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POP: Crystal on Nerve

Thursday, July 29, 2010 0 comments

What is POP (aka) Playwrights-On-Playwrights?
Who else is POPing Adam Szymkowicz?

Up third: Crystal Skillman on Adam Szymkowicz's

Crystal’s plays include The Vigil or the Guided Cradle, Hack! an I.T. Spaghetti Western, as well as Birthday which will make it’s U.K debut at the East Waterloo Theatre this August.

Nerve has been produced in NYC, St Louis, Miami, Asheville, Philadelphia, and beyond. For more information about Nerve, check out Adam's website. Nerve is published by Dramatists Play Service, and is available here and here.

Nerve: The Teeny Little Corners of Fears and Longing

It’s time to jump into this Adam Szymkowicz blog fest! I do love chattin’ plays and I hope my responses are true to what I’d share with you as we’d order cups of Joe at Joes’s on Waverly, as I’ll be sharing thoughts as a fellow playwright of course. Also, my responses to Adam’s work can’t help but be tainted with the personal. I got to know Adam really well and we become good friends when I helped support his production of Food for Fish at the Kraine back in the day. At the same time, he invited me to see a production of a little play going up at the same time called Nerve:)

Seeing Nerve was really a great experience. The play unfolded perfectly in a rockstar production by the talented Packawallop Productions and I was bowled over by it, so impressed. And I’m very lucky, and thankful, for the friendships as well as artistic collaborations that emerged from that night! I actually recently wrote about this in my 5 Questions Interview for the Clyde Fitch Report that I was honored to be asked to do by Leonard Jacobs with the very awesome Susan Louise O’Conner who was in my play The Vigil or the Guided Cradle, now nominated for an NY IT Award, at the Brick a few months ago. You can check out that original post here which also features a short play by Adam: http://www.clydefitchreport.com/2010/04/special-5-questions-crystal-skillman-interviews-susan-louise-oconnor/

So it’s clear Nerve rocks my world. But why? For sure, it’s the kinda play you can bounce a quarter off of because it’s so tight but for me the best part is it has these teeny little corners that appear as openings in this conversation where we peer into the most inner longings and fears of Elliot and Susan on their first date. Here we see the internal become external is really great ways. We get to watch them “actively” date, as Larry mentions, and it feels very grounded in so many ways, but with an awesome heightened tone.

ELLIOT. I think you can tell when you meet someone like whether or not you’re going to get along with them.
SUSAN. Sure.
ELLIOT. But until … I suppose, before the kiss, the first kiss. I mean that’s everything.
SUSAN. I don’t know that I … what do you mean everything?
ELLIOT. The entire future of the couple is in that first kiss. Because from that kiss you know how it’s going to be, whether or not it’s going to work at all or if it’s just not supposed to happen and until that first kiss, you really have no idea of anything.

Not unlike one of my fav plays The Long Christmas Dinner by ye wonderful Thornton Wilder, the best part of the play is how it escalates. We not only go through one night of a date, but really the ride of a relationship from the issue of family (I crack up every time I read Elliot asking her to join his family on their trip in like the first few pages, and how it comes back at the end) to their friends both helpful and also destructive. All of this chips away at the deep pain of these individuals who in many ways are not ready to find the other one at all. But in finding each other are making each other ready.

What makes the play in some ways perhaps more interesting than Long Christmas Dinner is that it does it all through the conversation. Simply in the words. People don’t need to reenter and appear to be getting older. In Nerve they are maturing in the moment, making leaps and bounds towards letting go of their desperation and becoming something bigger than their own personal issues. They are starting to question the pain they are holding onto with knives they use to cut themselves in purses or restraining orders.

It’s sharing their pain that forces each other to stay because they’re hooked to see what will happen as we are. By forcing each other to stay they must listen to one another. By doing that, they’re starting to let go.

Which to me, is the point of a relationship, which the drama I love captures.

The icing on the cake is the wonderful glimpses into the internal, emotional life of Susan and Elliot as they strive to get to that kiss. That stuff can be hard to dramatize without going crazy or going overboard with it. But Adam does it so, so well. It doesn’t feel gimmicky at all, really seamless. He makes puppets of ex-girlfriends who abuse him, and she dances in secret.

