Timelines: Writings and Conversation

By Bonnie Marranca
299 pp. PAJ Publications

Reviewed by Patricia Keeney*

Shaped by a sensibility meticulously suited to its task, this collection of essays and interviews by American scholar and critic Bonnie Marranca—co-founder and editor of Performing Arts Journal (best known as PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art)—brims with ideas, passion and intellectual conscientiousness, bringing together what for her has been lost and gained in the transformative arenas of art and performance over the last forty years. Examined with empathy, alarm and genuine excitement, this is also a very personal collection about what for Marranca works in the arts, what doesn’t, what’s changing and, most intriguingly, why.

Built around conversations with leading avant-garde artists, Marranca explores how the performing arts collaborate with one another not only through the visual and literary arts but also through the digital world, the natural world and even the psyche. Moving beyond borders of every type, she probes moments of both life and art that intersect and illuminate one another. Even the current pandemic does not escape her view: a “new slow time” which demands a revaluation of artistic impulses in all their manifestations. Her conversations and writings throughout highlight risk, individual integrity and fearless imagination.

In her preface, Marranca explains why she embraces the essay as her preferred form of writing. It is the mind thinking, simultaneously personal and judicious. She recognizes how language and voice play a crucial role in her own long engagement with the performing arts (PAJ began in 1976). She praises writing that feels musical and speaks with the changing accents of intimacy. The Theatre of Images, she says, is simply “another way of looking at the poetics of language.”

Marranca articulates how PAJ has always sought primarily to feature the direct voice of the artist on the subject of creative process, a personal voice free of academic restrictions. In her open-ended texts—influenced by Roland Barthes, Gertrude Stein, Susan Sontag, as well as by Robert Wilson’s “dramaturgy as ecology” and the “The Mus/ecology” of John Cage—theatre writing itself becomes her preferred way of experimenting with voice, staying true to her own questing, highly perceptive style, one informed by decades of personal engagement. Her goal is to “track the sensibility of our time,” its inclusivity and changing forms. She also calls for a multi-disciplinary training of arts writers that goes beyond the visual arts and theatre.

“Drama’s current decline coincides with the diminishing role of the voice in everyday personal communication,” she writes at one point. Today’s culture, she says, seems to value the public life of an individual over the private. YouTube itself has created a new “democratization of performance.” We have reached a point,” she wryly observes, when “ordinary people want to be more like artists, and artists want to be less like them.” Nevertheless, she applauds a new noticeable interest in “text-making and writing experiments . . . a new poetics,” (particularly evident in contemporary dance) that draws from “fiction, poetry and creative prose.” As for the language of criticism, it too, she says, must continue to make its value judgements, judgements based on the history of the form itself and the development of each writer’s work within that form.

“The Imagination of Catastrophe” is her discussion of Caryl Churchill’s two plays, Escaped Alone and Far Away. Marranca speaks of Churchill’s precise imagery, grotesque humour and “ferocious new dramatic language,” noting that the playwright’s work is tuned to contemporary rhythms engendered by a “new social reality.” Without psychologizing, Churchill creates “a ferocious new dramatic language” commensurate with our own catastrophic times. Again and again, Marranca returns to language as the imaginative engine of drama recognizing in it “the truth of poetry . . . more primal than fact.” The catastrophic imagination of Ariane Mnouchkine’s Les Éphémères—expressing itself in the disappearance of the human race—Marranca describes as “an ode to ordinary people that focuses on their interior lives and relationships.”

Her conversation with Meredith Monk about Songs of Ascension connects this “music-theatre” piece to Mayan, Incan and Buddhist cultures that go “up” to worship but also “go around.” Monk says she wants to wake people up to the moment because it’s all we have, an idea that Marranca so often finds missing in the vocabulary of contemporary work, increasingly focused on political content.

In her discussion with German writer and dancer Raimund Hoghe, an artist who regards performance as “a kind of purification,” we find again Marranca’s abiding interest in the spirituality of art, gesture as expression of inner reality. Their conversation closes with the discomfiting conclusion that audiences seem to accept violence in performance more easily than emotion and beauty. Marranca wants theatre to retrieve its “emotional gravitas and laser-sharp penetration into the inner life of human beings.” Latvian director Alvis Hermanis agrees with Marranca that attention to the everyday and the intimacy of storytelling will be the future of theatre.

So, if performance is poetry, it is also fiction. “In discussion with the Romanian writer, Gianinia Carbunariu, Marranca explores work that is built around the endless transition from dictatorship to “wild capitalism,” a theatre fostering, through private language and even dry bureaucratic documents, its special rapport with the audience.

One of the most fascinating sections of the volume is about “drawing” as performance. Her introduction here is as interesting as her conversations with Carolee Schneemann, a multi-media artist who, for Marranca, has developed a mode of “performance thinking” and her own “visual art” vocabulary. Marranca looks too at the work of Joan Jonas whom she calls “the most prominent exponent of drawing in performance.” Marranca reminds us that

drawing is one of the earliest languages, like dance. It has something to tell us about movement, from mind to hand to space, about following a line . . . both idea and image

Early cave paintings and hieroglyphics knew that. Chinese ideogrammatic writing knows that. Japanese silk screen paintings and Ezra Pound knew that. Every “imagist” poet knows that. Performance drawing knows that.

For Marranca, such “expanded art processes and perceptions have redrawn the poetries of everyday life.”

In another essay, one dealing with “the mediaturgy of John Jesurun’s Firefall,” Marranca addresses the digital world, a realm that has become more and more prominent in performance. She speaks of its “idiosyncratic poetics . . . a new contemporary theatre language—media-saturated—that reflects the way ordinary people now think and speak, in a form of disassociated circuitry.” Multi-tasking, she suggests, has itself become a performance style with competing images on the screen mimicking dramatic conflict and dramatic tension smoothing out to computer rhythms. This “homo media” is clever and dangerous, a species, she warns, offering no alternatives to imaginative fragmentation and a numbing of sensibility.

Resolutely Marranca defends the integrity of art against the “mass leveling of cultural life” in which “food and wine embrace a connoisseurship that is denied to the arts,” an idea specifically identified by Scott Timberg in his book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. She is also concerned about “the new academic world order” whose organization of theatre study and theatre training “is largely outmoded for the twenty-first century.” Continuing to affirm PAJ’s interest—and her own—in works not necessarily about politics or culture or the realization of some theory, she is committed to other kinds of imperatives.

The many essays and interviews contained in Timelines are rich with Marranca’s sensitive observations, both wise and generous. These are the kinds of perceptions to be valued as we navigate late twentieth- and early twenty-first- century lines of performance and art in these complicated and turbulent times. 

*Patricia Keeney is an award-winning Canadian literary and theatre critic as well as a widely published and translated poet and novelist. Her most recent books are the novel One Man Dancing (Inanna) based on the history of Uganda’s legendary Abafumi theatre company and a collection of poetry and contemporary dialogues called Orpheus in Our World (NeoPoiesis) based on the earliest Greek hymns. Keeney is a long-time professor of Literature, Humanities and Creative Writing at Toronto’s York University. Website: wapitiwords.ca.

Copyright © 2021 Patricia Keeney
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