Christopher Grobe

Assistant Professor, Amherst College

Jan
4
1:45 PM13:45

The Art of the Ordeal, or, What Does (And Should) "Performance Art" Mean Today?

Panel on "Performing Resistance" (MLA 2018; New York, NY)

Throughout the 2015 primaries and the 2016 campaign, left-wing bloggers and mainstream pundits wrote often of Trump as a “performance artist” who had turned campaigning into “performance art.” Meanwhile, thanks to the Russian hack of the DNC, alt-right activists suddenly discovered performance art. (This story begins with an e-mail inviting John Podesta to a fundraiser for the Marina Abramović Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art and ends with a man shooting up a D.C. pizza shop, convinced it's a hub for a global Satanist pedophile sex cult with Abramović as its high priestess.) With these two facts in mind, I want to ask: what (and to whom) does “performance art” mean today? How can “performance art” lead (a) to the right-wing belief that a performance artist is, in fact, a global leader and (b) to the left-wing dismissal of a true world leader(-to-be) as, in fact, a performance artist? Performance studies, with its “liminal norm” (McKenzie), has always fancied itself essentially marginal, resisting from the edges, or else critiquing from the sidelines. Along with this identity has come a model of power: a house blend of ironies and commitments, which left-wing commentators thought they saw in Donald Trump, and which alt-right audiences read in Abramović as proof of a conspiracy. With assault weapons going off in our pizzerias and Donald Trump living in the White House, maybe it’s time for a new approach to performance art—not only as an art form, but as a model of cultural power.

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Nov
16
to Nov 19

The Art of the Ordeal, or, What Does (And Should) "Performance Art" Mean Today?

Working session on "Feeling Extra/Ordinary: Populist Activism and Performance" (ASTR 2017; Atlanta, GA)

Throughout the 2015 primaries and the 2016 campaign, left-wing bloggers and mainstream pundits wrote often of Trump as a “performance artist” who had turned campaigning into “performance art.” Meanwhile, thanks to the Russian hack of the DNC, alt-right activists suddenly discovered performance art. (This story begins with an e-mail inviting John Podesta to a fundraiser for the Marina Abramović Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art and ends with a man shooting up a D.C. pizza shop, convinced it's a hub for a global Satanist pedophile sex cult with Abramović as its high priestess.) With these two facts in mind, I want to ask: what (and to whom) does “performance art” mean today? How can “performance art” lead (a) to the right-wing belief that a performance artist is, in fact, a global leader and (b) to the left-wing dismissal of a true world leader(-to-be) as, in fact, a performance artist? Performance studies, with its “liminal norm” (McKenzie), has always fancied itself essentially marginal, resisting from the edges, or else critiquing from the sidelines. Along with this identity has come a model of power: a house blend of ironies and commitments, which left-wing commentators thought they saw in Donald Trump, and which alt-right audiences read in Abramović as proof of a conspiracy. With assault weapons going off in our pizzerias and Donald Trump living in the White House, maybe it’s time for a new approach to performance art—not only as an art form, but as a model of cultural power.

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Jul
7
11:00 AM11:00

Mechanical or Electric?: A Roboticist's Guide to Acting

Seminar on "The Life and Liveness of Machines" (ACLA 2017; Utrecht, The Netherlands)

Good realist acting is often “technical,” but it must never be “mechanical.” It can—indeed, should, according to some—be “automatic,” but it must never, ever get “robotic.” Keep these principles in mind and, if you’re lucky, you’ll someday give a truly “electric” performance! In these (and a thousand) ways, we insist: the realist actor must never (and must always) be machine-like.

This is not as contradictory as it may sound. For centuries now, the word “mechanical” has been a dead metaphor in theatrical discourse, meaning false, predictable, and clichéd. At the turn of the 20th century, though, teachers and theorists of acting brought new machine metaphors to life. Take Russian director and acting theorist Konstantin Stanislavski, who famously railed against what he called “mechanical acting,” but who aimed to create actors who were “flexible, receptive, expressive, sensitive, responsive, mobile—like a well oiled and regulated machine.” Or consider Samuel Silas Curry, an influential American contemporary of Stanislavski, who decried “cold and mechanical” modes of performance, but who taught actors to operate on themselves the way an “engineer does [on] his engine.”

