Erika Chong Shuch has a lot of feelings. Tess Thackara joins the artist in a circle sit-down to see how her new work takes therapy off the couch and into the crowd.
Erika Chong Shuch and her performance troupe would like to know how you feel. Think about it. How do you feel? Why have you come here? Can you let go? What does it mean to let go? These are some of the questions unassuming audience-turned-participants are asked during Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project’s (ESP) latest multidisciplinary work, Sitting in a Circle, staged at San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts. The questions are intoned with such authority and depth, it’s hard to resist them. Why have I come here, I wonder, reduced to a quaking existential question mark within moments of my arrival. The premise of this evening chez Chong Shuch was just too seductive, too latent with possibility: a group of individuals have been mysteriously summoned to grapple with what it means to sit amongst strangers—and connect. Join the group, and be guided through an interactive journey incorporating movement, installation and theater.
The night was billed to sound like an anthropological petri dish: What safety does the circle offer? Who is excluded? And why? The form-bending work, a dance-cum-performance art piece-cum-group therapy session, didn’t disappoint. Performers sit in a circle among audience members and assume the roles of emotionally damaged characters. Their interactions with one another—through dance, role-play, performance and song—cut to the core of what it means to negotiate our own emotions in a world where we are constantly negotiating the emotions of others. Do we hunger for the expression of emotion, or do we hide from it? When is emotion performed, and when genuine? Which emotions do we value, which are taboo? I struck up a conversation with Erika Chong Shuch to help unpack the baggage.
Tess Thackara In Sitting in a Circle, audience members are asked to consider an emotion that has dominated their lives and draw it onto a blank paper mask. What do you see as having been the dominant emotion in your lifetime?
Erika Chong Shuch I should’ve known that would come back and bite me! I don’t know if I can say that one specific emotion has dominated my life. I can say that my life has been dominated by emotion. My way of navigating through the world is pretty intuitive; I tend to make choices based on what I am feeling about things. And if I do have a dominant emotion, I think I’d rather draw it on a mask than put it into words!
That’s the thing about feelings—there is so much beautiful grey in the way we all experience our emotions. Sometimes limited text-based vocabularies minimize the mystery and possibilities of that spectrum.
TT What are some of the more grey emotions you are interested in, or have felt yourself? What would your emotion mask look like?
ECS By grey I mean unclear, undefined. And I think the nature of . . . grey is that it’s not easy to talk about. I think that’s what art is about: the grey matter. The stuff that we know exists but can’t quite name it, or talk about it in any other way.
In the show, I often participated in the mask-making workshop. I love that it feels like a private exploration in a public setting. My face was never consistent in terms of how it looked.
TT The mask-making workshop was one of the most poignant moments for me. Maybe it was because you’re able to hide and expose a little bit of yourself at the same time. Holding up other people’s drawn emotion masks did make me feel connected to a circle of strangers, for a brief moment.
ECS We had many conversations about how to ask audiences to participate in a way that the audience feels taken care of. We tried to build structures wherein the audience could participate if they want to, but not feel pressured about it. Hopefully people felt they were invited, but not obligated, to participate.
TT How far, if at all, do you hope or intend for your performances to be pedagogical in some sense?
ECS I don’t think about my work from a pedagogical place at all. If someone feels that they learn something, that’s great. But that isn’t my intent, especially with this piece.
TT That surprises me—to create something that asks so many questions of an audience and not hope for it to change people in some tiny way.
ECS I think we can intend for people to have an experience, and for people to be moved or touched or inspired. We can intend for people to have a moment of introspection, to laugh. But making art with the intention of changing or teaching is less exciting for me; that doesn’t make me feel the most creative.
As artists we can create some sort of space where people can reflect or contemplate. I think our work is to create that space, and present images or material that people can place their own stories onto. We create the space, but we have to let go to a certain extent of how people will interpret the material. That allows for the kind of work that is open and able to play with metaphor in a complicated way. I know other artists are different. For me, I think pedagogically driven artwork is limiting. We ask questions of audiences because we want to create space for introspection.
TT In the performance you use theater, dance, installation, and song. This seems to throw each discipline into relief in a way, sort of highlighting what that art form is good at doing. Can you talk a bit about your process for folding in all these different disciplines together? Do you see each as bringing something different to the piece?
ECS I don’t really see separate forms. I see a whole range of human expression. We, as human animals, can move and speak and sing and cry and sit in silence and lay on the floor and bang against a wall. What if we just looked at all the material as something within the range of what human animals do? We call on different ways of communicating depending on what we need to communicate. If I want to flirt with someone, maybe using words isn’t the best way. Maybe it’s a dance of how I cross my arms and lean into my hips. If I need to get one thousand people to stand up and scream to the heavens, I’d want to use my words to most efficiently make that happen. Within the piece there are a varying range of things to be communicated and we use whatever we need to be able to speak in a way that is appropriate to the moment.
