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November 21, 2011

Why Renegade? with Time-Warping Powers

By Leslie Stainton

Photo: Philip Glass and Robert Wilson.

There was much to mull over at last Monday night’s roundtable discussion of the Renegade series. Panelists talked of the series as a 10-week, 10-performance “journey,” an “adventure.” They described it as a conceptual frame “for exploring how artists create innovative work.” (If the series does nothing else, I hope it gives us a new vocabulary for talking about “innovation,” that tired phrase.) Danny Herwitz of the UM Institute for the Humanities made a compelling case for a uniquely American brand of “renegade,” invoking figures as disparate as Whitman and Aaron Copland, Emerson and Clint Eastwood, John Cage and John Wayne. “In America a renegade is someone who refuses the templates of convention,” Herwitz said, and issued something of a challenge when he suggested the series might allow us to imagine the country’s future at a time when many of us have lost faith in that future. “To remember the voices of these composers”—Cage, Copland, Philip Glass—“is to remember something about the experiment in which we were born.”

But more than anything I came away from the discussion thinking about time. Maybe it’s because I’m into my fifties and ever more keenly aware I’m on the short end of the lifespan stick. I think of the old woman in Emily Mann’s play Annulla who says, “Everything has gone by so fast.” Maybe it’s the world we inhabit, this cacophany of blogs and tweets and video clips, information coming at you so fast you can barely skate the surface. Increasingly I find myself wanting silence and space, the ability to make a connection that doesn’t involve an electronic gadget.

In his marvelous book Einstein’s Dreams, the novelist and physicist Alan Lightman writes of the ways that time bends experience—a phenomenon we came to understand with particular clarity in the last century, thanks in large part to Einstein himself. Lightman describes how time moves “in fits and starts,” how it “struggles forward” when one is rushing a sick child to the hospital and “darts across the field of vision” when one is eating a good meal with close friends “or lying in the arms of a secret lover.”

It is this sense of time as somehow malleable—and also manipulable—that marks many of the works in the Renegade series, most obviously, perhaps, Einstein on the Beach, which UMS’s Michael Kondziolka described on Monday as a “durational experience. If you give yourself over to it, you feel as if you’ve walked through the looking glass.”

Time, said Danny Herwitz, “is fundamental to a lot of these Renegade artists. They at once speed everything up and slow it down. They’re trying to put you in a different frame of reference.” And more provocatively: “There is a way in which [these artists] rescue one from the frame of modern life.”

May it be so.

Having decried technology, I’ll now use it, with apologies, to let you hear another panelist, musicologist Mark Clague of the UM School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, share his thoughts on time and the Renegade series.


Leslie Stainton is the author of "Staging Ground: An American Theater and Its Ghosts" (Penn State, 2014) and "Lorca: A Dream of Life (Farrar Straus Giroux 1999)." She'll read from "Staging Ground" at Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor on Monday, November 3, 2014 at 7 pm.