Last Saturday (3/15), I attended a performance of “Thank You For Coming,” the latest work from Bessie Award-winning dance and theatre artist Faye Driscoll. I had a great experience working with Faye last year when she made a piece for the Barnard College Department of Dance, and since then, I’ve been eagerly awaiting her next big creation. “Thank You For Coming,” performed at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church, was everything I could have hoped for as an audience member, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it yet, even after a week has gone by. So, in lieu of a more formal “review,” I’ve compiled a list of ten things that I loved, confused me, freaked me out, made me laugh, etc. from “Thank You For Coming.” My thoughts are listed in no particular order; I think they’re each equally important in my experience of the piece.
I didn’t receive a program until the end of the piece.
There’s a certain social script that I think we can all agree on when it comes to attending a performance. It goes something like this: Arrive at theatre, receive program upon entering performance space, find seat and watch show. In “Thank You For Coming,” this script got thrown out the window. Instead, as I walked into St. Mark’s, my hand was stamped, my first name was written down on a clipboard, and then I was ushered inside. I figured I’d get a program in the house, but none were in sight. I don’t usually like to read program notes or artist statements until after I’ve seen a show, but I do like to read things like performer bios or company history. This time, Faye made sure I was going into the viewing experience completely “blind,” so to speak (as it turns out, I’d done myself a favor by avoiding reading other reviews, and had only heard vague comments of approval from friends who’d already seen it). There’s something really comforting about having a program in your hands when you’re waiting for a show to start. If you want to know what you’re getting yourself into, you’ll probably find some clues inside. If you don’t feel like talking to anyone, at least you’ll have something to make your avoidance look genuine. The withholding of the program sent a pretty clear message, and an important one at that – no distractions allowed, all attention on the performance, please. If you’re looking for a “meaning” or “understanding” of this piece, you’ll have to do some work for yourself.
I had to take off my shoes and hand over my purse.
Once I got into the performance space, I was directed to take off shoes and leave them at the “shoe check.” Next, I was told to leave my jacket and purse in another area. This cue, coupled with the lack of programs, told me that clearly I wasn’t supposed to have anything in my hands, in my lap, or in my general physical space tonight; I’d be needing my mobility for something else. Realizing this was both exciting and nerve-wracking: sure, this was going to be something new, an atypical theatre experience, but just what was it I was going to have to do before this was all said and done?
“Please be SUUUURE no ooo-ne ca-an re-ea-ch youuuu….”
Another part of the theatre-goer’s social script is the “please silence your cell phones” blurb we get to hear before every performance. For a fun twist, Faye and her gang surprised the audience from the balcony by singing (quite nicely, I might add) their reminders to silence their phones (“please be sure no one can reach you”), no photos or recording (“please be sure to take no records”) and to follow them to the exits should the church go up in flames (“and should you need to go outside, if the air is consumed in fire, follow us”). As this was the first thing the performers did as a group, it highlighted the fact that this production is what’s about to happen right here, right now, with this group of people.
Our limbs can get tangled so easily.
The work begins with the five dancers linking arms and legs to create a tight clump at the center of the platform. As I mentioned, the piece is performed in the round, and the dancers oblige their audience by continually shifting their configuration to create different momentary tableaus for the audience to admire. Throughout this opening, the dancers have the difficult task of remaining in constant contact with one another as they make their transitions, and in their efforts to link up their ankles or grab each others’ heads, their bodies get very tangled very quickly. What started as five distinct people becomes a mass of arms and hips and ponytails; that is, until those beautiful moments when the bodies suddenly unwind, and we see the five dancers again in a new, crisp orientation. The dancers take on the task as if it’s a high states game of “The Human Knot,” in which they’ll push anyone or climb anywhere to get where they need to go. And though their bodies are obviously affected by the physicality of the movement (shaking, sweating, barely balancing at times), their faces relay nothing of this stress. Instead, the dancers’ expressions fluctuate between coy smirks, triumphant smiles, and cautious scans of the situation. One moment they appear to be daydreaming; the next, they are carefully planning their next move through the group. From the outside, I saw this as a beautiful detachment of body and mind, as if inner monologue that drew up these expressions was just as important as the outer dialogue of their movement.
The fourth wall didn’t stand a chance.