SUSAN. (Getting up.) You don’t know where the bathroom is, do you?
ELLIOT. Over there, I think. That might be the kitchen. I would try over there.
SUSAN. Thanks. (Susan moves off as if to go to the bathroom. Elliot can’t see her. The lights and music change. Elliot takes out his cell phone and dials. Susan does a dance of joy, a combination of ballet and mod- earn dance that is hopeful yet grounded. When she finishes, she runs off the stage …

When she dances, like the above, for the first time with a hint or hope of love, our heart leaps. And how it leads to Susan going back to her self destructive behavior of cutting herself at the end is really devastating.

At first when I saw the production, I totally got what was happening – all by the visual. Sitting in the audience was a little scared when Susan started to explain what these dances were. “Oh no! Unnecessary exposition! I don’t need it! Just let it stand,” I thought. But then that went to a great place and I started laughing like crazy.

SUSAN. I used to dance and sometimes when I get bored or upset I choreograph dances in my mind.
ELLIOT. Lots of tiny dancers.
SUSAN. Yeah. Or like when someone’s yelling at me.
ELLIOT. Why are people yelling at you?
SUSAN. What is that supposed to mean?
ELLIOT. I’m just asking. People yell at you a lot?
SUSAN. The last guy I was dating. When we fought I would have dancing in my head. I do it when I’m bored too.
ELLIOT. Are you doing it tonight?
ELLIOT. I have to keep you entertained.

That’s what I love about Adam as I writer. I love going where his details and these detailed, obsessive, addictive and addicting characters lead you. Adam makes these intimate details in many ways the action of the play. Elliot does have to keep her entertained or she’ll hurt herself. The stakes are huge, but it unfolds in a seemingly causal conversation that is anything but casual and the play itself is that conversation. I really admire that. Adam's plays hinge on the little things that are in fact really devastating. What we try to hide from one another. Our deepest desires.

SUSAN. It’s important you believe me.

That’s what ultimately, to me, makes Nerve a great read and production – it gets into the bodies of these characters that really remind us of us on a good and bad day. All at once there we are at our extremes and very most ordinary. At our most witty and simple. And we want those we care about (or are afraid we care about) to believe that we care. Nerve is simple about what matters – that kiss does wait out there. It’s a matter of knowing what it means when it comes. At least for that moment, being able to give over to it by being selfless. Transforming.

Diving into Nerve is like that and, as someone who saw the debut, it has a rare quality in that it possesses the same feeling in both seeing the production and reading the play.

There’s a lot to learn from Adam’s beats and shifts in this play and where and how they lead … it really does remind you of what it means to become bigger than yourself and your own obsessions.

To let go.

Read the full story

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POP: Brian on Nerve

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 0 comments

What is POP (aka) Playwrights-On-Playwrights?
Who else is POPing Adam Szymkowicz?

Batting second: Brian Pracht on Adam Szymkowicz's Nerve

Brian's plays include The Misogynist, Or No More Mr. Nice Guy and Unplugged In; he also played Joe in the Flux production of Adam's Pretty Theft.

has been produced in NYC, St Louis, Miami, Asheville, Philadelphia, and beyond. For more information about Nerve, check out Adam's website. Nerve is published by Dramatists Play Service, and is available here and here.

On Nerve
by Brian Pracht

Based on my knowledge of Adam’s work, Nerve is the perfect play to start with. I wonder it he’d hate to think of this play as a touchstone, maybe it’s a Source, since many of the core themes and styles he employs are found here in its purest form, or at least its simplest form, since this play consists simply of two people in one location. It’s interesting to me that the music’s supposed to be considered as a fourth character. Since I don’t remember in the text either Susan or Elliot actually dealing with or reacting to the music, my reaction was to consider the music more of a director’s tool, used to underscore the emotions these characters feel. And these characters feel a lot. Deeply. Which I think is a great strength of the play, and in Adam’s work in general (I don’t think I’m supposed to speak to Adam’s work in general, so I’ll hereafter stop).

Looking for love, knowing you’re flawed.

In Nerve, I believe Susan and Elliot start the play having already found love in each other (or at least the germ of love), but since they barely know each other, they’re afraid that once the other knows their secrets, they’ll be scared off. Even though Elliot says he loves who he is, when he pulls out his puppet, we see this isn’t the case. So, okay: we have two people who don’t like themselves, but they desperately want to be loved, but they’re afraid this won’t happen because of their shitty baggage, but they think they’ve found someone special, so now they have to show them their baggage, but first they have to work up the nerve to do so. Two people fighting for their relationship while fighting against themselves. That’s basically how this play works for me. And it works very well. The play engages us with one of the most elemental, human problems. The rest: the “quirks”, the puppets, the dancing—they’re interesting and fun and unique. I don’t want to dismiss them. They’re imaginative, they help us to listen more carefully, since we’re used to the guy-and-girl-on-a-date play. Visually and aurally, the dancing and napkin-pile and sound effects help us interact with these people on different, sensory levels. But for me, what makes this play successfully work and MOVE is the core problem: people overcoming their flaws to achieve what they want. I personally believe this is a problem we emotionally invest in because we want to see it solved, which thankfully, they do.

