Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
What’s the best song, movie, play, etc. that you are sure you’ll never see again? I don’t mean that in the “there will never be anything like this” sense, or the “I just can’t bring myself to listen to that again” sense, but literally: Not everything gets videotaped, preserved, and saved. Theater, for example, rarely does, so a really standout small production is kept only with those who saw it. I’ve been to some open mics where someone either pulled off a great cover or a sensational original that, if the footage exists, no one bothered to put it online. What’s your best experience with ephemeral art? —ZS
Back in college, I reviewed theater and film for the student newspaper, so I saw a lot of theater-department productions, ranging from so-so to great. But one really stuck out for me: a revival of Aphra Behn’s 1687 comic opera Emperor Of The Moon. I don’t remember much about the plot—it was an extremely Shakespearean play, with two pairs of lovers and mistaken identities and largely irrelevant comic interludes and a lot of wordplay, essentially a bunch of fast-moving, fun froth. What I remember was that the director, Carol MacVey, had smoothed out the dialogue and the action so it ran like clockwork, the set design was amazing, the comic business was beautifully timed, and the whole thing was more polished and professional than a great many of the professional plays I’ve seen. The whole time I was watching it, I was thinking “It is a tremendous shame that this much work and talent is going into something that’s going to get three performances and cease to exist.” I know some people love the ephemerality of theater, improv, and other live performances. It just frustrates me, because when I see something I love, I want to share it with other people, both for their enjoyment and for the sake of the performers who created the thing in the first place. I never get an elitist thrill out of seeing something I know other people will never see. I just wonder “Why isn’t this being filmed?”
Back in college, I had the privilege to work on theatrical productions inside a facility that also housed a professional company. In 1995, the American Repertory Theater staged “Ubu Rock,” a rock ’n’ roll musical based on Alfred Jarry’s infamous 1896 French play Ubu Roi. What truly took this play into the “never to be repeated” realm was “The Button Song,” a “I’m Henry The Eighth, I Am” ditty that transformed into an interactive, confrontational masterpiece between performer and audience. Each iteration of this number grew in stature and local legend. I must have snuck into 15 performances just to watch this number unfold. And while committing each play to digital memory is part of the ART’s everyday procedure now, I’ve never seen a single clip of “The Button Song” online. Then again, I’m not sure I’d actually want to: My memories of that number are vague, but perfect in their imperfections.
Thanks to London’s half-price ticket booth, I was able to score really great seats to a performance of Medea starring Diana Rigg in the early ’90s. Rigg is famous for playing Emma Peel in The Avengers, a personal favorite of mine, but she’s had a long, interesting career beyond that iconic role, much of it in the theater. And her performance that night made it easy to understand why. She seemed possessed by the role, easily and frighteningly conveying the rage that would make her character behave the way Medea does. (No spoilers for Euripides here!) The spare production put the emphasis squarely on the cast, too, apart from a punishing, effective sound design that suggested violence the audience otherwise had to imagine for itself. Rigg won a Tony for the role when the production came to Broadway the next year. I’m much more a film enthusiast than a theater enthusiast, but that was one instance where I understood how some drama is meant to live onstage.
There’s a line in House Arrest, Anna Deavere Smith’s play about the political culture of Washington D.C., where a presidential-pool photographer explains why they have to cover every last stump speech and chicken dinner. No matter how boring or repetitive each event might seem, someone has to be there, he says, “in case POTUS gets waxed.” Even as I get older and the temptation to stay home grows, I haul ass to concerts and film festivals, art shows, and the occasional theater production, on the off chance I might see something unforgettable and unrepeatable. Keith’s answer reminds of the time, during a 2000 visit to Dublin, I lucked into my own Medea, featuring a blood-spattered Fiona Shaw, and a version of The Plough And The Stars directed by and starring Steven Rea. I also had the life-altering experience of seeing the original productions of Angels In America: Millennium Approaches on Broadway. I think of seeing Joan Jett jump on stage with Bikini Kill, or Eddie Vedder joining R.E.M. But if I have to narrow it to one—and I know it’s way too late for that—I’ll flash back to seeing Yo La Tengo at the tiny Hoboken, New Jersey club Maxwell’s in 2002, during one of their now-legendary eight-night Hanukkah runs. The trio had just taken the stage for the encore, followed by an unassuming figure in sport coat who immediately went to the back of the stage to tweak the knobs on his amp. It wasn’t until Ira Kaplan introduced their special guest that the crowd got a glimpse of him: “Ladies and gentlemen—Ray Davies.” The delight of seeing the Kinks godhead mere feet away was compounded by the sudden surprise, and the feeling that everyone around me was sharing the same breathless moment. I’ve heard a recording of the show, and my memory hasn’t enhanced it: You can actually hear the crowd draw a single astonished breath, as if some hidden airlock had just whooshed open. I’m glad, in a way, that it happened before every such moment started being iPhoned and YouTubed for posterity, since my memory is more precious to me than any low-res document could be.
