Waiting, and Waiting, and Waiting for Godot

Who would want to sit through a 24-hour play? And what do you find when you do? Exploring durational theater

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This year, the Walker Art Museum in Saint Paul, Minnesota, has centered its 41st annual film series on the concept of time.

It’s curated around Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which won Marclay (who is credited with the invention of “turntablism” and has collaborated with Sonic Youth) the Golden Lion Award for best artist at the 2011 Venice Biennale.

The Clock is a 24-hour-long cinematic collage of clips from thousands of movies, each clip dealing with time. The piece itself is a clock: clips are strung together with real-time mania, so that if you start the film at midnight and watch it straight through, each of the thousands of clocks and watches shown will display your time.

It’s surprisingly engaging and even funny, but one thing it does not do is pass the time. As I slouched in a comfortable sofa of the Walker’s theater, time crawled around me, each minute ticking deliberately away before my eyes. An hour or two is not enough time to fully experience The Clock; it achieves its greatness only when watched in entirety, as all kinds of madness afflict the dedicated audience member, including distraction, despair, peace, hilarity, exhaustion, and loss of focus.

For philosophers and physicists, time remains one of the great unsolved problems. What is it made of? How does it move? Is it expandable, measurable, uniform throughout? “Durational” art, which is over a century old but just now making its way into traditional theater, asks the question: What happens to the mind when a lot of time passes without much happening?

At TBA 2011 (Portland’s Time-Based Art festival) raconteur Mike Daisey presented his All the Hours in the Day, a 24-hour monologue.

Bloggers emerged the next day babbling as if they’d been touched by a prophet. For example: “For the last day I have been awash in memories and inner commentaries, haunted by spotlit visions and fading echoes, the mental detritus of 14 hours[. . .]”

But what’s the point? An audience can’t give full focus to 24 hours of monologue or movie, so what can we discover in a day of distended attention that can’t be puzzled out in a single, deliberate hour?

”The object,” Daisey told the Portland Mercury before he embarked on his day-long monologue, “is to create a village, a community, for this 24-hour duration.”

For Ed Iskandar, director of The Mysteries which showed at New York’s Flea Theater this summer, the point of the long format is create a new kind of experience: a community of audience and performer through art. The Mysteries is 48 short plays based on Biblical stories, written by 48 playwrights and performed by 48 actors. One director (Iskandar) sews the plays together into a single, 5.5-hour long musical with a single cast.

The original staging places the audience in the Flea’s smaller, black-box space. Two rows of seats are arranged on either side of a narrow thrust stage, so that wherever I look, another audience member’s face looks back at me from a conversational distance. On the night I attend it’s so goddamn hot that hand-held fans are handed out to the entire audience. During particularly frantic scenes, we fan the sweating performers, who are usually standing only an inch or two from our own feet.

Between acts, without changing out of their costumes, performers feed us and even take time to come over and chat. The performance becomes a communal act, a story-telling ’round the fire kind of thing, which grows in significance as the hours pass.

In Philadelphia’s 2013 FringeArts Festival, of the 14 or so “Presented” (read: curated) works, at least 11 were between 50 and 70 minutes long. This included theater by world-renowned artists and companies including Italy’s Romeo Castellucci, Greece’s Attis Theatre, Norway’s Jo Strømgren Kompani and Philadelphia’s own Pig Iron Theater Company.

The one stand-out exception was The Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times, a 12-hour-long performance in five parts.

In the company’s signature style, the single interview from which the script is drawn is presented pretty much verbatim, including all the false starts and space-fillers which are such a part of our everyday speech — “like”s and “um”s proliferate alongside repetitions, digressions, and self-editing, creating a stage language so familiar that it’s alien.

Myself, I go into Life and Times absolutely expecting to undergo some kind of emotional breakdown in the middle: a deep, isolated look into myself bringing on a spiritual crisis that only immersive, full-on art can inflict.

Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, co-artistic directors of the Nature Theater, come out on stage at the start to remind us how long the show is, to let us know we’ll be fed and that there’ll be breaks, and we can leave whenever we want.

Life and Times isn’t, strictly speaking, “entertaining.” The action and settings do not reflect what is being said (one woman’s life story told in an unstructured monologue). The actions of parts three and four, for example, parody the ubiquitous Agatha Christie mystery play. Set in a 1920s drawing room, Life and Times drags out the denunciation scene, in which each character delivers self-revealing speech, for two hours of remarkable tension. The dialogue remains the interviewee’s autobiography. The distinctly non-theatrical story, and the company’s mastery of style, carry our attention part of the way. We, the audience, must do the rest of the work.

