“This isn’t the thing. Please, don’t worry,” Spenser Theberge assured entrants to Navel LA, a lofted arts incubator and event space. He talked as he unwound and pressed down masking tape in a perimeter on the floor, around a brightly-lit performance area. Behind his tape line, four rows of chairs made nested right angles. In front of it, Theberge’s partner, Jermaine Spivey, was moving large sheets of clear plastic from a glass-walled corner room onto the floor.
“Actually, it’s not the thing,” he said again as audience members sat and watched, their pre-performance chatter beginning to ebb. He carried with him a mic stand, the better to insist:
“Don’t quiet down yet! This isn’t the thing.” For the moment, I believed him. I’m familiar enough with the performers-on-stage pre-curtain trope to think that maybe Theberge and Spivey were in earnest: the thing must have been forthcoming. They did seem to be preparing for something. I rose from my seat, said hello to some friends I noticed across the room.
A door that had been open in the corner of the performance space, and from which light previously had emanated, shut. Theberge confronted Spivey, “Did you do that?”
Spivey denied it, then followed up: “I didn’t see me do that.”
“Oh, that’s good,” he said, smiling appreciatively. Their tension evaporated. “I’m going to write it down.” Theberge rushed to a corner and scribbled in a notebook, a theme he repeated throughout this section—I glanced at the program—it was the “live installation.” The program, the thing, would start at 8:30. I don’t recall how, but the door in the corner reopened.
If not the thing, then what was happening was a slow crescendo towards the thing. Theberge continued his narration, eventually turning it into singing. “Was it this?” Spivey, from inside the plastic. With his arms gripping it, extended overhead, he paused. Theberge to Spivey: “This is a thing. This is definitely a thing.” They continued to build, performing for each other, making noise: it still was not yet time to quiet down. Theberge sang, occasionally hurrying over to the corner to take notes. Spivey struck upward, transforming the plastic into a parachuted tunnel through which he moved. Thwap! Thwap! Suddenly, he barreled into the corner room, taking all the plastic with him. It streamed behind him, light shining through it. Pause.
The thing must have been starting.
Only it couldn’t quite be produced. There was no more talking, only whispering. Now Theberge and Spivey were both in the corner, facing out, speaking into their mics — but whispering to each other. “That is not what we said we were going to do.” This idea evolved from each tentatively, then more bravely, partnering with his mic to establishing phrasework — “we said inviting,” “we said engaging,” “we said we would do the structure.” Spivey played a song, one of only two used throughout the evening. Theberge introduced movements that matched the rhythms and ascensions of the classical piano piece, a piece I knew I knew but couldn’t name. Later, I thought I correctly identified it as Bach’s Goldberg Variations. His solo soon became a partnered duet, followed by an outpouring of unison and counterpoint phrasework defined by squeaky turns and slides and chugs in sneakers (the floor was polished concrete) and a final exclamatory battement. “That was it!”
A separation, and then another attempt at returning to the thing, now with a slower and more deliberate quality. They each strung together several gestures, dancing within close proximity but separately. Their movements felt — were, I think — improvisational. They had the quality of being performed for the first time. They were suggestions of the earlier phrase, with aesthetic similarities. It didn’t last long before one would remove himself and adjust the lighting or the plastic sheets. “Did you see that?” Spivey asked Theberge, every so often, when Theberge was faced away, insulated by his own movements. Later, Theberge did see Spivey — he unfolded his limbs on the floor and slid into a seated position. “I love that! That is so EUROPE.” Laughter from the audience. Spivey went on; Theberge continued to love it. But soon enough, it was lost. Even now, writing this, I am trying to get back to the thing; I can’t. Spivey insisted he was doing Europe “now,” as opposed to the Europe from before, as he marched with pumping fists across the room. The movement became sillier as Spivey’s belief in it held stronger. Theberge grew dissatisfied, passive aggressively so. “That isn’t what we said.” He refused to speak as he unfurled the plastic into long strands across the diagonal of the space. Again, if he was performing, then I believed him. I realize that it’s possible that he was simultaneously performing and not performing. In other words, although performed, the dynamic felt real: Spivey and Theberge are partners onstage and off. Is one of their partnerships more real than the other, or do they layer over one another like swaths of transparent plastic, like iterations of repeated actions (“what we said” versus what was done, ad infinitum)? I wonder if all passive-aggression is performance. I wonder if most relationships are mostly performance. Spivey pushed back, filling the silence with his movement. “Is this it? Is this what you want? Is it this?”
The moment to which I keep returning in my memory was something of a reprise of the catalytic event from earlier, when Spivey hurled across the diagonal into the closet, the plastic flying behind him. Now, Spivey crouched in the lit corner room, reeling the plastic in slowly. Only this time, Theberge was standing on it with his mic, and thus was dragged backwards as he faced the audience, opened his notebook, and said:
“1. Either we want you to see this or we don’t.”
The separation was suddenly lifted from between Theberge and Spivey and wedged between the audience and the performers. Of course, they were always united — even when they weren’t.
“2. If we want you to see it, either the plastic is in the way, or it isn’t.”
A further division: surely for some, it was; for others, it wasn’t. Twelve if/either/or statements followed along this structure, describing an interaction between the two and an audience member for whom the plastic — at turns a scrim, a set, a tunnel, a distraction, a shed skin, a conveyer — was also a barrier. Fifteen was a slightly reworked number one: “We will show you or not.” Theberge and Spivey spoke the line together, the former from the glass-walled side room and the latter from inside the corner one.
“I will never know how you see red and you will never know how I see it. But this separation of consciousness is recognized only after a failure of communication, and our first movement is to believe in an undivided being between us… to deny the existence of red is to deny the existence of mystery.” – from Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson and printed in the program for Rather This, Then by Jermaine Spivey and Spenser Theberge