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On theater and new media poetry

Ten practical points toward a critique of new media poetry, as presented in theater.

filed 1 June 2001 | Chicago
by Kurt Heintz

What's all this about?

This past spring, I had the opportunity to participate in a media poetry workshop called "Poetc." (I believe one would pronounce this "po-et-cetera," but the actual pronunciation was left open to interpretation, at least for me.) The workshop was held at Northwestern University, and organized by Garrison Ashwal. If the mere mention of this project sounds challenging to you, you should consider the work itself. Where some people can get bogged in the mere reading or performing of a text, this project was much more ambitious. Ashwal and a group of students committed poetry from the modern American canon to the stage, using a full complement of new media in the process. This included video (both on tape and generated live, on stage) shown in projection and on monitors (some of them moving), still photography, live electronic audio/signal processing, original music effects, original performance and dramatic tactics, and a gamut of other details too numerous to mention. I love this stuff. It's dear to me.

Ashwal & Co. gathered an ensemble that seemed to have one of each kind of artist necessary for the task: a trained actor or two, a couple writers, a stage manager, a musician and audio specialist, a video artist, and a choreographer. Like so many missions of its type, including a few I've been directly involved with, their performance revealed as much of the process in its failures as it did in its successes. But in such a spirit, there's little to lose and much to gain by testing this artform, simply rolling up the sleeves, developing a suite, and seeing whether it works. The fuller genre of media poetry for performance is often untried, and therefore undocumented, unshared, and untaught.

When I say "media poetry", I'm not talking about mere juxtapositions across discreet media, although the tool of juxtaposition is fundamental to the form. I'm talking about full engagement among the constituent genres and media on stage, even at the deepest conceptual levels. A poet with a back-up band does not qualify as a media poet. I'm not sure that a poet playing a video tape and talking over it would qualify, either. But if it could be shown that the music, the image, and the language were all threaded by a common understanding and goal, and the artist were able to present that on stage, then I'd say we were talking about media poetry performance in a fairly full way.


Don't get me wrong, here. I suggested the show had rough spots. And given the apparently long gestation period for any work of this kind versus the short deadline that a workshop imposes, there will be rough spots. But I loved the program.

There was a scene when the ensemble took one poem by e.e. cummings, "somewhere i have never traveled," and presented it as a dialogue. This poem is all about how lovers' eyes meet. Two performers, a young man and woman, took turns using a camcorder on each other as if they were making boudoir videos. It looked like confessions and private porn in one take. It was all suitable for kids to watch -- no nudity at all, and cummings' language, while suggestive, isn't at all graphic. The scene paralleled cumming's language in a contemporary way, I thought, and implied a lot of wildness and intimacy to the mature mind. It had a lot of delightful sexual tension, and the performers did their best to bring that out with wit, charm, and (hooray for this!) dignity.

The scene was staged on and near a bed, set behind a scrim on which the video was projected, center stage. The audience could see the live video fill the scrim, and still watch the physical action of the performers through the scrim. Often, the speaking performer was physically facing away from the audience while their gaze, as lover, went straight out to the camera (in character, their partner). Thus the performers could give the eye right to the audience. So the audience connected vicariously with the opposite lover in turns, as the two actors traded "recording" each other.

The media thus magnified the language of courtship by bringing the audience into a larger than life lover's gaze. (And doesn't a lover's gaze always seem that way?) The two performers also drifted into and out of the projection itself, sometimes blocking the projection and therefore anchoring the image in a physical, corporeal space. So the presence of the body was reinforced in subtle but plain ways that made it clear by physical metaphor that Body trumps Picture. (I appreciate that priority.) That added a layer of physicality to the piece, and so left the audience flipping between all the simple but keen juxtapositions going on at once. The other visual and aural elements backed away from this moment, and so left the poem's epiphanies to stand on their own qualities. I'll remember this piece for quite a while.

Ten things we'll love/hate about the genre

Below are ten talking points for my workshop with the Northwestern students. I wanted to outline and distill those points that guided my work best in interdisciplinary language arts, such as media poetry. Further, I wanted the points to address the concerns of theater. My twin upbringings as a media artist and performance poet happened side by side through the 1980s and continue to this day. I've worked in performance ensembles to bring new media to the stage, while I recognized that the ensembles' ultimate intents were to relate language: poetry, prose, fiction... a short story, a fable, a suite of language-based performance art vignettes, or a play. I drafted these principles from experience, and not from prescribed theory. They're pretty much what get me through interdisciplinary situations to this day.

Ten is a round number, and merely a target. "The Ten Commandments." "The Top-ten List." It's all the same, and rather arbitrary. It may be more useful for you to think of these points as overlapping interests that may index other phenomena you'll want to name later on as you note them for yourself.

1: Know the difference between a channel and a medium.