One of the great things about watching this piece was that it felt very personal, and I’m sure it was designed so that each person would experience the work slightly differently. Plenty of moments for intimate performer-audience interactions are built into the piece, but there were also a number a beautiful moments that couldn’t have been planned. One, in particular, happened when a dancer was stretching out her arm towards the audience, and a woman sitting nearby reached her hand out as well. Later on, performers whispered secrets to specific audience members, or asked them to hand them props and even help them change clothes. In every case, the audience facilitated the performance, or perhaps, performed the “dance of the helper.” By harkening back to our human impulse to help each other when we’re asked, the dancers destroyed the typical formula of performance theorized by Eric Bentley to be “A performs B for C” and replaced it with “A and C perform B for ??” By blurring the lines between choreography, happenstance, performance, and necessity, Faye and her dancers created an environment that transcended the limitations of traditional theatrical space, and allowed audience members to see their own function in the performance setting in a new light.
They sang a silly song about everyone in the audience.
Remember when I said they took down everyone’s names as they entered the dance space? As it turns out, Sound Designer and Composer Michael Kiley took those names and used them as the lyric material for his musical accompaniment. The song was simple (just three names, no other lyrics, same rhythmic pattern over and over), but still made up fairly on the spot. The song was a call and response between Kiley and the dancers, so even while they were going through the choreography – a series of “greeting” interactions, like hugs and hand grabs, performed with a quirky, choppy, stop-motion quality – they had to keep an ear open to know which names they should be calling each other as they made their greetings. Pairing the names of the audience with the “greeting” choreographed images made it feel as if the dancers were greeting each of us personally.
I changed seats mid-way through the show.
The piece begins with five dancers atop a platform in the middle of the space, elevated about two feet off the ground. The piece is performed in the round, and at this point the audience is seated either on the floor or on lower benches that frame the space. After the five dancers have been at it for a while, twisting their bodies into funky group tableaus and pulling on each other to balance in precarious poses, Faye appears from out of nowhere and slides underneath the platform. Pretty soon, the dancers have rolled off the platform (linked up into a line by holding each others’ ankles, mind you) and Faye is pushing apart the platform, which I can now see is made of aluminum benches. Next, she asks the audience, one group at a time, to please stand up and help her set up a new bleacher seat formation, and then to please arrange ourselves with about five to a bench. Normally, when people ask you to stand up and move when you’re in the middle of watching something, you’d be pretty annoyed. But here, I watched people jump up with a distinct sense of urgency and concern: these benches weren’t going to move themselves! Later on, one section of the audience was asked to rearrange again, and this time remain standing. It was beautiful to watch everyone oblige, knowing that by cooperating whole-heartedly, they were letting the piece run its course.
Someone handed me a “bouquet” of plastic flowers and told me to hang on to it, so I did.
During the big bench upheaval, each member of the audience received a prop – some got shiny shower caps, others got spools of string, I got some plastic flowers. As the piece went on, some of us were called upon to use our props to complete tableau and images that the dancers created in different sections of the audience. Those who were handed strings and ropes were asked to help unwind their spools, creating a spiderweb on the floor. Not everyone ended up using their prop in direct relation to the dancers’ needs, but the fact that everyone had something meant that each of us could be called upon at any moment to step in and complete the scene. It created a connection between the audience and how perceived our influence on the trajectory of the performance, and it was great to see people jump up to hand off a gold shower cap the instant they sensed it was needed.
Everyone in the cast and crew ended up in their underwear.
To be fair, many dance performances these days will feature high cut spandex briefs or unitards, for both men and women. But that “underwear” is almost always carefully designed for the stage; a “costume.” At Danspace, it was really just underwear, brand labels and all. And although the same amount of the body might be exposed as if they’d been in dance briefs or leotards, the feeling was far different. They were comfortable enough with us to take off their “costumes” and go down to their real clothes that were underneath. For some of the performers, the de-robing process was a slow one: as they crawled across the floor, it turned out their “leggings” were actually incredibly bunched up tubes of fabric, and once unbunched and spread across the floor, they added to the spiderweb of ropes that was already in place. For others, the process was like a formality – at one point, but Kiley, who had been standing off stage the entire time, suddenly came on in just his underwear, as if to say “I guess it’s my turn since I’m a part of this too.”
I was up and dancing by the end of the piece.
At some point, the cast members started asking audience members if they’d like to join them in the “game” that was unfolding on stage. It was a pretty basic “game” – everyone stands in a circle; everyone skips into the middle then back out; after you’ve done this three times, the circle rotates and you start again. Pretty soon, half the audience had taken the stage to skip alongside the cast. As we skipped around together and the lights faded out, it was clear that “Thank You For Coming” was a piece about everyone present. From the name song and distributing props to asking audience members for assistance to change clothes, the Faye and the dancers made sure that we weren’t just watching this piece, we were also performing. The piece couldn’t happen without an audience, and that final dance was a sincere “thank you” for everyone who came to St. Mark’s that night.