It gives us hope in ourselves, and hope that love still conquers all.

Now isn’t that a beautiful evening of theater? Read the full story

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POP: Larry on Nerve

Tuesday, July 27, 2010 1 comments

What is POP (aka) Playwrights-On-Playwrights?
Who else is POPing Adam Szymkowicz?

First up: playwright Larry Kunofsky writes about Nerve.

Larry's plays include What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends, Social Work (a nightmare), and a cycle of plays riffing on the Old Testament, The Genesis Tapestries.

Nerve has been produced in NYC, St Louis, Miami, Asheville, Philadelphia, and beyond. For more information about Nerve, check out Adam's website. Nerve is published by Dramatists Play Service, and is available here and here.

Some Nerve
By Larry Kunofsky

Nerve is a nifty little play. It’s tight, it’s compact, it sets everything up within minutes and follows through ‘til the end. It’s sharp, it’s very funny, and it breaks your heart when you least expect it to.

Nerve is a Date Play. The play is about a date – a man and a woman meet online, and the entirety of the play is their first physical test to see if they can play well together. It would also be a pretty good play to take a date to, since, if you’re on a date, this play is deeply relevant to your immediate life-path, and it will definitely give you something to talk about after the show. Although it probably wouldn’t be a great first date play. Nerve is a little too edgy for that. Unless the person you’re planning to be on this first date with is even crazier than you are and you’re both willing to risk the worst experience of your lives for the possibility of a Great Moment. Which is what a first date really is anyway, and so, for that matter, is any encounter we have with somebody else, when our hearts are on the line. And this play really goes there. It’s not the Hollywood version of dating, where everything is quirky in a very containable and nonthreatening way. Nerve is a raw nerve. Nerve has nerve (or chutzpah, or guts, or balls…). Nerve quotes the Paul Simon lyric:

“Ask somebody to love you
Takes a lot of nerve
Ask somebody to love you
You got a lot of nerve.”

Let’s look at the soundness of Nerve, or the playability of it as a play. So even though we all know this – at least on an unconscious level – let’s review what makes a good play have a great effect on us, and apply it to this play:

The main characters (especially a protagonist and an antagonist) want something, and what they want is something BIG, something that matters. Well, it matters to them, and it matters so much to them, that it ultimately matters to us. There is conflict. All this wanting propels everyone through their journeys, but people want different things, or they want the same things differently, and this screws everything up for them. And then these people either get what they want or don’t get what they want or get what they want only to find that they don’t want what they had wanted all along after all, and then we can go home.

All this applies really, really well to Nerve, which takes some very common practices and emotions, and spins them into something with lots of heat and makes it essential. It’s a two-character play, which makes sense, because you usually only go out with one other person at a time on a date, unless you really love complications. Susan and Elliot show up at this bar. They’ve been emailing each other for days before their actual date through an online dating site (it’s never specified which one, since there’s very little product placement, but there is a dating site called Nerve, fyi), they went to a movie together earlier (to give each other something to talk about, i.e., Would You Have Michael Moore’s Children?), and they spend the evening… Dating. They are actively DATING each other. They do the little dance that you do in these situations, and with a vengeance. They each constantly attempt to solve the mystery of the other. Will they go home together? Is there a spark of something beyond the immediate, something that can stay with them after the evening? Can love be found in all of this? Will Susan and Elliot be for each other what we all want to be for someone else when we go out on a date? Or will they only become what we all secretly still fear (even though online dating is no longer a new phenomenon, and we should be too enlightened for this stigma): two desperate losers caught in a tawdry hook-up, or even worse, caught in an aborted hook-up?

The lame attempt at a synopsis above is really just my way of illustrating how seamlessly the play gives us what we need from a play. One could argue that either Susan or Elliot is the protagonist, and that the other is the antagonist, but aren’t we all our own worst enemies when we’re trying to show somebody else how great we are?

