Editor’s note: Conceived of in collaboration with Obie award-winning playwright and former Center visiting artist Ain Gordon, An Experiment in Five Acts is aimed at artists and cultural producers working in the Philadelphia region who are negotiating mid-career challenges—be they purely aesthetic or more practical. The primary goal is to stimulate refractive dialogue that may under-gird each participant’s ongoing process and address its quandaries. In an effort to share the project as it unfolds within the field, we have enlisted the services of nonfiction writer and 2005 Pew Fellow Jay Kirk, as “creative documentarian” for each of the five sessions. The following essay is the penultimate of the series.
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Let’s not beat around the bush. This document is the only thing that will be left after our experiment has concluded. This report has, in a manner of speaking, final say. So what of it? What can we trust of this document to convey the truth of Act IV? Was there really an Act IV? Is it silly to ask? Well, that much is verifiable. That much can be fact-checked. If you liked, if you tried, you could track down our names, our phone numbers, at least our emails. You could independently verify the date. Careful examination of calendar appointments, receipts, phone records, security camera footage, etc., would readily yield the whereabouts, our whereabouts, and only a slightly more rigorous effort, combined with a rudimentary knowledge of forensics, might let you corroborate certain things said, ideas floated, postures taken, certain mid-thought retractions. But unless our collective life rights are purchased at some day in the future, and a film is made of the proceedings, or one of us puts on Act IV as a dance performance, or a small theater piece, or an oratorio, hopefully to wide and clamorous review, this will be the only trace.
Of course, there may be rumors, issued by detractors from within our ranks, which contradict the report. But any other interpretation will inevitably find itself compared to the subjective authority of this official document. This is the formal trace. But, you ask, and quite intelligently I think, is it the form (this form) or the content (watch it accumulate despite our best intentions) that transmits the essence of our penultimate act?
And so then I must ask, “Do you know whether you’re reading this for its content or for its form?”
Perhaps, being a reader who tires, as we all sometimes do, of reports calibrated exclusively toward the plain exposition of things, you’re reading to get a sense of body language, of subliminal motion, or the physical grammar of our characters, the kinetic indiscretions and “tells” with which we inadvertently telegraph our Act IV selves to one another, as we stand inside the spacious room, and where, did I mention, there was placed a pink conch?
It was a giant conch shell, with fur suggestively glued around its gastropod aperture, pinkly flared. It was of unknown origin. That is to say, it was already there in the room—the conch was waiting when we arrived. I don’t know if it was plaster or prehistoric. It looked real. The fur was fake, alpaca white. But this is only a detail, and one with little significance, so why do I why submit it here? Well, perhaps to point out how any detail will distort the surface—such as the details of our particular exercise today, which I’m getting to—and that form is stretched by the objects one notices, in this case the form of the room, the form of each other’s presence, now watch as it bends under the pressure of each detail, just as the imaginary net of gravity warps under the heft of planets—it is such bending that accounts for time—much as we ourselves, the planetary participants, alter the space around us as we pace and circle over the spacious floor.
About Jay Kirk
Jay Kirk’s fiction and creative nonfiction have been published in Harper’s, GQ, New York Times Magazine, Peregrine, The Nation, Chicago Reader, Philadelphia City Paper, Saturday Night, and Nerve. His work has been anthologized in Best American Crime Writing 2003, Best American Crime Writing 2004, and Best American Travel Writing 2009. He was also included in the anthology Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person from Harper’s Magazine (New Press, 2008). He was a recipient of a 2005 Pew Fellowship, as well as a 2007 Individual Creative Artists Fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. His book about the taxidermist-sculptor Carl Akeley, titled Kingdom Under Glass, was published by Henry Holt and Co. in 2010.
Which brings me to the exercise, and, really, it is the best idea any of us have yet brought to our experiments. It is the idea of our theater director, who—that most charming and affable man—do you know, flew back from LA early just to be with us today? As I recall, during the exercise, he did not direct our attention to the conch. It wasn’t necessary. So consider that detail irrelevant. What’s relevant is that there is room to roam, to wheel, to satellite around one another, as we play a sort of improv tag, first circling, then gently colliding, alternately avoiding, ignoring the giant conch, all as the exercise demands, walking backward, moving sideways, with purpose and/or not, allowing ourselves to glance off one another’s bodies, just to acknowledge that we are physically in the room, together.
It is kind of the best thing ever.
But it only gets better, because we next begin the collective transformation of the room by bringing in other details, describing for one another the layout of our childhood homes, our childhood beds, the mulberry tree in the front lawn, the creaky feel of the hallway, the radiator, the angle of morning sunlight in the dining room, our hands pausing around the hi-fi memory of our parents’ stereo, and that one Edith Piaf album.
That’s how it was.
We observe each other as we try to explain the art of watching TV, as we try to define what a woman is, or to justify our political affiliations. We coax one another out of the self-consciousness that owning up to content so often imposes, in order to better experience the pure form of experiencing memory. Getting past content really is best if you want to get to the more cinematic pleasure of faces and the rhythm of gesture. What counts today is rhythm, language subordinate to gesture, the way our hands move in childish circles, the way commas drop from our mouths as we recall our English grandmother’s white lace, the way one foot comes forward when we hesitate, shake our head, caught between the burden of performance and genuine remembering, struck by the way our bodies confess the past tense, with a tone of wistful resignation.
The real performers among us find the spectacle of the nonperformers hilarious. And quite instructive.
Our performance is dazzling in the white room: a brilliant layover between endless destinations.
Speaking of which, did I already mention that the author of today’s exercise flew back early from LA just to be here today? I think it’s worth mentioning twice. And it is funny to think about: that one would rush to make it to a carefully scheduled layover, which is exactly what this is—a deliberate space for reverie, a wedge of space to exist between things, for which discovery is the entire point of the exercise. We would not miss this one for anything. To be in this room with our peers. You could say this is the value of our entire experiment. This is the grand success of the experiment. It is not a destination, but a layover. And once you’ve mastered the art of the layover, you’ve mastered the art of Act IV.