The Routine of Feeling: Emily Gastineau on Skewed Visions’ EX(remade)

SV-EXr-1280x720 (1)I came to view EX(remade) with a major question: Why restage this piece, and why now? When EX was first performed in 2014, there was an immediacy about it. I felt a charge not just in the bodies of the performers, the crackling energy of enacting a brand new, untested work—but also in the knowledge that the emotional content was extremely fresh for Charles personally. (EX was created in the wake of his mother’s and sister’s deaths, both in the same year.) At the time, I remember wondering if it was too soon to shape a perspective on those losses, or if he could have benefited from some distance. I ultimately thought it was bold to make a piece directly following death—to let the impressions be raw, rather than waiting for the feelings to settle. Even though most of the actions performed in EX are task-like, stripped of pathos, there was this undercurrent of very real, not performed, grief.

This lack of pathos is key. In both versions of EX, as well as my knowledge of Charles’ practice more generally, he eschews character- and narrative-driven dramatic convention, instead presenting matter-of-fact human speech and action. Formality comes through the composition of images and placement of objects, rather than heightened vocal or physical techniques. EX borrows its formal structure strictly from a Radiohead song, so that each section of the song dictates the length and recurrence of each section of the performance: a smart device that provides a sense of coherence and familiarity, without having to force it.

Within this container, the approaches of the performers are less responsible for carrying the energy of the piece. The result is that the actions, and their affects, are quite understated: simply reading from a piece of paper (no Actor Voice), simply carrying body that lies on a door (not taking on the Emotional Weight of a pallbearer), simply unwrapping a family heirloom (not handling it with trepidation or pausing dramatically for the audience to grasp its significance). The picture frames provide a literal framing device and compositional structure, so that the bodies, faces, and voices within them do not need to Act, and are not compelled to Feel.

The lack of artifice has much to do with the lineage of experimental and post-dramatic theater, but it also provides an interesting angle on emotional experience itself. I believe that through this work, Charles is saying that the experience of death is not necessarily heightened, that the process of dying is characterized by mundane repetition. There are routine tasks, like administering pills at regular intervals, or sorting through decades’ worth of possessions.

I read an article years ago that has haunted me ever since, and it said that when a parent falls sick, there is usually little argument about which of the siblings will take the role of caretaker—it’s the one who’s been closest all along, and everyone knows it. In these situations, a responsibility arises, and someone steps in to fill it. When a drink was spilled during the performance, I jumped up first because I know where the towels are. They say that if someone is drowning, the closest person jumps in to save them. It’s not heroic; it’s simply what needs to be done and it’s clear who needs to do it. Or even when it is heroic, then no one notices—like when Billy did a headstand on the table and everyone was looking away.

This smaller magnitude of affect necessitates a tricky balance: Give too much, and you move into the realm of artifice and pathos; give too little, and you run the risk of people thinking they haven’t Gotten Anything for their ticket price. In a culture that hasn’t completely let go of the Romantic idea that art should transport you, or deliver a sublime experience, I know that many viewers struggle with work that renounces traditional dramatic structure. Task-based work seems like the performance equivalent of the person who sees a Pollock and says their five-year-old could do that. And creating any work of art requires so much blood, sweat, and tears, we often taste an undercurrent of desperation in any given performance, even when the work itself has nothing to do with that.

For this reason, I’m particularly interested in the section near the end of the piece where Charles calls the performers one by one to sit in a chair and receive his directions. Some of them receive tasks to complete, but often he asks questions around some aspect of personal experience. (“Do you remember how you and I met?” “Tell me about what it was like when you first moved to New York.”) This is the first-person, linear narrative that has been withheld from us so far. There’s a pleasure in receiving confession, feeling the extemporaneity instead of the composition, and believing that we are hearing the unmediated truth. It’s as close to catharsis as we are going to get.

Based on this framework—the objective, values, the poetics of the piece itself—I felt that EX(remade) was most successful when it allowed itself to be understated. There were a few theatrical devices that called attention to themselves as devices: the thickness of the rope around the audience, Charles directing the other performers from inside the piece, staged voices rising over each other. I felt these elements weren’t in keeping with the rest of the piece, self-consciously heightening the atmosphere like a lever prying open theatricality.

But on the whole, I felt that EX(remade) defined its own magnitude of affect—emotionally, compositionally, performatively.  Within this range, there were striking moments of physical detail, delicacy, and control: Megan’s spidery hands and ghostly face as she was silhouetted in the bathroom window, Billy holding the right side of his body completely still while jerking the left side violently. The moments unfettered honesty also stand out: Charles speaking plainly about the origins of the piece, Annie becoming unable to hold back laughter after her instruction to laugh had ended.

I want to advocate for a smaller magnitude of affect in performance, because it’s possible to find great poignancy in a small range. The representation of emotion need not soar to great heights or plunge to great depths—rather, our emotional experience is often on a slow burn, cut through with daily tasks and obligations. We can recognize and analyze minor, nagging, itching feelings, not just consuming passions. Poignancy can be found in this range, to be sure, but ultimately I want to argue for the performative tactics of EX(remade)—its particular magnitude of affect—because poignancy and catharsis need not be the goal of art at all.

To return to my initial question of why this piece, and why now—perhaps EX needed to be remade in order to fulfill its conceptual proposal of repetition, and to settle into its own particular affective tactics—keeping pathos to a minimum, reducing the adrenaline of the original production. The cyclical procedure of the work, the repetition and the routine of it, actually formed a container for its most understated moments and brought them into relief. Personal objects were replaced with candles; the space where a body once stood was replaced with nothing. I am left wondering about hospice care workers, or others who deal regularly with the routine of death. Do the depths of emotion become commonplace? Or is it still new every time?

by Emily Gastineau
Skewed Visions
EX(remade)
Created by Charles Campbell in collaboration with the performers (Charles Campbell, Annie Enneking, Megan Mayer, Billy Mullaney)
Fresh Oysters Performance Research
June 16-25, 2016

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