On Acting and The Deal
This is the first of four essays written in Summer 2008 as a preparation for The Deal
On Theatre and Economics is second of four
Acting and value is third of four
Thinking about Space is fourth of four
On acting and THE DEAL
Az Theatre is developing a project designed to explore the relationship between theatre and economics. We want to explore theatre in relation to economics and economics in relation to theatre. Acting is the core activity of the theatre and this piece of writing is designed to explore what acting might be in the context of this exploration.
Both these areas of human activity, theatre and economics, are organised around the image of the human being. Implicit in each are a series of views of what motivates and distinguishes us as a species and as individuals. In both this image is not fixed. At the moment that a series of observations relating to the image of the human appears to be sytematised, an alternative view asserts itself and definitions become fluid and open to changing perspectives.
Although economics is celebrated for its tendency to reduce human behaviour to quantitative terms and its imposition of mathematical logic in the construction of a picture of social life that is always returning to a state of perfection characterised by an absolute consonance between supply and demand it rarely makes a claim for complete truth. However what has characterised the past 35 years has been the growing dominance of economic thinking over all social and political discourse.
As the role of national state institutions have ceded power to large productive corporate units they have espoused and reiterated the basic tenets of the political economic philosophies which arose at the same time as the industrial revolution in western Europe. The ideas associated with Adam Smith and Ricardo and Marx have been recast and renovated. This has given a renewed framework for government to measure its success. It has also shaped and formed the way we are asked to think of ourselves within the political and social setting.
As we are more and more considered from the point of view of economic thinking and as we are addressed in terms of its values so we recognise and define ourselves by our reaction to these terms. The dominance of this thinking is such that social and economic processes appear to us like natural forces in which our own human nature is entwined.
Moreover, in this context, state institutions have attempted to make coherent their authority through conserving primordial and archaic forms of procedure and ceremony. Their tendency to claim symbolic authority has led to their ideology, thoroughly imbued with economic thinking, pronouncing itself as if it were a new mystical dogma. This has made the conception of our selves as economic subjects more mesmerising particularly because it is actualised in a system of numbing and sensational commodity consumption. What we call democracy is the particular political form of social control that is consonant with the freedom of the market.
This recent influence of economic thinking has accompanied and been the lubricating justification, the rationalisation, for the internationalisation of markets, production and distribution that is associated with globalisation. Significantly, this complex series of processes has been enabled by the development of information technology in all its different forms.
All the indications are that a critical turning point has been reached in human history. Over the past 20 years we have ceased to be predominantly a species that grows food and herds animals. The majority of humanity now lives in towns and urban centres and is no longer directly concerned with agriculture. The dimensions of the change that human beings are now living through can be measured by looking at a comparable transformation that took place with the advent of agriculture, otherwise known as the Neolithic revolution. At that point we went through a process whereby we ceased to be predominantly hunter-gatherers and became agriculturalists. These transformational revolutions are, of course, prolonged and gradual processes of change marked by localised and sporadic intensities. It seems though that this recent period of change has indeed been intensive and we are capable of seeing within one generation the lineaments of a complex overall change. So it is understandable that this change has had to have its rationalisation and accompanying ideological justification.
If people fail occasionally to fully recognise themselves or their children in the midst of this upheaval this will be an indication of the depth of the psychological and spiritual aspects of this human movement.
No generalisation will be absolutely true. However it is true to say that people have been put into a radically changed relationship to the land. In the West, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, this uprooting of the people from the land, is associated with the enclosure of the common land and the consequential arrival of an industrial working class in the towns and cities. This basic motif is being played out on a global scale. The sense of how we stand on the earth and how we relate to landscape, to our personal memories and to our ancestors, is changing for masses of humanity.
Another perception of this change is the critical level of our species’ interaction with the environment. A movement that appears to have started during the Neolithic revolution with the destruction and consumption of the major part of the earth’s forests and the drive to find and extract evermore ‘efficient’ forms of energy is having predictable but devastating consequences. We are now witnessing a qualitative change in our species relationship with the earth.
Perhaps the development of nuclear power is a harbinger of this change. There have been many other developments in science and technology. For example, it is significant that a new revolutionary understanding of the earth’s formation took place in the late 1960s with the discovery of tectonic plates which development has led to comprehensive theories about the interaction between the earth and its surrounding atmosphere in earth sciences.
