It’s funny that, as influential and as storied as the experimental theatre of the 1950s and 1960s is, it remains, for the most part, lore — something you read about, think about, but don’t experience. I don’t know of any theatre company that has tried to revive Dionysus in ’69. Even the pieces that have published scripts, such as Viet Rock, are infrequently performed. One reason that I chose the play The Tooth of Crime at WSC Avant Bard was that everyone produces the mid- and late-career work of Sam Shepard, but hardly ever his more experimental stuff from the 1960s and early 1970s.
An emerging group called Arcturus Theater Company is changing this on Thursday when it presents, at Georgetown Neighborhood Library and for one performance only, a replication of a piece that was arguably the first “happening,” the often interactive, frequently spontaneous precursor to what today we refer to as “performance art.”
During a phone interview and a subsequent e-mail exchange with Ross Heath, the founding artistic director of Arcturus Theater Company, he spoke about the piece and provided this definition of a happening:
“A happening is a kind of performance art, often multi-disciplinary, with a non-linear narrative where key elements of the performance are planned with room for the artists to improvise. One of the first performances regarded as a happening was orchestrated by the experimental composer John Cage at Black Mountain College in 1952. Eight years later, Cage produced unusual and complicated instructions for how such a happening could be planned in a work he entitled Theatre Piece.”
Cage was, as many readers will be well aware, a bastion of the avant-garde. He and his partner and frequent collaborator, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, were arguably the iconic power couple of experimental work in the last half of the 20th Century. With the 1952 performance and its later iterations, Cage, Cunningham, and others produced an event which became extremely influential with a younger generation of artists who were eager to test the boundaries of form and content.
Heath elaborated: “Cage’s Theatre Piece is a fifty-minute multi-media show with simultaneous live performances that have little correlation or interaction with one another and in this way evokes curious wonder in the audience as to how to interpret it. The attempt is to create a vivid experience devoid of meaning…apart from what meaning is applied by the audience member. In this way the show is akin to the Balinese theater shows that Antonin Artaud saw in 1931 and that through him influenced theater.” (Artaud, you will remember, is the seminal writer, actor, theorist, and asylum inmate associated with the movement called “Theatre of Cruelty.”)
Describing the rehearsal process as very interesting, Heath pointed out that, in actuality, “there isn’t much spontaneity, but the objective is to make it appear spontaneous.” Like the Balinese performances referred to above, performances of the piece will give “the appearance of being random, but they’re not. They are crafted and prepared for. That’s what we’re doing here. Cage called attention to the value of silence and to the fact that there is never really any silence. If we shut our eyes and our mouths, we can still hear our heartbeat.
He had very interesting ideas about music, melody, rhythm, and how noise can be appreciated in its own way. Reading about Cage has changed the way I listen. I hear beauty in everyday sounds.” Heath spoke about having his radio tuned randomly to static. He found himself “jiving away to it for minutes, and thought, ‘What has John Cage done to me, listening to this static?’”
John Cage’s THEATRE PIECE
One night only:
Thursday, November 13 at 7:30 p.m.
Arcuturus Theater Company at
Georgetown Neighborhood Library
3260 R Street, NW
Heath talked about the research component: “All of Arcturus’ company members and the performers in Thursday’s show have read about the original performances of Theatre Piece as recounted by William Fetterman in his book John Cage’s Theatre Pieces: Notations and Performances.” Heath and Barbara Stuckey, the dancer in the show, plunged even deeper into Cage’s work, consulting Kay Larson’s biography Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, as well as Cage’s collection of lectures and writings entitled Silence.
I asked Heath what had been the impetus for the company’s endeavor. He went off-the-record and told me that someone had wanted to get rid of an object (which, in deference to his request, I won’t reveal here). That object (the reluctance to identify it comes from the hope that the surprise associated with its eventual use will not be spoiled for the audience) triggered memories for Heath of performances that he had seen of Cage’s compositions. “I had seen a couple of performances at the Freer Gallery that got me reading about Cage.” That led to the discovery of Theatre Piece. “It was a lucky circumstance because we are having a great deal of fun with it.”
Heath described the appeal to him and to an audience of this type of work. “It creates an experience for the audience where they are put in another realm of being. They interpret it as they may and then they are enriched somehow by that experience.” Making a distinction with theatre that focuses on narrative, he pointed out that his audience will choose where to focus among different activities that occur simultaneously. “It is up to the audience where to focus attention and how to make connections. They can create their own narrative if they are inclined to do so.”
Georgetown Neighborhood Library, Heath told me, “has this wonderful performance space” that the company will take advantage of, but that comes with the limitation that the company can’t charge admission. However, it will be a sort of trial run for a possible future life elsewhere. Though Heath says that he is “uncertain about what the appeal might be, this is a good opportunity to become familiar with the piece in front of an audience. Chances are pretty good that we might want to remount it as a full production.”
Heath clarified his own function, observing that he is not the director: “Cage’s instructions state that there is no conductor or director, just someone to make sure no one collides with anyone else — hence my title of ‘Ringleader.’ I’ve provided the performers with blocking diagrams of where everyone is to be positioned and performing throughout the show.”
Next up for the company is Embers, a radio play by Samuel Beckett. “We have been blessed to be granted the rights from the estate to convert the radio play into a stage version.” Beckett was notoriously protective of his plays and resistant to any request to, say, move a script from one medium to another. Heath told me that Beckett had refused a request to stage Embers by no less a person than Ingmar Bergman. The troupe will begin, though, by doing it as a radio play broadcast on Fairfax Public Radio on Thursday, December 4, at 5 p.m.
Heath returned to Theatre Piece as he described his assembled team and their activities. “Arcturus has used a layer upon layer approach to create the illusion of randomness, or ‘indeterminacy,’ as Cage would have put it. Evan J. Dice laid the foundation with an aural score upon which the performers will cue. Without any coordination with Dice, J. Michael Whalen created the videoscape.
“The plans used by Whalen were then re-arranged to create new sequences of start-and-stop action for the dancer Barbara Stuckey, the noisemaker Cristen Stephansky using twenty percussion instruments generously on loan from the Potomac Valley Opera Company, and Wendy Wilmer reading verse cut up and re-assembled using the cut-up method famously applied by William S. Burroughs and many others including Kurt Cobain. Upon this, Arcturus adds a juggling clown with balloon tricks (Daniel Riker) and a seven-year-old geographer (Soren Ogelman). Kim Curtis did the choreography for this show.”
Heath ended with the perhaps surprising observation that, “This show is very child and infant friendly!” He then quoted dancer Stuckey who “has likened this show to walking through a busy intersection in New York, or as a three-dimensional chess game.”
The three-dimensional chess game will be played on Thursday, November 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Georgetown Neighborhood Library (3260 R Street, NW). No reservations needed.