Ten Performances, Top-of-Head

Friends and family are stirring conversation this week by listing 10 books influential to their lives and asking one another to do the same. I was halfway through a list when my head veered toward 10 performances that fit the requirements: top-of-head, life-shaping, leaving a permanent mark.

Peter Sellars

A two-hour, off-the-cuff talk by Peter Sellars, who was in town staging Doctor Atomic at the Lyric Opera when he gave a lecture at the University of Chicago. A formless, urgent, live, compelling performance from someone who understands the fundamental purposes of live performance, and its role in our personal lives and in our society. Sellars mentioned not being easy to reach but the other side of that being fully present wherever he is. Definitely was the case that rainy January night in Hyde Park. (My notes written during the talk are here.)

Charlie Trotter

Luckily was invited to a dinner for 10 or so in the early 2000s — first time ever having a prix-fixe meal. We now talk about chefs in canonical terms and meals as performances, but back then it was an unexpected and new experience: three hours where all of us around the table shared the same set of flavors and textures, all in a very careful and harmonized order over the course of a long evening. One bite led to the next, and the sequence had been planned as carefully as a piece of music. It was the first time “Do you like mushrooms?” was as meaningless a question as “Do you like purple?” or “Do you like the key of D?” I was seated between a cousin (whose bar-passing was being celebrated) and a stranger, which led to an ideal balance between sharing a meal and not having the experience of tasting be lost in table conversation. It was a group event, and others could do the talking, so there was plenty of time to eat and concentrate in silence.

Hamlet (dir. Peter Brook)

This was the show where an idol and influence lived up to the legacy. I’ve seen more plays than I can count, from great to awful, influenced by Peter Brook and his aesthetics. What stood out most here was the absolute present-tense clarity of not just each scene but each second — and that the show was in the end a constant stream of those present-tense unpredictible split-second moments, precise and shed of histrionics. The playing space was a stage covered in what looked like a giant dustcover—the kind that might be put over a grand piano or a couch when moving it from one place to another; orange in color. Two hours and twenty minutes, intermissionless, and I have no memory of any moment of distraction.

Bob Neuwirth

I caravanned to Austin with bands and other music people, never having been an active part of the music world. That week I played songs at a backyard party, in the first time slot of the day, before Neko Case (with A.C. Newman accompanying her), Calexico, Spoon, and, as a heavy thunderstorm arrived, half of the Old 97s. That was how the whole week went — intimate outdoor shows by great musicians playing for each other, in a world and a system I was mostly oblivious to. As my friends went off to wait in line for hot acts, I saw Bob Neuwirth play at midnight at the Cactus Cafe on the University of Texas campus. D.A. Pennebaker had screened a documentary, and so Neuwirth was there for that. He played a borrowed acoustic guitar with a “Chuck D for President” sticker on it, which cracked him up. Halfway through the set, he disappeared for 10 or 15 minutes and had the guy before him come back onstage to play a few songs. Never a second or a word wasted, it was a terrific set of songs. I knew he was reclusive and didn’t perform often, but I didn’t know then that it would be the only chance to see him play a full set.

Patricia Barber

This isn’t one performance but a few dozen of them, strung along from 1997 to 2014. When she isn’t touring, Barber plays for a few hours each Monday night at the Green Mill, a Chicago jazz club open since at least the 1930s. In this case, listening is only part of the show. Something that doesn’t show up on the recordings: Barber is always challenging the band and challenging herself — verbally and facially scowling when she or a band member strays from the song, crossing the line from playing the song in the present to performing something other than the song: a lick, a flourish, a comment, a reference, something that drags ego into the equation. She’s as hard on her band as she is on herself. All of this might be unbearable to watch except that I always get where she’s coming from: when she makes a frustrated noise and tries to pull herself from a moment of noodling or indulgence back into the song, or when she scowls at a busy bass solo, I get that it’s not about her mood or her attitude, or about one style of performing being better than another. It’s about playing the song as presently as possible, and never leaving the song while playing it.

Blossom Dearie

I saw her play in a small cabaret room, accompanying herself on piano, and I thought: I would see more musicals if the performers sang like this. She didn’t act out the songs or emote, but she was always intensely engaged—and the audience constantly waited for the next phrase, the next word. She played one I hadn’t heard before, written around the time of Watergate: “I’m Shadowing You.” Two hours, one intermission. During the break she saw me writing in a notebook and asked if I was reviewing the show.

Seven Streams of the River Ota

A full-day, seven-act, multilingual epic from Robert Lepage. Each act takes place in a different country and era, and the performing technique and design changed with each act as well: one act set in Japan, with Butoh technique and a sand garden; one act set in Brooklyn, with literal kitchen-sink realism; one act set in Amsterdam, with Dutch naturalism that allowed 10 minutes to pass in complete silence; real real time. What the show made sense of is why each country had its own aesthetic — why each captures something about that country’s essence. I drove six hours, on a whim if I remember right, to see this show. Seven hours, multiple intermissions and a dinner break.

Leonard Cohen

Another whim. I had heard two of his songs going in — luckily the show was not sold out and I had a temp job near the theater, and bought a ticket after work. He introduced each song with a couplet from the song he was about to play, and so that couplet stood out when it appeared in the song itself. The epiphanies from this night would be a longer essay in themselves: the lessons in performing, in verse, in songwriting, in stage presence; certainly in using language in a way that gets to the essence of words, simultaneously a word’s literal and metaphorical meaning. If there was a before/after moment in my own work, this was it.

Footfalls (Samuel Beckett / Deborah Warner / Fiona Shaw)

The show lasted 25 minutes, stand-alone, which was a rare instance of a late Beckett play not being part of an evening of shorts (which unavoidably puts the Playwright and His Work front and center). The entire audience sat in the dress circle; the rest of the large West End theater was dark and empty. The stage was a makeshift pile of boards on top of a set of seats, like the temporary board-table a director and stage manager sit behind during tech. Fiona Shaw paced back and forth across the board, her hands reaching up and touching the balcony-ceiling above her. The whole thing was lit by a lightbulb or two — which wasn’t a stylistic contrivance but, like candlelight, helped to draw everyone’s attention and focus. The second half of the play took place on the stage itself — the character starting in an ultra-confined space and being freed by the end in the cavernous space. I was aware of how dead-silent the audience was, and how there were no jokes and no moments to break the tension, and how this was a situation that might not sustain itself beyond 25 minutes. The Beckett estate closed down the show a week after it opened.

Self-Staged Work

I’ve directed a few dozen shows, and I include them here because staging a play has always centered on making a show that I would want to see. If a show feels “solved” or in the past instead of the present when it’s running, it’s a letdown, and luckily rarely happens. Instead, I want to make shows that would be an engaging Rorscharch test dozens of times, each one slightly different (or radically different) from the others. I understand — out of necessity and otherwise — why directors move on after opening night, but I’ve been a little wary of a director who creates work that they would not want to sit through many times — with each performance, like each day, present and offering something new.

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