|17. Art of Smallness
After the group of thirty broke up, Linda and I began to look for a new context to work with people, to look for new people who were willing to work. As a part of this quest, I entered the Master's Program at the San Francisco Art Institute. What we found there was another magical word. It was Performance. Before this, people had a hard time grasping what I did. It was not regular theater, especially the private and the in-life pieces. But now it was performance. The word created a context in people's minds in which to put the magical work. The word itself made the work much more accessible.
After finishing the Master's program, I did a series for three years at U.C. Berkeley. Tom Oden, another of those visionaries, brought me to U.C.B. to give students mind-expanding, mind-exploding experiences similar to drugs. This was my mandate. So two nights a month, students in the hall on their way to class would get detoured by a smell of incense, or a strobe flash, or a sight of nude skin, or strange music from a classroom. When they entered the classroom, it turned out to be a magical tent where nudes smeared chocolate and whipped cream on one another, or people were getting wrapped in cellophane and tin foil, or a weird nude guy just lies and moans at them. When the student stepped out of this crazy room, he was back in the college world. Usually about five people came in. Sometimes none came. Rarely there was an audience of thirty; but often I considered these nights as bad because the audience would just want entertainment.
I never cancelled any of these performances because too few people came. It was a lab where new modules could be born, where magical energy could be released, without pressures of money or judgement. I was back to not knowing who would show up, cast or audience. So I could not really plan anything until I got to the room and saw whom I had to work with.
During these performances, I usually spent the first hour boring people, usually by asking what each person does, how did he hear about the performance, etc. I drove my wheelchair up to each person and tapped out these questions slowly on my letterboard.
Talking to this strange person in this strange way may be interesting as a confrontation. But listening to trivial chatter between this disabled man and each person in this "painfully slow" way can become an active boredom in a room which looks as if nothing else will ever happen. This active boredom is a slow increasing shock that makes people who want quick-paced, high-energy entertainment suddenly bolt out of the door.
This is one of my screening processes for the audience. This active boredom is actually a light trance in preparation for the altered reality which will be created within the piece. This trance is an active linking of the people into one another in the room. This causes those who are not ready to put aside the passive programming to leave.
I was happy with this smallness. After every piece, Linda and I would walk home, talking about what amazing things happened, what worked and what did not, who came. From the outside, it looked like nothing was happening. But in these small events, I explored the trance inducing gestures of rocking, of wrapping bodies ... I cannot list all of the discoveries of smallness. Recently, while I was lecturing at U.C.L.A., I was shocked at how many students were afraid to try out their ideas because they might "fail" or be a "mistake". These small pieces gave me freedom from this deadening, unnatural, unhealthy weight put on creativity. But I have always taken this freedom to make mistakes, to fail, as my birthright as an artist.
I would have been content to remain in the smallness. But the smallness created channels which have allowed me to perform five-hour pieces all over the country, using combinations of the modules developed in the U.C.B. series. If touring had been my personal goal, I would never have done the U.C.B. series because I would not have seen how that would have gotten me to my goals, or even to how it was linked to them. But by following blindly the zigzagged, braided path of evolution, led from one step to the next, guided by one inner vision, I can actively watch the whole, large performance unfolding.
Photos by Mary Sullivan