I love live theater. It was one of the things I pursued in college, and for a time, I wanted to be a college theater director, Coach Taylor for college students who were really into Bertolt Brecht. Naturally enough, I didn’t pursue that particular dream, but I still try to see plays and musicals whenever I can. Two stick out for me. The first was the night I saw the original cast of Urinetown on a Monday night, seated way up in the balcony on a stool, so I had to lean forward to see anything, and essentially risk toppling off the stool and falling out of the balcony. The show is one of the satirical meta-musicals that were so popular last decade, and those sorts of things only really work with a crowd that’s game. Since we were college theater students, of course we were game, and it was evident how much the cast was feeding off that energy. It was a fantastic show, one I still remember vividly, to the degree that videos of the show don’t seem to capture what I felt that night. The other was the first night of previews for Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson on Broadway. It’s a punk-rock musical about our, uh, bloodiest president, and it’s got all manner of great things to say about America’s tendency to get swept up by random populist fervor, the impossibility of governing in a democracy, and the ways best intentions can turn into outright evil results. It was another electrifying show, and I honestly thought I was seeing the beginning of a historic Broadway run. Instead, the show closed swiftly, only mourned by a small cult, including me. Ah, well. At least the lead will be playing Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.
My favorite event at the 2010 Austin Film Festival wasn’t a film—it was a staged reading of Maggie Carey’s screenplay for The To Do List, then known by its considerably brasher working title, The Hand Job. The AFF fancies itself the screenwriter’s festival—that’s why its logo is the impossible-even-if-it-weren’t-anachronistic image of a typewriter spitting out celluloid. It backs up that claim by wrangling event attendees into readings like this one, which reinforce the elusive, fleeting magic created by a game cast with a good script. As funny as that particular draft of Carey’s coming-of-age comedy was, much of my enjoyment of the performance was prompted by little moments that can’t and won’t be affixed to the final product: Aubrey Plaza finding her footing with the material halfway through the reading, Carey’s husband Bill Hader cracking up at his wife’s writing, various veterans of the Austin comedy scene mixing it up with castmembers from Saturday Night Live and Parks And Recreation, plus Jessica Alba. According to IMDB, The To Do List currently has a 2013 release date, and as eager as I am to see it, I’m not sure it’ll be able to top that reading.
Twelve years ago, it was great to be able to go to a concert and not be surrounded by dipshits filming every moment of it on their phones. That said, I wish someone had captured the concert I saw Nina Simone give at the Buell Theater in Denver during the summer of 2000. Not that Simone would have suffered such effrontery. The graceful, elegant High Priestess Of Soul was crotchety and cranky as she hobbled out onstage that night, instantly breaking the ice. (I’ll be honest: I was intimidated just being in the same vast room as her.) She split her set between solo piano performances and songs played with her excellent band—but throughout the night, it was her banter and wit that kept the crowd on its toes. Not that any of us needed further incentive to stay on our feet; the Beull, normally a rarified home for opera and musicals, turned into something of a dance party, relatively speaking. Still, Simone was showing all of her 67 years. Her voice—one of the most gorgeous, gripping things I will ever hear in my life—was pinched and raspy in spots, and at points it seemed her legs were about to give out under her. Her force of will and strength of song carried the concert through, and then some. She died three years later, and I count myself a lucky sonofabitch for having been blessed with one night in her presence.
At first when thinking about this, I was racking my brain to think of plays I’d seen that I could never see again, or bands I was bowled over by that went on to die in a fiery bus wreck the next day. (None came to mind, thankfully.) Then I remembered the time I saw David Byrne give a PowerPoint presentation on the state of the music industry at McGill University in Montreal. This was easily one of the oddest events I’ve ever been to. The presentation itself was so slapdash, between-slide edits and sound effects and all, that it seemed like a self-conscious deconstruction of the PowerPoint Presentation as a medium. That may seem wanky and pretentious to say, but it was also David Byrne, so everything being very minimalist and half-autistic seemed par for the course. Anyway, it was weird. It was also made extra-special (even “ephemeral”) by being one of the first things I’d ever “reported” on (read: attended and then churned out copy laced with Talking Heads puns for my own amusement) for my university paper. For some reason, they allowed me to keep writing for them.
