Today, I woke up and looked down at my feet. My polish is chipped and my heels are blistered. I took a shower and put on an argyle sweater. I grabbed the half-finished reading for my graduate course. Sipping my coffee, I debated finishing the article on Baryshnikov. I decided instead to check my Facebook.
That’s my routine every morning. Usually, I struggle to pull myself out of some sort of highly romantic dream about the life I would like to have someday – when I’m grown up – and then I check in with the rest of the world. I usually update my status to something like ‘coffeeeee’ or ‘check out my blog’ or ‘NYC is sooooo pretty today’ and then I go about my day, checking in every hour or two to see if anyone liked my update that really has nothing to do with my real life. I hope for human response, I hope to be noticed.
And my generation of 20-somethings join me. We fling ourselves out into the Internet with a graceful apprehension. We brag about our grades or flaunt our political opinions to people we either haven’t spoken to in years, or to the people sitting in the room with us.
And we do all of this without a single word spoken aloud.
The world I am living in often requires no words at all.
It was only a matter of time before art began to mirror this, I suppose. I’m not about to say that silent theatre breaks down pre-established definitions. After all, many vaudeville acts were silent and I consider clowns and mimes to be theatrical magicians. But during the last month in NYC, I’ve confronted a great deal of theatre without words.
From Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show to Punchdrunk’s immersive Sleep No More, it seems that people will pay money (sometimes a great deal) to encounter silent storytelling.
But why all of this silence? It’s very postmodern of us. After all, we use language to organize and even construct reality. It is through language that we often assign meaning to moments and for centuries playwrights have been telling stories through dialogue.
Discarding the conventions and blending art forms – both Feminist and Sleep No More are heavily influenced by modern dance - not only implies the show has no need for the device of dialogue or the standard coherent plots, but the popularity of both shows affirms audiences feel the same way.
And though silent plays are not new, they are a welcome addition to the modern canon. Shows which allow the audience to form an opinion without the narrator’s helpful summarization, or without the comic relief offering a snappy, sarcastic comment are rare.
It’s almost as though artists in genres that typically use voices are ready for silence and want to offer theatregoers and even moviegoers (think The Artist) the opportunity to sit in a dark space and see something they are allowed to digest in any way they would like.
Maybe we’re moving into an age of post-post-modernism, in which we are allowed the welcome break from Dada-ism where everything is art and nothing is art and everything is everything and nothing at once. (phew, what a mess….) We are no longer trapped in cyclical arguments.
We can wander the empty rooms of Sleep No More’s set if we want, we can dig through drawers as if we are part of the story if we want or we can sit on the second floor in the bar. We can watch the actors dancing and pantomiming onstage if we’d like or look down at our feet and enjoy the welcome break from the world around us.
But why are we offering up money for silence? Do we really need to buy the opportunity to be quiet? Or does the theater offer a safe place to explore our thoughts? After all, can’t we in turn blame any unpleasant ones on the work being presented?
I know people who come home and turn the television on, just for the safety of noise. When did silence become dangerous? Is that what artists are exploring?
When you arrive at Sleep No More they encourage you experience the night alone, and I refused. I kept looking for familiar eyes behind the masks around me and one time I was shushed.
Are we as a generation exploring the question of what makes solitude synonymous with loneliness?
Or maybe artists are just learning to communicate more richly with our inner psyche and in order to get deeper messages across Young Jean Lee is learning to communicate – to structure the world- without words. To speak with a more universal language. (this seems a highly optimistic sentiment)
And the fact that we as humans could spend a day in full communication without speaking a single word aloud, it’s not that shocking that we’re now using the body as a medium to carry a message. Maybe getting lost in the play, the movement, the immersive set is really the only point or maybe it is a human necessity that we explore the concept of being alone – because we have become so good at avoiding it.
John Cage began exploring the music of silence years ago with his 4’33″ pieces. Listen to (of course) his thoughts here.
It was only a matter of time before theatre caught up. And to be frank, I haven’t heard any truly groundbreaking messages in these shows I’ve seen — but they’ve got me listening and now I wake up to the theatre of life and question – what does it mean when everything is silent?