Negative Space

Miriam Felton-Dansky on Faye Driscoll's Thank You For Coming: Space

Faye Driscoll, Thank You For Coming: Space. Performance view, Montclair State University’s Alexander Kasser Theater, 2019. Photo: Maria Baranova.

DYING IS A PROCESS, one that is both arduous and physically precise—so Faye Driscoll reminds us as we walk through a darkened theater wing to see Thank You For Coming: Space, which premiered as part of Montclair State University’s Peak Performances. This choreographic investigation of death begins when audiences step around (or accidentally on) a collage of art historical images taped to the floor. The pictures mostly depict the aftermath of violent acts: scenes of crime and martyrdom; pools of blood, splayed limbs. In one medieval painting, a smiling skeleton cavorts arm in arm with the living in a dance of death.

TFYC: Space is the third and final installment in Driscoll’s Thank You For Coming series, which fuses dance, theater, and performance to probe the question of why we come together to make and watch live art now. (Why should we watch humans when we have our ever-more-distracting phones? Why be part of a crowd when large gatherings can so easily tip over into quasi-fascist displays of belonging?) The first piece, TYFC: Attendance (2014), spilled into the audience at every opportunity. Performers leaned into our laps and rolled across our legs, eventually inviting us, maybe slightly coercing us, to participate in an exuberant dance. TYFC: Play (2016), which toyed with the terms of theater, was a wildly meta storytelling event in which ensemble members swapped roles and chanted phrases generated Mad-Libs style by spectators.

TFYC: Space is the exhilaratingly personal culmination of the series, a solo piece about the labor of dying, and the work of grief. (Driscoll has said in interviews that her own mother’s death was a central inspiration). Alone in a small white playing space, she performs a sweaty trajectory from mourning ritual to bodily decay. Early in the piece, she fills the space with her grief by howling into a loop pedal, asking spectators to stamp our feet in time, and scowling as she vigorously bites into a lemon. Toward the middle, her gestures seem to emulate the images we stepped over in the entryway. Is that a Renaissance martyr’s pose Driscoll is struggling to hold, without the adoring followers to support her neck and arms? (Does placing our bodies in the classical postures from death scenes help us to die more gracefully?) Driscoll concludes with a graphic exploration of the body’s struggle to leave life behind, in the last third of the piece holding up a series of small objects arrayed on a props table. “This is your hairbrush,” she announces. “These are your glasses.” She pricks her own finger. “This is your blood,” she says. She grabs handfuls of wet sand, blue silly putty. “These are your lungs. This is your liver,” she says, letting them glop onto the floor.

Faye Driscoll, Thank You For Coming: Space. Performance view, Montclair State University’s Alexander Kasser Theater, 2019. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Both mourning and dying, Driscoll implies, are processes we all go through alone, which is why so much of TFYC: Space is formally an investigation of negative space. The diverse ensembles of Attendance and Play are palpably missing here. But the audience remains, so Driscoll recruits us to hold props and create soundscapes. Intermittently, she uses us as dance partners, grasping spectators’ hands tightly, then holding the pose after letting us go. Her arms outstretched, her hands clenched, she shows us the impression we leave on another’s body after only a few seconds of contact.

Designers Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin crisscross the upper reaches of the playing area with a system of pulleys and cords, thin lines dividing the otherwise empty white space and drawing attention to the blankness between them. Assorted objects dangle from the cords: small black sandbags, a sheaf of branches with dusty green leaves. Center stage, suspended a few feet above the floor, hangs what looks to be a heavy metal weight. When Driscoll gives it a hearty push, she reveals it to be light and empty, like a bell. For the viewer of the trilogy, quiet surprises like these mark the piece as a whole: It’s narrative when we expect gentle abstraction, solitary when we expect a crowd.

In the first moments of TYFC: Space, Driscoll makes an extended and generous curtain speech. She appreciates our presence, she tells us, and wonders what series of events led us to this theater on this night. Perhaps we’re here on a date, she suggests. Or maybe we’re students in a class, attending because we were assigned to? The speech initially seemed sweet but unnecessary, perhaps a gesture toward the kinds of audience interaction that recurred in the first two parts of the series. It wasn’t until Space was over that I realized how crucial it was for her to ask about our reasons for arriving, since rest of the piece is about leaving—the work of leaving for good.

Thank You For Coming: Space was performed at Montclair State University’s Alexander Kasser Theater from April 9-14, 2019.