PRINT January 1989


JOHN JESURUN WAS on his his way to becoming an independent filmmaker when he decided one day to make a film without using a camera. “Let the audience be the camera,” he said,1 when faced with the endless task of raising money to put finished reels in the can. This pragmatic approach accidentally launched a career in theater.

“I knew nothing about theater at the time, but then neither did my audience,” this Yale sculpture-school graduate, who initially wanted to make a film that would move around his objects, says of his first live work, Chang in a Void Moon. It was at the Pyramid Club—a long narrow bar with a cavelike back room—on Avenue A in New York City, in June 1982, that the first episode took place of what was to become, over a period of several years, a 45-part (from 30 to 45 minutes per segment) “living film serial.” Jesurun’s Chang was theater as film. “It was the first live piece but it was still working as film. . . . editing, cut, cut, never letting go of film. . . had no thought that it would have anything to do with theater . . . the material written like a film script . . . set up like a film . . . somebody watching . . . simply no film in the camera . . . let the audience be the camera.”

Chang was performed on Mondays—“write it Tuesday, rehearse Wednesday, Friday (readings) . . . set up rehearsal Sunday . . . everyone in this wonderfully hysterical mood . . . a big stress factor . . . only five days to learn the piece.” Writing quickly, in one sitting, “in a high state of concentration”—Jesurun’s working mode mimicked that of his three years as assistant to the producer on the Dick Cavett show: “week to week, churning out shows . . . trying to make something of quality each week.” Researching, writing, preinterviewing individuals who could fit into the range of intellectual-pop that Cavett made his signature—it was, Jesurun said, a rough job, but one that showed him—of all things—the value of words. “Before the Cavett show I was more visually oriented. By the time I’d left, I’d learned what could be done with two people sitting on chairs, the constant talking, the extremely precise accurate terminology . . . to arrive at a clear picture of what a person was like. I learned how powerful words could be because the show was about words.”

Chang churned out words: 30 or so minutes of words, back and forth across simple but startlingly innovative sets, prearranged movements-with words that chiseled out illusory perspectives within the small stage at the back of the Pyramid; words, in that chaotic bar, took on a physical presence that staked out a theatrical space. Strung together, they sounded like everyday conversation in the East Village, but they also had that hahahaha Robert Wilson/Philip Glass Einstein on the Beach rhythm, close to droaning or moaning, always pitched at exactly the same level, as though thrown at an imaginary wall about five feet high. Accusatory, elliptical, repetitive, banal, surrealistic, Jesurun’s text might incorporate quotations from rock ’n’ roll (“Rock music was as important for me as any literature—rhythms in speaking of black music—the relationship between sound and content”), citations from history books or from other movie scripts, or echoes from Jesurun’s most-read authors (William Faulkner—“He has Michelangelo status for me”; Peter Handke—“I totally love”; Gertrude Stein—“She said that American is a moving language”; or Bob Dylan—“A lot of people have forgotten how well he wrote”). Words that come fast and instinctively to Jesurun, he believes, because he is an attentive listener. “I hear everything,” he says, “and I try to give the language as much meaning as it can take.”

Chang’s players might travel back and forth between Paris and Shanghai, leaping from imaginary capitals like “Escondida” to wondrous “jungle necropolis” locations. The mood might alternate between kitchen-sink “soaps” and drawing room dramas; either way, these disparate characters maintained complicated family feuds throughout. Antonio and Svetlana, their son Picablo, her mother Contessa Isabella married to (in 1946) and divorced from Chang, the Contessa’s maid Theresa, and the Infanta, played by a chair. The Contessa is a morphine addict. The Contessa adopted the Infanta after seeing her singing for money in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. The Infanta’s age is unknown. She could be 7, she could be 40. Complete with intimations of incest, drugs, crossed sexuality (our hero Chang might be played by a man or woman, or both), mysticism, unexplained levitation, stolen works of art, bombings, poisonings, and confusion in time—now it’s the ’40s, now the ’50s, now the ’80s—and place, Jesurun’s characters are everywhere, nowhere, on a bed or on a table, talking sense and nonsense.

Fast-paced—words are spoken “very flat and very fast, making for very alert actors”—and deliberately sketchy, Chang reveled in artifice of one kind or another. A video monitor was always on stage keeping up with the live action, filling in for an actor if he or she was unable to participate in a particular episode, and staying close to those who did. These “videoheads” (featuring only the actors’ faces) were placed at eye level to establish eye contact and conversation between live and recorded performers. Overhead, as backdrops, projected film occasionally gave scale and shadowy drama to the live action. Sets were spliced with cardboard partitions, cuts between scenes achieved by crude special effects: a sailboat race, for example, was suggested by actors holding large shaped sheets billowing in a breeze produced by offstage fans, while a soundtrack filled the space with the wail of an ominous and stormy ocean. Even “overhead shots” were replicated, with actors supported, horizontal to the floor, on custom-built seats around upended tables.

