With a cold rain falling on sheets of ice, Friday night was not a good night for outdoor jogging, but three times over the course of the night I found myself running at top speed through the streets of Minneapolis. At 7:50 p.m., I was careening through downtown, watching the little blue dot on my iPhone GPS map crawl up 9th Street so I could be sure I was running in the right direction. At 10:10 p.m., I was running down 9th Street in the other direction. At 1:05 a.m., I was crossing parking lots and jumping snow piles, trying to find a shortcut between Cedar-Riverside and Seven Corners. Why?
Each time, I was en route to a show that was just about to start. Over the course of the night I became increasingly convinced that there was some thread connecting the three shows, but I didn’t figure out what it was until I slept on it. (I said good morning to the Spyhouse barista at 1 p.m., and she looked at me with amusement. “Um…do you mean good afternoon?”) After a night’s consideration, I’ve decided that the theme uniting the three performances was the paradox of self-revelation in the performing arts. Yeah, I needed some coffee to come up with that one.
The early-morning show was a performance of The Thing, a show in which self-revelation happens eliptically, allusively, and sometimes accidentally. Over the course of Friday night’s (Saturday morning’s?) performance, one of the actresses revealed that she had never worn braces—that her teeth were just naturally straight. Hanging out drinking mineral water and making conversation afterwards, I brought that fact up—”So, you never had to wear braces? Wow.”—and there ensued an awkward moment during which I realized that I both was and wasn’t “supposed” to know that. It felt kind of like mentioning something that an acquaintance posted on her Facebook profile—yeah, she wrote it and you read it, but it’s awkward if you bring it up. In this case, though, she laughed and acknowledged that yes, it was true: she never had to wear braces. One of the lucky few.
The show I’d just seen previously, on the other hand, was very explicitly about self-revelation. Rebecca Nagle‘s A Dozen Things I Want To Do On Stage (which she enacted—or, as they say in performance art, “realized”—Friday night at Bedlam Theatre) is not a memoir, but a piece of cabaret-style theater that directly engages the audience in a reciprocal dance of negotiated truth-telling. Nagle gets half-naked, for starters (in performance art, nudity is just the table ante), and then proceeds to read from a diary of her innermost thoughts, take a call conveying the news that her sister has died, inject herself with truth serum and invite questions from the audience, and finally eviscerate herself both figuratively and literally. The audience members also indirectly share secrets about themselves, which on Friday night ranged from “I don’t have sensation on the index toe of my right foot” to “I dreamed about having sex with my brother, and liked it.”
It was a fascinating and often funny performance—with a striking visual look to boot—that underlined a theme I saw in Nagle’s earlier work: the impossibility of complete self-revelation, which in turn illuminates the impossibility of complete self-understanding. Just as people spend years in therapy trying to peel back layer after layer of psyche in search of their true selves, Nagle could probably spend a lifetime pursuing work like A Dozen Things and never completely, fundamentally reveal “herself.” So now we know that the best sex of her life was one day when her girlfriend got playfully rough with her, that she superficially resembles her mom but deep down more closely resembles her dad, and that she actually injected herself with saline solution, not truth serum. Do we really understand Rebecca Nagle now? Can we ever? Can she ever?
But back to downtown, where I stopped at Orchestra Hall to begin my evening. The Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra joined forces for an epic rendition, under the baton of Osmo Vänskä, of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It was a brilliant performance, with Stravinsky’s riotous instrumental colors popping like day-glo thanks to Vänskä’s disciplined conducting and the hall’s top-notch acoustics. Nor were the timpani spared: those attending the show in hopes of hearing some Classical Thunder were not disappointed. For opening courses, the musicians presented fine renditions of Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes, his Danses concertantes for chamber orchestra, and the Russian-American’s arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
So what does any of that have to do with self-revelation? Stravinsky’s been dead for almost 40 years, and the orchestra’s principal bassoonist seemed to be having no difficulty resisting the temptation to stand up and tell us about the best sex he ever had. A performance, by a professional orchestra, of a major work from the classical canon is an extremely ritualized affair: you can guess within very narrow parameters what the experience is going to entail, right down to the conductor’s shaking the hand of the orchestra leader. The pieces’ running times are even printed in the program.
Seeing the orchestra’s performance in the context of the other pieces I saw on Friday night, though, inspired me to reflect on just how majestically weird high art can be. The long-established formality (in every sense of that word) of a classical music concert can make the genre seem writ in stone, as though God handed down a tablet that said Thou Shalt Spend Tens Of Millions Of Dollars On A Huge Concert Hall To House A Stage Upon Which You Shall Seat Dozens Of Musicians Who Have Spent Their Lives Learning How To Play Wooden Things With Strings And Silver Things With Reeds And Shall Further Enlist A Distinguished Norseman To Coordinate Their Performance Of A Score Written To Represent The Act Of A Young Girl Dancing Herself To Death In A Pagan Sacrifice.
Of course He didn’t (unless the Minnesota Historical Society is holding out on me), and the reason classical music appeals to those who aren’t just looking to see and be seen is that the gargantuan infrastructure of orchestral music exists to enable the realization of a very particular form of artistic expression. Stravinsky’s revelation of his own inner life in works like The Rite of Spring is many degrees less direct than that found in The Thing—and many, many degrees less direct than Rebecca Nagle’s—but nonetheless, if you were to tell me that Friday night taught me a lot more about Nagle than about Stravinsky, I don’t know if I would agree with you. Just as the structure of The Thing facilitated the performers’ near-accidental revelation of deeply personal things about themselves (and I don’t just mean who did or didn’t wear braces) in a way that A Dozen Things didn’t—Nagle is explicit about the fact that she consciously and deliberately edits what she does and doesn’t reveal—it seems likely that the ritualized structure of classical music allows composers to reveal emotional truths that they could never put into words.
The complexity and ambiguity of the whole question of agency in art was illustrated by the way that Nagle neatly flanked my attempt to turn an audience-centered portion of her act back upon her. One of the twelve things she does on stage is to realize an audience member’s fantasy, and I was chosen to have my fantasy fulfilled. My fantasy, I explained to Nagle onstage, was for her to do something—somehow also involving me—that would be so memorable she would still be telling the story in 40 years. (I wasn’t just being tricky—that truly was a fantasy of mine.)
I won’t reveal what Nagle subsequently did—and of course it will be four decades before we know whether or not she actually succeeded in fulfilling my fantasy—but I will say that the whole thing made me realize how absurd it was to ask her to do whatever she wanted. Yes, parts of the show were put into the audience’s hands, but we were given that freedom under terms and conditions of Nagle’s choosing. She wrote the show, she packed her bags and came from Baltimore, she invited us to Bedlam and took our $10. (Actually, I was comped, which in the spirit of self-revelation, I will tell you that I feel a little guilty about.) She was doing what she wanted—all night. And so were we. At least, I was.
At one point during The Thing, Carly Wicks called across the set to Tera Kilbride. “Tera! Do you ever think about the fact that someday we’re all going to die?”
“Yes, Carly,” replied Kilbride. “I think about that all the time, actually. I think we all do.”
It’s true: we only get a certain amount of time on this earth, and then the kitchen timer will ring on us like it rang on Nagle’s truth-serum act, bringing our segment of the Big Show to an end. That’s why I spent all night running across town. When my timer rings, I don’t want to go to the Green Room in the Sky having missed a chance to see the SPCO and the Minnesota Orchestra kick collective ass, or to have my fantasy realized by a paint-smeared sociology-citing performance artist, or to eat a pancake while watching a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich being destroyed and listening to Meat Loaf.
Photo courtesy Rebecca Nagle