Last thoughts before the next text
In Social Acupuncture: A Guide to Suicide, Performance and Utopia, Darren O’Donnell uses acupuncture as a metaphor for the imbalance of power and resources in our social body and calls for theater that pinpoints problems in our civic sphere to intervene and address issues of disenfranchisement, war and commercial manipulation. It was interesting as an outsider to the theater to read an insider’s viewpoint—I might even call it a manifesto—on how the theater needs to change in order to thrive in contemporary times. O’Donnell feels that most contemporary theater is boring and irrelevant as it remains obsessed with the classics and representational works.
O’Donnell believes that it is difficult to sustain theater because it is a forum where actual bodies encounter one another. In live theater you must have “creators and consumers in the same space (proximity)” and socially engaged spaces are being killed by information-age capitalism. I have witnessed this distancing within society as the preferred method of communication becomes texting and e-mailing as compared to speaking on the phone or face-to-face exchanges. The author is also concerned about how “all socializing and public encounters occur under the banner of consumption” (94), and there are few forums to meet people where “identity and power do not dictate the parameters of discourse.” (53) I cannot think of any significant events or public spaces in my community which allow people to interact physically or mentally that are not based on commerce (selling tickets, food, alcohol, etc.) or managed by a corporate body (school administrations, town councils, church elders, etc.) The author fails to mention whether or not there is a charge for his performances that take place in theater (corporate) spaces.
O’Donnell makes a point to meet and greet the audience as they enter the theater for his performance. He attempts to remove the understood distance located between viewer and performer in order to encourage interaction during his play. He wants audience participation. I am not as disturbed as he with being a “passive” viewer because of many experiences of being deeply affected by the performances I have witnessed on the stage. I think that the word witness is better used than viewer when it comes to naming the audience in a theater. I am participating even though I am not interjecting orally or physically in the event. I am moved by the words, emotions and ideas transmitted by the actors and my silence and stillness allow my eyes, ears and skin to be even more sensitized to the work taking place before me and in the midst of my presence.
O’Donnell writes that the elements of the social body are intertwined (a holistic approach) in which “small interventions at key junctures should affect larger organs to directly engage with social flows.” (48) Theater and art in general can be used to perform social acupuncture as it asks questions and encourages dialogues between the actors and audiences. O’Donnell advocates theater that is unscripted and accidental because it “is often much more beautiful, astonishing and revealing than the rehearsed.” (60) There is a particular beauty in ad lib and improvisation that is attractive to me. I am spellbound whenever I watch an interview with Robin Williams as words and humor pour out of him with every interaction. My favorite show on television is Whose Line is it Anyway? in which comics devise sketches, impersonations and songs based on suggestions and props from the host and audience.
Just like acupuncture performed on the human body, the effects of artistic acupuncture on the social body “will be felt only over a significant period of time and with repeated applications.” (51) In this scenario, the little things that we all do really can make a difference if we continue our work day after day with diligence, consistency and patience. This is a difficult concept, though, for a society that wants immediate gratification and measurable progress and which possesses an attention span of about two minutes.
O’Donnell warns us that social acupuncture, like real acupuncture, will not always be pleasant because “when you’re increasing your social intelligence, you will spend some time in discomfort.” (57) He believes that “discomfort and antagonism are hallmarks of a successful encounter.” (31) He sites many examples of civically engaged art with people on the street by asking very personal questions, the creation of adult spin-the-bottle games and haircuts by children on adults. I am not quite sure how politically and socially engaged these examples are without a more in-depth analysis of the events and the processes. His synopses are brief and allow only a glimpse into the projects he describes. He includes the script of his “Suicide-Site Guide to the City” that is uncomfortable, confusing and even tangential at times. I realize that the script can only give you a taste of the actual embodied performance, but I felt a little disappointed at the work because it was fragmented and hard to follow and understand. I am reminded of Hal Foster’s warning in the first packet in Participation that “at times, the death of the author has meant not the birth of the reader, so much as the befuddlement of the viewer.” I fear that the befuddlement of this viewer was official by the end of O’Donnell’s script because I did not feel connected at all to his words or ideas.
What keeps writers and performers from writing, producing and performing more work that is controversial, uncomfortable or painful? O’Donnell thinks that many theatrical performances are limited creatively by parameters that “use the rhetoric of safety to cloak control.” (56) Many people in power do not like change because it means losing control or power over a situation. I have experienced this very scenario in the past when a principal has pulled the old “safety card” out as an excuse for not doing something new or creative. I requested that the administration allow students to go outside for their lunch time again since the privilege was removed after a series of fights took place last year. I was told that we should just continue keeping the students inside because “the surveillance was better indoors.” I am still trying to understand the equation that being outside means more fighting. The “tradition card” has been pulled a few times in my public school experience when administrators explain how “that is the way we have always done it.” I have determined that tradition in the United States means anything that has happened for two consecutive years. Two years equal always? Another shallow equation, it seems to me.
O’Donnell promotes a neo-philistine work ethic where a person’s “acts of charity also improve the well-being of the donor.” (39) If artists create social good, the author believes that the artist’s motivations do not need to be pure. Why shouldn’t the act of goodness or kindness result in bettering the situation of the artist as well? He warns artists against masquerading as do-gooders in their work and to avoid performing any type of charity because charity “can discriminate and emphasize the classicism, racism, sexism, etc.” (79) that is present in the culture. I think that if you consider yourself a member of the community that you are helping, you are simply working to make things better for everyone, including yourself. I see the destructive qualities of setting up a stereotypical scenario of the artist helping out those “poor and unfortunate people” in the community. Done rightly, however, breaking down the wall between giver and receiver places people on more equal ground.
I identified with O’Donnell’s caution of the new freedom given to artists who work at home. “Working at home brings the opportunity to never escape work opportunities.” (79) I think that it is healthy to have this physical separation from the work world. I leave the school at five in the afternoon each day and drive home to paint, play with my pets, have dinner with my husband or work on the usual house chores that never seem to end. I found myself frazzled about eight years ago, edgy, impatient, unhappy, anxious, exhausted and even a little depressed. It took a little while for me to recognize that I was spending too much of my time at home still working as an art teacher. I was being super teacher; the artist, wife and woman were suffering. I committed myself to leaving my school work at school.