Jesurun’s Chang, with its small family of committed actors and its ever-growing one of followers, over time provided an encyclopedia of plots, themes, and technologies from which Jesurun would unravel eight subsequent productions—Bird’s Eye View, 1983, Dog’s Eye View, 1984, Number Minus One, 1984, Red House, 1984, Shatterhand Massacree/Riderless Horse, 1985, Deep Sleep, 1986, White Water, 1986, and Black Maria, 1987—each as unexpectedly disturbing as it is, unexpectedly, theater. Yet this theater of Jesurun’s is less about the drama between text and stage than it is about establishing a relationship between eye and brain, in which the former is the window into the latter. Skillfully, he guides the eye around and through positive and negative space, creating a visual maze that penetrates the standard proscenium box, and against which he inserts the human form. The figures, in black and white with occasional jots of color—red lips, or a bright toreador’s jacket, might make a brief appearance—stand out like cutouts in a hall of mirrors where every gesture might be reflected in hundreds of frozen frames. Though these figures walk in the most natural way, talk in the most natural way, through this prepared landscape, they become both abstract fragments and larger-than-life icons in Jesurun’s layered bas-relief. Sculptural and sculpted, they reveal the eye of an artist in a way that no theater director or author comes close to.

This “visual thinking,” which sets Jesurun’s work apart from that of so much contemporary theater, occurs in the overlap between two boundless spaces—that of language and that of image. Together, they stimulate “dream plays” in the mind of the observer, while focusing the eye on a specific visual ground. Moreover, Jesurun’s obsession with seeing—indeed his desire for the audience to be the camera—and his method of masterminding the observer’s actual field of vision are really the essential keys to the quiet hysteria that his work generates. This comes from being pushed, sometimes too far, to distinguish between what one is seeing here, and what one is seeing here again. “Truth telling or lie telling,” Jesurun calls it, in reference for example to his remarkable production Deep Sleep. In the barnlike auditorium of New York’s La Mama theater, Jesurun forcefully turned the viewer’s head, on cue, now left, now right (like a spectator’s at a tennis match), to watch the action bounce from huge white movie screens suspended up high at either end to center court, from celluloid to flesh and blood, from one reality to another. Beginning with a polite “Good morning. Sorry I’m late, I couldn’t find a place to park my car,” an unsettling argument about these two opposing realities develops between five characters on stage and those who appear ominously larger than life at the edges of the performance space, beckoning, enticing, insisting that the real-life players join them on screen. Pacing, in circles, diagonals, rectangles, around a sparse set—a table, a chair, two film projectors—desperately resisting the omnivorous projectors, the actors are finally drawn one by one onto the film, like genies through the lip of a bottle, until a solitary figure remains to tend and maintain the projector. As the lone survivor on the deserted stage of some dreadful media holocaust, he is the precarious keeper of the species: I will play you over and over, over again until you are shredded year after year, year after year for a thousand years, real soft and real loud whenever I want, however I can, whenever I want because after that that’s all I’ll be able to do, over and over again for a thousand years because that’s all I’ll ever know how to do by then. . . .

The deep-felt search for the truth, and wherein it lies between the media that we live with and that live with us, has a particular history that has produced extraordinarily inventive and unforgettable imagery. Take, for example, Dziga Vertov in Russia in the ’20s—dziga, dziga, dziga, the sound of a whirring movie camera, the name assumed by Denis Kaufman, founder of that group of purist filmmakers called Kino-Eye. In his Man with a Movie Camera, 1929, Vertov took his viewers, figuratively, for a ride alongside his cameraman through city streets and down lengthy camera-lens views to look at the busy world with a “more perfect” eye than the human one. For Dziga Vertov the eye is the camera and must record the truth of everyday life. “I make the viewer see in the manner best suited to my presentation of this or that visual phenomenon,” Vertov wrote.2 Similarly, Jesurun’s “theater-eye” forces viewers to see things his way; with a vision untrammeled by sentimentality or drama.

Now turn that notion of truth-to-the-medium-to-reality on its flip side to take a look at the relativity, or subjectivity, of truth, and the different levels of reality—and you get Pirandello. In his Right You Are (If You Think You Are), 1917, three characters—father, mother, and son—tell the same story differently, and it becomes evident eventually that the author has no intention of revealing the “true version.” Rather, “the truth” becomes irrelevant to this tale of individual suffering and character, and the “untruth” a liberation from the rationale of narrative realism. In Jesurun’s Shatterhand Massacree/ Riderless Horse, truth is never told either; we never get the real story behind the explosive relationship between father, young son, and family members, who state and restate in ever-widening and repetitive circles the story of the boy’s disappearance after apparently killing all the plants and animals on the family farm. Rather, the lie-calling and truth-claiming of one character to another provides the only real content to their exchange. To solve the mystery would be to dissolve the ties that bind them.

