Aims to put au­di­ence to sleep

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA -

We try to bring our own per­spec­tive to it. We’re not play­ing Chi­nese char­ac­ters. We’re Western artists en­gaged with this story.” JIM FIND­LAY, DI­RECTS A PRO­DUC­TION OF THE CLAS­SIC CHI­NESE NOVEL

“We’d been think­ing about bore­dom as a com­po­nent of art and per­for­mance,” Find­lay, who co-wrote the script with writ­ing part­ner Jeff Jack­son, told China Daily. And we thought if we made some­thing so bor­ing we could get the en­tire au­di­ence go to sleep, that would be some sort of vic­tory. Usu­ally, if you put the au­di­ence to sleep, it’s de­feat, right? We kind of turned the rules on their head. It fails if they stay awake.”

Find­lay and Jack­son seized on Dream of the Red Cham­ber — a work Find­lay said he fell in love with af­ter first read­ing it 20 years ago — as the ve­hi­cle for this ex­per­i­ment. The 1791 novel is con­sid­ered a Chi­nese lit­er­ary mas­ter­piece. Fea­tur­ing more than 500 char­ac­ters, it de­scribes the rise and fall of au­thor Cao’s fam­ily and the Qing Dy­nasty. The “red cham­ber” of the ti­tle refers to the rooms in which the daugh­ters of prom­i­nent fam­i­lies live. It also refers to a dream set in a red cham­ber where the fates of many char­ac­ters are fore­shad­owed. Re­al­ity and il­lu­sion of­ten in­ter­min­gle in the book.

“We try to bring our own per­spec­tive to it,” Find­lay said. “We’re not play­ing Chi­nese char­ac­ters. We’re Western artists en­gaged with this story.”

The sus­pen­sion of time was an im­por­tant facet of the dream-like qual­ity of the pro­duc­tion; thus its fluid hours. “It’s more like gallery hours,” Find­lay ex­plained. “You can show up at 5 pm and stay till the end. But you can also show up at 11 o’clock for 45 min­utes just to get a lit­tle fix. We’ve had a lot of au­di­ence mem­bers who have stuck their heads in out of cu­rios­ity and then come back the next night out of a deeper in­ter­est trig­gered by their ini­tial cu­rios­ity.”

Hav­ing free ad­mis­sion is “an ex­tra am­pli­fi­ca­tion of the kind of open­ness that we’ve been try­ing to ac­com­plish — to cre­ative non-en­gage­ment by the au­di­ence,” he said.

Sherry Dob­bin, who di­rects Times Square Arts, the pub­lic arts pro­gram of the non­profit Times Square Al­liance, said the work’s sur­real char­ac­ter not only fit with the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s man­date to push the artis­tic en­ve­lope 24 hours a day, but it also matched the per­sona of Times Square it­self.

“Times Square is one of the few places left in the world that is 24-hours,” she said in an in­ter­view. “It’s like a dream. People leave Times Square with this sen­sa­tion of hav­ing been in an­other world. They don’t know if it’s day or night.” The Brill Build­ing’s mythic rep­u­ta­tion as a pop-mu­sic song­writ­ing hub in the 1950s and 1960s adds to the dream-like at­mos­phere, she said.

The pro­duc­tion com­presses Cao’s 2,400-page book into 13 hours of po­ten­tial per­for­mance seg­ments that are jug­gled each night.

“We’ve made a deck of cards that de­ter­mines the or­der of the show,” Find­lay said. “To try to sculpt (the story) as a di­rec­tor seemed folly for an au­di­ence that was sleep­ing. It seemed bet­ter to aban­don it to some chance oper­a­tion.”

It’s not nec­es­sary to be fa­mil­iar with the book in ad­vance to ap­pre­ci­ate the show, he said.

Early in the piece’s de­vel­op­ment, “we strug­gled with: ‘ How do we en­gage the au­di­ence to make them feel com­fort­able?’” Find­lay said. “And what we dis­cov­ered was people know how to sleep. If there’s a bed and the lights are low, there’s a good chance they’re go­ing to go to sleep.”

Al­though snores oc­ca­sion­ally em­anate from the au­di­ence mem­bers scat­tered around the per­for­mance space in the Brill Build­ing’s base­ment, the sound doesn’t bother the ac­tors, Find­lay said.

“It’s sort of amus­ing when people snore,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a prob­lem. It just be­comes part of your dream.”

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