A Visit From Paul Lazar

Harper Joy welcomed film actor, professor, and Big Dance Theater Artist Paul Lazar this past week to share Big Dance Theater’s most current touring performance, Cage Shuffle. The night prior he hosted a workshop for Whitman students and faculty focused on the performance’s process—the relationship of his fixed, choreographed movements over random-ordered stories recorded by late 20th century composer John Cage.  Similar to what Paul Lazar does during the performance, attendees of the workshop first learned a series of movements and later tried speaking text coming through ear buds at the same time as doing the motions. From that, attendees watching were able to witness how, by chance, certain dance moves accompanied moments of the stories quite profoundly. These moments of authentic communication coming out of pure chance explored not only how we make meaning out of the unintentional, but were simply a delight to see! 

Here, Paul Lazar additionally answered a few questions during his stay.

Your performance is based on a series of instructions for a performance that John Cage made in 1963. What inspired you to make a performance based upon these instructions now, in 2018?

I discovered that speaking Cage’s text (playful but meaningful anecdotes) while dancing choreography by Annie-B Parson was a joyful way to bend minds (mine and the audience’s) into a less literal way of interpreting experience. The  performance is an embrace of the absurd, the irrational, the purposeful purposelessness that we are ever engaged in, know it or not. As for the instructions. I ignored them until after I made the piece so was glad to discover, upon reading them, that I had not blatantly violated them.

The instructions for your performance involves “chance procedures”. What does that mean and how does it affect the performance from night to night?

     To me “chance procedures” are any art making strategy that employs a force outside of and bigger than the mind of the person making the work. Chance procedures allow you to make work without being the maker. That is a paradox and a very refreshing one.

What is the most challenging part of performing this piece? Do you have a favorite, or least favorite moment and why?

It’s incredible hard to remember all of the movement while telling stories and responding to the audience’s response to the stories. Certain stories are definitely favorites of mine.For example,  I love the story about the enlightened Buddhist Monk who observes, “now that I’m enlightened I’m just as miserable as ever.”

Can you describe the relationship between movement and text in this performance?

The movement is fixed, set, unchanging while the text — the stories— are told in random order and yet the two always speak to each other. The movement always expresses something about the words and vice versa. It’s utterly uncanny.

What questions does Cage Shuffle raise?  for you? for the audience?

For me it always raises the question — the challenge really — of how present I can be with the audience. All of the elements of the piece happily cohabitate if I can be with the elements and the audience and if the judging mind stays relatively quiet. I don’t know what questions the piece raises for the audience.

Now regarding specifically you aside from Cage Shuffle: How would you define a successful production or project?

A project is a success if it ends up being something entirely other than what I initially conceived it to be. If it has changed that indicates that it has a life of its own and has gone its own way and that I’m just following it rather than guiding it.

What lessons did you learn from your least successful production or project?

Ugghh. Don’t do it if you aren’t willing to spill your own blood. If you coast along it will come to nothing and be embarrassing and there’s no taking it back.

What are you reading or viewing or listening to (or all 3!) these days for pure enjoyment?

I am reading a book called “Factfullness” which makes the very convincing and factual case that world is more peaceful and healthier than it has ever been. It does not advocate that people be complacent but it puts one’s fears, frustrations and anxiety into a realistic context.

In addition to our curricular and production offerings, we also invite guest artists to work with our students as part of our Guest Artist Program. This program is made possible through a generous endowment that allows working professionals to visit the Whitman Campus and share their expertise, experience, and talent with our theatre students.