The great thing about a challenging work of art that is successful is that there’s a big payoff — you have to put a lot in as an audience member, but in the end you leave with new insight into how we live, feel and interact in the world. The trouble with a challenging work that isn’t successful is that you leave feeling really confused, like you missed out on something or, worse, you feel a bit dumb. Unfortunately, NerveTank’s new production, A Gathering (every Thursday through June 18 at the Brooklyn Lyceum), is one of the latter.
So what makes one challenging play work and another fail? I would argue, despite the feelings you might have after an unsuccessful play, that it has more to do with whether or not the creators of the piece are showing regard for their audience, than it does with your intelligence.
Ultimately, art is a form of communication between artist and audience. Artists show regard for their audience by giving it some way of figuring out what is being communicated.
One example of a tough piece of theater that shows a lot of regard for the audience is the first show I wrote about for this magazine, a staging of the 1966 play Offending the Audience, in which the writer Peter Handke is trying to confront audience members with their own expectations of what is supposed to happen in the theater. Though Handke may not have been seeking to make the audience members happy, he was ultimately driven entirely by a desire to speak directly to them and contradict their expectations. A more contemporary example is Sightis the sense that dying people tend to lose first, written by Tim Etchells, which was part of this January’s Under the Radar Festival. The play is made up entirely of text fragments that pair complimentary and opposing everyday observations in order to elucidate the main character’s unique perspective on the world. Each line forms a verbal puzzle that, when solved, provides the listener with an “ah-ha” moment; the text rewards the audience for paying close attention to juxtapositions of ideas and images by revealing truths.
A Gathering, on the other hand, seems to demonstrate a kind of willful obscurity, refusing to let the audience in on any aspect of the performance or the text. It’s the equivalent of having a writer say, “You just don’t get it,” when you tell them that you couldn’t make head nor tails of their work. I’ll happily admit that there are many references and literary allusions that pass right by me, it happens all the time. However, if six different people with six different backgrounds are all completely lost in the same piece of writing, there’s probably an issue with the writer not doing the hard work of making their point more clear.
Being the kind of person who generally avoids reading explanatory text before a performance, I turned to the Director’s Note afterwards and found this opening sentence, “When I first read A Gathering I didn’t understand it.” I appreciate the candor in that statement, but the notes go on to essentially say that it’s up to the audience to make sense of the play on their own. Again, there’s something I can appreciate in that idea, but at a certain point, it just means that there’s not much holding the piece together and it shows a complete disregard for the audience on the part of the writer. If an audience leaves a performance with no idea what it just witnessed and no dominant feeling other than confusion, it’s not fair for the artists involved to simply say, “You just didn’t get it.”