Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sustained Applause: Recent Buran Performatives

Sustained Applause:

Recent Buran Performatives

1. We’re all in This Together

The lights fell on Firs, the old servant, dead on the floor. We were wrapped in darkness for a few brief moments before the house lights were brought up. Immediately the spectators began to applaud; the actors shuffled out on stage, bowed smiling, making funny faces at one another. As the applause continued I felt something – something different than what I usually experience at the end of a performance in a theater. The applause was rhythmic. Everyone was clapping together. The claps were in unison. Audience members ran from their seats to the stage and gave flowers to their favorite actor/character in the show. These weren’t just family members, but theatre patrons, both first-timers to this production and those who had seen it any numerous times in its seventeen years upon the stage at this particular venue.

Although The State Small Theatre of Vilnius’ production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard was the first production I witnessed in Lithuania, it was not the last that followed with the Event of Sustained Rhythmic Applause. Every performance I attended followed suit in this way: a unified sustained applause, broken intermittently by a handful of audience members who rushed to the stage and approached an actor/character.

As it was explained to me many times while I lived and conducted research in Lithuania, “When you get a cold, Americans take antibiotics. Lithuanians? This is a silly notion. We go to the theatre to keep us healthy.”

Theatre as preventive health care.

We perform to save others, not ourselves. (If we save ourselves in the process, that’s a by product.)

This was true. During the two months I lived in Lithuania I went to the theatre almost nightly and it was packed with active spectators who were engaged and had arrived to go through something together. A notion that I had in mind for some time: We’re all in this together and so we must create together. Whether it was Waiting for Godot or Man of LaMancha or a children’s play I saw, roughly translated, The Monstersthe moment of unified release at the performance’s end was always equivalent to what I first experienced witnessing The Cherry Orchard. Even when it was an audience of children, there was the pulse of solidarity.

When the Comedie Francais came to town and played the National Theatre for two nights, I sat two rows in front of the Prime Minister. My Lithuanian host shrugged his shoulders and said, “He goes to the theater almost every night.” After the performance of the two one act comedies the audience clapped together, in that cathartic unified pulse and a few people broached the stage where they bestowed flowers upon the bewildered members of the Comedie Francais troupe. The French did not know how to respond to the presentation, this extended performance event. They all gave each other quizzical looks, back and forth, not knowing how to respond to the gesture. For me, this was a moment of significant realization: An American in Lithuania watching the Comedie Francais. I was witnessing something recently learnt, untranslatable, only in the felt, and here were these French – the other “other.” Who did that make me? The interlocutor? The one who accounts for this recently learnt cultural quotidian?

There was certainly much to be mined from all of this when I brought it back to what had taken me to Lithuania in the first place: to develop a new work, a piece of musical theatre, with the co-founder and associate artistic director of Buran Theatre Company that would premiere on the Lithuanian stage. My lens was widened by the experiences I had in this strange, beautiful little country and gave me a newly shaped reference point from which to go back and dig through past performances to look for specific performatives Buran practices in creating new communities via the event of performance. What I was witness to in Lithuania confirmed the conviction of my previous endeavors with Buran Theatre as co-founder and co-artistic director, if only a testament to the phrase: This is all very much possible. Theatre scholar Jill Dolan writes, “Engaging performance as a public practice, as a rehearsal for an example that yearns toward something better and more just than the social arrangements that divide us now, theatre becomes a sort of temple of communion with a future we need to practice envisioning” (135).

Theatre as a public practice, as an all inclusive space for everyone.

The conclusion has been that Buran must be everywhere, because it can be –wherever two or more are gathered, to be religious! But sincerely, if Buran is everywhere, Buran is everyone. This open minded approach to the theatre, paired with an understanding of the complex culture we are representing makes me optimistic for the future of a new theatre. And it must be a “grass roots” effort. It cannot be commercial. And it must be for the people – not the impoverished, or the rich, or the poor, or the hungry, or the overfed. We do no choosing. We do not call out to any group, any section, any race, any creed, any sex– we call out to everyone. Because we’re all in this together.

As Buran continues to produce and move forward with various modes of performance it is central that our productivity and explorations are also documented. I have been adamant since the creation of the company that we explore both the production-oriented and theoretical approach to our performance methodology as a collective. What I intend to do here is cite specific contemporary performances by collectives or individuals in popular American theatre that point to Buran peformatives. What I refer to as a performative is largely influenced by cultural geographer Catherine Nash who writes on performatives as “…developing a new theoretical vocabulary of performance and… exploring the imaginative and material geographies of cultural performativity and embodiment” (657). Although, as a whole, many of the examples I discuss are not particularly ground-breaking or life altering, I intend to point out key moments in the event of these specific sites that open up a discussion of Buran in the context of contemporary theatre. I will then briefly unpack the current process of Buran via a workshop and, finally, explicate this by using a specific example, the most recent Buran, the summer 2009 performances of Money Buckets! The Untold Story of FDR in Kansas City, MO at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theater.

