At the beginning of Pay No Attention to the Girl, actor Caitlin Nasema Cassidy stands on a chair and introduces herself as Target Margin’s Founding Artistic Director David Herskovits. She then opens her mouth to begin telling a story, but has forgotten where to start. The entire ensemble joins her in an immediate devolution: struggling to remember the events of their source text, correcting each other, and prompting one another. As they search for clarity, the cohort ritualistically disrupts and reassembles a dreamscape of quotidian objects. And that, to be quite basic about it, is the whole play.
To begin a piece with an immediate breakdown of language successfully deflates any sense of ceremony surrounding their ages old source material (The One Thousand and One Nights). And, as the play progresses, the kernel that has guided the company’s exploration is clear. We watch the actors negotiate themselves in relation to these ancient stories in real time. That negotiation is funneled through a variegated gamut of storytelling genre. In one moment the delivery feels like the kitchen of a domestic comedy, and then suddenly it evokes a large Peter Schumann-style spectacle. Mnouchkine’s chaotic works that span storytelling disciplines and cross cultural boundaries must be points of reference here, to be sure. We also swerve through musical theater about genitals, as well as sequences that are staged vignettes of made up silent films. The sense of risk, scrappiness, and, in the words of Herskovits, “failure” is strong. But, what’s the pay off?
I feel a bit allergic to the ethics of holding an audience captive for works that foreground failure. The strange chaos of the Production is palpable. And, to risk on such a large scale is a dreamy opportunity for the company. But, unfortunately, the spirit of open-endedness overpowered any modicum of clarity surrounding the storytelling. While I found the production pleasurable at first, I became frustrated with the seemingly deliberate muddiness. Exploration overpowered communication, which is ironic for a production that claims to be about storytelling as an art form.
The piece owes much of its charm to Carolyn Mraz’s playful scenic design. She turns the cavernous space into a viable jewel box of possibility. I wish the company had activated the full potential of the space more boldly through more rigorous dramaturgical structuring.
Overall, Herskovits’s notion of failure-as-necessity is the most evident takeaway of this production. The show’s most cultivated seed is its continuous open-ended excavation of new territory, both spiritual and physical. Herskovits’s process surely encouraged many blissful moments of Artistic Failure, and many of these moments might have been included in the product. It’s a great thought to remind us all about the importance of failure. But, I think someone like Ernesto Pujol would take issue with a production like this. Pujol writes in his “The Cult of Creative Failure”:
“Far beyond the art world, in the real world, failure is the privilege of the rich. […] Material and moral bankruptcy of creative and prosaic projects is the privilege of a capitalist aristocracy. But when artists are entrusted with the well-being of communities, ethically speaking, they cannot afford to fail them. Real failure is not a project option.”
I must note that Herskovits and Pujol use the word failure in two decidedly different contexts. Pujol, for example, approaches his account from the perspective of fine art or studio art. Nonetheless, the question remains for all of us:
How can we better balance the spirit of artistic failure with being more genuinely responsible to our audience?