I went to see Losing Kantor on the last of eight showings. I should have gone a few more times, to piece together more of the whole thing- I didn’t see it all, but I wouldn’t have seen it all anyway at any performance, complying as I did with a major construct of Losing Kantor directly intended to alter audience viewing. This is the subject of my response here, rather than the content of the show itself—though there’s of course a stimulating line of thought to follow with regard to this construct and what the show then “appears” to be about, and how to think of the intention behind it and the relationship between its creator Charles Campbell and its homaged subject, iconic Polish theater director Tadeusz Kantor.
It does feel a little wrong to pass over pretty much the entire actual substance of Losing Kantor, so here’s a sense of it: the performers, (the well-tuned performance fam of Charles Campbell, Annie Enneking, Megan Mayer, Billy Mullaney) cycled through a set of unrelated, complementary scenes that at times played clearly with Kantor’s own material, at other times held more ambiguous movements and behaviors, at others evoked familial and social scenes, at others explicitly used frames to address framing and observer/observed, and at still others processed and sort of dreamed of moments and feelings I can’t describe how I connected to. But as much as I was engaged by all these aspects, they were most poignant and intriguing because of the miniature narrow hallway I had pressed to my face, through which I was angling and gawking the whole time. And as I said, I didn’t even see what happened really, right there from the first row even—none of us did—Charles didn’t exactly want us to.
Late in the development and rehearsal of Losing Kantor, creator Charles Campbell decided to introduce a device that audiences would be prompted to hold up over their faces and watch the entire show through. You can see everyone’s obedient participation in the picture; and by and large everyone stuck with it throughout the production. What looks somewhat harsh or authoritarian from the outside was actually somewhat tender and domestic on the inside. You can see in the other picture the frame through which one watched: a tiny empty crooked hallway with a high window leaving its patch of light on the way to a door left ajar over nowhere. Either way, there’s an austerity in that strange constructed space, but austerity maybe evoking humility rather than punishment. You’re not locked in a bleak place- you’re looking out from your poor little home at the big world as best you can. And all the people and behaviors and settings you see out there are of a different order—of scale- seemingly outsized, but also moving with a logic and pace you can’t quite make out or keep steady. The hindered vision revealed two experiences I find really important in interpreting and valuing Losing Kantor that I’d like to discuss: how the people watching were much more visibly active in their effort to see and know; and how the people performing, and the personas they represented, were seemingly protected in their space of being.
ON THE INSIDE, OR, EXISTENTIAL MAKING DO
When I put down my viewing apparatus for a minute and looked around, I found nearly the entire audience with both hands on their apparatus locked to their faces and craning, leaning, focusing in every direction as they tried to squarely follow what the performers were doing. They were so intent in their desire to capture what was happening, and yet they seemed at ease with the low fidelity of their knowledge. It was a pleasure in itself just to be seeking and framing; having an incomplete picture or partial understanding is not unusual in life—perhaps being so explicitly stifled in that allows you to indulge in it… I think this might be a stretch, to be honest- and what’s more, we all certainly took many glances outside of our viewing devices when things got particularly interesting or lively. But generally, we willingly went back to our long little hall and peered through the door. Perhaps if it was just some kind of other abstract visibility block and not a “real” space we wouldn’t have cared to make do. But being given that homely home to be inside of was just existentially potent enough to make us embrace the treatment; to make do.
This is really my point—making do is an existential condition that I think many know well; it’s a profoundly diminishing but necessary experience that can change our ability to recognize actual clarity, wholeness, excellence, empowerment, more. But we rarely have any reason or ability to spatialize making do the way we did watching Losing Kantor. What felt poignant was the paradox of the apparent wish to know from that pitiable space of one’s own, sitting there next to others’, and the sphere of giant people and obscure behaviors outside so complete with difference and beyond comprehension. If making do is a way of life, here was a domestic space for it to be staged, a home base where the condition is launched and returns. Each time your stare caught on that window, that stain of light, that lonely hall, that ambivalent door, in trying to see beyond and out, it was plainly humbling, and the affective experience and repercussions that come out of that as far as I can tell are actually deeply tied to what Kantor surfaced in his characters and his work- to be discussed further on.
ON THE OUTSIDE, OR, SHIELDING LIFE FROM LIFE
With regard to the other end of this device, the four people enacting their collective activities, my thought is completely separate in a way, but still holds the basic idea that this tool isn’t really about empathy but about emphasizing one’s position and place. It seemed to me that the actors were fundamentally in an unusual private space: even though they were on stage in front of people, they weren’t being watched in any sort of complete way, or by equals who also bare their own faces and can adeptly observe and critique. The performers were in a sort of ritual space; being seen by a masked ensemble consumed enough in its own role and compromised condition to view them in the more volatile fashion of a regular audience. We were more witness in the symbolic sense, and they were, in a way, in a safer space, a space more conducive to allowing them to focus on themselves and their ritual being, group process, their parts- indeed I’d even say the “characters” or personas themselves that they were performing were also immersed in this privacy, inasmuch as there was overall a big grey area between the actors and the characters in Losing Kantor.
