THEATER REVIEW | Billy Mullaney creates engaging theater at the Uncreativity Festival

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I hope the Uncreativity Festival becomes a regular event, that’s how much fun I had watching this grab bag of exercises in taking words out of context to create new meaning. Even though the show easily qualified as a full evening’s entertainment at 90 minutes long, the friend who came with me was genuinely disappointed there wasn’t going to be a intermission and then still more of it (I’m not kidding, there was actually an elongated “Awwww” involved). I have to say I agree but it was nice to have my enjoyment of it all immediately reinforced. Curator Billy Mullaney has struck a pleasant nerve with the collection of performance art he’s gathered together under the banner of Uncreativity. What Mullaney and his Fire Drill partner Emily Gastineau do for movement performance in their fascinating showcases like Bring In The Indigo and Absolute Bliss, Mullaney does here solo with the art of the word. Collectively and individually, you should be keeping an eye on these two. The Uncreativity Festival yet again makes the case for why that’s so.

“Tether lines are used to steady an inflatable snowman.”

This edition of the Uncreativity Festival was a combination of live performance and video. In his introduction, Mullaney admitted that none of the artists involved would necessarily agree with the moniker of being “uncreative” but he made the case for why he uses the word as a catch-all for these snippets of art. It’s tied to the fact that we are surrounded by language every day, awash in a sea of words. So you don’t necessarily need to create or compose any more of them. You can take words currently used in another context and by drawing attention to them and using them in a different way, those words—their structure and their meaning—become something different themselves. (Mullaney talked about it in terms of “taking words out of their intended context and function” and “putting them in the plane of aesthetics so we begin to think about them aesthetically”—which I think is what I just said, he just does it better.)

“The first hill of a roller coaster.”

As a first example, he took out the geometry textbook he uses in his work as a math tutor and began to recite sentences and phrases from the beginnings of word problems. We never get the whole word problem. It’s just a succession of images and setups. Names of children going to amusement parks or building bike ramps; public parks and neighborhood streets; dump trucks and roller coasters; the Great Pyramids of Egypt and the Grand Canyon; crayons and inflatable snowmen. The litany of people, places and basic situations began to paint an almost whimsical picture of a simpler, slightly less complicated life, but still one full of possibilities and wonder. Geometry textbook transformed into poetry.

“Why do they mess with perfection?”

Other performances were more deliberately staged than just a dude at a microphone (not that there’s anything wrong with that), such as the flannel clad chorus reciting New York artist Sibyl Kempson’s Sasquatch Ritual I (which as far as I could tell had little or nothing actually to do with Bigfoot, although this was just an excerpt so maybe the big guy appears later in the text). The part we got from the ensemble reading (McKinnley Aitchison, Emily Grodzik, Sam Johns, Styler Nowinski, Ali O’Reilly, Ross Orenstein, Moheb Soliman and Maren Ward) centered largely around the discussion threads from chatrooms dedicated to nostalgia for old-fashioned candy (people describing treats from their childhood and trying to remember the names, figure out where to possibly still find them now). Dropped in around the edges were instructions to applications for grant money. These people finding kindred spirits in their search for sweets from days gone by was almost as touching as it was amusing.

“Water sinks back into the depths.”

Video allowed us to catch glimpses of performers we otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to see. One was the polarizing godfather of word appropriation himself, Kenneth Goldsmith—here in a video clip performing selections from actual traffic reports off the radio for an audience at the White House that included a very amused President Obama and the First Lady. This was interspersed with an interview that had some in the Bryant-Lake Bowl crowd audibly grumbling in disagreement as he gleefully poked at the notions of copyright and intellectual property—“If you aren’t making art works with the intention of having them copied, you aren’t making art for the 21st century.” Goldsmith is the most literal in embracing the concept of uncreativity—“I haven’t really written it.  I’ve just sort of moved it onto a pedestal for everyone to look at.” (He also takes on the role of provocateur by doing things like reading excerpts from the autopsy of Ferguson teen Michael Brown.)

“If you feel stupid, it’s not because I’m making you feel that way.”

Other video excerpts included a reenactment of a comically contentious deposition in which a lawyer and a witness kept circling around the notion of what exactly a photocopier is, courtesy of Brett Weiner at the New York Times. Also a snippet of performance by Washington state actress Erin Pike called That’swhatshesaid in which Pike, writer Courtney Meaker and director Katherine Karaus have compiled lines spoken by female characters in TCG’s list of the ten “most-produced plays” of the 2013-2014 theater season. Just the succession of introductory stage directions as all these characters first appear was very illuminating as a picture of how women are portrayed in modern plays onstage. The lines that followed were even more telling as Pike made her way through a rapidfire catalog of feminine “types.” It’s one of those things that’s entertaining in the moment, and then you start thinking about it and “oh wow…”

“I’m making a self-aware joke about how competitive I am.”

