THE DIALOGUES. Curated by Dexter Bullard.
Links Hall, Chicago, September 13th – November 22nd 2010
Reviewed by Ira S. Murfin
The Dialogues, curated by stage director Dexter Bullard, paired eighteen Chicago artists, mostly from theatre and performance, in a series of nine improvised conversations. Their identities concealed from one another, each pair entered in the dark and settled on opposite sides of an onstage divide. At the sound of a ringing telephone, the audience put on headphones found on the backs of their chairs, the performers picked up their receivers, and the lights came up on an hour-long conversation. During his weekly curtain speech Bullard promised only that everything was improvised. The tension between assumed spontaneity and the expectations of performance fueled the conversation and its reception.
Though the performances were obviously unscripted, the degree to which they were uncomposed was not always clear. When Carolyn Hoerdemann asked one Monday if fellow theatre artist Stephanie Shaw knew who Hoerdemann was, she quickly withdrew the question, saying, “I think I just fucked up The Dialogues, I said one of the things I’m not supposed to say,” implying that the rules and prompts might, in fact, have been multiple. The conversation usually opened in heightened performance mode. Of the seven evenings I attended, only two opened with a conventional “hello.” The others began more provocatively, and more theatrically, with a pledge to never return to the zoo, a description of a dream, a confession to having just gotten a traffic ticket, the middle of a question about the definition of stalking, and, immortally, the information that “I have a French guy living in my apartment and he won’t sleep with me.” These openings promised conversation both extreme and confessional, premised not on the niceties of human interaction, but on the dual license of anonymity and art. However, the self-dramatizing usually didn’t last long. Though the theatrical circumstances often prompted the performers to resort first to risky frankness and strategic surprise, they quickly had to grapple with the more mundane, and less familiar, minutia of simply making conversation while others watched and listened in.
Without a narrative or conceptual crutch internal to the conversations, an ambiguous anxiety over the potentially undramatic situation prompted some to fictionalize. Mostly these were small fabrications, familiar unconscious dishonesties like “you always have fresh breath,” or “I think you look great.” Some insisted on denying they were in a performance at all, referencing being at “home.” To this end, Bullard provided a pair of abbreviated living room sets, with easy chairs, end tables, lamps, and old-fashioned corded phones. Islands of pretend domesticity. Mostly the fiction of these settings was not violated, the audience went unacknowledged, and the premise that the performers were separated by distance or edifice greater than a folding divider maintained a surprising plausibility. But this general adherence to the conventions of theatrical staging made the moments when the precariously constructed spatial fantasy was pierced all the more intriguing. Writer and performer Christopher Piatt, in dialogue with improv comic Tim O’Malley, breached the divide merely by lighting a stick of incense. In the context of The Dialogues, it was a surprisingly provocative act. More typically, actress Shenesia Davis began by telling improv performer David Pasquesi that she had just gotten a traffic ticket while driving his car, a blatant untruth that worked to enforce a fictional, and self-protective, pose.
The unpredictable instability of the onstage world provided a corollary for the often-unnoted performance of everyday life and the mediated representations of self upon which such performance depends. It was telling that iPhones and Facebook were frequent topics of conversation. In many ways The Dialogues enacted the circumstances by which intimacy slowly ceases to exist as nuanced private experience, and becomes recognizable only as public, and published, performance. The tendency, then, to fictionalize was both touching and uncomfortable. It invoked a situational self-awareness, which had the performers protectively struggling with what they should say or preemptively fearing what might next be said, unsure what or how much to reveal. The fictional move, like the frequent move into sarcasm, created a space into which they could retreat to recalibrate the self they were willing to present. This called into question the possibility of ever presenting the type of non-strategic performance The Dialogues seemed to assert itself to be, while still thinning the perceived divide between categories of onstage persona and offstage personality.
Putting the performers on the phone was a smart and strategic move. Alone with themselves in their slivers of pseudo-domesticity, a few personal effects at hand—backpacks and coffee cups, a dozen doughnuts in one case—they became anonymous, disembodied voices, interpenetrating each other’s ears. Perhaps Bullard’s most inspired decision was placing each audience member inside the conversation, whispering it through the headsets as if the spectator were the telephone line itself. The effect was simultaneously isolating and involving, at once very close in to the speakers’ voices and breathing, and estranged from the communal experience of spectatorship typical of live theatre. The headphones elided the theatrical distance between audience and performer and mediated the performance’s reception, while troubling the tidiness of that mediated proximity with the performers’ own presence. Bullard added to this loaded interrelationship a rotating roster of sound artists Eric Leonardson, Lou Mallozzi, and Sam Wagster feeding improvised sonic interventions into the headsets. Sometimes recognizably musical, sometimes electronic and found interference, they exerted another layer of distance, occasionally an obscuring one, or provided a dramatically responsive, almost cinematic, score. The sound work was skillful, but I wondered on occasion if it was necessary, or if it did not, like the fictionalizing impulses, allow subtle relief from unremitting closeness.
I do believe that the promise and risk of closeness was Bullard’s pursuit, as his modest interventions suggested. Specifically, I recognized an assertive use of nostalgia. Tethered to their little sets by the very tangible spiral of the phone cord and fixed there by the audience’s gaze, the performers were literally de-mobilized. There was none of the familiar talking-while-doing of the cellular world. They shifted and paced, sat on the floor, sifted through pockets, doodled, but mostly remained planted, and talking. It was a familiar performance from the time when phone conversations were discrete private events, rooted in place for significant durations, with a structure and format of their own. They meandered and cast about for topics, looping back expectantly and self-consciously, inventing and referencing inside jokes, buying time. Each conversation was a negotiation, a performer dominated, then another would take things in a new direction, rehearsing the workings of both conversation and collaboration. Occasionally, and everyone could sense the shift, a fear was confessed or a secret revealed. In one case, author and performer Robyn Okrant ended the evening by hanging up on Annoyance Theater founder Mick Napier. She had dealt with his deliberately offensive provocations with good humor, but had been reduced to tears by a moment of personal vulnerability, and was then infuriated when he returned to dismissive manipulation. At that point, I felt no different than had I found myself overhearing such an emotionally charged conversation in any context, privileged to have been a witness and embarrassed by my own proximity and fascination.
Invoking voyeuristic titillation, dramatic expectations, and mundane chitchat, Bullard’s series was beautifully ambiguous about the why of it all. Was it a critique or celebration of confession? A pseudo-luddite yearning for the days of landlines? Or simply a nostalgically loaded interface cleverly cuing intrinsically poignant exchange? Though it made use of the conventions of theatre, the performances themselves resisted theatre’s models of authorship or directorial control. These conversations were ultimately not about narrative or personal revelation, or even about the concept of the series itself, but were instead a stripping bare of the tense and intricate moment-to-moment negotiation of communication between two people working from no shared background and few established assumptions. No move that I know of was ever made to follow-up on Bullard’s PR promise to invite the audience out after the performance “for a drink and a chance to ‘continue the conversation,’” but that seemed wholly appropriate. The Dialogues was not about introducing subjects of interest or controversy, it was about the specific negotiation of simultaneous presence and shared language. Though the conversations were public events, they were closed systems, open for witness, but not participation.