On Sunday, July 24, 2016, I ushered for The Box: A Play About Solitary Confinement playing at Z Space in San Francisco. Before attending the theatre, I attended to my apparel. As an usher you want to look presentable and approachable. I consciously rejected the button down short-sleeve flower shirt and replaced it with a subdued navy blue Henley shirt; summer comfortable, yet, play appropriate. This play is about solitary confinement, wearing a cheerful flowery shirt seemed more appropriate if I were ushering for La Cage Aux Folles playing at another theatre in the Mission area. Honoring the gravitas of solitary confinement, I wore a hue of somber reverence.
After checking in with the House Manager, I had time to walk around the lobby and engage with the information tables set-up to offer information and petitions regarding stories and legislature pertinent to the limits of solitary confinement. An actual solitary confinement cell was on premises to walk into to experience the spatial reality of this form of punishment. About fifteen minutes before the start of the show, a voice can be heard screaming at various intervals. A patron who had not entered the theatre was surprised to learn the voice was of one of the actors on stage for the pre-show enactment of prison life; not just a random homeless person ubiquitous to San Francisco.
The stage had been set even before entering the theatre and encountering the realistic set of a solitary confinement pod of six cells. A patron goes from the reality of life, the physical presence of the model cell, the legal petitions, the writings of prisoners, to the screams of the one actor in the pre-show to a continued reality. Yes, it is theatre, but a theatre of Realism. The play continuously presents a reality of the solitary confinement horror, the inhumanity, the multiple layers of devolution making animals of the prisoners and the various forms of death present in the prison system. Welcome to the theatre, you are now confined for two and a half hours.
The realization of my imprisonment in seeing this show set in about twenty minutes into the play. I think by this point in the experience with all the lobby presentations, pre-show enactment, and sinking into the world and the structure of the play, I understood this is what I was going to get: Realism. No escape. Obviously, I am a play patron, not a prisoner, I can leave at any time. Yet, my psyche has already been shaken and split between my desire to escape this form of imprisonment or accept solitary confinement to honor the lives presented. I found myself fracturing, dissociating, and struggling against the system of oppression of this play structure. Why? Because by the time the initial twenty minutes of the play happened, I felt the magnitude of the situation and my inability to do anything other than watch.
As a performing artist with a background in acting and concert dance, a MFA in Contemporary Performance, and a creator of dance/theatre and performance works, I found myself yearning for a Contemporary Theatre approach to The Box. What do I mean by a Contemporary Theatre approach? Didn’t the director incorporate dance into the show? Clearly this can’t be a complete Realism play. Yes, the director did have a choreographer create moments of dance to offset and potentially expand the physicality of the confinement of the characters. The dance sequences, for me, contributed a jarring effect not in a manner of theatrical artifice distancing me from the realism of the prison world, but appearing structurally inappropriate as movement choices for those characters and belonging to a dance show or choreography more in-line with the women’s prison scene in the musical Chicago. I perceived characters/actors concerned with hitting choreography according to a timing of 5, 6, 7, 8, rather than expressing a felt experience with movement or choreography based in character driven gesture, scenario appropriate repetition, or somatic release of emotional content. How is the body in this extreme imprisonment fully experienced or transformed and witnessed through movement and dance authentic to individual experience and choreographed as a collective observation through synchronicity and alignment of shared physical experience and expression? The dance moments were also a side note due to their short occurrences. Perhaps longer sequences of movement and non-verbal expression could have provided the audience with time for reflection, attendance to their own psychological states of reaction, and the ability to see more into the world of the play personally without so much didactic argument from the playwright and the director’s emphasis on Realism.
The use and incorporation of dance formed from the broadening and abstraction of movement beyond synchronized choreography and weaved throughout the narrative transforms the theatrical experience from a standard play with some random dance sequences into the artistic expression of Contemporary Performance. The genre of Contemporary Performance is vast reflecting a variety of expressions, experiments, structures, multiplicities, and artistic envisioning both literal and imaginal. In the realm of the imaginal, I wanted to experience the imaginal life of these inmates. The only literal expression we observe of imaginal expression is in the character of Looneytunes, who is literally insane. For the other characters, I would have appreciated going beyond the Realism of the writing and being brought into the unraveling of perception both dark and beautiful in the experience of one’s psyche struggling with the isolation of solitary confinement. Since the playwright herself experienced this condition, I imagine she confronted this experience of imaginal reality breaking through in her imprisonment both as debilitating and liberating. The poetics of the stage space become rife for the audience to enter into the world and realities of solitary confinement along with expanding the various ways for theatrical storytelling using a variety of stage techniques.
Providing a Contemporary Performance approach for the bodies on stage beyond dance and movement applies to two aspects of the Realism of the show I struggled with specific to the actors more than the characters they were portraying. These two aspects refer to the continual presence of the insane behavior of Looneytunes and the naked cavity checks of two of the characters in the course of the show. First, the character of Looneytunes is present throughout the show, he is the only character which does not go off stage at any moment and even when in the background of some of the visitor scenes with other characters is still present in the dim background gesturing and twitching. On one level, I can applaud the actor for his commitment to this directorial choice, however, on another level, it feels inappropriate as a form of torture for the actor who will not only complete this two and a half hours of insanity, but will repeat this confinement for over a month’s worth of shows. Ultimately, I found myself concerned with the actor more than the character because the theatrical approach felt reflective of the show’s punishing reality rather than its fictionalized intention. As an audience member I can appreciate this performative commitment to a tortured character’s confinement in the course of a movie, but in the live duration of a play and its repetition over multiple performances, the problematics of the reality of theatrical Realism manifest.