So the date becomes the perfect set-up for such a nifty little play. Susan and Elliot are both, alternatively, the protagonist and antagonist, and they both want the same thing, only in different ways. Susan wants Elliot to be her Elliot and Elliot wants Susan to be his Susan. What could be simpler and more messed up? There is attraction, witty banter, even some hurried sex in the bathroom, but there’s also Susan’s ex, off his meds, who keeps leaving needy pleas on her cell phone, and then there’s Elliot’s history of court orders and stalking. Susan and Elliot are both broken people. She cuts herself to feel power over her own life, and he’s been in jail. There’s anxiety, insecurity, loneliness, jealousy, but also love. Real love. And maybe that sounds cheesy, but we are talking about the real deal here.

It’s a first date, and yet, there love is. Somehow, Nerve isn’t just a first date, it’s also the entire trajectory of the relationship Susan and Elliot could have together. This isn’t done in some Modernist way, like how Joyce has Ulysses take place on a June day in the twentieth century, but also has it encapsulate all of Western Civilization. I’m actually really glad it’s not like that. The whole whole-relationship-in-one-date thing happens in a remarkably organic way, the way every moment we share with someone else in real life has the DNA of our future histories together. It’s all in the first kiss. Or the first time somebody breaks down and cries in front of another. Or the first time our cell phone goes off at the worst time. It’s like that. Only more so. There’s an interpretive dance in Nerve, and some puppetry, but the play’s Expressionism isn’t any more overt than its Modernism. It’s just a date, and it’s as simple as that, but also as messed up as that, too. Which is really pretty nifty.

It must have taken Adam Szymkowicz a lot of nerve to write this play. He definitely has a lot of nerve in general, and I know that for a fact. He wrote a comedy. Even a (somewhat-)romantic comedy. It’s not remotely cheesy, but it veers precariously towards sounding off our inner cheesy-alarms. It might even lack any real Social Significance. And it has an embarrassment of simplicities within it. It’s like a song with a great beat that you can dance to. And yet, it’s also really messed up. It’s the kind of messed-up-ed-ness that could yield a catharsis, and could even lead us to a genuine Great Moment. Adam dares to entertain us here, to delight us, but he also really goes there, and we go along with him. You won’t want to recognize yourself in this play, but you will. The dots he connects in this play create something really elegant, but the most elegant parts are the dots Adam intentionally does not connect. It takes two to tango, as they say, but the third party here is us, and what becomes of this date we’ve been on, or privy to, is kind of up to us. The play works because it makes us do some of the work. It utilizes our hearts, and our nerve. Read the full story


Playwrights-on-Playwrights: Adam Szymkowicz

You may remember this post from those halcyon days of April, where we promised to have playwrights engaging critically with the full body of work of fellow playwrights. Well, after a much longer gestation period than expected, I'm thrilled to report that the hot steamy playwright-on-playwright action is about to begin!

Here's how it works: 6 playwrights will read through 6 plays written by Adam Szymkowicz. You may know him as the talented playwright of Flux's production of Pretty Theft, or as that charming blogger who interviews the playwrights.

The reading playwrights are:

Larry Kunofsky
Crystal Skillman
Brian Pracht
Johnna Adams
J Holtham
August Schulenburg

The six plays we're reading are:

Nerve, Food for Fish, Pretty Theft, Incendiary, Hearts Like Fists, and Fat Cat Killers

We'll read through a play of his every two weeks or so, and then each of us will contribute a response.

What do I mean by response? I don't quite mean a review. I'm more interested in us figuring out how these plays work, not whether or not we like the way they work. That doesn't mean we can't be critical; we can. After all, conflict is interesting. But I'm less interested in ideological playwright flame wars than I am with deep reading; the kind of perceptive, sustained attention we all wish for ourselves.

I feel like this kind of deep reading is missing from our discourse, and when it does occur, it's usually lavished on dead people. I want us to talk meaningfully about plays that are being written now.

We'll be posting the first response from our readers to Adam's play Nerve later today, so keep your dial here, playwright lovers. Read the full story

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Some Pics From The NYITA

Monday, July 26, 2010 0 comments

We stumbled across some fun pics from the 2010 NYITA Ceremony on the BOBOOBLOG courtesy of Eric Roffman - scroll down to see choice party pics of Tiffany Clementi, Kelly O'Donnell, and Candice Holdorf.

