Skin of the Actor, Teeth of the Artist

The first time I met an actor, I was eleven years old. She was too. Her teeth were like razors. She sharpened them on her lunch pail to look like a ghoul. She was rich, raised by grandparents who spoke only Italian, two hunched elves that sat nearly motionless on a tan silk couch in the dull light of a home where the blinds were always shut. More than a motherless kid, she was, by her own account, a freak. The Girl with No Name wore shiny metallic shin braces with a bar in between that forced her legs into a permanent gleaming triangle. Her hair was scant and wild, like a baby’s. She had no friends. But she had a stage. In the basement of her immigrant-posh, tan-and-white, suburban home, she took me into a state of consciousness I have spent a lifetime trying to recreate.

Jasmine Orpilla and Joe Seely in “See What Love the Father Has Given Us,” Asher Hartman, Machine Project, Los Angeles, 2012. Photo: Marianne Williams.

When I saw the vital elements: the polished wood floor, the functional footlights, the moss green and magenta curtain pulled tightly against porticos on either side of the proscenium, and the seats, plush, crushed velvet in grape, I gasped. I sat. She acted it out. It. I don’t recall the story, but I recognized the feral heart croaking a song against Them, the children who crushed themselves into boxed examples of how to get along in a world that will deliver anguish and punish complaint, the adults they will be. As she sang, I lost the sense of the forms she described, but felt the edges of my shame at being singled out to watch. Strange recognizes strange. She knew and I knew that we would, by virtue of our skinless sensitivity, our intolerance of the body, be outside. Her theater was inside. I’ve tried to run. Many times. I always come back.

Theater, as we know, has heavy potential as a laboratory for artists to test the way we might rethink the social structure. Theater is not just a box with people in it. It’s a complex signifier of the limits of lived experience. It’s a way of containing the body, putting it back into a hard shell so it can survive. Language, in my theater, is the art of the wail, the cracking of dead patter, the once orgasmic vowels, hard “r”s of an English that seals out the foreign, even as it calls up its murderous familiars. The Girl with No Name crafted no plot, needed no device but the box to tell a story that was clear as soon as she stepped into the light. My theater posits that we need no narrative, that language and the body contain it; we already know what we’ve done.

Philip Littell in “The Silver, the Black, the Wicked Dance,” commissioned by LACMA, 2016. Photo: Marianne Williams.

My theater is abstract in the same way that painting is entitled to be after more than a century of alienation and anxiety as leitmotifs. It dissatisfies. It detaches from moral. It’s pure artifice, except for the feeling it summons from the void that we’ve become, as a culture, good at widening. I want to play with the architecture, the form: the rectangle, circle, square, aisle, balcony, pit, curtain, and frame that dictate perception and order meaning: I dissect theater with all respect to its glorious history, its high faggotry, its parade of sideliners: prostitutes, Africans, Jews, pockmarked youths in wide brim hats, bony donkeys. Western theater’s gawd-awful insistence that we see the Occident as the birthplace of Truth by forcing geometry, perspective, the right of the Gods, or the stars, or the aliens, to be all-seers atop a pyramid in white light, the deliverer of Divine seed, is with us in film, television, the dollar bill, YouTube, and the Church.

My sensitivity to the world can be transformed in the box, which chews up expectations of Being made monstrous and short by the narratives it has replayed. We’ve learned to organize life. Birth, childhood, sexual exploration, reproduction, work, career, success, disenchantment, rebirth, death seem like a fair order of events. We understand the sequence, but how do we exit? For artists, the master-termites of deconstruction, woody theater seems good bait to this question. It’s visual, visceral, temporal. It squeezes the human subject into a maquette of the city/state. It confronts. It’s malleable. We repeat it to see. We witness to exorcise. We laugh at our regurgitations.

Contributor

Asher Hartman

ASHER HARTMAN is an interdisciplinary artist, playwright, and director whose work at the junction of visual art and theater centers on the exploration of the self in relation to Western histories and ideologies. Recent works include “The Silver, The Black, The Wicked Dance” at LACMA (2016); “Mr. Akita” at the Tang Museum, New York; “Purple Electric Play (PEP!)” at Machine Project, Los Angeles (2015); and “Glass Bang” at the MAK Center for Art & Architecture (2013) and Machine Project. With Haruko Tanaka, Hartman is also one half of the performance duo Krystal Krunch.

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