San Francisco

Nancy Blanchard

Nancy Blanchard’s recent performance piece is the sort of event that leads one to do some serious thinking afterward, though not necessarily about the piece, which was called I Learned It At School, and billed as a tableaux theatre event.

The major problem, and one over which the artist had very little control, was the location, Herbst Theatre, a standard proscenium stage with a large house, plush seats, etc. Because the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is eliminating its current performance space, Blanchard’s piece, which was presented by the museum, had to take place elsewhere. The Herbst Theatre lacks the informality of the museum’s space, and the audience was psychologically prepared for a different type of presentation and felt confined. This, I feel, contributed heavily to the failure of the piece.

The other problem was that there was simply not enough happening to sustain audience interest for 40 minutes. I Learned It At School was by no means devoid of ideas, but ideas appeared and disappeared, never linking up with the action. Twenty minutes would have been more than adequate to present Blanchard’s (probably autobiographical) experiences in the slick, movie-image method she chose for this piece. What there was of the plot was combined with live actors, offstage audio taped voices, and a piano player and singer who periodically occupied stage left, dressed in clothing which combined a ’30s sensibility with punk eyewear, to the betterment of neither.

Francoise, the lead character, was played wordlessly by Saun Ellis while Nancy Blanchard’s own taped voice (in a curious combination of cockney and French accents) provided much of the dialogue. The story revolved around a romantic encounter and subsequent complications indulged in by Francoise and Nigel, an Englishman, while she was in the south of France on vacation from her law practice. The alleged time period, the 1940s, however, was made to seem highly suspect by the use of certain ’70s buzzwords, and the overall effect was more typical of the present, when people commonly sit around in rayon dresses with shoulder pads speaking of rock stars, EST and discotheques.

From the taped narrative, we learn that Francoise’s profession is doubted by a new acquaintance—she looks “so vulnerable, fragile.” Later, a description of love at first sight refers to blondness and charisma as love-inducing qualities. These two themes, women’s superficiality and lack of credibility, recur throughout the various stage activities: dancing, posing in front of rear-projected slides, lots of emoting à la silent films. What interested me more were two ideas which emerged from the activities of the singer/pianist duo, Sigrid Wurschmidt and Robert di Matteo, respectively. One was a sort of musical lament about living in France—can’t speak the language, don’t know how to get anywhere, don’t like the food. By the end of the song, everything had changed—coffee good there, can pick up the language after nine months, and so on. It was almost a parody of those frequently overhead deli conversations on why I left New York (for the third time) or why I can’t breathe without L.A. smog in my lungs. Woody Allen did it better in Annie Hall, but it is a fact of modern life. Various reasons that we don’t always fully comprehend cause us to shuttle from coast to coast, and a multitude of justifications seem forever necessary. Di Matteo’s song made an attractive, compact story line, complete with scat singing, out of a contemporary dilemma which has cultural implications as old as the history of the world. The second, and more ironic, idea appeared in a refrain “into the thick of jazz,” again referring to the inclination to hang out in France during the supposed ’40s. It doesn’t take an ethnomusicologist to recognize that jazz is generally regarded as the truly American music, and the notion that one must go to France to find it is as ridiculous as it was once trendy.

There is nothing wrong with coming away from a performance piece with, no doubt, a different impression than the artist had intended. That is one of the surprises which makes art interesting. However, it must be said that the average viewing time (calculated by museum professionals) in front of a work of art rarely exceeds 30 seconds. Since performance art, unlike theatre, depends largely on the visual, it runs the risk of boring the audience in a somewhat shorter time span than, for example, a play with three acts and a dramatic climax. A series of endlessly homogenized scenes of the type that comprised I Learned It At School deserved whatever reaction it got when the offstage audio tape proclaimed, “The story is dragging. We could make it a thriller.”

Mary Stofflet