BOBOOBLOG is new to me, but promises to "keep the spirit of high quality OOB alive by trying to PREVIEW the work of OOB theaters". A worthy endeavor, and so we've added them to our blogroll.

Another new-to-me blog is Works By Women, a blog inspired by 50/50 in 2020 and dedicated to gender equity in season selection. They report on the strong representation of female theatre artists in the nominations, which happily includes our Heather Cohn for Outstanding Director of The Lesser Seductions of History. Likewise welcome to the blogroll! Read the full story

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Heather Cohn Nominated For NYIT Award!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010 3 comments

We're all thrilled to report that our own Heather Cohn was nominated for a New York Innovative Theatre Award for Outstanding Director for The Lesser Seductions of History! For those of you who took the time to vote for us, your votes contributed to this nomination, so from all of us, THANK YOU.

This is Flux's second consecutive year being nominated - last year, we were nominated for 7 awards, with Angel Eaters Sound Designer Asa Wember taking one home.

It was a great ceremony, with many Indie friends in attendance. We were excited to see friends recognized like Crystal Skillman and Impetuous Theater Group, James Comtois and Nosedive Productions (for Infectious Opportunity, which we featured here), Piper McKenzie (for Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury, which we also featured here), Tim Errickson's work with Retro Productions, and of course, perennial NYITA all stars, terraNOVA, the Brick, and the Neo-Futurists.

Work was also recognized from companies we admire like PL115, The Management, CollaborationTown, Vampire Cowboys, Electric Pear, and Astoria Performing Arts Center. But most importantly - and here is the signature magic of the NYITA - a number of companies I'd never heard of were recognized. The Mad Ones, The Associated Mask Ensemble, Down Payment Productions, and WeildWorks were all new to me, yet all of them brought home multiple nominations.

I would have loved to have seen Flux nominated for more - like Best Ensemble for Lesser Seductions and Best Set Design for Jacob's House - but the bad news with the NYITA is always good news, too - the Indie theatre community that we're all a part of is wider and deeper than we thought.

On a personal note, I'm especially disappointed to see Viral by Mac Rogers and Gideon Productions not nominated - it was by far the best Indie play I saw this NYITA year (I saw it twice, something I never do).

What plays and artists were you thrilled to see recognized? What do you think was missed? Read the full story

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Flux Sunday, June 13th

Monday, July 12, 2010 3 comments

(What is Flux Sunday?)

Well, this was an unusual Flux Sunday. Due to a perfect storm of summer vacations and busy playwrights, yours truly was the only contributor of pages to this particular Flux Sunday. Luckily, I had a lot of them!

Playwrights: August Schulenburg (Dream Walker, Deinde)

Actors: Johnna Adams, Greg Waller, Scott Barnhardt, Elise Link, Ken Glickfeld, Isaiah Tanenbaum, Tiffany Clementi, Brian Pracht, Heather Cohn, Kari Swenson Reily, Debargo Senyal, Matthew Archambault

Highlights included:
-This lucky playwright getting to hear the entire second act of Dream Walker all at a go, a day after finishing it!
-Elise Link having a fantastic Sunday as both Dawn in Dream Walker and Mindy in Deinde
- Debargo and Brian spinning a beautiful rhapsody of brothers dreaming at the close of Dream Walker

While I was grateful to hear my 60+ pages, I was very glad when the next Flux Sunday featured the return of some of our playwrights! But more on that past Sunday in the very near future... Read the full story

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More on the Games We Play

Sunday, July 11, 2010 0 comments

After some good comments from Ian and Steve regarding our last post, Playing Ball, I came across another great TED video regarding the structure and impact of game play.

Speaker Jane McGonigal designs video games that empower players to change the world. When you level up, the world levels up with you.

The idea of video games being a force for good may be strange - Iowa State University recently posted a study pointing to their deleterious effects, hypothesizing extended play may lead to ADHD.

But a recent study from Jayne Gackenbach reveals that game play may actually lead to more vivid, effective dreaming - a fascinating possibility, given Jonah Lehrer's recent musings on the role of dreams.

And whether dreams are good or bad, by the age of 21, the average American will have played 10,080 hours of video games. If that number sounds familiar, it's because it's also the number Malcolm Gladwell posits as the amount of time needed to achieve expertise in anything.

So America is producing a vast number of young, expert gamers: now what do we do with them? This is a variation of the question Clay Shirkey posed with his idea of the Cognitive Surplus - how do we make good use of the 3 billion hours a week we spend playing online games?