2. Influences:

Buran Performatives in Contemporary Theatre

“…what is more fundamental is the notion that when everybody laughs together or, last night, when I heard people around me collectively sobbing, at that moment we are bound together not by our bodies sitting in the theater but by a collective imagination. At that moment we understand the lie that what we think is only our own, that our internal lives are only our own. At that point our collective imaginations become one imagination and my internal life becomes the same as your internal life, which is what Aristotle understood when he analyzed tragedy. It’s a collective act in which we collectively understand something about being a community together. The moment we understand that, feel it, we feel a kind of responsibility in which we must collectively help and take responsibility for each other.” – Simon McBurney, from New York Times interview, Oct. 2008

On the evening of the 2008 election I attended the Broadway revival of All My Sons, directed by Simon McBurney, artistic director and co-founder of London based performance collective Complicite. I was excited to see a performance on a night full of so much anticipation with a text I had always admired under the direction of McBurney, who I had heard and read about but had never seen his work in person. McBurney’s all inclusive amorphous use of text, sound, light and the actor’s presence allows him enter the rehearsal process with Complicite sharing the responsibility with his collaborators. Even if he is the one deemed “director” or “playwright” – it is the collective that creates together. As artistic director of Complicite his interests lie with the actor, he writes, “A piece of theatre is, ultimately, in the hands of those who are performing it. The actors. It is they, not the director, who must have the whole piece in their every gesture, hearing the meaning in each word. And to do that I think, as an actor, you have to feel that you possess the piece. And to possess the piece you have to be part of its creation. Involved intimately in the process of its making” ( The status of actor is given power here alongside director, playwright, designers, and the rest of the creative team.

What is essential to note here in regards to McBurney and Complicite is the method: There is no Complicite method. There is only collaboration.

The performance on election night opened with the entire cast coming out to greet the audience. “It’s wonderful for you to be here with us on this momentous night,” actor John Lithgow said to a hearty cheer of applause amongst the respectable Broadway audience, he then bowed his head into the script and begin reciting the opening of act one, “Miller’s play opens as written. Act One, scene one…” McBurney’s revival took the text to its edges allowing for it to perform itself out in acts that kept the actor/character/text at a deliberate distance from each other. Actors waited on the edges of the stage to make their entrance and stayed neutral until they hit the light at which point their “performance” in the play, All My Sons, would begin. By allowing for both of these performances to exist on stage McBurney distanced the audience in a Brechtian sense, but by his choices he also included them. It became a choice for the spectator and how they wished to be involved with the event of performance. The presence of the actor on and “off” the stage in performance being felt rearranges how a spectator takes in the space. In every Buran production we tend to utilize this affect in some way, for A Greater Release in July 2007 a pair of traveling musicians stayed closely tied to the stage and to roaming the audience. They were never off, always on and amongst and in between the performance.

Forty blocks down from the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, where All My Sons ran, is Ellen Stewart’s international home for artists – LaMaMa E.T.C. I attended LaMaMa’s first international playwriting symposium in the summer of 2007, where my ideas concerning Buran became immediately solidified. I suddenly saw a concrete future for the company and what it could potentially do with the inspiration acquired from the long and winding midnight talks with LaMaMa founder and artistic director, Ellen Stewart. The international scope of Buran suddenly became paramount:

1. To find a home for artists where they can create in a safe environment. And that this safe home does not need to be permanent.

2. To extend that safe environment to our audiences, wherever we are.

I’ve written much about Buran’s relationship to LaMaMa in the first Buran text, Bringing Back the Spectator (April 2008, published on our website), but what is important to note here is that these two initiatives, prompted by the spirit of LaMaMa, become performatives once you get a text or a concept into a room with collaborators. (This will be described in some depth in sections 3 and 4.)

A young theatre company that exhibits a unique collaborative relationship with community in a safe environment is New York City collective The Anthropologists, led by artistic director Melissa Fendell. The Anthropologists are a group of artists who interact with their community in a large way and when it comes to “do-it-yourself” and sharing, I can think of no other company who is giving so much right now. The Anthropologists’ inclusive nature is what breeds familiarity, in a similar way that McBurney breeds familiarity in his staging of a famous American play on a Broadway stage, or the way that Ellen Stewart is called Mama by those who know her and if I ever need a bed in New York City I can stop by the Annex, watch a show, and see if there is any room in the inn, so to speak.

I could use a number of examples from The Anthropologists, but I’ll use a recent one: The Anthropologists sent out an e-mail to all of their subscribers a few days before Thanksgiving this year asking for a six-word memoir (the basis of a lot of their devising and creation) on a holiday memory. The Anthropologists plan to turn the top five memoirs into plays which will be filmed and posted on the internet in time for the holiday season. This is the kind of performative that allows for a community to exist regardless of place and time. As a Rogue Member of The Anthropologists, now residing in Albuquerque, I can be an active participant by submitting my six word memoir, or I can not. It is the choice they have given their potential collaborators.

