one step at a time like this – undreamed shores

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On a hot summer night a couple of years ago, I arrived at a certain designated corner in the Loop and waited. After a few minutes my phone rang and the caller spoke to me by name even though we had never met. She patiently guided me down the street until suddenly the doors of the grand Cadillac Palace Theatre, which I happened to be passing, were swung open to me and I was ushered inside its vast, empty lobby. There a woman in an evening gown descended the staircase and sat beside me to explain how to work the special smart phone she gave me as a guide through the rest of my evening. From that point on, the city opened to me in the most remarkable ways as I moved through it: People emerged from alleyways and crevices between buildings to give me secret messages. In a luxury high-rise apartment I found myself climbing into bed with an anonymous stranger. I was driven, blindfolded, down Lower Wacker and through downtown and when the blindfold was removed I found that I was on the stage of another grand historic theater, dozens of blocks from the one where I’d started, with blinding stage lights glaring down on me. This was Since I Suppose, an immersive audio and video tour of downtown Chicago based loosely on Measure for Measure, which was created by the Australian company one step at a time like this, and commissioned by and developed with Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Richard Jordan Productions in 2014.

So when I arrived at Navy Pier on a cold and windy afternoon not long ago for the newest audio-guided tour from one step at a time like this, undreamed shores, I was ready for Navy Pier to similarly come alive once I put my headphones on and started walking. But undreamed shores was a decidedly more atmospheric and solitary affair, a moody wander for one in which, as the sole audience member, I was encouraged to pretend that the people around me were not really there and to move through a world inhabited only by myself and the disembodied voices in my headphones. There was a twinge of disappointment when I realized the pier was not going to become a responsive, immersive, fictional world the way the Loop had two years earlier. I imagined being beckoned onto a gondola as I approached the Ferris wheel and being lifted into the sky. I hoped, as the audio track instructed me to pause near the entrance to a seafood restaurant, that I might be invited in for a specially prepared amuse-bouche. I wondered, as I approached the doors of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, if they would be flung open to me for a special command performance for one in the Courtyard Theater. But none of that happened. Navy Pier had not been stocked with carefully planned encounters and surprises, it remained itself, a place to be discovered and observed as it is. This made for a more furtive and subdued, though perhaps no less strange, experience. Instead of riding the Ferris wheel, I was instructed to lie down on a ledge beneath it and look up at it turning against an ominous sky while the voice in my ear talked to me about the mechanics of the universe.

I remembered then that some of the most effective moments in Since I Suppose had occurred just between myself, the soundtrack, and the city: a pause on a bridge over the Chicago River as music swelled in my ears; the view from a rooftop poolside balcony of fireworks going off over the lake across downtown, tiny but visible; collaged fragments from Measure for Measure enveloping me as I walked down the street. These quiet, reflective, essentially internal moments, when the strategically composed audio overlaid and altered the ordinary environment, recruiting the city into a private and subjective spectacle, best made the case for the unique potential of the immersive audio tour, or sound walk, as a theatrical form. undreamed shores was made up of such moments. Framed simply as a journey down Navy Pier, it comprised a series of opportunities to notice the pier and its environs, including parts of it one might never visit—lovely and decidedly unlovely, both. What each lone audience member made of that journey was ultimately up to each of us. “Take your time,” the person who had handed me the headset at the beginning of undreamed shores had told me, “whatever that means to you.”

Even though it took an abstract, fragmentary approach, Since I Suppose had Measure for Measure as a structure and reference point, but the structural device for undreamed shores was markedly less well defined. Its themes and ideas washed over me along the journey like the concept of water that vaguely flowed through the piece. The voices guiding me wanted me to think about the pier itself, particularly its history at almost 100 years old, and about the city that surrounds it, and about the relationship of that city to the lake it sits beside. And they also wanted me to think about Shakespeare and his time 400 years ago, and how people then thought about the world and bodies of water and the universe and death. And still more, they wanted me to think about aquatic ecosystems, and pollution, and climate change, and the loss of sea life, and the environmental changes evidenced by the water. They wanted me to think about all of these things together—mortality and longevity and relative lengths of time. A walk down the pier of an hour or so is vanishingly brief from this perspective, but it is nonetheless time passing, just as the years that make up my life are time passing, or the 100 years since Navy Pier was built, or the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, or the 14,000 years since the lake was ice, are all passages of time at the end of which we are each located. When was a long time ago? Before I was born? When the pier was built? When Shakespeare lived? The last Ice Age? And when is a long time from now? What will this all be like then?

