What In The Hell Did I Just Watch

[My opinion on this production is half-formed and will probably change several more times throughout the next week. What I’m writing here is how I feel tonight, in this moment, in my body as it currently exists. These thoughts are neither concrete nor completely flexible. Such is the challenge when examining the avant-garde.]

One of the questions I’ve been exploring this semester is what I desire to become as a result of my theatrical training. I don’t want to speak in terms of “defining” my future role in the world of theater, but sometimes it is difficult not to. The conundrum that I’m in is whether or not I wish to be called, first and foremost, an “artist.” It sounds like a simple problem, but believe me – this is not so (at least as far as my process is concerned). I struggle with this notion because I like to think of myself primarily as a storyteller. What drives me as an actor is the conveying of thoughts, images, and words within the context of a bigger picture. I’m less concerned with what I do and say on stage, and more interested in how, as a singular actor, I fit into the world of the plays I’m involved in. Now, this could seem like comparing apples to apples, because certainly, anyone who considers themselves an artist would likely share the same concerns. But to myself, personally, the idea of being an “artist” implies an attitude towards the work that doesn’t quite jive with my perceptions on what theater can and should be.

This is probably why I struggled so greatly with Dollhouse this past weekend. It struck me as art for the sake of art, and not for the sake of its audience; the performance was visually and aurally striking, and certainly held my attention, but I was left feeling rather empty. It’s like that feeling you get when you gorge yourself on carbohydrates and then feel hungry two hours later, regardless of how much you consumed. When I left ArtsEmerson, I felt as though I had seen something of great significance. So why can’t I put a name to that significance, two days later?

I must clarify immediately that the production was, by no means, a bad one. Each actor had a deep physical connection to their characters, and the sets – I mean, there are no words to describe some of the stage pictures I witnessed Saturday night. But I found my reaction, and the audience’s collective reaction, far more fascinating than the play itself. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. I enjoyed the way the performance challenged my perceptions and presented something new. Yet I didn’t understand the significance of the text itself. If Dollhouse had been a movement piece, or an opera of sorts (in its entirety), I would have been far more receptive to its style, but it wasn’t either of these things. Ibsen’s text was still retained, and I came to see a play, to witness the telling of a story. I could not have been more engaged in the action on stage, but I feel like I barely caught the basics of what actually happened to the characters over the course of two and a half hours. Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration, however, I still don’t feel like I had any sort of investment with the characters at the end of the night.

That may very well have been the point of the whole thing. Exaggerated, doll-like actors re-enacting a classic play in the confines of their over-sized dollhouse. I’d like to think that my reaction is what Mabou Mines was trying to coax from audience members like myself. If that is the case, then they were entirely successful. But what if they weren’t? What if the entire point of the production was to loom over its audience like the nurse-on-stilts and mock their confusion, instead of inviting them in to experience it fully? That’s what scares me about referring to myself as an “artist:” because when I think of performers as “artists” in the classical sense, my mind immediately jumps to productions like Dollhouse which have left me utterly confused.

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