bauhaus the bauhaus is the uncapitalized, bouncy and sonorous title of a new piece by The Nerve Tank, an ensemble that combines the rigors of physical theater (though it does raise the question “What theater isn’t physical?”) and the challenges of site-specific producing and performance.
The site in question is the Brooklyn Lyceum, which is one of the city’s better treasures. New York magazine — in a positive vein — once called it a “mutable” performance space and one of my favorite URLs, forgotten-ny.com, called a “terra cotta extravaganza.”
Once crumbling and now appearing to be physically stabilized, the building, a former public bath, encases theater spaces and other cultural adornments.
The setting is perfect, in other words, for The Nerve Tank’s exploration of the titular art movement that was the prime and seminal German school of design from 1919 until 1933, when the Nazis opted for swastika-chic instead. Using text by company co-founder and playwright Chance D Muehleck and direction by company co-founder Melanie S. Armer, the piece, noting that the Bauhaus represented a kind of utopian design ideal, asks a great question: “Are the ideals of the Bauhaus alive and well today? Or have they been concealed, co-opted, and Ikea-d to death?”
Incidentially, while eschewing initial caps in a title can be construed as a paean to pretty pretentiousness, in the case of bauhaus the bauhaus there’s actually a legitimate aesthetic reason: it’s a reference to the typography of Herbert Bayer, a man whose claim to fame was eradicating capital letters. So no e e cummings jokes, folks — this is historicism with a clear-eyed performative bent. According to information on The Nerve Tank’s website, bauhaus the bauhaus is a “multimedia assembly of music, video, movement, and language,” one that features such characters as the German architect Walter Gropius, Andy Warhol, Henry Ford and Tom Wolfe. According to press materials, the performance “has been developed in workshops that emulated techniques used by the Stage Department of the Bauhaus between 1921 and 1929”; the piece is “a compilation of dialogue scenes, some with direct audience address, and sequences of precise physical movement” that includes “interaction between video and live performers.” Often, we’re told, “two or more things will happen at the same time.”
bauhaus the bauhaus runs at the Brooklyn Lyceum (227 4th Ave., bet. Union and President Sts.) from Oct. 9 through Nov. 22; performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. Tickets can be purchased via the Nerve Tank’s website (www.nervetank.com) or by calling 800-838-3006 or through Brown Paper Tickets.
And now, 5 questions Chance D. Muehleck has never been asked:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Perceptive questions are, for me, those that are impossible to answer. I believe this one qualifies.
But I’d like to alter it, if I may, and address some of the more perceptive thoughts people have had about my work.
Our company is incredibly smart and attuned to what we’re doing. During rehearsals for our last project, they were grappling with the ways in which the text breaks down and eschews meaning.
These pockets of nonsense erupt, until finally the “story” is left behind altogether.
A performer likened it to spilling red paint: a bold color is introduced, causing everything else about the show to change. So those eruptions wouldn’t need to be referenced.
The audience would continue to feel their effects and anticipate the next occurrence.
That became a very useful tool for us.
And then there’s the woman who, after a particular production of a particular piece of mine, wondered if I was crazy.
I assumed she was being rhetorical.
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Why do so many people die at the end of your play?”
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
The family tends to ask some wonderfully weird questions (“family,” in this case, is not a euphemism for “religious cult”).
I’ve been asked a number of times where my characters come from, which doesn’t seem that strange until you think about it. Where do they come from?
I haven’t written a so-called traditional character in ages, but still, what’s the catalyst for all those voices?
I honestly don’t know. Perhaps we’d better loop back to Question 1.
4) bauhaus the bauhaus features such characters as Walter Gropius, Andy Warhol and Tom Wolfe. Perhaps everybody knows who all those people are, but obviously you’re playing with time and familiarity, too. Do you have to imbue in the piece ways of conveying to the audience who these seminal figures are/were? Gropius, it seems to me, is someone that only architecture nerds might immediately know and associate with the art movement you’re investigating.
