Monday, November 10, 2008

"I know this man."

After a long week of creating and receiving stimuli, I spent Friday picking up my first day of work in this country. The school was holding an expo on "Documenting Practices," and I was able to usher for a few hours for a little cash (I am a slave to the GBP). The exhibit showcased several examples of documentation of theatre practice--not only taped performance, but pages from sketchbooks of designers, models, photographs, audio renderings of specific performances, taped rehearsals, and journals from Central students from past shows. The larger discussion surrounding all of these "artefacts" was how can one actually document a thing while not actually documenting the thing. No matter how many play texts, production notes, production histories, video recordings, and personal narrative we have surrounding any one piece of theatre, you cannot fully capture any one theatrical performance--it happens live, to and with the people surrounding it in the moment, and then never again. Part of its ephemeral nature is what makes it theatre and not another medium. So while there were different forms of documentation--some of it produced to submit for grants, some the result of the production/artistic process, and some made for the sake of marketing--these things still have some distance from whatever piece they are associated with simply because they are but fragments of a much greater whole.

Some of the notable pieces were:
1) Sketches from Rae Smith's sketchbooks for her scenic design for War Horse.
2) Theatrical models (of people, furniture) placed in various wooden boxes that you were permitted to move and arrange and then photograph. The camera available was hooked up to a computer that would save and display the image on a nearby monitor.
3) Very charming photographs from a clown workshop in Barcelona.
4) The journals of various dramaturgs from the Central/Complicite production of The Boy From Centreville.

It's this last piece that prompted this blog entry. I had remembered seeing the piece mentioned in brief on one of the several flat screen televisions mounted around school, noting past productions and alumni news, but I had somehow forgotten what it had been about. Upon rediscovering the documentation, I realized it was about school shootings, focusing mainly on the Virginia Tech massacre. Flipping through the journals, I found a couple biographies printed off the Internet about some of the victims, and suddenly I was searching desperately through all of the books attached to the shelf with fishing line. I knew Mike Pohle, he was a classmate of mine in middle and high school, and was one of the victims shot and killed that day. I finally found mention of him, but when I did, it was only on a list of names of the 32 victims. It said simply:

"Mike Pohle--23 yr.s old, Flemington, NJ"

I was so offended. There was somebody I knew, somebody who had shared part of my past in a very specific way, reduced to somebody else's stimulus. Now, I must say: Mike and I were not friends, we were acquaintances. We had a lot of mutual friends, but I was not close to him, did not know him intimately. To say otherwise would be a lie. But I knew him to be a really good guy and a great friend to the ones we shared. But I can't claim any great attachment to him, simply because I never knew him that well. But I am certain he was more of a reality to me than any of the people that actually made this piece of theatre, as was "Flemington, NJ," and I was offended. These people, these British people, they had never seen him play lacrosse, they hadn't gone to prom with him, they hadn't had class with him, they hadn't walked at graduation with him, they hadn't gone to his wake and had to tell the media they didn't think their cameras and questions were appropriate outside the funeral home on Main Street. I did that. They didn't. They didn't see his mother that day, or the pictures of him dressed up for the Halloween parade in grade school, amongst all the others of him in his youth that led up to his casket. How dare they think that they could possibly grasp what happened, what had been lost, what this human life had meant. How dare he be reduced to a statistic.

This reaction really shook me. I usually address instances of trauma as an open minded theatre practitioner. It's just where my instincts lie now. And here was a response that had nothing to do with that. Now, we can say that creating a piece of theatre about what happened to Mike allows us to reach out to others who know that kind of violence, or need to understand that kind of event, or need to know what kind of repercussions those kind of acts taken would have on people. And again, I only knew him so well. But still, I reacted completely possessively: You didn't see what his face looked in his casket, so fuck you. That was my reaction. I think I'd doubt my humanity had it been otherwise.

This is the trouble with verbatim work. We take text from a specific place or interview, and we recreate it, and try to give it a greater validation because it is "true." We say, "Well, this is Really what they said, so it is entirely accurate." But it's only ever an approximation of what that person said and what they meant. It's not the whole story, it's just an instance--especially as the text gets further and further away from the original practitioners. Such it is with The Laramie Project. Okay, we can associate with this story in that we're gay, that we've been persecuted for being gay, that we've known persecution, that we've had friends who've been persecuted for being gay. We can connect to that piece of theatre through empathy or shared experience, and it affects us. But that is very different than being Matthew Shepard's mother, or than being Matthew Shepard's best friend. It is a different experience to understand something and to know something. These British theatre makers understand what I went through but don't know. And by the same token, I understand what Mike Pohle's mom went through, but I don't know, could never know, because that life was unique to her experience and it would be a lie to say "I know."

After a couple days to ruminate on it, I guess I come to the same conclusion we do when we come to documenting practices: just as we cannot fully encompass a theatrical experience in its documentation, we cannot fully encompass a whole human life in a piece of theatre. Something will always be missed out, an accuracy that you lose in the action of re-production. It's a rock and a hard place. On one hand, you seek to speak to the universality of whatever topic you are addressing, and by the same token, you can't get the specifics 100%, ever. It's a trade off.

In any regard, it was strange, a sea away, to find that Mike had permeated that far. I'd go on, but the bottle of Shiraz I've drunk in this process tells me not to.

1 comment:

Dani said...

I've been looking for someone to write something like this about Mike. Like you, I knew him mostly in passing, and I don't feel entitled to any grand show of emotion over his death. But it was still the first time I read someone's name in the national news and felt like he meant more than the ink that printed his name -- that "Mike Pohle, 23, of Flemington, NJ" was such an absurd abbreviation of a person. So thanks for writing about this.