Dishwasher proudly proclaims itself as a unique Fringe experience. It is the first show in Fringe history that 1) doesn’t have a fixed venue; 2) occurs at the home of the ticket-buyer; 3) has a variable start time, which will be negotiated in advance between performer and ticket-buyer; and 4) also has a variable running time which could be as short as ten minutes, as long as three hours, or anywhere in between. In addition, it’s the most exclusive ticket: only eighteen available. But those tickets are gone. The run has sold out.
And what is Dishwasher, for those of you beyond we eighteen? It’s pretty simple. Brian Feldman (in, I guess you could say, the title role) comes over to your abode, cleans your dirty dishes, and then cold-reads a monologue chosen and provided by you. He will then ask whether you deem him a better actor or a better dishwasher.
The Dishwasher press material further proclaims Feldman “the premiere presenter of experimental time-based art in the nation’s capital.” Originally from Florida, Feldman has been in D.C. for a few years now. In addition to Dishwasher, two other on-going projects of his are currently running. Every Sunday, there is txt (“The longest running independent production in D.C. theater history, txt is an interactive performance featuring a character named txt, played by Brian Feldman, who recites dialogue written anonymously by an audience in real time via Twitter”) while BFF (“Each of the 261 performances of BFF is for just one audience member, making Brian Feldman your virtual BFF for the 120-minute run of the show”) plays every weekday in 2015 at 6pm.
Our enjoyment of Dishwasher began early in the day. My husband and I have twins who will turn three next week. The day of the show, I had to ask our Nanny to be sure not to clean any of the dishes in the sink. The look on her face as I explained why was unforgettable and priceless.
That said, and now having experienced the, um, experience, I have to challenge its premise thusly: the two activities, dishwashing and acting, are not really comparable. (I speak from extended experience with both.)
One of my first jobs was dishwasher, back in the 70s, for minimum wage ($2.50 an hour). There are variables involved in dishwashing, of course. It’s important to have the right tools, and familiarity with the kitchen can help. However, it’s much easier to excel at washing dishes, even in a foreign environment and with unfamiliar tools, than it is for an actor to excel at reading cold a speech. The art of acting is inextricably linked to exploring text, rehearsing scenes, and developing character. It takes time.
In an important way, it is unfair for Feldman to ask me to compare his skills. Firstly, his dishwashing was so immaculate and set such a high bar that even Maggie Smith might have had difficulty matching it. Secondly, a dish is a dish. You can look at it and grasp its dimensions, its weight, its substance. A speech read out of context to the play may conceal essential aspects of the character, may not reference important circumstances that define the character.
Someone once likened actors giving cold reading auditions to surgeons demonstrating their skills using a butter knife. A skilled observer might be able to tell something from the cold read, but the activity of auditioning is distinct and very different from the activity of acting in a play. Those of us who have experience casting plays develop an instinct: recognizing the phenomenon of the actor who cold reads superbly but who then, once cast, never deepens. (His opposite is the actor who cold reads dreadfully but, if cast, performs brilliantly.)
But this is conceptual performance art, isn’t it? It’s not meant to be taken entirely literally. It’s meant to provoke thoughts and perspectives outside of the traditional theatre experience. Dishwasher does that.
It turns the typical audience-performer relationship on its head. This actor is coming to us, we don’t go to him, for a start. Waiting for Feldman to arrive, my husband observed that it felt as if we were waiting for a prostitute. And it was a little fraught, a little uncomfortable, truth be told. But isn’t that part of the purpose of a performance like this? It pulls the viewer out of the wash of anonymity with which we are familiar and forces a very direct engagement with the performer. And, after all, if you are seeking comfort, you probably aren’t seeking performances such as this.
Following his arrival, Feldman got to know us a little bit. Generally, when you go to the theatre, you don’t have a chat beforehand with the cast. You express reaction throughout the performance — laughing, gasping, saying “huh” or other things — and finally express appreciation at the end during a curtain call. Generally, the lead doesn’t ask you face-to-face to rate his skills after its all over.
All of this creates a very different experience than the typical theatre-going experience, and the value of the enterprise relies on this unusualness. Of course, I don’t want to read too much into it. Do I?
But how, then, is someone supposed to evaluate this in any way that will be useful to another? The experience will necessarily be wildly different each night, at each place, for each audience. But, back to the meta level, this turns out to be not only different than more traditional theatre, but at the same time, a reflection of more traditional theatre. After all, each performance of a play is somehow unique, each perception of it by a viewer also unique. Dishwasher is that variation writ large.
I spent the day considering different text options. I pulled out first-person existential novels by Camus and Sartre. I looked at chapters of memoirs by Quentin Crisp and Tennessee Williams that I thought would make fun reads. I couldn’t find my copy of A Meeting by the River, Christopher Isherwood’s wonderful epistolary novel that might have been cool to give him.
It wasn’t until he was washing the dishes that I settled on the monologue that ends the first act of The Madwoman of Chaillot, which I had just directed at WSC Avant Bard. The character who speaks it is Irma, the dishwasher, and its content includes reflection on that occupation, so it seemed particularly apt a choice.
Conceived, directed and performed by Brian Feldman
Feldman, now finished with the kitchen (and having taken a long time and done a meticulous job), then took an intermission, during which he looked at the piece (so it wasn’t, strictly speaking, an absolutely cold reading) and we could hear him in the other room as he acquainted the words to his voice.
It was interesting that, scant preparation notwithstanding, he made a few choices that echoed details that our production had developed. That was impressive.
My answer to his concluding question, however, shall remain private. My answer to my editor’s question (rate the experience on a scale of one star to five stars) will be five stars. I like that there’s nothing comparable to this in the festival. I liked that I didn’t have to do my dishes Monday night. I liked not having to leave my house for the show. I liked not having to dress up or wear shoes. I like that it doesn’t matter how many stars I give this in that it won’t effect the ticket sales and no one will buy a ticket thanks to me and then be pissed off if they don’t like it as much. I like that it got me thinking meta-thoughts about performance. I like being in a very exclusive group, the eighteen Dishwasher viewers.
We few. We happy few. Sorry for ya, everyone else.
And have fun cleaning that plate. You don’t want to miss a spot.