TT One of the things that I think we, as human animals, do is to perform emotions in order to feel them. In your piece, the man who is afflicted by his inhibitions and can’t let go is encouraged to act out the physical manifestations of anger and engage in role play, which then leads him towards a kind of collapse, or release of emotion. Can you talk a bit about how that character emerged?
ECS In this piece I was interested in having heightened emotional states present, but not having them be connected to narrative. Peter’s character came about because I wanted someone in the show who would come to a group therapy session to deal with a specific issue. I built Peter’s material with a pretty clear arc in mind. He has this series of monologues about letting go, and about how he doesn’t want to let go, and he has a role playing situation that brings on some kind of authentic experience.
Peter’s series of monologues was a way for us to present someone dealing with some personal stuff, but not disclose what the story was—to just highlight the emotional journey without highlighting the narrative journey. For me, Peter and Rebecca’s (the “group leader”) characters have journeys that move through a pretty linear trajectory.
I like having two characters that are like anchors through the piece. A friend of mine talks about a “red line,” one idea or concept that moves through a work. No matter how abstract the journey, as long as you can follow this very thin line through, there is something to tether you to the world of the piece as it unfolds. Peter and Rebecca’s characters are my red line.
TT I loved the moment in which, after Peter’s collapse, a microphone is held to his mouth to amplify the sounds of his sobbing and rasping—a beautifully crafted instance of comic relief. Can you talk about humor in your work, in this piece and more generally?
ECS Humor is funny! Humor is weird. When we were creating the piece, the images were not created with the intention of being funny. When I would watch the piece in rehearsals, moments that were really intense or dramatic for me ended up being humorous in front of an audience. It was an interesting adjustment to feel how much laughter there was in the room, when that wasn’t our intention. It was a lovely thing to witness.
When we put the mic up to Peter while he is crying, for me that was about him having a really authentic experience, and creating a structure that doesn’t allow that moment to become precious. The addition of the mic was about trying to put two contrasting ideas together 1) The authentic emotional experience of an individual [and] 2) The cold, public amplification of that really private moment.
How can we put two things that don’t fit together, and play with the energy that arises out of that tension—that discord? There is also a scene in which the performers stuffed lots of marshmallows into their mouths. This was about stuffing something down: it was a violent image of forcing yourself to swallow, or conceal something. So although this ended up being humorous, the intention behind it was not to be funny.
I don’t feel that anything in the piece was meant to be funny. The characters’ actions are all driven by some kind of need, and their desperation translates to a kind of trying. The ways we try can be awkward. So there is humor in the awkwardness, in the trying.
We also wanted to create something that invited the audience into the piece in a different kind of way (for example, handing out marshmallows to the audience). So we looked at a lot of the piece as how to create moments that brought everyone together, and we collaged those moments with more performative moments. So it was about how those two things could live in one piece: the audience participation stuff and the material that was not asking for participation.
TT There seems to be a sort of satire of self-help groups that runs through the piece—the cheesiness of them, and the exploitation of others’ emotions for spectacle. Where did that come from?
ECS Structurally, I wanted to make something that emerged from the situation of people sitting in a circle together. We knew we wanted a piece in which all the action would organically be born from this very simple premise. I was also interested in the ways we deal with feelings that we don’t know how to deal with. If anything, the piece was about how we try so hard to deal with all the emotional curveballs—the clumsy ways we try to be okay.
The structure of setting up the piece as a self-help group allowed for a lot of material to be born organically from this situation. It was a good platform to launch off of. And Rebecca, the group leader: I liked the idea that this person knows more than we do, and then she crumbles as we all do.
TT What’s next for the Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project?
ECS I’m working on a big piece that will premiere in San Francisco and Korea in 2013. I have been working in Korea for much of 2011, and will go back in 2012 to work on a project that is inspired by what’s going on in North Korea now. I’m working with KIM Maeja’s Chang Mu company in Seoul, and also collaborating with North Korean refugees now living in Seoul.
Next year I will also be working on an Eric Ehn play with Rebecca Novick that will be performed in the fall at La Mama in NYC as part of a festival that includes a cycle of plays about genocide.
In 2012 I also want to get better at throwing clay on a wheel, and I’d love to go fishing with my friend who hunts and grows all his own food, and I’d also like to write in the blog I started but never wrote in, and also I hope to continue to improve my skills in building a fire with very little kindling.
Tess Thackara is a Senior Editor and writer for online arts journal, Art Practical. She has also written for a myriad of publications, including The Present Group and Flavorpill. Thackara is the producer of the short documentary film One Plastic Beach, about artists Richard and Judith Lang. She holds a BA in English Literature from Trinity College, Dublin.