David Gürçay-Morris, associate professor of theatre, kicked off the 2016 Faculty Lecture Series in Wege Auditorium on Thursday with a talk entitled, “The Garden of F_ _king Paths: Choice and Chance in Performance.”
Gürçay-Morris started the lecture silently with a slide show featuring several slides reading: “Hello my name is David,” “I teach in the Theatre department,” and “I have stage fright” and “Decide for me. Please.” The last slide presented the audience with two options: “yes” or “no.” Using electronic clickers, the audience overwhelmingly responded “yes.”
Gürçay-Morris proceeded to ask the audience what he should wear. Members selected a classic greek chiton in saffron yellow with a beret. Donning the new outfit, he asked the audience what he should address in his lecture. The audience voted for a talk about the “performance situations” that Gürçay-Morris has created over the course of his career in theatre.
Trained as a set designer, Gürçay-Morris has worked extensively in experimental theatre. He noted that his role as a designer has evolved and changed over time.
In 2004, he worked on Orpheus at Here Arts Center in Manhattan.
“We were working in a non-hierarchical,non-pigeon-holed way,” he said. Over the course of the project, the initial team continued to hire additional members, such as playwrights. The performance was staged as a club called Club Asfidel. Gürçay-Morris used different cultural imaginations of the land of the dead as inspiration for the set’s design. The audience members served as attendees at the club and Orpheus entered as a disruption to the evening.
“The show got me thinking about my role,” Gürçay-Morris said. “I could be an artist who instigates work. Even as a set designer, I could initiate projects of my own.”
In 2006, Gürçay-Morris worked on Constitutional, part of a series that he called Exercises for the Body Politic. Inspired by the culture of speed dating emerging in the early 2000s and by the idea that no one he had spoken had ever actually read any of the American constitution, Gürçay-Morris tried to create a piece with an unclear barrier between the audience and performers. He used speed dating as a framework for audience members to engage with the constitution. Participants visited a different table for four to seven minutes at a time. The tables featured a range of items from little art pieces to pop culture artifacts, with several materials featuring passages from the constitution. There was also an orchestral score that served as a musical narrative of the constitution and a piece of software code that presented the constitution as a program.
Each audience member took a different route through the tables, and no single member saw all of the materials. After the show, the space was converted into a cafe. Audience members were encouraged to mingle and discuss the show.
“People would stay afterwards and talk about the things they hadn’t seen and tell each other sto-ries,” Gürçay-Morris said. “That was really exciting.”
Later on, during the Bush Administration, Gürçay-Morris used his next show to explore how people listen to political speech with which they vehemently disagree.
“We were wondering: Can you cut through irrationality and get people to listen?” he said.
He first performed Routine Hearing, another installation in his series Exercises for the Body Politic, as a work-in-progress in 2006. In this piece, audience members were given slips of paper directing them to make works of art, leave them behind and make decisions. Most importantly, Gürçay-Morris said, he fed people.
“We are incredibly well-trained on how to behave when we walk into a live performance,” Gürçay-Morris said. “This ritual is very strong in us. There’s a sense of passivity. But the rituals around breaking bread are even stronger. Conversation comes out.”
After the first run of the show, he moved away from a focus on conservative speech. In 2007, he dispensed with the tables and papers, and he ran a new show by a test audience. He played political speech on a boombox and gave participants basic directions on how to move depending on their reactions to the speech. The participants responded positively but told Gürçay-Morris that they were hyper aware of having a response contrary to the ideas of the group. Based on this feedback, Gürçay-Morris realized he needed a “veil of privacy.” The work evolved to be a headphone play in which participants listened to different tracks in different orders.
The final version of the performance was set on a white floor with a grid system. Gürçay-Morris asked participants to react to clips from interviews, pundits, court rulings, speeches and more by walking forwards if they were drawn in, moving backwards if they were repulsed, moving in a square if they were ambivalent or stopping to stare at the ceiling if they were distracted.
An overhead camera recorded the performance and at the end of an hour, participants watched themselves projected onto the floor at ten times the original speed, while a waltz played as background music.
Though audience members would move awkwardly through the space at first, “it was shocking to see, and for the participants themselves to see, how quickly people silently learned to walk with one another,” Gürçay-Morris said. “They would invent solutions for how to deal with any given situation. It was like a metaphor for disagreeing but still operating with one another.”