Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Scenic Design’s Social Impact

Salvage Vanguard Theater’s partner in the Austin Scenic Co-Op is Rude Mechanicals. Today, Thomas Graves of Rude Mechs shares with us a thought provoking meditation on scenic design and its significance beyond the stage…

I began working on this project during a state of emergency. When hurricanes Katrina and Rita tore through the southern United States, many of us felt an urgent need to act. Among other things, the devastation Katrina and Rita caused forced us to recognize the racist and classist structure of our society; the fact that our elected government officials fail to serve us; the scarcity of natural resources; and the devastating effects of our actions on the environment. The crisis caused me to interrogate the ethics of my arts practice and ask myself how I can have a more positive impact.

Over the past three and a half years I have been working as an actor and sometimes technical director with the theatre collective Rude Mechanicals (Rude Mechs) in Austin, TX. Katrina and Rita book-ended the construction of the set for the Rude Mechs’ production Match-Play. As technical director of this production I bought the materials and organized the labor required to build the set. Performing this task in a state of crisis made me wonder what impact the immense time and resources invested in the construction of theatrical sets has on the world.

The Rude Mechs adapted Match-Play from renowned choreographer Deborah Hay’s dance The Match. The play uses Hay’s performance practice to raise questions about consciousness and the relationships between theatre, dance and daily practice. The work of performers like Hay that challenge the boundary between what I regard as carefully crafted artistic practice and everyday life inspire me to more be more intentional about practices of making theatre.

Early in her career, Hay participated in the Judson Dance Theatre, a group that explodes notions of dance’s ontology. Watching Deborah Hay perform, my perceiving heightens and expands. A plane flies overhead as she makes a slow turn center stage, and I hear, as if for the first time, the intricate complexity of the sound of a jet engine. Nothing escapes the performance. Planes, late-comers, and people rustling candy wrappers all become something to marvel at. Hay’s work expands my understanding of what performance is, thus challenging me to carefully consider what happens behind-the-scenes as much as that which happens onstage. This more capacious definition of performance demands that the technical process receive attention.

The performance of Match-Play itself certainly has an impact by making us—technicians, performers, and audience—question the way we perceive the world. The set, therefore, in so far as it serves as a site for the performance and furthers its artistic vision, makes an impact. However, considering the nature of tragic events that surrounded the production I couldn’t help but feel the need to have my labor as a technical director make an impact that was less ephemeral and esoteric, and more concrete and immediate. Linda Frye Burnham captures the sense of urgency that fuels this project when she states, "There is too much going on outside . . . Real life is calling. I can no longer ignore the clamor of disaster—economic, spiritual, environmental, political disaster—in the world in which I move.” I am interested in exploring the ways that the performance of my labor and its product can have a direct material result in the face of real life disaster.

Peggy Phelan, in her book Unmarked, makes the case that performance is fundamentally ephemeral. She writes, “Performance’s only life is in the present . . . Performance’s being . . . becomes itself through disappearance.” Although I agree with Phelan, matter refuses to disappear. The performance may disappear, but the set, props and costumes remain. Considering matter’s durability, should not the impacts of the material excesses be as intentional as those of the performances they support?

I want my work in the world to matter. This project focuses on the technical production of theatre as an important site to do those things many performances confront onstage, like countering capitalism, addressing inequality, and contributing to the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. I am interested in how theatre enacts better futures, not only in the moments of live performance, but also within technical production. This Austin Scenic Co-op project concerns itself with the making of theatre as a way to create the world in which we want to live.

--Thomas Graves, Co-Producing Artistic Director, Rude Mechs

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