Playwright Charles Mee, who works often with Anne Bogart and her SITI Company, litters his texts with choices – the option of “or not” is always present. In a class I took at the University of Kansas from company member Henry Bial I was first introduced to the work of Mee and the world he creates for other artists. This began a small series of e-mails between me and Mee, prompting questions about his work, his influences and in particular his Re-Making Project, which encourages young theatre companies to steal his work, in the same way he has stolen from the Greeks, Shakespeare and internet blogs, and remake them with their own name under the title.

I go into the rehearsal process now always carrying the credo of Charles Mee: Culture writes us first, then we write our stories ( We write/perform/engage culture for the sake of our work. We use history in all its infinite pratfalls and wisdom – because it’s all flat. Reality TV is really just bad Chekhov. And this simple credo of Chuck’s can free us from the baggage of the actor training.

Mee’s own biography is as engaging as it is telling about the makings of a playwright who has such distinct and anachronistic varieties, whose own voice is the culmination of remembered pasts, a romantic recognition of the ‘now’ and ‘then,’ and an unabashed taking of public property. Mee is both a consumer of products (real or imagined) and a contender of how those products are use and by whom. His plays are a mixture of pastiche, brick-a-brack, collage, hand-me-downs, and a total disregard to the current commercial production of performance. His plays are large, only contained by the limits of the imagination, and their wondering, winding method of getting to the center of the thing is often aggravating, leaving some audiences with the feeling of an empty hand. Mee’s own history comes out as a proponent against it – history is unfixed, there is still play to be done upon the texts of the western world, upon the Greek plays, upon Shakespeare’s canon, the Constitution of the United States, or a recent blog posted by an unknown poet in Queens.

His fascination with American culture comes from those things said and those unsaid. A he writes in his autobiography, “Just as a baby knows who it is by knowing who it is not, just as a word is defined by saying what it does not mean and what it does not include, so a society defines itself by saying what it is not and what it does not include” (139).

In my writing Money Buckets! The Untold Story of FDR for Buran I was highly influenced by Mee. Working on Money Buckets! I was writing for a group of actors that had already committed to the project, actors who had worked with Buran in past productions, much in the way that Complicite and The Anthropologists conduct their work. I knew these actors strengths, their weaknesses (which are just other strengths), what their physical presence can do to a space, and how these elements can be extended further. Coming down from a period of intense roaming and traveling, specifically my time spent with Buran in Lithuanian, I had grown fond of the conclusion, for this project, that eclecticism of style is a response to ethnicity – “there are no Americans” – we all have heritages we trace to somewhere else, but we are all in this thing together, with interweaving cultures, ethnicities, histories, etc. What they share is a medium – in our case - theatre or performance or event. Culture might not be always be shared, but a sub-culture is shared in art.

A final example I want to point to in this section has to do with that subculture rearing its head in performance, a breeding of familiarity with the use of ‘real names’ and the use of call and response.

The Tony-award winning musical Passing Strange: A Stew Musical tells the story of Stew, an African-American musician whose buildingsroman takes him from his home in Los Angeles to Amsterdam to Berlin in search of “the real.” Stew and his musical collaborators perform songs on stage as actors carry out his story alongside. As the musical progresses Stew makes off the cuff asides to the audience and brings them into the action with a number of call and response sections. The Broadway audience in attendance at the Belasco Theater, in general, did not know who Stew was and were not familiar with his band the Negro Problem, as he states in the opening line, “Now you don’t me and I don’t know you/ so let’s cut to the chase the name is Stew/ and I’ll be narrating this gig so just sit tight.”

Stew engenders familiarity immediately. He is playing himself, exposing his story on a stage, and the performance becomes heightened and interchangeable in multiple ways due to this performative. This assumption of “you will know me and I will know you because we are here going through this together” is central to breeding familiarity with the spectator in mind. Stew’s story is specific to him, as a certain race in a certain place at a certain time- and although that might not be shared in the culture at large, it becomes shared in the sub-culture (the event of performance) that brings everyone in the audience to the story. In her review of the musical Elizabeth Wollman writes, “It’s a rock musical and a black musical that depicts outsiders and obliterates socially constructed distinctions… Passing Stange is an important—and potentially enormously influential—musical” (636).

As Stew pointed back and forth from himself to the spectators in a call and response of, “Yeah, it’s all right. Yeah, it’s all right,” I truly felt an essential part of the collective gathering that had come to witness something new and potentially rhythm-changing. And that, more often than not, does not happen in a Broadway house.

What I see in Complicite, LaMaMa, The Anthropologists, Charles Mee, and Passing Strange are the types of performance based event solutions to bringing back the spectator– and suggests a theatre where the spectator wields an equivalent of responsibility alongside the performer and the performance. When the flesh has become a rarity - live bodies in live performances -it is the communion with others that brings us back to go through it together again.

And engendering this type of event in performance begins with the collaborative creation of a piece of work.