It was difficult to put my finger on any of this, though, as I climbed stairs, rode elevators, walked through closed doors, lay down on benches, and gazed out windows. Philosophical musings on facts about the lake, the pier, the city, Shakespeare, and the environment paired with snippets from Shakespeare’s plays—some about water, some about death, some about cities—floated in one ear and out the other. There was a lot from The Tempest, unsurprisingly, though surprisingly not only about water and islands and shipwrecks, plenty of love and death, too; the description of Ophelia drowning from Hamlet, of course; and the Chorus in Henry V envisaging the sails of ships as a city on the sea; but there was also Macbeth at his metatheatrical bleakest. The quotes were tossed in incidentally, riffing tangentially on a particular nearby feature—window, city, ship—as much atmosphere as anything else. Sometimes they washed over me, at other times one hit and stuck, capturing something meaningful between the physical place and my subjective headspace. But the factoids and Shakespeare snippets hardly seemed to be the point.

The point was that the point was the journey. Emerging onto the north side of the pier midway through the tour, I was guided to a particular bollard and instructed to tie a bit of rope I found in an envelope I had discovered secreted in a little mailbox on top of the parking garage half an hour earlier to the chain running along the water. I tied it beside all the other lengths of rope tied there by each successive audience of one who had made their way along the pier before me. I paused and looked down at the water. There was no significance to this sequence of actions other than having gotten to the same point as everyone who had come before me. I found something one place and I left it another, where I saw evidence that others had been there and had done the same thing. Now someone else would come along and tie their length of rope next to mine. No need for a narrative or metaphor, this was life being lived, making connections and hitting milestones and seeing evidence that I am in the world with others, some of whom have gone before me, and doubtless some who will come after. And because I took this journey and was curious and attentive and followed signposts and the advice of those who showed up to guide me along the way, I found many things I otherwise would not have, and saw things that I did not expect to see.

By the time I reached the very end of the pier, I did feel as if I had been on a journey. It was not exactly strenuous, but I had been in motion almost the whole time (I found myself aware of the privilege of having a relatively able body—there were many places where someone with impaired mobility would not have been able to go, and no alternatives were offered.) Reaching the end, I got to sit down and rest and look out at the lake, reflecting on where I was and where I had been. It helped that in many ways I had literally gone back in time, from the shiny new and getting newer layers of redesign and renovation on the west end of Navy Pier to the east end, where the solid brick buildings remain seemingly unchanged from the pier’s original construction almost 100 years ago. It was a cold and blustery afternoon, and the benches at the end of the pier were empty except for me, and the bronze statue of Bob Newhart (check it out)! In the ballroom just behind me, though, an elaborate graduation ceremony for new firefighters happened to be taking place, and young people dressed for the special occasion hurried in and out of the hall, eager to see their loved ones embark on a grand new adventure. Excitement was in the air as the sky darkened and the ballroom emanated the kind of golden light that made me think of wintertime parties, flushed cheeks, warmth from food and drink and dancing, pleasures that could have been indulged at any time during the pier’s 100-year history.

I had reached the end of my journey. I sat on my bench and looked out at the gray expanse of lake and sky and listened as the voices that had guided me all that way asked me to imagine myself, the pier, the lake, the world 100, then 400, years from now. What would still be here? The pier? The city? The birds? The lake? I felt myself fading into insignificance, just a blip on the horizon of all that time passing, a brief jaunt down a short pier, before their voices stopped. I remembered the advice to “take my time” with which I had begun and, as I sat there, looking out at the lake, I felt that was exactly what I was doing, taking time—this time, the only time I had. I remained there, even after I had pulled the headset off and someone had come by to collect it, even after undreamed shores had ended I remained there for just a little while longer, taking my time.


Ira S. Murfin is currently completing his doctorate in the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre & Drama at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the relationship between language, perfor­mance, and media across arts disciplines in the post-1960s American avant-garde. He holds an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BFA in playwriting from New York University.

