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Spoleto 2012 » Features

This year's Spoleto festival is built on memory, truth, and lies

Liar, Liar

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Everyone lies.

When you repeat a fact, or reflect on a memory, you are lying to yourself, and possibly to others. Because the longer you retain something, the blurrier it gets, the more time your mind has to subtly change what it was you thought you knew. A story grows longer. A piece of information is slightly tweaked to no longer reflect a certainty. A source of inspiration is reinterpreted. So you lie, whether you mean to or not. When a Spoleto performance unfolds on a stage in front of us, we are seeing what the actor, musician, dancer, director, or other artist wants us to see. We may not be seeing what's real.

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The key is to go to the source of the material, if one exists. Mike Daisey wasn't entirely honest in his mythic accounts of China's Foxconn factories that aired so eloquently on NPR's This American Life in January. Instead, he smudged details about locations and injuries and even the name of his interpreter. A China-based correspondent from another public radio show was able to find Daisey's interpreter, and the truth came out.

Mike Daisey - URSA WAZ

This all happened amidst the anticipation-build for Spoleto's 2012 schedule. They say that all press is good press, and in this case, it was as if the festival had some kind of command over the universe, or at least the public relations realm of it — the columns and blog posts and radio broadcasts of this past March were all free advertising on a national scale. Spoleto responded smartly to the debacle, even adding a Daisey session of Conversations with Martha Teichner. "We have all intentions of moving the show forward as it is," Paula Edwards, director of marketing and public relations, said. "We are billing it as a piece of theater." Which it is. It was a piece of theater that originally debuted in 2010 that was adapted for a radio broadcast. After the fallout, Daisey pointed out this fact in his defense and quietly reminded everyone that his story, despite its fictions, was ultimately a step forward for the greater good. He was right in a way; his fable led the New York Times and other news outlets to investigate the matter, which in turn helped inspire Foxconn to raise wages and reduce overtime for its employees.

Another piece of theater, by another This American Life contributor, is Charleston native Jack Hitt's Making Up the Truth. As he'll explain, what people see and accept as the truth may only really be their own truth, exclusive to how their brains process the information presented to them. Our brains can change things, whether we want them to or not. This kind of biology has nothing to do with what Daisey did. He didn't slip; he intentionally aggrandized some of his information. But memories are not without their imperfections.

Truth is based on personal perception. LEO's title character is trapped in a box, the laws of physics meaningless in his prison. He is stuck, and the only escape is by creating his own reality. There are more layers here, a box on top of a box, and the audience will be able to choose which realm — the tangible or the imaginary — they want to experience. Meanwhile, as a teenager, Zoe Scofield, co-founder of Seattle dance and multimedia company zoe | juniper, was in a car accident with her father. Their vehicle hit a tree on a highway and spun across lanes of traffic, turning on itself. Scofield remembers the accident, and waiting to die, as a slow process; it was silent and bright. Her father saw it as pitch black, but loud and fast. zoe | juniper's show A Crack in Everything has dancers and video (created by her husband Juniper Shuey) layered upon each other as fragments of the same reality. The show changes a little bit every time it is performed, because although the choreography is set, each staging has a different nuance to it. What you see at 8 p.m. on June 6 won't be quite the same as what you'll see at 12 p.m. on June 10.

Jack Hitt - AARON HARROW

That's just human nature. For however much someone tries, nothing can be perfectly and exactly replicated, not a performance, not even a memory. And if nostalgia becomes a factor, that's when things get even fuzzier. Hitt's show will tell us why our brains do the things they do. But it can be so much simpler than that. We all suffer from some sort of nostalgia; it's the reason why a bunch of kids in Boston would name their bluegrass band Joy Kills Sorrow after the call-sign of a 1930s radio station. Our propensity for sentimentality shapes the way we retain information.

As Kyle Abraham dances, he thinks back on his father, who suffered from Alzheimer's and aphasia before he passed away. In the last year's of his life, Abraham's father would dance whenever he heard music. That's something the choreographer thinks about when performing in Abraham.in.Motion.'s The Radio Show, a commemoration of the failed urban radio station Abraham was weaned on in Pittsburgh. For him, this is a specific memory, but it's one that in many ways most anyone can relate to: growing up, our ears stuck to headphones or a car stereo system. When the audience watches this show, they will be seeing Abraham's memories realized through movement (and again, every performance will be different), but really, they'll be comparing them to their own.

Joe Miller's Spoleto offering was also inspired by the music of his childhood, of watching Dolly Parton singing sweetly on his television in East Tennessee. It's a practical resource, as Miller is the conductor of the Westminster Choir, a Spoleto stalwart since the beginning. Their program this year is based on the Queen of Country Music's "Light of a Clear Blue Morning," and the entire show plays off of memory and its interplay with sound — from country tunes to lyrics drawn from The Simpsons. In the case of the latter, this kind of memory can bring a new audience to a show they may normally consider stodgy and conservative.

London's 1927 theater company also plays on nostalgia, but the darker parts of it, the bad memories that we cloud over in our wistful reflections. The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is a thoroughly modern show set in a non-modern universe, its visual effects only possible because of current technologies. The layering of live performance and filmed animation defies description, and reality. Are the cockroaches creeping along the backdrop a part of the fantasy, or did they slink in through an open entry-way door?

The nostalgia doesn't even have to be as esoteric as all this. While it may be true that this year Spoleto has shifted toward more contemporary tastes, at the same time, it has fallen back onto reliable experiments. Kepler was composed by Philip Glass, the literal poster boy of Spoleto 2007. Its star, John Hancock, sang in 2007's Faustus, the Last Night. Now he performs in an opera based on the writings of the great German mind behind the laws of planetary motion, when last year's opera Emilie was devised in a similar manner. Dublin's Gate Theatre appeared in 2010 with Noël Coward's Present Laughter and return with his Hay Fever. Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet premiered at the festival in 2007. Ukulelist Jake Shimabukuro was on 2009's program, Virgínia Rodrigues on 2001's. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are veterans. Even Mike Daisey is returning for his third time. We may buy tickets solely because we want to recreate a memory, or get as close as we can.

The inevitability of any Spoleto season is its audience's own nostalgia, its own mistakes in memory. Especially with so many returning acts, it is impossible not to compare and contrast any given summer's experience with the one or ones that came before it. A physical theater performance may sound well and interesting now, but soon it could be catalogued away along with other disappointments.

We are only at the beginning of this festival. Our memories, our realities of this Spoleto, have not yet been formed. Right now, there is no truth.

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