Jesurun’s truth goes through several more washes than did earlier investigators of the theatrical lie, for all his world is not a stage; it’s a movie set, a TV show, a flashback, replay, rewind, record, pre-record, freeze-frame, fast-forward, plugged-in media world. And while an early combination of film and live performance such as Frederick Kiesler’s set design for Karel Capek’s R.U.R., first produced in Berlin in 1922, introduced “action elsewhere” as well as new perspectives onto a proscenium stage, man was still master of his medium. On Jesurun’s high-tech stage, however, as in his White Water, man and machine share equal billing. Characters on stage and video screen alternate rhythmically, spitting sentences at one another at a formidable pace, the former unable to miss a beat or the play would simply fall apart. The story of a young boy’s determination to describe his witnessing of a floating apparition (and, just once, to be believed) takes place on an open, raked stage that suggests both a court of law and a TV talk show set, with lawyer/talk show host in the role of interrogator. For more than an hour, the viewers, who surround the stage, come close to technological torture at the incessant back and forth between monitor and actor. Jesurun recognizes the strain of this work that, with its electronic overload, drains the very blood from the faces of all in the room. But for the actors, “speaking, speaking, speaking” was the great challenge. “They were attached to this very difficult thing and weren’t willing to make it easier for themselves. It was so strenuous in such a particular way—you can’t do it many times.” In the end White Water was, for Jesurun, “a triumph. Using that media, having so much language, and the way the actors worked with it—the work was one huge field of words, thousands of words all laying side by side, or pebbles on a beach having erupted out of the sea.”

Jesurun’s “representation” of the mechanics of media is saved time and again by language, which he intrudes violently into every nook and cranny where media can possibly go, thus forcing media to communicate rather than simply overwhelm. His performers are active allies in this battle, bringing to his words a passion that startles in spite of the often repetitive direction, and an intimacy that comes from what Jesurun calls “hand-to-hand acting. Their combativeness produces that intimacy. It’s not dramatized intimacy but intimacy that comes out of the words,” says Jesurun.“The passion is in the doing of it . . . not in the summoning up of, or description of, feelings.” Steve Buscemi, Larry Tighe, Sanghi Wagner, Black-Eyed Susan, Ruth Gray, and Valerie Charles, among others, represent by this time humans who, through Jesurun’s pieces, have had close encounters of another kind, especially Michael Tighe, now 14, who has performed with Jesurun since he was 9. Growing up before the very eyes of the audience, he has a special relationship with the “enemy.” Michael can talk media talk with its bland banter, can adjust his volume to full blast or Muzak, and can at the same time translate “networkese” between emitter and receiver. He is also capable of crying out in the dark for a release from his lonely world of dials and switches and from pictures that play day and night without stop.

Jesurun’s actors keep his material from falling off into a silent and controlled Orwellian abyss, or, by contrast, as Neil Postman has postulated, into that “Brave New World [where] people . . . come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.“3 Earlier, Vito Acconci’s video-performance Red Tapes, 1977, investigated the ”myths of American selfhood“ using monitors only, as though the Orwellian nightmare had already banished thinkers and feelers. Laurie Anderson’s United States, 1983, depicted life as a ”clooosed circuit“; her “O Superman,” with its melancholy splicing of emotions with technological know-how, was an appeal for help against the manipulation of the controlling media culture. Now Jesurun, in his work,sets up a confrontation with the media,forcing it to be responsible and to respond.

John Jesurun brings to theater the full-blown sensibility of his generation, with its fast food, 24-hour television, media journalism, rock ’n’ roll, and grade-B-movie imagery. But his work struggles to avoid some of the esthetic clichés of our time—no to post-Modernism’s mannered appropriation, no to collaging of theatrical forms or scavenging amongst historical ruins and follies for text and subtext, no to decoration and foreign language quotation, no to spectacle. Rather, Jesurun’s intellectual theater shows how media and technology can be a vessel for ideas, not always a vilification of them. At the same time, he makes no manifesto for his work, nor, for that matter, for theater. “You can have all kinds of fantasies about what can be done with theater,” he explains, “but in the end it all comes down to people.” For Jesurun, that was another good reason for coming to theater, and “because it was the next spot I was expanding to.” But he anticipates that any future moves might have a very different face. “I was given the role of a theater person, but I don’t want to get on a treadmill . . . I’ve actually learned a lot doing live things. Now I want to push it back through the lens of the camera. . . . I want to get behind a camera again.”

RoseLee Goldberg teaches at New York University. The revised and enlarged edition of her book, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, was recently published by Harry N. Abrams, New York.



1. John Jesurun, in a conversation with the author, New York City, Summer 1988. All subsequent quotations from the artist are from this and other conversations that summer.
2. Annette Michelson, ed., Kino Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, trans. Kevin O’Brien, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press,1984, pp. 15–16.
3. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death; Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, New York: Viking Penguin, 1985, p. VII.