In our project on theatre and economics, THE DEAL, we want to use this historical perspective as way of exploring specific contemporary stories. At the same time we are faced with questions about whom it is that should be telling these stories and to whom. This is a way of making us look again at what theatre can be in the light of this changing reality. One way of gauging the nature of change in theatre is to see how the stage (or the scene) changes in relation to where the spectators view the action from (the theatron). This basic spatial disposition is the basis of the aesthetics of theatre. This has direct implications for what acting is. Stories in theatre are told through acting. Human beings embody personages in whatever stories are being told and thus the events which compose the story are enacted. How are different kinds of acting called forth? What should be the relationship between the actors and spectators? Should people be actively engaged in enacting their own stories? What is the point of telling these stories? Who may benefit from the telling?
In looking at contemporary reality in broad historical terms we are asking whether theatre can change and, if it can, then how can it change. There are a number of commonplaces that might be usefully reiterated. The theatre is a very old form of human communication. Theatre constantly returns to the assertion of its most basic and simplest functions both, for example, in the description of the ways we come to self-knowledge as young creatures or in the articulation of the simplest form that the act of theatre can take. It is clear to everybody how important mimicry is from the very earliest moments of our life in the process of us developing our individuality. On the other hand various articulations have been made of the basic elements that constitute theatre. There is an empty space; if somebody walks into this space and somebody is watching the basic elements of theatre are present. A simple structure such as a raised wooden platform and a passion are sufficient. A person describing an accident on a street corner to a number of onlookers is theatre.
At the same time as it being true that there are insights to be made into the invariable qualities of theatre, it is also true that this activity takes place in circumstances that affect its form and operation. For example, the size of human communities have changed for reasons already referred to. In Athens during the classical period all the citizens, not including the slaves and the women, could see the plays at the Festivals of Dionysus in one performance. Even in the late 16th century in England when the first public theatres were opened, theatre could be considered to be a mass medium. Now, however, theatre is surrounded by other media and it no longer has this role. There are books which now can be printed and mass produced but also, and more significantly today there are the mechanical and electronic media. It is evident that what is happening during a live performance in these modern circumstances is different because of this. Whether or not it is substantially different is open to question.
Does what actors do now differ from what actors did two thousand years ago? In a world where the ways in which we view human behaviour and record momentous events are dominated by the mechanical media, what place does the liveness of theatre now have? These are the basic daily questions a contemporary theatre practitioner will ask and seek answers for.
The capability for theatre to represent events that are by their nature visible has been matched by its capability to present the invisible and to enact the lineaments of mythic stories. In this respect theatre is connected to ritual and, at the same time, to the movements of human beings’ ‘inner life’. Obviously as the large-scale religious movements, which arrived in response to of the impact of the Neolithic revolution, incorporated these myths they also used the theatrical capabilities that human beings had developed. As the theatre developed in the urban centres an important root was the celebration of an agrarian natural order, the magic of the cyclical movement of the seasons and the magical annual reappearance of the earth’s fecundity.
In Western culture there was a crucial culture-forming moment when the annual Dionysiac festival was instituted within the purlieu of Athens just before the classic period. This event has radically shaped the relationship between theatre – and subsequently other media – and the political state. The incorporation of the orgiastic festivals, with their dithyrambic song and dance which were connected to fertility rites and that took place in the countryside away from the city, was a major piece of cultural engineering. The statue of the god was led in a procession from the surrounding hills and placed in the city theatre for the duration of the festivities. The proceedings were renewed with the introduction of interpretations of written work by poets. Competitions were held to encourage this writing work. The key redemptive and cathartic forms of the drama were developed reflecting the major agrarian rituals and reconfirming, through the summoning of a consciousness of cyclical time, the king-like power of the ruling group. The representation of this rule as being associated with the power of nature was also compelled through the links between the theatre and other social institutions. The absence of women and slaves from the performances was significant. The major cultural shift, of which this control of theatre was a part, was accompanied by the confirmation of patriarchal structures and the legal enforcement of patrilineality, the inheritance of wealth through the father. Also the movement, particularly through the influence of the Orphic cults, towards monotheism and the growing use of metal coinage, money, were part of this development.
After the renaissance, a period which asserted its continuity with this earlier classical period, the new intellectual demands of science initially subsumed other forms of knowledge and experience and as the technological development which arose out of it transformed the human environment, the arts tended to take up a position of resistance which varied in its expression between grief and exuberant utopian optimism. As the industrial revolution impacted on Western society fissures occurred in the culture and artistic knowledge distinguished itself by conserving archaic forms of knowledge. Poetry, in its broadest and deepest meaning, and the arts developed alongside science and technology, creating alternative views of a natural order whether rational or irrational, holding out for experience, intuition and sensual rationalism.
