An invitation to reconsider: The role of the critic

Yonatan Laderman’s column “An Invitation to Reconsider” examines the different elements of a theater production in order to rethink life and theater with unorthodoxy.

Theater is ephemeral. How do we even know that we’ve seen a show? We can say we remember the show, as a collective. We share the memory of the event and so it gives it its existence. But what happens when we all disappear? What happens then? How will the event of theater exist? If a tree falls in the forest and no one has seen it, did it really fall? Did the show really happen if all of its spectators have died, or forgotten? Do we lose the performance once it’s over? 

Some will confirm these worries with a pessimistic nod. But the world of theater has already come up with an antidote to its malady of impermanence: the critic. The witness of the show. The one who ascribes the memory on the tablets and confirms that it really happened. Sophocles existed in that we have the manuscripts of his plays, but we also have Aristotle who praises his tragedies, confirming us that they indeed happened. Around the world, theater happens all the time but no one is aware of it because no one records the theatrical acts. There are no witnesses for it. In the same way that we require witnesses for a wedding, we must have them for theater. And these are our beloved (and sometimes hated) critics. 

In our production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, we were fortunate to have as our critic Chloe Chow ‘23, a director, writer, actor and second-consecutive year Artistic Director of the Asian American Theater Project. Chloe made the effort to see both our production of Waiting for Godot and our (anti)performance piece, Waiting for Waiting for Godot, which protested the Beckett estate’s ban on women and non-binary people playing a role in Waiting for Godot. Chloe documented our performances through writing both descriptive and critical of our conduct. As such, Chloe descriptively commemorated our labor as well as situated our production as part of a larger critical framework encompassing, specifically, productions of Waiting for Godot, and, generally, theater in large.

This installment of my column presents Chloe’s review of our production of both Waiting for Godot and Waiting for Waiting for Godot. At the end of this essay, I respond to several critical comments that Chloe invited me to speak on — thus this installment serves as a wonderful opportunity for dialogue between director and critic. 

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Chloe begins the article, titled Waiting for Godot Questions The Foundation of Student Theater, by describing how student theater boomed on campus after the COVID year, and reflects on the relationship between art and the university: “We ask the question of how our art is bonded to the university, and whether student theater on campus must be dependent on support from the institution in order to co-exist. That is the goal of the new group called Independent Guerilla Productions (IGP), founded by Yonatan Laderman ‘23 and David Mazouz ‘23.” 

Chloe continues to describe keenly the goal of IGP and our performance of Waiting for Godot, and so I will cite her words in its completeness.

Independent Guerilla Productions (IGP) states that they are ‘the counterculture of art on campus.’  Their artistic statement is as follows: ‘We are the only independent, avant-grade, theater organization on campus. We are dedicated to art and art alone. We are committed to taking brave decisions and produce shows that can further the artistic discourse, on all matters.’ In short, IGP seeks to revolutionize the culture on campus, partly by creating art that is independently funded. 

As a theatermaker myself, I understand the ins and outs of putting on a production, and it isn’t easy. 8-10 weeks of research, hiring, finding financial support, rehearsing, drafting, troubleshooting, and finally performing is the typical process. Laderman seeks to deconstruct these processes. In my artistic journey, I also seek to reform what we perceive as theater and traditional theatrical spaces, and having just directed Solstice Party, I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Waiting For Godot.

Laderman kindly invited me to two rehearsals: one dress rehearsal and one surprise. When I went to watch their Wednesday dress rehearsal, I noted the site-specificity of the playing space. Waiting For Godot took place in the Engineering Quad, a place where we don’t typically see performance art situated nor do we expect it. There was cloth draped in the background behind a large tree, and there was a pile of sandbags in the center accompanied by a stack of cinder blocks on the side. It was evident how much care was put to this minimalistic set and even though it was a production paid by students and for students, the creative intent was present throughout. In the audience, there was scattered found items such as a deconstructed bike, burnt wood, and more. It felt like I was sitting in a collage of the university, and I was curious to see what the performance would be like.

Laderman, the director, came out to greet the audience by explaining a little bit about IGP and then asking for an audience member since one of their actors was out. The beauty of site specific theater is that there is no blackout to indicate the start of the show – it merely begins. In this instance, the play starts with Vijay Josephs ‘24 on the pile of sandbags. It was noticeable from the beginning how much effort was put into vocal and physical precision of characterization. Josephs spoke with a monotone voice, taking his character of Estragon with slow and unbalanced motion. Boaz Kaffman ‘23 was his scene partner in the role of Vladimir. Kaffman complemented Josephs’s portrayal with his bent posture and dynamic vocal delivery. Together, Vladimir and Estragon wait for the unseen character of Godot on the side of a road.

When David Mazouz ‘23 emerged from behind the backdrop, the atmosphere of the play changed to have a juxtaposition of character. Mazouz played Pozzo, a loud and aggressive man who distracts Vladimir and Estragon from their waiting. Pozzo is accompanied by his loyal servant named Lucky, portrayed by Shengming Liang ‘25. Mazouz juxtaposed the characterization of Vladimir and Estragon through his thunderous voice, overpowering the status of Vladimir and Estragon. Liang’s portrayal of Lucky was gruesomely specific with his consistent physical shaking, wide stances, bent back, and saliva dripping from his mouth. The rope around his neck completed the hierarchy of characters, although it was a bit jarring to me to see the image of having an underrepresented individual being led around and physically treated like an animal (being tugged, pushed, hit, etc.). While this aspect was specific to the script, I wonder how artistic intention and interpretation would be adjusted around casting and audience perception. A character named The Boy came out later to address questions about the whereabouts of Godot, to no avail due to his indirect and roundabout answers. It was so clear how much effort Laderman had put into building his actors. In the program, he addressed this production almost as a celebration of all the precedent work that had occurred on campus this year:

“Visiting most of the theater shows presented on campus in this year, I noted specific perfections of theatrical input from fellow directors: Audrey Senior’s meticulous care for body-movement, Katie Dragone’s phenomenal transformation of RAG’s space, Chloe Chow’s immersive Theater, and Diana Khong’s abolishment of Theater Etiquette. I was inspired by their ingenuity.” 

