Staging Wittgenstein: Dramatic Literature Major Blair Simmons (’16) Makes Theater of Philosophy (By Andrew Schlager)

Not all twelve of the seventy-two-inch latex balloons can pop. Well, I suppose they all could pop, technically, but to be left with none would be ruinous. Three have burst already, leaving nine giant white options left for performance, deflated and waiting, but at least two must endure, intact, until May 16th, the night when Dramatic Literature senior Blair Simmons and Dramatic Writing/Philosophy junior Nikita Lebedev will put up “Staging Wittgenstein” in the English Department’s Event Space at 9:00 pm. “The goal of this project is to dramatize the philosophical thought conveyed in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico–Philosophicus through the lens of his later idea of the ‘language game,’” Simmons writes. “We have attempted to create a system of visually dramatized representations of the linguistic propositions put forth in the Tractatus in order to ground this ungroundable text.” The project is something of a culmination for Simmons, who came to NYU as a Math major, and then switched to Dramatic Literature after taking a course on Modern Drama taught by Professor Julia Jarcho. Simmons was quick to note the influence of the Dramatic Literature program on her theatrical sensibility: “I was doing musical theater in high school. Not that I don’t not love musical theater anymore. I love it for a different reason, because I now have a new appreciation of its nonsensical structure, the bursting out of songs in-between intense emptions. I now appreciate it on a very different level.”

I pressed Simmons further, asking if her work in Dramatic Literature had perhaps allowed for this new level of appreciation, and she nodded fervently. “The working playwrights that teach in Dramatic Literature begin in a theoretical place, or mode, which allowed me to look at the structure of a piece for what it is and what it is not; in the case of the musical, it is using a sort of fantastical, or what now appears to me as a strange explosion of song that makes ecstatic the emotion of a piece. I was able to experience musicals through their form thanks to Drama Lit.” This level of formal awareness, or of the theater as a medium, Simmons noted, was one of her biggest takeaways for her time in the program. “Some people call the Tractatus a logical poem,” Simmons glossed, “and the structure of our piece seeks to give this philosophy a physical reference frame.”

balloonAs for the balloons, they are both props and costume pieces in “Staging Wittgenstein.”  As per Simmon’s dramaturgy, the balloons are meant to evoke the bounded nature of the solipsistically conceived world. “Wittgenstein presents propositions that have solipsistic imaginative power,” she observes. She was precisely uninterested in representing Wittgenstein, in creating a piece that made the same claims as Wittgenstein’s philosophy; instead, she hoped to use the imaginative power of these propositions to create associated dramatic material and experience. When I asked if there would be any bursting into song, she conceded that there would be a looper pedal deployed for layered sounds—a far cry from her high school production of Urinetown.

Simmons is also a Computer Science minor, and works at the NYU LaGuardia Studio 3-D Print Shop. These experiences have allowed her to think of her work as process, and to think about what she called “process art” more broadly. “Even if this piece fails performatively, or isn’t the exact engagement with the Tractatus I’d hoped for, I still hope it’s a pleasurable and playful event—that seems most important.” Having attended a rehearsal for the project, I assured her it was pleasurable, and that by virtue of using Wittgenstein as both a paratext and context, she, or rather her audience, would find him inescapable: the piece’s boundary, ballooning around the live event.