The other eye-opening video was Minnesota artist Max Wirsing’s exercise in film erasure entitled Brokeback Mountain Without The Gays. Though it was only an excerpt, it got pretty far into the story of the movie Brokeback Mountain in just a few short minutes. That’s what happens when you completely remove the gay characters played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal from the film.  It’s just a lot of shots of beautiful vistas in nature, some sheep, pickup trucks driving around vast landscapes, and one sided conversations and meaningful glances from Randy Quaid, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway.  It’s both hilarious and really unsettling.  After all, no gays in film is how we operated for many years in the movies.  With a few handy edits, we could easily go back there again.

“Every time you change, it means eulogies.”

Chapter one of California artist Tom Comitta’s appropriated novel The City of Nature was read to us in the dark by Moheb Soliman. It consisted of all the descriptions of nature pulled out of Virginia Woolf’s story The Waves. Hey, if it’s an excuse to have someone read Woolf to me, I’m in. Billy Mullaney also returned to the stage with a large rolling whiteboard to “perform” a lecture from MIT’s OpenCourseWare, from the class Relativistic Quantum Field Theory I. No, I don’t understand the concept of Quantization of the Scalar Field now any more than I did before Mullaney started scribbling and reciting equations, but it certainly was its own little dance of language and symbols that had its own sort of beauty out of context. Plus, I’m now intrigued by the idea of something called “an annihilation operator.”

“It’s just a folded hint followed by a thirty year page.”

Emily Grodzik and Ail O’Reilly, ditching their earlier flannel for basic black, read selections of California scribe Samuel Hertz’s Forty-One Thousand Suns—a collection of closed-caption errors generated by YouTube voice-recognition software. Mistakes creating broken English that end up sounding suspiciously like poetry. Screw ups can lead you to interesting places.

“To see how you change, reasonable under my arm.”

The evening concludes with an excerpt of Mullaney performing as Mr. Rogers—no, not as a joke. He acts out the opening and closing, and an all too brief interior moment from the children’s TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, episode 1718—“Be Yourself. That’s The Best.” Piano wizard Eric Mayson provided the musical accompaniment as Mullaney walked in off the street from the door at the back of the stage, traded his coat for a sweater and dress shoes for sneakers and sang the show’s theme song. After a charming but simple meditation on a balloon, he kicked into the song “It’s You I Like.” Then right on to the goodbye song, ditching the sneakers and sweater and dressing to return to the world again, out the back door into the street. It’s the sincerity of the presentation here that sort of knocked me back—back into my own childhood, if I’m honest. It’s easy to make fun of Mr. Rogers and many people do it, and it’s enormously entertaining. But to perform the character without comment, to embrace the simplicity of it and not raise an eyebrow but honestly engage Mr. Rogers without cynicism or irony? It’s kind of mesmerizing. (And yes, we can get into all kinds of discussion of white privilege and suburbia, but setting that aside just for a second…) Mr. Rogers spoke directly to children, as if they were fully formed human beings. He didn’t talk down to them, he didn’t talk to them as if they were stupid. He just talked to them. He was an adult paying attention to children, through the medium of a TV screen. 

“It’s a neighborly day in this beauty-wood.”

And yes, there were puppets and trolleys, too, but when he’s just speaking and singing simple songs, Mr. Rogers is telling you, his audience, that you’re enough. You, just as you are right now, are unique and special and important. You might get better, you might learn a lot as you grow, but all that aside, just in this moment, you matter. That kind of unflinching sincerity and attention has real power in it. When Mullaney as Mr. Rogers sang, “I hope that you’ll remember even when you’re feeling blue…,” my mind immediately went to thoughts of my friend who recently killed himself. Which sounds like a dreadful place to go in a moment like that, but I also think that’s part of the point of the Uncreativity Festival. Seeing Mr. Rogers in the peculiar context of the Bryant-Lake Bowl stage in Uptown Minneapolis, it brings home for you how unfortunately out of place that message is in the regular flow of our lives. We don’t make time to say things like that to one another. We don’t share our feelings flat out like that for fear of being hurt or laughed at. It’s not the same as taking people for granted, but it’s close. Taking time and saying the words, even when we think they should be understood and not need saying, there’s power in that—if our nerve doesn’t fail us. As weird on some level as watching Billy Mullaney take on the mantle of Mr. Rogers is, still, I could sit through a whole half hour episode of that, no problem. It makes my brain do very interesting things.

“There are so many wonderful, marvelous things in the world.”

I’m happy that the Uncreativity Festival was a two-night affair this time, and not just a one-off like the Fire Drill showcases. I do hope the audience for something like this continues to grow, because I want the chance to share this kind of theater work with more people. The fascinating assortment of different types of performance, the various styles of movement and wordplay, always opens up my eyes to the potential of live performance. When you see something being done by any of the artists listed above, don’t wait for anyone else to put their stamp of approval on it for you, just go. These people are toying with the boundaries of the relationship between performer and audience in ways I often can’t adequately describe, but they are, at their base, the most theatrical kind of thing going right now. And not theatrical in a “hey watch what I can do” kind of way, but in a way that reinforces the idea that “man, I’m really glad you showed up to see this—because without an audience, it’s not complete.” It’s the kind of theater that engages you, rather than just filling your time. We could use a lot more of that.

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

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