Ugh, I know. It’s been a ridiculously long time. I find myself wondering if any of my (2? 3?) faithful readers are still out there some where. In the vain hope that you are, I present my latest review.
The whirlwind otherwise known as the 2009 Live Arts Festival now over, I find myself able to take a moment to process some of the impressively interesting performances I saw this year. Among those was Fatebook: Avoiding Catastrophe One Party at A Time, presented at Area 919 in North Philly by the noted experimental theater company New Paradise Laboratories. I choose to write about Fatebook tonight not only because I think it was provocative enough to be worth it, but also because I feel like I have a decent understanding of the events of the show itself — after all, I saw it twice.
I know what you’re thinking: WOOOOOOW, JB, you saw it TWICE?! What an insane rarity! Well, calm down, you two — for me, it actually kinda is. Unless I’m involved with a show, I pretty much exclusively only see it once – for reasons of cost and time commitment, certainly, but also, in part, for reasons of philosophy. One of my favorite things about art is the way it captures so perfectly one of the most beautiful, astonishing, violent and tragic things about life – it’s ephemerality. Theater — good theater, that is — is like a hyper-concentrated dose of life: living breathing and dying in the blink of an eye, irrevocably over with disappointing regularity. It’s a one time deal: whatever you get out of a show when you see it, that’s what the show means.
With Fatebook, however, I felt I owed it to the show to go back for a repeat performance, because the first time around, I really did Fatebook wrong.
Once again, I know what you’re thinking: how do you do a show “wrong” — as a matter of fact, how do you “do” a show at all? Well, first some background on the experience of the show itself, then I’ll get back to ‘doing it wrong’:
The format of Fatebook was less traditional, more multi dimensional, than that of your typical play. The show, which, according to its description “explores what happens when our online relationships collide with our physical ones”, took place in a massive warehouse space, awash with music, multi media projections, and actors, all interacting with each other in a 12 minute sequence choreographed with military precision. This “sequence” was repeated five times, restarting right after it reached its climax, with audience members able to freely walk around the space and follow the actors/characters that were most appealing to them.
And once again, I know what you’re thinking: sounds chaotic. So, if you’re a show, how do you handle such a nontraditional structure without the inevitable chaos erupting? In the case of Fatebook, you make up rules. No really – as in, like, actual rules. As in, the first five minutes of the show consisted of a projection of the character of Anita, narrator-cum-referee, explicitly outlining for the audience what the rules were:
1) You won’t be able to see everything.
2) Pick specific characters and follow them.
3) Don’t try to see everything.
4) No, seriously, don’t try to see everything – pick specific characters and follow them.
And then the astonishing: after its annoyingly bossy opening, Fatebook absolutely exploded with energy: The dozens of projections of our narrator’s face disappeared from the screens throughout the space, the audience was encouraged to leave the small holding pen we had been standing in, and amidst peppy guitar music and general nervousness, we ventured forth into the playing space, where characters awaited the beginning of their sequence in front of large screens projecting their names and images.
And suddenly, I was absolutely exhilerated. Something about the combination of the influx of visual/aural stimulation and immediate active audience-member freedom (I could go where I wanted to go! I could see what I wanted to see!) created a theatrical high like I haven’t experienced in months. Yes, I found myself thinking, Hells Fucking Yes this is what theater should be. Excitement, things to do, promise of intrigue and and story and emotion, beauty and chaos at my fingertips and the agency is my own. It’s hard to put into words the emotion going through me at the time — the best I can do is say that I felt thrillingly present. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that I thought the beginning of the show was boring and, quite frankly, mildly insulting (I don’t need to hear rules. I’m a grown adult). Suddenly, the pretentious 2nd half of the play’s title was no longer an irritable distraction (Avoiding Catastrophe One Party at a Time?? Really???). I was there, I was alive, I was loving every second of it.
It shouldn’t surprise you that my surge of emotions as the show opened up was the highlight of my Fatebook experience. I mean, how much better could you really get than that? But here’s where me breaking the rules comes in to play: although I’d heard repeated warnings not to try and see everything and to pick one character and follow him/her, frankly I was feeling too damn empowered to limit myself like that. Although each character in Fatebook tended to tell their own, mostly-isolated story, interacting primarily with multimedia elements and only occasionally with other actors (making following one actor relatively easy), most of the stories at least vaguely wound into each other, creating the “complex web” (I have a feeling the NPL people would approve of that phrase) that was the whole performance. It was maddening, really, to stick to trudging around after one actor as they walked around the space, constantly passing other actors, projections, audience members and events that always seemed imminently more appealing than your own. So, I didn’t. I half heartedly tried following one actor for about, um, twelve seconds before something “better” caught my eye – I went to follow that. When I noticed something else going on that seemed cool out of the corner of my eye, I tried to “step back” and see everything, a feat that proved, quite obviously, to be impossible. Suddenly, round one of the sequence was over and I was none the wiser about ANYTHING that had happened (I vaguely remember seeing someone sleeping in a bed, someone else walking through a store, and some girls laughing…). Narrator Anita’s face came back to taunt me with my own ignorance. As she predicted, I hadn’t caught everything, I didn’t understand what was going on. Once again, she encouraged me to pick one actor and follow them.
Once again, I ignored her. Because honestly, what did it really matter if I didn’t “understand” what was going on? I felt AWESOME, still riding the incredible emotional high of that first moment. I wandered at will again, looking at images, people. It suddenly struck me that all these characters’ stories probably intersected in some way, and possibly understanding that would be even cooler than wandering like a jackass. Oh, Round 2 was over. Once again, Narrator Anita was back to encourage me (and the rest of the audience members, ranging from bewhildered to bored to enthralled), to keep chipping away at the story.