As the theatre in the West developed its dramatic function it did so in a cultural environment dominated by classical Greek culture. Its structures were forged within the integrating imperatives which attempted to bring together that which was natural with that which was human. In the modern period the fundamentals of acting as a creative art were enunciated in a perspective that was underpinned by Aristotle’s ideas and observations.
More recently this whole structure of thinking was radically criticised by Brecht. His programmatic opposition of Epic Theatre to the Dramatic Theatre, which he identified with Aristotle was followed by his attempt to think through what basic use could be made of the core activity of the theatre. His avowed motive was to seek the terms of a theatre for a scientific age. In his Messingkauf Dialogues he analysed theatre, reducing it to its core function, as an irreducible basic material which, in the course of reuse, would change its functional form. He explored the idea that theatre could be likened to a brass musical instrument which was considered of value only because of the raw material of which it was made. This could be melted down and used for a different purpose and if there was a problem of confusion with the original object the suggestion was that this new apparatus could be called ‘thaeter’ instead of theatre. Inescapable and fundamental questions have been asked ever since by theatre practitioners.
In Brecht’s writing about theatre he often focuses on the activity of making theatre from the point of view of use. He makes clear that he is interested in the production of certain kinds of awareness and knowledge. He is also interested in making this knowledge active. Certainly the oscillation between ‘likeness’ and ‘unlikeness’ in the actor’s relationship to the character interested him and he emphasised his appreciation for an active and unsettling dynamic in this relationship, an activity that he conceived of as making the familiar unfamiliar and vice versa. Is there any reason to suppose that this predisposition is more compatible with a time when science is dominant or when economic thinking is dominating the social sciences and political values or when through these values human beings are more and more engaged in a world which is interconnected through globalisation? Are there any clues in Brecht’s work and thought as to how acting should be in our project, The Deal?
If acting is at the core of theatre then we may ask whether it has changed its role and function in an age of globalisation. How is it to be considered when the intellectual and political culture is imbued with economic thinking? Of course this is a practical and creative question which theatre practitioners are thinking about and finding practical answers to each and every working day. However it may be productive to give this some thought and elaborate some observations and ideas. The purpose of this thinking is to clarify what Az Theatre is attempting to accomplish in its project called THE DEAL.
I have to think this question through by referring to my own experience of theatre over the 40 years that I have been seriously engaged with it as a means of expression.
My engagement with theatre had really started 13 years before 1968 when I was chosen from a junior class in my school to play the innkeeper’s son in a nativity play. This performance was delivered at a nearby cinema where I also saw films for the first time. They included Flash Gordon’s serialised adventures in outer space and Harold Lloyd’s adventures in urban space. I can also remember seeing the ventriloquist with his dummy Lenny the Lion and significantly I cannot remember but will have seen my father playing the villain in an Agatha Christie play. All of this played havoc with my imagination. Also in the background were my experiences a few years later as I went to a boarding school where every Friday night in winter there would be a play reading by the older members of the school community of wonderful pieces like Waiting for Godot, Luther, A Month in the Country, The Cherry Orchard as well as less illustrious pieces such as The Admirable Crichton and The Ghost Train. Each week a package of scripts from Samuel French’s would arrive along with a classic modern film from Contemporary Films. So after the exertions of the Friday night readings on Saturday night I would be in the Biology Lab with my confreres watching films by Da Sica, Antonioni, Fellini, Bunuel, Eisenstein, Bergman, Losey and Kazan. I had a fairly feeble membrane that separated fact from fiction and these experiences blew it to shreds. These were far more powerful then reality itself. After working as an actor on school productions of The Caretaker, Murder in the Cathedral and Antigone and trying to direct a production of The Father by Strindberg, by the time I got to university I was sick with theatre. I had decided sitting on a bridge over the river in Heidelberg – I had hitched round Europe with my girlfriend – that I wanted to be a theatre director.
