Dateline Edinburgh – The Original Impulse

Red Bastard
Red Bastard

Clancy Productions is presenting two shows in association with the Assembly at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this month: The Extremists by C.J. Hopkins and Genesis/Golgotha, two monologues by Don Nigro. While the author is in Edinburgh, Downtown Dispatches will feature excerpts from the production diary.

We need to speak about courage and audacity and a very radical and unfashionable belief that art (in this case theater), not only can change a person’s life, but exists, finally, for that exact purpose.

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We need to speak about the Red Bastard.

Red Bastard
Red Bastard

Two days ago, in the middle of the afternoon, seated with a hundred and fifty other rowdy festival-goers in a big tent, I witnessed something very, very old, something rumored to be dead, fighting to come alive again, demanding to be born, again.

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There’s an exchange towards the end of C.J. Hopkins’ The Extremists (which is having a fine, controversial run at the Festival) which raises the issue directly:

NORM: See, Jane? This is how they’ve got us thinking.

JANE: The extremists.

NORM: Yes. See, they’ve warped our minds.
They’ve got us believing that anything is possible.

JANE: That we could actually affect people’s lives.

NORM: With art. Theater.

JANE: It’s just entertainment.
I mean, where did we ever get this idea
that we could somehow change the world
or that it even needs changing?

Where indeed? Where would anyone get the arrogant, pretentious, old-fashioned notion that art is not a commodity to be sold to a fastly-disappearing cultural elite but an opportunity and occasion for actual, radical change? One can read the old books, I guess. Some of them ramble on in that kind of vein. Eric Davis, aka Red Bastard, has most likely read a few of them. And somehow over the last few years he’s decided to step away from the difficult and demanding job of presenting a polished, thoughtful performance, displaying his hard-earned skills to a judging crowd (which is what most theater people unthinkingly think is their job and role in the world), and do something a little harder and a lot braver.

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It’s a show, of course, and Eric is a performer, a highly trained one. But in using the time allotted and the skills gained not to present a performance but to actually, ferociously, insistently affect a group of people, he’s reaching back to the original impulse.

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You are not safe in a Red Bastard show, just as you are not safe out in the street. You cannot sit back and judge at a Red Bastard show, just as you cannot sit back and judge in a crowded bar if you’re trying to get laid; you’re being judged and graded and sized up and it’s up to you to make the night an interesting one.

So, what is he doing?

What are you doing, as an artist, if you’re not entertaining people, or rather, if entertaining people is not the goal? It’s an important distinction only because Red Bastard and other artists out there on the edge are often wildly entertaining. I think of a great moment in a Bill Hicks interview when a reporter asks Hicks why he insists on making people think instead of just entertaining them. Hicks flashes that quick, warm, deeply frustrated grin and asks the guy, “Since when did thinking stop being entertaining?”

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What gives a performer, a player, of all things, the right to step past the boundaries of the stage, ignore the agreed upon contract between paying audience and (barely) paid performer? The unspoken understanding, “you dance around up there for awhile, make me forget my busy day for a moment or two and I’ll throw some money at you when it’s over”? Entertainment is hard work and only a few can pull it off night after night, so what on earth makes Davis and other artists think that it’s not enough?

Only the birthright of all players, which is to happily, proudly stand outside of utility and trade, to bring something larger and stranger and else to the community and to every individual in that community, and become, ever so briefly, the living incarnation of freedom and possibility.

I saw a woman regain her strength and courage and humor the afternoon I watched Davis perform. He didn’t know her, she was just a young American woman who had walked in and sat down to see a show at the festival, another stranger in a crowd of strangers, but Davis was building towards her moment of courage, carefully and single-mindedly driving directly towards that moment from the instant he stepped onto the stage. She was seated just three feet from me, so when she made her choice and acted upon it, I could feel the change, physically, in the way she exhaled, smiled and looked around. It was as though a spotlight was on her, as though she had grown six inches taller in an instant. And the crowd went wild. She got more applause than Davis did, because although he led her there, she took the plunge. And that’s a large part of this old, original purpose of art. It’s not so much about the artist, in the end. It’s about the community and the individual members of the community who come to the art for strength and courage and for a reminder that anything, literally anything, is possible.

And it is the central job of the artist to make that possibility manifest and obvious to everyone else. Anything less is just showing off and goofing around out there.

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