Surveying acting theories of this period, and applying them to the case of actors who took machines (telegraphs, telephones, etc.) for their scene partners, I will define and historicize the new vision of machine performance—“sensitive, responsive, mobile”—that roboticists (and actors) now take for granted.

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Nov
4
1:30 PM13:30

The Realist Actor Is Transmedial

Working session on "Theater & Transmedia" (ASTR 2016; Minneapolis, MN)

Throughout a century or more of realist acting, Stanislavsky’s famous maxim has become a gospel truth: “There are no small parts, only small actors,” or as the founders of the American Laboratory Theater put it, “each actor” must strive “to act his part, however humble, as if it were a major part of the play” (qtd. Carnicke43). Invariably, this means reaching beyond the play’s framework—even when an actor has a genuinely “major part” to play. As Stanislavsky’s avatar Tortsov explains to his acting students in An Actor Prepares,

… the playwright gives us only a few minutes out of the whole life of his characters. He omits much of what happens off the stage. He often says nothing at all about what has happened to his characters while they have been in the wings, and what makes them act as they do when they return to the stage. We have to fill out what he leaves unsaid. Otherwise we would have only scraps and bits to offer out of the life of the persons we portray. You cannot live that way, so we must create for our parts comparatively unbroken lines.

In order to build “unbroken lines” for their characters out of the mere “scraps and bits” that playwrights have given them, actors must first, Tortsov suggests, fill the gaps within the play and reach out past the play in every possible direction.

If you speak any lines, or do anything, mechanically, without fully realizing who you are, where you came from, why, what you want, where you are going, and what you will do when you get there, you will be acting without imagination.

The playwright may outline a story, but it will never suffice. So, actors must work to surround it with supplementary texts—not just a subtext or objective (“what you want”), but also a back-story (“where you came from” and “why”), and what we might call a forth-story (“where you are going, and what you will do when you get there”). This isn’t an intellectual achievement. It’s not that the actor must simply know all these things. He or she must know how to flood each moment with back- and forth-story, with subject and super-objective—an endless excrescence of silent text and untold story.

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Mar
19
4:00 PM16:00

Playing with TechnoDollies in Orphan Black

Seminar on "Orphan Black: Textuality, Sexuality, Science" (ACLA 2016; Cambridge, MA)

Are human bodies “vital organisms” or “biological machines”? This, per Joseph Roach, is the essential question of acting theory from Diderot to Stanislavsky. But in an age of cybernetic living, the question hardly makes sense. Bodies and machines are entangled, and thus our notions of “the human” must change. Popular acting has always been the place where these changes are most visible. When actors decide to take a new machine for a scene partner, this new technology provokes new technique from the actor, and new technês of the human are made palpable.

We see this happening in Orphan Black, whose lead actress Tatiana Maslany has been hailed for her feats of characterization. (Ten clones and counting.) It’s not just a matter of technique. She has learned to play well with a cutting-edge technology: the TechnoDolly, which repeats the same camera movement and focus, allowing editors to later stitch multiple takes into a dynamic master, many-Maslanied. The TechnoDolly is Maslany’s most frequent and vital scene partner. In response, she must regiment her own body, "hitting her marks" with near-mechanical precision. Another actress, meanwhile, is the ghost in the machine—doing the scene-work with Maslany, but then stepping aside while Maslany plays each part into thin air.

The technologized body; ghosts of others in our innermost selves; the elaborate programs and codes behind “naturalness”—these are not only the themes of Orphan Black, they are also its essential condition as performance.

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Jan
10
1:45 PM13:45

India & After: How to Publish an Improvisation

Roundtable on "Spalding Gray’s Posthumous Publics" (MLA 2016; Austin, TX)

How can performances live after an iconic performer has died?  This roundtable features projects aimed at making Spalding Gray’s autobiographical monologues posthumously available. These include editorial projects (online and in print), scholarly research, archival curation, and live performance, each of which challenges the stabilizing power of the archive.

