What am I looking at?

Habit has been rather all-consuming for our staff as you can tell by our blogging.  Managing Director Sue Killam weighs in here on her impressions of David Levine’s installation.  Come anytime Thurs noon – 5, Friday 2-8, Saturday noon- 8 or Sunday noon – 5.

The audience experience at MASS MoCA is one of the many aspects of my role here. Being an audience member affords the opportunity to share a live exchange with the artist and each other.  And because of the art we present, our audience experience is always changing.  Sometimes we present a traditional experience, seated in rows, dark, quiet, watching and the other times we make you leave your shoes at the door and take away your chair.   But in my time at MASS MoCA never has the audience experience become such an integrated part of the message as it is with our current presentation of Habit, by David Levine.  This piece is a one of a kind experience you should catch.

Habit blurs the lines of where performance takes place and how we, the audience view it. It brings front and center how we engage and how we view.  As a viewer, you decide how much or how little you want to see; how close do you want to get, how long do you want to stare?  Decisions that are similar to how you view art in a gallery, or how long you look at an accident driving by.  The audience navigates the space around a house– not just a set—a real house with real plumbing, electricity, windows, walls, doors, a stocked refrigerator, music, video games — a house like any one of us might have lived in or visited.   There are actors and a script—real actors, lines and characters, but the stage direction constantly evolves as the actors live their lives right in front of us.  The script loops for 6-8 hours.  The actors never leave and live and act right before us blurring the lines so they are indiscernible.  In response, you, the viewer,  make choices: The choice to watch the full loop or only a few minutes. The choice to pull back the curtain and get real close or to spy through windows unseen. The choice to watch it live through windows and doors or televised on a large screen.

As a result of this control and choice, Habit forces us to notice our own act of viewing and level of voyeurism.  Raising questions of audience experience, what is reality and realism, where does performance begin and end?  I suspect, Habit will linger with you long after you’ve left and pop up the next time you find yourself peering into your neighbor’s lit house at night.

Posted February 24, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Habit, Theater, Work-in-progress
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Actors in their Habitat

Watching Habit by David Levine is unlike any play you have ever seen…guaranteed. Think you’ve seen it all?…We promise you haven’t. Every performance of Habit is, by nature, undoubtedly different than the next.

The play is set within a house that has been built in the middle of MASS MoCA’s, Hunter Center. The audience must walk up to the house and peer through the windows to view the action within the four walls.

The set has been built, the props have been purchased, and the actors have analyzed their characters with David, but the staging and the viewing of this performance is explicitly spontaneous.

When walking up to the house of Habit you will hear actors at any given point in the script. Will you enter during the pumpkin sex scene? Or will you arrive during the fight? Or Mitch’s serenade to Viv? There is no way to tell.

So you walk closer to the house…feeling a little nervous. Almost like you shouldn’t be there. But you’re curious. You want to know what they’re talking about. So you open the curtains and find three young characters (Doug, a cocaine dealer, Mitch, his naïve younger brother, and Viv, an addict who is “crashing” with the boys) in the midst of an existence that revolves around sex, drugs, rock n roll.

As your interest grows for the intoxicating story, you begin to move around the house to follow the character of your choice. A special interaction takes place within the audience as you begin to shift around each other. You must share window space with the person standing next to you, you can glance at each other during a questionable scene, and you may silently agree not to peer through the bathroom window when a character is “relieving themselves”.

The eerie and essential effect of voyeurism is executed by the absence of interaction between the actor and the audience. There is no “wrong” time to begin watching the show and no “right” time to leave. So now, we DARE you to see Habit THIS WEEKEND. It may ruffle your feathers a bit, but why not make life a little interesting?

Click here for more info about show times and ticket prices for Habit.

Thanks to Miss Danelle Cheney for the photos =]

Posted February 22, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Habit, Theater, Work-in-progress
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Reality Theater Creates Construction Reality

Our production manager Eric Nottke offers this insider’s perspective on Habit.

I’ve been building scenery for theater professionally since 1990, starting out as a scenic carpenter and welder, moving up to crew foreman, technical director and now production manager. I’ve built things for TV, film, Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway and so far away from Broadway that it’s actually the Hudson River.

