A Serious Banquet: Art as a Collective Experience

by Erin B Mee

in National Conference

Post image for <i>A Serious Banquet:</i> Art as a Collective <i>Experience</i>

(Photo by Matthew Wilson of A Serious Banquet. This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.)

A Serious Banquet is a theatre-dance-dinner structured around the party Pablo Picasso threw for the painter Henri Rousseau in 1908 as recorded by Gertrude Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. If cubism is the opportunity to see something from multiple angles and perspectives at once; and if its literary corollary the continuous present is an opportunity to read (or hear) multiple ideas simultaneously – without being bound by linear time — then this piece asks: what would a cubist play be? What would a cubist experience be?

We live in a world where the algorithms in our news feeds and on Facebook structure our reading to give us more of what we “like.” We are, according to social scientists, increasingly surrounded by people who think the way we do and are always already in agreement with us. We are in danger of not being challenged by “other” perspectives, of living in an echo chamber of our own ideas. A Serious Banquet challenges singular perspectives in many ways, the most obvious being that we repeat key scenes from different emotional and visual perspectives so audiences can experience the same scene from many “angles” – a theatrical version of cubism. A Serious Banquet invites audiences to step out of the various forms of cognitive closure we all experience, to see situations (and characters) from several angles at once, and thus to exercise complex seeing. A Serious Banquet does not have a story; there is no climactic event. It is a party. The audience enters, engages with a number of different people and things, and practices engaging with the world “cubistically.”

Our goal was to create a rasic experience rather than a cathartic one. Rasa can be understood as a particular kind of emotional contagion that occurs between performer and spectator during performance in which the spectator “catches” and experiences the emotion being portrayed by the performer. Rasa has been variously translated from Sanskrit as juice, flavor, extract and essence. In the context of performance theory, it is the ‘aesthetic [emotional] flavor or sentiment’ tasted in and through performance. When foods and spices are mixed together in different ways they create different tastes; similarly, the mixing of different basic emotions arising from different situations, when expressed through the performer, gives rise to an emotional experience or ‘taste’ in the spectator, which is rasa (Bharata: 55). Rasa occurs when the emotions portrayed by the performer combine with basic or inner emotions in the spectator:

The essence of the emotions is extracted by the actor from the text; the extracted essence is converted by him with the help of his imaginative insight. The essence thus converted and made enjoyable is then presented to the sahrdayan, the connoisseur, who experiences the essence in its new flavour. The process is similar to that of the bee sucking the nectar which is the essence of the flower, converting it within its body to something more relishable and sweet, and finally giving it away in the form of honey (1993: 150).

Rasa is, as the aesthetic theorist Abhinavagupta puts it, “the process of perception” (qtd Deutsch1981:215, emphasis mine). He refers to it as “the act of relishing” (Deshpande 1989:85). Or, as theorist J.A. Honeywell puts it: “the existence of rasa and the experience of rasa are identical” (qtd Deutsch 1981:215). The act of relishing involves a loose structure that allows the spectator to linger in particular moments. In A Serious Banquet audiences lingered both literally and figuratively. One audience member sent me an email to say: “It made me think of the experience of creation as a liminal space between the individual experience and decisions of the artist […] but at the same time art creation as a collective experience in which we shared a space and a moment.”

Before they enter the space, audiences are greeted by The Cube, a performance art piece that             articulates definitions of cubism both verbally (by quoting Picasso) and physically (by spinning). They are then welcomed into the world of the play by Fernande Olivier: they are invited to talk to a guitar programmed to respond to sound with music; they are asked to answer the phone, which recites Apollinaire poems; they are asked to sign the birthday card for Rousseau; they are invited to listen to a still life (a bottle and vase that speak); they are invited to sit in a painting of a chair – which they then find out is actually a chair; they are given wine and/or water, and asked to draw on their cups; they are stolen away to view Picasso’s latest painting – Les Demoiselles D’Avignon recreated with live bodies; they are asked to introduce Apollinaire (played by an absinthe bottle with speaker) to other guests. As one critic described it: “The evening goes on and on in this manner, becoming more and more lively as more and more guests arrive (and more and more of the art becomes much more than what it seems). At times I am whisked away, and at times I looked on, around the room, to all the beautiful art – the objects, the dancing, the making, the conversations. I found myself talking with so many wonderful people, or, often at times, talking with much wonderful art. I had dinner with Georges Braque and Marie Laurencin, danced with Ida Rubenstein and Clair Sinclair, listened to Max Jacob’s poetry (and watched him storm out of the room on several occasions for several minor insults)… Beauty all around me.”[1] Guests noted that they were greeted as if they mattered. The actors are very good at remembering names, and guests are referred to by name as often as possible. It is extremely difficult to intertwine scripted scenes with improvisation, but the actors manage the shifts between those two tasks marvelously. It is equally difficult to improvise in historical character while actually talking to rather than talking at audiences. The feedback from audiences at “test runs” before we opened helped the actors refine this art so that by the time we opened most audience members felt as though they were actually being welcomed as themselves into a party. My favorite moments include an audience member introducing Georges Braque to Claire Sinclair as if they had never met; audiences getting down on the floor at a table placed on its side to talk with Max Jacob; an audience member who, having been asked to bring Max Jacob back into the room after Max had stormed out, made everyone at his end of the table move around so he could sit next to Max and comfort him; and an audience member who, after being asked to answer the phone, said to me: “I think that was for all of us.”

