theater review

A Play for Your Ears Only: Heather Christian’s Prime: A Practical Breviary

Heather Christian, creator of Prime: A Practical Breviary (seen here performing in Animal Wisdom in 2017). Photo: Maria Baranova/Courtesy of The Bushwick Starr

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Theatrical watching is a usually a very specific way of looking: In a theater seat, the chin comes up, the gaze adjusts for distance, the attention roves. We take in a stage set like a landscape — all at once in one moment, then in focus and detail the next. That has … changed. Now, for those who spend all their working time at a computer, “going to a show” is no longer very different from the rest of the day. Everywhere you click online, there’s performance to see — but it’s under-your-nose theater, a foot-from-your-face theater. If it works, it makes you lean even closer. As digital projects come geysering up through our screens — micro commissions, archival videos, Zoom readings, desk-side concerts — we’ve realized that many of the digital-theater forms are pretty good at creating intimacy. What the screen can’t do so far is create that specific sense of theatrical distance. And what if that’s what you crave?

The answer to that problem for me this week was audio-only performance. I wasn’t listening to radio plays, which are abundant, but to a pair of something elses: for-your-ears-only works that both tried new twists on the form. One’s a song cycle; the other’s a live phone call. Both let your eyes, exhausted from glaring at laptop pixels, rise up to the horizon and rest. Both of them also fixed the problem of my own online-audience mind — its tendency to wander. Watching works on Play Per-View or YouTube, my attention flickers; I open tabs; I multitask; I prop my phone up on the toaster and do the dishes. These pieces allowed a different type of concentration.

Last year, long before we were all thinking about coronavirus, Playwrights Horizons started commissioning audio dramas for a free podcast project called Soundstage. The team built up a stable of writers including Jordan Harrison, Qui Nguyen, Lucas Hnath, and Robert O’Hara, planning to release the lushly produced results in the summer, programming for the fallow time. Well, fallow came early. Now Soundstage is available immediately, wherever you get your podcasts, and the first piece, singer-songwriter Heather Christian’s exquisite Prime: A Practical Breviary, is ready for listening. It’s a lovely choice to have Prime as the first horse out of the gate — it’s uncannily appropriate now.

Prime is a series of Christian’s neo-roots songs with occasional spoken musings; it’s not a plot, a narrative, or a drama of any kind. But it’s not a 37-minute Americana album either. If you take its title as a directive, Prime is a tool for your personal affirmation and contemplation, a 37-minute rosary. A breviary is a liturgical guide used for Catholic prayer at key hours throughout the day, and 6 a.m. (or prime) is the first of the day. So Christian has designed her song-and-sermons cycle as a step-by-step guide to accompany waking up and walking forward into a new morning.

The first song doesn’t ask too much. “First of all open the door,” Christian sings, “Ask for a shadow whose long light increases / but first of all open the door.“ Then she rouses us into a state of readiness, singing tight-woven harmonies made with loops of her own recorded voice (Matt Hubbs is the sound designer). “I believe in working,” she sings with new conviction, and work suddenly starts to seem like a good idea. Why not? You just have to feed an appetite, she says, or lift with your knees. Over the piece’s half hour, Christian’s beautiful voice guides us on a pathway from these little requests (“open the door”) to larger ones, poetic urgings to think about a world that is coming to light all around you. She then argues that these mental processes — now fully awake — can be generative in and of themselves: “You name the world, it names you back.”

“Make a lamp with your thinking,” Christian sings, forging on ahead of you, trying to get you to follow her. The lyrics and the arrangements both become more percussive — nearly in tears during a brief liturgy, she insists that “This day of struggle and fasting must be turned into a day of joy.” Her answer to that command is to turn musically toward the church (gospel and praise song) and socially toward bigger and bigger ensembles. And then, as she delivers us into the day, she returns to her own plaintive voice, closely shadowed by another woman’s harmony. “I’m not gonna lie and tell you it’ll all be okay / but if we get through today, baby, it just might.” I’ve listened to Prime three times in two days, and not once did I listen at its designated hour of six o’clock. But each time it had the effect of a trumpet-playing reveille. No matter what it says on your watch, it’s morning again.

Prime lightly nudges us into a guided meditation, but the second piece was more truly interactive — an “immersive” phone performance with a single actor, who calls you up at a set time and solicits various responses via text and voice. Like Soundstage, the Candle House Collective has been in motion since long before the virus hit, so their tools are sharp — nothing’s being figured out on the fly. The Collective has remounted five of their remote shows (they also stage in-person immersive events) to meet the current need. I chose a piece by Evan Neiden, Next Time, a 50-minute-long, very The Good Place–ish conversation with a caseworker for the recently deceased. All five productions are now sold out — the revivals were amuses bouche for whatever they’re making next — but there are still a few takeaways.

Being live on the phone forces you to connect, to focus, without that hellish sensation of being Zoom-watched. My caseworker (a caffeinated Katy Murphy) asked me questions about quite personal issues — when had I felt so afraid I couldn’t move, for example — yet the anonymity of our connection made it seem less invasive than your typical audience participation. Also, over the last few weeks, phone conversation has changed its connotations; with video-conferencing aesthetics taking over both remote work and social gathering, the sound of a voice on the phone is now even more tightly associated with begging for administrative relief. You’re on the phone today? Then you might be calling your bank, trying to get an elusive small-business loan, or on hold for four hours with the unemployment office. Since Next Time’s conceit includes an incompetent bureaucrat trying to funnel you between reincarnation options, the on-the-phone-ness of the encounter heightened its Kafkaesque qualities. The phone is for frustration. The phone is for fear.

The great actor and clown Bill Irwin said in his post to Lily Houghton’s @theatrewithouttheater Instagram that in this forced isolation, he’s going back to old projects — not for entertainment, but like a “farmer looking at old crop reports” to get to know the soil better. Similarly, this moment of wild digital transition is the chance to look at components of performance separately and carefully, to better understand our earth, one mineral at a time. My caseworker in Next Time asked me at one point which sense was most important to me. “Sight,” I said, no doubt about it, final answer. Looking at performance has been my top go-to entertainment for more than 40 years. (I particularly love plays with supertitles — you get to watch a show and read? Bingo, my two favorite activities.) This week, though, was a good time to try to work out what an audience member gets from just listening. You get deliberateness and introspection, it turns out. You narrow the sensory intake valve, and the pressure does go up. Vision is our fast sense, programmed for a cataract of content; our hearing is slower, tied to the parts of the brain that program deep memory. I wonder if I’ll remember these pieces better than the 10,000 Zoom windows I had open on my laptop last night. I guess I have a lot of time to find out.

A Play for Your Ears Only: Prime: A Practical Breviary