photo by Willie Davis for Movement Research
This most recent staging of The Hannah Complex marks the second time Patrick and I have produced a “finished work” (in quotes a few reasons, which I’ll get to later). The first in the list of finished works is Act 1 of Pressure, which was produced by Avant Media. I’ve left MemeFactory out of this list for a few reasons, the easiest of which to communicate is the fact that because of the nature of the material, MemeFactory will never really be “finished.” Additionally, though MemeFactory looks much like the rest of our work, I don’t consider it as much of a “performance” as I do The Hannah Complex and Pressure.
Regardless, in the spirit of the experimental nature of our work, and in doing our best to actually communicate what we know so far, what follows is somewhat of a post-mortem for The Hannah Complex premiere as part of Movement Research @ Judson Memorial Church’s 2009 ROLL CALL Festival. Though it serves mostly as an exercise towards the end goal of perfecting the performance of our work, I thought it might be interesting for those who enjoy our work or are trying to make performance work of their own.
With only a moderate amount of careful spending and a fair deal of shopping around we managed to pull this performance off for roughly $1300. We didn’t have to rent performance space, we didn’t pay for publicity, we didn’t pay for a sound system. I’m also not counting food and incidentals for performers, or the cost it took me to park while picking up and dropping off rental equipment. So, though when you are broke $1300 is alot, in the grand scheme of things a full production for that amount of dollars is a really… really not that bad.
My mother asked me how much I was getting paid for this show and I told her. She laughed because I had previously told her how much I’d recently charged to my credit card and I justified it thusly: we have people coming to this show who are interested in seeing our work. Those people can connect us to other people who might be interested in showing our work. And so there is this sense of investment in the future for me: we are paying for proof we have pulled this off, for documentation of a well put together show and the (hopefully positive) word of mouth which will come after. Is that kind of thing worth $1300? I don’t know, we’ll find out.
Our shows are cheap because they are portable. This is one thing we talk about alot – because we don’t need much space, or much tech beyond what we bring ourselves (really we have everything except the PA and theatrical lighting) we can put our shows up in alot of venues, including venues not really meant for “performance” persay. But I think this idea of portability has lead us into a small bout of false-security.
What didn’t occur to me until our Judson show – which had the worst tech to tech-time ratio of any performance of ours we have done to date – is that though our shows are portable they are not simple. Which maybe from the outside is very evident: the subject matter certainly isn’t straightforward. I think because we can fit our whole show into the back of my truck, there is a false sense of simplicity. Don’t get me wrong: we knew 1 hr of techtime would be hard. To my surprise, it was not hard, but pretty much impossible.
When you have two computers, two projectors, a live-composition setup comprised of custom software, two performers who need to be doted on by the costuming department for 30 minutes each, wireless microphones, a mix and sends to setup, 2 documentarians and 4 set pieces, you can get everything in the room in record time, but getting everything to the point where you can begin teching? Budget 15 minutes for each piece of tech if you’re in a rush and in a familiar room.
Patrick and I went to take a look at Judson Memorial Church a couple weeks ago. We had never seen the space when we agreed to do the show, so we needed to scope it out to figure out what we had gotten ourselves into. The room, to our surprise, was massive. Absolutely cavernous. I immediately decided the performers would need microphones. Patrick immediately decided we would need to rearrange their standard seating setup to allow for people to see the slides. Patrick said it best: “In hindsight, we shouldn’t have started trying to figure out how to change the performance to fit the room, we should started trying to figure out what other performance we were going to do.”
The architecture of Judson Memorial Church made many things difficult.
For one, our performers talk really quickly. With a one second decay on any moderately loud sound, that means things get really muddy really quickly. Add a musical score and you’re getting even muddier. Now put the sound booth (which cues and is cued by the performers speech the whole way through the piece) all the way in the back stage-right corner of the house (admittedly and absolutely my mistake). Now make it literally 90°.
The performers were sweating so much that their vision became obscured. My computer overheated, my hands slipped off of the controller I use to run the show. This combination of elements makes what I consider to be a very engaging and funny piece awfully difficult to penetrate. An Unfunny Room makes a Funny Piece Unfunny, and everyone felt it. Judson’s house sound guy described the situation as “brutal” and I tend to agree with him.
Granted, more tech time would not have helped with their broken heater (yes – the heat was on inside during an 85° day) but being able to do a full run would have brought to light problems which surfaced only once the performance had begun or was already over. My lesson here is that when thinking straight becomes a problem, you need to identify that it is a problem, and do everything you can to combat and remedy it. The rushed and uncomfortable nature our tech directly lead to misfires and mistakes during performance and in the documentation procedures.
Even when we considered documentation starting from the very beginning of the rehearsal process, I still fucked this one up big time. The lesson here is not to double check, but to triple check. And if the house needs to be held, the house needs to be held and there’s no buts about it.
Additionally, the documentation system should be so straight forward as to be instantly and frequently monitorable. No jury rigging, nothing clever, just simple and straightforward even if it means more gear.
Power vs. Control
The performance system for the Hannah Complex Score is run by custom software I wrote. It is controlled by two pieces off midi gear (a Monome and a POS Evolution controller which I am dying to replace with something I can’t afford).