Have you been talking to our costume designer? That’s definitely been a point of interest for us.
Some of the icons we’re dealing with, such as Warhol, are more recognizable than others. Gropius is indeed a difficult one to capture.
This is part of the fabric of the piece, actually: we’re playing with layers of investigation, as embodied by several researchers who study the Bauhaus period and its personalities. The audience, then, is studying this interaction and gleaning things about Gropius, et. al.
But we’re curious what it means to create a “Bauhaus experience,” rather than being a delivery system for historical and biographical info.
I suppose that gets to something about the Nerve Tank, as well.
We embed certain ideas in our projects that an audience can engage with however they like. An audience is a group of individuals, and each individual should be allowed his/her own set of responses to the material. At the same time, we want to guide their attention in very specific ways.
It’s a tricky balance that we often revisit.
5) Can you discuss the Brooklyn Lyceum as an architectural setting? Its expansiveness and sonic qualities are fascinating but, in the end, do you have to try to tame the space or write for the space for the action(s) of the piece to work at full force? Are there special concessions or considerations you and your director, Melanie Armer, have to make to the text or to the framework of the piece to accentuate or accommodate the space?
The Nerve Tank is a site-responsive company, meaning we create projects based on the architectural givens of our space. We like to turn potential problems into assets and highlight all the areas one might try to hide if one were simply installing a show.
The Lyceum is, to begin with, beautifully raw and cavernous.
Because we rehearse there over time, we’re able to get a sense early on of how the piece might be viewed.
We chose the upstairs theatre for bauhaus the bauhaus because there’s a modular component (a stairway covering) that juxtaposes the surrounding brick and steel in a very cool way. It also facilitates immersion: audiences can travel from the café to an exhibit room to the theater itself.
There are challenges, of course. The upstairs space gets a certain amount of traffic noise, so we’re figuring out how to incorporate that.
We don’t ignore things; if a police siren is heard or a car alarm goes off, we’ll acknowledge it somehow. But this is what’s motivating to us.
We want to make you more aware of yourself and your surroundings — not less aware. And once that path is taken, once the red paint is spilled, there’s really no hedging or mitigating it.
So I wouldn’t say I write for the space, exactly; I leave room in the text for surprises to happen once it encounters the physics of the production.
6) What can a reexamination of the Bauhaus tells us about 21st century theater? What can it tell us about New York theater? What can it tells us about contemporary acting or even modes of performance? And one last question: Why is it called The Nerve Tank?
The Bauhaus was (and is) many contradictory things: a school, a building, a community, a conceptual movement, a utopian theory, etc. It was comprised of a bunch of brilliant, wacked-out people, all with different priorities.
They were working in and responding to the mechanical age, while we’re in a digital age.
That was a real trigger for us: How does a contemporary mind, with all its splintered, overloaded sensibility, relate to the more rigid processes of an industrial system?
Taking this into theater, I should quote Oskar Schlemmer, one of the Bauhaus masters and director of its theater program: “If today’s arts love the machine, technology and organization, if they aspire to precision and reject anything vague and dreamy, this implies an instinctive repudiation of chaos and a longing to find the form appropriate to our times.” Well, chaos seems like an inevitable that one had better make peace with sooner or later.
But Schlemmer was entirely awake to his time, as was his work. He suggested that emotional manipulation is a form of propaganda.
Which, you know, radically alters how we might approach drama.
I don’t understand much of popular theater today, at least not in this country. It seems to be resting on its laurels, and the costlier the laurel, the weightier the rest.
The Bauhaus didn’t take anything for granted; it was always questioning and readjusting its methods. This is the real lesson of the movement: not the brutalist architecture or the mass-marketed designs, but the search for new and better ways to refract the cultural climate.
Transgression, adaptation, reconstruction. I think we could use a bit more of these things, especially in performance.
And why The Nerve Tank? Because The Blood Vessel Aquarium was taken.