All of these projects have had a common thread:  they have all been theatrical representations of spaces, places that look real from your seat or on your television. But if you were able to look closely or behind the walls you’d see the thin wood framing, faux-finishing painting (it’s not really marble, it just looks that way) and the bracing holding the whole thing up. That’s the way of theater; a skillfully presented picture of reality, made to last as long as the show is running and then go away.

Enter David Levine’s Habit.

Actors on a set for 8 hours at a time, never leaving the space. The script calls for someone taking a shower. The audience isn’t sitting in rows of seats, watching the action unfold through a proscenium arch, they walk right up to the set, peer through windows and doorways like a live version of some reality TV show. Clearly, theatrical convention isn’t going to cut it.

So now, 20 years in to my career I’m building the first floor of a house in the Hunter Center for the Performing Arts.  A house.  Someplace people can exist in for 8 hours at a stretch with all of the comforts of home. The walls are aluminum studs and drywall, not  1×3 wood rails and plywood covering. The lights are controlled by the actors with wall switches, not by the light board operator at the back of the theater. There are wall outlets so the TV and refrigerator can be plugged in and the actors can make a snack if they get hungry.

And there is plumbing.

Eight hours and they never leave. Think about that for a minute. Wouldn’t you want plumbing?

Now, water onstage is nothing new, it’s been done in countless productions in a variety of ways, but these things are normally done with garden hose run to a sink and the occasional small pump to increase pressure. Even a working sink can be done pretty easily, provided it doesn’t get a whole lot of use.

But these people are living in this set; living, cooking, sleeping, showering and, yes, using the bathroom in every sense of the phrase.

There is, indeed, a toilet.

So, hoses and pumps go right out the big picture window in the living room and actual plumbing comes in, just like in your house. That is a bit beyond my experience, so the pros come in and do it right, thank you very much.

The experience of making this show happen has been a very interesting and challenging blend of theatrical illusion and hard construction reality unlike anything I’ve been a part of before. But that’s why I love theatre and that’s why working here at MASS MoCA is so much fun. I never know what’s around the corner.

So thank you, David Levine, and designer Marsha Ginsberg for giving us this opportunity to do something none of us has tried in the past, the opportunity to blur the line between real and staged, scenery and house construction. I can’t wait to see it up and running.

Posted February 22, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Habit, Theater, Work-in-progress
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Hoffman, Brando, and Levine: Back in the HABIT

In 1976, a young actor named Dustin Hoffman was performing in the film Marathon Man with a veteran actor named Sir Lawrence Olivier. Hoffman was portraying a character that was under extreme duress having been tortured by Olivier’s character. To prepare for the scene, Hoffman purposely went days without sleep or a proper diet. He was obviously looking pretty rough, and Sir Lawrence, upon seeing him, simply asked, “My boy, why don’t you just try acting?”

I feel like the term “Method Acting” gets a bad rap sometimes—mostly because it’s often associated with stories like that. It prompts people to wonder why actors would push themselves to these levels if the consequences have the potential to be so severe. Most actors would say that the reason is this: “to make it more realistic”

Acting didn’t always look the way it does today. In the mid-1800’s, the adage of the day seemed to be “the bigger, the better”—and acting wasn’t really meant to look like real life. It was meant to look like something bigger…something more dramatic. Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski thought real life was dramatic enough. So, he began to develop a process that would strip away the excess and leave actors simply listening and responding truthfully. The goal was simple: make acting look more realistic. The fad picked up and eventually playwrights like Ibsen and Chekhov were writing plays to be performed in that same vein… plays that took place in real time (no blackouts or scene changes allowed) with actors that ate real food and smoked real cigars… how edgy… how risky… how … contemporary…

This concept of truthful, realistic acting eventually made its way to the United States, where a group of actors (appropriately named The Group Theater) picked it up and ran with it. Now, here’s where it gets sticky: As this “method” spread farther and farther across the globe, it became exposed to more and more interpretations, and quite a few disagreements—particularly over concepts like sense memory/sense recall (the act of recalling a memory from your past and allowing yourself to emotionally respond to it). These disagreements eventually led to a rift in The Group and, eventually, everyone had their own acting school: There was the Stella Adler School, there was the Lee Strasberg School, there was the Sanford Meisner School…and they all had different approaches. To make things even more complicated, Stanislavski himself is purported to have changed his mind on a few key elements of his own original method. But, despite their differences, each method’s goal was always the same: make acting look real. And, to do that, we were left with a few basic rules for actors to follow:

