Thursday, July 31, 2008

On Chaos, Rules, and Sacred Trees

I went to visit a friend of mine recently, who lives in a different city.

He brought me to a park, where there was an old, sacred tree in the center of the park... offerings placed within its scarred cracks. Old, but alive, and filled with energy from all those who knew of its presence and drew inspiration from it.

When we approached the place where the tree stood, there was an empty patch of bare dirt. Planted next to it was a tiny sapling.

The tree was cut down by the park, presumably because they feared-- because of its age-- that someone would try to climb it, crack a limb, get hurt, and then sue the park for damages...


If you are curious about the ending of my performance, and why it is different than the original "Survival Pages" presented in November, here's the story:

There's a tech director for the Fringe, whose job it is to oversee the technical aspects of people's performances, and work with artists to set guidelines to ensure that performances work within different venue's capacities... presumably, to ensure that artists do not attempt things onstage that would damage the space, the venue's equipment, the performers, or the audience.

A month ago, I spoke with him about the different aspects of my show-- I'm going to have a big pile of dirt (make sure you lay something down on the floor for easy clean up... check) -- I'm going to suspend a wall of newspaper (bring along a self-supporting frame, because you can't hang anything from the ceiling... check) -- and last, I'm planning to bring a second projector, with my own operator who can set up and break down in the 10 minutes I am allowed before and after shows, for the final scene.

(To explain, the final scene ends with the projected image of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, which becomes part of my body as I walk toward the audience... as in the image above)

To this request, to have a second projector, the answer was a firm and decisive "No" by the Fringe tech director. His justification for the rule, is that he is convinced that it will not work (based on his experience) and that he cannot allow me to "ruin" my show by allowing me to try it. (His letter is below)

Hi Malia,

I can't wink and unofficially let you do this one. I'd agree with you that there's no harm in trying if neither of us had any idea whether it would work, but that's not the case here. This year is my 10th Fringe Festival, which means I've seen what works, and what doesn't, in over 1300 different Fringe shows. I'm 99% sure that setting up a second video projector is not possible to do well during the Fringe, and 100% sure that it's not advisable. With that experience and knowledge, the ethical choice for me, unfortunately, is to disappoint you now, when you have the time to come up with a different plan, rather than in your all-too-short tech rehearsal.

You argue very persuasively that this effect is important to your theme, and understandable to the audience, and is very dramatic. What you haven't convinced me of is that there is no comprehensible, dramatic, and effective way to convey your message without using 2 video projectors. You created this piece under very unusual circumstances, with a lot of funding, tech support, and time. That situation rarely, if ever, comes up outside of universities and fellowships. Professional theater at every level involves compromise. There's never enough time or money to do everything you want, and being able to come up with multiple ideas to work around your constraints is an important part of the process. If you spend the next month working to build a creative and beautiful ending for your show that doesn't jeopardize the whole thing by relying on too much technology in not enough time, you will come up with something that not only works, but may even be better than the first version. Even in the worst case scenario the audience, having never seen the extra video projector, will not know they've missed anything.

I know this isn't the answer you wanted, and I'm sorry, but it is the one that will give you the best chance of a great experience in the Fringe.


So why do I find this so outrageous?

Basically, his reasoning is based on the premise that he knows better than I what is possible during a Fringe Show, and that it's his job to "take care of me" --

Never mind that I have experience of my own (having done this show last November with similar time restraints for the set-up of a second projector), and have proven to myself and to my crew that we can set up a projector in plenty of time to meet the 10-minute deadline for setup and break down. (in rehearsal it took her 5 to 6 minutes, a deadline we practiced several times, with success every time)

If the second projector would have failed, it would have hurt no one, would have no effect on Intermedia Arts' space or equipment. The sole risk faced would be mine, alone, as the creator of a piece that I spent nine months developing, and finding just the right ending for.

To me, the main issue is that this one person has the right, because a projector falls under the realm of something technical, to exercise veto power over this very central and key element of my production... for no reason other than that he wishes to "protect me from my own inexperience" -- believing that this would make my show better. (Never mind that Fringe shows have a reputation of being all over the map, in terms of artistic quality-- being decided by lottery, it is the very spirit of the Fringe that you can present a show, whether it's absolutely terrible, or highly inspirational.)

What gives him the right?

In his letter, he speaks about compromise.

I have no problem compromising with rules that make sense to me.

However, this is my piece, I am the one who knows what is best for my show, and if I were about to "mess up" my show by trying to have this ending the way I intended, why should it matter to him?

To me, I feel like he has cut down my sacred tree, and told me, "Here's a sapling. It's a tree, isn't it? Surely it should be able to replace whatever else you intended to do."

I am filled with anger, grief, and indignation -- not just for my situation, but for all the sacred beauty that is cut down around us everyday, for reasons that just don't hold up, when you consider what is lost in the process. This scenario, to me, is a tiny piece of a drama that's played out every day-- the destruction caused through the actions of those whose cultural world-view requires control, clear hierarchy, order, and obedience... and who view any uprise or challenge to their authority as unreasonable and deserving of being utterly squashed.

He wishes for a scenario that is clean-cut, with no potential for chaos, for accident, for the messes that can happen when plants are allowed to grow the way they are meant to grow, or when artists are allowed to make their own mistakes.

I know I could have done it--
to make this ending fit within the guidelines of "10 minutes in, 10 minutes out"... required by the Fringe to ensure fairness to all performers. I also know, that in a worst-case-scenario, (the projector bulb burned out, the butterfly-image glitched, or things otherwise didn't happen according to plan) -- that I, personally, as the artist and creator of this piece, would have been okay with that.

Yes, I am stubborn.

But the plain fact of it is, is that there is no other ending with the power and meaning of my final scene, as originally done. Believe me, I racked my brain for other solutions, I asked friends, I tried out multiple scenarios, but, in reality, the entire performance rested on the culmination of this final image-- the energy I cast toward the audience with my movements, with the visual power of metaphor-- the simplicity of seeing the butterfly, cast on my chest, embracing its beauty and holding it sacred.

To me, this moment was more than a theatrical end... it was a prayer.

Unfortunately, the debate over having this second projector or not became a battle of egos... He is utterly convinced that I have an obstinate disregard for rules of any sort. I am convinced that he has overstepped his rightful bounds as a tech director.

In the end, I had 2 choices: To drop out of the Fringe, and not do the show at all (at considerable expense, having paid over $700 to make it this far).... or to stay, and let him have his way, and do my best to imbue this new ending with as much integrity as I can...

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