I had seen a production of The Lesson by Ionesco in Brighton that had impressed me with its physical daring. When I had first seen actors sexually kissing on screen in Bergman’s The Silence I became transfixed by the question of whether they were really kissing each other and what this meant. The relation between a physical action and its inner meaning was intensified by the work in Brighton. The other element in my situation was the strong influence of Anti-Apartheid and of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at the school. Blues music and the work of Bob Dylan added to an already very strong sense of social injustice and of the opposition to racism and war. Although my first directorial work was The Dream Play by Strindberg it was the work of the Living Theatre and La Mama and Brook’s production of US that had an impact on me. Then there was Grotowski and through him my reading of Artaud. These were the powerful influences on me. Directing a production of Tom Paine by Paul Foster rooted and confirmed these directions and ideas. There was in my mind and imagination an image of acting that was connected to activism. The actor became a symbolic figure for me – a symbol of the idea made flesh, of the connectivity of action and idea. I found these ideas reinforced by my involvement with Hamlet (with which I toured Europe in the Summer of 1968 playing the Player King amongst other smaller roles) where the whole complex metaphor of acting and action is explored with such depth and knowledge. I was in a group of students who took a piece of work to the Durham Drama Festival and it was this event which somehow crystalised the idea of theatre being like an enactment of freedom. The show we presented in Durham was based on the work of Blake who, of course, was a major inspirational figure at that time. It was 1968 and the quick connection of acting and action to the imagination was a part of the cultural ether.
So I became engaged in ideas about theatre which were quite contrary to the work of the established conventional theatre. In fact I sometimes feel I have spent my life working in a theatre and with theatre forms which as a nineteen year old I would have considered massively old fashioned and reactionary. My first job in the British theatre was as an Assistant Director at the Royal Court in the foyer of which theatre I used to stand looking at the audience coming in, thinking to myself: ’It isn’t going to happen here’. I couldn’t wait to get out. But this was in the early 70s.
So forty years ago in 1968 I was going through experiences that would accumulate in the work that would mark my first really committed engagement with theatre. I was extremely moved and struck by the suicide of Jan Palach who immolated and burnt himself in Wenceslas Square in Czechoslovakia when the Warsaw Pact countries invaded. This action in the face of injustice seemed to me to be the ultimate political action. I also saw in it a deep resonance of Artaud’s injunction that actors should be like martyrs signalling from the stake on which they were being burned. Ideas about the actor’s consumption of their ‘real life’ time in the time of the performance were circulating in my mind. I was intrigued by the work of Peter Weiss’ Marat Sade and a preoccupation at that time with plays within plays. This sleight of hand, whereby the reality of the play was somehow thrown into relief by the enacted declaration of the fact that it was just a performance, excited me. I called my play The Performance and it consisted of a group of actors caught by an air raid in the midst of rehearsing The Tempest descending into an air raid shelter to find they had a captive audience to whom they duly deliver, in a round about way, the story of Jan Palach.
I dutifully read the work of Stanislavski and was intrigued by the work that Strasberg had carried out at the Actors Studio but I couldn’t enter into this work. The actor for me was a symbol. Performance was connected to political activism. I couldn’t at this point understand what was really going on for the actor in the acting process. For me acting was performing what the situation required. Now as I look back at these starting points I can see what I have been through is like an extraordinary and uneven journey of discovery of a terrain I never really intended to visit. Thinking about what acting is suggested to me by the demands of a project like THE DEAL I feel almost that I have come full circle and I can begin to understand how the different influences on me have brought me back to early intuitions. I realise that much of the profound interest that I have in THE CANNIBALS that was written in 1968 is to do with the fact that these questions that preoccupied me at the time are dramatised in this remarkable funny and dangerous play.
Is a theatre space that is capable of expressing the world of globalised relations, with its interconnectivity of distant actions and processes, different from the conventional idea of theatre space? If so what impact does this have on the work of the actor? How is the space created by globalised relationships sensed and perceived? What is its aesthetics? It is immediately interesting that certain aristocratic styles of theatre that relied on a formalisation of external expression have tended to become more influential over this recent period. Certainly Brecht was drawn to a style which could overtly express how characters were not simply driven along by their own will but rather by external forces against which they had to struggle for control. Subjectivity and identity was no longer settled. In a couple of Brecht’s plays key central characters turn into what appears to be their opposite. In a theatre for a scientific age the exploration was into objectivity rather than subjectivity.