Audience participation in performance is always a wild card, because every audience is different. You can plan all you want about who you’ll pick and where they’ll stand, but you have absolutely no control over what they’ll do once they’re onstage. When my wife and I went to see the Alivin Ailey American Dance Theater troupe perform at NJPAC in Newark a couple of weeks ago, the troupe’s second of three routines was a very modern piece called “Minus 16,” choreographed by Ohad Naharin. Near the end, the black-suit-and-fedora-clad dancers fan out into the audience and find women and men of all shapes and sizes to dance with them onstage to a few romantic Dean Martin tunes. One dancer took his time finding someone who could be highlighted. He picked a frail elderly lady wearing a jaunty church hat, and took her to the middle of the stage. There, he passionately waltzed with her, holding on to her for dear life so she’d stay with him. As the rest of the audience members onstage tried to follow their partners’ leads, the attention swung to the featured dancer with the little old lady, the audience getting louder and more raucous the longer she was up there. After everyone else was quietly ushered offstage, the lady stayed. Then the dancers all collapsed and hit the floor, and there she was, smiling and shrugging in a spotlight of her own, and we all gave her the most enthusiastic standing ovation of the night. After a minute or two of this, not knowing what to do, she was slowly and deliberately led off the stage, with a stagehand shining a spotlight on her the entire time.
I got to see Kurt Vonnegut do a live reading/Q&A session to promote his book, Timequake. I don’t usually go to live performances (the dead deserve more press!), but this happened my freshman year of college, and it was a good chance to hang out with some people I was getting to be friends with, and, y’know, Vonnegut. You don’t pass up an opportunity like that, and as someone who’s done a fair amount of cancelling/no-showing/chickening out, I’m happy to say, just this once, I followed through. And it was great, really; Vonnegut was just as warm and grumpy as expected in real life, maybe a little tired, but still recognizably and memorably himself in a way that’s stuck with me for years. I even got to ask him a question—“Do you think human beings are hard-wired to try and kill themselves via technology?” To which he said, “No, I think we just like our toys,” or something to that effect. But while this was all wonderful and singular, and I’m totally bragging by mentioning it, I bringing it up here because of what I missed even though I was there. Like I said, the reading/interview was to promote Timequake, Vonnegut’s last official novel, and even though I had a copy, I hadn’t had a chance to read it yet. So when it came time for Vonnegut to do a short reading from the book, I decided (in my infinite wisdom) to plug my ears so I wouldn’t get “spoiled.” Seriously. It seemed perfectly logical at that time, in spite of the fact that “suspense” and “plot twists” are generally irrelevant concepts in Vonnegut’s work (a few notable exceptions aside). Worse, Timequake is barely even a story—it’s more a summary of a story, interspersed with vignettes of the author’s thoughts about life, death, and the rest. While I might be remembering this wrong, I think the section Vonnegut read out loud was one the best parts of the book, a little thing about him and his sister and the passage of time. It’s heartbreaking and lovely and all about how the seconds pass us and never come back, and instead of actually listening to the man who wrote it speak it aloud, I was humming under my breath with my eyes tightly closed, terrified I would ruin the purity of a novel I didn’t even end up liking that much. Some art is so fleeting, you can hardly bear it.
For me, nothing exemplifies ephemeral art more than Burning Man. I had the privilege of making four back-to-back pilgrimages to the Black Rock Desert, from 1998 to 2001, and what stuck with me most from those experiences was how the impermanent nature of the artwork there made it all the more beautiful. There’s something genuinely inspiring and maybe a little crazy about the amount of effort that goes into some of the art people haul into the desert, erect for a week (for the benefit of a lot of half-naked and thoroughly stoned freaks), and then tear down—or even burn down. Yeah, a lot of it is janky beyond all measure, but some of it—a surprisingly large amount of it, really—was as beautiful and affecting as anything I’ve ever seen in an art gallery or museum, made all the more special by the fact that it bloomed in the desert for maybe a hundred hours or so, was seen by just a few thousand people (some of whom were almost certainly too high to even remember it), then simply ceased to exist.
Turns out my initial response—Steppenwolf Theater’s absolutely crushing production of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, which starred the incredible Tracy Letts and left me emotionally drained for days—isn’t quite so temporary anymore: It’s making the transition to Broadway starting this fall, making it a future ephemeral art experience worth seeking out. So instead I’ll go with a much smaller, slightly less devastating show I saw this past winter: Chicago company The Neo Futurists put on an original production called Burning Bluebeard, which celebrates the holiday season by telling the story of Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire of 1903, in which 600 people died during a performance of a Christmas pantomime called Burning Bluebeard. Sounds cheery, no? In spite of the macabre subject matter, it was actually one of the most enchanting, touching theatrical experiences I’ve had, filled with clowning, unusual pop-music arrangements, and gift-giving (I got a jar of fireflies!) in service of a story that turns into a wistful meditation on the nature of artistic performance and grief. During its run, I badgered everyone within earshot to go see it, and I’m hoping they’ll remount it this holiday season so I can do so again.
