I made notes for a long time, then chose three categories, three containers: survive, blazon, submit.
I met this word as a verb while studying the plays of Christopher Marlowe. To blazon, poetically, is to extol the virtues and beauty of the subject of your writing. The gesture is heraldic, as if you, the author, can see the secret imprint of the soul of your cherished thing, can describe its face in the immutable terms of a coat of arms, something persisting through time that is also related to life blood, to energy, to presence. That same season I was reading Marlowe, I founded 53rd State Press to document and preserve the ephemeral, under-the-radar writing of my small community, and the verb to blazon struck my imagination. I understood that something about performance documentation, as far as I would be involved in it, had to do with enthusiasm, with compatriotism, with recommending the subject to posterity. To reach for the word blazon was to invoke deep time.
I’ve made books, zines, and other ephemera (card decks, broadsheets), all of which I think of as expanding the radius of a performance’s neighborhood. The zines, cards, and broadsheets are placed in hand upon leaving the theater, functioning as souvenir, remainder, reminder. Happened upon out of context, they give hints and glimpses of something other people experienced. Their medium is memory, but these things do not bid for deep time. If they survive, they point to a moment, a texture, a room; they’re junk shop treasures. The books I’ve made make a different wish, enacted editorially. They want to be contributions to the literature: the work of a tradition that exceeds any moment, any scene. When I say “the literature” I think of something not quite identical with the archive. To place a blazon in the literature is an attempt at something like planting an eternal flame. Something preserved alive.
The overstatement is the point. Our love is real.
I began the work of publishing charged with a mission to blazon my portion of the theater world, but as time passed, it seemed to me that the critical gesture of bookmaking was one not of preservation, even of a living flame, but of invitation. The book creates a third space between performance and audience: a variation on the materials of the performance that is its own experiential event in its own typographic medium. So the gesture of invitation I’ve started to embed in my books, as an editor, is to ask readers to give themselves permission to superposition their imaginative theatrical room on top of their reading, to enter the holodeck that thinking makes possible. To read the possibilities for an expansive approach to embodiment and voicing in a script, and not simply treat the page as a transcript. This has something to do with linking actual and speculative iterations: the page holds clues to the images and approaches used in a theatrical rendering that has already happened, and since it cannot be photographically rendered in full, those clues can simultaneously seed a new iteration (whether the reader’s mental experience or a future performance) and make present something about the one that is past.
There’s a built-in imperfection to this, because all those choices about embodiment, voicing, timing, sonority, can’t be adequately represented on the page–at least not in a just-add-water way (with the reading standing for the water)–to resurrect the performance itself. And this is why the books nominate themselves for the literature and not the archive. They want the future and the past at the same time. They want you to give the play a never-before-seen rendition in the theater of your mind. A video, of course, has its own set of imperfections, chief among them the loss of the room, the group experience, the committed duration.
(It is my recommendation that when you watch the videos on this site, you disable other browser windows, create some ritual of tiny cinema, and pledge not to leave the screen until the piece is complete. At the very least you can give yourself the undistracted hour and let the piece work in real time as it wants to.)
In a live performance, this same imperfection is at play along different parameters, not absences but abundances, accidentally narrowed by focus or permutations day-to-day in the run-throughs: how do the layers speak to each other, what is the angle of vision, what do you happen to be attending to, how do you guide your attention amidst competing details? In my aggro-enthusiast-scholarship days, I championed this complexity as irreducibility: the resistance to reducing (in the manner of reducing fractions) this heap to any single meaning. Performance as refutation of conclusion. Conclusion as retrospective sifting made against the grain of the event’s actual richness. I wasn’t so interested in conclusion in those days; I was interested in the fact of having a rich experience that goes on for a while and then stops. And then restarts as echo.
