Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Dramaturgy of Wittgenstein: Blair Simmons @ Edfringe 2017

Blair Simmons and Nathan Sawaya Productions (NY / California, USA)

Staging Wittgenstein
by Blair Simmons

Staging Wittgenstein is about language, but it will leave you breathless.

With her blonde hair cascading down and her large expressive doe eyes, Annie Hägg pops her head out of a life-size inflated balloon that engulfs her entire body. The Yale graduate, with an MFA in Acting, and her balloon will join Russian castmate Nikita Lebedev for the premiere of Staging Wittgenstein – a breathtaking and dynamic combination of physical art, comedy and suspense.

VenueC, Adam House, Chambers Street, EH1 1HR, venue 34, Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Dates: 2-28 Aug (not 9, 16, 23)
Time: 19:40 (0h45)

What was the inspiration for this performance?

The inspiration for this performance was Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The structure and content of this philosophical work is very playful, contradictory, and strange. Additionally, the text actually defeats itself in the end. I knew this philosophy had to be a play.

To create a play that structurally fell apart at the end was beautiful idea to me. And not in that it was just inspired by this piece of philosophy, but actually embodied it. I was not really interested in doing what is typical, which is that someone writes a play and then theory is written upon that play. I wanted to see what would happen if the play itself was a piece of theory and what sort of natural inherent storyline would emerge from it. In terms of the balloons though?

Nikita Lebedev (one of the actors in this show) and I tried many different things to create a physical structure that would destroy itself in the end (i.e. ping pong balls, ladders, etc.). But then we were watching a Russian talent show on YouTube, and one man’s talent was to climb inside a giant balloon. We knew this was our solution.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

Absolutely! In this play, we are staging the propositions, or logical claims, present in the Tractatus. These include: “the world is everything that is the case,” or “roughly speaking: objects are colourless.” We attempt to stage these propositions, but of course one cannot really stage a philosophical proposition. 

What you can stage is their imaginative properties. So in a way, by staging this philosophy, we are making claims in the play. And that is unavoidable. When you represent something, you cannot avoid taking some sort of physical or linguistic stance. There are implications, bad or good, in translating text onto the stage.

How did you become interested in making performance?

When I was three years old I obsessively watched Cats the Musical on VHS Tape. Strangely enough, that was the beginning of my tumultuous romance with theater.  As I grew older, I realized that the permanency of that VHS tape was uninteresting to me, and what really began to interest me about theater was its bleeding temporality. I love that it is something that neither audience nor makers can control.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

I did a lot of writing and imagining for this show, but in many of ways it is a devised piece. I’ll sit down with my actors and we will talk through the script, then we walk through it, because it is impossible to know what these balloons can do until we try it out. I can imagine one particular outcome in my head, but we really don’t know if that works until we are in the rehearsal room, and in balloons. 

It can be kind of frustrating sometimes because the balloons will pop in the middle of trying things and we will have to do it again. It is a difficult piece to perform, make, rehearse and seems impossible every time we do it. I think that is something that is really wonderful and exciting about it. It is hard, it is frustrating, but in the end, we always seem to make it work. And I have the most amazing actors-- they are strong, imaginative, playful and are really what makes this play as amazing as it is. They come up with incredible ideas every rehearsal. I think we make each other better. We are really diving into the physicality of playmaking.

It is impossible to look away from this kind of living art. The piece actually highlights and points to theater’s temporality.  This is because of the function of the balloons in the play. They could pop at any moment, rupturing the built in structure of the play. In this way, the play is different every night. The play lives in a confusing place between scripted theater and improv. The balloons will pop, but nobody knows when.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

Um, no! Ha! I mean this is not a traditional play, you know? It is not dinner table theater. It has a storyline for sure, but it is not spoken in super discernible English, and so I think in so many ways this play is weird and does not really fit anyone’s expectations, including my own. However, I will say that this play is all of my interests combined. I am completely obsessed with physicalizing anxiety, logic and communication.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

I hope the audience will experience the playfulness, the fun and the anxiety behind this show. And honestly, I think that that experience is a bit unavoidable. These balloons can be tense, funny, intriguing, and awe inspiring in so many ways! I want them to experience all of that.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

This show started as an undergraduate research project my senior year at NYU and because of that, it has continued to be a research project. I have never stopped reading about Wittgenstein; I have never stopped trying to use theater as a form of research. 

The first time I did this show, I had to stand up in front of a panel of professors and colleagues and tell them why I didn’t write an 80-page thesis, and chose to do a piece of theater instead. Theater, unlike classic forms of research, is emotional and experiential and all the things that are often not present research. I intend to continue to push up against the idea that research should be cold, formal and unbiased. Theater is active; it is living breathing research.

Because of this, the most effective strategy for us right now is just performing the show. The show has moments that we, as a company, think are funny and sad and impactful but until we perform them, we never know. We have staged it a few times and every time we learn something new. Things happen that we never could have possibly anticipated. 

Recently a balloon popped at the top of the show, before anything at all had been established, and Annie Hägg was standing there, looking like a human and not a balloon. It changed the whole tone at the beginning of the show. And we can only anticipate so much. Though, I think that’s what is so exciting about getting the opportunity to do this show 24 times at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  We really relish the opportunity to change it over the course of the Fringe. 

This is literally a pressure-filled performance sure to make the audience squirm, as they witness actors arduously squeeze into human-size, white latex balloons. While encased in metaphorical speech bubbles, the troupe celebrates the creation of language while stretching the restrictive bounds of their balloon world, not knowing when they will pop, and they will. Making the most comfortable, uncomfortable. 

Staging Wittgenstein was created and directed by New York-based artist Blair Simmons. As a New York University MA candidate, Simmons created Staging Wittgenstein as part of her undergraduate research dissertation examining the physical manifestation of language.  

As a 3D artist and Dramatic Literature major, in this performance Simmons physically interprets the nearly 100-year-old linguistic theories in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus written by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1921.

Simmons said: ‘The uniqueness about using the enormous balloons is that they are both props and costume pieces. They also add a comedic tension that builds and builds in anticipation of the inevitable bursting, resulting in an adrenaline rush for the entire theatre, actors and audience alike. 

The balloons give a bold imaginative power and physical reference frame for Wittgenstein’s philosophical propositions about the creation of language and the rules we create around it – Wittgenstein said it best, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”.’

Staging Wittgenstein is a modern and innovative stage presentation that comes to Edinburgh after previews in New York City. Produced by Los Angeles-based Nathan Sawaya Productions.

Ticket prices: £9.50-£11.50 / concessions £7.50-£9.50 / under 18s £5.50-£7.50
Fringe box office: 0131 226 0000 / www.edfringe.com

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