ambiguous box

Any color you like

Innovation | Process

“I turned to look, but it was gone”

—Pink Floyd

In a dream I had as a small child, I saw a color that doesn’t exist in the world. I have searched for it ever since, but have never seen it again. Unfortunately, decades have passed, and I can’t imagine the color anymore, which is why seeing it is so important. I want to find the lost transcendence implicit in my dream color. My search brings me to the theater night after night after night.1 I’ve tried every other artistic medium. As an unrepentant art snob, I’ve found them wanting—music brings sound, poetry brings language, and dance brings motion. Only theater can bring them all in a unified fashion. Even within the theater world, representational theater will never be able to show me the color. By focusing on characters that try to represent the human psyche or that operated in a space that tries to represent the physical world, the color cannot appear. Because of the nature of ambiguity, only theater that rises above the representational can lead to any kind of transcendence.

Ambiguity is the only possible path to see my lost color in the world. When we, as theater artists, make a choice to focus on telling a story, we make a choice to limit ambiguity. And what the brain does with ambiguity is very important. The world-renowned neuroscientist Semir Zeki, in his Splendors and Miseries of the Brain: Love, Creativity, and the Quest for Human Happiness, establishes the relationship between art and ambiguity, wherein multiple, acquired concepts are projected onto objects by the brain. He says: “...the artist exploits intuitively this potential of the brain that allows multiple areas to influence what is perceived.”2 In other words, a work of art gets different sections of the brain to simultaneously interpret an art object, based on what those parts of the brain do. For example, “The visual brain has been developing over a much longer period of time than the linguistic brain and many visual images, though highly evocative, resist a semantic classification.” This resistance allows for what we experience in art—like my lost color—to exist when the viewer is pushed away from art that is easily understandable.

Furthermore, for Zeki, “[i]mages may also acquire a richness through ambiguous visual signals that are not easily communicated, or are inaccessible, through language. It is not ambiguity itself, therefore, that is aesthetically pleasing…. It is rather the capacity to project multiple concepts and experiences onto a work.” Consequently, when my brain lays multiple concepts onto a performance, onto the blur of motion and heightened language, then there is a chance the impossible color can appear. The more abstract the concept of the performance, the more opportunity for projection. In art, I’m looking for the coming together of image, motion, and language—unhindered by a false sense of clarity. Such a focus on performance is my best opportunity to re-see the color. In the non-representational, I am not pulled out of myself by the aesthetic Potemkin villages of plot and character. “Knowing” is a limiting artistic experience, a false sense of existential safety in a fundamentally unsafe world. The unknowable is a vast expanse, forever explorable cognitively and emotionally, a terrain unmappable.

Like Ionesco, I can’t ever really suspend my disbelief. When a show is “grounded” in the tropes of the representational it limits the cognitive layering that scientists like Zeki establish. Shows that resist, tease, or undermine the centralization of narrative allow for the bliss-inducing unknown. Think of how “[t]he English clock strikes 17 English strokes” at the beginning of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano.3 The play begins with a set of ambiguous questions masquerading as stage directions. These directions open us outward with their ambiguity. Our reaction to 17 chimes gives our brain space to revel in the ambiguous: Where (and when) are we? An otherworldly place? Or just a place with a broken clock? Simultaneously, of course, we ask what is an “English clock”? And how do “English strokes” sound? In a good staging, these directions establish an ambiguous tone and an ambiguous concept via the mise-en-scene. A good production will fold over these ambiguities again and again during the performance, creating layers of ambiguity for the brains of the audience members.

Conversely, the initial stage directions of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard—while a masterwork of its kind (and time)—strip away as much ambiguity as possible: “it is already May, the cherry trees are in blossom, but it is chilly in the orchard, there is a frost. The windows in the room are shut.”4 Obviously, there is foreshadowing in this moment, but this famous beginning works to strip away as much ambiguity as possible. This is a beginning that defines what, where, and when; by stripping away valuable layers of ambiguity only the representational characters and their representational conflicts can do something central to the performance. Little creative work is left for our brain.5 Only one thing can happen. Even if we don’t know just what that thing is yet, it can never hold more than the well-known colors of a story. Narrative, by its very nature, invites easy semantic classification.6 If I’m seeing realistic characters following a traditional dramatic arc, I’m not going to see the unimaginable color. While I think that plot and character can appear in experimental theater, these two devices cannot have primacy.7

I understand this artistic stance makes me hard to amuse. But, I can get catharsis without cathexis.8 It comes as I manipulate, while simultaneously being manipulated by, Zeki’s richly ambiguous signals. In a decentralized relationship, motion, language, and mise-en-scene layer ambiguous stimuli causing the tension in my brain, as it processes that ambiguity, to mount until: transcendence. Catharsis. The unsayable remains unsaid and the cosmos unfurls for my psyche. My lost color is probably undiscoverable, but the searching makes for a sublime and luscious life.

Dear theater artists: Please help me. Show me the lost color of my disappeared dream. Make ambiguous theater.


1The irony of looking for a color at night is not lost on me.
2Semir Zeki. Splendors and Miseries of the Brain: Love, Creativity, and the Quest for Human Happiness. Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford, 2009.
3Eugene Ionesco. The Bald Soprano & Other Plays. Trans. Donald M. Allen. Grove Press: New York, 1958.
4Anton Chekhov. The Cherry Orchard. Trans. Laurence Senelick. Types of Drama. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. 6th Edition. Harper Collins: New York, 1993.
5As a side note, if we truly believe that theater is a collaborative art, then narrative denies the audience much of its invaluable contribution because it takes away the brain’s job of layering meaning onto an ambiguous event.
6Look at how often the classifiable, narrative tradition has clear terms to define itself; whereas the non-narrative has few terms of its own (including a real name), but describes itself in the negative, in opposition to the easily classifiable.
7My own work, for example, has characters (sometimes even characters that want things), but they are contrivances, just like the rest of the staging.
8And so can you.