A medium is the physical carrier of an aesthetic message, while a channel is a logical carrier. For example, video is a medium that is distributed either through television, direct signal (analog or digital), or through tape. However, video itself has several channels which actually manifest the aesthetic message, as do most media, including the stage itself. In video, you have an image channel, a sound channel, a speech channel, and (if you choose to use it) a temporal channel. Each channel can convey a specific aspect of your aesthetic. However, if you use a stage performance with any video element, you will have to orchestrate the usage of channels among the performers and video, as the performers will also use the speech, sound, visual and temporal channels.

2: Pick the medium appropriate to the aesthetic and message.

Unless you're doing a theater piece strictly for research or experimentation, it's often best to locate the domain in which your aesthetic expression best lives, and then pick an appropriate medium to communicate in it. There are virtues, however, in the synaesthetic, where manifesting an idea in one domain (or channel) is contrary to what one would ordinarily expect. Be prepared to embrace metaphor when this happens, as you are drawing likenesses, using sound, for example, to characterize an image, or color to suggest a mood.

3: Juxtaposition never goes away. Work with it.

Either you will have to work with juxtaposition among the aesthetic expressions in your various channels, or you will have to structure the presentation of the expressions so they do not conflict with your overall goal. Ideas and expressions may themselves contrast and be dissonant when that is appropriate to the production, but these must be considered productive conflicts, i.e. dissonances that positively serve the higher goal of the whole production. "See" does not equal "Say", so exploit this tension creatively.

4: Juxtaposition never goes away. Work with it.

This is not redundant. The mind never stops associating. Play a flute with a picture of a chrysanthemum, and recite a haiku, and the mind automatically remembers one or both of the others when it's confronted with any single element. An item repeated will mean something slightly different each time, as it juxtaposes with its previous instance. Another way to deal with juxtaposition is to consider it as cross-informance, i.e. the process of one aesthetic expression impinging upon another through coincidence of place, moment, quality, or concept. As with gravity, the effect is mutual, shared between the two affected bodies -- the significance of neither element remains the same once it's exposed to the other.

5: Be mindful of redundance.

It's too easy to push the same idea over and over again (either in the same element across channels and/or media, or through repetition of a common element). Unisons and patterns reinforce and make a point, but by themselves do not necessarily make the song. So it is with theater and visual arts, too. Ways to avoid redundance: refrain from didacticism and explicit dogma; use a light touch with allegory; take a moment to stand back from the work (put some distance between you and it) to recognize things in it you may not have intended, and then weed out the needless bits.

6: Choose your harmonies carefully. Experiment to select the best.

Ideas can harmonize across channels and among different media, but the relative strengths of different tactical combinations often go unrecognized until you actually see them in action. Don't be afraid to simply try things for yourself, doing small test rehearsals to see the effect. Tinker. Build. Test. Audition. Draft scratch versions for trials. You can always improve the piece later. Brainstorm intensely, and so spare yourself the criticism from the audience by sparing the audience untried (and possibly inferior) concepts.

7: Know when the object is better than the word for it.

Aesthetic expressions are manifested in many ways, and only a few of them are verbal. Don't become so bound to verbal expressions (i.e. anything you can write or speak) that you overlook perfectly good representations of ideas through objects or physical processes. The image of a political demogogue is very often better than its description, and a lot more to the point, for example. Blood and bullets are themselves charged stronger than most language that invokes them. That said, it is highly discretionary as to when it's better to use an object than to use the language for the object.

8: Know when to leave well-enough alone.

Nothing stinks more on stage than an overwrought idea, particularly if you're someone who's paying for the show, either as a producer or audience member. Heaping more effort (text, sounds, lighting effects, props, what have you) on some ideas often doesn't help, whereas a light but appropriate force often carries a moment very well. Give the audience some credit -- and some intellectual room of their own -- to "get it" for themselves. And learn to respect the space a poem needs for itself.

9: If you're an actor, get over it.

Your presence on stage is no more or less essential than any other element when you are working in interdisciplinary forms. A charitable attitude will take you further than demanding focus. Focus will shift in this line of theater, often away from live performers to something created in sound or visuals. Don't regard your presence as so sacrosanct that the other elements mustn't impinge upon it, nor that the others are so sacred you won't impinge upon them. It's a poet's prerogative not to act, so if you perform a poem, you may bring theatrical skills to bear on the performance, though the performance itself may not be acting or theater in the proper sense. Big deal if it's not! Different rules (like these in this paper) apply. And don't think you're off the hook if you're a writer, composer, or visual artist; the "get over it" rule applies as much to you as any performing artist.

10: Brace yourself for crit' from self-segregated quarters.

Writers and literary critics will have at your work from writers' perspectives. Theater patrons will try to explain it as theater. Performance artists will consider it as performance art. All are partly right, and few will be totally wrong, but almost no one will be complete in their assessment. This is because literacy is fragmentary at this point in history, and people do not regard the feature film, the novel, the play, the poem, performance art, and hypertext as various forms of literature under a wholistic understanding. Give them time. Just give them time.

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