The Mystery of Habitus

I don’t know what to say about Habitus, a “living installation” by VECTOR now at Manbites Dog Theater (the event repeats Jan. 15-17) , which described it as “an interactive installation/performance.” According to materials in the theater, it is “an installation around anger and violence.” The same materials gave a laundry list of trigger warnings–but there was nothing there to trigger anything except mild irritation, and a wonder at the slightness of the thing. Leah Wilks, the artistic director of VECTOR, said in an email that the installation is “about exploration of this world and themes and visuals and gathering from audience as well as the performers…also part of our process in developing/exploring this landscape and the questions inherent at the heart of this work” prior to a stage work of the same title to be performed in March as part of the DIDA season.

Intake card from the Habitus experience.

Intake card with unanswerable questions from the Habitus experience.


I know Leah Wilks can choreograph and dance; I know her partner in VECTOR Jon Haas can make interesting video. Unfortunately, the video in the installation is not interesting. There is no dance. Upon entry, one is handed a clipboard with papers to fill out and given various directions. After waiting in the lobby, which has been made over into a theater papered with mainstream magazine images, many of violence or its outcomes, and in which rows of chairs sit before a huge screen showing a loop of blown-out video from TV news and sports, you are called up to the Intake Desk and “processed.” From there you move on to a photo station, where you are robed and photographed with another person. I completely failed to grasp the boxing theme here until I saw a photo of other attendees the next day on Facebook. I guess this was supposed to put us in a pugilistic mood, but I missed it.

Inside the theater proper, the space is divided into rooms and corridors in which various scenarios are sketched. There are several people doing odd things, and attempting to engage “the audience.” Dana Marks marches around in a vaguely fascistic uniform, barking orders; Nicola Bullock trails around charmingly in a long backless dress, channeling Billie Holiday and offering “pills” to strangers; another woman works out; yet another tries to escape invisible chains holding her scantly-clad self to a stool. You are given chalk and told to draw around another person, as if he were a body on the ground. There’s a display where you are asked to rate the various items as to their relative violence (I was unsure it this meant the object’s capacity for use with violent intent, or its association with violent acts in the viewer’s mind). One is encouraged to write on the wall in various topic areas. Every thing I could bear to read was a cliche.

It is possible, quite possible, that I have passed over the far edge of the age group for whom this would be interesting. The collaged images and the chalked walls seemed particularly middle-schoolish from my point on the time line. I long ago opted out of life with television and glossy magazines full of fake female beauty. I’ve experienced or observed various kinds of anger and violence firsthand, and the fast-cut mediated version presented here did not inspire the powerful feelings I associate with those experiences. As I began to grasp the set-up, I thought at first that Habitus was a parody of interactive installations, but when I entered the interior, I realized it was completely in earnest.

It is also possible that this installation is merely an early messy stage of art making–one that ordinarily is not publicly shared. Perhaps Wilks, Haas, et al will take this chaos and give it dramatic form in an artwork actually about anger and violence. We will find out March 5, when VECTOR will present the staged work at a location yet to be announced.

Next Year in the Theater

Aaron Davidman will perform his WRESTLING JERUSALEM at PRC2, Jan 7-11. Photo: Ken Friedman.

Aaron Davidman will perform his WRESTLING JERUSALEM at PRC2, Jan 7-11. Photo: Ken Friedman.

Whew. 2014 was another amazing year in Triangle theatre, but there’s little time off for the avid audience. 2015’s season starts right up on Jan. 2 with South Stream Productions presentation of Pinter’s The Caretaker at Common Ground. If Pinter’s not tough enough for you, try Wrestling Jerusalem, at PlayMakers PRC2 Jan. 7-11.

A one-man show, written and performed by Aaron Davidman, the work follows Davidman’s travels in Israel and Palestine as he attempts to unravel this knot of troubles, “to try,” in his words,”to understand the nuance and complexity that lives in the hearts of the human beings at the center of the conflict. Part personal memoir, part transformational theatre, in addition to myself, I play 17 different characters whom I meet along the way, each with his own story and perspective to share.”

As I’ve mentioned before, the PRC2 series is not just about watching a show–it’s about having a discussion afterwards, since civil discussion of intractable matters is one of the key roles of theater in society. I am deeply grateful to live in a place with real theatre that does just that, and deeply admiring of theatre leaders who bring tough work and defend it against all the forces of dilution and silence. You may have read of the recent firing of the artistic director of Washington, DC’s Theater J, Ari Roth, by the board of the Jewish Community Center, of which the theater is a part. In an unheard-of show of support, 60 or so artistic directors from theaters around the country sent an open letter of protest. I am proud to say that our own Joseph Haj, producing artistic director of PlayMakers–who keeps bringing us work like Rodney King and Wrestling Jerusalem–was one of the signatories. You can read an interview with Roth on Howlround here.

