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Anne Dalke's picture

choicelessness

Mark began our discussion by noting the date--September 11--and remembering the conversations which took place on campus and on-line seven years ago: conversations held "in the spirit of asking, of our not knowing." He hoped to evoke the same spirit in our conversation today.

Americans often identify choice as "our triumphant, transcendent virtue": "pro-choice" is a crucial political position for many of us; most of us--as consumers, residents, democrats--think that it's good to have choices, and think of ourselves as free because we have so many options (so many channels?) to choose among. But our lives are complexified by choice. Following Sartre--who said, famously, that we "are condemned to freedom," inauthentic if we foist our moment-to-moment choices off onto obligation--Mark highlighted the weary-ness of this process of continuously taking responsibility for choosing, acknowledging that "what we do is what we are." For example, as gender becomes increasingly "unfixed," we may recognize that we are responsible for choosing, every moment, where we locate ourselves on a spectrum. It can take a lot of effort, every day being "a big drag to pass."

This sort of existential responsibility may seem to differ from the sort of dilemmas Barry Schwartz describes in The Paradox of Choice, which--beginning with the problem of chosing the right jeans--contrasts the unhappy attitude of "maximizers," who feel they must make the best choice, with that of "satificers," who are more content, over time, with the choices they make. And yet the process of shopping that Schwartz describes is "not just about the object"; these choices are so weighted because they are really about who we perceive ourselves to be: what class we belong to, what we deserve to have, what (technological?) replacements we might find for friendships we don't have.

And yet: we might tell ourselves another story than this one about valuing our freedom and being in control of the choices we make. This could be a story about "choicelessness," about those moments when things fall into place without our seeming to select them, when "the path just seems to unfurl before us": those times when our life's work or life's partner present themselves to us, when we start a new job or relationship, feeling that we can continue to know and grow there; or conversely, when we decide to acknowledge that such an arrangement has come to an end, and there is a feeling of inevitability about what has happened.

Might both these stories be true? Consider the history of modern art, sometimes told as a move from "taking commissions to making decisions" (for example, Duchamp's 1914 found-art piece, "Fountain," a urinal declared a work of art, not because he made or moved it, but because he chose it). Theater has followed the same trajectory, if a little more slowly. Mark described three modes of theater-watching:

1) conventional Aristotelian theater, in which the audience is "seduced," invited into an empathic relation with the characters, into a story designed by the playwright and selected by the director. The role of the audience is only to enjoy the experience, as they might a fine meal. Swept up by the narration, they make no choices of their own, but follow the point of view that has been chosen for them.

2) Brechtian theater challenges the "outrage" of the conventional model by refusing to allow the audience to accept, uncritically, what happens. In Marxist theater, which insists that the play--and the world--can be changed, actors less embody characters than demonstrate possible actions; the mechanics of design, lighting and scenery are revealed; and the audience is forced to discuss what happens next, to engage in critical dialogue about social events, to "root for ideas in production." Brecht argued that this sort of theater--and its adjuncts, such as his "epic smoking theater"--would be more enjoyable than conventional drama; he was interested in his audience's taking positions, in their making coherent, logical arguments for their choices.

3) A postmodern theater of connection and engagement (the sort Mark attempts to practice) aims to invite the audience to enter instead into intuitive, active, engaged and playful relation with the thing before us. It "brings the theater towards the audience," highlighting the activities in which not all the choices are made by the playwright. Instead of letting the play "stay on other side of the proscenium," it might (for instance) give audience members a multiplicity of things to attend to, and a a choice of where to stand in relation to them. Mark gave the example of a recent Live Arts dance performance, which used a South Philadelphia neighborhood for its "formal staging value," inviting thereby a complexity of social relations, as paying audience members were joined by neighborhood children.

In the discussion which followed, it was suggested that conventional theater might also be described as an attempt at communication, and that conventional classrooms--which don't insist impose on all students the necessity of participating in a conversation--might actually allow them more choices. Mention was also made of the soliloquies of Hamlet, who wants to "be in a state of choicelessness", and so ready for any opportunity.

What was the relationship between where Mark started and "where he came out," between the yearnings after choice and choicelessness which he described so vividly, and his own aspirations as an artistic director? We realized in conversation that there are "different kinds of choices," and no necessity of conflict between them. Sensing that "the fundamental economy of art is impoverished," Mark attempts to make the act of choosing playful and fun for his audiences, structuring situations in which there is "no cost for selecting one option over another." Mark recalled one production in which selected audiences of one "felt too much pressure to appreciate and honor all that was presented to them"; he would like to create dramas, like "Wandering Alice" (also just performed at the Live Arts Festival) where there is an "unceasing delight in play, discovery, recognition, connectedness"

...and choicelessness, understood as meaning either that the "alternatives don't really matter," or--if they do--that the audience is making them "without anticipating the negatives." Such choices "are not dominated by thinking about the consequences"; they "take place only in present time." We might call these "unconscious choices" in which we can revel and take pleasure. They are very different from the Brechtian emphasis on conscious choice. (Challenged once with doing something "in clear violation of his theory," Brecht replied, "I'll decide when we use a theory around here.")

Mark was also asked about his "romantic representation" of the children who attended the Live Arts dance performance; it was suggested that they were "no more free of boundaries" than were the adults who paid for the tickets, though they may have been making different choices. Granting that "engagement has more strands in it than delight," how might "responsibility and politics" come into play in postmodern theater? Mark suggested that they might lie in a "willingness to form community," and a recognition that it might take many forms of expression. In the Headlong Dance Theater production of "Cell," for instance, not all audience members who want to dance can; "hobbled by life," they may need to have their limits acknowledged, and yet be able to "move out in lots of directions."

In two weeks, Alice Lesnick will facilitate the second of the discussions in this series, as members of the Bryn Mawr staff talk about " Choosing to Become a Teacher and a Student."

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