Post by Jacob Hellman
On this final weekend of the Fringe/Live Arts Festival, and after my third year in attendance, I finally grasped the meaning of the phrase “Live Arts.” Thursday night, as we waited for Norwegian artists Verdensteatret to fix technical glitches in their show “louder,” I read and re-read their program – “[We are] artists from different fields who work together and make live-art and other art projects.” That little hyphen provided the elucidation: “Live Arts,” more than an umbrella term for theater, is also live-art, something akin to “fine art” as covered by this blog. Just as one “makes a painting,” Verdensteatret say they “make live-art.”
The crowd of nearly 200 waited 15 minutes, then 30, then an hour, but a surprising patience reigned – perhaps word spread of the delicate robots shipped from Norway for this 3-night run. When we were finally seated after 11pm, the house was full. Before us, a haphazard array of conical megaphones, the kind you imagine projecting propaganda in Soviet countries. In the corner, a giant spider, whose spindley metal limbs became a softer, less threatening shadow on the screen behind. As the lights faded, those limbs began moving, slowly, crawling in place.
“Louder” unfolds as a series of “movements.” The performers work slowly, deliberatively, taking their time to let a conversation of sound emerge. At the finale, people shout, the spider comes to life again, and a few rogue megaphones begin spinning in place, accelerating into oblivion as they holler. Thirteen men and women take their bow, and all I can think is – airfare! shipping for all that gear! How lucky we are that the Norwegian government underwrites this kind of cultural exchange!
The piece is massively collaborative, and requires precise fiddling, so each performance is different. This from Håkon Lindbäck, a seven-year member. And about the hour delay? A card that individually controlled 64 megaphones simply frizzed out. Prolific Philly sound designer Nick Kourtides came up with a near-replacement in a rush, but Håkon explained in his soft Norwegian accent, “I couldn’t figure out my internal routing – I’d had 64 channels, and this was 60. It was a bit awkward, you know?”
The show starts, stylishly, without warning: a din on the PA suddenly peaks loudly, lights come to full strength, and our chatter silences. Like a groundhog, Geoff pokes his head up from a mail cart, peers around, and crawls out. In shirt and tie, frazzled hair, and glasses, he is a low-level manager, creature of that strange, artificial environment which has taken over so much of our world.
The story is simple; a woman tries to romance an uninterested man. The narrative-minded (perhaps narrow-minded) might call it a “play,” but Flesh and Blood is closer to, in Verdensteatre’s words, “live-art.” It is a social critique that the artistic team has sublimated into an aesthetic meditation. The show lives in each of its small events – Charlotte making lunch, Geoff shuffling papers meaninglessly – with exacting attention to the visual and auditory; a series of compact essays, written through performance art, on our alienation from nature and from each other.
The first 10 minutes pass without dialogue. Our attention is honed, instead, to hear sounds: Geoff riffs on his creaky chair, then chases an unseen but audible fly. (It sticks to hanging fly-paper, which by invisible rigging, twitches and shakes as if the imaginary insect is struggling.) Charlotte operates the microwave, but instead of a few beeps followed by the expected whir, she absurdly punches the keypad ad infinitum. Beeping echoes eerily through the giant space. When words are spoken, they, too, become an abstraction of sounds: Charlotte’s nasal drone as she reads a generic memo, Geoff’s flat utterances, in mindless response. “Hmm…yeah…I gotta make these copies…ok, right…yeah, can you collate these for me?…hmm.”
–Jacob Hellman is a writer, artist and a political activist based in Philadelphia. He previously wrote on Oedipus at FDR.