Song of The Goat – Songs of Lear

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Performed by an ensemble of twelve singers and musicians dressed in black on a bare stage, save for ten chairs and some musical instruments, Song of the Goat Theatre’s Songs of Lear proposes that there is an essence of tragedy in King Lear that is not beholden to the formal expectations of modern theater, something powerful that predates and remains independent of the play. The performance intends to tap into that force and release it, without regard for intellectual analysis or understanding, through song and movement. Voices echo one another, clashing then merging, gestures are passed between members of the ensemble in an almost unconscious way, the performers keeping a constant sonic and kinesthetic awareness of one another, a result of the company’s group training regimen. They function as one finely tuned instrument. A performer might embody a character for a moment and then let that identity dissolve back into the chorus of voices. The songs, composed by Jean-Claude Acquaviva and Maciej Rychły, draw on Gregorian chant, the Gospel of Thomas, even an Emily Dickinson poem, in addition to language from King Lear itself. Though these sources, save a traditional Tibetan tune included at the very end, reveal a largely Christian and Eurocentric framework for the supposedly elemental and universally translatable capacity of music, the range of texts nonetheless make the case for a common thread running through many different sources of poetry from at least Biblical times.

This is the enduring tragic impulse that Song of the Goat, whose name is the literal translation of the term “tragedy,” picks up and preserves, just as Shakespeare seized upon and shaped that same impulse to his own purposes. Songs of Lear suggests that this essence of tragedy may best be revisited not by endlessly restaging and reexamining the same text, recounting the same plot century after century, but rather by stepping into the emotional center that tragedy embodies and tuning into it together, as the ensemble begins its performance by tuning bodies and voices to the room, the audience, and to each other. In order to know firsthand the passions, desires, grief, and rage shared by humans in tragic circumstances across time—fictional and otherwise, noble and otherwise—we might need to discover our responses together in a theater, a place that should be devoted not to dull repetition or the recitation of literature, but to experiencing, directly and in the present, something very old in a new and unexpected way.

This potential for language to evoke a visceral response that transcends logic and meaning and touches something universal and ineffable is almost always described via metaphors of musicality. Where ordinary prose aspires to do more than merely communicate, we say that it becomes poetry, or becomes equal to poetry; and where the beauty of poetry exceeds its literal meaning, we can only compare it to music. Certainly the popular veneration of Shakespeare takes on these terms—he is not merely a dramatist, but a poet, and where his poetry reaches its expressive apex, it is the musicality of his language that we remark upon. But what does that mean? It certainly does not mean that the words are necessarily to be sung, in fact consigning words to the status of song lyrics can only emphasize the distance between language and music. Instead, our hyperbole suggests that the right words in the right order at the right time might literally become music, break free from the stifling container of syntactical meaning and express themselves as music does, through tone, melody, harmony, and rhythm, and so touch us in the way that music does, that is profoundly and beyond reason.

It is this act of cross-disciplinary translation that Song of the Goat Theatre attempts to realize with Songs of Lear, to take Lear and render it in music. Songs of Lear does not try to tell King Lear’s story through music, but rather to do with music what King Lear does, to invoke the effects of Lear without staging or recounting its plot, distilling to its most concentrated form the animus at the center of Shakespeare’s play. In doing so, they mean to move the audience’s apprehension of Lear from one filtered through theatrical representation into a more shared, lived, firsthand experience that embodies the energy of the drama rather than the specifics of its story (a weighty rebuke, perhaps, to Ira Glass’s now infamous Tweet that Lear is “not relatable.”)

Song of the Goat Theatre was established twenty years ago in Poland by Grzegorz Bral and Anna Zubrzycki. Both are alumni of Gardzienice, the remote Polish theater center founded by students and collaborators of influential teacher and director Jerzy Grotowski. Like Grotowski and the work done at Gardzienice, Song of the Goat Theatre creates work through a collective process based in sustained and ongoing training practices that incorporate voice, movement, rhythm, and energy. They perform as a single choral body engaged in polyphonic song and ensemble movement, aimed at the most concentrated expression of the very human desires, passions, and grief that have defined dramatic tragedy since classical times. In the process, they largely leave behind Shakespeare’s language and the play’s plot. Certainly a few lines from the play find their way in, both spoken and sung, and Bral himself narrates some of the plot, but in many ways Shakespeare’s play, as we know it, is absent. Songs of Lear becomes not a staging of Lear, but a staging with Lear, in relationship to Lear, because of what Shakespeare’s play makes possible.