In looking at what this means for acting or for the activisation of the theatre space it is necessary to scrutinise acting and look at the elements of which it is composed. Acting is determined by the spatial relationship to the spectators. At the same time at a dramatic level it is acting that determines this relationship. This is a complex and fluid interaction. We can see clearly the different components of acting in the activities of young people. On the one hand acting takes the form of pretending and the absorption of the active imagination in a fictional world. There may be various roles undertaken in play and nothing is necessarily fixed. The commonplace is that the young person is completely involved in play to the extent that it is sometimes difficult to call them back to ‘reality’ although equally at other times their ability to move fleetingly and fleetly between the world of play and the world of reality is fluent and easy. On the other hand there will be other modes of behaviour when a young person is very definitely in performance mode. They are extremely conscious that they are the centre of attention and they will create a significant amount of energy in their pursuit of the intensification of this attention. Sometimes this performance mode will be used as a vehicle for displaying mimicry when a young person will copy and exaggerate another person’s mannerisms, usually of someone in authority. At other points this mimicry, which first occurs in the exchanges which take place between the mother and the baby and play such a key role in the baby learning who he/she is, comes very close to ‘play/pretending’ when the emerging adult takes on the behaviour of a role model, hero or heroine.
In these processes there is a play between internal impulse (in the pretend world of play) and outer expression (in the impulse towards performance) and we can recognise that when these capabilities are refined as skills and are integrated in a dynamic and conscious way we start to see fully formed adult acting. The idea of integration is important since the actor is constantly ‘playing’ a deep pretending, ensuring the illusion that s/he is unconscious of the spectators’ presence and yet allowing them see as much as possible of what is being pretended. There are, of course, a whole series of techniques and intuitive strategies which make this relationship powerful.
The movement in an actor’s work between the inner focus on the autonomous life of the character and the replication of the outer characteristics of the character is similar to the relationship between the imagined reality of the space which is being represented and the theatrical materiality of the stage or performance space. On the one hand there is a movement in the actor to portray the character as being just like them – a living breathing human being sharing certain key co-ordinating moments primarily their birth in the past and their death in the future. On the other hand there are the ways in which the character is unlike them. The emphasis here is on the external characteristics, the forces beyond the character’s control.
There is a danger of being schematic. However it is evident that the actor can create an inner movement of feeling like the character whereas in the external circumstances, which might include all kinds of social, economic and physical facts, the actor is, in most circumstances, unlike the character. In the classic dialectic of the drama there is a constant movement between freedom and fate. The initiative of freedom lies in the inner impulses of the character and the initiative of fate lies in the external circumstances. This scheme implicitly creates a division within the character between the spirit which lies within and the body which lies without. This image of the human dominates the aesthetic of theatre. The accepted orthodoxy is that the actor creates the character through a series of memory activities. One is the emotional memory connection with the points of contact between the character and the actor’s self. Another is the memorisation of the external speech and movement of the character in the space of the scene.
This variability in emphasis between the fictional world of the story being told and the actual world of the performance space indicates what people consider might be the difference between acting and performing. Another variation on this dialectic is the relationship in the work between the character as an internally and externally constructed fictional entity whose ‘life’ within the fictional world of the play is ‘lived over’ by the actor and the character as an element in the articulation of the story of the play. This latter has to do with the meaning of the word character which is to do with a thing being a sign in a set of related signs. For example a letter is a character in an alphabet. It is in this sense that character has a meaning closer to role. It relates to a theatre in which the same basic types or roles often embodied in external characteristics appear in different versions in play after play. An example of this is Noh Theatre’s division of the main acting roles into the ‘site’ roles, the character that suffers the main event of the drama, and the ‘waki’ roles, the character who accompanies the former and witnesses the main dramatic movement. In this instance these basic modalities are elaborated, varied and refined. It is possible to see the total set of characters of a play as composing an image of the human. The stock characters and types are partial and are parts of a whole image. This sense is often brought to mind more clearly in theatre where the mask is a major instrument of expression. It is a repeated trope, for example, in Shakespeare’s work that the theatre as it comes alive in a given play is a world and that that world contains a whole version of humanity. This relates also to Artaud’s sense of the theatre embodying archetypal beings and it is something that Grotowski is reaching for in his work. It is significant that many of the physical systems which have attracted theatre practitioners have been based on animal observation. One key aspect of humanity’s distinguishing itself in its nature from the animal world is the incorporation of the animals into the human.
