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With Your Brains

With Your Brains

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Published by towsen

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: towsen on Apr 30, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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With Your Brains & My Body:The Future Imperfect of Physical Theatre
by John Towsen
(1987)George Bernard Shaw once explained that his way of joking was"to tell the truth: it's the funniest joke in the world." Martha Graham,for her part, claims that "nothing is more revealing than movement."Most of the performing artists seen in this and previous issues of Mime Journal — be they movers or laughmakers or both — wouldprobably agree.Call it mime, new vaudeville, clown-theatre, movement theatre, orsimply physical theatre, there is no denying that it has given ourcontemporary performing arts scene a much needed shot of adrenalin. Audiences have discovered something unique about theseartists — be they Bill Irwin or Daniel Stein — whose entire being isinvested in a live and highly physicalized performance, who workindependently of stunt doubles, flattering camera angles, andassorted technological tricks. Shaw and Graham notwithstanding, itwould no doubt be extremist of me to grant these innovative artists amonopoly on the truth. If, however, the medium is indeed themessage, then perhaps audiences are beginning to equate the"honesty" of performance technique with the honesty of a show'sdramatic content.Comedians are not always physical and mime not always funny, butwhat they do share is the risk inherent in an unpredictable, anythingmight-happen performance. A movement artist literally totters on thebrink of disaster, investing every fiber of muscle, every neuralending in the successful completion of a long and exhausting displayof biomechanical marvels. Clowns and comics gleefully batter downthe fourth wall, boldly inviting the audience into the conversation.
They all do what they do in the here and now, day in and day out.No second takes, no splicing and editing, no laugh track.Today they are the exception to the rule, and that alone may explaintheir renewed popularity. Buster Keaton only used a stuntman oncein his film career, and that was for a brief pole-vaulting sequence.Fred Astaire insisted that his dances be shot in a single take. Todaysuch an attitude would be dismissed as hopelessly purist. Watch anymovie, any television show or commercial, and you will notice thatoutside of professional sports there is little attempt to presentphysical truth. An object is propelled through space and an objecthits its target. The object could be a knife, a car, or a human being,but it's always shown in two takes. Is it even the same object?Today it seems a comic can't even slip on a banana peel in a singletake.Performances that are "sweetened" by technology (and cannot beseen without the aid of technology) are a small part of a larger andmore ominous picture. We live at the dawn of the Age of HomeEntertainment. A mere century ago, your typical earthling may havewitnessed a show or two per year. But today the average Americanhousehold keeps that television set on seven hours a day, and ourtypical citizen is exposed to over a million commercials by the ageof forty. Instead of spending an hour or two in the same room with alive performer, the tv viewer is bombarded by a new image on theaverage of every 3.5 seconds.The communications revolution of the 80's, spawned by thecomputer chip and magnetic tape, is just the tip of this electrifiediceberg. By the turn of the century, the typical American family willnot dream of being without its own home communications center,conveniently combining in one unit the functions of a tv, radio, tapeplayer, vcr, compact disk, musical keyboard, speaker, computer,printer, scanner, modem, telephone, and six other devices yet to be
invented — all of which will come equipped with camcorder andsatellite dish antenna. At long last, we will be able to access almostany film, any tv program ever made at the mere push of a button. Allpublic performances will be taped and made available — even thatclown show you did for the K-3's over at JFK Elementary.No doubt this will in turn spawn the ultimate Age of Narcissism,one that will put the home movies of yesteryear to shame. Ourprivate lives will become mere fodder for homemade docudramas.Children will grow up watching tapes of their own birth, if not of their actual conception, and will learn the facts of life from videossmuggled into backyard tree houses. Everything we do will bedocumented, and this trend will not abate until we are spending half of our lives watching the videotapes we have made of the other half.It would be futile to dismiss this revolution in communications. It isnot all bad and it will not go away; quite the contrary. But we woulddo well to think twice before kneeling down to this new god andhailing it as a great, historical triumph for the performing arts. Weshould think thrice about what we might be losing in the transitionfrom live performance to canned entertainment.Forget for a moment that 99% of what we see is at best bland,homogenized pablum guaranteed to offend nothing but one'sintelligence. The other 1% is still quality stuff, and rather than lose it,we are seeing it transposed from the concert hall to the tv studio, andreaching millions more than it did a generation ago. What, then, arewe losing?Western art, with its emphasis on aesthetic distance and itspreference for music, movement, and language that is planned outand meticulously rehearsed well in advance, may feel it is losinglittle and gaining much in the transition from stage to PBS. But thereis another, more endangered tradition of live performance — one

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