I’ve been working for a while on what I call “landscape” pieces: very textural, abstract pieces, collages of fairly abstract language, music, and movement, which are intended to be used to make video installations to be shown in art galleries, or else as “installation” style performances, where the audience is free to come and go and watch for however long they like.

Naturally, these pieces need to have a somewhat different style and structure from a video or a live performance which the audience is expected to sit and watch from the beginning straight through to the end.

Because these “landscape” pieces naturally refer to space, and to the environment in which they take place, it seemed a natural idea to videotape one in an evocative, interesting site. I assumed that, this way, the site itself would become the “subject” of the piece, even if only in a very abstract, textural way. (That is, the language of the piece might not refer overtly to anything in the landscape, but the textures and feelings in the voice would be inspired by the environment.)

Previously, I had always practiced this form of improvisation in my main rehearsal space, which is (all too common for underfunded artists) my apartment. I had always assumed that I could practice the form in my apartment in a way which would be quite similar to doing it outdoors on location. After all, like an outdoor location, my apartment is a specific kind of environment, with it’s own associations and feelings, and so the piece could be influenced by the environment of my apartment, just as it would be by an outdoor site.

Two weeks ago, I had my first opportunity to try videotaping this landscape form of improv in a very interesting site, a new arts center in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, which has an outdoor area which combines the look of a ruined industrial site with the backdrop of the Gowanus canal. (This was the old home of Issue Project Room.) There was a crew of just three, myself and an actress I’ve been working with, plus a videographer.

We taped the piece in one long continuous 60 minute take. The idea was that a very long take would enable me to create a kind of looped video piece to present in art galleries. I liked the idea of doing a continuous 60 minute improv, because it created an opportunity to sink deeper and deeper and deeper into the altered state of improv, in a way that you can’t achieve if you keep stopping and starting over again.

While in the middle of the improv, I was vaguely aware that it didn’t feel as good as any of the rehearsals in my apartment had. I felt that I was nowhere nearly as “saturated” with the energy and feelings of the piece as I had been in rehearsal. I was vaguely aware that it had something to do with the difficulties of the transitions, whenever we moved around in the site. Partly, it was a technical difficulty: I was using a wired lavaliere mike, and the long cable, which connected me to the videographer, became unwieldy when we moved over large distances.

However, when I watched the tape, it quickly became apparent what the real cause of the difficulty was, and it only became clearer on successive viewings.

Videotaping in a large, evocative, interesting, outdoor site was not the same as practicing in my apartment. The environment of my apartment is self-contained, and actually is not particularly poetic or evocative. It’s also very familiar to me. Because of this, when we rehearsed in the apartment, the result was that the apartment itself influenced our improv comparatively little. Most of what came out in the improv came from the internal energy and feelings of the two actors, unleashed into the space. And the result was that the improv was extremely rich, full of feeling, compelling, and even quite funny at times, although we weren’t aiming specifically for comedy.

We entered our outdoor videotaping with a vague notion that the piece “was supposed to be about the space in some way.” We were supposed to let the feeling of being in the space shape our improv. But the space itself was new to us and was extremely compelling, evocative, and much more varied than my apartment.

The result was that we were seduced by the space. We kept looking at the space, in different directions, or up at the sky, and asking ourselves “what does being here make me feel like at this moment?” There was an unspoken idea that the task of the improv was somehow to “explore the space.” What this tended to mean, in practice, was that whenever we felt a little bored, or uncomfortable, or like something had been going on too long, we succumbed to the temptation to simply move on to another location in the site, or look off in another direction, and thereby find a new texture or feeling to explore. In other words, the space provided a constant temptation to run away from whatever feelings we were exploring, and look for something “new” or “better.” The unfortunate result was that almost the whole piece was very, very superficial in tone. It was filled with our “first impressions” of different parts of the space, and almost never got inside of any of the feeling-states in anywhere near the depth we had achieved while rehearsing in my apartment. The idea, never fully acknowledged, that we were “exploring the space,” became the ultimate trick we could use for escaping from the material, and creating a kind of false, superficial “variety.” (I probably should have thought of this ahead of time, since I have always hated performances in which the director tries to “explore different ways of using the space.”)

I now realize how I should try approaching landscape improvs in an outdoor site next time:

I would instruct myself and the other actors that the goal of the piece is to explore the energy and feelings, not to “explore the space.” It’s not that I’m asking them to actually block out or pretend they don’t see the space. There is nothing to be gained in an improvisation by blocking anything out, since improv technique consists, in essence, of being aware of absolutely everything in the present moment.

Rather, I would instruct the actors to not think of focusing on the space, to not think of working primarily by drawing their performance from their reactions to the space, but think of their primary focus as the energy and feelings in the space. The goal should be to get deeper and deeper and deeper inside of this energy. Always moving in one direction only: deeper inside of the energy. If they end up physically travelling through the site during the piece, it would only be because they felt that they could get even deeper inside of the energy and feelings by moving to a new spot, not because they are “exploring parts of the space.” (This would probably result in less frequent moves.)

Of course, the feelings and energy which the actors will have at a particular site will, in reality, largely come from their response to that site, particularly if it is a varied and unusual site. Ask someone to “enter inside of the feelings and energy” they experience in an abandoned amusement park, and they will feel something totally different than they would if they were on a tropical beach at midnight. And I’m not trying to minimize that. The goal of the work would still be to create a piece which is largely “about” the site.

But if the actors think too directly that their goal is to explore the space itself, they will end up being seduced onto the level of surfaces and first impressions. On the other hand, if they stick to the goal of focussing only on the energy and feelings which they find at the site, the work will take them into a much deeper, more resonant level, and they will end up creating a truer portrait of the inner soul of the landscape.