chortle

What power do you have over laughter? What power does laughter hold over you?

LABA Fellow Anna Lublina takes a thorough look at the intersection between humor and the theatrical.

When Sarah laughs at the Lord in Genesis, whose power is stronger? Is God wielding power as he tells Sarah that she will become pregnant in her 90s? Or does Sarah assert her power as she laughs, publicly expressing skepticism of God’s capabilities?

Much has been said about this first instance of laughter. It is a moment when the physical (the body) doubts the metaphysical (god/soul/etc.) Laughter overpowers self-possession, as it is often considered “uncontrollable.” 

I tend to agree with this appraisal, but when I think about when I laugh the most, it is usually when I’m uncomfortable. I laugh to get out of weird or unsafe situations: a catcall or a stranger asking me a leading question. I laugh when I am nervous , or when I feel like a situation is getting too serious or too sticky: Are my friends about to get in a spat? I laugh to mitigate it. Laughter is a terrific de-escalator, a tool used by women for centuries to stay safe. Virginia Woolf says that laughter imbues everything  “in a kind of nondescript cotton wool.” It softens the edges, lightens the load, relaxes the grip. 

At the same time, it exposes the absurdity and violence of something. In Sara Ahmed’s feminist reading of laughter, she says, “To laugh at something can make something more real, to magnify it, and to reduce something’s power or hold over you, simultaneously.”

I find myself often welding laughter as a mode of self-empowerment, as a way to control a situation. It makes me wonder about the inverse relationship: how often is laughter welded to control me? As a person who makes their life in theatre, I imagine the answer is: all the time. When I am onstage or my performers are onstage, laughter works like an all-consuming fuel, a drug so addicting that it takes over every other intention you may have had when you stepped on that stage. 

In this sense, laughter has always been a director of sorts. Coy yet powerful, she (laughter) is an incredibly powerful communicator who knows how to get people to do what she wants. For this performance (which can no longer be performed), I wanted to give the reins over to Laughter, to let her steer the ship of performativity and see where she takes us. 

Below you will find a score in 4 parts. It invites a series of performers to perform in the theatre space according to when and how the audience laughs.

PREAMBLE: Laughter Categories

1. Start a countdown timer for 6 minutes behind the audience so that the performers can see it.

2. All performers who are participating in the score: stand in a line across the stage. In order of the categories listed below, present each category of laughter with its “name” and a performed example. If there are more categories than performers, continue from the beginning of the line.

3. One performer: begin a laughter beat (I recommend using a Belly laugh or a Guffaw). Other performers: layer laughs on top of the beat in an improvisatory chorus.

4. When the countdown timer hits 0:00, lights black out and all performers leave the stage.

ROUND 1

1. Start a countdown timer for 6 minutes behind the audience so that the performers can see it.

2. A single performer: walk to the center of the stage. 

3. Find the audience member in the front row, furthest to the left. 

4. Look the audience member in the eyes until that person laughs. Each category of laughter incites a specific action (see diagram below).

5. Complete the action and return to the center of the stage, neutral. 

6. Like reading a book, look to the next audience member and stare into their eyes until they laugh. 

7. Complete the action directed by their laugh.

Note: A specific laugh category brings on an additional performer who joins the initial performer. Each performer will interpret the audience’s laughter individually which means their actions might be different. Five performers can join MAX.

8. Continue with each audience member, in order, until the countdown clock hits 0:00. Black out. All props are cleared. 

Each audience is different, but in my experience the audience begins to pick up the premise of the “game” in this round and is eagerly discovering what laughter incites what action.

ROUND 2

  1. A countdown timer behind the audience starts at 8 minutes. 
  2. A single performer: walk to the center of the stage
  3. Once again, find the audience member in the front row, furthest to the left. 
  4. Look the audience member in the eyes until that person laughs.
  5. Complete the action and return to the center of the stage, neutral. 
  6. Look at the next audience member. 
  7. RULE CHANGE: Wait until there are multiple sources of laughter. Take the directive from the LOUDEST laugh in the room.
  8. Complete the action directed by the loudest laugh.
  9. Return to the center of the stage, neutral.
  10. Look at the next audience member. Listen for the loudest laugh and follow that directive.
  11. Continue until the countdown clock hits 0:00. Black out. The table and two chairs are left on the stage.

At this point, the audience might know a few of the rules (especially the actions connected to loud laughter like the Burst, Chortle, or Belly laugh). Again, each audience is different, but I found that many audiences begin to use certain laughs on purpose, to manipulate the action on stage. This can be a way of testing ideas about the rules or because they enjoy making the performers do something difficult on repeat, a dip into darker humor.

ROUND 2 can also generate laughter fatigue and/or giddiness which dramatically changes the energy in the theatre.

ROUND 3

1. A countdown timer behind the audience starts at 10 minutes. 

2. Three performers, GOD, ABRAHAM, and SARAH come on stage. 

3. Two performers sit at the table and the third stands afar. 

4. Begin to perform the text from Sarah’s first instance of Laughter in the Old Testament.

GOD: Where is Sarah, thy wife?

ABRAHAM: Behold, in the tent.

GOD: I will certainly return unto thee when the season cometh round; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son.

SARAH: After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?

GOD: Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old? Is anything too hard for the LORD? When the season cometh round, Sarah shall have a son. 

SARAH: I laughed not.

GOD: Nay, but thou didst laugh.

5. When the audience laughs, take the directive connected with that laugh.

6. Complete the action, and then return back to the exact same position and line from the text.

7. Begin the line again.

8. When the audience laughs, take the directive connected with that laugh.

9. Complete the action, and then return back to the exact same position and line from the text.

10. Begin the line again.

11. Continue until the timer runs out or the entire scene has been completed without laughter. Black out. 

The End.

ROUND 3 often feels hysterical. It is nearly impossible for the audience or performers to get through the 7 lines without laughter. It becomes an experiment in complete self-possession to be able to finish the piece.

This performance does not find the answer to the question I started with: who has the power? God or Sarah? Instead it experiments with the somatic experience of laughter as power, an active dialogue between audience and performer where each is both controlling and completely controlled. I hope one day you all get to be a part of this score, on your own or in a room with me!

~

Thank you to my dear friends who donated pictures of themselves laughing! Thank you (in order of appearance) Julia Cavagna, Alex Tatarsky, Eve Woldemichael, Jeff Tang, Jerry Lieblich, Julian Hernandez, Olivia Woldemichael, Kara Crane, Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, Che Perez, Justin Cabrillos, Lilly Kaplan, Elena Light, Irina Gorovaia, Sofya Levitsky-Weitz, Sarah Dunn, Geena Barker, and Kenzie Ballew.




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