My change of direction away from the more utopian, formalist, spiritually focused, physically presentational work of Living Theatre, Grotowski, La Mama, and Artaud – what I suppose could be described as cultural avant guard work – was really motivated by the working class struggles of the early 70s. This gave me an aspiration to make theatre for working class audiences and to conceive this work as a part of the movement towards the socialist revolution. This led me to work on The Mother by Brecht and present its first professional outing in the UK at the Half Moon Theatre and the Roundhouse. It also took me into the work with Foco Novo and our presentation of work in collaboration with the National Union of Mineworkers. Likewise to work as a director in Joan Littlewood’s theatre at Stratford East where I also worked on Brecht. This time The Causcasian Chalk Circle. The commonplace is that Brecht’s ideas are misleading and, when it comes down to producing his plays, it requires the same focus and techniques as any other piece of theatre and the actors work needs to be based on the same principles. I can remember at a crucial point in our rehearsals at Stratford East when the question of style was being argued about and struggled with that one of the leading actors declared to common consent that there was only one kind of acting required and that was full-bloodied acting.
Not long after this in 1980 I worked for the first time on Chekhov. This was at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. This was a revelation. I discerned in this work on Three Sisters that even as the characters of his plays were caught in their own solipsistic worlds that there was a kind of humanist democracy about the structure of his sensibility. The action was not unified through the consciousness of a central individual. The action of the play could be entered through any of the subjectivities of the characters. This seemed to offer to me a new insight into what the nature of dramatic action was, an event which moved through the different characters and rooted their individual perceptions in a collective act. This embodied for me a deep sense of equality and gave me a rich sense of how Stanislavski’s ideas had a deep and profound truth.
This encounter with Chekhov started a deep ongoing search into the art of acting which I have pursued in my work in academies and training institutions right up to the most recent work at the London Film School. Before this I had worked at RADA and had learnt a series of provisional lessons about how an actor’s work could be made more effective. The first play I worked on at Royal Court as an assistant had, amongst others, Ralph Richardson and Nigel Hawthorn in it. Richardson had an extraordinary animal grace and sensuality. He would nose out the stage space with the visceral wisdom of an ageing cat. Hawthorn had an enormously bright vitality, extremely quick moving though from a postural point of view very restrained and still. I had learnt that an actor’s work consisted in a flow of contradictory dramatic movements. The moments of change were the key moments. The work seemed to me to consist in encouraging the actor to undertake changes of direction and flow which were radical and oppositional, so that one movement was followed by another in a contrary direction. The aspiration to produce more and more, possibly inconsistent, gestures seemed to me to derive from Brecht’s ideas, an aesthetic of dialectic and clashes.
I had various ideas about what I wanted to see and how theoretically I thought things should work but this often contradicted what was actually happening in front of me. I realised that I had to sense much more closely what it was that the actor was feeling so that the actor could become like a seismic instrument in the exploration of the action of the text and I was able to be a kind of companion in this journey of discovery. Often the conversation was verbal and intellectual and there were all kinds of entanglements at the preliminary stages of the work. I learnt about the work of Renoir where in his first approach to the script he would encourage the actors not to act, to restrain acting, to restrain outer expression in favour of inner movement. I was learning on my feet how to accompany and lead an actor’s response to the work. I was very fortunate to work for a week in the mid nineties with Genrietta Yanovskaya from the Moscow Theatre of Young Spectators. I learnt as much as I could about her ideas of how to listen for the action, to discern the main event in any piece of work. Ideas about restraint of outer expression in favour of inner work and approaching the work of the actor from the point of view of feeling the action, nosing out the action, looking for the shape of the action, constructing an imaginative through movement from these intimations were complemented by other perceptions: that the actor should start from the whole sense of the play and breakdown the work on this basis, that this ‘sense of the whole’ movement was like an unbroken line, that focus on the action needed in the first instance to be expressed in terms of verbs, that the movement of the character through the narrative space of the play was determined by the conflict between what the character wanted and the obstacles to this that were encountered in the circumstances of the world of the play, that this conflict was the basic dilemma of the character, that this was another way of expressing Stanisalvski’s ideas about the objective and the counter objective, that the work of the actor on the character consisted of a series of contrary movements whereby the actor found likenesses and identified with the character and then discovered ‘dislikenesses’ and ‘non-identified’ with the character, that this movement of sympathies and antipathies formed, through a process of oscillating from one to the other, a coherent though perhaps dynamic internal image, the character, which linked to certain energies and external expressive forms, that the actor’s contact with the character in living over its life on stage and through improvisations into its surrounding circumstances set off a deep movement of opposing forces between the active and the passive, between life and death – all of these orthodox ideas about acting were elements that I had to discover for myself. The work to discover what I call the ‘to and fro’ of the forces underlying the work received further confirmation in my practice of yoga in the centre of which is the art of pranayama where the moment between the out breath and the succeeding in breath is explored in terms of two united ideas, ‘narodha’ meaning restraint and ‘parinama’ meaning transformation.