McGonigal believes that our gaming experts share certain skills and values they've honed over their 10,000 hours, what she playfully calls super powers:

  • Urgent optimism - the desire to tackle a challenge immediately, with the reasonable hope of success
  • Blissful productivity - gamers actually enjoy taking on increasingly difficult challenges
  • Collaborative social fabric with fellow gamers
  • Epic meaning - players really want to save the (online) world
How to harness those powers? McGonigal has created a series of games that involve players in real world changing role playing: a game where players must survive a world without oil, another where players try to avert the predictions of the Global Extinction Awareness System, a third that's about to launch where you level up through social innovation.

If these games are successful, they would represent a profound investment of Cognitive Surplus in real world change. And now the question is, given our musings on Playing Ball about the structural overlap of video games and theatre, how can theatre empower its players in a similar way?

I think the recent Laramie Project's 10 year anniversary event is an example of how this can happen - though local empowerment and national connection, Tectonic was able to use the natural strengths of theatre to affect social change.

And another, perhaps even more pressing question - what if instead of video game experts, the average American 21 year old had 10,000 hours of experience in the arts? How different would our country look then? Is such an audacious goal even possible? Read the full story

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Flux Sunday, June 6th

Friday, July 9, 2010 0 comments

(What is Flux Sunday?)

We're back! After Jacob's House and a weekend of rest, we returned to our weekly workshop series, Flux Sundays. After our wonderful residency at the now defunct NYR Studios, where we happily spread out our many scenes, we return to a more nomadic life, and to lesser incarnation of table reads. But good work still happened...

Playwrights: Zack Calhoon (Obamaville), August Schulenburg (Dream Walker), Isaiah Tanenbaum (Viva Fidel)

Actors: Elise Link, David Crommett, Ken Glickfeld, Brian Pracht, Gretchen Poulos, Amy Fitts, Matthew Archambault, Heather Cohn, Josh Koopman, Kayla O'Connell, Scott Barnhardt

Highlights included:
-Ken's grizzled and charming anarchist leader Curtis in Zack's Obamaville, revealing once again that watchable is always more important than likable
-Heather and Josh's awkwardly tender playing of the scene between ex-soldier Duffy and newly homeless teen Jenny in Obamaville - without pushing a jot, they captured the surging interest between these two unlikely lovers
-Zack playing Pablo in Isaiah's Viva Fidel - why is it so funny when Zack's under siege? Best not to ask, better only to enjoy...
-Scott's painfully sincere Richie in Dream Walker - and the chance to hear the first six scenes all in a row! There are some advantages to tabled read Sundays.

I'll try to catch up on the other Flux Sundays in June before the 1st Flux Sunday in July; that is, of course, if the methane bubble tsunami really is an internet legened and spares us another Permian extinction... Read the full story

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Playing Ball

Wednesday, July 7, 2010 5 comments

OK, so this is one's REALLY long, but I've been away awhile.

The recent conversation regarding whether or not video games are art got me thinking, not so much about the question itself - they obviously are - but about why that should seem so obvious to me, and so strange to others.

I think it's partly because video games reveal the overlap between sports and the arts; they may not mingle in the high school cafeteria, but both are human activities that celebrate our capacity to create patterns of meaning. And that got me wondering if there was even a real difference between them, especially as I've been increasingly uneasy with the reasons we give for the exceptionalism of the arts.

Because all of the different arts and sports, for all their seeming differences, emerge from a single input moving through a system of five parts.

That input is:


Meaning our own will, our capacity to affect the system through our actions (for the purposes of this post, I'm imagining our roles as audience/spectators, not as direct participants).

And the five parts are:


From the process of this input moving through this system, Meaning is created.

And from Botticelli to baseball, every art and sport processes the input of our Will through these five parts, and each uses them differently.

Let's start with Time: how much control do you have over the experience of Time in the work? For books, movies, television, some video games, and most visual art; our control is primary. We pause, we put in the bookmark, we rewind, reset, and read the last page first.

For theatre, dance, spectator sports, and any other live art form, we surrender control completely. As in life, we have no control over the passage of Time.

Some multiplayer online games are a unique hybrid: we may hit pause and leave the game, but Time will have passed while we're away.

On to space: how much control do you have over the world of the work? In other words, how does our Will govern the physical rules? In almost all arts and sports, we have very little control over Space. From poems to sitcoms, the work's creator the determines the Space of the world and the rules of the game completely.

