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Call It a Conversation

10/30/09

Kurt Hartwig

Benjamin Turk wants to talk to you. Yes, you. “We don’t believe in a theater with a proscenium that sets you apart from the actors. We want to bring you entertainment that makes you think as well as feel.” Instead, Insurgent Theatre tours its production of Turk’s play Ulysses’ Crewmen to galleries, basements, the occasional front porch, and bars, such as on September 30, their Milwaukee homecoming at the Stonefly Brewery. Turk wants you to know that the world is messed up. Deeply messed up. And he really wants to talk with you about it.

Writing about Ulysses’ Crewmen is tricky for a number of reasons, not least of which is Turk’s public persona, which can often be summed up in the two sentences: “I’m a communist. Fuck off.” No, while that’s a relevant feature of writing about UC, it’s not problematic. Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Ben Turk. When I taught playwriting at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he was one of my students. I built the set for Insurgent’s Paint the Town. I act as a fiscal sponsor for Insurgent, and I was at a staged reading for Ulysses’ Crewmen last winter. In other words, I am both supremely qualified and supremely compromised. But my history is not the end of the issues – it’s not even really the core issue.

UC is a play that Turk has been writing for the better part of six years. Its completion, more than anything, marks a chapter of thinking rather than any kind of culmination. A play is a play is a play, to be sure, but I would be remiss in a discussion of this one if I limited myself to my experience at Stonefly, because more than a play, it is a project. The script is, quite aptly, the tip of the iceberg. However, in the interest of accommodating short attention spans and people who have no desire to read further, I will review the play in one line by quoting from occasional Insurgent member Jason Hames, whose Facebook status update read: “Ulysses’ Crewmen = challenging/bumpy/brave/good.”

There. Now you can move on. And you might want to, because I’m moving on to theater history, always a crowd-pleaser.

photo by Amy Turk

A (Little) Bit of Background.

It often comes as a surprise to people that the idea of realism in acting is a relatively recent innovation in the performing arts. In the late nineteenth century, for often political and social-activist reasons, theater artists began borrowing the idea of realism from the novelists who’d already been tinkering with its parameters, like Emile Zola’s twenty-novel exploration of nature versus nurture. Within a decade, critics of realism were already saying that the well was dry, we should move away from realism; within a generation Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp, and others created dada, and with that the floodgates were opened. Pretty soon Bertolt Brecht was criticizing Aristotle for going about connecting with people in the wrong way, and no one criticized Aristotle. I mean, come on, he was Greek! He wrote the book on theater! Literally! And after Brecht, well, the twentieth century became a big muddle, but that’s okay, because I really only need to talk about realism and Brecht.

For some artists, realism wasn’t enough. They realized that in editing, in pacing, in composition of a script, they weren’t being realistic. The rules of drama demand a certain flow that cheats realism. They went a step further, into naturalism. Naturalists were the (il)logical extreme of realism. If a play called for a tree onstage, you didn’t get a carpenter to build a fake tree and cover it with sawdust and glue. You reinforced the floor, went out and got yourself a real tree, and mashed it into the theater. Now that’s what I call a set. Presumably, naturalists never staged plays like Medea.

Brecht, meanwhile, was saying that Aristotle made a mistake in his analysis of tragedies in The Poetics. Catharsis, the emotional purging that an audience is supposed to feel at the end of a good fork-in-your-eyes tragedy, in fact cheats the spectator. Emotions are a shortcut. Brecht wasn’t interested in short cuts. He was interested in social change. He was a nominal Marxist, he believed in a better world, and wanted to be part of creating it. This did not stop him from autocratically lording it over his company and living rather well as a “first among equals,” but his hypocrisy has little bearing on his rather fluid theory, so we’ll just leave that as an aside for now. Brecht wanted you to always remember that what you are seeing is make-believe. Don’t get caught up. Analyze. Consider. What would you do in this character’s place? His most famous concept is “alienation,” which he credits to seeing Chinese opera, but which a lot of theorists and historians credit to his reading of Victor Sklovski, a Russian Formalist. It’s okay. Brecht took other people’s ideas all the time. Epic Theater? Yeah, that’s from his mentor, Erwin Piscator.

