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Surrogate subjectivity with Radcliffe’s David Levine AM ’96

David Levine PHOTO: Tony Rinaldo

David Levine, a Radcliffe Fellow in Visual Arts, creates interdisciplinary work with theater, psychology and video. Through his fellowship, Levine, AM ’96, is pursuing Character Analysis, an experiment in which volunteers are paired with actors over a period of three months so the actors can “acquire” the participants’ subjectivity. Levine is also a professor at the European College of Liberal Arts of Bard in Berlin, Germany. Levine’s work in the visual and performing arts exhibits internationally, from MASS MoCA to the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, Egypt. Levine and collaborator Marsha Ginsberg were awarded special citations at the 2013 Obies for their 2012 art theater project Habit. I sat down with Levine to discuss his experiment and its outcomes. The following, which is the first part of two posts on Levine’s work, is an edited and condensed interview. You can read the second post, with Lelaina Vogel ’15, a participant in the project, here.

What is Character Analysis?

Each actor gets a volunteer and they meet three times a week for three months, for roughly a 50-minute hour. Over that period the actor, in theory acquires the subjectivity of the person. They take all the skills they have as an actor and try to understand the character. It’s a portrait of the actors as much as it is a portrait of the volunteers. They get to send their surrogates out on a mission to do something on behalf of the original, or experience something on behalf of their original. Then they come back, in character, they’re interviewed, in character about how it felt, and then the original gets the video as a sort of document of what they experienced. One sent her surrogate to see The Donkey Show, because she never had time, but she was curious. One of them had been humiliated by a barista, so she sent her surrogate to provoke the barista in exactly the same way, and hopefully she would respond differently.

Where did you get the idea to do something like this?

I started out as a theater director, and the last straight play I did was a play about the ballet dancer Nijinsky. The actor playing Nijinsky sort of made himself into a persuasive ballet dancer in about three weeks. I was trying to figure out if he was only a persuasive ballet dancer moving from point A to point B every night, the way he was staged to do—I mean, you don’t perform the full range of human anything when you’re playing a role. Everything in American theater is blocked. If you can internalize a role how far can you take that? I started doing experiments, and this was just out of that logic. This was just one of the experiments.

You keep mentioning American theater. Have you lived and done theater elsewhere?

I live in Germany half the time, so it could not be more different. One reason why America theater favors realism is because the contractual arrangements between producers favor realism. You’re going to minimize variables in this environment; the best way to minimize variables is through staged realism. Living in Germany and realizing that made me get much more interested in the way contractual arrangements actually determine aesthetics. I was trying to figure out was a way of doing the kind of theater and directing that I like to do, which is pretty much American. I create the kinds of environments where I can do the kind of theater I want to do. But they’ll happen in an art context, and they’re more in dialogue with an art tradition than with a theater tradition.

Why Harvard?

I did a lot of little studies for this project in New York, and the most successful studies were conducted with A.R.T. grads, actually. I like the way that they’re trained; they sort of instantly understand what we’re trying to do, partially because it’s so Stanislavski-based. There was the fact that this project overlaps with a lot of issues in psychology, and neuropsychology and philosophy, as well as theater, as well as visual arts and the history of performance arts. I wanted it to be a place where I could could consult and be in dialogue with these disciplines. I also have a history with Harvard, so it was kind of like coming back, which was nice. I think the biggest one was the sort of intellectual overlap with the Radcliffe Institute, and the fact that the A.R.T. was literally across the street.

Under the auspices of the Office for the Arts’ Learning From Performers program, David Levine will engage undergraduates in Hunter and Prey, a collaborative video/performance project on November 16 and 17 at the Harvard Dance Center. No prior performance experience is necessary; click here for more information.

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