P. O. T. S. spells POTS
Images from Bruce Wall's Alphabet exhibit, used with permission
“Do you know what I mean? You know what I mean.”
That question and answer occurred over and over during James Weiss’ lecture called Alphabet Soup, given at the Allentown Art Museum on February 8th. His performance was a response to Bruce Wall’s “26 of my Favorite Letters,” an installment of art works inspired by each letter of the alphabet. This refrain returned at the end of every verse in Weiss’ rap-like rhyme about three-letter abbreviations.
I had the privilege of being able to attend this exhibit and performance/lecture. Since I am a former student of Mr. Wall’s, I was delighted to see his work displayed in the Allentown Art Museum, and the performance/lecture appealed to me as a theater director. It was wonderful to experience performance art, which combined two of my favorite art media.
The show started out with a video showing floating alphabets. A man dressed in black, with a handyman belt around his waist and magnifying goggles on his eyes, entered the gallery with a ladder. Leaning the ladder against the wall, he climbed up to play with the letters that were floating in the projected image, sometimes looking as though he controlled their movements.
After a time, he climbed down, picked up his ladder, and walked towards the back of the room. Perhaps I should say that he “danced.” His progression of movement down the middle aisle evoked the image of refined courtly dances of former times. This image was enhanced by the Baroque music in the background, which with Mr. Weiss kept in time.
At the end of his dance, he leaned the ladder against another wall (conveniently placing the ladder between letters K and L) and climbed up to retrieve a rope. A tug of war brought Mr. Weiss back to the beginning of the exhibit: the letter A. As he pulled against the rope, he sounded out “ah…ah…ah…ah…” until a young child in attendance called out, “It’s A!” Like a true performer, Mr. Weiss didn’t miss a beat; he acknowledged the interaction, then continued with his piece, asking:
“Why don’t the vowels have buckets?”
Those were the first words of the performance. All of the consonants in Mr. Wall’s collection had a large metal bucket hanging underneath them. The vowels did not. With that question, Mr. Weiss jumped into a performance, playing around with words and teaching some history on the evolution of making words a part of visual art.
From a performance standpoint, there were three notable parts. The first was the opening ladder dance. The second was a moment when he chopped wood into smaller and smaller sections until it could not be chopped any smaller. The third was the three-letter abbreviation rhyme in which he rattled off many of the shortcuts we take to communication: FYI, BRB, LOL, etc.
The log splitting was very powerful. I don’t remember what came before or after that moment in the presentation, but I remember watching him cut the wood and hearing him say “I cut my wood smaller.” I was mesmerized. Regardless of the why Mr. Weiss split logs in his performance, he was a hundred percent committed to his task, and that commitment made it compelling. As an aside, that’s why it’s extremely important that actors give a hundred percent commitment to the actions they choose to take on stage. One--Hundred percent commitment is much more likely to captivate your audience than anything less.
In the greater context of performance’s emphasis on letters, the cutting up of wood reminded me of the reading I’ve been doing about crafting sentences: the need to control and shape your sentences until they say exactly what you want them to, until the log is cut exactly as you want.
Hearing the history of combining letters and words into art was fascinating. Mr. Weiss discussed the power and the importance of words and how dependent we are on words. He showed a painting in progress of the Grand Canyon where in which letters are scribbled across the stone, emphasizing that we need words to be able to name things: mountains, grass, and canyons. As the discussion continued, I couldn’t help but think of The Word. As a Christian, there is a connection for me between the power of words and The Word (Jesus Christ) Who spoke life, creation, and words into being. I didn’t go into the event looking for a connection between the art and my faith, but it was awesome to be prompted by the performance and the art pieces to mediate on The Word.
Mr. Weiss bookended his performance by asking again: “Why don’t the vowels have buckets?” Some of the audience members asked for an explanation from the artist, but none was given. Mr. Wall and Mr. Weiss both encouraged those present to get up close and personal with the art, ponder it, and make their own conclusions.
The only critique I would offer to Mr. Weiss to consider polishing if he had future Alphabet Soup performances would be to tighten up some of the gaps. There were several moments which transitioned back and forth between responding to Mr. Walls’ work and lecturing on art history. Those transitions dragged a bit at times, due perhaps to technology or maybe looking at notes. Either way, tightening up those transitions would make the performance even stronger.
Despite some slow transitions, the performance was great. I appreciated Mr. Weiss’ passion, intensity, openness, and (especially) commitment to the task, because (as I said earlier) commitment to the task is one of the most important and difficult jobs for a performer. In that regard, Mr. Weiss excelled.
It was a wonderful event, and it was especially exciting to see so many families present. The room was packed full with children. I’m extremely thankful to Mr. Wall and Mr. Weiss for putting together a collaborative exhibit that exposes children to my two favorite art forms. I loved watching the kids interact with the artwork and hearing them laugh and giggle in response to Mr. Wiess. Seeing such a successful combination of visual and performance art stokes my dreams for POTS to have its own space one day where we can have an art gallery as a part of our theater.
I wish you all could go see the artwork and ponder the interchange between words and art, but unfortunately the exhibit is no longer up. Please check out Mr. Wall's website, as all of the letters are pictured there.
Here’s to more crossovers among the visual, literary, and theatrical worlds!