by LEON SEAMAN In my first two posts, I noted all-too-briefly how Gary Yamasaki’s work on point-of-view planes influenced my own work of Markan performance. I attended to some aspects, but not to others, of certain scenes, and my inattention has drawn critique from Yamasaki, joined by Robert Tannehill. To address their concerns let me first discuss my own live, solo performance model, then offer more detail on how and why I perform as I do the scene on which their critique is focused, Mark 6.47-52.
Live solo performance is quite different from reading literature or watching film. A silent reader is free to imagine a scene in her own mind’s eye, to look back or ahead in the text, and to play with a variety of ‘takes’ on the scene at her leisure, responding to, or resisting, directions encoded in the text. It can be a rich, yet very private experience. Audiences of others are excluded.
A film is the fixed, and final, ‘realistic’ end product of a long interpretive process, involving many ‘takes’, and a host of actors and technicians, technological equipment and tricks, all guided by a director. It is intended for an audience, who can be richly and imaginatively engaged in it, but are remote from the live performances frozen into it.
Live solo performance is real-time interaction between a live audience and a performer who embodies and/or voices every role and word: narrator and characters. As director, s/he blocks and rehearses many ‘takes’, but in any given performance presents only one. S/he is narrator and characters, often both simultaneously. Narrated and/or embodied interaction between characters, especially in dialogue, may be dramatized by a simple step to one side and/or a turn of the head, but may be more complex, and solo performance simply cannot achieve the ‘realism’ of film, or even of traditional drama.
So why bother with live solo performance? Here are some reasons: 1) It is the original delivery medium of biblical texts; 2) It is a rare opportunity for audiences to experience a whole text at one sitting; 3) It is simpler than assembling and rehearsing a cast for stage or film; 4) The very liveness of performance is uniquely raw and risky, but also rich, with heightened potential for spontaneous insight and transformation in both performer and audience. But, let me be clear. Scripture can be read silently and filmed as well as performed live. I do not think there is one right way, or even one correct model for live performance itself.
The SBL pioneers of Markan performance have tended toward a storytelling model. This is very well done and exemplified in Phil Ruge-Jones’ DVD of Mark, available from Select Learning. A skilled stand up storyteller, he moves mostly from side to side before an audience with expressive tone, gesture, and embodiment, but without props and with limited movement in depth, from front to back.
Soon after I began blocking Mark, I realized its two hours is a long time for contemporary audiences, used to action movies, to sit and listen to a story, even one told well, with dramatic tone and gesture. Ruge-Jones and veterans like David Rhoads and Tom Boomershine confirmed this in conversation.
I adopted a more dramatic, ‘performance art’ model, using a deeper stage and minimal props arranged to suggest and to differentiate between enclosed and unenclosed space. Moving round this imaginatively structured stage helps me to 1) vary the focus and hold audience attention; and 2) accentuate, visually as well as audibly, similarities and differences in type scenes in enclosed (synagogue, house, boat, etc.) and open space (crowds, desert feedings, etc.). Such forecasts and echoes, and variation-within-repetition are keys to presenting and ‘getting’ Mark’s oral-performative narrative.
Now to our scene. I have included a diagram showing my movement on stage. The props are a low bench and two stools (same height), here suggesting the seats in a boat pointing NE on the page. The text is my own translation; bold letters correspond to those on the diagram, with some stage directions.
(A) And when evening came, [gesture toward boat] the boat was out in the middle of the sea, and [indicate self] he was alone on the land. And [shade eyes, look at boat] he saw them struggling to make headway, ‘cause the wind was against them [gesture to indicate wind in face].
So in the early hours of the morning (B) [walk toward boat, but speak to audience] he comes toward them, walking on the sea.
And (C) [halt, and gesture ahead of the boat] he intended to go by them, but when [gesture toward boat] they saw him [indicate self] walking on the sea, they [gesture toward boat, and in narrator’s voice, but rising expressively] thought it was a ghost, and they cried out, ‘cause they all saw him, and were alarmed! But right away he spoke to them, and says to them, [As Jesus] “Take heart! I am here! Don’t be afraid!”
And (D) he [step up and down] got up into the boat (E) with them, and [same voice and stiff-bodied-raised-hand gesture as at 4.39 to emphasize the verbal echo] the wind stopped [pause]. And [gesture around the boat] they were completely astounded in themselves, ‘cause they hadn’t understood about the loaves. No! Their hearts were hardened! (my translation).
Now let me address more specifically the issue of how to view, and whether to embody, the disciples in this scene. Jesus is the primary point-of-view character. While both he and the disciples “saw” each other, and we are given inside views of both, only he has actual embodied action and voiced speech: he came …walking …; right away he spoke to them, “Take heart …”; he got up into the boat ….
Their reactions are almost all narrated inside views or emotional states: When they saw him walking …, they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, ‘cause they all saw him and were alarmed! Their only act, a cry, is not voiced. Here is where film would excel, with shots of anxious faces, and hazy views of an unrecognizable Jesus on the water. In solo performance I have a dilemma. As Jesus at C, I still have lines to deliver. Stepping into the boat to be disciples, then out to be Jesus again is awkward—I tried it.
After he got up into the boat, and the wind stopped, recalling the first storm, they were … astonished! Then, on top of the damning inside views, comes a particularly damning piece of narratorial commentary: ‘cause they hadn’t understood about the loaves. No! Their hearts were hardened! These are significant statements in the process of upsetting audience expectations that the disciples, as insiders, will understand (cf. 4.10-12), and will be different from the hard hearts, who plot to kill Jesus (3.5).
In deciding to remain at C and to expressively narrate the disciples’ reaction, I was guided by what both Yamasaki (Watching a Biblical Narrative, 180) and Tannehill (“Disciples”, see esp. 392-3) recognize as the distancing effect of the critique here, coupled with their lack of speech and action. I like the terminology Yamasaki uses in his latest work, Perspective Criticism (10), and have adopted it as a useful rule of thumb: is the text leading me to a subjective experience of a character, a merging with; or to an objective experience, a distancing from (10). Here I have to say, it feels quite objective.
Yamasaki, in his critique of my insufficiently detailed post, faults me for simply narrating the disciples role, but he himself thinks, “distance-producing dynamics on the informational plane” make it “inappropriate to execute a pure embodying of them [the disciples].” Perhaps the expressive narratorial voicing and gesture I actually aim for in the scene will better fill the middle ground he seems to be searching for.
I agree with Tannehill: the caricaturing of the disciples is done with pastoral, not polemical intent. This humorous, thus oblique critique—he calls it indirect communication (“Disciples”, 405)—is directed at living audiences/readers, not long dead disciples. In this scene, though, the distance is quite pronounced.
I revisited the translation and blocking of the scene for this response, and think one could make a case for the following script and directions for the disciples’ initial reaction: And (C) [halt, and gesture ahead of the boat] he intended to go by them, but when [gesture toward boat] they saw him [indicate self] walking on the sea, they [gesture toward boat, and in disciples’ voice] thought, “It’s a ghost” and cried out [inarticulate sound], ‘cause they all saw him, and were alarmed! But right away …. This would give the disciples some voice, and I’m not sure my position relative to the boat is that big of a concern. It’s imaginative, after all!
I want to thank both these scholars for the guidance their work provides, and for the challenge to clarify my own thinking and practice. A strength of live performance is its openness to spontaneous insight and change in performer and audience. Seeds planted in conversations like this can germinate in performance!