On Human Fragility and Balloons

What can balloons tell us about humanity? Blair Simmons’s debut production tackles this question. The Gallatin MA student whisks her audience away to the floor of a jumbo balloon factory and explores communication. Based on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Staging Wittgenstein explores the creation and limitations of language through physical comedy. Centering on the brief lives of two balloons, the performance traces their linguistic evolutions. These balloons are born as objects and gain sentience through mimicking the instructions broadcasted in the factory. From comical grunts and trills to fully formed and intricate speech, the balloons illustrate the struggle to gain humanity. Staging Wittgenstein posits that communication is at the root of humanity, adding an additional dimension to what makes up a person.

What constitutes humanity? Does Simmons’s production proves that the humanity can exist in something that is not a person? I sought answers to these questions. Balloons were a strange but necessary choice in Staging Wittgenstein. In fact, the entirety of the production seemed to anticipate my questions. The production gave me chance to reflect on my own fragility in a way I never knew I needed. The performance encapsulates the absurdity hidden within the mundane. It highlights and injects meaning into something usually taken for granted. Communication takes center stage. It acts as the baseline for humanity. When seen in this context, the decision to feature actors, Nikita Lebedev and Annie Hägg, in people-sized balloons becomes clear. Staging Wittgenstein works to blur the understanding of what could be human.

The first time I had the pleasure of watching Staging Wittgenstein at the Dixon Place Theater, I was pleasantly surprised at the premise. It was one of the first pieces of experimental theater I’d seen. I knew there was a meaning, but I was unsure on how to grasp it. A quick Google search later revealed the twentieth-century thinker the production is based on focused primarily on the philosophy of language. The play sparked my interest in deciphering its meaning. To say the least, I was enthralled in trying to understand why Simmons made the creative choices she did. Maybe the experiment in this play was that there wasn’t one?

Featuring jumbo balloons and unintelligible speech ignited laughs, not substantial interpretations. What message did Simmons want to convey through this absurdity? While I pondered this interpretation, my lack of a better understanding fueled my desire to completely comprehend. I found myself taking another look at Staging Wittgenstein’s costumes. Ridiculousness aside, the costumes were more than tools for comedy. They proved to be directly linked to the essence of the production.  While the piece is rooted in the concept of language, it forces audiences to question what language means to them. The production asks audiences to contemplate whether they agree with its premise or not. To me, Staging Wittgenstein led to the understanding that language and community make up the substance of humanity.

Focusing on an aspect of human condition as personal as language, Staging Wittgenstein creates a space where human fragility is taken to the extreme. By not centering on conventional human characters, social barriers are transcended. No longer bound by the same repressive social code to which the rest of society is subject to, the actors within the balloons can express their humanity in its basest form. The play provides a window into pre-societal humanity. Staging Wittgenstein strips away trivialities of the human condition. Instead, the performance invites audience members, even if for just a few minutes, into a world where they can bare their vulnerabilities.

Like the balloon people, humans function aware, but willfully ignorant, of their own fragility. The abstraction of fragility is innate to the piece and solidifies the meaning behind choosing balloons. The balloons obscure the actors’ human figures, challenging the audience’s perception of what a person is. Delicate balloons as people trigger reflection through juxtaposition. Being rooted in the mundane circumvents the need for complex ideas like human fragility. The use of montage with balloons forces audiences to struggle with abstract concepts through the familiar. In many ways, humans are like these balloons. Physically, they are similarly weak. Any kind of stress runs the risk of popping the balloon. Despite human denial, people are tied to the same limits.

Staging Wittgenstein accomplishes a task many set out to accomplish but few can reach. By challenging the limits and understanding of what it means to be human, audiences are given the chance to confront their own inflated vulnerabilities. The production showcases how arbitrary life can be regardless of your position. The balloon people are subject to sudden pops, symbolic of death and loss. While initially foreign to audiences, the realization that a similar fragility pervades daily life is imminent. Balloons become stand-in for humanity at its core. Yet, through clever comedy, Staging Wittgenstein avoids being seen only as a piece on human fragility. Instead, it is much more. The birth, life, and death of language explored throughout the piece sets the stage for introspection. Being a microcosm of the inception of speech, Simmons’ work gives the audience the space to enjoy unintelligible grunts, question their existence, and bare themselves.