The Contemporary Performance Think Tank is housed in the John Wells Directing Program MFA at Carnegie Mellon University’s School Of Drama under the direction of Caden Manson. Each year the Think Tank focuses on a set of topics concerning the fields of Theater and Contemporary Performance and conducts research and interviews to produce a paper as a resource for practitioners. This year’s topic is contemporary performing artists and companies redefining relationships with audience and pushing the formal relationships of architecture, artist, and audience. For this paper the Think Tank chose five areas on the forefront of this research to explore; Contemporary Choreography, Mixed Reality Performance, Performance Cabaret, Immersive Theatre, and Social Engaged Art. Each section of this paper includes an introduction to the specific practice, a conversation with an artist, and a list of artists working in and around the specific practice. “What is Mixed Reality Performance?” is part of a series of posts. Check back daily to see the next posts.
Performance Cabaret queers the classic cabaret refrain “Let me entertain you!” towards work that engages high and low culture together, uniting crisscrossing roots in musical cabaret, variety, comedy, drag, burlesque, and performance art. Performance cabaret is typically driven by an auteur who acts as writer/performer, utilizing formal training in one or more of the aforementioned traditions and a developed performance persona towards work that weaves contemporary social criticism, activism, and identity politics with ironic humor, drag ethos, and pop culture deconstructions. Typical to performance cabaret are identity politics as a point of entry for performance content, direct audience engagement, and bright and scrappy performance aesthetics. While performance cabaret emerged from underground late-night drag, music, and comedy scenes created by and for marginalized communities, it now interacts with conventional/mainstream theatrical crafts, showing increased embrace of theatre design and dramaturgy, with artists sometimes crossing over to work in mainstream theatre, performance, and film.
Performance cabaret artists include a sweeping list of actors, writers, comedians, musicians, and more, most with shared roots in queer performance and identity politics developed in the United States in the 1980s and 90s. The queer, embodied political ethos inherited from this period along with hybridization of artistic forms solidify performance cabaret as part of the legacy of American queer performance, embracing concepts of queer failure and utopia as closely intertwined foundations. As queer theorists such as Judith Halberstam and José Esteban Muñoz have argued, failure in performance is inherently political as it “dismantles the logics of success” and is “a way of refusing to acquiesce to dominant logics of power and discipline.” In Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, José Esteban Muñoz also discusses queer failure: “I mean to explicate the ways in which these artists thematize failure as being something like the always already status of queers and other minoritarian subjects in the dominant social order within which they toil. Queer failure, as I argue, is more nearly about escape and a certain kind of virtuosity.” In this way, many performance cabaret artists harness lifetimes of marginalization towards artistic innovation, creating performance work that not only reflects their unique subjectivities as queer people, but also challenges and subverts the very systems of meaning which oppress them. As Muñoz reiterates: “Queer failure is often deemed or understood as failure because it rejects normative ideas of value.” – Sara Lyons
Adrienne Truscott is a choreographer, circus acrobat, dancer, writer, storyteller and comedian. She has been making genre-straddling performances in New York City and abroad for over 20 years. She was one of 20 artists selected nationally for the inaugural 2014 Doris Duke Impact Artist Award and is a 2017 Foundation for Contemporary Arts grantee for Theater/Performance Art. Her evening-length solo comedic work and group choreographic works have been presented variously at Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Just For Laughs, Darwin Festival, PS122, Joe’s Pub, The Kitchen, Dublin Fringe, Danspace, Boom Arts, New York Live Arts, The Malthouse Theater (Melbourne), and Dance Theater Workshop, among others.
Her form-busting and ground-breaking show Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else!won the 2013 Edinburgh Foster’s Panel-Prize, was a finalist for the Total Theater Award for Playing With Form and is considered a critical impetus to the evolving conversation about rape culture. It continues to tour internationally and has been presented by or included in curriculum at CalArts, New York University, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Louis and Clarke College among others. Her latest solo performance piece, THIS, was recently nominated for a 2017 New York Performance Award (Bessie) for Outstanding Production.
Truscott learned how to and continues to make work in terms of choreographic composition, an early application of form that seemed to allow for the most broad investigation, loose interpretation, and varied possibilities. This impulse remains strong because increasingly live performance strikes her as the most radical way to re-engage people’s attention—not just socially or politically, but personally, aesthetically, energetically; the most available way to trigger the act of paying attention. She engages many genres of live performance that look, act, and intend differently. Her work is held uniquely in common by this understanding of composition, enabling it to remain clear while being complex, sophisticated while accessible, available yet mysterious, personally unique while layered in abstraction, entertaining yet rigorous and serious about being humorous. She has consistently sought out different environments/mandates for her work rather than relegating it to specific economic, social, aesthetic, or geographic contexts. She is curious about how modes of presentation (i.e., experimental, international, commercial, or illegal venues) interact with different forms (dance, cabaret, circus, comedy) and how that can upend assumptions that often accompany these forms and their target audiences, respectively.
She is attracted to the possibility of failure as a mandate for rigor.
Photo by Sara Brown Photography