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At UCLA, 'the theater is a blank page' stretches the idea of theater

Marcos Najera

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They both share the name “Ann(e),” but Anne Bogart and Ann Hamilton are two very different artists. Anne Bogart, with the New York-based SITI Company, is a veteran of the theatre whose techniques are studied in acting schools worldwide. Ann Hamilton is a highly decorated visual artist whose large-scale multimedia installations can be found in libraries, parks and other civic spaces across the country.

Now the two women are joining forces on a new work at UCLA’s Royce Hall that is neither visual art nor theatre. The artists simply call it: a project. It's titled: 'the theater is a blank page.'

Marcos Najera

While Royce Hall could house up to 2000 in an audience, Hamilton and Bogart’s new collaboration only allows 80 people to attend at a time. Hamilton and Bogart want you to feel space.  Lots of space. Civic space. 

“When I approach a project it’s like: what is here?” explains visual artist Ann Hamilton. “What is this architecture? What’s the social conditions and history and where is the light coming from and how much volume is here? And I walk it and I just walk and walk and walk and I feel like pieces for me or projects for me come from that information that comes in through my body kind of absorbing the space.”

On the UCLA campus, the two artists discovered that with the main library and the large theatre facing each other they could connect the two buildings in the performance. Hamilton saw a connection between the two venues.

“On either side of that central quad is Royce Hall on one side, Powell Library on the other.  And they face each other almost like sentinels, framing this main staircase. And one is an architecture of a kind of individual contemplation and silent reading for the most part and research. And across the way, directly, formally aligned is the theater and the place, I say, of voice and motion and stories.”

In the show, the audience starts the evening by checking out a book at the library before walking across the garden plaza to the theatre. It’s as if you are crossing some imaginary bridge that connects reading and performance.

“We invite an audience into a room where people are reading together,” says Anne Bogart. "Not only the actors, but the audience as well as the architecture. We read the architecture and the architecture reads us.”

Hamilton adds, “In this case we are all together in the same book and that book is Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse.'”

Virginia Woolf wrote “To The Lighthouse” in 1927. It’s a tale about a European family on vacation. The little boy asks the mom if they can take a boat trip to visit the lighthouse he sees out in the ocean. The father balks at the idea. Eventually, the family invites guest over for a dinner party instead.

To this day, the text inspires Anne Bogart’s artistry as much as the moment she first picked up the book.

“I was probably sixteen-ish and I was probably in Rhode Island and it was probably in the summer and something very intrinsic about this book is that it is about what happens in life when you are not working. It’s key in what I hope will happen. I was lifted to a particular place in reading and I was lifted by a quality in the writing and the story and the characters and suddenly I was released. And I felt like was free-falling, as a 16-year-old, free-falling.  And it was such a profound release that I have spent the rest of my life trying to recreate that as a director.”

Bogart uses all parts of Royce Hall to achieve that immersive experience. “Have you ever been watching, sitting, I’m sure many people have – where you wander into a theatre and they are working on the tech and all of a sudden you watch this lighting rig come slowly down, out of the out of the ceiling? From the fly space. And it's one of the most beautiful things you have ever seen and you said: can’t that be in a play? And so that’s what we’re doing!”

While big curtains become billowy sails, and lights, text and sound mix to gently suggest an oceanside scene, Ann Hamilton – a recipient of a National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2014 -  is quick to point out that as a visual artist in a theater, she is a bit like a fish out of water.

“Well, yeah because I’m still figuring out right stage and left stage and upstage and downstage!” laughs Hamilton.

Bogart says she and Hamilton are stretching themselves especially since Hamilton is not constrained by the traditional rules, customs or practices of the theatre.  

"For example, here in the Royce Hall there is a beautiful organ.  Of course, that becomes something that has to be used,” says Bogart.

Hamilton adds, “It’s not played in the sense that it’s performed like a concert - but it’s sounded.  You get a sense that the apparatus and mechanisms of the theater are resettling themselves and showing themselves.”

“It’s the tools that create the magic are usually hidden,” says Bogart. “Here we are actually showing the tools and treating them as magic."

Marcos Najera

Audience members will ultimately hear, and at times even read Woolf’s “To The Lighthouse.” They’ll walk with other people in groups, the body gets to move a bit, while the brain is invited to muse and meditate. It’s perhaps best described as a luxurious sight and sound bath that really only requires one special skill. Patience.

“You need patience. I learn that from Anne Bogart,” says Charles Jin.

Assistant Director Charles Jin, a recent UCLA directing grad student from Shanghai, says a big part of ‘the theatre is a blank page’ is learning how to slow down by yourself and with other people.

Jin, a native Mandarin speaker, explains that the word “patience” has a compound meaning in the Chinese language that he feels exemplifies this project.  

“[The Chinese word is] ‘Nàixìng.’  It’s two [written] characters. One is ‘patient.' One is ‘heart.'  So you have to have a heart of patience.  That means you use your heart to work with people, not with your brain. Because everything, if it’s happening with your brain, you tell everybody to do what’s in your brain, it’s not art.  But you use heart to share with all the people. [Together] that is collaboration.”

By the end of the performance, this collaboration between Hamilton and Bogart transforms the audience.  Eighty people who more or less started the night as complete strangers become a small waterfront village. A citizenry made up of folks who’ve slowly learned to work, laugh, eat, rest and exhale together.  It’s that release Anne Bogart says she’s been searching for since the first time she read “To The Lighthouse.”

“I relate Mrs. Ramsay so much to my own mother who is deceased,” explains Bogart.  “I didn’t know it when I was reading [“To The Lighthouse”] for the first time.  It certainly has a lot of to do with family and time passing and people disappearing and never being there again. So, there is a poignancy now that certainly wasn’t there when I first read the book, but it creates more resonance as the years go by.”

'theater is a blank page' runs from May 3-May 12 at UCLA's Royce Hall.

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