skin coloured stockings covered with a Little Mermaid mini skirt. She wears a matching Little Mermaid sports bra and a pink wig on top of her natural brunette hair

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Leann Herlihy as ‘The Prisoner’
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Rachel Rankin as ‘The Mother’

 

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Ciara McKeon as ‘ The Mermaid’

McKeon lays on the cluster of the small pink amd white stone sediments as if she is lying on the beach like a mermaid. Her movements are slow, subtle  & developmental. Herlihy walks around the space with a slow and heavy foot fall as if she were a prisoner limping along a path, she sings: ‘a tissue, a tissue we all fall down’, progressively, her plodding stammer of a walk transforms into a long stride as she shifts gear into a jog. She is like a whirlwind in the space building the energy in the room. Rachel Rankin holds her white flowing blouse in a bundle as if cradling a baby, her actions are subtle and introverted. Progressively over time the maternal image that Rankin portrays becomes clearer as she plays with a mountain of flower on the ground, as if she were on the beach with her children. Paula Fitzsimons unexpectedly bursts into the space wearing a smart black suit jacket and trousers. She heaves into the space a clear plastic bag of rocks, and uses them to create a path from the gallery door into the centre of the room. Fitzsimons seems to play the persona of an administrator as she walks on the black stones in her black boots; her main actions consist of sticking white flowers onto the NCAD gallery window with her saliva, blowing red powder onto a newspaper and interacting with the audience by asking them to read instructions from the palm of her hand.

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Paula Fitzsimons  ‘Black boots on Black Stones’

Over time each performer improvises with a new object; McKeon stuffs beet-roots into a stocking as if it they were ovaries passing through a fallopian tube, Rankin gazes intently on a  beetroot resting on her hand, while Herlihy furiously runs around the room clasping the jar of beet-roots to her breast when she bumps into Rankin. Smash. Crimson beetroot juice stained flour splatters out in shells of glass across the space.

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The afterlife of performance: beetroot juice stained flour & shards of glass

 

After the performance…

The performers reach a natural conclusion to their improvisations. Throughout the performance the audience were moving from one part of the room to the other. There is no one focal point so the audience are given the freedom to watch whichever performer that catches their attention. Although performing individually, the actions of  McKeon,  Fitzsimons, Herlihy and  Rankin complement one another energetically. In general;  Fitzsimons and Herlihy are the more extroverted performers. Heirlihy generates energy by running in the space while Fitzsimons engages the audience through participatory cues.  McKeon and Rankin explore a more subtle level of performance where their energy is more developmental than the others. This basic contrast of performance styles creates a dynamic in the room where I was neither distracted nor bored.

The performers leave the space. The audience members, writers and photographers also leave. What is left behind – broken glass and crimson stained flower on the gallery floor – are the ‘traces’ or the ‘afterlife’ of the performance. This ‘afterlife’ opens up the possibility of a new gallery piece independent of the performers.

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The panel discussion

The audience, performers, writers & panel members enter the seminar room adjacent to the NCAD gallery for the post-show discussion.  Muthi and Putnam chair the discussion with the panel members: Nigel Rolfe, Dr. Sarah Pierce,  Dr. Hilary Murrary and Paula  Fitzsimons. I open my notes:

‘Performers score = precise & repeatable structure of actions

Performers score = action (eg. playing a persona, text, movement,  use of objects & materials)

Performers score = symbolic play of actions & materials = generation of meaning   

Performer’s score:

 In Theatre = script + blocking + use of costume, props & set 

In Dance = choreography + use of costume, props & set

In Martial Arts = sequence of attack & defence

In Live Art = performer’s improvised actions (inspired by a central  concept) + use of costume, objects & material  

Dynamic relationship between structure + improvisation through the score = performer’s flow – performer’s presence & ‘nowness’

In Live Art performer’s score is  much less codified than that  of a dancer for example & is largely improvised but driven by  a central concept    

Dramaturgy = Montage

Montage = intersecting performers scores = stage images= architecture of meaning =  frame of reference  that structures the audience’s experience  that allows audience to interpret meaning in  the performance

Dramaturgy in: 

Theatre: Actor’s intersecting scores + costumes + props + set + sound effects + lighting effects

Dance: Dancer’s intersecting scores  + costumes + props + set + sound effects + lighting effects

 

Live Art: Anticipation – Actualisation: Performers intersecting scores + materials + objects. In Live Art, dramaturgy, generally, ‘rises & falls’ ‘manifests & dissolves’ as the creative potential of a material is exhausted & performers move on to the next improvisation. Whereas in dance & theatre, generally, the dramaturgy is consistently maintained due to the codified nature of the performer’s scores.

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Individual scores creating a larger ephemeral dramaturgy

Looking up from my notes, I tune back into the panel discussion. Muthi is clarifying her central thesis: that live art discourse has generally focused on the performer’s body and the politics of embodiment, while now there is now an opportunity to shift the discussion to the use of materials and objects within live art. That these materials are the ‘traces’ or ‘afterlife’ of the performance that have their own performative dimension and post-performance can become the site for an exhibition independent of the performers.  Fitzsimons  adds that the objects that she incorporates into her work are deeply personal and so to introduce unfamiliar materials into her practice would fundamentally change the nature of her work.

The panel come to the general consensus that the essential quality of performance art is ‘nowness’ and ephemerality. The immediacy of the performer & the observer in shared space and time. These thoughts are echoed by theatre directors Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook that emphasise the direct relationship between audience and actor as the essential component in theatre.

