Dramaturg Jess Applebaum inaugurates the undergroundzero blog with a look into the making of Anna Brenner’s Disquiet and the nature of “devised” work.
I have come to understand, on a most simplistic level, that the choice to devise performance comes from a desire to converse with a particular group of artists/performers around chosen material and from that conversation make something new.
In this sense, the work of devised theater aligns with the techniques of Cubism, which Gerald Kamber has distilled down to the following phases of technique: “(1) a pulling to pieces of the object; (2) a rebuilding of pieces into an independent composition; (3) a placing together of objects (or parts of objects) from an unrestricted range of observations; (4) a shifting of emphasis from the ‘reality’ of the objects to the ‘reality’ of the aesthetic surface.” (Kamber, Gerald. Max Jacob and the Poetics of Cubism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1971.)
Anna Brenner’s latest production, Disquiet, follows the process that Kamber has laid out. As a director, she has gathered an ensemble of actors and a theme of inquiry, which been pulled apart and rebuilt. In this case the object (or theme) began with the work of Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa is one of the most celebrated literary figures of Portuguese language/culture. Using his work The Book of Disquiet as a primary source, Anna and her ensemble began to investigate how individuals connect or disconnect from the places they inhabit and the people that surround them. From this investigation the ensemble began to develop a group of characters.
“Pessoa was fascinating because of how directly he looked at the self and its relation to place. He obsessively observed other people, but seemed to learn nothing from them. He was constantly talking about how lifeless his life was, while constructing a multitude of alter egos.” – Anna
As the company entered into the second phase of work, which entailed creating characters to develop an independent composition, they became frustrated with Pessoa. As a writer the poet/novelist/flaneur was famous for inventing and then generating hundreds of heteronyms (imaginary characters created by one writer so that he can generate work in starkly different styles). Why couldn’t Pessoa embrace all of those characters in himself and engage actively in his world? Pessoa’s solipsism brought in the current question that Disquiet centers itself around: How should we live?
‘How should we live?’ opened up the process of Disquiet to Kamber’s next phase of development: the ‘unrestricted range of observations.’ This is where Bulgakov, Dostoevsky and Chekhov found their way into Disquiet.
“…what interests me about Pessoa, Dostoevsky and Chekhov is that their work always asks the questions, ‘How should we live?’ That’s what I’m trying to figure out. How can we live meaningful lives? How should we treat our neighbors? What should we care about? Can we live with difference and not force our own beliefs and ideas on everyone?” – Anna
Cubist aesthetics abandoned a more traditional form of storytelling. Rather than exploring a subject from one fixed point of view, they opened the canvas up to demonstrate multiple viewpoints of one object. Disquiet does the same. Flattening out an apartment-building (I myself imagine a converted Brownstone) the audience is given five distinct characters, each of whose existence and interactions with their partners, roommates, and neighbors prompts us to ask How do you live?
To a certain degree every performance is ‘a shift of emphasis from the ‘reality’ of the objects to the ‘reality’ of the aesthetic surface.’ Our desire is that the accumulation of experiences brought forward on the stage by these characters will create a composition that shows ‘the individuals on stage and in the audience “under stress.” This stress, which Anna describes as “both mundane and spiritual” will prompt each of us engaged in Disquiet to begin to answer the question ‘How should we live for ourselves?’
“It is a question that the individual must ask himself, and ask it in relation to his community. This is what I love about the Russian writers and Pessoa, and about pretty much everyone I see struggling to make it in this city.” – Anna
Jessica Kaplow Applebaum celebrates twelve years of working as a dramaturg in New York City. In 2004 she earned her Master’s Degree in Performance Studies at NYU and served as editorial assistant for TDR: The Drama Review. Jess is a contributing scholar for Columbia University Press’ Encyclopedia of Modern Drama (edited by Gabrielle H. Cody and Evert Sprinchorn ) and Routledge’s Reading Contemporary Performance: Theatricality Across Genres (edited by Gabrielle H. Cody and Meiling Cheng) which is slated for publication in 2014. Most recently Jess completed her MFA in Dramaturgy at Columbia University where she was a Shubert Presidential Scholar. Jess is a proud member of One Year Lease Theater Company, Network of Ensemble Theatres and LMDA.