3.Buran’s Recent Performative: Spectatorship

Whenever the company works together in the “state of buran,” every participant is inside the work and the modes and methods are very much a felt thing, one brought about by close familiarity and a sharing of knowledge that does get verbalized, but most often in abstract ways. It is in the leaving the communal space that it becomes lost, most certainly because we are not together, but also due to the nature of the company – being spread across the globe and joining one another in different communities at different times – it is only appropriate that growth occurs in this fashion. When we reorganize, regardless of the personalities involved as participants, we must reconstruct the thing again and we make a move forward each time. Catherine Nash writes “that which cannot be spoken or written becomes new uncharted realm” (657) and therefore one needs to find means to write about its elusiveness rather than chart its specific means. Perhaps this is the strength in Buran, its amorphous personality paired with the creation of a specific method of entering into the work of creating with the spectator in mind.

When I write about Buran I try to talk about it in two ways: 1.the creation of methodology (what it is, where it comes from, what it can possibly do) and 2. the practice of the methods upon text, actors, collaborators, and most importantly, spectators. Although we have produced ten full length performance events in the past four years, I tend to choose four pieces as hallmark Burans. Rather than thinking of these as plays or traditional dramatic texts we must look at them as some Other. For the sake of clarification, company members began calling our texts “buran” (which also happens to mean “blizzard” in Russian). This self-referential way opened up the possibility to explore the structure, beginning with conception of the text -which is usually informed by actors who will be working on the project - to practice for the rehearsal, to the rehearsal itself, and finally, into performances and relationships with spectators and community.

The workshops conducted at the Helen Hocker Theatre (Topeka, KS) in June and July of 2009 were significant to Buran on many levels. It allowed us the opportunity to return to a community we had previously created in (the Topeka-Lawrence-Kansas City area) and to reconnect our methodology with those who had seen our work and wanted to know more. The workshops were introductory, as I engaged the participants (usually five to six actors and myself) in many of the exercises that were implemented upon the company that participated in the Buran production of Nightmares.

I chose Chuck Mee’s play Paradise Park- telling participants that Chuck intends for his work to be a starting point, a reference for artists to use and remake on their own terms, to tell their own stories. This idea, in of itself, was freeing to the participants in a major way.

First and foremost a precedent was set, as it always is in the Buran rehearsal space, prior to a participant entering. Participants entered the space (a black box theatre, which was set up in a thrust) where they found me, already in the midst of warm ups. Nothing was said. There was no articulation of expectation, other than, “Oh. Find a space to warm up.” And if they didn’t have anything to drink, “Would you like a water?” If participants brought musical instruments this was also designated as a time to tune their guitar or warm up their mouth on the flute. Rather than saying anything, if they brought an instrument, I would just go get it and give it to them.

After all participants had arrived I began to lead them through a warm up, relating their physical presence to the space in very specific ways – jumping off a lot of fond stuff from Jerzy Grotowski, Augusto Boal and Anne Bogart. Another inspiration for these workshops came from my participation with Melissa Fendell’s Anthropologists in the summer of 2008. Melissa’s intelligent, thoughtful guidance through space (in 100 degree heat, 90% percent humidity most days that summer) and allowance of time was hugely beneficial. To be worked upon in that way was truly remarkable. The “Jam Sessions” that the Anthropologists hold is a gem of an offering in the New York theatre scene – given from one artists to another, out of the love of the craft and collaboration.

The physical warm ups in the workshops would then shift into defining space – inside and outside. As space is defined rules are made and given out, and then taken away. Options for rules are thrown out to participants who listen, or not. Scenes begin to occur and also non-scenes.

There are participants working inside and participants watching outside – as I too go in and out, from working inside, and watching outside. I encourage participants to weave in out of events, from watching to doing. In this kind of work one feels how space alters depending on event and where actual energy is placed. Actors are watching spectators, spectators are watching actors – and we move forward. For those who relish working in this manner, some truly inspiring moments can occur if they are allowed.

During the first hour and a half if one participant does not know another participant, they discover each other via the physical work. There are no introductions, the work begins right out of the warm up itself and a dialogue happens – one not about the thing, but a dialogue of the thing.

After we come out of this and shake all the tension and history acquired from the event out of our bodies, we hunker down and introduce ourselves. Just our names, no need for anything more.

We get back up on our feet and participants are led into “Building Sculptures” – an exercise garnered from Stephen Wangh’s Acrobat of the Heart, except it is used here in relation to flexing the Five Point Method of Extremities, a Buran performative created prior to rehearsals for Nightmares (again, this is written with some detail in the Buran text, Bringing Back the Spectator). The Five Point Method, as we interpret it became a useful tool for engaging actors with the text and their world on the stage in electrifying and interactive ways. To quote the text of the play, Nightmares:

Five points of a man. His mind. His heart. His hands. His feet. And his groin. What a man thinks, how a man feels, what a man does, where a man goes, and how a man loves. The five points. These are our extremities. Not uniquely mine or his or yours. This is something we all share.

