Material surprise

I caught two programs at the Images Festival this weekend and wondered if –The nature of surprise is different in analog and digital

(for the sake of a very digital either/or I’m including live performance in analog and - importantly for my experience at Images - including film as opposed to digital video)


In analog, we (the audience) can be happily1 surprised by content and by material.2

In both analog and digital we can be surprised by content of course - something unexpected happening in the thing we’re seeing. Structure, events, language, image, context, juxtaposition etc… The common elements can all be a part of this. Experimental or classical, academic or populist etc… all play this game.

In analog work, the material can also surprise - first the artists and then the audience and this surprise can be central to the meaning making. The body can do the unexpected, the language slips, the paint behaves in unpredicted ways, the celluloid does something different. These productive mistakes are then integrated into, or become, the content.

But material surprise is not something I, as an audience member, look for or experience with digital. When it exists it's only jarring (I'm thinking of digital noise, broken code, dropped frames)

2 pieces by way of example:

In Sugar Beach, it’s the in camera processing of film that surprises - Mark shoots through a small hole, rewinds the film and does it again – resulting in a “same but different” that’s beautiful and bound to the material of film.

On the other end of the spectrum: Simon Quéhiellard’s Maître-Vent is a piece of him setting up discarded materials (broken umbrellas, boxes, skin ply) by the side of the highway and recording their reaction to the wind of passing trucks. So much surprise, delight, tragedy, expectation and narrative ensue from watching his desire and the reactions of plastic bags and pop cans. It’s the best Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton film made last year. The surprise, though, isn’t in the material of video. Digital accidents would be out of place and much less meaningful.

This probably isn’t a new thought in the world - and I’d love to be pointed towards the exceptions - but it was lovely to experience it first hand.

Images Festival is on until April 20th two things other things I want to catch:

  • Rope  - FADO co-presention at the Theatre Centre Pop-Up. April 16th is your last chance.
  • Ants at Interaccess - Oh!m1gas is a tribute to the sophistication and organization of ant colonies

  1. “Happily” for me is a pretty open term I use for a response that one is glad to have had - this, of course, can include a wide range of responses. ↩
  2. Another insufficient but helpful dialectic. ↩

Coversating on the stage

Recently I was asked for some thoughts and red flags for moments of “casual” performance and audience interaction. This is a slightly edited version of what I wrote, in case it can be of use to anyone else.

First, I mostly try to replace “casual” with “conversational” these days, since there’s little about casual about it.

Key (but general) thoughts might include:

Allow - don’t generate. This is a specific kind of improv note really. Let what is happening happen - let it play on the face and body and voice and heart. As a performer, I find my Viewpoints, hosting and clown-through-mask experience helpful in this if dialled way down to awareness and acceptance.

You are always performing There can be a refusal to approach repeatable systems (like jokes or clear language) in a misguided authenticity claim. It’s still a show, you’re still a performer. You have some skills to cope with the craziness of being in front of a crowd and everyone being ok with that. It’s ok to allow those skills as well. (Viewpoints, clown, hosting - as above)

Do unto others. +20% for subjective variation This is part “make the show you want to attend” and part “how would you like it if.” Making Dedicated to the Revolutions (the main experience I have with “audience participation”) - we all agreed that we hated audience participation. Given that, what were we ok with? Mostly the answer was doing things that left the audience members autonomy intact and avoided humiliation that wasn’t requested. Also, Frank was very good at this, so he did the heavy lifting.

Some other lessons learned from Revolutions
Any time we said “Another interesting thing we found while working on this show…”: we shouldn’t have. We cut 15 minutes of that kind of crap after the first run and nobody was sad.

People can make jumps with you, too much work on complicated transition talking is rarely helpful for anyone.

Momentum matters. As does dramaturgical rhythm and drive. These don’t have to look all well-made-play or Canadian “all the threads connect in the end” but think about the experience of the audience and their attention.

Jonathon Burrows: “Not only must things change, but the rate at which things change must change.”

Emotion matters. (important: see “Allow, don’t generate”) The songs carried much of the emotion in the show, but there were other places we let it through and it was important.

If people want to research information, they’ll go to the library (or use google, who are we kidding) - they come to the theatre for something other than that. Maybe: For people, not so unlike them, trying to overcome an obstacle (“how do we talk about progress and science as non-experts”) and being reasonably entertaining while doing it (i.e. caring about the audiences experience)

ok… that’s a long list of generalness. Let me know if it’s useful of if there are specific thoughts.

You can also join me in seeing Architect Theatres' This is the place: The CN Tower Show at Theatre Passe Muraille (click here for more) to see how they dealt with things like this. I had a great time this summer with Georgina and Greg and am looking forward to seeing what they all came up with.