Comments by Gail M. Burns, June 2007

“No matter how we rehearse our intention, the performance has its own accidents.” – M.C. Richards

Every time you go to the theatre you have a unique experience. Even in a show with a carefully rehearsed script each performance is its own creature, not only because the performers themselves will be at different places in their lives, but because every audience is different.

As part of NL – A Season of Dutch Arts in the Berkshires MASS MoCA brought Dutch puppeteer/dancer/performance artist Ulrike Quade (pronounced Uhl-REE-kay KWAH-day) to North Adams for an artist’s residency and pretty much gave her carte blanc to develop a new work. What was performed publicly on June 30 in the Hunter Center was a work that has never been and will never be seen again. It was site specific and created by a team that had never all collaborated before. Listening to the after-show discussion it was clear that Quade, having been handed this great opportunity, which she termed a “dream come true,” went around the world picking up artists she admired and inviting them to be part of this project. How cool is that?

I received permission from Quade, through MoCA officials, to write about The Wall which was the appropriately open-ended title of this piece. There were various bits of published information purporting to describe what this piece was “about” but ultimately none of them came close to being right. I think this artist’s statement from Quade that appeared in the program best sums up both the performance and the process by which it was created:

"The Wall" is a visual theater performance depicting a journey into the dreams and deepest recesses of one woman’s psyche. The characters are the tools of her subconscious, performing as she imagines them. The piece is a metaphor for our innermost thoughts, fear, and visions, represented here by the puppet characters and the enigmatic environments. Their movements are fragmented and out of control, erratically repeating and looping as if in a dream state, ultimately suggesting that we are seeing through the mind’s eye.

For this piece, Quade is working in collaboration with stage designer/visual artist Michiel Voet and musician/composer Erik Sanko in order to blend disciplines and produce a visual theater experience that is unconfined by a traditional narrative. The collaborators combine several artistic styles – dance, puppetry, music, and visual imagery – to create w unique performance language which brings each of the disciplines to a new creative place, with the freedom to intersect and respond to the other genres. This residency and method of working have brought together a variety of artists, some of whom are meeting and working together for the first time in this openly creative atmosphere.

The statement published in promotional materials which obviously had deadlines many months earlier said that The Wall would be “...a series of portraits of individuals living in a claustrophobic contemporary space” (it wasn’t) and that “...the characters are the outline of a dream of the musician Erik Sanko – they are the tools of his song, the puppets of his mind.” Quade’s artist’s statement makes it clear that the dreamer is woman. But I quote these ideas because they give a glimpse into the creative process at work. Undoubtedly The Wall was going to be about one or both of those things, but it ended up being about neither because, during the collaborative process, those ideas proved to be untenable or were superseded by new and better ideas. If this piece has other incarnations, yet more ideas will be utilized, especially as the work conforms to different performance spaces.

For The Wall Quade’s team have pushed the Hunter Center to its most cavernous limits. Quade calls this “visual theater,” a term that further blurs the already fuzzy line between theatre and dance. If the spoken word is what separates the two media, then The Wall is theatre because words are spoken, but there is no dialogue or verbal interaction between the characters. Quade’s trademark puppets are employed, but puppets have been used in dance productions for millennia. The lack of a through narrative makes the piece feel more like dance than theatre because dance often is about the visual image rather than the story told, but there are certainly many dances with very strong plotlines, even pieces that tell well-known stories from literature and drama. And because the piece is about a dream, the lack of cohesive plot is acceptable.

In fact The Wall began with an image straight out of Alice in Wonderland one of the greatest dream novels ever written. Clad in a shimmery red slip-dress, the color of Judy Garland’s ruby slippers, not Alice’s dainty blue Victorian garb, Quade was seen feeling her way along an enormous wall of cardboard boxes. She peered through cracks and eventually found an opening through which she disappeared. Then the wall started to break apart, wheeled in sections by the performers. As the sections were rotated they exposed set pieces on their newly exposed sides. One wall was hung with portraits of middle-aged men with black bars across their eyes. Another was hung with taxidermied trophy heads of various horned deer. Another was wrapped in red cellophane tape and had what were apparently carcasses of small mammals strung together hanging down on it.

Once the wall that had separated the audience from the performance area was removed a whole landscape of boxes was revealed. I was reminded of the day we moved into our current home. I only had one son then, and he was three. The house has an open grate in the floor of the upstairs hallway to allow warm air to rise into the second floor. My son looked down through it into the dining room below, which was filled with packing boxes, and cried, “Look, Mom, its Box Land!”

Voet’s set was indeed the star of this show. In the after-show discussion he explained that he had chosen cardboard because of its lack of personality. It created a blank and bland canvas on which he and set dresser Jessica Grindstaff could work, and against which Quade and costume designer Zita Winnubst could create. I assume that Voet and Grindstaff also designed the striking lighting for this show because no separate design credit was given and the lighting certainly was of a piece with the set.

Sanko, who played a variety of instruments including the electronic keyboard and electric guitar, had his own little DJ booth of boxes downstage right. Unfortunately I was unprepared for the enormity of Voet’s set and the panoramic style in which Quade staged The Wall and I plopped myself down in a second row seat quite far stage left, and so Sanko’s performance was hard for me to see. If I had another chance to see this piece I would have selected a seat high up in the center. An almost aerial view would have shown Quade’s work to its best advantage.

