Dr. Viktor E. Frankl was psychiatrist and a concentration camp prisoner during WWII. His work, Man’s Search for Meaning, has invigorated and inspired with its tips for spiritual survival in the some of the darkest hours. His book is a testament to the power of the human spirit, with moments that capture something innate in our shared resilience:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through huts, comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly” – Saint Exupéry
Deconstructing opera’s mega-material roots is a challenge.
Sharing an opera live with a group of roving wireless-headphone-wearing audience members? Sounds near impossible.
And yet, The Industryambitiously tackled all this and more through its Invisible Cities project in LA’s Union Station.
Composer and librettist Christopher Cerrone’s adapted a 1972 novel of the same name by Italo Calvino. The story depicts a host of fantastical cities the explorer Marco Polo narrates to Kublai Khan – unreal cities of desire, of memory, of the imagination.
You check in and trade your license for a pair of headphones before following a drove of listeners into a large room where an orchestra sits, no singers in sight. The overture sounds forth and even before the final notes of this first movement end, individuals exit through the large glass doors to search for the rest of the opera. There’s no traditional stage here. The train station itself houses the characters, and like a living giant that seems to expand and contract as singers reveal themselves from the shadows.
A man hunched over in a wheelchair, dressed like many of the homeless souls that take shelter in the station, begins to sing. And you realize that the performers are not so much hidden at all. Instead, you did not know what you should have been seeking.
A lofty soprano tone sounds from another room. Many turn to rush to find the source of the music and discover a janitor – with a voice of gold.
You traverse cities of the living, cities of the dead.
You follow in Polo’s footsteps and happen upon a dance core (seven dancers from LA Dance Project) as they guide and affront the viewer through a collection of miniature vignettes.
You wander into a hallway – the station’s old ticket lobby – and see no action, just a mist of light fog…
…Only seconds later to be bombarded by a procession of singers and dancers as the opera’s final scenes culminate around you.
You notice how each person in the room is now a character in the piece as well. An old man in his own wheelchair is not altogether different from the singer at the start.
The piece challenges the viewer to realize that the eye creates what it wishes to see. At every new port – there is a promise of hope, discovery, release. But we bring ourselves with us wherever we go, thus in order to find new things, we must truly see with new eyes.
In John Willett’s compendium of some of Brecht’s most important critical writings, the editor helps to outline the theatremaker’s development of his style. Each letter and article allows for a further glimpse into Brecht’s take on Epic Theatre, acting, and the alienation effect for which his works are so renowned.
On anxiety, Brecht aptly points out:
“In his obscure anxiety not to let the audience get away the actor is immediately so steamed up that he makes it seem the most natural thing in the world to insult one’s father. At the same time it can be seen that acting takes a tremendous lot out of him. And a man who strains himself on the stage is bound, if he is any good, to strain all the people sitting in the stalls.” – From Berliner Börsen-Courier, 1926
Around the same time this article was written, Brecht was insisting on a new type of audience engagement in the form of what he called “ ’smokers’ theatre.” The audience would puff on cigars and look on as if taking in a boxing match, therefore developing a more detached and critical outlook than was possible in the ordinary German theatre. Smoking was verboten in theatres at the time.
“That in a Shakespearean production one man in the stalls with a cigar could bring about the downfall of Western art. He might as well light a bomb as light his cigar. I would be delighted to see our public allowed to smoke during performances. And I’d be delighted mainly for the actor’s sake. In my view it is quite impossible for the actor to play unnatural cramped and old-theatre to a man smoking in the stalls.”
Forever pushing the boundaries of what theatre was “allowed to be” at the time, Brecht paved the way for many in the modern day interactive and absurdist theatre realms. Brecht on Theatre is a delight – like sitting down for a rare and illuminating coffee-date with Brecht himself.
While some posit that you could never be truly happy about anything, we know you’ve got a bit of an optimist hiding deep down inside.
Just look! You once said:
“By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”
“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
and of course:
“Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.“
Those that have dubbed you the eternal pessimist have refused to acknowledge this believer within you. Like so many others, what little was published during your lifetime garnered little public attention. Now people throw around the word Kafkaesque to sound cultured and in-the-know.