Richness is not one of the container words that I chose, but as I write I realize it’s perhaps the critical term in documentation because it’s so impossible to supply, at least in the appropriate simultaneity that collaborative, multi-disciplinary, in-the-room performance does. I don’t think this is about anything animistic. Richness ≠ essence, soul, or any of those old-school words or our new-school hedgings of them. But if richness ≠ essence, is there a readerly richness, something that works differently than real-time-group-experience richness, that can be nurtured on a page? With this question, I’ve gotten as far as: 1) make an invitation to activate a speculative, free, envisioning of the script translated to event; 2) don’t get attached to sequence (start over, interrupt, annotate, embellish, look again).
Last night, I watched a video of a performance I was part of thirteen years ago. It’s a good video, multi-camera. It gets close. It does much of what cameras can do when not cordoned off at the back of a theater. The video links me to a time in my life. What would it be to watch it having never been there? Traces of an audience reaction help the latecomer; the piece was performed in the round, so the video viewer can borrow the attention of the audience members visible and occasionally audible behind the action. There is evidence of the room—the event’s signature that night, in other words. It is not a photographic documentation. It is not a preservation of the piece absent the preservation of the event. You watch it and you watch something that took place in a room, on a night, and that container, that constant reminder that this was an event, perhaps supplies the imaginative invitation to the latecomer to activate some speculative experience of the room.
I don’t know if it’s worth trying to determine whether the work or the room is more important. The choreography or the dancing of it. The event or the literature, the bid to join the architectures of preserved and transmitted thought that create the human world.
I leave that as an open question, to you, reader, viewer, one you might answer differently in different moods. Are you here to participate in the compositions humans have made and preserved unto lasting? Or are you here to get some feeling of a room you missed out on being in, a moment in your life that you might have lived, but for the accidents of time and place?
There is survival in memory but it tends to shrink, focalize, pare. A piece of music overheard casts me back to a performance I saw in another country twenty years ago, when I happened to arrive in a city during a festival. I remember almost nothing of the performance itself (a suitcase, something pea-green?), but I remember what it felt like to be in the room. What good does it do to recover any of this? If I hold myself there, I see the rake of the audience risers, the shine of light in a black box theater so familiar to me from black box theaters everywhere, this one a little bit more golden than any other hue. I see the purple-grey brick face of the building, its box office nestled in an angled wall that joins itself in my memory to other brick municipal buildings built in similar eras. Maroon and brown patterned carpet in the lobby. I sat alone, didn’t speak the language. What survives is private, a moment that reminds me I’ve lived and aged, passing through this medium of experience.
Then there is survival as an offering to future rooms. I think of my college self in the stacks, reading full books sitting on those little stools you use to access the high shelves. The ur-text I think of when I think of documentation is an oral history I read on the Grand Union. When I was a dance student, video documentation was fairly limited and poor in quality. We’d write to the Library of Performing Arts in NYC to send videos, which we’d gather in the video carrels to watch when they arrived six weeks later. I found documentation that consisted of spare photographs and oral history more resonant, more giving somehow. Later, when I saw film footage of the Grand Union, it was, weirdly, exactly as I’d imagined it. And this mattered because, taking the people in that posse as my forebears, I had internalized their permissions, their habits, as something I could draw on for myself. I wonder, if I’d seen the footage early on instead of reading about the events, would I have inserted myself into it or inserted it into myself with such a sense of identity and belonging? Would I have mimicked their mannerisms and missed their deep permissions? Could I propose a documentation in which the thing survives as offering, as a kind of partial erasure that makes room for you, the reader?
(Here, pause to consider the use of blank space on the page as a literalized opening into which you are invited to project your own imaginative richness.)
It’s a question of facing. Do you face the archive as the record of things past, submitting to its factuality and authority, or does the thing in your hands face you, giving itself to a not yet manifested future? Delicate, lossy, rich, maybe only the absorption of a moment, but not yet manifested until you.
Commissioned and edited by the writer Claudia La Rocco as part of a three-year project to build context around contemporary performance, this work was supported by a Building Demand for the Arts Implementation grant to On the Boards from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.