When Nato Thompson bounced up on stage at Plays and Players Theater Thursday night to greet the audience and introduce the double-bill shows of the Visual Fringe, he asked a rhetorical question. Do people have a different expectation for a visual arts performance than for a theater performance? He said what we were going to see that night, which was part of the 2013 Fringearts Festival, was a hybrid of performance art and theater performance, with a Thai artist and community organizer’s mural project with Plays and Players and with Liz Magic Laser’s project, The Living Newspaper, which uses the news as theater because news is theater.
The production began when actors dressed as clowns walked down the aisles distributing a comic book by Navin Production, the artist’s studio in Thailand. “Read it!” we were told. “Right now, do it!”
The 40-page book told the story of a young orphan girl who had found a home at Plays and Players Theater, and of the artist, Navin, who also had found comradeship there and a home away from home.
The next “act” was the dropping of the large, stage-spanning mural Navin made based on his visit to the theater to interview the actors and others involved in Plays and Players. The grisaille mural is an ambitious production with what seems like hundreds of figures in a “class picture”-like arrangement.
“Act 3” introduced actors who told their stories of finding a home in the theater, followed by a quick appearance by the artist who thanked everyone for their help.
The show seemed like a standard theater piece that celebrated a little community theater and its members. The visual art (comic book, mural), while tacked on, are as sweet and earnest as the testimonials by the actors and others whose lives have been changed by the theater and the idea of putting on a worthy production.
The mural project reminded me how globalization has taken over the art world. For here is a truly Philadelphia-style mural, created very much the same way the Mural Arts Program works with a community, and yet this was painted in Thailand by a Thai artist and his studio.
Liz Magic Laser’s production, “The Living Newspaper” parodies the ways news media manipulate people’s emotions and opinions. In this media-savvy theatrical set-piece, cameras pointed to the audience as well as to the actors playing news reporters and anchors, in a familiar set-up that looked a little like Oprah, a little like NBC Nightly News and a lot like a Saturday Night Live skit. My one quibble is the use of newspaper in the title of a piece that most resembled the electronic media.
There was schtick galore and some of it was very good. A beat-up looking disco ball stood in for the spinning globe used in the graphic introduction to real tv news programs. And instead of grandiose canned music with horns and drums, the three performers — all excellent — knelt down and, acapella, hummed and scatted a few grand anthemic chords into enormous megaphones. Now that was funny.
Survey data, always a part of news gathering, came in for the best ribbing, as, for example, news anchor Michael Wiener (real name) asked the audience for a round of applause to respond to this typical pollster question: “How do you think President Obama is doing?” Clap if you approve (many claps). Clap if you don’t (fewer claps). Pausing a second or two while, he said, the statisticians were tallying the results, Wiener then announced through his megaphone that “Poll results show people overwhelmingly negative on Obama,” just like a headline you might see on any given day in any newspaper. Funny.
Later on, news reporter Annie Fox (real name) strolled the center aisle and asked audience members how they got their news. As people gave their various responses (internet, radio, New York Times, from friends or family), Wiener used his megaphone to “translate” the results from each sample size of one into grand generic statements. As in, “Women wearing pretty tank tops get their news from the internet” or “Women wearing glasses get their news from their husbands.”
I admire playing with statistics. They are so very ripe for manipulation, so why not have some fun with them. This boldfaced lying with number crunching was very successful.
The staging of Laser’s piece was more theatrical performance than art performance, but that was probably due to its being performed on a stage in a theater. Released from the stage setting and allowed to ramble the streets of Philadelphia, this would have been a terrific performance art piece, where the surprise of running into a fake tv crew with megaphones, who were “translating” what you said into ridiculous statistical data, would have created much food for contemplation and conversation.
In another segment that mimicked Oprah and other talk show scenarios, audience members were asked on stage by news anchor Audrey Crabtree (real name) to talk about their feelings. The two vignettes played out had great visual impact, and, unlike some of the schtick, it had some ambiguity built in that kept me thinking about its intent.
“Have you been to a monument?” was one question. And, the typical talk-show follow up, “How did it make you feel?”
The participants were shown a recent news photo of a group of people grieving. Would they help re-create the photo? They were placed in front of a projection of the photo, posed like people in the photo and a photographer took photos of them posing. Then they were told what the photo represented and asked to pose again with more feeling this time, which they did. More photographs were taken, and they were asked how they felt the second time. “Oh it was much more emotional,” they said. The audience clapped and the participants sat back in their seats.
This exercise in emotional manipulation — which worked on the two participants and trickled over to the audience looking at it from afar — seemed to get to the heart of The Living Newspaper: How the media ruthlessly exploit people’s feelings for their own purposes (to sell newspapers and advertising and feed a business model that needs profits)
Liz Magic Laser (real name, no kidding) has created something pretty special in this production — a piece of political performance art whose message is beware of men and women with microphones and what they say and how they use what You say. I only wished The Living Newspaper could have been untethered from a stage, that made it feel like experimental theater, and allowed to roam the streets of Philadelphia to share its ideas about media manipulation with many more people. Tied to the stage it felt a lot less like the cathartic experience it might want to be.
A final shout out to “Slow and Steady Wins the Race,” the costume designer, for the wonderful Janus-like costumes that from the front were beige trenchcoats and from the back were black jump suits that disappeared into the crowd. Simple can be magic.
This is Not a Theater: Navin Rawanchaikul (Navin Production) on Sept. 11-14 and The Living Newspaper: On Location by Liz Magic Laser, Sept. 11-12, were part of the 2013 Philadelphia Fringearts Festival.