Academic journal article TheatreForum

FRAMING METROPOLIS: Performing Theatre Affect at the Burning Man Project, 2010

Academic journal article TheatreForum

FRAMING METROPOLIS: Performing Theatre Affect at the Burning Man Project, 2010

Article excerpt


-Peter Brook, The Empty Space

Our truck is loaded high with camping equipment, bicycles, musical instruments, and plastic bins loaded with costumes and trinkets. Gypsy-like, we drive up Highway 395 through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Lake Tahoe, and then out into the vast openness of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. It is Burn Week, the Burning Man Project's annual production of the temporary Black Rock City (BRC), in which I have been participating for the past four years. 54,454 people made the pilgrimage to BRC this year and brought with them, as usual, jaw-dropping art, including interactive installation pieces, a cacophony of music and sound art, ArtCars, theatrical performances, and, of course, fire.

I was thirteen the first year Larry Harvey (credited founder of Burning Man) burned The Man on Baker Beach in San Francisco. I had already been acting onstage for nine years and was in the midst of beginning my professional acting training. In 1991, the year Burning Man moved to the desert, the personal computer became popular, the World Wide Web was preparing to launch, and the American alternative theatre of the sixties and seventies was becoming institutionalized. I was headed to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts to train as an actress in various methods with a focus on realism. I studied Stanislavski's system and a mish-mash of those whose work is based on his methods, including Adler, Strasberg, and Meisner. More important to this article is my intensive study with the Experimental Theatre Wing and subsequent work with Elizabeth Swados, Mabou Mines, and others inspired by the likes of Jerzy Grotowski, Joseph Chaikin, Richard Schechner, Michael Kirby, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theater. By the time I returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, the Burning Man Project was in full swing. This was the year, 1997, that I learned of the event's existence through word of mouth, though the annual event had already become an Internet phenomenon. Passing it off as something interesting but too expensive to invest in, I put it on the back burner until I was gifted a ticket ten years later, in 2007.

During my first year, I began to see similarities between the artistic intentions of the Burning Man Project and the performative goals of experimental theatre forms inspired by theorists such as Artaud, Brecht, and Brook. I see many relevant themes: exploration or transcendence of the self through artistic practice and interactivity, the relationship of that self to society and politics, a desire to use art to create community, a disregard for the status-quo, a return to ritual, and a shift from dependency on words to a more visual focus as discussed by Theodore Shank in American Alternative Theatre (see especially pages 4-7 and chapter 5). Because there are infinite ways to experience Burning Man, the way I want to share my assessments is through a few of the phenomenological lenses I use to frame my journeys on the playa, a term used to refer to the ancient alkaline salt bed's dusty ground, or to describe the open expanse in the center of BRC.

My intense experience of Burn Week often produces radical self-reflection and, at times, transformation. I perform aspects of myself, as many Burners do, and often use acting skills to do so. I perform identities that I and others ascribe to myself, or rather I use various lenses to conduct my performance, such as: actress, teacher, director, singer, puppeteer, outdoor explorer, photographer, community leader, spiritual seeker, psychic, haphazard philosopher, techno geek, and performance scholar. It is through these lenses that I ingest and co-create Black Rock City.

Armed with my goggles, dust mask, sun block, camera, water bottle, and work gloves, I crawl into the truck at 5:00 a.m., in Tahoe, and we head to Black Rock. …

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