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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Art Shading Into Theater—Alexandre Singh interviewed by Steve Cosson

Flora Sans, Sanna Elon Vrij, Sanne den Besten, Gerty Van de Perre, Amir Vahidi, Philip Edgerley. Photo: Sanne Peper 

Alexandre Singh's
The Humans comes to the BAM Fisher on Nov. 13. Singh, best-known as a visual artist, has taken on no less than the creation of the universe in this theatrical production, based on Aristophanes. He spoke with Steve Cosson, who directed ETHEL's Documerica earlier in the Next Wave Festival, as well as last year's production of Paris Commune by The Civilians.
Steve Cosson: What can you do in theater that you’ve never done before? 
Alexandre Singh: This isn’t by any means unique to theater, but this is the longest project I’ve worked on in terms of research and development. Definitely the most fully developed in terms of the script, visual elements, the work with the actors, the chorus, the costumes, the dance. Everything. It was such a pleasure to really be able to flesh out an entire world, and to do so with such talented and imaginative collaborators.

SC: In creating this show were there any aspects of theatrical norms that you were consciously avoiding or working against?
AS: I can’t really say that I’m familiar enough with contemporary theater to know what its norms might be. Not that I’ve chosen to be deliberately naive about it. I couldn’t tell you for that matter what the norms in visual art are either. Sad to say: I spend almost all my time squirrelled away, scratching out my own work. But there are a few what I might term "stylistic" choices that I’ve come across and that I did avoid in this play. I’m not a fan of video projection in theater. I wouldn’t rule it out, per se, but I think it’s quite difficult to reconcile with the materiality of the world on stage. I also much prefer live music and foley to prerecorded sound for much the same reason. What attracts me to theater—and this may seem surprising given the apparent exuberance of The Humans—is its potential to be simple and direct.

SC: Do you consider The Humans to be theater? Or performance? Or is that distinction important to you?
AS: They’re just such broad terms. With regards to The Humans: it’s theater—because, well—it’s a play. Certainly there’s dance and music there as well as certain strong visual ideas that are present throughout. But all of those things are woven into what is at its heart: a quite orthodox piece of theater. Of course when you sit down on any given night to watch it: that’s "a performance."

SC: In a work of performance the audience’s participation is typically a more controlled experience than in the visual arts. In a gallery, they decide how long they choose to spend with a work of art, whereas in theater there’s an agreement to stick around for a set amount of time. As you’ve now made work for both worlds, did you find that this change in the relationship between the work and the audience fundamentally change how you worked as an artist?
AS: Actually no, I don’t believe so. They’re simply different genres with different frameworks. I wouldn’t make a bust without thinking about how it would operate in the world. Nor for that matter write a story, nor conceive of an opera without considering the structures inherent to them. There are however problematics in theater that I find rather intriguing. And those are not those related to time or audience, or to what people so often seem to think are qualities unique to theater. Anyone who’s related a story in a bar implicitly understands rhythm, attention, and storytelling. Instead, it's the rather banal issues, for example: how a prop looks from far away? Does it read? Is it graphic enough? If you bring an object onstage, how do you then get it off? Was it worth going to all that trouble for a quick sight gag? That’s a fundamental difference between the economy of the play on the page and the play on the stage. When you write the play, it’s a puzzle of characters, scenes, and themes that need to be somehow put together. When you direct the play, it’s a puzzle of set changes, costumes, props, entrances, and exits that have to be navigated. And then somehow you have to reconcile these two things together.

SC: Was this the first time you worked with stage actors and designers? What did you learn from them? What do you think they learned from you?
AS: I worked with actors before making installations that resembled radio plays (The School for Objects Criticized, 2010; The Dialogues of the Objects, 2011). But never on a live action work, or at least not one with human beings walking about on a stage. Much the same goes for the level of my collaboration with the designers, musicians, and choreographer that I worked with. I couldn’t begin to relate the amount of things I’ve learned, and am still learning from all of them. An enormous amount. And I really couldn’t answer for them as to what they learned, if anything. But I hazard that it wasn’t perhaps so different an experience to working with any other theater director. I mean—they’re all a little idiosyncratic, aren’t they?

SC: I’m curious to hear about your experience entering into collaboration. At the risk of making a generalization, I find that theater/performance that’s more closely aligned with the visual arts tends towards the expression of a singular vision and aesthetic—Robert Wilson or Richard Foreman—whereas work that’s at the "theater" end of the spectrum tends towards a synthesis of multiple visions, to the degree that in theater we often praise the director’s work for being "invisible." Where would you put your work on The Humans on this spectrum?
AS: I don’t really know if I can answer the question. I just don’t know enough about how other people work to know what’s considered collaborative and what’s not. I’m sure every director considers him or herself completely open and collaborative while at the same time being described by their entire team as quite the jumped-up little tyrant.

SC: Did you have expectations for how you would work with your collaborators that changed as you developed the show?
AS: Actually, no. I don’t think it was radically different to how I thought it might work. Some people are more flexible than others; everyone has their particular approach. You have your own, then you have to find a way to make it work. Of course there’s negotiation. But you know, clearly we’re all working towards the same goal: trying to make the best play we can.

Photo: Sanne Peper
SC: As you’re also the writer of The Humans, do you think of it as a play? Or as a text for performance? Again, does that distinction matter?
AS: Well, I do sincerely believe that the distinction doesn’t matter. There’s perhaps an implication that a theater play might be produced in the future by other directors, whereas a text for performance is unique to a given time and place. Of course Aristophanes never could have imagined anyone else staging his own work. He was writing for a single event, a single performance in time and space. But that doesn’t make his work any more performance and less theater.

SC: One thing that’s often said in the theater world is that film is a visual medium but theater is primarily about language. Which means, I think, that the spoken word is at the center of the multiple disciplines embedded in theater. As a visual artist, I wonder how you feel about that statement? Do you consider an element of The Humans to be central be that the visual the text or whatever?
AS: Well, I should mention first of all that I don’t really think of myself as a visual artist. Not that I think that proviso is so important either. But it might explain my response!

I don’t agree with the assertion that film is a primarily visual medium or theater a textual one. Nor do I consider at all valid the adage that film is the director’s medium and theater the playwright’s. Both mediums are open to a spectrum of artistic, professional, and economic approaches. But why should one have to choose? After all, can’t a work be visually complex and textually rich at the same time? You prioritize the work of any one department over the others at the peril of the play itself.

SC: Another version of this question is—in the theater the text typically comes first in the form of a play. How did The Humans develop? Did the language generate the visual? Or vice versa? Or was it an evenly balanced two-way street?
AS: I think you hit the nail on the head with the analogy of a two-way street. I imagine that anyone who’s writing what they’ll direct is inevitably considering the staging and visual aspects as they craft the text. I was also lucky enough to already be in dialogue with different members of the creative team during that process. So their suggestions and ideas fed directly into the very story itself. But the text itself is never a fixed thing. It’s protean. It changes through production, through the actor’s choices, the global decisions made in response to rhythm and audience. Every canonical text was conceived for and developed throughout its first productions (perhaps Seneca apart).

What’s unique to and stimulating about theater is its living quality. The text is never really finished. The actor has never absolutely nailed down his character. In every performance they’re constantly discovering new things about the role. In the same way, the playwright is always seeing things on the stage he’d not considered before and adapting the text to them. That is something that is clearly different to cinema where the finished film is almost always locked in stone. And I think it’s a difference worth celebrating. Then again, that said, until a film is distributed, it is also mutable. And its script is more of a guide than a blueprint. So perhaps I've exaggerated the differences.

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