Physical Things by Steve Paxton

Performance presented as part of 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, The 69th Regiment Armory, New York, N.Y., United States, October 13-19, 1966.

Physical Things was a part of “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering,” which was an event featuring experimental works of collaborations of artists and engineers from the Bell Laboratories in 1966.

In this performance piece, experimental dancer and choreographer Steve Paxton created a spectacular narrative system with radio, tubes, air, and movements. Participants were given freedom to devise their own theatrical experience within a designed path while being guided by the machine.

On stage is a landscape of air-filled tubes. Participants can move across them alongside dancers performing choreographed movements.

Each participant is given a radio receiver to pick up signals. The radio sends out loops of real world audio footage—conversations, animal noises, conversations, countdown for a space shuttle launch, etc.

I see this work as a pioneering piece in the synthesis of machine and drama. Drama often serves as a representation of the mythical nature of society, and this piece highlights how technology plays a role in this mythical structure. By incorporating radio in the theatrical experience, it recognizes modern media technology as a cultural element that plays a role in our information intake and our daily interaction with each other.

There have been many works after this that have a similar storytelling structure and/or elements. Some examples include: Improve Everywhere’s MP3 experiments which mirror the use of radio, and immersive theater pieces like Dead Waterside Mermaid by Chinese theater director Meng Jing Hui.

You can learn more about this piece and the 1996 event “9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering” here.