The full monty of theatrical Realism is laid bare in the live body and cavity inspections of two of the characters. The first time this occurred in the play, I could not fully see the explicit aspects of the moment due to the large prison guard obstructing the view. In the second occurrence with a different character, I witnessed what other audience members were able to see from the opposite side of the theatre from me in the first search: a naked character exposing his body ending with a full spreading of buttocks and squatting. Yes, the reality of prison life, dehumanizing and suspect. Again, if I want the realism of the enactment, I can watch various television shows or movies to show me this reality. Is there another theatrical way to express and highlight the severity of this act? Does the direct reenactment of this enforcement reveal more than just its enactment now not only in front of one prison guard but beyond the reality of prison and into the eyes of multiple audience members?
This act of explicit body voyeurism reminds me of seeing another spread ass expanding performative reality in a performance piece by Keith Hennessy. In Hennessy’s piece exploring the alternate reality of crystal meth use, Hennessy writhes on the stage floor with legs overhead exposing his anus to the audience. This extreme exposure not only directly reflected the various exposed buttholes on online dating apps in the gay community, but also was relevant to the stage space as representation of the multiple eyes witnessing a meth addict’s aggressive unconscious need to expose; all eyes may see the exposed hole. In prison, however, the act would likely only be witnessed by the prison guard, not an audience of multiple eyes. Hennessy’s performance as an example of Contemporary Performance finds a way to move the metaphor of exposure forward through a real, live act of performance showing the rawness of human need. The Box’s usage of the explicit body made me feel like a violator of the actor and character colluding with the prison system, not giving me a deeper meaning to the performative need to expose the body for theatrical metaphor.
I left the audience at the end of the The Box feeling both like the violated and the violator. I remained for the entirety of the show not only due to my ushering responsibilities, but also owing to my desire for the Second Act to provide a theatrical exploration different from the First Act. Imprisonment does not change, which is the ultimate reflection of The Box. The finale of the show welcomes another prisoner into solitary confinement, the cycle renews itself, but at least some internal changes were made due to the main characters’ hunger strike. Change is minor in the physical reality of solitary confinement and in the literal realm of the psyche, change is dominant and long lasting. One of the main characters does leave the prison system, only to be haunted by his decades of imprisonment, which is depicted minimally in the course of the play.
Overall, The Box succeeded in justifying its well-designed solitary confinement prison pod by confining theatrical exploration to a construction of imprisonment with no escape for audience sensitivities or poetic distancing from the confining reality. Inside this confining structure, the full complexity of the prison system did not make a full appearance. Where was the full recognition of the prison guards as human and in conflict with the system they were imposing rather than the pervasive perpetrators of the punishment? And, although solitary confinement is inhumane, how does the play hold the tension between the inhumanity of the confinement and the inhumanity of the confined? Despite the extremity of punishment, the complexity of these prisoners’ sociopathic or psychopathic behavior was not fully investigated in the play. I understand the criminal justice system in the United States is directly linked to many other systems of oppression driving certain groups and individuals into extreme behavior and psychopathology. My larger question regarding this aspect of prison reality considers: How do we acknowledge this aspect in the course of the play, not to demonize prisoners to justify solitary confinement, but to acknowledge its complexity and the humanity needed to construct another alternative for corrections and any potential for rehabilitation? In order to find our humanity, I believe this play needed to ground into the roots of theatrical possibilities and claim the poetics of space in solitary confinement.
The world outside of the theatre and on TV and film provide us with Realism. Audiences are coming into the shared reality of the theatre seeking to heal their oversaturated lives in the demise of cultures, politics, communication, and compassion. In watching The Box I found myself dissociating from the all too real. As a lone audience member I had no intimate contact to turn to for discussion or to decompress during the intermission or afterwards. During intermission, a timeframe mentally constrained by the play as an outside recess still within the world of imprisonment, I witnessed audience members in couples and small groups stunned by the Realism of the play and some even making a break for it; the audience was less at the beginning of the Second Act. The offering of an audience talk back at the end of the show would have provided a shared moment of release from the holding of audience empathy to communal recognition of confinement and grief. Could a more theatrically layered performance incorporating alternative approaches to text, voice, movement, dance, sound, and staging have connected audiences to the exploration of the content and lived experience of solitary confinement without heaping more constraining brutal reality upon lives struggling with daily life within the confinements of modern society?
I am reminded of the movie Dancer In The Dark starring Bjork. In this movie a dark vision of humanity and the flaws of the judicial and prison system are portrayed against a fantastical theatrical world pushing its way into the imagination, suffering, and hope of the main character. The music, dance sequences, and direct relationship to the camera and audience in contrast to the Realism of most of the movie hold the tension of the heroine’s horrific demise with her indomitable spirit contained in beauty, both surreal and illuminating. Dancer In The Dark with this layered approach to its grim story evoked cathartic tears of grief for being human in a conflicted world of strife and injustice. The familiar Realism of The Box did confine me, but a confinement inescapable in a world insurmountable and punishing. I walked back into the world outside of the play smothered in unresolved anxiety and isolation.
On my walk home, I came upon a Pokemon Go player and for the first time peeked into the fantastical world interjected into the real world we were both walking within. I sadly chuckled to myself connecting my heavy theatre experience to the need for an alternate electronic reality to buffer the world. In the electronic age, I would hope theatre could provide the communal bridge between the fantastical and the real to renew our engagement with the world and its possibilities beyond stark Realism.