March 2009


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My mail the other day included a clipping from Seattle magazine, sent to me by my mother, about a Seattle theatre that plans to stage plays in elevators later this spring. The clipping, in its entirety:

Going up? You are if you’re joining Seattle’s edgy Annex Theatre for its series of Elevator Plays. Held in a yet-to-be-determined high-rise downtown, the series features 30-40 60-second plays calibrated for the tight time and space confines of an elevator ride (claustrophobics beware!). Switching elevators to see different plays, audience members get a visceral experience of the ups and downs of experimental theater.

The performance, unfortunately, has been postponed, (here’s a similar project in Louisville, KY) but there’s something tantalizing about using an elevator as a stage. It is a constricted space—temporally, physically, culturally—and it would be a fascinating project to use those constraints in pursuit of an artistic goal. How do you play off of these constraints? Does an elevator play follow (or have time to follow) Freytag’s pyramid? Do you treat the space as a kind of condensed theatre in the round? And how do you address the cultural proclivities—not speaking, even distribution, avoiding eye contact—that  people carry with them into elevators?

Elevators, because of these constraints, can’t be treated as a normal stage. To perform a thirty-second Hamlet or Waiting for Godot in an elevator, to an audience clustered against the back wall, misses the point: An elevator play should not transpose conventions of theatre into a space not designed for them, it should seek out the incongruities between the theater and the elevator and exploit them. It should find the cracks, force them open, and pour itself into them. The plays become thirty-second conversations overheard by the audience. The smallest gestures—hitting a button, shrugging, shifting weight—are freighted with new meaning. 

In this incarnation, the elevator play is a framing device. This is site-specific theatre at its most subtle. The actors and their conversations don’t appear any different than the people we see and the conversations we overhear everyday. The frame’s the thing: By cloaking their activities in the robes of theatre, by putting the frame of art around the mundane, we are able to direct and channel the attention of the audience, focussing it on a thirty-second snippet and encouraging a search for deeper meaning. (See Joshua Bell’s performance in a DC Metro station for how people respond to frameless art.)

The box of the elevator cab stands empty, ready to receive physical or cultural freight. I’m reminded of Jeff Stark’s I.R.T.: A Tragedy in Three Stations, which staged the history of the New York City subway system inside the New York City subway system, and of Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, a book that uses the rise and fall of the elevator as an extended metaphor for racial uplift. An ideal elevator play would be a sort-of meeting of the two, a work staged in elevators that simultaneously played off of the constraints of the elevator and found deeper meaning in its structure and history.

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It is impossible to describe the shock of return. I recall that I stood for the longest time staring at a neatly painted yellow line on a neatly formed cement curb. Yellow yellow line line. I pondered the human industry, the paint, the cement truck and concrete forms, all the resources that had gone into that one curb. For what? I could not quite think of the answer. So that no car would park there? Are there so many cars that America must be divided into places with and places without them? Was it always so, or did they multiply vastly, along with telephones and new shoes and transistor radios and cellophane-wrapped tomatoes, in our absence?

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver.

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Before we get back to substantial posts, here’s a quick shout-out to the New York Times, which has a solid insider’s-look article on the asphalt industry. Check it out:

For Sellers of Pavers and Cones, Stimulus Lifts Hopes After a Troubled Year – NYTimes

For every thing, a past.

Ski racks at DIA baggage claim. The point at which ad hoc solutions tilt to institutionalized systems.

The extent to which we are unable to erase the local inconsistencies of our nonlocal systems.

Men’s restroom/tornado shelter, Denver International Airport, Denver, CO.

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Welcome to Whiskill Island.  

I want to take a quick break from the usual material culture/built environment chatter to introduce a side-project of mine: The Whiskill Island JournalThe Journal is an ongoing fictional journalism project, inspired by The City Desk and by Snow Falling on Cedars. It is also young, and very much a work in progress.

I invite you to join me as I explore Whiskill Island. I’ll be sketching out its contours and history through bi-weekly updates, posted every Wednesday and Sunday. I’m waiting for the people of Whiskill Island (and its main town, Port Merritt), to tell me what to say. Even a fictional world has its voices.

You can find the Journal at thewij.wordpress.com.

Non-standard use (color/shape) of DOT pictograms. Chicago Midway Airport, Chicago, IL.

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I probably owe an explanation for this earlier post. Sprinkles? Betty Crocker? Modernization? 

Well, yeah. Over the course of this semester, I’ve noticed the extent to which the way I look at the world is influenced by what I’m studying. Last semester, I was taking courses in architectural history, material culture, and airport development, and when I looked at the world around me, I thought about it in those terms. My course load this semester has a different, more historical mixture, and one of my classes stands out for how strongly it has affected how I look at the world.

That course, Making America Modern, 1880-1930, is a junior seminar taught by Jean Christophe-Agnew. It covers the fifty years in America when modernity touched down, the world slid sideways, and everything changed. The foundations set during this time remain in place: we are borne ceaselessly forward by machinery set running over a century ago. 

We find modernity everywhere, in the history of our newspapers, our technologies, our mass culture. And so too in the mundane and everyday: These sprinkles index modernity, telling a story of changes in society, technology, culture, gender relations. The ice cream parlor, their host, was made possible by advances in industrial refrigeration (1870s), the invention of the ice cream soda (1874-6) and the ice cream sundae (1890s), the proliferation of the counter-service soda fountain (1903). The spread of the soda fountain and the ice cream parlor was enabled by the transition from a rural agricultural economy to an urban industrial economy, and it, in turn, enabled the rise of a new public and a non-gendered urban social sphere. 

Modernization is like the Big Bang. It dropped a fiery mix of ideas, sparkling new and bubbly hot, and we have watched them pool around us, solidifying in strange peaks and voids. Sprinkles are one of the hunks of rock hurled out of the explosion, through which we may reveal and understand the past.

The New York Times puts Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to close Times Square to vehicular traffic in historical perspective, including one proposal from the mid 1800s:

“Many attempts have been made to get under or over the problem. In 1870, an inventor named Alfred Ely Beach opened a 312-foot-long pneumatic subway line that propelled passengers beneath Broadway from Warren Street all the way to Murray Street. It was short lived.”

Trying to Tame Broadway Traffic — NYTimes