O yes. I was talking about myself.
Forgive me for my neglect, dear fellow traveler. I know you’ve been waiting for me to finish this post for a week. In the interim, much has happened, including the opening of our retooled, freshly re-tinseled A Christmas Carol.
Excuses aside (I mean, being busy never seems to slow down the good peeps of Culture Shock), last week, as you’ll recall, I was tracing the genealogy of my own aesthetic origins, and came to realize I owe it all (such as it is) to . . . Walt Disney. Or rather, Disneyland. That’s right. For all my high-mindedness, my earliest notions about what theater should be were shaped by a corporate entity that built its fortune through pillaging Western civilization’s folk myths and figures. Well, figurines: Snow White, Cinderella -- Paul Bunyan, for mercy’s sake. Abraham Lincoln, even.
Case in point: as a little boy, I remember being captivated by a new attraction in “the park” called The Enchanted Tiki Room. This was and is an event of vaguely Polynesian inspiration in which animatronic birds of festive plumage preen, sing and burble away. Even as a kid I knew the content was corny, but the experience was….complete.
First we were admitted to an enclosed holding area outside the “hut” where the experience was to take place. As I recall, every feature of this pen was part of the experience, even the trash bins. There was a water feature made from bamboo pipes that emptied noisily into a pool; if you peered into the water, you saw that the pool’s bottom was littered with the partly submerged skeletons of lizards or anyway something of reptilian persuasion.
In due course we got to shuffle into the hut itself, and we (la familia) seated ourselves on one of four sides of a small square. Looking around, I saw gruff-looking tikis surrounded the playing area like they were guarding it. Above, thatched roof; behind, walls and windows shuttered with reeds. The hut seated maybe 80 spectators.
Then the show started with the famous nonsense of robot parrots waking up and cajoling the audiences with canned dialogue and mortifyingly twee treacle (“let’s all sing like the birdies sing / tweet tweet tweet tweettweet”). But the good part was the conclusion. On some cue I no longer recall, the parrots’ were yanked up and out of sight, and the tikis – which we all assumed to be mere set dressing – woke up. Bug-eyes gaping madly, wooden mouths moving up and down, these fearsome gods intoned some guttural, driving incantation (probably my first inkling there was more to music than Herman’s Hermits, Petula Clark and Papa Haydn). The tikis worked themselves up to a frantic crescendo, and at the very climax the lights went out (someone always shrieked at this), and the hut was lit only by flashes of faux lightning, which enabled you to see rain running down the windows.
As the thunder died out and we filed out of the place, I had no trouble belaying my critique of the material in favor of the experience I just had. And in years to come, through my early years at Storefront and on to my subsequent career as a groovy performance artist, it was some time before I realized my debt to the Tiki Room. The salient qualities were:
1. The performance surrounded its audience.
2. There was surprise (presumed inanimate objects lurching into performance).
3. Several senses were assailed at once.
4. The performance began upon admittance to the area, started long before the “actors” and persisting after they had exited.
Years later now, I’m more often in the position of enabling others to create their performative work than I am in doing it myself. But these things still inform my understanding of what makes an affective and memorable experience for audiences – which is, in sum, to transform them from passive spectators to participants.
Portland is rich in artists who espouse these same views, whether avowedly or not. But that’s a different post altogether……