Like an improv artist does with a similar sculpting exercise, we allow for the sculpture to move – to find a second shared shape, or scene. We listen to each other as a collective based on what the sculptor has placed in us at the moment of conception, that is, the moment we are sculpted. As sculptures turn into sculptors and vice-versa, the role of leader soon disintegrates. There is a steady flow between who is leading and a constant “listening” to the extremities as deemed by the Five Points.

This exercise has two parts – the first being the actor’s participation as the sculptor and their fellow actors as the mold by which to construct their sometimes epic sculpture. This exercise, done in the nude or with very little clothing on, demonstrates the Five Point Method most predominately. After maintaining often excruciating elegant poses, the sculptor-actor asks the molded-actors to begin moving, transitioning into another moment of the sculpture. Using the motion that the sculptor-actor has placed in their muscles at the moment of conception, so to speak, the group of molded-actors begin to engage with one another, moving, physically discovering moment to moment where their bodies lead them in relation to the body of the other molded-actor they have been attached to. When the sculptor-actor feels as if their sculpture has reached a moment of finality they ask the molded-actors to pause again before releasing from the exercise. The sculptor-actor then replaces a molded-actor who takes the position of sculptor-actor. This going in and out of roles is significant.

My presence as “the one leading this workshop” has now, ideally, lessened to a degree. What is desired here is immediate trust, trust that arises out of responsibility, which is attained by the Precedent set at the beginning of the workshop.

The only rules that stay intact at all times are:

  • Be looking for places that seem safer than others. Safe space. And “space not as safe as…”
  • Breathe and listen. And if you do this, you probably won’t harm yourself, regardless of what you do.
  • Keep your eyes open. Don’t close them. Allow the imaginative world to paint itself in front of you, not behind your lids.

Those are about the only things I find myself saying repeatedly, mostly because I think they are nice things to be reminded of and to be “looking for.”

So leading into the text from arriving in the space includes at least the following moves:

  • A Precedent (tempo) set by “leader” before participants enter into space. (In most cases- stretching, warming up, keeping eyes open and forward in the space.)
  • Participants enter into something already happening – the atmosphere of “in the midst of”
  • Participants join in
  • Leader gives directions. Using impulse, music, rhythms, architecture and a focus on the Five Points of Extremities. This takes about an hour. Participants, if they do not know each other, they are put into the midst of it and familiarity is breed out of the circumstance. Scenes, dialogues, and physical interactions are played out.
  • Leader joins in. Leader stops leading.

Actors soon begin making decisions for the group – and since it is for the group, everyone is willing to make a run for it. By the time we get to Chuck Mee’s piece, two and half hours into our workshop, everyone has forgotten we have come together to work on a text. I throw out character names arbitrarily. Double, triple casting for no reason, other than to get words out there. We read about ten pages, quickly, sloppily, then we throw down the text and I say, “Let’s remake this thing.” At which point, an orchestrated sort of madness begins.

We take a tiny section of text. For this instance, since workshop participants varied each session, I did the same text each week. After we read a section I would say, “Okay, this is the portion of the play we’re going to do today. How? I don’t know. Let’s see what Chuck has given us to play with.” At which point I ask a participant, now assigned as the character ‘Nancy,’ “What do you think? What do you see here? Get up on your feet and try this - -” If the a participant seems hesitant I call out the first “direction” or rule.

Working in this fashion we come up with ideas; spontaneously and immediately get them up on their feet. A noise would occur and if someone heard it we would say, “What is that noise? Now that noise is a part of the thing.” If we had music, I’d often instruct whoever had an instrument to have it close at hand. Music is always integral. It’s the texture that pulls so many elements together.

Conducting these scenes from a source text into something inspired and instigated in the flesh in the moment was exciting to watch. The physical life of the characters created were often informed by moments that happened previously, either in the warm ups, the events that took place during explorations, and/or the sculptures, allowing for an unspoken dialogue between participants; a reckoning with familiar shapes and symbols expressed earlier. The reliance of something familiar, especially something you’ve just recently shared with others, creates community quickly and efficiently. This is similar to the modes that were worked out upon in rehearsals for Buran’s All Men Are Whores, where actor/character’s were given single props upon which to establish a strong relationship with as opposed to the other actors/characters/bodies.

Scenes would begin and end out of nowhere and as I watched, I kept a hurried, chicken-scratched score. Once a scene was complete I would go back over with the participants what I had written down – which did not always correspond to what I had heard or seen. From the score we would all piece the narrative together, rediscover a tempo, a melody that had occurred, and come to very quick conclusions. Small conclusions, like, “She must yodel not whistle, must must yodel, not whistle.” We would go back, rehearse the scene – and repeat with the next event in this way – in this case the events had titles: “Cotton Candy,” “Roller Coaster” and “Balloon Head.” There were wild and vivid characters that erupted from participants. Heightened lyricism paired with rough, low language. Soaring orchestrations paired with plunking flat guitar strings. The disregard to the sanctity of the text allowed for more open interpretations and responsibility was wielded by those who took on these roles. What came out of these scenes were stories, stories of people’s fear, fear of love and death most centrally, but also a reckoning, dealing with and sorting through the madness via the seemingly chaotic world we were creating in. Strong emotional ties were built and were attached to physical gestures that rippled through the participants. I witnessed the ability of every participant to accept each other's imaginational pallet, where collaboration was occurring without the pretext of “we are a collaborative.” The collaborative found each other in the midst of the work and again like a great improv artist knew that “Yes” is always the right resounding answer when working with others.