When I leave the auditorium at 1:27 AM, 12 hours after I entered, freshly poured hot chocolate is waiting on a table for me. As I sip it, my sense is of contentment and relaxation rather than the wretched self-discovery I’d expected.

When I asked Copper how she was driven to create such a long piece, she recalled seeing Einstein on the Beach in 1992. The product of two modern legends (director Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass), Einstein is a five-hour opera infamous for its long, slow, slight transitions.

“You just go through such a number of experiences,” Copper told me, “it’s so much more complex for the audience. I remember at Einstein feeling excited by the idea, then bored — then angry at the extreme slowness — then at some point the anger turned and I found myself in tears during the performance, which is not usual for me!”

This is a theme in durational or time-based work: very little “happens.” The drama shifts into the audience member’s mind and body.

Of course, theater (and particularly the kind of theater that sells tickets) is not a meditative medium. Theater, generally, entertains, and boredom is the demon under the floorboards that eats subscribers.

Watching durational work means encountering our own relationship with time, the same as visiting a cancer ward might force us to consider our relationship with death. Without some kind of distraction, without something to chase away the tedium and consciousness of passing time, we suffer.

The Marina Abramovic Institute (MAI), founded by the “mother of performance art” whose durational explorations date back to the early 70s, defines “durational” work as lasting at least six hours. On their blog, Immaterial.org, they have a short writeup on Life and Times, alongside interviews with scientists, authors, and artists such as Ana Prvacki, whose works include At the Tips of Your Fingertips, in which she cleaned money with wet naps for eight hours a day.

She also created a brief video which compacts some of this performance’s ideas down to 98 seconds.

“I’m thinking now about this Catholic idea of suffering to make a point,” said Prvacki in an interview with Immaterial. “But it’s also interesting to think of durational work as rejuvenating rather than depleting.”

Immaterial interviewer Siena Oristaglio responds: “Attending a long durational work has the potential to be a rejuvenating experience because you are entering a different kind of space, one that is void of markers of time and technology-mediated connection.

“With technology,” Oristaglio continues, “comes an ability to connect at remarkable speeds, but there’s also the downside that it can be distracting and overwhelming. Sometimes you need to take space from it.”

Some people might sooner take a vacation instead of spending a workday watching someone they don’t know wash money. But performance art stands at the still point between theater and the “fine” arts. Watching Prvacki smile serenely as she literally launders cash for eight hours isn’t so different from standing in front of Picasso’s Guernica for a day, which in turn isn’t so different from sitting in the woods at night. Eventually, after some blundering around in the dark and a bit of suffering, your eyes adjust to new forms of attention and discovery.

Iskandar’s 48-part Mysteries clocks in just under the six-hour limit, but this isn’t the only thing that distinguishes it from “durational” theater. Iskandar, like many artists today, sees live theater’s future in the formation of community through art, and isn’t so concerned with Prvacki’s “suffering to make a point” or Kelly Copper’s anger and tears. So The Mysteries, like most theater, stands between the audience and boredom, struggling to entertain and intrigue for the full five and a half hours. The fast-paced production utilizes a youthful, energetic cast, and the contrasting voices of 48 different playwrights (not to mention the occasional nudity or pansexual orgy) provide consistent novelty.

Time is always an element in theater, because theater necessarily exists in time (unlike, say, fine art). In theater, just as with its cousins television and film, time is always at odds with something, either the production, the audience, or both. Most theater pits itself against time (to save its audience the trouble), but television in particular is excellent at “killing” time, pitting itself against boredom with fast cuts, unlikely drama, and quick-resolving plots.

In contrast, the MAI’s center in Hudson, New York, when it’s finished, will feature a floor devoted to training its audiences to participate in durational performance art.

After signing a contract stating that you’ll spend at least six hours there, you’ll wander six sparsely-furnished areas, including a room in which you drink mineral water, a room in which you sit opposite a person and look at them, and a “luminosity chamber,” where you’re bathed with special lamps and asked to enter “a timeless state of mind.”

Time rushes through us, around us, over us. It is always affecting us. We are constantly aware of it yet know nothing about what it really is made up of. How do we interact with time? Grasping the concept of time as a palpable thing, time as dimension (like space) or waveform (like light and matter) adds a dimension to the question: why time-based art?

In our busy lives, do we even have time for the question? • 3 October 2014

Julius Ferraro is a theater writer in Philadelphia. He has contributed to publications such as Paperclips 215, Phindie, and The Broad Street Review.

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