Into the Great Wide Open: My Date With a Stranger for Rabih Mroué's Riding on a Cloud Feb 1, 2016
by Tessa Hulls
Bart Ramsey, my date with a stranger for Rabih Mroué's Riding on a Cloud, made a New Year's resolution to more deeply engage with the arts. In the past, he's “been to a few operas and seen the Nutcracker,” but recently, he's been wanting to explore and support more non-mainstream work. “I don't have to live in my insular little bubble,” he tells me. “I've got a lot of anxiety, but I'm ok with being challenged.”
Bart's story is an interesting one, and over scotch in the lobby, he tells me about growing up in a fundamentalist Christian cult and emancipating himself at the age of sixteen. He chose to sift through the questions that followed his loss of faith by examining religion from a secular perspective, studying at the University of Washington in the nascent emergence of the program that would eventually become the History of Comparative Ideas. Bart speaks highly of study and logic, but he also nods to the fact that art can be the means to bring about catharsis and to bridge the gap where contextual analysis is not quite enough to bring peace.
Riding on a Cloud is a piece that deftly blends these realms of the emotional and the rational. In 1987, towards the end of the Lebanese civil war, Rabih Mroué's brother, seventeen-year-old Yasser Mroué, is shot in the in the head by a sniper and sustains a brain injury that leaves him incapable of processing representation. Yasser can identify people and objects in the flesh, but to him, photographs are nothing more than splotches of ink on paper; he cannot even recognize a photograph of himself. In an attempt to regain and relearn his relationship to image and language, Yasser begins to record videos to examine the ways in which his mind processes the world.
When Yasser asks his brother if he can be involved in one of his shows—probably intending some small level of participation—Rabih instead createsRiding on a Cloud, a one-man performance in which Yasser plays himself and tells the story of his injury. “This is the first time that I ask someone who is not an actor to play his role and his story in front of an audience,” Rabih explains in an interview printed in the playbill. “Someone might say that Yasser was not playing a role or acting as a figure but he was performing as himself. It might appear like his is not playing a role, but in fact he was. He was actually playing two roles; himself (let's call it “real” Yasser), and another one that I invented for him (let's call it fictional Yasser). Even if the differences between the two characters are minimal in comparison to Yasser in life, still both of them are not really Yasser.”
If you were to close your eyes and ignore the visual cues, Riding on a Cloud would sound like a monologue. For the entirety of the performance, Yasser sits at a desk with a cassette player and a DVD player and manually initiates pre-recorded video and audio tracks that tell the story of his injury and its impacts on his life. Throughout the whole piece, Yasser barely speaks: the majority of his actions involve nothing more than inserting a disc or a cassette into the appropriate device, and pressing play. And yet we hear his voice speaking to us in what appears to be real time, and it is easy to forget that we are listening to a representation of a real person seated in front of us.
Before the show, Bart and I have a conversation that comes to feel strangely prescient. We discuss the idea of the reinvention of the self, and in the show, Yasser brings up this same idea, speaking of the before and after, the fulcrum upon which all human lives—and human histories—hinge.
You see, Bart was born with a different name. He changed it when he switched professions and wanted to begin a new chapter with a new self. He chose Bart because the Tom Petty song Into the Great Wide Open had a line about a roadie named Bart, and he'd always thought, “I'd like to have a roadie named Bart...” So he settled for the next best thing and adopted the moniker himself. I ask Bart for a specific quote so I can be sure to state the delicate phrasing of this profession in a way that is both accurate and non-incriminating: “I am a cannabis producer who has transitioned from being underground to being a legitimate, state-sanctioned, taxpaying producer. I fully comply with the rules. I like to comply with the rules.”
What happens to the person we were before the injury? The person who carries our old name? The person we were before everything changed?Riding on a Cloud beautifully explores the open-ended questions of identity, probing “the relationship between fiction and reality... between absence and presence” to produce a delicate, nuanced searching that feels both generously intimate and epistemologically rigorous.
Bart and I discuss our impressions of the show, and our conversation is fairly short because I am about to fall asleep standing up, and he really needs food. He readily admits that his word choices are perhaps influenced by being hungry—“It was delicious, savory, rich. Multilayered—like a layer cake”— but we manage to have a brief decompression. We each point to the craftsmanship as a high point and admire the skillfull editing that allows the work to explore looming existential questions in a way that doesn't come across as pretentious or didactic.
I ask Bart how the piece lined up with his initial expectations and how it tied in with his larger quest to further explore the arts. “It was not comfortable, but it was very satisfying.” he tells me. “It met a need in my life.”
Tessa Hulls is an artist/writer/adventurer who is fascinated by the concept of home.While in Seattle, Tessa is a compulsive genre hopper and has worked in various capacities as an illustrator, cartoonist, editor, performer, chef, muralist, conductor of social experiments, painter, writer, and teacher for The Henry Art Gallery, On the Boards, The Project Room, Washington Ensemble Theater, Vermillion, 826 Seattle, Annex Theater, Microsoft Research, Lit Crawl, Hugo House, Sprout Seattle, Canoe Social Club, City Arts, Smoke Farm, Cafe Nordo, The Breadline Performance Series, and others.Tessa also writes narrative vignettes about the hopes, dreams, longings and fears of Honeybucket portable toilets, and when not in Seattle, she can often be found (or deliberately not found) in Alaska. The Adventures of Honeybucket | www.tessahulls.com