After we were finished remaking the text, we briefly summed up with thoughts, impressions and discoveries. Many participants were surprised to find how quickly they found themselves surrendering to the space and with a great sense of comfort due to the Precedent set that they had walked into at the beginning of the workshop. Others said that the Precedent cramped them – as warm up is a very personal time.

One participant said that she missed out on “hearing the room” as she stretched and warmed up. For her the Precedent set in a Buran warm-up took away something essential to understanding and creating space. That canvas of silence that offers up so much had been compromised.

Another participant appreciated the amount of time we took but had trouble correlating that to work in actual rehearsal. Rehearsal time is extremely limited and if you don’t have the budget for it or the space – it is difficult for us not to worry about time. Perhaps for this actor time equaled productivity towards a result that is fixed as the end; where a director comes in and says, “This is how we do it and this is how we get there.” A sense of constant rush, the reoccurring phrase We’ve only got such and such amount of time left!!!!

Time is a vehicle to use, or not use, in search of a community invested concept.

Knowing that the thing we created would never leave the space we were in, because it was a special event in a safe space created by community, an event that we went through together, made it all the more heightened and singular. The aim of these introductory workshops was to witness how these events, created at a specific place and time, could potentially be carried outside of the space and affect any numerous facets of the participants’ life.

And this is where true spectatorship begins.

Jan Cohen-Cruz writes, “Being community-based does not indicate level of universality or artistry but simply collaboration between artists and a group of people connected in some ongoing way who have contributed significantly to a work’s creation” (82). In this way, our Buran communities (now in Kansas, Missouri, New York, and Lithuania) are about the creation of community brought about by the collaborative artists who involve themselves on each project. We reconvene and create community based out of the collective. The collective company members are central to this element. Anne Bogart relates an encounter with Ariane Mnouchkine in her book A Director Prepares on the importance of having a company, “‘Well, you cannot do anything without a company. Don’t get me wrong, companies are difficult. People leave and break your heart and the hardships are constant, but what are you going to accomplish without a company?’ ” (15).

After the final workshop was complete I looked to co-founder Alicia Gian, who stood with her fingers attached to her lips and her brows deeply furrowed. When Alicia looks like this, something significant will be said soon. Alica said, “These workshops are great. They truly are. But now we need to develop specific exercises for Buran and Buran only, not just morph other exercises to fit our need. But to create from Buran itself.” I agreed.

From talks with the rest of the company it seems that the goal now is to find a set of movements that are richer, more developed, and specific to the kinds of worlds we create in the rehearsal room with Buran and extend these in various ways to incorporate, introduce, inspire, and insist with as many others as possible – both actor and spectator.

4. A Buran in Action

Not only getting to the theater district, but entering the building itself involves ceremony: ticket-taking, passing through gates, performing rituals, funding a place from which to watch: all this…frames and defines the performance. Ending the show and going away also involves ceremony: applause or some formal way to conclude the performance and wipe away the reality of the show re-establishing the reality of everyday life. The performers even more than the audience prepare and then, when the show is over, undertake the “cooling-off” procedures. – Richard Schechner, “Towards a Poetics of Performance,” Performance Studies

I can’t get it out of my mind what a discrepancy there is between ideas and living.

-Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

When an audience goes through something together at the theatre, as a community, there tends to be the lingering afterwards in and around the space by a handful of audience members - spectators getting close to the scenery, walking around the stage or the lobby, waiting to meet and greet with the actors, or even a cigarette outside in close proximity to the space, akin to after a big meal or sex. There are all of these moments of pause before moving on to the next thing, whatever it may be; a need to cool down in the presence of the space and in the company of those who you went through the thing with. How do we properly reflect on performance? Especially performances that do something other than just perform?

I have found writing to be useful to for me, to try and contain the essence of what I experienced and what I saw, not particularly the event of plot, story or the critical eye looking upon performance, but writing about the event of the performance itself, the radiation that occurs amongst the audience in tandem with the actor and their physical presence acting out upon the stage. After conducting numerous talkbacks post-show I find that they rarely function in the way that everyone on the creative side can agree on and they don’t particularly address the questions that an amateur audience member might be grappling with. As dance and performance theorist Andre Lepecki writes, “Where does dance come from and where does dance go to? … For this travelling implicates sites of departure and arrival that are not evident and, moreover, that try not to leave evidence … Which space does dance fill in this journey of uncertain origins and ends?” (74). Schechner also writes about these liminal spaces, noting that within this space “for a brief time two groups merge into one dancing circle. During this liminal time/place communitas is possible – that leveling of all differences in an ecstasy that so often characterizes performing. Then and only then can the exchange take place” (128).