Hard on the heels of that show will come the eagerly awaited new work by Howard L. Craft, Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green. Directed by Joseph Megel and performed by the talented Alphonse Nicholson, the presentation by the StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance will play in UNC’s Swain Hall Jan. 8-24.

Also opening Jan. 8, at Manbites Dog Theater, VECTOR‘s Habitus, an installation/performance by dancer/choreographer Leah Wilks and video/virtuality wizard Jon Haas. All this and more before the month’s half over. Rest now, ye merry ladies and gents–no rest in the new year.



Hearts and Flowers: Torry Bend’s Magic

Street Signs Center for Literature and Performance premieres Torry Bend’s most beautiful work yet at Manbites Dog Theater.

Grace's fateful journey. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Grace’s fateful journey. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Making art about love–in the widest sense of the word–and the precarious grandeur of life–in its broadest sense–takes a valiant dreamer. Durham has been blessed with the presence of one such in the person of Torry Bend, who makes object theater works that require both a multi-dimensional imagination and a high level of craft in multiple media. She first blew our collective mind with The Paper Hat Game; then collaborated with the musical group Bombadil on Love’s Infrastructure, while she was teaching in Theatre Studies at Duke. She’ll be leaving us shortly to teach at the University of Minnesota, but before leaving, she’s presenting us with–literally–the gift of Grace, in If My Feet Have Lost the Ground.

Grace about to jump the fence. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Grace about to jump the fence. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Grace lives alone in a neat little house, and flies a lot on business. In the unhurried opening sequence, we see Grace in a hurry, running with her roller bag out of her house, to the airport, through the airport and onto the plane, checking her watch, scrolling and tapping on her phone all the while. But this trip is unlike any other. Idly rifling through the seat-back pocket, she finds an envelope inscribed READ ME. On the flap is a Munich address. Inside she finds a beating heart.

And so, like Alice, we and Grace find ourselves suddenly in wonderland.

This magical tale unfolds over 90 wordless minutes, and each of those minutes fills the viewer with amazement. I refrain here from describing too much, because I hope that many who read this will promptly obtain tickets to experience all the surprises in person. Those who have seen Bend’s previous works will not, however, be surprised to know that, for all its sweetness, If My Feet Have Lost the Ground is threaded with danger, pain and sorrow, as well as being punctuated with sly humor and layered with clever references. Torry Bend can elicit as much emotion with her objects as one would expect from live actors. You may find yourself crying for a puppet, and quivering with joy at this manifestation of the idea of the eternal return on the great wheel of life.

Sending love. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Sending love. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Part of the magic is made from Bend’s story and her extraordinary gift for visual storytelling, but a nearly equal portion is supplied by her collaborators in light and sound and puppetry. Raquel Salvatella de Prada and Jon Haas have created wonderful video that meshes with the physical world of Bend’s set, and Liz Droessler designed the additional lighting. Jil Christensen composed and designed an outstanding sound score that is crucial to our understanding of the flow of the action. Anna Nickles and Sarah Krainin designed and built Grace, and Jamie Bell, Drina Dunlap, Amanda Murray and Becky Woodrum activated the puppet and the moving scenery, as well as creating shadow actions. On the 17th, their concentration was exemplary, and they carried out the complex choreography with great skill and aplomb, nearly effacing themselves in their service to the objects.

Grace in motion. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Grace in motion. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Bend sees her stage/screen worlds and their characters from multiple points of view and at radically varying scales (again recalling Alice) and to transfer her inner vision to our eyes, she combines the newest technologies, like live video capture, with one of the oldest theatrical techniques–shadow casting. Her backdrop/screen is like a large cheval glass–a stand mirror on pivots–but made of steel and Plexiglas. Thus the surface of Grace’s world angles and flips, with video imagery slipping onto and over it, and moveable Plexi shelves appear, raise and lower according to the needs of the action. It’s incredibly complex. One of my personal favorite aspects of Bend’s work is her penchant for making objects (such as planes or trains) and layering video of the same thing over the object being manipulated by people. So we have a “toy” plane overlaid by an image of a “real” plane, yet the real plane that exists in our physical world is the artful toy being played through space by sentient humans.

The Water is Wide. "There is a ship and she sails the sea. She's loaded deep, as deep can be. But not so deep as the love I'm in, I know not how I sink or swim." Photo: Nick Graetz.

The Water is Wide. “There is a ship and she sails the sea. She’s loaded deep, as deep can be.
But not so deep as the love I’m in, I know not how I sink or swim.” Photo: Nick Graetz.

This beautiful, heart-full artwork was nurtured in The Process Series: New Works in Development at UNC-Chapel Hill, and produced for StreetSigns by Elisabeth Lewis Corley as part of Manbites Dog Theater‘s Other Voices Series. It plays at Manbites Dog through Nov. 1. The theater’s lobby gallery is showing related works by Ann Corley Silverman that are also worth your close attention. For tickets go here.

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