Friday, April 7, 2017

Blair Simmons (CAS ’16) on Creating “Staging Wittgenstein” Which was Accepted into the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Blair Simmons
Ella Barnes (Tisch ’16) Photography
Alumna Blair Simmons (CAS ’16) created her play “Staging Wittgenstein” when she was awarded the DURF research grant her senior year at NYU. She presented the theory of the piece at the 2016 Undergraduate Research Conference. Her play was later workshopped and staged for Dixon Place on January 28, 2017. It has since been accepted into the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and will be performed at the festival in Scotland this August.
Blair Simmons: her story continues

Two actors in the play “Staging Wittgenstein”What did you study at NYU?

I majored in Dramatic Literature and minored in both Math and Computer Science. I enjoyed Dramatic Literature very much, but always thought I would go on to pursue a career in psychology or math. The Dramatic Literature program at CAS is a subset of the English Department and what I quickly discovered is that it is very analytic. We did a lot of writing and directing, and I was studying everything from modern theater to ancient texts. As students we benefited from having many of the professors in the program being working theater-makers in NYC.

One of my favorite professors was Julia Jarcho, Assistant Professor of English, who is an Obie Award winning playwright. I was fortunate enough to be enrolled in three of her classes while at NYU and, in addition, she was the faculty mentor for my DURF project.

What is the DURF?

The DURF is the CAS Dean’s Undergraduate Research Fund Grant. I had been handed the text of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico–Philosophicus” by another Dramatic Literature professor, Ariel Stess. The text is very logical and mathematic in structure so she thought it would be right up my alley. However, once I read it, it felt very much like a play to me. It was about language and communication, and how difficult it can be for all of us, and the text itself illustrated that frustration. I wanted to keep working with Julia, and I had already completed all of her classes in the program. She suggested that I apply for a DURF Individual Research Grant and I was accepted. Because this project was funded by the DURF grant, it had to be grounded in research.

The toughest part in doing this project was justifying theater as an act of research. I was definitely the odd one out when I presented at the 2016 Undergraduate Research Conference. Most of my fellow students had sixty page theses. In my project, I was trying to elucidate the text through performance.

Can you tell us about the creation of “Staging Wittgenstein”?

I thought, what would happen, what kind of structure and storyline would come from staging a piece of philosophy? There needed to be a visual vehicle that would physically convey the spoken word. In comics they use speech bubbles, so in this play we use human bubbles. Or in this case, with actors squeezing into giant latex balloons.

The goal was to dramatize philosophical thought conveyed in Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico–Philosophicus.” Wittgenstein is wrangling with the connection between reality and language (or lack thereof), the irony being that he uses language to discuss language, thus limiting himself in using but this one form. This project acknowledges the various forms language can take, primarily through physicality. Wittgenstein suggests that it is through the establishment of rules that one constructs a language. It is then through the enactment of rules that one speaks. This performance visually dramatizes the linguistics put forth in the “Tractatus” through the performers’ manipulation of huge latex balloons.

Every performance is different because the balloons can and do pop, and the troupe must adjust, create new rules, and rely on each other to re-enter their own personal bubbles.

How did you end up using balloons in the piece?

It emerged through workshopping the play. A big part of the theory in “Tractatus” is in the first line “The world is everything that is the case.” We had to build worlds, like Russian nesting dolls, to represent this claim. We played with ping pong balls and ladders before we settled on balloons. We were inspired by a Czech reality show where talent gets in and out of a giant balloon. And we thought visually it would work perfectly.

The actors remain inside two 72” latex balloons for the entire show. The set is a sea of white balloons lolling about on the floor, creating a universe of bubbles. The play opens with a vacuum inflating a 32” balloon. The balloon continues to inflate until the audience is squirming in their seats and it inevitably pops. This cold open demonstrates the potential of the piece: the balloons will pop unexpectedly and it is never clear to the audience or performers when it will occur. However, it also does something else, it mimics the structure of a joke, building tension until it is released. The unpredictability of the structure, and the stress it induces, is reflected in the anxiety of communication and language.

A balloon costume from the play “Staging Wittgenstein” being filled with air

Did you act in the play?

I performed in the research presentation for the DURF project along with Nikita Lebedev (Tisch ’17). The second time we staged it was as a work-in-progress at Dixon Place in NYC. I directed that production and Nikita performed in it with Annie Hagg who received her MFA in Acting at Yale School of Drama.

For the Dixon Place performance we added dialogue and made enhancements to the physicality, but the basic structure and premise were the same. The play itself is not scripted. The actors are only allowed to communicate with instructional language that is derived from the instructions for inflating the balloons.

How did you decide to apply for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?

Sulayman Al Bassam, a Kuwaiti playwright and an Artist-in-Residence at Gallatin, came to see “Staging Wittgenstein.” He won the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2002, and he encouraged me to apply. The show was accepted and we are going to start open rehearsals in June. I will direct, and Annie and Nikita will again perform.

What do you do when you are not creating theater?

I am on staff at NYU, at The LaGuardia Studio, the 3D Print Service shop on campus. I have also been accepted for graduate study at Gallatin and will be starting there in the fall. I am hoping to be able to combine all of the things I learned at CAS in my graduate studies - Computer Science and Dramatic Literature. My goal is to apply the theory of performance to technology. And, for fun, I also sculpt artistic 3D sculptures and am working on a new gallery collection.

A sculpture by Blair Simmons
Sculpture by Blair Simmons

Photos by Ella Barnes (Tisch ’16) Photography

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