These are issues that are central to Buran, a collective whose aim is to explore these liminal spaces within the event of performance by creating immediate familiarity within performance between spectator and actor. The audience must go through something while they are still in the space, together. As we continue to produce and find means to engage spectators role in a varietal of modes via the event of performance we ask ourselves a central question: How do we create this new community within the audience, one that gains a sense of familiarity by merely being in the theatre amongst others and the other on stage – the others on stage who have names that they may or may not be indicative to the performers’ own history and/or present space in life? In a similar way that Passing Strange being a “Stew Musical” engenders familiarity, we integrate the stories of the collaborative into our dramatic narratives.

A brief example I will use is the 2009 summer Buran production of Money Buckets! The Untold Story of FDR and the workshops surrounding it. The marketing and performance of this play was enacting a mythology that was conceived by the company itself. By doing so, the performance began before the audience entered the theater and continued beyond the finish of the play (which the performance even resisted in the event itself), via printed reviews in the KC Star and other forms of media and journalism. We used press releases as a means to enact the belief that this was a found text, a screenplay that was never produced by MGM while the Brothers were under contract. We created an entire history for this text, from acquiring the rights to the rules under which we had to perform the lost and found text. On account of this, audiences were aware what they were going to see was remnants of a whole piece and not the whole itself. We suggested that perhaps Clifford Odets could have been at the helm, since he was at MGM during these years and the screenplay had an overtly politically tone, one that criticized the Roosevelt administration directly via the Marx Brothers. But we made no specific claims, just speculations. As Robert Trussell wrote in the KC Star, “After some legal wrangling, the theater company won the right to stage parts -- but not all -- of the screenplay. So what we get with ‘Money Buckets’ is a crazy hybrid of Marx Brothers routines and absurdist digressions that include bizarre interviews with German theater director Erwin Piscator and futurist/visionary Buckminster Fuller with some oddball musical numbers thrown in for good measure” (D1).

We attacked the script of Money Buckets! in two ways: there was the Marx Brothers strand, with its plot progressing in a typical Marx Brothers mode, and the attaching articles – pieces of postmodern commentary that either supplemented the action or performed against it. Scenes betwixt and between the two strands were navigated by Luxem & Leifer, a pair of clueless folk musicians who had been paid to show up and play their music and tell jokes (which they cannot ever properly remember). When looking at the actor/character Justin Knudsen, we would dissect his role in the play in this way: Justin Knudsen as Grouch Marx as Franklin Derby Ruse-Velt Or: Alicia Gian as Margaret Dumont as Eleanor Ruse-Velt. Our concern was with the individual - the individual performer and the individual spectator and how they might infringe upon each other in ways other than typical addresses made to an audience.

Even with the posters we bred familiarity, pairing Justin Knudsen, Groucho Marx and FDR’s heads all sharing the same jacket. By placing a relatively, or rather, in most circles, a completely unknown actor in this grouping, we engendered a familiarity that was then enacted upon at arriving to the theater. In the same way that Stew becomes known in Passing Strange, Justin Knudsen’s performance as Himself began not just at the theatre, but before the audience had even arrived. This sort of familiarity is something we intend to breed with our audiences, wherever we perform. When writing about Buran, founding member and co-artistic director Justin Knudsen said, “When I think of Buran and things that I hope continue within its productions in some way or another are live music, danger, extremity, lies, respect/disrespect for conventions, a looseness of space, implied improvisation, creation of the event prior to the event.”

In the production of Money Buckets! we were able to reposition the role of the spectator and bring them onto the stage, literally, by the end of the show, out of the doors, and into the streets with us. This was physicalized in manner similar to the Buran performances o A Greater Release where we led the audience outside singing Van Morrison’s “Caravan” – but our interest now lies in finding a means to do this without suggesting as much through the physical act of doing a caravan following each production! In the most recent Buran, being workshopped this spring, we are taking the notion of familiarity to its edges with a fictional story that involves several of the company members as characters. Perhaps the extension of our motives can be found in this structure.

Maybe not.

Either way, we will stay amorphous, aware that with each production we will discover something new about what it is that we do.


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Dolan, Jill. Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater. 2005. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Knudsen, Justin. “Re: On Buran.” Message to the author. October 13 2009. E-mail.

Lepecki, Andre. “As if Dance was Visible.” Performance Research. 1996. New York. NY: Routledge Press.

Mee, Charles L. A Nearly Normal Life. 1999. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Mee, Charles L. Paradise Park.

McBurney, Simon. “Complicite Overview.”

Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. 1961. New York, NY: Grove Press.

Nash, Catherine. “Performativity in practice: some recent works in cultural geography.” Progress in Human Geography. pp.653-664. 2000. London, UK: University of London.

Piepenburg, Erik. “An Expert in Audacity Tries Arthur Miller.” Oct. 22, 2008. New York Times.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Theory. 1988. New York, NY: Routledge Press.