“Alienation” is an awkward translation, but we’re stuck with it. Think of it as “seeing freshly.” Let me give you an example. We all have cars. We all know that our cars have electrical systems, but we don’t think about it. We just press the button for washer fluid and there it is. We press the button and our window goes down. We turn the key in the ignition and click-click-click. I left the dome light on. Suddenly, you are painfully aware of your car’s electrical system. It’s when systems break down – or when Brecht breaks them – that we notice them afresh. That guy who asks you for spare change every day at the corner of North and Farwell? You blow by him, you don’t think about it after the first couple of times. He becomes a fixture. Someone steals your wallet and you need change for the bus and you’re at the corner of North and Farwell, suddenly you have a different understanding. That’s alienation.

We’ve come a long way (and I blame Turk for that; it’s because he reads a lot), but we had to go there. Now, remember this phrase: Brechtian naturalism. We’ll come back to it.

I’m Opening for Who?

Ulysses’ Crewmen follows Insurgent’s 2009 pattern with Paint the Town: the D.I.Y. tour. Insurgent is looking for new audiences. They don’t want the people who patronize the established companies, if those people think that establishment theater is the end all and be all. Like many revolutionaries before him, Turk is looking for a revolution. He wants to re-make, re-invent theater. This isn’t arrogance: it’s alienation. It’s the antithesis of Peter Brooks’ “deadly theater,” one of Turk’s bête noires. Now, jump back to the first paragraph, and Turk’s opening statement to us at Stonefly: “We don’t believe in a theater with a proscenium that sets you apart from the actors. We want to bring you entertainment that makes you think as well as feel” (this is a paraphrase, by the way). I don’t know a single actor, director, or designer in “establishment” theater that doesn’t feel this, too. Everyone who does theater strives for immediacy, for connection, for rapport – which is precisely why the statement smacks of arrogance. Everyone wants new audiences, because mainstream theater audiences tend to be older, and whiter. Dare I say it? More – demographically speaking, if not geographically – suburban.

There. I said it.

In other words, from most theater artists’ perspective, Insurgent doesn’t have any different intentions than any other company. Sure, they put their money where their mouths are. They don’t just talk a good game, they’re producing work, producing tours. They have a clear mission and a clear agenda. When they talk about new audiences, they don’t just post on Facebook, they go to bars, all-ages clubs. They want punks, independent thinkers, musicians, and non-conformists of all stripes. And – they share in this a common approach with many young and aggressive companies. So what’s the big deal?

The September 30 show was the middle of a three-act evening, sandwiched in between the bands All Tiny Creatures and This Specific Dream. This brings me to another of Insurgent’s critiques of contemporary theater. The reason why those older, whiter people are going? They’ve got money. Theater is pricing out its best hope, which are young patrons. The ticket price for three acts was $7.00, which is a good deal by just about any standard.

Now ask yourself – what time do bands usually play? The performance was advertised as starting at ten o’clock. All Tiny Creatures only began tinkering with their gear then, and didn’t get started until a quarter after. At 11:15, Turk and his co-actor Kate Pleuss began their set-up and said, “We’ll start in about five minutes.” At 11:24 or thereabouts, “We just have a couple of preparations,” and then the quote with which I began this essay. The show went down at 12:30am, and as they wrapped up, they invited us to talk to them. They’d already lost about five or six people over that hour, and neither I nor the last person I still knew there were inclined to talk at that hour. He and I said our goodbyes to each other, and left for our respective homes. We’ll come back to this problem, too.

photo by Amy Turk

The Play’s the Thing Wherein I’ll Catch the Conscience…

At an hour running time, Ulysses’ Crewmen has become a fairly condensed piece of writing. The draft that Turk worked on in my class was a two-act, six or seven cast full-length show. He has exchanged a convoluted and overly dense layering of theory, history, and exposition for a simple narrative: score one for good storytelling. The Ulysses of the title encompasses three people: primarily, Ulysses is the hero of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey (Ulysses being the Latin name of Odysseus) whose Book XII adventures become the reference for both characters in the play. Turk plays a diplomat named Ulysses, a U.S. economic delegate to some global function analogous the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. He has been kidnapped by a group of activists, now terrorists, all but one of whom have died. It falls to the remaining, unnamed survivor, played by Pleuss, to finish the mission. Unfortunately, she wasn’t the leader of the expedition. She’s in over her head and she knows it. She’s got a pattern of behavior she can follow (check the perimeter), she’s got a gun that she’s afraid to use, and she’s got this tic where she keeps speaking the stage directions in a high, pinched voice. Things haven’t quite gone according to plan, and she reminds us of it via Brecht.

