Monday, February 2, 2009

On texts and theory and practice (praxis)

I kind of feel like I am slacking a bit. I promised myself I would post after every class and then it’s Monday. I also kind of feel like we are in a holding pattern – sort of dwelling in this moment of the second projects before we move on to the third. Deleuze and Guattari might call this a plateau. I find it strange that I always understand something better after I talk about it. Dialogue, conversation, thinking out loud. I may come to class with a vague idea of what a project is, but after talking about it for 10 minutes it becomes crystal clear. This often happens when I discuss plays. This is why I always liked the first few production meetings or the table work – where you sit around and talk about what is going on in the play. I get so much more out of that than simply reading it home alone.

The same can be said for these projects. Not that they aren’t engaging on their own, but I get quite a bit more out of them when we discuss them. They open up, they have a background and a context. Instead of seeming like a project that lasted a few minutes they become a tapestry of thought and experimentation and reaction. I wonder if some of this comes out of the fact that I was largely trained as an interpretive artist – a singer, actor, designer - that is, I was trained to start with a given – a text (which can be just about anything – play, novel, poem, gesture, thought, a piece of music, an idea) – and then interact with it. Eventually by interacting with a text and a group of people we produce a performance, another kind of text that contains our observations and thoughts on the original text.

Faced with a blank slate I am often lost. I need something to react to, to struggle against. But this struggle with texts yielded other insights. Although I paid the appropriate allegiance to texts as an undergrad, I eventually began to question their supremacy. If I could enter into a conversation with the text why couldn’t I have some input? Why did this activity have to flow one way – from me to the text? Why couldn’t I have an impact on it? I mean, who says that the playwright, composer, etc is the be all and end all of what a work is about? As an artist do I have the right, or the obligation, to question it, tear it apart, reassemble it? I have often found that unconventional interpretations tend to open up a text in a way that more devoted interpretations do not. As Heiner Muller once said, to perform Brecht without questioning him is to betray him.

I think this is what captured my attention when I started reading theory (semiotics, deconstruction, feminism, phenomenology, chaos theory, new historicism). Here were philosophers, historians, poets, activists exploring the world as if it were a text – as if it were something to be read and interpreted. People like Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Cixous, Judith Butler were doing the same thing I was taught to do – they examined novels and language and philosophy and culture and films and gender the medical profession and the penal system, discussed possible interpretations and produced writings that contained their observations.

I keep wondering about the projects – the rules of which become the text – something to struggle against, interpret, interact with. The projects by other students become a larger text to engage with. Our discussions an even larger text. Theory is another plateau – another voice to add to this mix. Normally I give students theory before practice, but in this case with the theory coming after two projects have been completed the vantage point is very different.

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