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The first performance of Dark Room happened as part of the “Shifts” program of the 15th Performance Studies International (PSi) conference in Zagreb. This showing was developed with Zagreb performers Selma Banic and Vilim Matula in the roles of Dancer and Vocalist. While I would certainly call this the debut performance, it was not really the first of the community-addressed performances that are the eventual goal. Rather, it had the feel of a culmination (or maybe just continuation) of the listening “rehearsals” from the past year.

L-R: Selma Banich, Michael Peterson, Vilim Matula

L-R: Selma Banich, Michael Peterson, Vilim Matula

A PSi audience for me means friends or potential friends who are also critics, theorists, practitioners or activists, and the conversation was a friendly critique session focused on the project. At the end of a challenging and at times harrowing and exhausting year that included developing the piece, the PSi performance was certainly a point of departure rather than conclusion, but it felt also like a crescendo of the wisdom I’ve encountered around the world this year. And I would include in that the input from the audience but also the remarkable work of the performers.

The scenario we worked with was close to the original conception of Dark Room with some significant differences. (I should follow with a separate post detailing the current script and how I’m revising it based on the Zagreb showing.) The performance proper was about 45 minutes, in six sections. “Welcome” sets the tone and introduces the audience to thinking about darkness as something that connects theatre and the practice of torture. “Introduction to Torture and Theatre” establishes some themes about how torture operates (creativity, ordinariness, betrayal), and then demonstrates some of the difficulties theatre has in representing it (fake violence, metaphor, scale). “Joe” is introduced here, a doll/puppet/effigy whose small size is a reminder of the difficulty of considering extremes of time, space and sensation in the theatre. “World of Hurt”`is about a broader understanding of cruelty and especially the cumulative effects of multiple techniques(one of the things that not only performance but also journalism and political rhetoric has difficulty coping with). “Stress Dance” is meant to be a high point or “production number” of sorts, and is followed by a section called “24 ticking time bombs” which is (meant to be) a rapid-fire deconstruction of that fantasy, with a lot of sarcastic humor mixed with facts. The concluding section, “Ghostlight,” at present ends with a very simplistic summation and an invitation to the audience to sit a bit longer in the dark before turning to conversation.

Working with Vilim and Selma was a joy, despite their busyness with other projects. They seemed to get what the work is about and had a great combination of critical sensibility and willingness to try things. For Vilim particularly the quantity of text was a bit of a challenge, despite his excellent English (he has a impressive background in both classic and experimental theatre and in film work; later, traveling along the coast, I met a guide who was a fan of his work). I got the sense of him as an actor used to working deeply and thoroughly with any text, and so it was a particular imposition to ask him to handle so much text with little preparation time. Still, while I hope it didn’t stress him out too much, Vilim really engaged with the words, many of them drawn from political, legal or scientific texts, and (I thought) drew out the sense clearly while still connecting with the audience effectively.

Working with Selma on the more physical side of the piece was, if anything, even more important. I’d been able to work through a lot of the text and many single bits of physical business, but Zagreb was the first time to string most of the bits of business together and to see how they played in sequence. As I saw when I watched her work in the performance by “Every House Has a Door” also presented at PSi, Selma is a dancer who can act and a performer who is extremely comfortable in front of an audience. As I’d expected given her work with that company, Selma is also highly skilled at developing work, and nonchalantly helped me solve many of the movement puzzles presented by this version of Dark Room. Selma is also exceptionally at home in this sort of activity-based performance (I think of it as a “recipe” aesthetic), and so her presentation of each action and her transitions between them are very clear. This is both right for the piece and very helpful in the context of trying to understand it toward revision.

I couldn’t be more pleased with the seriousness and generosity of the audience that came out at 9:30 pm in a slightly hot and hard-to-find studio theatre space above the Zagreb Youth Theatre, where much of the conference was centered. About 30 scholars and practitioners made up the audience, and more than half of them stayed for an hour-long discussion of the piece. With a professionally skeptical audience, I was pretty nervous about the reception, but while the mood was definitely not celebratory, I was really cheered by the supportive tone and the willingness to engage with the goals of the piece, and particularly its US-centric-ness (the audience was majority American but included Croatians, Brits, Chileans).

I’m far from finished processing the discussion (and I have audio that I haven’t had a chance to listen to at all yet), but based on my notes, there are at least 7 main topics for me to consider, both formal and logical.

  • The function of humor in the piece—whether it’s working, whether there should be more or less.
  • Whether the piece is, for all it’s ostentatious doing-without theatrical support, too theatrical, and not simple enough in alternating between darkness and room light (in other words, whether the flashlights are operating too theatrically). A related question is whether lighting can be used to involve/implicate the audience further.
  • Whether it “points the finger” enough in the American context—explicating the current problem.
  • Whether it’s possible to draw explicit connections between the abstraction of “torture” and so many real violent practices in US society at home and abroad.
  • Whether it’s wise to spend so much emphasis on the “instrumental” arguments for/against torture.
  • On the other hand, whether it’s workable in the theatre to take up abstract moral arguments.
  • How the performance/conversation structure works or doesn’t, and how different temporal structures and relations between performance and audience might improve this.

Other things I think I’ve learned:

  • 30 spectators works fine, both for audience and for discussion, and 40 would probably be very do-able. In special circumstances, and with a different structure for discussion, the piece is probably viewable by 50.
  • There’s a conflict between wanting a solid wall to use for the RUC stress position in the first segment and wanting as much spatial depth as possible for making the point about scale when the Joe effigy is boxed and carried upstage.
  • As much as I’ve worked to make the scenario “human-readable” with minimal preparation, I still need to do more to let performers feel free and connected during the show. As DR moves toward a more modular structure (I think) I need to do more to give performers a clear path to follow and return to.
  • As talking with Selma taught me, while designing the piece to be quick for performers to pick up is very useful, it’s also important to allow them to process the content themselves—especially when I ask them to be involved in drawing spectators into discussion. The clarity of her response to the piece made evident my responsibility to give performers agency within the material as early as possible in the process.
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