Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ellis & Williamson: Intersections

Friends and creative heroes Sarah Taylor Ellis and Lane Williamson are an up-and-coming songwriting duo. Their 54 Below debut is next week and I've got a discount code. You should go so you can tell all your hipster friends you saw them before they got mega-famous.

Check them out!

At the intersection of classic musical theater and contemporary classical music, Sarah Taylor Ellis and Lane Williamson's vernacular art songs cut to the core. Their smart and contemplative music encompasses settings of prose, sonnets, and tumblr posts, and their new chamber musical The Yellow Wallpaper adapts Charlotte Perkins Gilman's early feminist short story into a haunting theatrical work. Join Ellis and Williamson for the 54 Below debut of a distinctive new songwriting team.

Featuring Michael Parker Ayers, Christina Benedetto, Sally Eidman, Camden Gonzales, Karen Hayden, Rachel Lee, Travis Leland, Mary Kate Morrissey, Rachel Sussman, David Alan Thornton, Rebecca Tucker, and Max Vernon.

Use code EW54BLOG for 20% off the cover charge!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Analog.ue: Daniel Kitson's Mix-Tape

Photo of sculpture, Secret Serenade for an Analog Heart by Icaro Zorbar
"You can never know your own story....Our stories are scattered in other people's stories."


As a man who has spent much of his career avoiding recording devices, and opting instead to make a living out of live performance only, Daniel Kitson's newest theatrical work Analog.ue, currently playing at St. Ann's Warehouse,* moves surprisingly in the other direction.  Analog.ue is almost entirely performed through recordings of Kitson telling a story.

Daniel Kitson is also present as he manages the 23 tape recorders and reel-to-reel players.  He undertakes to lay them out methodically at each show as the story starts to spill out of them.  Clicking from one to another, turning them on, turning them off, plugging them in, arranging them just so.  Fiddling with them when they go a bit wonky.  Filling in the bits of story that might get cut off if the machines misbehave.  But the primary voice you will hear is the recorded voice of Daniel Kitson of the past telling you about two characters.

It's like an elaborate mix-tape and anyone who has struggled to get the transitions between songs on a mix-tape just right knows it's no easy feat.

Analog.ue is a theatrical curiosity that may entertain some newcomers to Kitson's work but I fear if you are devotee of Kitsonalia then this piece may leave you feeling wanting.  Upon first viewing it is really hard to accept that you will not get the usual Kitson improvisational moments which make Kitson's live work so vibrant.  But all the more reason to know going in that the live storytelling will be minimal.  Adjust your expectations and prepare to accept the unusual piece on its own terms--a pre-recorded set of stories and live performer presenting them.

As with many of Kitson's story shows, there are moments of quiet beauty and comic relief but even accepting the unusual format it still may not wholly deliver.

From the whirring tapes comes two stories.  In one, Thomas Martin Taplow, age 80, has been forced by his wife Gertie to sit in his garage and record everything about his life before he forgets things.  What started out as a joke in their relationship, or what he calls a "single sentence of second rate seduction" blossomed into a garage full of recording devices.  Resistant at first to this monumental task of recording "everything," he eases into his reverie of the past and meanders through the stories he can recall in his life including how he met the forward-thinking Gertie and how she has changed everything, including him.  In the other story, Trudy Amelia Livingston is a more solitary figure.  She has spent over twenty years of her life listening to an old recording she found hidden away by her mother and the philosophies and stories of that recording are the sustaining fuel for her existence.  She spends much of her days in a dreary call center dreading her daily routine.

As with many Kitson story shows, these stories explore meaty issues such as possibility, memory, the past, the future, and the qualities of yogurt.  They are peopled with everyday characters who have lived unremarkable lives but through these stories we hear their unspoken secrets, passions, dreams, and follies. There is love and hope and magical thinking.  And few people can tell a love story the way Kitson does.

But on some level the heartfelt storytelling takes a backseat to the recorded format which dominates the performance, distances the audience from the source, and seems to be a stretched metaphor for the themes of the stories.  And it's hard not to look at the complicated structure of laying this story out machine by machine with an octopus tangle of cords and wires and choreography as first and foremost a performance challenge for Kitson.  But I'm not sure how much it serves the thesis.  Even as performance art, it feels like there is a fundamental conflict between idea and execution.  Despite revisiting the piece a few times I have not been able to reconcile the two.  Kitson has articulated much of his intent in the piece but I did not feel the connections he espoused.

***LITE SPOILERS***
[To talk about the artistic choices made I feel I need to talk about the themes in the piece  so you may wish to stop reading if you intend to see the work at a later point in New York or in London]
Kitson addresses the use of machines in the piece and explains that they are the repository for lost stories and if we are lucky, these machines will reveal to us a bit about some lost stories.  Kitson suggests that despite the fact that the past, memories, and fragments of a life are almost impossible to reconstruct, he will attempt to lay them all down, in order through these machines.  If the universe lines up just right it will work.  But he's also saying that there are always bits missed, things lost to the march, fragments forgotten or kept secret and so "knowing" the complete story, knowing even the beginning or the end of a story is nearly impossible.  But maybe sometimes the impossible becomes possible.

