By Summer Banks
From somewhere between a haunted house and heightened artistic vision of contemporary suburban America emerges the newest addition to Yale’s undergraduate theater scene. The Installation of Cruelty, a theatrical performance art piece at the Off Broadway Theater that runs Nov. 2 through 4, brings a fresh perspective on the nature of American anxiety, consumer culture and performance art itself.
The brainchild of Miranda Jones ’06 and Patrick Huguenin ’06, Cruelty promises to create a theater in the tradition of Antoin Artuad, a French playwright, actor and director of the first half of the 20th century. In advocating his theater of cruelty, Artaud explained that cruelty means confronting the audience with the grotesque to make them uncomfortable, breaking them out of their artificial reality and forcing them to confront themselves.
“The Theatre of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theatre a passionate and convulsive conception of life,” Artuad wrote. “It is in this sense of violent rigour and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood.
Jones’ recent study of Artaud has influenced her vision of the installation. She said his emphasis on the senses is reflected in the creation of the detailed performance pieces.
“It’s a spectacle that you walk though,” Jones said. “It should constantly keep you questioning.”
Huguenin said he had always wanted to put up a haunted house incorporating such resources of a theater department as theatrical lighting and trained performers. However, this final product has turned into something entirely different.
“It’s not a haunted house,” he said. “It’s a performance.”
Although the Installation may appear to be nothing more than a dressed-up, avant-garde version of the traditional Halloween amusement, it incorporates a few key differences. The traditional skeletons and spiderwebs have been replaced with the less cliche but still bone-chilling images of self-mutilation, consumption and control. The focus is on an atmosphere of eerie familiarity and less on the forbidden dark crypts of traditional haunted houses.
Jones began to formulate the idea over the summer during a session of people-watching on the subway.
“I thought, if you exaggerate this, wouldn’t some of it be kind of eerie?” she said.
Further examination of American culture introduced more material for a new kind of Halloween entertainment. The creators have replaced the archetypal symbols for frightening specters with images culled from contemporary culture, bringing the dusty haunted house into the hypersanitized modern world. Amplifying the “bizarre nature of some of the rituals that we engage in as a society that are kind of destructive,” inspired the final piece, Jones said.
Huguenin is also quick to note that the production has a campy component.
“It’s one part cultural commentary, one part humor,” he said. “There will be plenty of titillation.”
The piece is also designed to poke fun at itself and the very nature of performance art.
Most visitors to the Off-Broadway Theater are accustomed to sitting in a chair for a roughly two-hour performance and leaving. Cruelty, on the other hand, requires timed entrances of five-person groups into a series of six rooms with 90-second scenes playing on loop. A sound collage composed by Meaghan Burke ’06 of various noises created in each of the scenes synthesized with a live cello overlay forms the fabric into which each of the scenes is woven.
“The music is about implosion, the sounds sort of self-destruct,” Burke said. “What is initially recognizable becomes chaotic.”
Audience members become museumgoers, only this museum is an exhibit of living puppets floating in a heightened reality. A clear path is marked from which it is very difficult to stray, drawing audience members uncomfortably close to the actors.
Visitors are free to go through the installation as many times as they wish, meaning that the viewing time could vary anywhere from a few minutes to the entire two-hour performance each night.
Huguenin said the experience has been extremely collaborative, especially in comparison to other productions at Yale, in that nearly everyone has some hand in all the aspects of the creation of the production. Many of the performers are non-actors, but engaged themselves in the idea they wanted to portray and often originated their parts.
Both creators noticed that Yale’s community has not had a strong tradition in this variety of performance art. Huguenin said the lack of appropriate spaces may be detrimental to prospective efforts, while Jones focused on constraints derived from the intellectual environment.
“People think that they have to stick to a certain structure,” Jones said. “It’s not that people have no interest in it, but we’re surrounded by this academic culture that creates this little bubble.”
Jones also expressed an interest in getting this breed of experimental theatrical form out of its own circle and to the public.
“Its masturbatory if it’s only reaching the elite,” she said.
Since the set will not be loaded into the theater until Sunday, this initially mystifying concept for a theatrical piece has yet to gel completely. However, it will not be long until the door of an entirely new “haunted” house slowly creaks open to let the adventurous few into its depths.