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Bonnie Marranca serves up 'The Theatre of Food'

Professor Bonnie Marranca was among the first in the 1990s to make a connection between ecology and theatre. For over 30 years, her essays and criticism have contributed to contemporary culture.
In the UK on a Leverhulme Fellowship, she has been giving a series of lectures. Wallace Heim went to one at the Drama Department, University of Leeds.

bonnie marranca
Bonnie Marranca
With an evocation of the food from her American-Italian childhood in New York, the peppers and eggs, tomatoes, spaghettis and stews, the donuts, hamburgers, pies and root beer, the chocolate peanut butter cups, Bonnie Marranca set the place for her lecture ‘The Theatre of Food’.

Describing food in film, visual arts and performance over the 20th century, Marranca showed the centrality of the politics, customs and aesthetics of food in culture and everyday life.

    "Food has everything in the world to tell us about the mentalities of an age, its desiring tropes and geographies of taste, its contribution to the life of the spectacle."

    "What is a dinner plate but a field of narrative that tosses back all kinds of images between servings, especially one’s own. For better or worse, the dinner table is the centre of the world, the family meal the source of the drama of the self."

    "A meal becomes an event through the addition of good conversation and it has more often than not less to do with the food consumed than with the quality of companionship articulated."

Bonnie Marranca is an American critic, academic, editor and publisher whose writing encompasses theatre, visual arts, gardening and food. Her own writing and that of her company PAJ Publications, and the periodical, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, continue to influence performance research and teaching.

Her ‘Theatre of Food’ lecture expands on her introduction to A Slice of Life. Contemporary Writers on Food.

Food, according to Marranca, is part of the making of artistic modernity, starting with the banquet thrown by Picasso in 1907, for Henri Rousseau, with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. In the 1920s, audiences for Dadaist provocations revived the custom of throwing vegetables at performers. The Italian Futurist F. T. Marinetti published a manifesto on cookery in 1932, the Futurist Cookbook, denouncing pasta as nostalgic, preferring a radical use of colour, shape, music and lighting without regard to taste and nutrition.

The relationship of the avant-garde with food continued with Alan Kaprow’s Yam Festival in the 1960s, and the inclusion of food in many of his Happenings. Judy Chicago’s installation The Dinner Party from 1974 – 1979 has become an icon of feminist art, associating the ceremonial banquet with a celebration of women. The associations with feminist art continue with the work of Kathy Acker, Lucinda Childs and Carolee Schneeman.

In the 1980s, ecological performance artist Rachel Rosenthal used cauliflowers in her production Rachel’s Brain, a production about the human in evolution. Suzanne Lacy initiated dinner as a performance event, holding a series of dinner performances. Continuing in this mode, Rirkrit Tiravanija invites people into a gallery space where he makes and serves a Thai meal.

ecologies of theatre
In her collection of essays, Ecologies of Theater (1996), Marranca describes how narratives about landscape, field, climate and natural environments influence theatre and criticism. She was developing a new kind of theatre writing, opening up the theatre vocabulary to an ecological vision, and making the connection between ecosystems and cultural systems.
On stage, the customs of eating have provided a commentary on theatre itself, as well as on human life. Bertolt Brecht, made the connection between theatre and eating when his disparaged the conventional stage as a ‘culinary theatre’, meaning that the consumption of stale ideas during a performance was a form of 'bourgeois gluttony'. The British ‘kitchen-sink’ realist dramas of the late 1950s showed that all was not well in society. The kitchen and familial meals featured particularly in Arnold Wesker's plays. Chicken Soup with Barley, shows a family's conflicts and fragmentation over socialist ideologies, as the protagonist Sarah provides abundant domestic meals. In The Kitchen, set in the basement of a large restaurant, the chefs, porters and waiters struggle with love, food, politics and money in the course of a day's work.
    "To dine is a kind of performance, where, from our place 'setting,' we exchange stories, debate ideas, and reveal our dreams, the unspoken settling temporarily in the silence between adverbs. Not surprisingly, many of the influential plays in the world repertoire take place in the kitchen or dining room. Here huge psychological dramas are served forth and characters devour one another or set themselves free in forked sentences."

    "Everyone, at one time or another, has experienced the difficulty of swallowing angry words. The dinner table is one of the great settings of heartbreak."

Food and the culture of food continue to be the source for diverse performance works. Here on the Directory we feature Clare Patey’s Feast on the Bridge in London. Her Feast, was one of the earliest works on an allotment with children, schools and artists.

LIFT hosted Eat London, turning Trafalgar Square into a huge edible map of London.

See also Shelley Sacks’ Exchange Values, on issues of fair trade, sustainability and environmental justice in the banana trade in the 1990s.

Marranca touched on wider issues of food and global food production, fast food, and the Slow Food movement, and the disparity between American and European responses to genetically modified foods.
    "A bowl of fruit is no longer a still life, it has within it the ethics of production."
The plays of Wallace Shawn, and his film My Dinner with Andre, bring together critiques of consumption, the conflicts of indulgence versus guilt, and the back-and-forth of contrasting political views as they find expression over a meal. In The Designated Mourner, the heads of the new barbarians in society drop hard onto their dinner plates.

But the centre of her talk was the cultural meanings of eating together.

    "The experience at table offers one of the few realms of privacy and intimacy in a culture of increasingly vulgarised public obsessions. It honours speech, direct communication – the face-to-face, not interface. Sharing a meal is a hands-on experience."
Marranca alluded to an idea that she introduced in Ecologies of Theater, that food, like our relations with nature, has a spiritual dimension.
    "I can’t help thinking that contemporary expressions of appetite have as much to do with spiritual hunger as self-gratification."
The Royal Court Theatre is hosting a Wallace Shawn Season April – June 2009, including a screening of My Dinner with Andre on 18 April.
An image from the beginning of her talk captured another kind of poetics of nature and culture together. In Isak’s Dinesen’s Out of Africa, Dinesen described how her Kikuyu servant named dishes after events of the day, like ‘the sauce of the lightning that struck the tree’.
    "Through the experience of food we make culture and contribute to the civilising process, taking the measure of human activity in random acts of speech."
www.bonniemarranca.com


Professor Marranca's visit is enabled by a Leverhulme Professorship, jointly hosted by Queen Mary, University of London, and the University of the Arts, London.


published in 2009

What is a dinner plate but a field of narrative that tosses back all kinds of images between servings, especially one’s own.

 

To dine is a kind of performance, where, from our place 'setting,' we exchange stories, debate ideas, and reveal our dreams, the unspoken settling temporarily in the silence between adverbs.

 

In the kitchen, huge psychological dramas are served forth and characters devour one another or set themselves free in forked sentences.

 

A meal becomes an event through the addition of good conversation and it has more often than not less to do with the food consumed than with the quality of companionship articulated.

 

The dinner table is one of the great settings of heartbreak.

 

The experience at table offers one of the few realms of privacy and intimacy in a culture of increasingly vulgarised public obsessions. It honours speech, direct communication – the face-to-face, not interface.

 

I can’t help thinking that contemporary expressions of appetite have as much to do with spiritual hunger as self-gratification.

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