Despite his focus on the fragmentary nature of personal narrative, through these machines he proceeds to tell a largely complete narrative story.  The fragmentation is left to the physical execution through the various machines.  We follow the story rather clearly (ok there is some metaphysical speculation with regard to one story but that has little to do with the delivery and more to do with the message).   And as he has become more adept at the choreography of the piece it feels a lot more on the possible than impossible side of the spectrum.

I was not convinced that the piece gained additional meaning by fracturing the sound through 23 different devices.  We are meant to wonder about the lives these machines have led up to this point and after this show ends (I had visions of Wall*E) but references to the secret lives of the machines or lost stories left in machines felt more like a call for found art than the carefully constructed Kitson story we enjoy with the work. 

Something about the reliance on the machines created dissonance for me.  When I first saw the show, I expected (or perhaps hoped) the machines would break down and Kitson would be forced to tell the story live (showing the limited nature of recording, the false sense of preservation, the fragility of analog, and allow for both the recorded and the live) or the break down would lead to the story ending up in true bits and pieces and we'd only reconstruct tiny parts and understand that was all we were to get.  

Of course, I loved to see the tapes spinning in their machines, the levels bouncing, and the uneven quality of tape, machines, and sound.  I'm a child of the analog age and still have disintegrating cassette tapes and reel-to-reel tapes in my apartment (Recently I accidentally vacuumed up the contents of the tape of the Original London Cast Album of Me and My Girl--tragedy) with literally no machines to play them.  But maybe that is why I was hoping for a technological break down.  These pieces of the past are fragile and as we move forward through new technologies the speed at which past objects become obsolete is increasing.  And things are lost because of it.  But things can be gained from listening to the past.  This is likely also part of Kitson's point but it was hard to feel these elements connecting.

Obviously shifting the majority of his storytelling to the recorded format does raise questions of Kitson's role as storyteller.  The absence of Kitson's live voice here is hard to get over if you've ever seen one of his other shows.  There is a vitality to Kitson's storytelling--a warmth and joy even in the face of sadness and without it the piece feels much colder.  However, a number of friends who had not seen Kitson's work before likened the experience to listening to NPR and all felt it was a pleasant and positive outing.** 

As the piece has evolved Kitson's live performance has changed.  He has become more of a character.  He enters the space with a tote bag and it feels as if this tape-oriented endeavor is a job for this character.  Whether he is operator, manager, or architect of this preservation project, one cannot say.  But Kitson gestures and punctuates the recording with his physical reactions--a silent conductor of an orchestra of story and emotion. But he is largely in the dark and you might have to strain to catch the silhouette of him. 

Flickering moments of Kitson's performance reminded me of spoken-word artist Ross Sutherland's project on synchronicity, Stand By for Tape Back-Up.  I caught Sutherland's work at the Forest Fringe festival this year in Edinburgh.  Sutherland recited his poetry to the backdrop of looping 80's videotape including the opening credits of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (seriously amazing).  Through his movement and his words there would be illuminating juxtapositions and synchronous moments with the video.  Similarly here there were brief beats where Kitson and recorded story were in sync--the clink of a spoon, rolling up his sleeves, the assessment of what machines are left before him, an absorption of the enormity of Thomas's project in mirror to Kitson's own, and at times the eating of a yogurt.  But in Sutherland's work the dynamic between tape and live performance was so much more acute.  Granted Sutherland was using the tape to engage in an active dialogue with it.  Kitson feels at great distance from the recording here such that the moments of synchronicity felt more accidental than intentional.  I hope this aspect of the piece continues to grow and develop as a harmony between recording and performance would help the work cohere as a whole. 

But maybe it was Kitson's intent to create some space and independence from the recording.  And maybe some of this disjunction is what he is looking for: putting distance between himself and the audience and distance between himself and his traditional storyteller role.  He's a notorious contrarian after all.

Kitson has been experimenting with form, substance, and approach in the last couple of years. Shrugging off audience expectations and even going so far as to symbolically destroy his work It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later in a new work at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012 called As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title.  In that piece, which was a dizzying rabbit hole of four layers of intersecting stories, he aggressively told his audience to stop demanding he do the same things over and over again.  He mocked his own critical acclaim and complained of his tendency to make shows about loneliness and unexamined lives.  He then had one of his characters wipe the organizational sketch of IARNUIL off a chalk board.  Although typically a solo performer, he surprised audiences in the UK in 2013 with a story show, Tree, which he performed with another comedian, Tim Key.

Analog.ue feels like it is part of this ongoing artistic evolution as Kitson stretches his creative muscles.  But it's the first Kitson show I've seen that did not have a resonant emotional or intellectual hook that drew me in completely.  There were moments of connection but alas they were fleeting.

And no one is sadder than I am at this conclusion.

*Analog.ue is next headed to London for a run at the National Theatre however the story at the core will, according to Kitson, be different for each residency of the work. 

** Kitson does from time to time host random late night radio shows in the UK which stream over the internet.  I will admit that when Thomas starts choking on a digestive whilst recording in his garage I could not help but think of the time Kitson did the same on his own radio show.