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Jan
8
10:15 AM10:15

Being Onstage, ‘Subconsciously’: The Telephone and Realist Acting

Panel on "Media and the Unconscious" (MLA 2016; Austin, TX)

There’s a truism in Hollywood that “telephone scenes” draw from actors their very greatest performances. Decades earlier, though, theatergoers were convinced of the exact same principle. “Perhaps it is easier to act with a telephone than a man,” one theater critic mused. There may be some truth in this statement, however glib it may at first have been. Telephones—or rather the strange, one-sided conversations they occasioned--were the training wheels that stabilized many an actor’s first wobbly attempts at realism.  As one actress of the period attests, listening on the phone taught her to exist “subconsciously” onstage.

Surveying the history of the telephone’s incorporation into theater, I will show how the telephone’s invisible reach became a living metaphor for the depth of the human psyche. I will pay special attention to Nikolai Evreinov’s short play “The Theater of the Soul,” which imagines one man’s psyche as three figures fighting to speak to him on the phone. The length of a telephone wire—here, quite literally—was considered the distance between a person and his “subconscious” self. More typical “telephone scenes” merely flip Evreinov's scenario, leaving us to imagine—not just the other conversationalist—but the whole “theater of the soul” playing out a mere wire’s length away.

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Mar
29
10:30 AM10:30

Forms of Feminist Talk: Performance Art and CR

Seminar on "Forms of Talk" (ACLA 2015; Seattle, WA)

During consciousness-raising (CR), the talk-ritual at the heart of second-wave feminism, women would take turns telling stories from their lives, eventually arriving (activists hoped) at larger ideas about gendered oppression.  Often art critics will connect CR to feminist performance art.  As these critical gestures usually affirm, they share their content and their purpose: they deploy personal, even confessional material against the forces of gendered oppression.  Seldom has the connection been pursued much further.

Focusing on California in the 1970s—a fertile place and time for performance art, for feminist art, and for feminist activism—I will argue that CR functioned as both a political and an aesthetic regime, though artists reconciled this double-purpose in various ways.  For some artists (notably, the members of the Feminist Arts Program) CR was literally a phase in their artistic process.  For others (e.g., Faith Wilding) it was a conceptual model for particular performances that deployed and combined women’s stories.  For still others (e.g., Eleanor Antin and Linda Montano) it was a model of politics to be remediated through art—both in the media-theoretical sense of being adapted into art and in the more resistant sense of being corrected by art.  But for all of them, it was an invitation to treat women's talk as the basis for performance.  My archive for this argument will include not only the works of art alluded to above—which I will read for their politics—but also the scant evidence of what actually happened in CR, which I will read for its aesthetics.

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Nov
21
4:00 PM16:00

Irony-Machines and Telephone Scenes

Working Session on "Technology Performs: New Media Onstage and Off" (ASTR 2014; Baltimore, MD)

Theater, with its radical materiality and its emergent practicality, is a unique resource for media history  In it, we can observe how new media interact with and change their human scene partners.

Having recently written on onstage telegraphy--how it altered melodramatic dramaturgy and acting, how it taught the theater to be live--I'd like test my methods on a project of broader scope.  Instead of a relatively narrow genre like the "telegraph play," I want to study the ubiquitous onstage use of telephones.  Telephones have been so common onstage for so long that I will eventually have to make this a distant-reading project, using (perhaps) the metadata to be found in acting edition prop lists as a way to locate scenes for collective analysis.

For ASTR, however, I have a more modest goal: to do a few case studies of early uses to which telephones were put onstage.  Some used the telephone to show a man (almost always a man) learning of a reality that he is, by dint of distance, powerless to change (e.g., André de Lorde's Au Téléphone).  Others used it to show the difference between what a woman (almost always a woman) was visibly feeling and what she presented herself as feeling (e.g., Jean Cocteau's La Voix Humaine).  In both cases, the telephone is an irony-machine, prying apart knowledge from power, interiority from action.  In the process, though, it creates an opportunity for actors to show off their ability to manage several layers of subtext and psychology colliding with their physical performance.  No wonder we've wanted so persistently to share the stage with telephones.

