Thursday, August 18, 2011

Performance Artisans

Charles Isherwood’s review in today’s Times marks an exciting point of departure for the paper’s theater criticism. In it, Isherwood, one of the paper’s two main theater critics, reviews a restaurant, Aldea, purely in terms its theatrics—what he calls “another kind of restaurant theater, the newly public drama of creating the meal itself”—rather than its cuisine. (Diners at Aldea are seated as audience to the kitchen, and “not even a sliver of glass separates you from the action.”) Creation, not consumption, is indeed the focus of the article; Isherwood’s only comment on the food is that it’s “sublime.”

(We invited diners into the kitchen back when I was pancake-chef-extraordinaire at St. Anthony Hall—a performance event many described as "sublime.")

His chief subject is chef George Mendes, a leading man of “cool, unflappable demeanor.” He “brood[s] Hamlet-like on the composition of a dish” while still “presid[ing] over his cast of 10 assistant chefs with a respectful authority that was almost wordless.”

Isherwood’s article introduces a new kind of a drama, one he describes as less about conflict than about “the accretion of detail,” one that’s about the creative process as much as it’s about the finished product. It’s less performance art than performance artisan, less esoteric and avant-garde than new-bourgeois. But because it’s live, urgent, immediate and, in Isherwood’s words, occasionally “sensational”—O, how things can go wrong!—it’s still, in a sense, theater. It’s also staged: There are distinct audience members and performers, a clear dynamic of looking and being-looked-at. Most importantly, unlike traditional theater, it has no shortage of audience members—and young ones at that. Today’s yuppies spend their discretionary income on artisanal experiences rather than on art. Customized bicycles, pop-up gourmet eateries, wine tastings, street food festivals—these are the experiences, the expenses, the status symbols of the young and affluent. And when artisans invite these audiences into the process of creation, further blurring the creator/spectator divide, the good/service/experience becomes all the more haute.

(Saturday's Mission Street Food Festival drew crowds that no theater could dream of—surprise, surprise.)

(When I mentioned to a fellow spectator how much fun it was to watch this griller at work, he replied, "It's like looking at fire.")

I’m not one to lament this trend, or Isherwood’s coverage of it. I do think the article sounds silly at times—“Shivers of suspense traveled up and down my spine as I watched the shucking of oysters”—but not because I find the sentiments contrived. Who’s not mesmerized by the nimble handwork of a professional chef? Rather, I think the review would be improved by a discussion of the finished product—the food—itself, melding types of criticism (art and fine dining) the way the restaurant melds different types of experience.

Traditional performance venues could learn from places like Aldea. Brad Erickson, Executive Director of Theatre Bay Area, tells us how they might do so in the magazine’s August issue:

People are fascinated with how things get made and watching highly skilled people engaged in their craft…They love watching the quick movements of the expert’s hands as she wields the knife, casually tosses ingredients into the pot, fends off flames, whisks, prods, sips, tastes and finally presents the gorgeously finished concoction before the camera…The fun is in the process and watching it proceed, step-by-step, before your eyes. Theatres would do well to tap into the public’s desire to observe their sausages being made. Why couldn’t we set aside certain rehearsals that are open for viewing at different points all the way through the process? It would take some audience education and some management from the theatre staff…But…Audiences would find a new appreciation for the art and craft of theatre, and theatres would find a new way of engaging the public and deepening the relationship with their patrons.

Theater is indeed too rarefied. It could be the junction of performance art and performance artisanship, but it chooses not to be. I love Erickson’s proposal. I think it would cause an explosion in the way we do art.

But I’m less optimistic about it than he is. I think theaters have too big a vested interest in doing art the way they’ve always done it—until finances necessitate total restructuring. Until then, Isherwood will have to forego covering theater in favor of writing restaurant reviews that don't talk about the food.

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