Thursday, November 15, 2012

Notes From: Collateral Damage: a theatric response to a Matt Sesow Painting

Collateral Damage: a theatric response to a Matt Sesow painting

March 20th 2003, is the official day that our country, The United States, went to war with the middle eastern country of Iraq. If you remember, it seemed quite sudden, quickly shifting from the U.S. war in Afghanistan, to a tighter focus on Saddam Hussein, and talk of weapons of mass destruction, a dictator out of control, and, finally leftover remnants of perhaps, a job left unfinished at the end of The Gulf War. Suddenly, with a dramatic presentation by the administration on television for the reasons that we must go into Iraq, we were suddenly fighting wars on two fronts.

Although after 911, and the general war cry that for a year or so was directed at Bin Laden, we were asked to focus our attention to the marching troops heading directly into Baghdad, for the whole world to witness, and all of us watching it on television. There was some suspicion and protesting, but not enough dissent to stop the Shock and Awe campaign that followed. We did what we had to do throughout the day, (I was teaching then) and then came home to watch the war on television.

There were many people, however, who remained suspicious, in fact, there were brave folks who continued to protest after the war started. Although I wasn't one of the boots on the ground protesters, I was very much against this war, and said so in the many conversations that followed. Rather than just talk about it, I decided to do something as an artist, not just for the purposes of protest, but I wanted to know what other writers and artists thought about the war as well.

Being an avid war history buff, I began to notice certain inconsistencies that appeared in the reports on the news channels. With war, there are casualties on two fronts, military and civilian. Although there seemed to be accurate reports on the military casualties, it was hard to find both civilian and military casualties reports from the other side. As I began to explore the nature of this information, I began to formulate my thesis for an evening of theatre that would discuss this very matter.

In what I envisioned as a conversation between artists, I focused on the collateral damage, which is a term used to characterize the casualties that ensue from people (or animals) being in the wrong place and the wrong time, in this case, the civilians that lost their lives because war broke out where they lived. The work that I had been doing at the time, was the exploration of a theme that I had thought much about, what if you could get an audience of people together to examine one painting and lead a discussion on it?  I loved art museums, and the painters in my family only exacerbated my curiosity, my favorite biographies seemed to be on the life of painters.

So, I began. I did an intense study of many of the master painters, and decided on the controversial work of Balthus for my first theatre adventure with the idea. I found a suitable painting, 'The Street', which had many characters fixed in a street scene. I invited several playwrights to study the painting, and write short plays that could be done in front of the painting as a theatre event. I put together a cast of ten actors, began to workshop the pieces, and came up with a show called 'Exposing Balthus', which ran in the small theatre I was operating at the time, for five weeks. It was a terrific show, In fact, a representative of The Arizona Commission on the Arts came and wanted the show for the Regional Arts conference they were hosting. It was an exciting way to work.

Two years after that, I decided I wanted to work in a similar form, but I wanted to drive the relevancy and energy of the piece, by using a working artist here in the United States. I began my work online, and found an artist named Matt Sesow, whose work immediately exploded before my eyes. I knew immediately that I wanted him be the work that we responded to. That set the stage for Collateral Damage, ten plays about the war that was happening in Iraq. After many phone conversations, Mr. Sesow went to work, eventually sending me a 9'X10' foot canvas which became the painting we worked from. I framed the painting when it arrived, and invited playwrights from all over the state to come to the theatre where it was hanging, and respond to it in a ten minute play. About twenty-five people responded, and I selected ten of the plays to produce. Again, I cast ten actors, found three directors, and went to work.

Again, it was a terrific experience. I've always said that the people that are most effected by a theatrical piece are the ones that are actually experiencing the process of doing it. It ran for five weeks to terrific write-ups, great audiences, and then like all things theatre, ended, leaving me with a terrific hole. It has been seven years since I've worked this way, and have always wanted to find that brave soul who could see the value of it and fund another of these kind of shows.

A day ago, Matt Sesow emailed me, telling me that he was downloading the show onto You Tube, the entire one hour and twenty minute theatrical response to the painting. I didn't even remember that it was fully videotaped. Although there are some missteps and amateurish acting here and there, as I watched it, I realized the terrific energy that is still there. The different voices emerging, the raw bold reaction to war. You can find the piece as Collateral Damage, a theatric response to a Matt Sesow Painting on You Tube, or you can click on the link that you will find here. I have also posted a link to Matt Sesow's website, so you can visit the current day Picasso who is Matt Sesow. (He probably hates those comparisons, but I would snag yourself a painting before you can't afford one.) 

Link to the recording of the show

Link to Matt Sesow's website:

I forgot to add that I started using this technique with my students at Metro Arts for a five minute play writing festival that is now in its fourteenth year. I used the same aforementioned process. Concept, painting, writing, casting, rehearsing, and presenting. It has always been an effective way of producing theatre on several fronts. It teaches without being didactic. It binds the audience experience in a completely different way, because the painting becomes a dominant focus of the thought process during the presentation. It teaches through experience. It elevates several visual artists, because they compete for the spot with a 'concept' motif of painting. It works, every time. 

1 comment:

Gerry said...

As one who participated in this production I was very impressed with how the painting enhanced the theater going on in front of it. The piece where the alcoholic veteran terrorizes his son going off to Canada as I remember in protest reflects another disturbing face of war, with the anguished face of war on the painting so like the anguish of the wife who finally responds to being hit one more time by taking the veteran's gun and shooting him. When he hits her there is a crack like that of a rifle. Another war has begun fueled by some more distant war that will end tragically for this family. I recall Laird Palmer who played the veteran was a veteran himself. I thought he gave a remarkable performance. Kahil Gibran was echoed in my piece from a time when to me being in Persia meant love not war, and to the male reporter who wants to sleep with the agitated female reporter after they were shot at coming in from the airport (I heard it was very dangerous to fly into Iraqi, you could be killed on the road to the airport). She is seduced after some of her attempted interviews with soldiers and natives of Iraq go awry. An ancient antidote (sex) will make them forget the constant sounds of war in the distance a little while. I thought it was a great opportunity for me and the other writers to express some of our upset about this war in particular.