After all the guests have arrived (audience members and characters) the audience has an opportunity to experience “salon” moments – one-on-one interactions with various characters. Georges Braque takes a single audience member to the corner bodega to get more water while discussing art and cubism; Max Jacob enlists an audience member’s help in creating a poem; Picasso invites three audience members to paint on miniature canvases with nail polish and to discuss art. Alice Toklas takes one audience member outside for a cigarette, and tells them how she arrived in Paris. One audience member wrote: “a highlight of my evening was sitting and having a conversation with ‘Gertrude Stein’ and then having her paint a word portrait of me — an impromptu improvisation part poem, part song, it was a moment that continues to resonate with me and makes me long for great parties where everyone feels they can let go and express themselves creatively.”[2] We invited several “test audiences” to rehearsals in the days before opening, and received this feedback from them: “At the end of the night I left with the feeling that I’ve made many new friends;” “I think this sort of work is so much fun and really necessary, to remind audiences that they are necessary – and to give them agency;” “I don’t think I’ve ever been in an environment where you were part of the play itself;” “There was a strong sense of community.”

After the salon moments, everyone sits down to dinner. They draw their dinner plates on a paper tablecloth, and three-dimensional food is served on these two-dimensional plates. During dinner, characters offer their birthday gifts to Rousseau in the form of a sculpture made up of audience members (Picasso); a silent dance by Ida Rubenstein; poetry by Max Jacob, Andre Salmon and Gertrude Stein; a cabaret song by the Demoiselles D’Avignon; and a dance with fans by Claire Sinclair. Several audience members have said they felt like offering a toast, and on one night an audience member recited a Shakespeare sonnet as a gift to Rousseau. After dinner, guests “do the dance of chocolate” which involves closing your eyes, putting a Hershey’s kiss on your tongue, and letting “your tongue choreograph the dance of chocolate” to music. For many, the dance of chocolate, a private dance in the mouth, was one of the highlights of the evening. Again, as one critic put it: “Celebration is a sensorial experience. As is art. This evening is an experience, a way to discover cubist art from other vantage points, through other senses. I was, at one point, asked to put a piece of chocolate in my mouth, and then, with my tongue, to make it dance. I love chocolate, and I love savoring food and drink, but to make it dance made it something so much more. And I was asked to discuss Picasso’s latest painting, and to draw myself my dinner plate, and…And that’s it too: there was an invitation here. Often I was asked to help create. My friend got to make miniature paintings while I listened for what I might find within a conversation between a vase and a bottle (of which I didn’t realize later would be a gift I was to give). I was handed markers, and so convinced a painting to draw with me. I was invited to an evening of joy. […] This “play” isn’t a play at all. It is an invitation to experience celebration. […] I was allowed instead to play and grapple with the work, not as a spectator but as a creator myself – not from the outside peering in, but from within itself.”[3] For many, the opportunity to think and act as artists was the highlight of the evening: they engaged as co-creators of an event of an event rather than observers of someone else’s creativity. Audiences shared with us that A Serious Banquet enabled an “alternate world and exploring bounds between art and life;” that “challenged my idea of art,” “brought to life what goes on when I see a painting,” and “made me think about the spirit of these people who pushed the limits of how we see art.” It “helped me to think about pushing my own limits,” “filled me with inspiration and thinking on what it is to live one’s life completely immersed in the act of creation, to see and experience every moment as a work of art.”[4]

“Immersive” and “interactive” theatre are vague and overused terms to describe a type of theatre that many think originated with Sleep No More, but is actually centuries old. Explanations for the newfound popularity of this type of theatre include the observation that many now communicate through electronics and long for human-to-human interpersonal contact. Although I am not fully convinced by this explanation, I do think audiences have a hunger to participate, to be active, and to create. To be part of what then becomes a rasic co-creation. In the case of A Serious Banquet, “interactive theatre” became the most useful vehicle for creating a rasic experience.

Critic Collin McConnell was asked to give a gift to Rousseau. “My gift to him was “possibility.” He welled up with happiness, looked at me and asked:

“Do you have a dream you’ve given up on?”

A startling question, and it struck deep. I wasn’t sure how to answer.

“Not quite” was the best I could do.

“Keep going! Don’t ever give up! Keep dreaming!”

He meant it. And while he was passed out drunk in the hallway as I left the party, he was smiling still, and so I believed him. I believe him. And I will keep going…”[5]

The gift of possibility. The gift of dreaming. These are some of the gifts theatre has to offer.

[1] McConnell, Collin, nytheaternow: http://nytheaternow.com/2014/06/10/a-serious-banquet/

[2] Wield, Kim. Email to author. 14 June, 2014.

[3] McConnell, Collin, nytheaternow: http://nytheaternow.com/2014/06/10/a-serious-banquet/

[4] Each of these quotations is from a different audience member, from our first open rehearsal.

[5] McConnell, Collin, nytheaternow: http://nytheaternow.com/2014/06/10/a-serious-banquet/

Erin B. Mee has directed at NYTW, The Guthrie, The Magic Theater, and in India. She has published numerous books and articles on Indian theatre, and teaches at NYU.

  • Jens

    This is so great!