Mark Russell, founding director of the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater, New York, was artistic director of PS 122 for more than two decades.
Live. I live for the live. Presence restores me to me. To see someone live—standing, breathing before me—is the essential relationship. It makes me present. Because you exist, I exist. It is the essence of life and the core essence of theater. This time we take to be in a room together, whether it is in a small group in a theater, one on one, in a bed or in a hall with two thousand people. We are live. We are alive. You might say that is the central dramaturgical thesis for all theater. We are alive; you are alive, with us here and now, and every moment is a celebration of that.
All that said, I once programmed a show for the Under the Radar Festival that had no live actors in it, the Belgian company Berlin’s production of Bonanza. It was essentially an installation with five video monitors showing a documentary about the small village of Bonanza USA. Yet this experience could happen only in a theater situation; the tech needs of the piece required some of the basic trappings of theater—a black box, grid points, lighting instruments, and a tribune for the spectators. The experience had to take place over time in a concentrated environment. You could not get the full effect of the piece by just watching the video; it demanded that you witness it in person with others. It was after all a piece about the dynamics of a community. Bonanza challenged one of my own ideas of the theatrical event—that it needs live actors. Obviously not.
If you remove the performer and reduce the equation to a group of people who have chosen or found themselves to be in the same room together to witness something, it is still a live event. The delicate dance of the audience, the listening, the watching, watching others watching, the keeping quiet, the shifting in the seats, the sigh, the laughing, or even weeping shared with your fellow travelers in the room. The communal experience is at the heart of theater; it sets us up for the live.
I remember a production of Squat Theater at its Twenty-Third Street space in the late 1970s. The audience gathered, and as they were waiting for the performance, talking among themselves, and so on, a subtle sound track was playing, almost unnoticed in the background, of people in an audience. This sound track would build and build and then start to drop out as if the show was about to start. The live audience would begin to quiet as it anticipated the start of the show, but then the sound track would slowly build up again, and so would the audience, returning to chatting with one another only to once again be quieted as the sound track prepared them for a show. This audience roller coaster ride went on for a few rotations before the show actually started. It was one of the most subversive brilliant things I have experienced in the theater. It was a little practical joke that celebrated the organism of the live audience.
Live is time. Whatever construct we use to find ourselves in the presence of an artist or an audience takes time. It involves the exchange of time. That is the medium we use, the real canvas of the live event—time. The addition of moment to moment to moment, the ticking now, that adds up to an event. An artist carving the arc of time with a story or a movement or an action while we the participants witness and influence that fleeting work of art with our active presence.
Often people have to be seduced to experience the live. It requires that they cede control and open themselves to interaction with others. This or that event promises to entertain them or give information, safe places to spend their time. The audience comes for one reason, but when it really works—when they are sideswiped by a real moment of truth or a performance of pure excellence—they receive the surprise of living.
There are those who have perfected their liveness, their talent to make us all feel included in the moment. I am thinking about Karen Finley, Penny Arcade, Tim Crouch, Scott Shepard, and many other performers, actors, dancers—often we call them stars. They burn bright for us, and we are attracted to their flame because they make us feel alive. They mark our events and heighten our time on earth just a little. Live artists go deep into the moment, into a song, into a speech, into a movement, or into a character and make themselves so present that it shocks us into joining them, in presence, in life. Live.
Berlin, Bonanza, 2006.
Karen Finley, We Keep Our Victims Ready, 1989.
Squat Theater, Pig, Child, Fire!, 1977.
Squat Theater, Andy Warhol’s Last Love, 1978.
Elevator Repair Service, Gatz, 2006.
Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Life and Times, 2009–.
600 Highwaymen, The Record, 2013.