Pleuss does all the heavy lifting in this performance. Ulysses has no lines, gagged as he is for the duration of the show (and props to Turk – my gag reflex would’ve been out of control) and with a hood over his head most of the time. When Pleuss speaks, the first thing you’ll think is that she is an obvious voice-of-the-playwright. She’s terrified. She’s furious. And the only person on whom she can vent her confused panic is the equally stricken diplomat. She screams his complicity in abetting, facilitating, even creating a global economy in which exploitation is just a matter of course, resulting in piracy, human trafficking, and virtual slavery. She knows her stuff. She’s studied up. She quotes statistics. She quotes Brecht, the ILO, Lenin, Che Guevara, Heiner Müller. But you needn’t feel worried about keeping up – not only are these quote on the playbill for you to read at your leisure, but Pleuss goes into stage-direction mode to tell you who said what. We are, quite literally, on the same page.  Not only that, but she’s got a radio that delivers both exposition as well as being a channel to Hades. When she’s got it on, she can sometimes talk to ghosts – her fallen comrades, her mother. Unless she’s just going crazy, for which you can forgive her, because she’s had a hell of a day.

Another performance-relevant piece of information about this production is that Turk and Pleuss developed it without a director per se (though it makes me wonder if Turk really sat gagged during rehearsals). They would periodically invite other people in to provide feedback, and used that process to get their “outside eyes.” This approach results in the weakest part of the show. Pleuss hits and maintains an emotional intensity that is impressive for both its believability as well as for how long she sustains it: the whole show. Her stamina, however, belies the problem of pacing and the problem of naturalism in theater. It becomes less and less interesting over time. Turk’s writing contributes to both the positives and negatives in this sense. Her scripted false starts, stuttering breaks, the moments when she realizes she shouldn’t be talking and stops herself: these are all carefully crafted and solidly delivered. The text does not offer either her or the audience variation in strength, though, only variation in reasons to panic.

The Brechtian breaks are their own issue. Their deviation from naturalistic performance are too consistently the same to one another and not clearly enough differentiated enough from the character to be an accomplished break. This highlights the hurdles and flaws of Brecht, too, and perhaps explains his use of narrators. Once you do your alienation trick more than once or twice, it becomes its own gimmick, and it loses its alienating quality. It’s not that Brechtian naturalism can’t work, it’s simply that it doesn’t here, a shared flaw of this production and this theoretical approach.

There is a second, related way in which Insurgent’s lack of a director is a detriment to the performance, and that is vocalization. They offset this problem somewhat by the intimacy of the staging. Turk, at the center of Pleuss’ whirlwind, is no more than five feet from the closest spectators, while Pleuss charges all around, frequently standing at an audience member’s side (go here for a quick blurb on “environmental theater”). In spite of this proximity, it was frequently difficult to understand some of what she said, just as it was difficult to make out anything coming out of the Radio from Hell. Given the nature of the text, missing the occasional word or sentence is not usually critical, as a lot of what Pleuss says is repetitive (imagine missing a page from Anna Karenina – you’re frustrated at the loss of continuity, but pretty soon you’re back with the action, because it was just someone being disappointed about something). But when it comes to alienating us, there could have been more of a push. More focus on this particular element of craft would certainly help the show.

Here’s the thing about Odysseus. He had all these adventures, right? As a former professor of mine used to say, Odysseus was one of the greatest liars in Western literature. He didn’t mean it as a compliment. Odysseus tricked the Cyclops Polyphemus and blinded him, which was understandable but ultimately a bad move. Polyphemus happened to be one of Poseidon’s kids. Note to self: on a long sea-voyage home, do not blind a son of the god of the sea. In their seven years of Poseidon-imposed digressions, Odysseus and his crew sail by the sirens. These creatures’ voices draw sailors into the sea, where they die, dashed against the rocks. Odysseus wanted to hear what the sirens sounded like, so he ordered his crew to plug their ears with wax and go about their business of sailing the ship safely. They tied him to the mast, left him to hear, and left him alone until they were safely past. Which raises the questions: if Turk’s and Pleuss’ characters are both based on Ulysses, who are the crewmen of the title, and what is the siren song that those crewmen are not hearing?

Turk’s best writing is the epiphany that Pleuss’s character suffers: I’m just another delegate. Suddenly, the person who looked and sounded like the obvious voice-of-the-playwright is rendered as worthless as the man she’s been accusing this whole time. Suggestively, the siren-song that they, as mirror Ulysses, hear, is their particular class of action. His: global trade increases wealth for everyone (on average) and therefore we all win. Hers: Lenin was right, and violent revolution is the only solution possible. No wonder they don’t get along.