The conversation takes many twists and turns as the panellists discuss the curation of live art and the inherent conventions embedded within the gallery space. In this regard the gallery is much like a theatre where audience members lean how to relate to the art work through a history of convention brought to life in the present moment through the inaction of the performance. In the theatre for example, audience members have learned to applaud the actors at the curtain call while in live art observers have learned that they can change their position in the gallery space as if they are viewing a visual art piece.

After, the panel conversation continues at the pub where we discuss the possibility of how live art can be taught as a practice. Theatre, dance & music academies fore example abound with pedagogical approaches to learning & teaching, so why not Live Art? Live Art has a documented performance history arguably traced back to the late 1930’s with Jackson Pollock’s action paintings and I have personal experience of studying performance art in University.

Two pints down and walking towards Christ Church, I reflect and my mind keeps on coming back to the rise and fall of dramaturgy in Live Art.

The Rise & Fall of  Dramaturgy in Live Art

Montage is ‘to compose’, ‘to put with’, ‘to mount, to put together’, ’to weave actions together’ & ‘to create the play” (Barba: 2006: 178). Composition is the arrangement of performative actions & materials put in relation to one another to create a dramaturgy. Dramaturgy is the architecture of meaning, a frame of reference or a doorway into the performance world that allows the audience to experience and interpret the live event.

The performer engages in a process of composition as he or she arranges the materials and actions of their performance into a score. A director embarks upon a similar process when editing all the performer’s scores in relation to one another to create the overall dramaturgy of the piece. (Barba: 2006: 178)

Although I am writing in response to a Live Art event, theatre director Eugenio Barba’s observations  on dramaturgy and montage are relevant to all artistic and cultural events. The purpose of art , from an ancient Greek perspective is to uplift the spirit by connecting with beauty – beauty with a capital ‘B’ where art works like that of Michelangelo’s David or The Sistine Chapel, for example, are earthly  embodiments of an archetypical or primordial idea of Beauty residing in the Jungian notion of The Collective Unconscious. Perhaps this classical formulation on the purpose of art has ben challenged by post – modern and post – structuralist theory in its deconstruction of Enlightenment Values, yet , the essential purpose of art as a means to generate meaning and meaningful experiences remains. Therefore, the craft of creating dramaturgy is  an essential vehicle in this process.

Traditional genres of art will generate and communicate meaning through conventional forms whereas more experimental art such as live art will achieve this through a more improvisational form. In both cases, however, a dramaturgy or an architecture of meaning is constructed by the artists as a vehicle in which audience members can experience, interpret anc perceive value in the work.

In my attempts to record the performers scores from Anticipation: Actualisation, I eventually gave up when I reached the fifth page of my note book. Unlike a classical actor or dancer, a performance artist won’t be able to precisely repeat their performance score. In live art the dichotomy between structure anc improvisation favours improvisation where performative actions are driven from a central concept rather than a codified set of actions.

My experience of Anticipation: Actualisation was the ‘rise & fall of dramaturgy,’ ‘a bleeding effect’ of slowly progressive  striking images that engaged my attention as performers explored the creative possibilities of the material. These striking images provided a temporary dramaturgy, an ephemeral  interpretive frame in which my subjective experiences were filtered through to spark associations in my imagination. The strongest moments of the performance where when artists improvised together to clarify – and bolster the stage image through interactive and improvised scores. The exciting aspect of watching the‘ rise & fall’ of dramaturgy at this  live art event was that both audience member and performer alike where discovering the creative potential of the materials together. Neither observer nor performer knew the result of the artist’s actions and therefore the immediacy of the moment was palpable.

This ‘rise & fall of dramaturgy’ through the ‘bleeding effect’ of striking images in Anticipation: Actualisation was like watching a red dye slowly casting a crimson shadow over clear water until there was enough information for the brain to interpret  the image as ‘blood in water’.

The interaction between the performer’s actions and objects were essential in developing these scores that would produce striking images and ephemeral dramaturges in-order for audience members to engage with.

Muthi’s thesis of opening up more discussion into the materiality of performance art asks performers, audience members and theorists alike to re-evaluate what kind of interactions takes place between artist and observer, ultimately asking: What is the purpose of performance art? If the ancient Greek formulation: to connect with Beauty with a capital ‘B’ has been challenged through postmodern discourse then performance artists must find an adequate replacement.

The generation of meaning and the creation of meaningful experiences crafted though a clear dramaturgy seems to me like a good place to start.

I feel that an interdisciplinary approach to performance making is necessary where theatre directors and performance artists share their practice. Performance artists are very good at creating embodied and visually striking images, while theatre directors have the dramaturgical eye to sequence those images to tell a compelling story through the body and the materiality of performance.

Reference:

Barba & Savarese (2005),  A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer, Routledge, Oxon

 

This is the first essay of a series invited respondents to Anticipation: Actualisation, which is the first performance event to be organised by in:Action editors EL Putnam and Sara Muthi. It took place on 21 March at the NCAD gallery and involved performers Ciara McKeon, Paula Fitzsimons, Léann Herlihy, and Rachel Rankin. The post-performance panel included Nigel Rolfe, Sarah Pierce, and Hilary Murray. Stay tuned for further written responses to the event by Francis Halsall, Tara Carroll, and Jesse Hopkins. Photography by Misha Beglin.

Jack Beglin is a youth theatre facilitator, arts administrator, and visiting scholar to the department of contemplative performance at Naropa University, Boulder, Colarado U.S.A (2016), Jack is interested in the intersection of theatre & live art. Writer at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival (2011),  The National Student Drama Festival (UK: 2011), The  Manchester Flare Festival of New & Experimental Theatre (2016 & 2017), and The Dublin Live Art Festival (2017).

 

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