Last weekend I had the privilege to attend the Festival of Original Theatre conference 2016 presented by the students at the Graduate Centre for Study of Drama, Theatre and Performance at the University of Toronto. The theme for this year’s iteration was Staging Realities. As one might expect, the papers and performances covered a diverse range of approaches to the theme and it will take me quite a while to sort out all my thoughts and impressions.
But to begin…
One of the first notes I made in the morning of the first day cited a speaker (and I’m sorry I didn’t write the speaker’s name in my notes. Was it you Matt Jones?) who suggested a connection between verbatim and the readymades of Marcel Duchamp. It is provocative to think that verbatim performance which operates in the ostensible service of reality, authenticity, and ‘truth’ might be profitably linked to the ideals of surrealism. The Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme defines a readymade as “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” Intended to problematize the questions of what ‘counts’ as art, readymades were submitted to art juries and exhibitions. The coatrack (shown above) titled Trébuchet (1917) was displayed by Duchamp at the Bourgeois Art Gallery near the entrance door where legend reports that it went unnoticed, unremarked as art.
Verbatim performance shares an essential formal element with the readymade in that it too is about placing otherwise unremarkable everyday objects (here speech) inside the theatrical frame. Documentary theatre or verbatim in its ‘earnest’ or ‘straight’ form attempts to deliver speech in an unmediated way directly to the audience where we can access its truth value as testimony. Frequently presenting a kaleidoscope of perspectives, verbatim in this key purports to show us the world as it is. This is where the provocation comes in — the hyperrealism or superrealism of the genre seems at odds with the melting distortions of surrealism. And yet, both are ‘sur’ or ‘super’ or ‘hyper’ — above or in addition to the real.
Of course, verbatim isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It now seems in the clear light of Lehmann’s postdrama that one dismisses mimesis at one’s peril. When performance eschews mimesis to stage the real what results is not reality. ‘Earnest’ or ‘straight’ verbatim is a mirage. What we are offered in these works is not in fact the truth but rather a self-reflexive meditation on the creation of said truth. (And so we are back to metatheatre. More about this another time.) The problem lies with selectivity and the frame.
The first place that verbatim or documentary performance parts ways with reality is in the inevitable process of selection. The world is too vast and too detailed to be repeated in its entirely and so selection is necessary. But this necessity introduces art insofar as art involves some kind of choice, or composition, or construction. The same applies to Duchamp’s readymades as particular objects selected by Duchamp or his collaborators from a nearly infinite possibility of other objects. Some selection process comes into play — even if the intention is for the object to seem random or ‘unselected’ in its non-specialness.
The second point of departure for both verbatim and readymades, pulling them away from representing or pointing to reality, is in their framing. Both Duchamp’s mundane objects and the documentary text are transformed by the theatrical frame. The frame is immensely powerful. It is very hard to break. Any ostended object succumbs to its fictionalizing influence and becomes art, simply through the particular reception stance of the audience as triggered by the framing convention. (See Mikel Dufrenne The Phenomenology of the Work of Art).
Ultimately both surrealist readymades and verbatim generate the self-reflexivity of postdrama. By calling attention to their previous real world existence, we are called upon by these newly theatrical things to think about how they got there, about how theatricality is made in the first place. And so I suppose, verbatims indeed share a philosophical inquiry with readymades, asking not only “Is it art?” but “How is art art?”