notes on happenings

Ive been reading a book by Mariellen R.Sandford called ‘Happenings and Other Acts’ . The first Chapter is an essay on ‘Happenings’ and i liked it so much i made 2 pages of notes on it. There are notes that re-interpret the essay for me to understand it better. here they are –

Notes on two essays by Micheal Kirby (the futurist performance essay will come soon)

Happenings – Micheal Kirby

The first chapter attempts to clarify what Happenings are and demystify them. Common views on happenings is that they are occurrences, with no rehearsals or script, performed moments or interventions with chance. This is naturally a mis conception formed by dramatic media publicity over these performances. Happenings were not formed through art criticism or performance theory , however I would argue that they are a form of theater.
Happenings are a form of visual theater for very little speech is used as language & dialogue is not needed to develop a performance. Language in theater often is employed to develop a structure and happenings are insular, self contained performances. Kirby introduces the term ‘ compartmented’
So here is the first definitive difference between traditional theater and Happenings, the absence of language to develop narrative.
Tradional theater functions through conveying an information structure through dialogue, characters, semiotics and mis en scene. All this techniques allow the audience to apprehend and appreciate the concept. This information is conveyed throughout the duration piece of the piece, like traditional storytelling structures. Happenings structures are different because the performance is insular and although they can be performed sequentially one ‘scene’ can convey enough information for a singular concept to be interpreted.
I use the word scene however scene indicates that there is a place and time that the actors are playing, a setting. Happenings would not have such devices in their performances.

Another major difference between happenings and theater can be read upon viewing a happening, principally the behavior of the performers themselves. When an actor in a theater takes to the stage they present to the audience a matrix of space, time and character. The performer functions within this intentionally created world or matrix that the audience consciously allow to be involved in. They are aware that their reality is different to this manufactured reality, no matter how topical the subject or effective the performance of the characters, its still a show.
Many methods such as Brechts fourth wall attempt to dissolve the superficiality of the shows world and styles of presentational acting. Direct address, asides and monologues are all forms of presentational acting where the characters in the show establish the stage as a stage and a play as a play.
These are devices adapted to make the shows own matrix as unnoticeable as possible to the audience, to try and interact between these two separate worlds. However during a direct address to the audience it appears that the character is aware of the world he is in, never the actor. The theater setting has a predetermined audience interpretation of anything and everything being part of the show, and in this other matrix of time and place.

For Happenings to dissolve the difference between these two realities they had to escape the influential setting of the theater. Happenings began to be performed in a variety of places with an informal performer – audience relationship, similar to the style a public speaker making a presentation. The public speaker functions within the same time and place as the audience attempting not to create a separate world of that the performance is. When addressing the audience the public speaker must function within this shared situation , however through symbolism this can be often unclear. Comedians may function in a situation with the audience as part of their routine until they do an ‘act’ that symbolises a character.
A performance in a Happening will be purely functional to respond to the actions of the situation. This situation will have been constructed and perhaps the best Happenings have not had an audience, so the action is not viewed as in a performance setting.

Happening artists achewed the theater while experimenting the theory of critics like Brecht, Ataud, Stanislavsky and Vakhtanghov. A difference of opinion has existed in theory critics about the performance of actors. ‘Monists’ such as Stanislavsky felt that the performer should be unseen within his character and ‘dualists’ such as Vakhtanghov and Brecht, felt that the performer should be perceived simultaneously with the character they are playing.
A definition is formulated in Kirby’s essay that Happenings can be defined as a purposefully composed form of theater in which diverse alogical elements, including non –matrixed performing, are organized in a compartmented structure.

The theory of Happenings is relatively understood however the practice of them can sometimes counter act their aim. Performing these situations to an audience induces a theater form when it is trying to eschew these structures.

By Max Dovey. But taken from Micheal Kirby’s essay on ‘Happenings’.

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