IN CONVERSATION WITH
Plant potatoes as someone else
Rehearse or script half of what you say
During the first few minutes of the screening, someone behind me whispered: “Is this for real?” It is one of my favorite questions, because it usually indicates that something interesting is taking place, or about to. Like all rhetorical questions, it is redundant—there is nothing that isn’t for real—and its primary semantic thread is measured incredulity: you are, for a second, destabilized, attempting to decide what is and isn’t scripted, performed or not performed, constructed or not constructed.
The film was a low-budget documentary screened as part of the Prelude festival of new theater in the fall of 2007, and its subject was David Levine’s Bauerntheater, or “farmer’s theater,” which had premiered in Germany earlier that spring. The film begins with an image of the stage: a large, fallow field, located near a farming village just outside Berlin. We see an actor being hired—David Barlow. A script is rehearsed—Heiner Müller’s play Die Umsiedlerin—but we soon learn that not a word of it will be used, save for the name of a single character, a potato farmer named Flint. We see rehearsals in a warehouse in Brooklyn. Barlow/Flint stomps around inside a large, shoddily constructed trough filled with three hundred pounds of dirt in order to practice, again and again, the gesture of plowing and planting potatoes. Serious attention is paid to proper dress, and correct planting technique. Later, we see the actor being flown to Berlin for the performance. He arrives on the field, the stage. He goes into character, and the performance begins: for the next thirty days, for ten hours a day, five days a week, he plants the field.
Is this for real? Is it acting if you have no lines, no theater, no stage, no ushers? “Is it still ‘acting,’” Levine asks in his introduction to the Bauerntheater catalog, “if you’re doing manual labor? Is it manual labor if you’re ‘acting’?” And finally: “What does it mean to spend more hours of a day as someone other than yourself?” Much of Levine’s work interrogates conceptual terrains to a point where they momentarily annex each other. Labor isn’t just foregrounded. It’s literalized so that it becomes a metaphor for just about everything we do: rising out of bed, brushing our teeth, going to work, or, if you’re a beginning artist, sending out your work to galleries, magazines, cultural institutions.
In July the Berlin gallery Feinkost will premiere Levine’s Hopefuls—an exhibition of Levine’s ongoing attempt to salvage discarded unsolicited actors’ head shots and cover letters—and this exhibit will travel in the fall to Cabinet magazine’s Brooklyn project space. An upcoming piece, Venise Sauvée (opening in March at P.S. 122), takes as its starting point an unfinished play by Simone Weil; normal theater stagecraft will be switched out for the format of a seminar, and actors, writers, director, and audience members will collectively explore—as the performance—the function of political theater within so-called Western democracies.
After seeing the premiere of the Bauerntheater documentary, I found myself in Berlin, where Levine lives part of the year and where he is the director of performing arts at the European College of Liberal Arts. He had recently moved, and his new apartment was mostly unpacked boxes and a few pieces of furniture. We sat on the floor with an old-fashioned mini tape-recorder between us, and talked.
CHRISTIAN HAWKEY: It seems like much of your work attempts to make the invisible mask, which all actors wear, or are, into something present—visible. In Actors at Work, you hired actors (you paid them and filed all the paperwork with the actors’ union) to simply go to their own day jobs, the very jobs they’re doing in order to become actors, to support themselves as actors. Their day jobs became their stage. For once, they are truly working—working at working. It’s not so much about erasing the boundary between work and life, but foregrounding the labor involved in both, and how the mask is, in fact, that boundary. In Bauerntheater, the viewer standing on the sidelines watching a farmer/actor has to decide whether the sweat on his brow is the real sweat of a laborer, or the sweat of an actor, or both. To ask the viewer to consider such distinctions—who is working here, who is not working—is a generous way to ask them to be as present as possible.
DAVID LEVINE: In my case I feel like the prevalence of theatrical conventions in other aspects of daily life is more interesting to think about than theater itself. Think about that moment of blind fury you get when you’re talking to an operator, or an airline attendant, and you suddenly realize that they are “on script,” and that you are being “handled.” All you want to do is throttle them. You thought they were actually talking to you, but actually they were not there. And yet—forget the corporate masters—the flight attendant has to use a script, because they have to keep themselves out of this. When employees are working off a script, those scripts are essential to their privacy as people. A lot of Actors at Work is really about privacy, and where you locate it. It’s not just about being unable to connect, or not being fully present, but it’s also about the way in which you keep yourself to yourself, and the necessity of that, especially if you have a job. The premise of a day job, which is implied by the term day job, is that it’s not “you” doing it. The real you comes in later, after work. When you’re at work, you’re giving the most convenient performance you can to get by. So I’m interested in the ways in which acting is not just a metaphor for duplicity or social performance or even the American dream, but also a metaphor for privacy—the part of yourself that makes you seem not present.
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