Bral starts the performance quite non-musically, explaining rather informally and without irony to the audience that “theatre is about telling stories,” and declaring that the performance begins with one. Instead of music or theatre, though, his story turns out to be about painting. Bral recalls an exhibition at the Tate Modern museum in London that traced the early career of pioneering modernist master Wassily Kandinsky from the pastoral landscapes and folkloric scenes with which he began to his discovery of the abstract techniques for which he is best known. The exhibition came together for Bral in a large gallery where he could see the progression of Kandinsky’s painting style from the early landscapes toward ever-increasing levels of abstraction, until he arrived at an entirely black painting with some geometric lines cutting across it. Pure abstraction, it seemed. But in context of the gallery, Bral could perceive the relationship of the black painting to the landscapes, even though they had such clearly divergent representational fates, they shared a common origin and the same instigating impulse.

This relationship between representational and abstract forms is what Bral promises for Songs of LearLear in twelve paintings, with sound as color and himself, the director, as docent, explaining the paintings as we go. The dozen songs that comprise Songs of Lear are meant to occupy the living heart of Shakespeare’s play, to locate the dramatic impulse Lear embodies, and to remain there, tracing the psychic inner life of the play in absence of recited text and enfleshed portrayal of character. Bral’s commentary provides a tenuous connection, tethering his production to Shakespeare’s play so it does not float off into pure abstraction, just as Kandinsky’s black painting could only be a landscape in relation to his earlier, representational works. By breaking Lear down to song, Song of the Goat Theatre seeks to clarify the play. Not to analyze and explicate it to the point of coherence, but rather to cook it down until it is at its most concentrated and transparent—a stock of LearLear’s flavors with none of the meat left behind, a homeopathic preparation of the play. A Lear not to be seen, but to be seen through, heard and felt and understood in the moment of apprehension not as the play, but as an essence that remains of the play after the performance disappears, an essence that can permeate the boundaries between performers’ bodies, between actors and spectators, and that can flow on into the next embodiment of tragedy in any of our lives or on that, or any, stage.


Ira S. Murfin is currently completing his doctorate in the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre & Drama at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the relationship between language, perfor­mance, and media across arts disciplines in the post-1960s American avant-garde. He holds an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BFA in playwriting from New York University.

TIM ETCHELLS/FORCED ENTERTAINMENT – (IN)COMPLETE WORKS: TABLE TOP SHAKESPEARE

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The work of the experimental British company Forced Entertainment distinguishes itself among much contemporary performance by its unique relationship to the elemental conditions of theater. Forced Entertainment’s work proceeds from and responds to the expectations and limitations of theatrical circumstance, emphasizing to extremity (and beyond to Brechtian estrangement) the particularities of theater’s most ordinary aspects—narrative, costume, duration, suspension of disbelief, the performer-audience relationship. Their performances tend to either messily exceed the limits of coherent representation or to deliberately underdetermine their own theatricality, always strategically missing the mark. During a rare US residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art these past few weeks, Chicago audiences have experienced an intermissionless 140-minute epic about childhood during wartime read from identical notebooks by two men without acting anything out, and a six-hour-long non-narrative performance in which the company collectively tried to confess to everything.

The third Forced Entertainment project presented in Chicago, (In) Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare, brought twelve of the one-hour versions of Shakespeare’s plays created for Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare, which premiered last year in the UK with every play in the canon. Presented here four per night, these performances featured a single member of Forced Entertainment seated at a large wooden table, relating the plot of one of Shakespeare’s plays to the audience, using ordinary household objects and products as illustrative props, and summarizing the action rather than quoting the plays directly. The night I attended included The Merchant of VeniceAs You Like ItMacbeth and The Winter’s Tale in a marathon relay between company members Claire Marshall, Robin Arthur, Richard Lowdon and Cathy Naden (remaining company members Terry O’Connor and Artistic Director Tim Etchells were not in Chicago.) Each of these plays deals in part with characters in disguise or substituting for one another, in much the same way that the narrators substituted ordinary objects for Shakespeare’s characters, and plot summaries for the texts of the plays.