In 2000/2001 I started working on the ideas of Zeami, the founding genius of the Noh Theatre, and once again certain basic predispositions were reasserted. His insistence that the inner must have precedence in the actor’s work and his advice, in relation to the idea of restraint that an internal intensity of 10 should be complemented by an external expression of 7 were confirmations of insights I had already gained. It is also in his work and the work of F M Alexander that the crucial nature the exploration of spatial awareness and proprioceptivity came into focus. The awareness that the body was an energetic field in which experience had left its shaping traces became central to my understanding of acting.
While touring a Bulgarian play in an English translation to Bulgaria in 2005 some theatre practitioners tried to initiate a discussion with me about theatre aesthetics by asking me whether I stood by Stanislavsky or Meyerhold. I dismissed the question as having only academic relevance. Are there really two separate truths about the art of the theatre? Meyerhold’s system of biomechanics gives us a whole physical language of expression which seems to imply that the work must commence with external expressivity and that the language of stage action has a musical form. Over the past 20 years there has been a development in our theatre of physical theatre in which there is a commitment to the extension of physical expression connected to a variety of movement and performance forms. These forms often explore the physical dynamics of the performance situation, often through games or using play forms. Decroux, the man whose work Jacque Lecoq’s work is based on, has his own system. There is the work which Philipe Gaulier has undertaken in giving his own inimitable version of Lecoq’s work. Martial arts forms such as Qigong, Capoeira, Tai Chi, Butoh are used as systems of contact and interaction. Laban’s work in movement notation, educational dance and character/effort study has been a major influence. Grotowski’s work has made a come back in this context particularly as it was he who started working with the idea that the actor works out a score for his or her stage performance and works from it like a musician works from his or her score. This idea was an explicit part of the biomechanics developed by Meyerhold. Grotowski’s use of yoga also reflected a commitment to work on the energetic or spiritual body which in yoga is articulated through the awareness of the cakras. There has been a growth in work relating to this from the Performance Arts and Drama courses which began to flower in Universities here in the UK 20 years ago. Significant exploratory work has come from this source: Frantic Assembly, Kneehigh, Punchdrunk, and many more. This work has been theorised, criticised, appreciated and assessed. What has been distinctive right from the origins of this movement with groups like Complicite and Trestle has been the interest in exploring space, playing with the actors audience relationship (another area that Grotowski pioneered), also in the use of other performance forms such as puppetry, mask, multimedia and so on. There are practitioners in the United States and in Europe whose work is close to that which I am describing. I am intending only to refer to this work rather than comprehensively describe it.
It is in the context of this work that claims have been made that theatre has entered a phase where anything really vital and new is bound to go beyond the tight confines of ‘dramatic’ theatre, that we now are encountering a developed movement that has called itself post-dramatic. These forms of theatre claim that they are responding in a vital way to the conditions created by the domination of communications by the electronic media and that they are focused on the liveness and the ‘nowness’ of theatre performance. Is this emphasis on physicality and external expression, on the separation of the actor from his or her role, on the undertaking of performance as a game helpful for our project about economic thinking, THE DEAL?
The model of the world that appears from the dramatic theatre with its centred narrative and its coherent throughline that emphasises the character’s consistency suggests a reality that has similar reassuring constancies. The dramatic theatre presents, through its own artifice, a world that is ultimately understandable and presupposes the image of the human as a coherent rational subjectivity, a persona who in its human equality with other subjectivities produces, through this sense of equivalence, a world which has an objective unity.
It is possible to see more clearly what economic thinking’s image of the human might be by looking at the ways in which it has shaped and continues to shape political ideas and institutions. The key figure in this ideological field is the free individual. The definition of this entity sets a limit on the power of politics in relation to economics. The individual is free in so far as his or her freedom is untrammelled by political coercions. On the other hand the political space is that within which the individual has his or her freedom. The representational space of modern democracy is a front or façade, a symbolic world of appearances, where all individuals are equal and free. This is sometimes referred to as a theatrical space, a kind of parade. Often this display of equality is highlighted and counterpointed by archaic, vestigial and primitive parades and shows which seem to assert a relationship with the natural world. Through a series of representations and parades the apparently natural order of the gross inequality in the allocation of resources are dressed up and confirmed. The cohesion of the society is held by the illusion that we are all playing the same game, a game though in which we have been dealt very different cards. In this situation it is our fate to become what we deserve to be and so the potential for real human development is obscured by perceptions of our own nature. Can theatre portray not just the aspirational surface of the processes we are involved in but be capable of revealing and sharing what the deal really is, looking at the all the roles in the game, both who are the players and who made and dealt the cards?
