If you go to a theater show right now (and you can!), often you’ll see an experimental form that is in the process of shifting from a strategy of “no touch” performance to “light touch.” We don’t have to stay sealed behind our laptop screens anymore … but you still sense the fear inherent to plunking a bunch of vaccinated people down together, no matter what the CDC or the governor says. In a light-touch work, presence is often the show’s subject and focus — the in-person-ness of the event is its point. But the artists must handle that presence delicately. To navigate union rules, pandemic concerns, and audience discomfort, a theatermaker might miniaturize her audience to a handful of people, or put the performers behind glass, or turn the theater into an installation space. How many of the theatrical conventions can be subtracted from the live experience? Light-touch shows and their uncanny caressing quality is the hallmark of this weird pre-dawn period.
My favorite light-touch performance lately was Liminal Archive, an odd, heartfelt, porous work at the New Ohio, part of that theater’s Ice Factory Festival. When I say “odd,” I mean that I found myself walking out behind a guy who said “that was the weirdest theater I’ve ever seen” — which tells you both it’s adventurous and that there’s a man in the East Village who hasn’t truly lived. The show is the product of the Al Límite collective — an online, post-pandemic nexus maintained by an international group of artists. The performance is a physicalization of that digital archive, the child of more than a dozen creative parents, a tangle of interactive elements, projected videos, and audio recordings sourced from all over the world.
In the darkened New Ohio (under what must be the lowest ceiling in Manhattan), small pods of masked viewers walk between “vans,” little frame-built tents parked in a circle, rather like Romani vardos. When we’re prompted to engage, we peer inside each one, where we can see and participate in a five-minute performance. One is a slow, exquisite dance performed by Ann Treesa Joy in a space only two feet square; another is a short interview, conducted by the gentle-eyed shaman Philip Santos Schaffer, who hands out treasures from a pile of costume jewelry. Did anyone else do a lot of online shopping? they ask, and when we nod, they smile beatifically. Each of the six microshows involves some kind of glancing touch — eye contact, a pressed hand, an offer to consider our dead. After we’ve seen all six, the performers draw us into a circle to watch them dance; then they offer more videos from the far-flung collective. All told, it takes maybe 45 minutes.
The secret to this kind of fluid, seemingly borderless work is actually hidden discipline. The Liminal Archive is the sort of scrappy underground production that depends heavily on Christmas lights and the theatergoers’ goodwill, but despite (or because of) its material poverty, it takes scrupulous care of the audience. The producing directors Leah Bachar, Dennis Yueh-Yeh Li, and Monica Dudárov Hunken have agreed on a structure that moves the watchers around swiftly and confidently; every section of this crazy-quilt performance is brief enough to intrigue us but long enough to develop a thought. It displays the dramaturgy necessary to light-touch work, an attunement to how much an audience can sustain its attention in the absence of the usual interest-generators like plot. And despite the many folks involved, there’s a shared, modest intention behind the whole thing. This restraint registers as a kind of ragged elegance. In two places during the show, we hear a text by Ireri Romero: “I close my eyes and suddenly I feel a network of invisible threads that cover my entire body.” The collective makes us feel this sense of connectivity, first by demonstrating their own decentralized artistic partnership, then by sewing us — with six quick stitches — into their tapestry.
That question of duration is a serious one. Given too much time, light-touch work can easily grow precious. For instance, at the Public Theater, there’s 600 Highwaymen’s prepare-to-engage event, A Thousand Ways: Part Two (The Encounter). At your appointed showtime, you walk into an empty theater to meet a single, randomly assigned, masked counterpart, who sits at a table across from you, separated by a plane of Plexiglas. Alone in the theater, the two of you read dialogue from provided cue cards, everything from your “Hellos” to an approximation of small talk (“Do you know how to rewire a lamp?”). There are gestures at deeper conversations (“Are you ill?”), and it takes only a few such strokes to make us sense the well of unknowability on the other side of the glass. It’s clever, as are all 600 Highwaymen’s shows, but every time we were told to count silently to five, I resented the enforced air of poignancy. Also, the show is clearly built for a pre-vaccination era. Is regular conversation really so difficult? (Afterwards, I simply walked outside and found my duet partner, and we said “hi” face to face.) I found A Thousand Ways a cloying experience, but it’s grown in my memory. Looking back I think of it as a strange museum exhibit in which a stranger and I dutifully performed a kind of fear we didn’t feel any longer. It was June, but there we were, acting as our March selves for an audience of none.
Speaking of dioramas, the Signature Theater has mounted a barely coordinated light-touch work called The Watering Hole under the aegis of playwright Lynn Nottage, who has assembled more than a dozen theatermakers to make environments meant to speak to the current moment. (Nottage’s contribution is primarily as conceiver and curator, while co-creator Miranda Haymon directed the overall production.) Here, as in A Thousand Ways, there are no in-person performers aside from ushers and the theatergoers themselves. Small audience groups are guided on a structured walk through the empty Signature complex, encountering recorded work or installations somehow connected to water, including a film by Ryan J. Haddad about swimming with cerebral palsy and a nearly inaudible recording of a text by the gifted writer nicHi douglas.
In this haphazard array, there’s some lovely work, but unfortunately, some of it devolves past preciousness and into kindercore. Parts of the Signature look as though they’ve been turned over to a primary school. In one corridor, an artist has literally thumbtacked random water-related poems to a corkboard — I kept looking around for those construction paper Thanksgiving turkeys we all made by tracing our hands. Surely we missed the theater for reasons other than this? There’s also a moment, early in the tour, in which audience members are asked to write a postcard to someone in prison. What? Just take a few minutes, toss something off, and some benighted soul will be grateful for whatever pablum you put down? The cavalier pomposity and condescension of that gesture still shock me. It might be my imagination, but I could swear our guide was apologizing with her eyes as she motioned to the postcards. I turned my back and wandered away. There are other things to see.
Liminal Archive is at the New Ohio through July 17.
A Thousand Ways: Part Two is at the Public Theater through August 15.
The Watering Hole is at the Signature Theater through August 8.