Organizing everyday objects on the tabletop and synopsizing the stories, the performers engaged the audience with their capacity to approximate the content of the plays using a limited set of tools, which at a different scale could describe the constraints under which all theater operates. After all, Shakespeare also uses summary and approximation where the limits of theatrical representation assert themselves. As You Like It has Oliver reporting on his unseen rescue from a lion by Orlando, which Robin Arthur related in much the same way that Oliver presents this pivotal instance of storytelling. And the offstage mauling of Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale is merely implied by the famous stage direction “Exit pursued by a bear,” here satisfyingly cast by Cathy Naden as a half-full bag of trail mix.

Forced Entertainment is able to make use of Shakespeare in this performance about the provisional nature of theater because in the theater Shakespeare is always close at hand, almost to the point of ubiquity. Like the common objects and products sitting in our kitchen cupboards, our bathroom cabinets, our garages and workshops, we may go years without thinking about one of Shakespeare’s plays only to find, on encountering one, that it has been there all along, and that it functions much as we remember. Engaging Shakespeare is like riding a bike, or like fixing a bike with an old set of tools you forgot you had and then riding. Some assembly is required, but in the end it still works just fine. Given what most audiences for this performance will know, when Robin Arthur, presenting As You Like It, says of the bottle he cast as Jaques, “Then he makes a long speech where he compares the world to a theater,” it might be argued that it does much the same work as hearing “All the world’s a stage…” recited; similarly Richard Lowdon telling us that the old aerosol can playing Macbeth “feels nothing and everything feels pointless” upon hearing of Lady Macbeth’s suicide supplies the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” speech without it being quoted.

An orientation toward approximation and provisionality in dramatic storytelling informs this encounter between the priorities of postdramatic performance and the assumptions of traditional theatre, as it has similarly amongst Forced Entertainment’s contemporaries. The Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s 2010 Romeo and Juliet, for instance, was comprised not of the text of the play, but of transcribed summaries of what of interviewees remembered of the plot. Theatre has become more and more a context to think about theatricality and the dynamics of representation, under which conditions the table has often proved a space simultaneously within and outside of the literal theater where the divides between performance and criticism, actor and audience, the fictional and the actual can be examined and bridged. The non-illusory direct address of John Cage’s lectures or Spalding Gray’s autobiographical monologues presented at tables much like Forced Entertainment’s suggests a theater that is both dramatically coherent and anti-spectacular. But the table is, at the same time, a model for the theatrical dynamic itself, a literal platform behind which sits a controlling intelligence attempting to bring a story to life on that surface. Table Top Shakespeare might promise transcendent puppetry, like that of the New York street performer Stuart Sherman who staged his miniature spectacles with ordinary objects on portable tables, but it delivers instead something purposely a bit more static and self-reflexive. By diagramming but never fully realizing the potential relationship between narrator, story and object, Table Top Shakespeare tasks the audience with the act of assembly.

Forced Entertainment is insisting on the contingent, provisional, collectively navigated nature of the performance event, and certainly this is not everybody’s cup of tea. Indeed, audience attrition appeared to be an anticipated side effect if not a goal of the work. After the single brief intermission in the four-hour program MCA Director of Performance Programs Peter Taub congratulated those of us who had stayed, inviting us to move closer, as if we had passed the test and the evening could finally proceed as intended. One pleasure of durational performance like this is the satisfaction of having endured, together with others, and making it to the end (although that could also be said to be a pleasure of seeing any production of Shakespeare.) Among those I shared the theater with, I certainly encountered some who felt that something was missing, some opportunity had been lost, whether the possibilities of representational spectacle or the texture of Shakespeare’s language itself. They imagined the clever, acrobatic uses that could have been made of the objects, and lamented the absence of Shakespeare’s poetry. But that disappointment, too, might be productive, offering the audience a stage on which to perform versions of the plays they might hope for or imag­ine or remember. Like much of Forced Entertainment’s work, the whole evening felt like both too much and too little—from one angle we had both seen four Shakespeare plays over the course of as many hours, from another we had seen none at all. Table Top Shakespeare substituted for something much vaster and more fantastical than any of us saw on stage that night, yet it also insisted that the theater that we had, the theater we were making do with and enduring, was, or should be, good enough.


Ira S. Murfin is currently completing his doctorate in the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre & Drama at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the relationship between language, perfor­mance, and media across arts disciplines in the post-1960s American avant-garde. He holds an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BFA in playwriting from New York University.