'On listening, talking, and the impossibility of language' (Kim Peter Kovac, USA)

Notes from the Playing Field: On Listening, Talking, and the Impossibility of Language
A show called Brief, a collaboration among teenage dancers from four countries, appeared this June at an Austrian festival. An ensemble-created collage piece, it seemed to be based on their feelings about growing up in today’s world (with all the jagged passion and angst one could imagine). It was largely without words, but full of energetic and precise dancing, and I vividly remember one recurring sequence, which included the actors flinging their right arms up to the sky, grabbing at their triceps and flinging them around the back, then throwing their whole bodies to the floor. I was struck by how articulate the sense of despair was in this crisp combination. Also, there was a repeating bit with young people coming to a microphone. Often they would start to speak, stammer, and then scamper away. Then, later in the piece, they began speaking a recurring motif: “What I want to tell you is I have no idea how to tell you what I want to tell you.” For me, this was a very eloquent haiku of inarticulateness, a verbal counterpoint to the very precise message of much of the (nonverbal) dancing.

This somehow leads (follow the bouncing dancer) to the subject of talking about the work we do. Not in “public” conversations and post-show discussions, but in smaller and more intimate conversations, colleague-to-colleague or in small groups. The conversations can be both kinder and more rigorous, but I suspect they do not happen as often as they might. And if they do happen, how articulate are we?

The productions for children and young people – both in my country and all over the world - run the entire spectrum, from the breathtakingly innovative to the mind-bogglingly mundane, from world-class (I’d sell my soul to be able to write/direct/design/produce that well) to productions that, like in the American TV show ‘Survivor’, the tribe should really vote off the island. The work is so much better than a dozen years ago and continues to improve, and there is a great sense of common cause toward the improvement of the field as a whole. Yet I believe that we need to better learn how to talk, and, more importantly, listen to each other.

Sometimes it’s difficult to even begin to understand the impossibility of language. The more I communicate with international colleagues whose native language is not the same as mine, the more I am struck by how imprecise is our communication with each other is. It’s certainly true in the USA with our shared language of English, and I’m sure it’s true in other countries as well. Wasn’t it Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty who said, “Words mean exactly what I want them to mean?” There’s much truth to that. Idioms, connotations, and jargon, all create barriers in communication. And how do you reach someone who is insecure, or simply from a different tradition?

In the early 1980s, in my former life directing avant-garde adult productions, one of my shows got resoundingly hammered by all the reviewers, one saying, “Sole blame for this debacle rests with the director . . . No one will want to come to this show except for friends of the company and they should think of excuses to be out of town.” My personal pity party bemoaning the unfairness of the evil press went on for a week or so. Then someone said, “You think you’re upset because the reviews were unfairly negative. Actually, deep down you know the show was dreadful and you’re only upset because they said so.” Talk about cutting to the chase—but that stiletto of truth was the start of my understanding that show.

Part of bridging this communication gap is having the courage and generosity of spirit to tell a colleague what we really think, without the shallow glibness that often marks our discourse. Positive, negative, and every other flavor of comment—if they’re to be effective—need a certain analytical and intellectual rigor we don’t always find the time for. We’re all guilty to a greater or lesser degree of sometimes giving superficial praise (because it’s simpler, and, we feel, kinder) or making tacky comments (because scoring points can be fun). We’re all guilty of sometimes speaking only in superlatives, analogous to the ubiquitous and therefore next-to-meaningless standing ovations. George Balanchine once said, “Why does everything have to be ‘great’? Why isn’t ‘good’ good enough? Everyone’s overrated. Picasso’s overrated. I’m overrated. Even Jack Benny’s overrated.”

If we want to effect change, we also need to speak not for ourselves, but for the listener, in ways that will be heard by that particular person at that particular moment, not just to score points. The implicit covenant is that the favor will be returned, that we will listen to—and receive—the same courtesy of clear and precise opinion in return.

But sometimes, like those hearts-on-sleeves young performers in Austria, maybe it’s best to start the conversation by saying we don’t know how to start the conversation. Not coming from a place of knowing (as we often feel we have to), but from a place of not-knowing. The Dao De Jing says the Way (to the truth) cannot be known. That’s theological and philosophical, and also deeply liberating. We want to come together in shared knowledge, it seems, but sometimes, coming from the place of not knowing, of inarticulateness—and admitting it—can create a starting place to a more crystalline path to understanding.

Kim Peter Kovac is President of ASSITEJ/USA, a member of the ASSITEJ International Executive Committee, and Director of Theater for Young Audiences at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC
This editorial originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in TYA Today, the magazine of ASSITEJ/USA, Vol. 20, No. 2, Fall 2006.