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Nov
7
12:00 PM12:00

Earl Warren, Performance Theorist: Autobiography after Miranda

Panel on "The Pain and Pleasure of Autobiographical Expression" (ASA 2014; Los Angeles, CA)

We live in an age of autobiography.  Never has life-writing enjoyed such widespread social, political, and literary significance.  Never has it held such market share.  Over these same sixty years, though, we (a different we?) have lost our faith in the book as form—in the printed word as medium.  How can we square these incompatible truths?  What is autobiography beyond the “graphic”?  All of these questions, I suggest, were ably theorized by midcentury judges as they radically reconsidered the juridical value of confessions.  Trapped within the rigidly textual confines of American jurisprudence, but filled with the fresh belief that confessions can only ever be “reduce[d] … to writing” (Culombe v. Connecticut), these judges learned to approach the textual record of confession the way a performance theorist approaches the historical archive—pitting text against text, document against document in the hope of accessing the performed origin of each confession.  In this paper, I suggest how these landmark court opinions can help us read autobiography against its graphic grain.

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Mar
21
4:40 PM16:40

Centering the Margins: The Poetry Performances of Anne Sexton and Her Fans

Seminar on "Performances on the Periphery" (ACLA 2014; New York, NY)

Whenever a cosmopolitan performer tours, the center meets the periphery. But something subtler happens when that performer works in a culturally peripheral art form and represents a socially marginalized identity: the margins meet each other and, if all goes well, they invent their own centrality. By all accounts, Anne Sexton’s poetry readings were exactly such galvanizing events—for people suffering from mental illness, for women racked by “the problem that has no name” (before it had even that one), and for dissenters from Cold War American culture more generally—“secret beatniks” to use Sexton’s epithet for herself. Indeed, the mere fact of these readings was a powerful thing—that at midcentury, before second-wave feminism made such spectacles more common, a woman stood behind a microphone in Cazenovia, NY and Fayetteville, AR and Muncie, IN and El Paso, TX and she spoke the truth of her experience. But very little evidence of these readings remains—and, well, suppose we had more: could we, from our belated vantage point, really understand exactly what was so startling and enthralling about them?

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Nov
9
1:45 PM13:45

Every Nerve Keyed Up: 'Telegraph Plays' and the Networked Theater of the 19th Century

Working session on "Theater in the Global Nineteenth Century" (ASTR 2013; Dallas, TX)

William Gillette’s Civil War melodrama Secret Service (1896) is best known for its sensational third act in which a Northern spy, having infiltrated a Southern telegraph office, attempts to send sabotaged marching orders to the Confederate front. This scene was marketed as the play’s greatest novelty, but it also placed Secret Service in a long tradition of plays “that had to do with telegraph operators” or “in which a telegrapher’s key figures.” Drawing on the recently opened archives of the Samuel French company, which published and licensed many such plays, I will give a history of this peculiar genre. The “telegraph play” not only constitutes the theater’s clearest reaction to the birth of electronic media, but also demonstrates how theater-makers made use of the novel sensations those media afforded: feelings of simultaneity, instantaneousness, and sheer global presence.

In a way, all 19th century theater travelled along the telegraph wire—at least insofar as those wires in turn followed the railroads and shipping lanes on which an ever-more-mobile theater depended. Within this network, productions toured more widely, splintered into more touring companies, and, in contrast to the ghostly wires they followed, became “live” in the way we now know them to be. In other words, the theater became like the telegraph: live yet mediated, palpably local yet breathtakingly global.

It is tempting to take this electrified network as a metaphor for a global theater, but we mustn’t take for granted the perspective of a complete and rationalized network. “Telegraph plays” show us instead how it feels to tap into the telegraphic relay. They teach what it means to be nodes in the network, coursing with the chatter of an emergent global conversation.

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copyright 2015, Christopher Grobe