Non-Verbal Language of Performance

“Postdramatic Theatre could and can be (and is indeed) read very differently depending on the culture, the tradition, and the current “scene” of the particular theater of the region…” Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatic

What does a photo of Putin on the wall signify to an audience? How does his black and white face, staring at us during New Saloon’s Minor Character, change how we see the work? The stage is set so the audience can infer meaning not just from language but also from easily recognizable artifacts that are, just as complex and descriptive as the text. 

 

Non-Verbal Cultural Signifiers

Minor Character reworks Chekhov's Uncle Vanya by turning conventional theatrical casting on its head. Utilizing experimental techniques such as multiple actors playing the same character concurrently, gender-bending, and switching characters mid-scene, New Saloon rejects the typical trappings of a Checkov play resituating it for New York audience. By exploring several translations, including Google Translate for some text of the original Russian play, New Saloon changed the traditional relationship not only between the actors and language but also between the play and its spectators.

The set was also a planned action too. There is no samovar, a necessary piece in a traditionally staged Uncle Vanya. At one point, the  three different actor playing Ashrov describe the environmental devastation to the local forest. One uses an overhead projector, anther sketches, and the third an iPad. A mink stole signifies the young and beautiful Yelena(s). The production jumblessignifiers of time and place. One very prominent signifier is a photo of Putin, which sets this play firmly in modernity allowing audiences to ponder shifting political relationships. 

Minor Character also relies on blatant visual signifiers to identify which character the actor is portraying at that moment in time. A mink stole becomes a symbol of the elite and beautiful; a pair of rubber gloves a symbol of labor. New Saloon created it's own language based on it's need to convey the well-known play to the audience in a new and exhilarating way.

But what happens when you take away language and introduce foreign cultural signifiers?

Language as Music

In the midst of a dress rehearsal Saoki Tsukada, performer and co-creator of Club Diamond, was asked by a student in the NYU class that is attending Under the Radar if she conceived of Club Diamond in English or Japanese. Tsukada explained that the performance was created like music, with each word being like a note in the score, an idea furthered by Tim Fain's onstage violin accompaniment. Music and language combine to form a cohesive performative experience.

Club Diamond is mostly spoken in Japanese, eliminating language as a tool for understanding by the English-speaking audience. Language turns into a musical instrument that leads the audience, along with visual cues, on a cultural journey. Tsukada, in the role of a Japanese Benshi, has the task of not only telling us the story but also clarifying Japanese cultural signifiers. A flying bird transforms into a symbol of luck, for example. In this performance, spoken word has become part of the musical score

Music is part of a tapestry of signifiers we use to derive meaning from the world, meaning that can change based on cultural background, among other factors. This non-verbal web gives meaning to the mundane within the world of the performance. The transformation from a realistic small bird to one patched together from tissue retains its luckiness but now also symbolizes perseverance after a loss. 

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