The exceptions are improvisational art, especially long form improv, where the audience is directly solicited for the materials of the work; and video games, where the fullness of the world is only manifested through the player's Actions.

Now action: how much control do you have over the Action of the work?

In video games, control over Action is primary. If we don't have control over the action, it means we either haven't reached a certain level of expertise, or we're attempting something not permissible in that Space and Time. But almost everything that happens is a result of our choices.

In the live arts and spectator sports, our control is secondary. Through our responses to the work, we alter how the performers move through the action. However, only in interactive theatre does our control over the Action approach anything primary.

In art as object, we have no control over the Action: in the book, Elizabeth will not change the way she delivers her refusal to Mr. Collins, no matter how we laugh or gasp. We might as well hope The Thinker will move just because we are moved by him.

How about Symbol: A statue of a man is not a man; the White Sword of Zelda can't cut you; Superman only flies with a blue screen behind him. We understand that every work of art is a shadow on the cave; a representation of the thing, not the thing itself.

So how much control do you have over the Symbol? Can it only mean one thing, or is it complex enough to allow your Will room to move?

Spectator sports offer the simplest Symbol: the Boston Red Sox aren't a bunch of overpaid athletes, but the Symbol of the polis of Boston! We aren't asked to imagine anything else.

Film and video games offer little symbolic control in the moment, with the thing represented almost always standing for a single thing: Han Solo's Millennium Falcon is not meant to be a bird, nor the passage of time, but simply a modified YT-1300 light freighter. Cumulatively, however, the narrative acquires its own symbolic meaning, more so in film than video games (more on this later).

The printed word, on the other hand, gives greater control to our wills to incarnate the Symbol. It lives primarily in our imagination, and even when a book is nothing but car chases, we have complete control over the shape of the crashes.

The visual arts give us complete control, however, because the physical presence of the Symbol and the thing it represents are one and the same, and the movement of its meaning is entirely through Space, and not at all through Time; it lives entirely in our symbolic perception.

The live arts, on the other hand, manifest a fascinating tension between the physical presence of the Symbol and the thing it represents. Unlike the written word or data in a video game consul, which only acquire meaning in their use; the stuff that makes up the live arts is already fraught with meaning. The human body and the things it carries on stage are more than just whatever Symbolic use they are put to; and the tension between the meaning we see and the meaning we imagine is one of the profound pleasures of the live arts.

Finally, Chance: Sports have little need of Symbol because they fulfill their Meaning through Chance. The game may be dreadfully dull or unforgettable, but we won't know how it ends until it does, and that process is the Meaning. We create a pattern through the rules of the games Space and Time, and cheer as our team attempts to shape the Action, and for many, that process is more beautiful than any art. It is also more passive: spectator sports have almost no strong manifestation of audience Will. We have almost no impact on the meaning of Space, Time, Action, or Symbol. Why then do we like them so much?

I think it's because by relying so much on Chance to create meaning, sports come closer to the frightening, patternless world than any art while keeping us protected - the rules of the game keep us from complete chaos.

The arts mostly discard Chance in favor of the cumulative power of Symbol evolving through Action in Space and Time. And for good reason: a single Symbol is powerful enough, but when a series of Symbols change together, the potential for Meaning is not only deep for the creative artist; but widened through the perception of the audience. And the more control art gives the audience to choose the meaning of a work, the more satisfying and enduring the work becomes. (It's important to note that giving too many choices - playing too loose with Symbols - actually reduces the Will's power in choosing meaning - if anything goes, nothing stays).

Video games unfold on the ground between these two poles while improv theatre tries to harness the best of both; and experiments in all art forms blur further what are already overlapping terrains.

And of course, these systems have economic repercussions. Because spectator sports require very little from the Will of the watcher, you can stuff the watcher's face with hot dogs and beer and stick them far away from the action in the bleachers.

And because the symbolic tensions of the live arts are flattened on screen, theatre never quite works on film, and so can't be easily commodified.

So the question of whether video games can be art is like asking whether theatre can be a sport; they are all fingers of the same outstretched hand; they all create a pattern of meaning from a bewildering world; they are all agents of beauty. And in our increasingly mashed-up, remixed, borderless culture, the heat may lie in crossing over.

Still here? I'd love to hear what you think. Maybe it seems foolish to reduce these complex things to such simple parts, but I was inspired to try by this great TED talk from Benoit Mandelbrot, who ends it by saying, "Bottomless wonders spring from simple rules". Read the full story