Sight is the sense that dying people tend to lose first
Performed by Jim Fletcher
09.11.08 at the Winningstad Theater
Photo by Wayne Bund
Time-Based Arts Festival, PICA
All Rights Reserved, 2008
Posted by Dusty Hoesly
A man stands on a stage with a flat affect, reportorial monotone voice, arms crossed or at his sides, avoiding gestures. A water bottle stands below him. He wears ordinary, non-descript clothes. There is no set design or light or sound cues; just a man standing there, offering a list of simple declarative sentences. Does this constitute theatre? Sight is the sense that dying people tend to lose first is a sort of anti-theatre, a minimalist interpretation of text, acting, and performance. The viewer is squarely engaged in questions of this play’s legitimacy as theatre, the connections between the claims uttered by the actor, and whether he/she wishes to remain in his/her seat.

The play features several types of short, formal statements: definitions (“A submarine is a ship that goes underwater”), aesthetic views (“A waterfall is nature at its most beautiful”), moral positions (“People are basically the same no matter what the color of their skin”), jokes (“Golf is a game for lazy people”), metaphysical claims (“God does not exist”), quotes (“No man is an island”), double entendres (“Zero is a round number”), tautologies (“Rubber goods are goods made of rubber”), evasive definitions (“Love is difficult to describe”), opinions (“Los Angeles does strange things to people”), subversions of clich├ęs (“Success does not smell of anything”). Rarely, the statements follow each other thematically or riff on a word: “A computer is a thinking machine. A soldier is a fighting machine. James Brown was a sex machine.” But this sort of linkage is the exception.
What brings these observations together, if anything? Is this a worthwhile question to pursue, or are the statements merely placed to provoke the audience into reflecting on the nature and purpose of theatre and their role as spectator-participants? The lack of physicality focuses our attention on the language. The fact that many of these statements are funny reminds me that I’m witnessing a crafted text, and that I’m an audience member. This is no random catalogue of phrases but a constructed list, inviting reflection as to its organization and content.
Many of the statements are objective dictionary-like definitions, but nearly equally many are subjective. Does this fact put into question the objectivity of definitional assertions, or render subjective opinions on par with objective truths? Of course judgment enters into creating definitions, but surely we can agree that “snow is cold.” Almost all of these declarations, including the more subjective phrases (“Sheep are boring animals,” “Children do not make good chefs”), are noncontroversial truisms. Regardless, spectators are drawn into questioning the connections and reacting to the statements (agreeing, disagreeing, laughing), thus participating in making theatre of the performance.
A few associations with the text and performance come to mind. For example, Jim Fletcher’s delivery sounds like Steven Wright on his 1985 comedy album I Have a Pony, and the staccato rhythm recalls his standup routine on that record (such as Wright’s “Curiosity killed the cat, but for a while I was a suspect.”). Many of the definitions summon up Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (Bierce on love: “A temporary insanity curable by marriage”) or Samuel Johnson’s occasionally humorous/opinionated definitions in his Dictionary (“Oats: A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”). I don’t think evoking these associations is part of Etchells’ theatrical program, but they came to my mind and enhanced my enjoyment of the text. Insofar as Etchells is making us pay closer attention to language and think about why we stay in our seats, these ruminations serve to answer why I stayed and what I thought of the script as I heard it.
Etchells is interested in using language to elicit reactions, mental or physical, in his audience. Without props or technical devices, without dramatic action or plot, without dramatic performances or vocal inflection, will audiences stay? How will they react to language itself, unadorned? My experience is to try to connect the dots. Others may just enjoy the cadence of the sentences. Others are thinking about leaving. Some left. I stayed because I was lured by Fletcher’s calming presence, made my own meanings, and wanted to hear what came next.
Posted by Dusty Hoesly