- The Builders Association: Performance and Media in Contemporary Theater by Shannon Jackson and Marianne Weems
In many ways, the form of The Builders Association: Performance and Media in Contemporary Theater aligns with the processes, performances, and ideologies that The Builders Association has developed over the past two decades. The book and the company it documents are both part of a genealogy of performance-makers that have become increasingly difficult to categorize, document, and translate into scholarship. The Builders have forged a reputation for creating hypermediated spectacles, ones that employ reflexive and diverse sets of technologies, resulting from complex, holistic interactions among designers and performers; so too do the authors of The Builders Association book mobilize a multivalent approach to generating this archive and their analysis.
In order to achieve this, the coauthors—Builders Association’s Artistic Director Marianne Weems and scholar Shannon Jackson—have constructed a historical account that includes anecdotal information about the genesis of projects, working process, and company life; documents such as production photography, stills and excerpts from inspirational source material and performance texts, and schematic diagrams both drafted on computers and cocktail napkins (many cocktail napkins); and reflections and critical texts on the company from performers, dramaturgs, designers, and scholars. Jackson and Weems have undertaken the impressive task of amalgamating and distilling The Builders’ archive and generating a critical text that not only does a marvelous job of explaining the company’s significance and legacy to intermedial practice and scholarship, but also extends the analysis to highlight significant trends and contradictions in contemporary performance at large.
While many characterize The Builders’ performances as technologically driven, Weems has consistently attempted to shift attention away from the question of technology since the company’s very first production of The Master Builder in 1994, and she tries to maintain this in the book: “The technology itself is not the point: it’s the ideas we’re talking about” (384). The tendency to emphasize technology is understandable, as it permeates the work in form and content: the isolation enabled by microphones and video in the bare-bones house of The Master Builder (1994), the play on cinematic illusion staged live in both Imperial Motel (Faust) (1996) and Jump Cut (Faust) (1997), and the meditation on the impact of digital media on consumerism, travel, family, and history in more recent pieces such as Alladeen (2002), Super Vision (2005), and House/Divided (2011). The group has employed media as diverse as video and sound processing, facial morphing software, computer animation, and hydraulic collapsible screens to tell their stories. The technology is sometimes the explicit subject, but often it is not; it is merely the shifting cultural literacy that The Builders observe in their own artistic and everyday impulses, as well as in the lives of their audiences. Weems avoids moralizing or featuring the technology as the centerpiece, attributing the group’s choices to the audiences their work is speaking to: “We were in a generative moment where a smart audience was rising, with their smartphones, and we were talking to them. That was the atmosphere in which this work was created” (393). To respond to this “smart audience,” Jackson and Weems claim the company “is thus part of an aesthetic process that ‘makes foreign’ the same sensibilities, bodily positions, functions of speech, and parcels of visibility that it shares with other arts and with contemporary society—even when those positions, functions, and parcels happened to register as new technology” (11). Moments that illustrate this process jump out from the text, such as an invitation from Weems to lighting designer Jennifer Tipton to join the ensemble of The Master Builder with the conceit that [End Page 160] the piece was to be conceived and built in rehearsal. For The Builders, “every week is tech week” (46).
The book is divided into chapters that highlight each of the company’s nine productions, and a clever series of sections within each chapter illustrates the various components of The Builders’ process...