Leave it to Taylor Mac to make me think about the baggage I bring to the theater. During his cabaret-style performance, Comparison is Violence, he firmly asked “What’s your agenda?” Referencing audience members, critics, Ziggy Stardust and Tiny Tim, his words charged everyone as guilty of comparison and having an agenda. Taylor Mac is right. We are guilty, even if we don’t admit it or feel ugly acknowledging the possibility.
We all have an agenda when we go to the theater. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, since it’s a fairly natural state. Agendas are our expectations. If you didn’t have some expectations you wouldn’t go. There’s really no neutral way to show up to a dance performance unencumbered, so I’m not advocating for anyone to check their baggage at the door. I just hope we can remember what we packed.
With performance, the actual live event is situated within a larger arc. Your encounter with a work begins the first time you hear of it. That’s when you begin to develop expectations. Who told you about the work? What images appeared on the flyer? What do the text or video trailer set you up to see? Have you seen the artist before? What do you expect from that particular venue? UC Berkeley Professor Catherine Cole led an illuminating discussion with a group about to see the Voices of Strength performance last October at YBCA, highlighting the expectations evoked just by the words contained in the title of the show and the advertising images. Every detail is loaded.
Once you decide to attend a performance, is it because you want to be entertained? To have your worldview confirmed or challenged? To be surprised or just mingle socially at the particular gathering? Whatever the why, this is your agenda. Admit it. You have baggage you are bringing to the theater.
Also consider how close or foreign the art form sits in relation to your personal experience and background. What’s the most recent work you saw? Similar to the concept of dance collecting through experience, which I discuss in an earlier post, We Are All Collectors, our baggage accumulates. What of your current joys or conflicts might color the expectations?
Additionally, the voice of a journalist, critic or reviewer might be ringing in your ear. With media as a filter for the selection of how to spend one’s time in a culture of “Likes”, LinkedIn endorsements and Siskel and Ebert thumbs, I’m heartened by certain performing arts writing initiatives aiming to provide more than a recommendation to go or not.
Philadelphia’s multifaceted Thinking Dance operates with the motto “Upping the ante on dance coverage and conversation.” Pop-up newsroom Engine 31 recently provided comprehensive coverage of the Humana Festival mobilizing a national team of reporters for a few days together. Portland’s FRONT magazine operates in a print and live event format merging performance and a parallel creative written output. Also, Claudia La Rocco’s Performance Club fosters experimental and poetic forms of written response to performance from guest writers. Danspace and New York Live Arts both employ writers in residence for contextual content, and just this week HowlRound announced the writers for their NewCrit initiative, skirting reviews in favor of broader more meaningful, critical conversation. Informed content can enhance expectations and add to one’s agenda in a positive light.
The encounter with a work lasts until the final time you think about it. I suppose you could even argue that the encounter lasts beyond the final time you consciously think about it, as exposure to the work becomes part of your overall life experience so its impact can actually linger in a more latent subconscious way forever.
Nobody enters a performance completely neutral and open. What’s the baggage you bring to the theater? By drawing attention to personal agendas and expectations, Mac’s warnings preceded a strangely similar message to that of my yoga teacher just weeks later, creating an amusing collision of glitter, cabaret and Ujjai breaths.
As a follow up to the Boom to Boom article, which appeared April 3, I encourage you to watch this talk about the relationship of the arts to the financialization of American life. (The big relevant ideas shared in his video warrant a TED talk, in my opinion, however here, NYU Art and Public Policy Chair Randy Martin plainly shares his brilliance from a Brooklyn performance studio.)