With some solid narrative storytelling and a questionably applicable theoretical approaches, a new question arises. Do we need Brecht? Rather, does Turk? As a fellow theory-head often enamored with big ideas, I’m more than sympathetic to striving for sophisticated writing. Being on the outside of this piece, though, it seems to me that his theory is already layered in, and his sophistication comes in the epiphany. In addition to which, Pleuss still suffers an emotional wreck at the climax of the play. Aristotle, anyone?

photo by Amy Turk

Okay, Smart Guy, What Would You Do?

Given Turk’s political bent (change the world) and his professional aspirations (new theater, new audience), I would hazard a guess that the crewmen in question are us, the audience. We’re the ones with wax in our ears. Those of us brave or foolish enough to take the wax out of our ears are seduced into easy and obvious solutions: conform, rebel. If you’re looking for an answer to this question within the play itself, you’re not going to find it. Turk is not offering a pat solution to an intractable problem. The better place to look for his answer is what he does outside the performance. He makes this ridiculously easy to do.

Here, let me help: the tour blog

Turk and Pleuss detail every single show. They detail their financial sinkhole of a car. They tell us how often they slept in parking lots. Here’s how much money they haven’t made. You can’t fault them for being sketchy on information. How do you apply this behavior, their search for a solution, to your life? I’m afraid that’s got to be your problem. Insurgent is not in the business of providing an answer you can dispute. They are interested in exploring possibilities you can discuss.

Here’s the rub. I’ve followed their travels off and on. To their credit, they explain how many or how few people showed up, regardless of what derogatory things someone might say. They talk about their conversations, and on every single post, they invite a dialogue. Basically, though, that’s not happening. Most comments (and there aren’t many) are friends and family. There’s one exchange with a guy from Chicago who liked Paint the Town more, and that’s pretty much it. This forces me to conclude that the audience that they want to develop needs a little bit more development. Those people who are responding in person may well be or become avid partners, but there just aren’t very many of those. And some of them leave because it’s 12:30am and... 12:30? Damn, I’m tired. I'm going home.

There’s also the aspect of Turk’s aforementioned public persona. For a guy who wants to have a conversation (unless I’m wrong from sentence one of this essay), he shows a marked tendency to be outrageous, insulting, and brash. He claims that theater artists in Milwaukee can’t take criticism and he’s not interested in being in the business of gladhanding bullshit (I should note that while Turk has written about my performances, and certainly not always positively, he’s never been insulting to me personally and we invariably have good conversations). However, in fighting mediocrity wherever he perceives it, he ends up setting himself up as the local Art Police, which to my mind is a different kind of stultifying than mediocrity. I find it impossible to criticize a demand for high standards, but I have to ask if it’s not possible to be uncompromising without being insulting. I have to assume that Turk, who is nothing if not deeply thoughtful, has come to the conclusion that there are only some people he wants to have a conversation with, and the public persona is a kind of active filter to weed out the easily bruised. If you’ll permit me a vegetative metaphor: that’s like saying, “No heirloom tomatoes for me, thanks. I prefer the ones in the supermarket shipped in from the southwest and genetically bred for durability, color, and smell. The fact that they taste like cardboard is neither here nor there.”

Okay, I’m exaggerating. My point is more about the heirlooms than about the other ones. Easily bruised does not mean weak, and there are shallow, despicable people out there who have some brilliant ideas (like, maybe, Herr Brecht). By driving away those heirlooms, Insurgent is cheating itself of some of those conversations and alliances that they desperately want to create. What they want to create is big; it’s huge, in fact. Cut yourself some slack and broaden your scope. Insurgent’s project is noble and high-minded, just like Ulysses’ Crewmen, a cautionary tale for our time. It takes guts to do work like this, especially after inviting invective from people who might otherwise be your colleagues. But Insurgent does it, and they keep doing it.

Go see this show the next time it’s in town and do Turk and Pleuss a favor: talk to them afterwards. Hell, do yourself a favor and talk to them. Tell them what you didn’t like about it. They can take it; and more, they love it. But do them another favor. Remember, Turk’s answer to the problem of the siren-song is to do and to live. Let your disagreements with Turk be uncompromising, honest, and respectful. Teach him not to be his own worst enemy.

Just think. You could’ve stopped with “Ulysses’ Crewmen = challenging/bumpy/brave/good.”


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