I wrote and recorded to score over the course of a little less than a month and wrote the program as I was writing the score. I got really excited about continuing to work this way (I usually perform using Ableton Live) and so I decided to write the program in such a way as to make it as reusable as possible. This was a mistake for two reasons.
First, this method became a time vampire. Methods which I could have implemented quickly and easily for goals I wanted to accomplish for The Hannah Complex specifically turned into projects centered around mutability, class inheritance, encapsulation and a bunch of other boring bullshit.
The month before a show is not the time to start a new programming project: it is the time to take your old programming projects and make them work as specifically as possible for this show and this show only.
Second, making the program as extensible as possible sacrificed my control to power ratio. For this performance I had tons of control; I could have gone to any part of the show at any time and trigger any sample. I could have stopped anything in its tracks, or mixed everything differently on the fly. Which is great for a concert, for a musical performance, where you want to be able to make things exciting and stop on a dime. For a theatrical performance though, control is a liability. If you can do something incorrectly, you will. And I did.
Power is what you want: the fewest number of buttons which have the largest amount of effect. You want the whole thing running on a rail: controlled, and stable. Army Proof.
When Things Go Wrong
So. I fucked up – probably a good ten times during the show. But after the show my friends come up to me and they congratulate me on a job well done. People who come to see WWKSF shows shake my hand and say “That was great! The play between the vocalists and the score and the slides was just wonderful” and I bite my tongue, trying not to say “BUT EVERYTHING WENT WRONG!”
So what is it? It’s definitely part of my neurosis as a performer and director. I want everything to go perfectly and when it doesn’t – especially when its my elements that are the ones going wrong – I beat myself up about it. It is the only thing I can concentrate on.
But ALSO, the audience almost never knows when something goes wrong unless things go so wrong, the show has to stop. This is something I learned performing with SIREN: as long as you keep your cool, and keep going, a weird performance piece is a weird performance piece. Sure there are the obvious gaffs: an accidentally muted mic, a temporarily over amplified vocalist, a slide which doesn’t make it onto the projector at all. But these things are kind of nice in a way, aren’t they? Our shows are so fast and intense, things are going to go wrong. It is my goal in the future to attempt embracing these kinds of mistakes and trying to prevent the others: the ones the audience wouldn’t notice anyways.
Finally, who is it that comes to these things? We’re a young company, so we’re still building a fan base and we’re still trying to figure out who our target demographic is. Of course, we make new performance so that’s going to be mostly young, hip arty types. But our work is also academic, so we’ve started to get some anthropologists and sociologists on our side.
But mostly… it’s our friends. And – don’t get me wrong, I love you guys – this is a problem. This is not at all a growth oriented strategy. If you are a band it makes sense: you play a show and you get all your friends to come. In New York they get asked who they’re at the venue to see, and then proceed to buy drink after drink. The venue sees your band brought a ton of people, they ask you back. Repeat and before long someone notices you’re playing around alot and something more important begins to develop.
There are several problems with trying to relate this method to performance. Firstly, performance is expensive! And unless Patrick and I perform every piece we make, it’s not like we can get together a constant rehearsal schedule to keep everything fresh. And unlike a band – we don’t already own outright 100% of the gear we need for each show. Every show is different and some of the tech we need is even damn expensive to rent.
Anyway. I’ve wholly digressed. We invite our friends and they come and we really appreciate their presence to a point beyond which they comprehend (I recently admitted to a close friend of mine that having her at my performances makes me more comfortable). But beyond our friends, in the future we’re going to have to be better about really running the publicity machine. Even with a show being produced by someone else, you are always the one most responsible for getting the word out about your show.
And I think this is another, final point to be made about scheduling: it’s really easy to put off your show. It’s not until two months from now? You’ll wrap it up next month and definitely be done in time for show night. But then show night comes and you’re scrambling on finishing touches. This go around was hard because we agreed to do the show two months beforehand. Then Patrick had to go to Amsterdam on business. Then I toured the Midwest on business. Then Kate had a family emergency. Then Eric had trouble getting time off work on short notice. The timeframe was tight – but in the future I think it’s important to leave the last two weeks before the show not for finishing touches on the show, but on making sure the show runs. Rentals, publicity, press, tech and as many tech runs as humanly possible.
We’re Done Here
So, why is it that I consider this most recently performance of The Hannah Complex to be “finished” in quotes? Well, beyond the fact that Movement Research produces only works in progress and encouraged us to take some risks – which we definitely did in almost every force – I think that we learned too much from this show to consider it done. For me, a truly complete and finished show is a show which you have doted on and rehearsed and performed to a point where you know how to account for all the things which can go wrong before the curtain rises. Flubbed lines and missed cues are one thing – botched documentation and an improper mix are another. At this point in WWKSF’s history, maybe we don’t have any honest to god finished shows, and I think that’s fine. We are continuing to learn, and the best we can do is promise to ourselves, our performers and our audience that with each show we get better and better at making and performing our work.
EDIT: May 2nd, 2:50
I wanted to add a quick note after some questions I have received : I am in no way being critical of Movement Research or the fabulous people who were involved in the show, only myself. Eric, Kate, Patrick and myself are hugely grateful to MR and MR @ Judson for the opportunity they afforded us. Given the opportunity to do it again I would not hesitate for a moment – especially now that I know what I’d be getting myself into!