By Asimina Chremos
In September, Philadelphia-based theater company New Paradise Laboratories (NPL) presented its latest work, The Adults, at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Although it is perhaps impossible to separate the content of the work from its form, what is most revelatory about this performance is not what it communicates, but how it does so. The method of The Adults’ creation in its relation to the body, technology, aesthetics, and artistry is worth considering—it stands in direct contrast to so much current performance work, which seems to have lost its relationship to the basic skills of its craft. NPL employs these skills to impart freshness, immediacy, and meaning.
To place contemporary performance in context, it is necessary to remind ourselves of the obvious: movement and change feed information to the brain and let us know that something is going on. If you find a direction in which to gaze and hold perfectly still, stopping all movement of the eye, your visual field will whiteout and you will see nothing at all. Our attention is perpetually attracted to change; what’s new, what’s different. What is interesting about creating performance in the current first-world environment is considering how it operates in a world where the texture of perception in daily life has been radically changed by technology.
Today’s theater makers, choreographers and performance artists have to deal with the fact that as technology evolves, so does our ability to create new diversities of powerful perceptual stimulation for ourselves. The sudden and dramatic changes in rhythm, form, tone, volume, sound, and color—not to mention vertiginous experiences of pseudo-space—made possible by digital media are perhaps unthinkable for earlier generations. In narrative genres where storytelling is central, our emotions (our “feelings” are also part of our sensorium) are poked and prodded with deft expertise as we narrow our attention to synchronized sounds and pictures emanating from speakers and screens. The three-dimensional space in which our bodies exist fades into the background and we dream electric dreams.
There is an arresting, surreal moment in The Adults when one of the characters reaches his hand into a clear plastic bag to grab a radish. As Whit MacLaughlin (who conceived and directed the play) says, “All the focus goes to what three fingers are doing.” There is no spotlight narrowing on to the hand, no funny music onomatopoetically accompanying the wiggling fingers, feeling and seeking to grasp a vegetable. It is a magic moment when, inside the Painted Bride Art Center, all 200 or so pairs of eyes in the audience are focused on this one bit of nonsensical micro-choreography taking place at center stage.
This simple moment demonstrates how artists can use their embodied skills to draw our focus and attention with technique, rather than technology. It is one of a continuum of occurrences during The Adults that are similarly constructed. Key to this moment, and to the work of NPL as a whole, is a practiced understanding and philosophy that includes not only the refinement of physical action, but also awareness of the spatial/temporal field in which action that occurs.
MacLaughlin and the NPL ensemble have advanced skills in deploying that most essential of all performance instruments: the human body. “The body in space is where story emerges,” says MacLaughlin. “A person doesn’t exist without a location in a body and that body’s location in space. This may sound esoteric, but this is the value system we explore in New Paradise Labs.” NPL actor Matt Saunders, who also created the set and projection design for The Adults, explains, “Part of our training is about something we call the ‘dilated body.’ We practice thinking out in all directions.”
MacLaughlin elaborates on his concept of the actor: “I like walking down the street and seeing anonymous people emerge from the distance. As they approach you can see their walk, their awareness or lack thereof. They have, for lack of a better word, a psychomotor signature, aura, or mechanism. If you train yourself, it’s intriguing to watch how individuals motor through space. What interests me is not just the shape of the body but how we see the person’s experiences and thoughts move through them. The body has a shape, and thought invades that space.”
Another key to the strength of NPL’s work is that MacLaughlin and his ensemble clearly understand the power of emptiness, what in visual art is referred to as negative space. One of the things that makes the radish moment (and so many other scenes in the play) so pointed and powerful is that absolutely nothing else is going on. The woman extends one arm, holding the bag towards the man, the man reaches for it. Their arms form a bridge with the bag in the middle. His fingers wiggle in the transparent bag, bumping the radishes around inside of it. All other body parts are still, as is the rest of the stage.
“To create a moment like that, you have to set it up,” says MacLaughlin, who studied for a time with Japanese theater director, writer, and philosopher Tadashi Suzuki. “You move in order to be still. You’re still in order to move. Japanese performers understand this very well. An animal energy is created by action, and when you are suddenly gripped in deep stillness, it emerges.”
Amped-up contemporary spectacles such as Broadway-style musicals and stadium-sized pop concerts feel like an anxious effort to fend off awareness of the void while maintaining some tie to the old-fashioned communicative technology between actual humans across actual space. Sometimes performance art, with all of its bloodletting, wig wearing, and feats of endurance, seems to operate in a similar realm—presenting maximally intense sensory experiences, drawing us in for claustrophobic thrills.
It is thus both oddly comforting and disarming in this day and age to experience live performance that captures our attention with novelty and variation, stimulating awe and wonder while giving us a peek into the vastness of space and time. The Adults provides just this experience. Mystery and the ineffable, even a sense of doom, seem to be pulled out of the very air and transmitted to us viscerally.
The masterful use of stillness and quiet is something that has evolved over NPL’s 18-year existence, and has perhaps reached maturity with The Adults. “It’s been a slow evolution,” says Saunders. Saunders cites earlier works, such as Stupor (1999) and The Fab 4 Reach the Pearly Gates (2000), action-packed productions in which “seven things were happening at once.” Saunders says trust is a factor. “It takes artistic confidence to embrace stillness.”
Asimina Chremos currently lives in Philadelphia and works with improvisational processes to create freeform works of dance and crochet. She is a former dance editor and writer for Time Out Chicago magazine.