By the third round, I was lost. Most of my initial high was gone, and what had originally felt like thrilling artistry now just felt confusing and loud. Tons of people, most audience, some actors, moved around me and I vaguely wondered why I was even bothering to “figure this out”. Not a good thing. For an audience member, apathy is the most dangerous (and possibly only “wrong”) emotion to be feeling. Its a step away from walking out. When I start to feel apathy during a show, I do everything in my power to become compelled again. In this case, I had “done” everything but what they told me to. So, fine. I would do it their way.
So for the last 2/5 of the show, I obeyed all the rules, feeling distinctly less empowered but also distinctly less confused. I chose one character at random to follow, and suddenly a story emerged. Oh, OK – here was a guy, likes to drink and drive, into this girl, her boyfriend’s in Afghanistan but he’s going for her anyway…etc. Of course, I only got to do this with one other character, and by the time the show was over (the sequence always ends at a party with a mysterious man shooting someone — the end of the show shows, for the first time, who that “someone” was), I was dissatisfied, but really had no one to blame but myself. Of course I didn’t “see everything, know everything, etc” — I spent the first forty minutes of the show arrogantly pacing around like a rebel. I felt like I owed it to myself to go see Fatebook again, but this time to do it right.
And oh, that wasn’t the only way I screwed up Fatebook. The second way I “did the show wrong” was by ignoring one huge component of it. Because Fatebook was about “the intersection of online and real relationships” (or whatever random thing I quoted at the top of this entry), it had a huge online element to it. All of the “characters” lived not only for 90 minutes a night for the two weeks of the performance, but also permanently in cyber space. Each had (has, probably, although I haven’t checked) their own faCebook profile, updated regularly with reactions and responses to the events that lead up to those of the performance. Theoretically, an audience member could have been following these characters for weeks before the show, posting on their walls, reading their updates and really coming to know them before ‘meeting them’ in the flesh on the night of the performance.
Although I was aware of the cyber half of Fatebook, the crazyness of September kept me from exploring this component at all, and my dissatisfaction at the end of the live performance must naturally, I assumed, be from my lack of exploration of such a key element of the show. Resolved to do Fatebook right the next time I went back, I dutifully went home and “friended” all of the characters on facebook. As soon as they friended me back (these poor actors, I found myself thinking…forced to perform in a rigorous schedule but make daily checks of facebook to accept friend requests from strangers), I explored their profiles, read their wall posts, looked at their pictures.
Or at least, I tried. After about 3 half hearted minutes on their pages, however, I found myself giving up. I’m not exactly sure why– maybe it just felt too far removed? These weren’t even my real friends, nor were they real people…they just seemed like pointless, fake profiles. And in wasting my time reading them, I realized I was giving the kind of time to theatrical characters that I just don’t like to give. A play isn’t a book– you don’t ‘get to know’ the characters for the weeks or months it takes you to ‘read’ their story. Here we are again at my favorite thing about theater – it’s the moment, the instant, really, that you experience a performance that makes it most precious to me. It’s there and it’s gone. A flash. With the Fatebook characters online for all to see and explore, they suddenly felt boring and a little stupid. I didn’t feel like I “learned” anything from their pages that helped me understand the show retroactively, or threw into relief an interesting theme or argument presented.
When I went back to see the show, I experienced a similar kind of disappointment. Gone was the incredible rush of empowerment I felt at the top of my first viewing. Instead, I dutifully picked a single character and followed him or her the entire round. Things started ‘connecting’, falling into place in the meta-story, true, but it wasn’t that cool. Not all the stories connected. Not all the characters were compelling. And quite honestly, most of the “connections” felt just plain banal. By the end of my second show, I could honestly say that I understood the characters and events of the play far better than the first time I saw it. But it felt a little like squeezing the juice out of an orange – all I was left with was a dry, pulpy mess. True, I was able to appreciate the stellar physical precision of the actors; the sheer athletic ability (and acting prowess) they demonstrated in being able to repeat a single sequence five times a night for two weeks. It was damn impressive. But over all, I left the second performance with just as bad a taste in my mouth as I had after the first. I felt like I’d stripped away the razzle dazzle of fatebook to reveal…well, nothing more than a mediocre story.
And that’s when I realized it was all my fault. If I thought, after the first show, that I’d “done Fatebook wrong”, I realize now that I was entirely correct. But it wasn’t the way that I approached the first performance that was my error, it was my resolve to “do Fatebook right” that was the biggest failure on my part. Looking back on it now, all Fatebook was really about, for me, was that single feeling of elation that I experienced at the beginning of the first performance — and that’s all it should have been about. To quote, um, myself: “It’s a one time deal: whatever you get out of a show when you see it, that’s what the show means.” And what I got out of Fatebook was everything I attempted to verbalize earlier in this entry: elation, empowerment, thrill. The energizing feeling of agency and freedom that no other show has gifted me quite so beautifully.
What an incredible experience to have, truly. When I think about it now, not only did Fatebook give me all of those things but it gave me something even better, something even more thrilling – the ultimate joyous confirmation of my theatrical philosophy, and who the hell was I to expect anything more than that. Seeing theater is not about doing prep work and following rules, it’s about taking moments and receiving emotion.
It’s funny, because I consider myself an enlightened theater-goer, but I couldn’t have been more wrong with the way I wound up treating Fatebook. And yet, despite my best efforts, I still preserve the memory of that pristine elation I felt when the music started and the audience was released into the space on my first night. It really was perfection. It was everything that theater should be, and it’s everything that pompous intellectuals like me, in our attempts to “understand” and “analyze” and “react appropriately” destroy. So really, at the end of the day, I’m left to realize that in this case, I was the pretentious one. Me. Moi. Not the second half of Fatebook’s title.
OK, no. I take it back. It’s just a ridiculously pretentious title.