If you had known what would follow, would you still have left most of your full-length novels unfinished? Would you still have burned 90 percent of your work?
Time’s funny that way. Happy birthday Kafka. We’re celebrating you now.
The world does not need people more people who are halfway – halfway happy, halfway inspired, halfway thankful. Society is not in dire need of almost-smiles, of “oh we should sometime”s, and “maybe someday soon”s. We are in all too desperate need of people who come alive when sharing their joy, who can let light find a way through them, and who can weave hope from the fragile threads of pain.
If the world asked you a single favor, to quench your thirst for happiness by allowing yourself to bring happiness to others, would you comply?
Or would you again reply “maybe,” “someday,” “soon?”
Enjoy an animated representation of one of Brecht’s most notable satirical fables.
With gems such as:
“If sharks were men, they would, of course, also wage wars against one another, in order to conquer other fish boxes and other little fish.”
“If sharks were men, there would, of course, also be art. There would be beautiful pictures, in which the sharks’ teeth would be portrayed in magnificent colors and their jaws as pure pleasure gardens, in which one could romp about splendidly. The theaters at the bottom of the sea would show heroic little fish swimming enthusiastically into the jaws of sharks, and the music would be so beautiful that to the accompaniment of its sounds, the orchestra leading the way, the little fish would stream dreamily into the sharks’ jaws, lulled by the most agreeable thoughts.”
You walk into a party and the host takes your coat, slings a drink into your hand, introduces you to a few people – makes you feel comfortable, gets you prepared for what the night has in store. Theatrical experiences should be no different. You are already prepared to enter another story for the evening – best to ignite the senses the minute you walk in the door.
The best example I have seen lately was the interactive wonderworld before a performance of The Nether, a show dealing with the danger and imperceptibility of the digital realm and its communities, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Upon arrival, guests were immediately invited to create their own “avatar,” the ideal virtual version of themselves that would represent them for the evening. There was a pinboard to select your favorite character from a variety of games and online communities. Large glass bowls were set out with titles such “I met someone that I only had ever spoken to online,” and “I have friends that I only know through the internet,” with a bowl of round markers in front that guests could drop into whichever corresponding questions matched their own truths.
Most notably, there was a wall hung with clothesline and a large stack of cards entitled “nobody knows I dream about.” Over the course of the evening, the wall quickly filled with secrets more often left unspoken.
Each game and activity eased you into the experience of The Nether which asked audiences to consider the ways in which we communicate now and notice how the digital world has swiftly become meshed with our own. It offered a stark warning for the future, and most importantly made us feel welcome as we prepared for an entirely new storytelling experience.
We all get overwhelmed. Life can be a whole pile of overwhelming. Next time you’re on the verge of imploding/exploding/ode-to-joying, remember that there are a number of situations in which it is perfectly acceptable to have a meltdown.
A handy guide:
– When you’ve tried to spell “receive” incorrectly 5 times in a row
– When the saran wrap tears leaving you with an endless strand of plastic 1mm in width
– When Blockbuster is out of the next season of Breaking Bad
– When traffic stops you from going more than 10 city blocks over the course of two hours
– When things end
– When new beginnings arise
– When you can’t decide which way you should part your hair
– When someone asks you what your favorite book/movie/restaurant is and there is no possible way to pick just one
– When you have too much
– When jealous folks get rude and catty
– When that new song you love becomes that overplayed song you love within the course of a week
– When you think you feel a spider on you but there’s none there
– When nothing is happening
– When everything is happening
All good problems to have.
Allow yourself all the feelings. Each and every one of ’em. You’ll be glad for it at the end of the day.
How many of us can say that they’ve actually got around to reading Melville’s novel, easily considered a treasure of world literature?
Peninsula Arts with Plymouth University have made the daunting task a little easier with their 21st century-friendly project, the Big Read. Readers such as Tilda Swinton and Stephen Fry embellish a chapter of Moby Dick each with their voice and skill. The project also curated 136 artists to create an accompanying illustration for each of the chapters of the book.
No better way to revisit a classic than by bringing it to the arts-hungry culture in such a digestible format.
Should you need me these next few days, I’ll be diving into these deeper waters.