Weathering Architechture at Hatch or The Dispensation With Artifice

As I was watching Filiz Klassen's performance/lecture creation Weathering Architecture at Harbourfront Centre on Friday night, I found myself thinking less about the actual content of the piece and drifting into a meditation on what is happening with performance in Toronto right now. Not that the work wasn't enjoyable; it had a lot of elements I really like. What I was thinking about was how often I’ve been seeing these specific elements in performance lately.

There's a kind of work (dare I call it a genre?) that's emerging in Canada right now. I’m not sure yet what to call it, but it has a number of defining characteristics I’ve observed and will now attempt to list in a particularly dry and academic tone:

  • Performances are staged as lectures or discussions, rather than narrative works; text is address directly to the audience and the themes that the artists wish to discuss are presented in their pure form, rather than through a story or metaphor
  • Performers use their real names, rather than pretending to be other people
  • Performers use microphones when speaking, giving a conversational rather than theatrical tone to the work
  • Video is used in the performance specifically to show the audience things that need an up-close view, rather than exclusively as a design element
  • As the audience filters in, the performers are in the space, talking or setting up the equipment for the performance
  • No care is taken to hide the technical elements of the performance; all of the wires and cables are visible and function as a design element, and in some cases are actually used by the performers (i.e. tripping over or getting tangled in them)

If I were to try to sum up all of these characteristics into one thing it would be a Dispensation With Artifice; a sort of end to all the “pretending” that we as theatre artists have been doing for so long. In his 2004 piece Suicide Site Guide to the City Darren O’Donnell talks about his frustration as an actor, constantly having to pretend, when he actually just wants to talk to people about things that matter. Though that show was still performed in a fairly actorly manner, the drive behind it has really started to manifest itself in his later works, and I think we are starting to see it as well in this new kind of performance I’m talking about.

For those of you who attended theatre school, I’m sure you can all still remember that lecture you got in first year, about how theatre requires the “Willing Suspension of Disbelief” on the part of the audience; in order for the show to work, we must put aside our rational conviction that what we are watching is actually just people walking around a space speaking words that were written by someone else. Essentially, we have to pretend that we are not watching people pretend.

I’ve been suffering from a “Willing Suspension of Disbelief” fatigue for while and if this type of work is any indication, other artists are as well. Since 9/11 the way we engage with media has changed dramatically and there is a sense in our culture of people wanting to see things that are “real” even if, like most Reality TV, they are actually quite contrived. So how has that played out in the world of performance? I don’t know if we fully understand yet, but if the way this genre (there’s that word again!) is evolving is any indication, it would suggest a similar movement towards a kind of work that feels “real” as well.

Oh shit! I’m supposed to be talking about Weathering Architecture. So, the performance had things that worked and things that didn’t. It could have used a slightly heavier dramaturgical hand, to cut down sections that were repetitive or just went on too long. I’m genuinely interested in the central issue of the show (the relationship between the citizens and the architecture of the city of Toronto), however I didn’t feel like it was really addressed in a new way. We already know that we have lots of ugly buildings, that the Gardiner Expressway sucks, and that biking in this city requires a pseudo-death wish, however considering the creator of the show is actually trained as an architect, I would have appreciated more solutions to the muck we’ve gotten ourselves into, rather than just pointing out that we’re in it.

Though the content of the show left me wanting more, the visual and sonic aesthetic was stunning. From the all-white blocks that composed Laird MacDonald’s set, to Dan Browne’s video images that were projected on them, to the immersive sound environment created by composer Dan Goldman, the show was a joy to look at and listen to. Chad Dembski brought his characteristic befuddled charm to the performance and was a perfect contrast to creator/performer Filiz Klassen’s serenity. The strongest moment of the piece was the video segment at the end in which the two engaged in a discussion of the ideas Klassen has about material innovations that could be made to the architecture in the city. Her ideas are both revolutionary and achievable and I wish that this had been the starting point for the discussion rather than its ultimate destination.

Though not yet a perfect piece (and the Hatch Series isn’t supposed to be about perfection anyway) Weathering Architecture certainly made for an enjoyable seventy-five minutes of my life. Though I didn’t feel its creators completely succeeded in putting across the message they were trying to, it was still an opportunity for me as an audience member to think about things in a new way. And whether it’s the relationship between architecture and human beings or the aesthetics of new performance, the fact that a show makes me think about something makes it worth seeing and writing about.


Anonymous said...

I was really inspired by the ideas that Ms. Klassen had...things like poetry appearing or sounds emanating from buildings depending on the weather had never even occurred to me as remote possibilities before I saw her lecture/performance piece. The sound design and videos were outstanding. It did get a bit boring, but even the way it got boring was different than it would have been in a bona fide "theatre" piece. Definitley time well spent. Definitely still thinking about it.

Andrea D.

Jacob Zimmer said...

hey Chris -
nice post - I've been noticing the genre too - partially because Small Wooden Shoe falls firmly into it. And there is a loose genre - and that is different than a phase or a style. It's by no means new - emerging from Brecht to postmodern dance to Wooster Group to Augusta Company to Nadia Ross, Jacob Wren, Darren et al.
While sometimes I have a little crisis moment when I enter a room in which this genre is in progress, actually, I'm fine with it and happy since people can do very different things and maybe it can get to the point where we talk less about the microphones (since we talk less about the couch and fake bookcase in the living room play) and judge the work not as "new and crazy" but as part of a tradition.

Also, I predict a resurgence in "pretending" but without the suspension of disbelief - so we'll all know that we're pretending.
But more on that later.

Keep it up.

Darren said...

the work that you're describing goes way back to stuff like the Noam Chomsky lectures, which, I think, was influenced by the Wooster Group, particularly Spalding Grey's autobiographical stuff.

Anonymous said...

good blog chris. need more voices like yours in this town. i like that you've coined the phrase "Dispensation With Artifice" - I'd so much rather watch people trying to really be themselves then trying to act (unless they're alec guiness or something which is a whole other experience...)

Darren said...

hey Jacob,
wouldn't pretending without disbelief be anything with any kind of overt theatricality? musical theatre, for example, and almost anything I've done previous to suicide-site (boxhead, white mice, pppeeeaaaccceee)


Jacob Zimmer said...

darren -

yes, pretty much. It's not a new thing either, but I wonder about about the mix that might be possible right now. and why I have an appetite for both in the same piece.

Darren said...

yeah, both in the same piece is nice.