The Performant: Sleep No More

Pub date December 17, 2013
SectionPixel Vision

Upon reaching the fifth floor of the California Institute of Integral Studies, a wall of makeshift web diagrams asks arriving oddience members to detail what the longest amount of time they went without sleep was, and what do they tell themselves to get through stress. The average appears to be around 36 hours — which is about as long as I can boast — but no responders quite match the Guinness Book record of 449 hours held by Maureen Weston, nor even to the 60 hours that Mugwumpin, creators of performative “occurrences,” intend to stay awake in this, its last presentation of the year, Asomnia.

More of an experiment in endurance than a traditional performance marathon, Asomnia ushers in what artistic director Christopher W. White promises to be a season focused on the theme of exhaustion. A rigorous schedule of private confessionals, cognitive testing, hygiene and wellness breaks, group check-ins, and meals are interspersed with performances staged for those in attendance, as well as the time necessary to create them. Every two hours a new piece is ready to be performed for whoever has dropped by at that time, whether it’s 4pm or 4am.
The room feels especially conducive to this kind of experiment. Book shelves of philosophical, political, and artistic content line one wall; mirrors, another. A mural of jagged, abstract lines adorns the “stage” area, while a bank of windows offer a spectacular view of the skyline from dusk to dawn to dusk again. Wooden drafting tables, brightly-colored metal stools, and comfy chairs appear scattered almost randomly, and a low table laden with munchies and a fortifying tea kettle invites judicious snacking.

“We’ve been eating a lot,” performer Michelle Talgarow tells me as she gives me a tour of the space around the 30-hour mark. She’s surprisingly alert despite having just performed a medley of musical numbers under the direction of guest artist Erika Chong Shuch, one of four non-asomniancs to direct the “process-oriented performance showings,” or “POPS.” The highlight of Shuch’s piece is almost certainly the moment she places her eight-month-old son Wakes on the ground with the performers and has him “choreograph” a segment to the music of Peter Cetera. The performers seem to appreciate both its whimsy as well as the opportunity to get off their feet for a few minutes, and Wakes basks in his spotlight with the casual aplomb of a pro.

I return around the 35-hour mark and again at the 59-hour mark, when the six core performers (Talgarow, White, Ashley Rogers, El Beh, Stephanie DeMott, and Natalie Greene) present the final POPS: a “best-of” compilation of their favorite performative moments from the weekend. How they even remember what they are is impressive to me, and they range from purely playful (a segment involving sunglasses and the music of Esquivel) to an esoteric game of “Blind Man’s Bluff,” from an impromptu group dance party set to “Drinking in Spanish,” by Diego’s Umbrella, to an equally participatory mirroring exercise involving everyone in the room.

The line between spectators and spectatees, already blurred under the extreme circumstances dissolves completely at this point, the only thing continuing to separate us is amount of sleep we’ve had over the past three days. I can think of no other performance I’ve been to in recent memory where oddience members brought cookies and kittens to fortify the performers, and performers offered gracious cups of tea, hugs, and unfiltered access to their completely vulnerable, sleep-deprived psyches. Sure, ultimately the event comes off as more of a congenial scientific experiment than a cohesive work of theater, but for White, that’s precisely the point.

“Primarily we’re doing this piece as research,” he explains prior to the marathon via email. “And as part of (our) ongoing interest in integrating the audience into the process of making a show, we decided to conduct this research publically.” No word yet on how many hours of sleep each performer got to indulge in that night, but perhaps we’ll discover the results in a future piece.