Performance artist creates theatrical
experience just ‘For You’
By Lily Janiak Updated 2:04 pm, Monday, April 3, 2017
The multidisciplinary performance artist Erika Chong Shuch knows that the whole concept of “For You” can sound elitist and exclusionary, so low-impact as to risk pointlessness. A year is a long time to spend planning, producing, writing, rehearsing and performing a show that only 12 audience members, who have to apply to be a part, get to see.
That all depends, however, on how you measure cost and impact.
“I was just curious around what happens when the performance isn’t something that you’re necessarily entitled to, that $20 cannot buy you access (to),” she says over coffee in early February. What if instead, “it takes commitment. ... It costs you something beyond $20. It costs you your time; it costs you your vulnerability. It costs you your stress, your energy, the risk that you’ve taken.”
Those costs, as envisioned by Shuch and collaborators A. Ghigo DiTomasso, Rowena Richie and Ryan Tacata, are demanded by the application prompts of “For You”: to create a map of home, create a self-portrait, take a photograph of a favorite object and “mail us a postcard in response to the prompt, ‘What happened?’” Audience members must then give still more, during a series of “home visits,” where artists ask about audience members’ childhoods and relationships, hopes and shames and fears. Responses inform the eventual performance, about which audiences know nothing in advance, not even where it’s to take place, just that they have to block off the entire day of Saturday, April 1.
Though “For You” might sound like a sui generis experience, it’s also part of a growing trend of individualized theater pieces. Battersea Arts Center and Theater for One have staged on-one-one theater experiences in New York. Like the “For You” crew, Odyssey Works creates pieces for particular people, but their studies, each of one audience member, take months. Shuch also cites the work of Brian Lobel in Britain, one of whose pieces, “you have to forgive me ...” involves one-on-one watching of a “Sex and the City” episode.
Shuch sees “For You” in part as her way of resisting the Trump administration. “One of the only things that’s making sense to me is deep, meaningful, personal connections and trying really hard to understand people who experience the world in a different way than I do.”
It’s also part of an effort to make her art feel less “general,” she says. “You put something out into the world, and there’s this assumption that everyone is interested. We start to gauge success based on those numbers — how many people are in the audience.” As a result, “we in the theater world start to get really general around demographic success. It becomes a series of boxes that we check.”
Shuch supports the goal of making theater more open and democratic, but wanted to find a means “that feels honest and true to me.” She decided to “look at what we want our ideal audience to be and find 12 people that suit that” across age, gender and other spectra. The result is “audience development as relationship development” and a value on impact that isn’t broad, but deep.
“For You,” as its title suggests, is envisioned as a gift. “It’s not art-making to serve me,” says Shuch. “It does serve me, but it’s not me processing my own grief or my own feelings or my own issues, which performance-making had always been for me.”
And I was one of the lucky recipients.
As the four artists visit my house in February and March, I use photos and letters, wedding gifts and scraps of paper, song and inept dance to bring my family and work to life. I relish the uproarious visits, even though they also feel a bit constructed. When in life do you get to hold forth about yourself for so long, without ever being expected to requite with a question about someone else? Ultimately, the artists’ generosity, compassion and curiosity quell my misgivings. They are giving me the gift of their interest, and I must reciprocate with the gift of my candor.
The performance itself is an embarrassment of gifts, Easter eggs tailor-made for each of the 12 of us but that also, somehow, weave into a coherent whole. We stage a nonsensical public protest and drive to an unknown destination, which turns out to be the Marin Headlands. There we witness a silent dance, whose 12 dancers wear name tags of the 12 audience members; at sunset, audience members reenact the same choreography, with the aid of individualized instructions on portable cassette players.
We are sent up and down craggy peaks to witness small hillside performance pieces; I get a head scratch, my favorite thing, and a reading of “Medea,” my favorite Greek classic, from artist Naomi Newman. (You haven’t experienced the tragedy until it’s been read to you from behind, one hand menacingly on your shoulder.)
In a dusty barn, we get to select from a menu of short performance pieces. I motivate an original a cappella arrangement of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” a square-dance-inflected caricature of “Buried Child,” as well as many, many reenactments of the time my mother spilled red wine on my father’s white sweater.
We’re served a formal dinner, with each appetizer, libation and main dish springing from a story or favorite indulgence of one of the 12. (A highlight includes “self-care chicken.”) At the meal, I wish we audience members had had a chance to get acquainted with each other to at least some degree that the artists had gotten to know each of us. As it was, we were at the perfect dinner party, but still seated among strangers.
On the whole, being an audience member to “For You” reminded me of my wedding, where all kith and kin from different sections of my life were in one place. I remember having thought, on that day, “I will henceforth walk through life with a sense that I am charmed; because I have experienced this, I will forever have a well of magic to draw from.” The only time since I’ve felt that was during “For You” — and I hope, long after.
To see pictures and read article in SFGATE see http://www.sfgate.com/performance/article/Theater-made-just-For-You-11047155.php
For You: To apply for the next round, beginning in September, visit the APPLY section from the main menu.