Because I was seated so close to the edge of the performance area, it was hard also to concentrate on the multiple centers of action Quade created. In addition to Sanko’s continuous live musical performance, there were frequently two separate stories being told by performers in different areas of the set. In addition to Quade, the performers were improvisationalist Andrew Morrish, dancer/puppeteer Silke Hundertmark, and puppeteer/performer Randall Whittinghill. Hundertmark and Morrish had collaborated with Quade before, while Whittinghill only met her and his fellow performers six days earlier. He had worked previously with Sanko and Grindstaff, who I believe are a married couple as well as artistic collaborators.

Hundertmark, Morrish, and Quade each get their “spotlight” moments during the piece. Silke’s comes early on, after the big wall has been dismantled when she displays here dancing skills in a fascinating, disjointed solo. Morrish, displays both exceptional dance skills and his improvisational speaking style. In recent years we have come to expect all improvisation to be comedic, but that is not Morrish’s style. He uses improvisational speaking as a means of artistic expression, as a painter uses surfaces, colors, and textures, or a dancer uses space and motion.

As a writer, I was dying to raise my hand at the after-show discussion and ask what, if anything, was written down. Was there a “script”? Or at least a sort of itinerary of who was doing/saying what where and when? Someone else beat me to it with a carefully crafted question about “text.” Quade said that there was one, but did not elaborate on what form it took. I would imagine that it is not all words but a conglomeration of instructions, maps, drawings, and musical notation. But Morrish talked about how uncomfortable he was with rehearsed words and movements. His style of performing actually dictates that nothing should be repeated, that every performance is unique and owes nothing to what has gone before or will come after.

“I do not know what I will say until I begin to say it. I do not know what I have said until I begin to hear it.” – M C. Richards

Quade said that all she brought to North Adams with her were four trunks full of puppets, and that she brought more puppets than she used because she did not know when she packed which puppets would be right for this piece. The puppets are amazing, but only because of Quade’s vision of how they should be built and manipulated and her ability to train others to do so. Some of the puppets are very large, and some are quite small. They are made out of large pieces of rubber foam and are quite colorless to eyes accustomed to bright, fuzzy Muppets and the like. They attach to the performers in interesting ways – slipped over the feet, worn like a pair of cycling shorts so that the performers legs become the puppets. Two of the puppets were dark-skinned, and Quade talked about the techniques and issues involved in giving puppets ethnic or cultural appearances. Her next project will take her to Taiwan and she is busy crafting Asian puppets now.

The segment involving the black baby puppet and the black woman, played by Hundertmark encased in layers and layers of clothing wearing a mask/puppet was especially intriguing. The final layer of Hundertmark’s costume was what appeared to be a wolf-fur coat, and before she united with the baby puppet Whittinghill was manipulating it in an interaction with a taxidermied wolf. This is dream land and so to search for logic and meaning would be futile, but there was something primitive and visceral about the images – images of nurture and violence, of the tenuous co-existence of man with other large predators.

In the after-show discussion Whittinghill said that during his six intense days of collaboration prior to the performance, he had been terrified that someone else would join the company and everything would change. But it was apparent from what all the artists said that the show did nothing but change during the period Whittinghill was involved and before. Should it be presented again it will have changed further. This was billed as a work-in-progress, but it is actually a work-in-process. In fact it is a work about the process rather than the product. Completion, in any artistic endeavor, is actually the end of growth and the start of decay. That is why artists often become deeply depressed when they finish a work.

I was very surprised when I left MoCA to realize that The Wall had run about 90 minutes. I would have put it at 45-60 minutes, and since we all know time flies when you are having fun, I must have been well entertained, which speaks volumes for Quade’s skills as an artist. To hold attention for such a long period of time with material as nebulous and non-linear as that takes great artistry.

It is a pity that the theatre usually gets short-shrift in these summer-time international cultural exchanges that have been organized in recent years. Being a verbal medium, theatre is much harder to import than dance, music, or the visual arts. American audiences are so insular that we have no knowledge of and little interest in celebrities from other countries. And I never trust a translated play. But I wish we could find a way to incorporate more avant garde and mainstream theatre into our local cultural offerings. When I interviewed Kate Maguire, Artistic Director of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, for a piece in the Women’s Times in 2006 she spoke about the need for international exchange and collaboration and her conviction that theatre are called to respond to the world globally. Was there any attempt to involve Berkshire artists and arts leaders with Quade during her MoCA residency? If not, why not? And if so, why wasn’t it publicized? Much as I enjoyed the show and the half-hour I got to spend listening to the artists talk about their work and answer questions afterwards, why weren’t the general public given more than one evening to experience Quade’s work? I think it is fabulous that an artist like Moorish lists North Adams, Massachusetts, along with Paris, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Sydney, and Brussels, as one of the cities in which he’s performing this year. I loved hearing Voet and Grindstaff talk about where and how they found their set dressings locally and how the merchants were as excited as they were when they found just the right thing. I was delighted that MoCA was able to set the ticket price for The Wall at an affordable $10. I think it is good and health that Quade gave me permission to write and post my opinion of her work. This is all good, and we need more, more, more!

Go to Ulrike Quade's Web site for more information about the artist and her future projects. For information on future programs at MASS MoCA please call 413-662-2111.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007

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