by: Jay Gilligan

Recently I have been thinking very much about the concept of context and how it shapes my work. I have been trying to define the context surrounding my new show in an effort to maximize its potential and hopefully even overcome some of the difficulties that I take for granted. Context is always present, in all work, like it or not. By context I mean the environment in which the show was created or is presented inside. Factors of the environment can range from financial situations to rehearsal time and space limitations, to any number of other production and performance considerations.

During the process of investigating the context of my new work, I found it very interesting to apply the same examination of contributing factors to past productions I have seen. Perhaps giving the rest of this article a little more context, this all relates in part to what I was talking about before in my article about French juggling. My basic view was that under the current French system (or context) the work being produced did not meet its full potential. Someone from a different background, for example myself, coming to France might choose to spend the lavishly huge budgets and endless rehearsal times a little bit more carefully to make sure the end product matched up to the effort and resources involved.

Indeed, my first fun discovery when analyzing the context of past productions occurred in France. I was hired to juggle there in a show which already had a writer, director, and choreographer. Basically my job description entailed being a human prop to be moved around as the creator wished. I took no personal issue with this concept; in fact it was actually quite nice to see inside another person’s artistic vision and to not have the constant pressure to be creative. However, when all was said and done I hated the show! Even worse, I hated performing the show! It was very strange night after night in Paris to have audience members tell me how much they enjoyed seeing me on stage. A long time passed before I realized the audience was at the theater to have a good time, forget their worries, and did not know any more context of the show than what they saw that night. The audience merely wanted to enjoy themselves and did just that, despite my personal hatred for the material presented. Many of the audience members who congratulated the cast after the show voiced that they had never seen juggling before. This was interesting for me to learn the context of their compliments.

The funny thing that resulted from this experience is that now when I see a show I really enjoy, I imagine that perhaps all of the performers just loathe being there on stage! This sort of thought is very amusing in most situations, including both live performances and even television or movies.

A similar occurrence happened when I lived I London- I went to see Slava’s Snowshow and afterwards had the chance to talk to the main featured clown. I told her I had honestly enjoyed her performance and she just laughed and said it was the worst show she had ever been associated with. A few years later and I know the feeling.

Now I always remind myself any time I see something I think is stupid that I simply must not know all of the context involved to understand the artistic choices and processes that were executed to create the work. The actor (or dancer, or juggler, etc.) may be there just to earn enough money to eat or pay the rent. The creator may be working under unrealistic or non-artistic guidelines. These simplistic ideas are usually obvious and not very innovative thoughts but they demonstrate and represent the infinite decisions and hidden facets that shape a work. Once all, or even a few, of the factors involved are defined, better solutions might be found. An example would be that if a performer is just on stage to make money to pay the rent, perhaps a more efficient and reliable way of paying the rent would be to work at a fast food restaurant such as McDonald’s.

Jon Held, formerly of Airjazz, took this idea even further in his own work. Once an artist who mainly relied on juggling technique to craft a performance, now Jon prefers storytelling and physical theater to communicate with an audience. I traded long essays about this change in his work with him via email over the past few years and he explained the choice was very simple. He examined why he wanted to be on stage and perform for an audience. His answer was that he had a story or idea he wanted to share with the audience and that by juggling he was just confusing people with a skill they could not personally relate to for lack of personal experience or proficiency. His final conclusion was that the most accessible, and therefore the best art form for him, is singing. However, since he felt his voice was not cut out for that job, he turned to storytelling and physical movements to accompany his words. He sometimes still juggles or uses other circus skills in his work but says the only value they have to the audience is one of simple amusement!

Program notes traditionally help give the audience much needed context in order to fully appreciate the unfolding performance. At least that is the theory. I learned a valuable lesson about depending too much upon written context to support a live performance work last winter. I was commissioned to create a new solo but there was not enough money in the budget to hire my musicians. My first challenge to overcome was to find a pop song that was about 30 minutes in length to match the concept of the juggling which was to be one long continuous sequence with no stops much like this sentence. One part of my artistic context is that I like to perform to pop music. However pop songs are usually only 3 minutes in duration and a prerecorded soundtrack could not be stretched in length at all on stage.

The resulting choice was a 25 minute long hardcore electric guitar solo, which I thought could be quite painful to listen to if the audience was not properly prepared. The context of the festival was a very family atmosphere and aggressive/abrasive screaming guitars might upset more than a few parents. Hurjaruuth Dance Theater in Helsinki must deal with this problem all the time for one of the main parts for the context of their work is that the intended audience is children. At least I mean to say I have never ever seen some guy naked and screaming in the middle of one of their shows. Maybe at the premiere party, but not on stage. During a performance.

I spent hours crafting an essay as liner notes to a program for the audience to read before the show, explaining the music choice and concepts behind the piece. After the performance I had several people lining up to ask me what the music was I had used. I had written the name of the artist and song in the program. Not a single person who talked to me had taken the time to read the essay. My fears of the music being too painful were unfounded but I learned to not depend on this communication method. Much like an avant-garde painter might hang a blank canvas on a gallery wall with a plaque next to it explaining why the nothingness is art- without the plaque there is no art.

There are several pieces of context obvious in most performances even without program notes or other framing devices. One I can more than easily relate to is if I know the performer is visiting from a foreign country- the show must fit neatly inside a suitcase or two. I am constantly making choices of props and materials because of their compact size. I know that when I see a show many choices have been made that have nothing at all to do with the artistic concept. This is why I will probably never play my show with 20 elephants in France, at least without a bigger budget or smaller elephants.

This is also why when Cirque du Soleil Alegria comes to town, and there is a big black robotic bird flapping its wings while being lowered from the ceiling at the end of the show, I get confused. Just because the budget might allow me to bring my elephants to France, or for Soleil to hang a robot bird, that doesn’t make it a good idea. Many artists complain about lack of money holding them back from making something good. Cirque du Soleil (and many others!) sometimes proves that having too much money can be a very bad thing. Never forget the context of good ideas is that they’re free!

I would like to conclude by congratulating two works I recently saw in Finland that relate to the topic of special contexts. The first is the Sorin Sirkus 220 Volts winter circus. I was really impressed and happy to see the professional production values visible along with the hard work and organization of everyone involved in the show. It is amazing that most all of the cast have other lives than full time circus performing. The other show, Sense, is the Turku school 2nd year production directed by Maksim Komaro. The challenges surrounding a circus school production were bravely tackled by Max. Usually school shows grow very repetitive and boring as all of the students have to show all of their skills making for a long viewing. Sense was to the point and flowed smoothly along. Both of these shows gain a better understanding when their surrounding contexts are examined and considered.

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