Trussell, Robert. “Money Buckets at Fringe Festival Does Marx Brothers Right.” Kansas City Star. July 26, 2009. D1. Print.

Wangh, Stephen. An Acrobat of the Heart: A Physical Approach to acting inspired by the work of Jerzy Grotowski. 2000. New York, NY: Vintage Press.

Wollman, Elizabeth L. “Passing Strange Review.” Theatre Journal 60.3 (2008): pp. 635-637. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press. Print

All My Sons. By Arthur Miller. Dir. Simon McBurney. John Lithgow, Dianne Weist, Patrick Wilson, & Katie Holmes. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. New York, NY. November 8, 2008. Performance.

The Cherry Orchard. By Anton Chekhov. Dir. Rimas Tuminas. Egle Gabrenaite, Rimantas Bagdzevicius, Arvydas Dapsys, & Andrius Zebrauskas. The State Small Theatre of Vilnius, Vilnius, Lithuania. January 27, 2009. Performance.

Passing Strange. By Stew and Heidi Rodewald. Dir. Annie Dorsen. Stew, d’Andra Aziza, Daniel Breaker, & Eisa Davis. Belasco Theater, New York, NY. June 24 2008. Performance.

Buran Performance Archive

A Greater Release. By Brady Blevins, Amy Virginia Buchanan, Adam R. Burnett, Matt Crooks, & Tosin Morohonfola. Music & lyrics by Alicia Gian & Christopher Luxem. Dir. Adam R. Burnett & Meghan Reardon. Perf. Alicia Gian, Spencer Holdren, Justin Knudsen, & Lara Thomas. Oldfather Studios. Lawrence, KS. July 20-27, 2007. Performance.

All Men Are Whores. By David Mamet. Dir. Adam R. Burnett. Perf. Spencer Holdren, Ryan Klaymen, Val Smith, & Lara Thomas. William Inge Theater. Lawrence, KS. Dec. 8 2007. Performance.

Beneath the Bed. By Adam R. Burnett. Dir. Adam R. Burnett. Perf. Brady Blevins, Justin Knudsen, Lara Thomas, & Carter Waite. William Inge Theater. Lawrence, KS. December 15, 2005. Performance Workshop.

Enormous Weight. By Carlo Matos. Dir. Adam R. Burnett & Lara Thomas. Perf. Brady Blevins, Jenna Bleecker, Justin Knudsen, & Meg Saricks. William Inge Theater. Lawrence, KS. June 3, 2008. Performance Workshop.

Meile be Akcento. By Adam R. Burnett. Music & lyrics by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, and Kurt Weill. Dir. Alica Gian & Elfus Teatras Company. Perf. Alicia Gian, Tadas Gudaitas, Zana Jablonskyte, & Marius Maciulis. Elfu Teatras. Vilnius, Lithuania. May 18-27 & Oct. 24-Dec. 31, 2009. Performance.

Money Buckets! The Untold Story of FDR By Adam R. Burnett. Music by Ben Leifer & Christopher Luxem. Dir. Adam R. Burnett & Val Smith. Perf. Brady Blevins, Justin Knudsen, Alicia Gian, & Marius Macuilis. Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. Kansas City, MO. July 21-27, 2009. Performance.

Napoleon Exiled! By Adam R. Burnett. Dir. Adam R. Burnett. Perf. Theresa Buchheister, Kate Hurley, Justin Knudsen, & Meg Saricks. Dramatist Guild, Frederick Loewe Space. New York, NY. Oct. 17, 2008. Performance Workshop.

The Next Great Thing. By Adam R. Burnett. Dir. Adam R. Burnett & Hilary Kelman. Perf. Matt Crooks, Justin Knudsen, Kate Giessel, & Courtney Schweitzer. William Inge Theater. Lawrence, KS. May 18, 2006. Performance Workshop.

Nightmares: An Artful Demonstration of the Sublime. By Adam R. Burnett. Music by Christopher Luxem. Dir. Adam R. Burnett & Val Smith. Perf. Brady Blevins, Justin Knudsen, Erik LaPointe, & Lara Thomas. Lawrence Arts Center, Main Stage. Lawrence, KS. Feb. 13-16 2008. Performance.

Paradise Park. By Charles Mee. Music by Christopher Luxem. Dir. Adam R. Burnett. Perf. Amy Virginia Buchanan, Shanna Carlson, Jon Matteson, Dorianne Rees. Helen Hocker Theatre. Topeka, KS. June 3-27, 2009.

The Sensualist. By Adam R. Burnett. Music by Ian Nichols. Dir. Adam R. Burnett & Alicia Gian. Perf. Andi Porter, Courtney Schweitzer, Lara Thomas, & Carter Waite. Lawrence Arts Center, Black Box. Lawrence, KS. February 2-16 2007. Performance.

Buran Texts

Burnett, Adam R. and Alicia Gian. Bringing Back The Spectator: The Aims, Motives & Mission of Buran Theatre. April 2008.

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