1. Don’t do anything unless something causes you to do it (AKA, the dreaded: “What’s my motivation?”)

2. Live truthfully in the moment—don’t add anything that doesn’t need to be there.

3. Embrace everything that happens, even if unexpected, as part of the world of the play.


4. Never break the scene—in other words, don’t stop “acting” until the show is over or someone tells you to hold.

Here’s an example from one of my favorite movies, On the Waterfront. During filming, Ms. Saint was meant to pull her gloves out of her purse and put them on her hands, but one of her gloves slipped and fell on the ground. Watch what Brando does and how Saint reacts:

YouTube Preview Image

Okay, okay, okay. So, what does any of this have to do with David Levine’s HABIT at MASS MoCA? Well, let me ask you: Knowing what we know about how actors work, wouldn’t you want to put them in a house and have them “live” for 8-hours straight in character?

Come on, you’re not even curious?

The concept is fairly straightforward. There is a house, three actors, and a script. Other than that, anything goes. Mr. Levine hasn’t staged the play. Instead, he channels that energy on making sure that his actors understand their circumstances and fully embrace their characters. That way, when those characters are placed within their own four walls, the real magic can happen—spontaneously, naturally, and truthfully. (You watch the situations unfold by peering through the windows and doorways.)

At the end of the day, acting is a game of house. When we were young, we had no trouble immersing ourselves in our own worlds and reacting truthfully to our playmates. Levine is essentially recreating these circumstances to cultivate those same adolescent instincts—instincts that most actors spend their entire careers to (re)develop.

I’ll end with a thought from one of my favorite acting teachers:

Sanford Meisner began some of his classes by asking his students to count every source of light in the room. When they were done, he would have a dialogue that would go something like this:

MEISNER: Did you count every light?


MEISNER: Are you sure?

STUDENT: Yes, I counted every light.

MEISNER: But, did you really count every light?

STUDENT: Yes, every one.

MEISNER: And, you were actually counting?


…and so on.

Meisner’s point was this: his students weren’t “acting” like they were counting the lights in the room, they were actually counting. He didn’t want his students to “act”, he wanted them to do. There is a line somewhere between “acting” and “doing” that often gets blurred… So, in closing, I ask you this question:

If we ask three actors to live in a house, where they are actually eating, actually napping, actually interacting with each other…when are they actually acting?

Come see for yourself this week:

Thurs, Feb 24, noon- 5PM

Friday, Feb 25, 2PM – 8PM

Saturday, Feb 26, noon – 8 PM

Sunday, Feb 27, noon– 5PM

Written by: Charles E. Jabour

Posted February 21, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Habit, Theater, Work-in-progress
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MASS MoCA is developing a “Habit”

If you’re reading this blog…chances are you are “in with the times” and have seen a reality TV show. BUT have you ever seen a reality show/theatrical production performed in a house built in MASS MoCA? Habit by David Levine will be performed at MASS MoCA on February 24 through February 27.

The Easthampton Star explains, “From the beginning, there’s plenty of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll piled on until the deep, dark secret is allowed to blow the whole thing apart. What is different here is that once it does, the action starts over from the beginning, following the same script but with different stagings, determined solely by the actors’ choices.”

We went into Hunter Theater to see how the project was coming along for the production crew.

The crew was busy installing the walls in which the actors will live within.

The house includes windows and peep-holes for the audience to peer into and watch the story unfold.

When we dropped by the theater the next day- obvious progress had been made!

The doors are real, the refrigerator is stocked, and the plumbing works!

The crew was hard at work! They continued to build the monstrous set throughout the day.

Here’s a pic of Tim, Matt, and Michael diligently working at a team. We love our crew here at MASS MoCA!

Now that you have seen a preview of all the hard-work put into this project come see Habit, an exploration of sensationalism and realism, at MASS MoCA!

Oh! And check out the pics from Rory Scovel! You can also see these pics on our Facebook!

Charles Jabour: Curator of Rory Scovel Comedy Show

Combo Za: Williams College Improv Group

Matt Kelly: Albany-Based Comedian


Cheers to Danelle Cheney for the photos! You just rock!

Posted February 11, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Habit, Theater, Work-in-progress
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