Baryshnikov Arts Center
Apr 28, 2014
Each time I have experienced work being made in Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Studio 6A, it is hard to imagine that work happening elsewhere, in some other space, on some distant stage. There is so much character in the space, and the space becomes a character—for better or worse—in the pieces made here. The nature of this character extends beyond the aesthetics of the concrete and enormous windows. In this space is a metaphysical presence, a spirit of exploration, inquiry, experimentation, and discovery.
This is a playground for artists to work on their play and to play with their work. Over three weeks in spring 2014 this playground was home to the rigorous work of theatermaker Daniel Fish and his collaborators, as they tackled Chekov’s The Three Sisters.
Fish’s work is well suited for a space so conducive to process and yet so inseparable from the product. Fish, an auteur force in the American theater, made a name for himself in the early aughts by staging radical, severe, inventive productions of the canon.  As of late he has looked to seemingly non-theatrical material (novels, essays, lectures, films) as sources for building his own canon of theatrical experiments, which sometimes land rooted in non-theatrical forms (films, installations). Fish’s theater is as uncompromising and nuanced as his process. To look at the former without considering the latter (not to mention everything in between), or vice-versa, would be to undermine the other. To articulate what exactly Daniel Fish’s theater/process is, allow me to re-appropriate the decidedly non-theatrical concept of an autopoietic biological system.  In the most unsophisticated terms: autopoietic systems (meaning “self creation”) produce outputs, which directly maintain the mechanics of further yield. Fish conceives structures to generate creative output in which said output is in turn fed back into the structure and the cycle continues on loop until, according to Fish, it stops feeling like he is “trying to make it work” and the piece begins “talking to [him].” Even then (usually meaning when the piece is shown to an audience) the product is still inextricable from the process by which it was created, the action-based machineries of those processes continue to play out over the course of each performance.  It is from this indistinguishable process/product dynamic that Fish’s signature emerges.
“I miss doing plays,” Fish told me when asked why this return to dramatic text. This play in particular had been gnawing at him for a while. A prevalent theme in much of Fish’s work is the desire to recover that which has been lost, particularly regarding the American economy and the dying middle class.  “Can I approach this text the way I approach other sources?” Meaning, can he toss Chekhov into a series of experiments, tasks, gestures, technologies, obstacles, and games, gather out the output and toss it back in again? And again?  A brief rundown: Chekhov’s Russian text is processed through three different online translation services. From these three literal, English translations a working text is compiled. Act III of this text is captured via audio recording at a cold read by a full cast. Three of those actors (three women from three different generations, representing the sisters?) spend three weeks in the room with Daniel and the audio. With each cycle of playing the audio recording of Act III, passages of the text come in and out, but in real time. A sound designer feeds various characters’ lines to individual speakers, props are introduced, and physical actions are assigned. Then taken away. Then added, but with an additional caveat. Slowly, meticulously, the system begins feeding itself while yet constantly generating and progressing. What struck me while watching Fish use his process to stage a classic text was that his methods seemed to transcend the dichotomy of playing the surface or playing the subtext, allowing some other kind of hybrid action to manifest. This was exciting to watch, like going down a dramaturgical rabbit hole into Wonderland.
To participate as a performer in a Daniel Fish project is to be the fuel of this Wonderland organism. Tina Benko, representing the character Masha, is instructed to move a baby grand piano across the floor by herself all while attempting to recite the current National Debt Clock from a flat screen TV as it rapidly ticks away (her goal: recite every increase), Bowie’s Under Pressure blaring in the background. “There were some things that were good,” Fish observes after the performers, sweating and out of breath, complete a cycle of the audio text riddled with arduous physical pursuits. He asks them to try again, adding: “what happens when you snap?”
 His production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is a thing of legend. The minimalist production, set in a simple barn, featured a communal meal of chili and cornbread prepared by the performers.
 This concept, related most notably to biological cells, has often been applied to creative processes, outputs, and experiences. See the writings of performance scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte and textual scholar Jerome McGann.
 For example, a recent Fish work titled Eternal premiered in the form of a two-channel video installation in which two actors repeated the final scene of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for two hours. A year and a half earlier, the piece’s development began with the same two actors performing the DVD commentary track of the Cassavetes film A Woman Under the Influence against the backdrop of the projected film. I won’t unpack the connective tissue here, though will say that in interviews Fish has referred to the language of the commentary (between the cinematographer and sound designer) as that of a married couple recounting their relationship as a labor of love. The final scene of Eternal Sunshine is essentially just that, and in this case recounted endlessly by two actors in… a labor of love.
 See: production of Odets’ Paradise Lost and subsequent film (Dollar General) inspired by it, a stage adaptation of Franzen’s House for Sale, and as described above, Eternal.
 To quote Artaud in his masterpiece of 1938, The Theatre and Its Double, “… thus we shall renounce the superstition of the text and dictatorship of the writer.”
Caleb Hammons is a cultural producer and curator of performance working in Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley. Currently the Associate Producer at Bard College’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, he facilitates Live Arts Bard, a professional commissioning, residency, and presenting initiative. Prior to his time at Bard he was the Producer at Soho Rep in NYC, and from 2008-2011 was the Producing Director of Young Jean Lee's Theater Company. He is the Co-Curator of the acclaimed Brooklyn-based performance series Catch, a past curator of Food for Thought at Danspace Project, and co-curated the CUNY/Martin E. Segal Theater Center’s PRELUDE Festival in 2012 and 2013. He was a member of the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance’s inaugural class at Wesleyan University.