***

Chloe succinctly touches upon all elements of our production, and thus memorializes the effort that was invested in it. From the actors’ deliveries, to the stage design, to the space itself, the labor of each person in the production is cemented in writing and joins the afterlife of theater-productions — the archive. Not joining the archive means being lost in ephemera, which should not be regarded as a negative consequence. Some productions don’t seek to be remembered. Nonetheless, in the Western capitalist world, being forgotten is equivalent to failing. And so production here tends to aspire to enter the archive.

Chloe ends her piece by touching upon our (anti)performance piece. Once again, I quote her here:

Witnessing Waiting for Godot at the Wednesday dress rehearsal was a new perspective on theater for me already, so I was incredibly curious to see what the Thursday performance held.

When I got there, there was a small crowd. I chatted with friends as we waited for the performance to begin, but 40 minutes in, nothing had happened still. One of my friends, Parker Watt ‘24, noted that the program had been changed to say “Waiting for Waiting for Godot.” And that’s when it all clicked.

Lily Joy Winder ‘25 came out from behind the curtain to deliver a monologue on indigeneity, land reclamation and reparations, and gender inequality. Winder was originally supposed to portray The Boy, but in the licensing, only individuals of male identity are allowed to perform the role. Thus, she had to be cut from the production much to the disappointment of the team. When she disappeared, the stage manager Taylor Malina ‘24  came out to take questions from the audience but did not answer them correctly.

It was all coming together – Winder was like Pozzo, distracting us from waiting for the production. Malina was like The Boy, there to take questions without giving answers. That made us, the audience, like Vladimir and Estragon as we waited for the production, a symbol of Godot.

Audience members around me were actually getting mad. Some left, some said they were never seeing an Independent Guerilla Production again, and so on. But I loved it.

Chloe concludes her article with some general reflection on our production of Waiting for Godot in the general context of theater and other student productions on campus, offering some of the deepest compliments our production received as well as important constructive criticism:

To me, the importance of theater is the experience and the lessons you carry from it. Thus, the Thursday rendition of Waiting for Godot was notable not only for the independent nature of the production, but also for how it was able to deliver the same central message of the production without actually going through the motions of the script itself. Laderman and Mazouz called it a protest against the institution of theater. I was fascinated by how Laderman reimagined these roles into the physical people in the audience and cast/staff — site-specificity was not only pertinent to the space, but now to the bodies as well. 

It warms me to see how much student theater is occurring on campus, and IGP has established itself as a new and upcoming group that is ready to challenge the notion of what it means to create student theater. Waiting for Godot challenged me to not only re-evaluate what theater means, but also my relationship to theatermaking and the institutions that control it.

In pursuing independent theatermaking, I do challenge IGP to consider the accessibility of creating art and how funding projects can be made available to anyone who wants to participate. Within the campus of Stanford, there is a diversity of backgrounds and identities that may impact the equality of the playing field for who can be represented in productions and who can afford to pay for theater-related items such as licensing/rights, transportation, small props, etc. While I commend IGP and specifically Waiting for Godot for the emphasis on using found items, I encourage them to continue the practice of creating low to no-cost art that can be accessible in both creating and witnessing and how as they grow, this can continue to be a central mission in addition to growing diversity in other aspects.

Independent Guerrilla Productions and everyone involved in the production of Waiting for Godot wants to deeply thank Chloe. For allowing our work to remain meaningful for people who have not seen the fruits of our labor, we appreciate every word that you dedicated to us!

***

To finish this essay, I would like to take the time to respond to two comments that Chloe invited me in her piece to think about. Chloe first notes that our production cast someone from an underrepresented background in the role of Lucky, who is being led around throughout the play with a rope on his neck being in service of Pozz. My producer and I were well aware of what it meant to cast Shengming Liang 25’ in the role of Lucky. Ultimately, we decided that shying away from possible controversy by casting a white person as Lucky, rather than offering the role to everyone who sought to audition, was against the values of IGP and the critical engagement that we sought to advance in our performance. 

It is important to remark that Liang was by far the best candidate to play Lucky. Furthermore, by keeping the physical rope as part of the play, we wanted to stress in a jarring, realistic sense the issues that pervade the everyday. Theater should not run away from depicting harsh reality. In the society we live in, racism prevails. There are hierarchies of power based on your skin color, gender,and other categories. Avoiding touching on these matters is hypocrisy. So we exhibited the audience with a reflection of our society. In a very real sense, people of underrepresented backgrounds have ropes on their neck everyday. Theater is one more space where these communities are discriminated against, and we wanted to show that. The stage is a transcendent, idealistic space. It is anchored in reality and enacted by the forces that structure our society.

The second point that Chloe encouraged me to respond to is the consideration of making IGP accessible to anyone who wants to pursue making art. Since IGP is not affiliated with Stanford, we have no restraints on the projects we can sponsor. As such, we have been sponsoring every project that aligns with our values of revolutionizing artistic culture on campus as well as artists who show commitment to realizing their work. Since IGP is not a bureaucratic organization, but rather a community or a family, it offers as much help and support as wanted by the artist pursuing the project. IGP is about interpersonal relationships, not about the product. The end-result is only a by-product of the journey we embark on with the artist. That journey is open to everyone. Just reach out!


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