While we in the seats peered attentively, blindly, through our peephole-sized living quarters’ doors catching a fourth of the action, the four performers and their dozen+ personas were engrossed in an elaborate, loose choreography encompassing many archetypal, mundane, and surreal aspects of life, a procession of moments and gestures they needed each other for, to complete and see it all through. They were doing it because an audience was there, but they weren’t really doing it for the audience- it was a practice, in both sense of the word. By virtue of the humbling view of our devices, their visibility was covered; they were protected as they inhabited their strange world. From my understanding of Kantor, this is an ideal if fraught condition for the rendering of life—the best way to treat memory and its embodiment, to show it, covered.
Through a series of watching sessions held by Charles, I’ve watched three video documents of Tadeusz Kantor’s productions, which involve a very close company of performers not unlike the four that came together here once again in Losing Kantor. Kantor’s exceptionally colorful posse always seemed to be very much in their own world on stage, enacting moments and situations that were as obscure in content as they were utterly expressive in psychical and archetypal import. Which is to say, the overall impression is that they are uncannily recognizable strangers embedded in an deeply ambiguous world much more so than in a simply mysterious story or narrative. His audiences weren’t ever looking through a long black hall mask, but they were still very much “besides” the performance, instead of “in front of it” as audiences normally are. Those watching were less interpreters of content and meaning than they were experiencing the manifestation of a world and a set of its conditions as people and behaviors; watching a cycle of memory, injustice, profanity, and more, repeat itself, a trial run that will never go to trial. And indeed Kantor, the director, who’s usually physically in the piece, as central as he is silent, behaves as if he’s in a rehearsal as the audience sits aside, watching the scene as the action happens, moving performers/personas around, conducting them—and they all respond, get it right, move on with the practice.
Charles took on the same role, albeit a little more collaboratively, and his gang responded in kind. This behavior on the part of the directors helps to bolster the audience’s intent form of watching and looking into the characters the world, as they see someone from the outside like themselves work so attentively with those elements. And yet, this behavior also serves to separate and shield the performers/personas and their routines and world from harsh, unjust reality and fallible, invasive outside eyes. Kantor even often explicitly hides or obscures personas or vulnerable moments from clear view in his productions. Charles commented on this at one point in the viewing series as a way of “protecting” memory and the agents and moments it hangs on while trying to work with it all as creative material. The impact and effect of Losing Kantor‘s viewing device seems to be thoroughly steeped in such efforts. The limited lens of the device activates a sort of deference to the stage and performers as unknowable, and yet also directs their movements and relationships in having to function as a camera, constantly framing its subject and action.
Who and what we actually found in those fractions of penetration is hard for me articulate, I don’t mind saying. And it would also be an interesting challenge to corroborate this with the others I was among, since we each had an utterly idiosyncratic view from our respective domicile-muzzles. We are all alone, together- visibly part of a group of like beings with our overgrown identical masks, but each in their own struggle for the same thing. I think now this a final, surprising revelation about what the viewing device afforded- the chance to be inside the head of a quintessential Kantor character. In any of Kantor’s productions, the personas he stages are nothing if not extremely caricatured. Their perspectives are intrinsically rigid–you see it in their bodies, their facial expressions, their compulsive exaggerated habits—they’re seeing through a very narrow but deep perspective they can’t help but wield as they try to work out the lives they have before them like a cart before a horse. They’re clumsy; they move fast when they catch onto something; they’re at home in their bodies like someone who never ever gets out of the house.
This was us, in our watching. In this way, we were much more like a Kantor subject than the ones we saw on stage, who were perhaps the evolving corpus of work of Charles and company, meeting Kantor’s half way. I know Charles felt a lot of apprehension throughout the development process about how exactly this show related to Kantor and how to present, or incorporate, or transcend, his style and concepts, which as I understand have singularly influenced Charles’ own practice. Perhaps that’s why, in continually butting up against these tensions in the performance component, the viewing device became a late experiment to answer all this through another tact altogether. I think it sealed the fate of engaging with the performance itself, but it sealed it brilliantly behind- or between- a door that revealed a number of exquisitely slippery concerns in Kantor’s, and in turn, Charles’, approach to staging our intimate experience with the abstractness of life. For experimental theater, it really seems necessary to me to find ways of sensitizing audiences to that human condition, and especially if the risk is just missing a few sequences of experimental theater. That might be “the show” itself sure, but that’s not necessarily what we have to come to see.
response to Charles Campbell’s Losing Kantor
at Fresh Oysters Performance Research, October 22, 2016