My day job is as a theater critic, so I see a ton of live theater, and while I’m tempted to pick LCD Soundsystem performing at Pitchfork in 2010, I’m going to have to say Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Mourning Becomes Electra at Chicago’s Goodman Theater was probably the most exhilarating live experience I’ve ever had. A post-Civil War family drama by Eugene O’Neill based on Aeschylus’ The Oresteia, the production ran more than three hours and was presented completely in Dutch with English supertitles projected on the stage. It doesn’t sound like the most riveting show, but the experimental Toneelgroep set the play as a contemporary family-counseling session, giving it a modern touch that made the incest-rape-murder plot more twisted than any other production I’ve ever seen. It started fairly composed, with each character required to remove their shoes before entering the IKEA-furnished room, but quickly escalated as characters drew their turbulent emotions on a whiteboard in the middle of the room, had tear-soaked iChat conversations, and stripped completely naked before assaulting each other. It’s the only show I’ve ever seen where I’ve felt the compulsion to stand and applaud before the final curtain, and there were multiple times when I wanted to get up and cheer at the completely fearless cast. I’ll never forget the sight of Halina Reijn’s red, puffy face after she’d been sobbing for about two hours straight.
I have a special affection for seeing Guy Maddin’s silent feature Brand Upon The Brain! in 2007, complete with a live orchestra, a live narrator—on the night I was there, it was Laurie Anderson—and sound effects provided by a crew of Foley artists gathered around a table loaded with props. The movie itself, which I first saw while squeezed into a press screening room the size of a shoebox, is enjoyable but minor Maddin, which makes it perfect to be placed at the center of this kind of circus. And after his previous film, Cowards Bend The Knee, which originally showed in six-minute clips designed to be viewed through a peep-show machine, it was obvious that the director was enjoying going big for a change and getting to play at being P.T. Barnum, if not Michael Bay. I actually know how much he was enjoying it, because between the time I saw the movie a cappella and the time I got the full effect, I had the good fortune to interview Maddin, and he really got into describing what the whole thing would look like, especially when he was raving about the art of the Foley craftsmen. It’s one of those little tricks of memory that distinguish the ephemeral-art experience that, when I try to remember that night, I can see the movie, and the musicians, and Laurie Anderson in her little cubbyhole, reading her text from a lectern, but when I try to remember the sound-effects team, what I always remember is Guy Maddin, sitting in the corner of a hotel bar, grinning like a lunatic while he worked his hands and choppers to suggest what it looks like when a trained professional is systemically destroying a stalk of celery to make the noises to go with a mad scientist hard at work in his laboratory.
Every summer since I was 16, I’ve attended the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, a decent six-hour drive north from my hometown in the Bay Area. It started with my family, but progressed into an annual pilgrimage with my three best friends from high school, in the waning weeks of summer just before we headed back to college or for another year of work. I’ve seen plenty of defining productions of the Bard there that stick in my brain—a color-changing cape for Prospero in The Tempest, an absolutely crushing staging of Hamlet that began with a pre-show funeral, and more than a few delightful turns from company member Anthony Heald. But the most memorable production I’ve seen at the festival wasn’t a Shakespeare play, it was Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Libby Appel’s final production as Artistic Director of the festival in 2007. One of my artistic mentors through high school gave me a collection of Chekhov’s plays when I was a senior, and I always liked Three Sisters better on the page, but after staring transfixed throughout Appel’s adaptation of Chekhov’s classic, I just can’t bring myself to consider any of his work on the same level as The Cherry Orchard. Armando Durán’s transcendent performance of Lopakhin’s monologue after the auction remains one of the most stunning performances I’ve ever seen.
In May 2004, about a year before my wife and I made the jump in status from “married” to “married with child,” we experienced the single greatest week of concert-going that we likely ever will, one bookended by an acoustic concert by Don Dixon and Marti Jones as part of Norfolk’s North Shore Point concert series and an equally acoustic performance by Lloyd Cole at the Ram’s Head in Maryland. In between, we went to New York City, where we saw Morrissey at the Apollo and Ben Folds at the Bowery Ballroom. But even with all of the aforementioned awesomeness, the most memorable evening came when we went into Greenwich Village and saw Colin Hay do his own spin on the Storytellers series, just him on guitar, telling tales from throughout his career and performing a mixture of Men At Work classics and solo numbers. It took place at the Village Theater, a small, intimate place with only a few hundred seats, and based on the rapturous applause and standing ovation at the conclusion of the evening, I have to believe that we weren’t the only ones to walk away in awe. Hay has since released a DVD of a similar show from a different venue, though without the biographical stories. It offers a fine performance and a reasonable approximation of what we saw that night, but it just doesn’t have the same spark or immediacy of our experience.