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An Evolving Aesthetic

Tuesday, July 7, 2009 Leave a Comment

UNPACKING NET, PART 2: DEFINING OUR AESTHETIC

One of the challenges of NET for Heather and I was talking about the work Flux does, aka, "The Elevator Speech". This is the phrase for that woefully inadequate yet necessary 30 second pitch about your company's work, a pitch useful primarily in elevators and, well, national conferences.

We're not there yet, so if you see us in the elevator, don't expect it.

But having to talk about the work we do to those who haven't seen it really helped articulate some hunches into thought. Also, at our last Flux retreat, we talked about the kind of work we're drawn to, and that conversation, along with the push of the NET summit, has led to this post.

I love Pandora's Music Genome Project; the idea that rather than music being identified solely by stodgy genre, it is rather composed of hundreds of interacting parts that together comprise the song's DNA. This approach allows songs to talk to each other across genre and discover surprising connections; it allows for complexities and fusions and restless boundaries; it allows music to be defined by the sum of all the myriad ways we can imagine talking about it.

You see where this is going. What follows is a rough guess at the aesthetic genome of Flux - the commonalities I see in the work we're doing - but it is very rough, and needs to be hacked at by all the Members and FOFs (or anyone reading this post for that matter).

Here we go:

1. NARRATIVE CATHARSIS: We are drawn to work that uses the imaginative empathy of character and the rising conflict of narrative to purge emotion.
Examples: Riding the Bull, Rattlers
In Practice: While we love to experiment with narrative structure, that experiment is never at the cost of the audience's bond of imaginative empathy with the characters, nor the integrity of those characters' journey through the story. But this leads into #2...

2. NEGATIVE CAPABILITY: This is Keats', talking about Shakespeare "I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."
Examples: Other Bodies, A Midsummer Night's Dream
In Practice: We are not drawn to plays with obvious morals or themes, nor where the actions of the characters are explained or explainable. This follows #1 because it serves as a necessary friction - we want the empathy and catharsis, but only if they lead away from certainty and into mystery.

3. TONAL DISSONANCE: In music, dissonance is considered an unstable chord, a tension that needs to move forward in order to resolve, and we create tonal dissonance in our work through juxtaposition of opposites - broadly comic moments following tragic scenes (Life Is a Dream), naturalism chased by expressionism (Pretty Theft) - often within the same moment ("So I made love to her" "What's wrong with me?" "And Ted here killed her").
In Practice: Along with #2, #3 keeps the impulse of #1 from becoming easy. This embrace of tonal dissonance is also the aspect of our work critics have the most difficult time with; I think perhaps because tonal dissonance is usually used to disengage an audience from narrative and character; with Flux, this dissonance is used to deepen and widen that engagement.

4. AUDIENCE INTIMACY: The fourth wall has been broken in 10 out of the 11 plays Flux has or will produced. In some cases, direct address is the primary motor of action. The bond of imaginative empathy, under duress from the necessary shocks of Negative Capability and Tonal Dissonance, is reaffirmed by the complicity of direct address.

5. EPIC SCOPE: None of the 11 plays have conformed to the three unities of time, place and action; when it comes to time, many leap rapidly through the years (The Lesser Seductions Of History, 8 Little Antichrists, J.B.); with place, several have so many locations a sense of traditional place is destroyed (Other Bodies, A Midsummer Night's Dream); and with action, not a single play follows only one plot (except maybe J.B.). Several have more than 5!
In Practice: Epic scope is one more way of fighting against tug of Narrative Catharsis to deepen and widen the impact of the play's action.

6. METAPHYSICAL REALISM: Flux creates worlds that embrace magical realism with a twist: it's not just the intrusion of something magical into an otherwise realistic world, but a metaphysical conflict incarnated into an otherwise realistic world.
Examples: Other Bodies, Angel Eaters Trilogy, Life Is A Dream
In Practice: These conflicts have included: the fluidity of identity, the question of free will, cosmology, the nature of time, divine justice and more. In Flux's work, those conflicts take human form as the hearts, bodies, wills and realities of our characters are transformed in otherwise realistic worlds.

7. BIG CHARACTERS: We like characters of size, with size defined as their capacity to change and be changed by the world of the play and their own actions.
Examples: Lyza, Bottom, Joann, Segismundo, Allegra, Terry, Martha

8. TRANSFORMATIVE STAGING: Because of the Epic Scope of the plays, (and perhaps a little because of the un-epic scope of our budget), our staging uses the complicity of the audience's imagination to create the world: with a word, a single prop, a sound cue, we create the vasty fields of France; and then use these same tools to mean both that thing and something new.
Examples: The poles in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the kisses in Pretty Theft, the sounds in Other Bodies
In Practice: When something is transformed by an audience's imagination into something else, it never fully loses its previous incarnation, and these layers of meaning can build into a potency of expression that is unique to theatre.

9. ROUGH MAGIC: Flux loves the rough magic of theatre! Crazy fight scenes (Rue), on stage magic (Angel Eaters Trilogy), dances (Pretty Theft), rodeo showdowns (Riding the Bull), music (A Midsummer Night's Dream), all those dirty tricks of show business that feel good.

SO! That's a start.

What do you see in our work that I'm missing here? And what is the DNA of your own work? And how do we cram all that into 30 sexy seconds?

5 comments »

  • Candice Holdorf said:  

    Wow G, I really love this look at our body of work...we may only be a few years old, but I never thought of the scope of our (albeit tiny) canon until your brilliant dissection...makes me want to look at these plays again and then see what Flux does with them in the next 3-5 years...a revisiting of sorts, never letting just one incarnation of our work be the ultimate, but seeing how the times/people change and how we as artists grow and how all that speaks to our audience in the long term (I hope that all made sense)--a true 'evolving aesthetic'--we've done it once already with Riding the Bull and even with the same cast/directors it brought such another level of maturity to the work after only a year and a half...I like being a part of something that looks at the forest rather than the trees...now how do i get this to a sexy, 30-sec pitch!

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Thanks, C!
    I think 11 shows (counting what is yet to do) is enough to take a step back and look at the forest (it's like the number of songs on a debut album) and you know I love the idea of bringing some of those 11 plays into a longer repertory.

  • Johnna Adams said:  

    I love this, Gus. Brilliant and very insightful. And such a sodnerful read. You ask for input: I think one of Flux's most distinctive and unique projects is Flux Sunday. This provides opportunity and community building support for playwrights, actors and directors, and I think speaks for the companies commitment to artists beyond the stage. And it is a playground where the company tries out different dramatic styles and teaches itself what it likes. And, second, I think one of the attractions you have to work involves 'actor-driven' scripts, whether the play has a cast of 50 or a cast of 2-- the script has to appeal to actors first. That is inevitably part of the aesthetic when you work with writers who are (or were once) actors, and have an ensemble primarily of actors. Anyway, this was a pleasure to read.

  • Scott Walters said:  

    Nicely done -- makes we wish I could see your work. I was a little put off by "dissonance," but not once I read your definition.

  • Matt said:  

    Like they said above, this was really great to read. I'm relatively new to Flux, and haven't seen all the work, but the articulate way you're all approaching it shines really bright in my eyes.

    And yeah, I think there's something about those Flux Sundays that is a big part of the defining characteristic of Flux to me. The community being fostered is learning to work on a range of projects collaboratively. And on a personal note, its been wonderful to work with the wonderful people attracted to the company.