We are used to the arguments of post-modernism and the insistence on a multiplicity of narratives and its attack on the notion of subjectivity as a unified entity, as a fixed identity. This has been accompanied by a critical association of this rational subject with an ethnocentric view of growth, development and progress. The stage space’s capability for representing contemporary reality through the simple co-ordinates of conventional architectural space has been called into question by the perception of the space of the globalised world as being vertiginous and without clear horizons, a world where the vertical and the horizontal no longer have a fixed relationship to each other. For our project, which is exploring this loss of land and loss of landscape, it is important to look at spatial uncertainties. When experiences of displacement are being felt by millions of our fellow creatures it is as well to look critically at the assumption that we can stand safely on the earth in a space which is our own.
Augusto Boal’s work has been built on a thorough understanding of the dramatic Aristotelian idea and is marked by the participatory transgression of the fixed line between the stage and the spectators. This interruption or transgression of the stage action is, typically, at a decisive moment in the unfolding drama when the action can go one way or another. By focusing on this moment of change, which is created as a tableau ’freeze’ moment, he bases his method on the key supposition of the dramatic theatre which is that the moment of the suspension of external expression (the ‘freeze’ moment) is the moment of highest internal intensity. He bases his work on this moment and then takes it one crucial step further by showing how this can be activated towards various different conclusions. Thus theatre is used as an active exploration of real experienced situations, as a rehearsal for life. This active principle is a vital element in this work, just as the increased quickness of being able to embody personal experience is its natural corollary.
In both Brecht and Boal’s work the altering of the conventional dividing line between the dramatic action and the audience is in the interests of a higher level of activisation and participation.
The key importance of the suspension of the action in the ‘freeze’ moment, and the sense of the audience’s heightened participation that is inherent in it, turns the theatre into a game. In Gaulier’s practice the ‘fixed point’ is also a central highly charged moment of suspension of action. The fixed point occurs fleetingly or substantially at the moment when the forward movement of the character in the dramatic space meets a sufficiently powerful obstacle, or the apprehension of an obstacle. It is the articulation moment of the dilemma of the character, the moment of change between different units of action. In Gaulier’s work this key moment is taken into the development of the clown. This form is connected to its development in masked comedy, most commonly associated with Commedia Dell’Arte. This form develops the clown into a number of stock characters representing different basic urges, the desire to appear to be clever, to be rich, to be beautiful, to be adored and so on. The implicit worldview is unlike the world of the ‘dramatic’ theatre with its humanistic equivalence, where all motivation is reduced to a single quality and where human beings are explored through an integrated and rational perspective. If the key figure, the measuring yardstick, in the ‘dramatic theatre’ is the idealised whole human being, in commedia it is a partial portrayal of the human being whose motivation is reduced to one aspect of a repertoire of human desires. The mask is an articulation of this.
Our project involves an investigation of motivation especially as it relates to the image of the human in economic thinking. In this system of thought the individual is a utility-maximising unit, essentially qualitatively equal in its attempt to own or consume scarce resources. How does this conception relate to the space in dramatic theatre. Typically the tensions and conflicts in the world are concentrated on the house, the domestic space. Even if this space is transposed to another location the presentation of the world through familial and sexual conflict is central. The equivalence of experience and the equality of the individual in the space of the ‘dramatic’ theatre is connected to the conception of the individual as a soul contained inside a body. It is as if we are equal in the sense that we have a soul. This assemblage of the individual is related to the ‘free individual’ of the political space described earlier. The playing out of this dialectic between freedom and fate is an exercise which reconstructs and renews the cohesion of the social world. How this dialogue is played out inside us the key to how our emotional and spiritual lives are shaped. The sense that we have in the genealogy of our being that we existed in joyful union with our mother’s body, that we then experienced the fearful danger of the movement through the birth canal and that we then experience the anger of separation from our mother confirms the basic emotional morphology of our existence.
The ultimate general motivation in the ‘dramatic’ theatre is to ‘live’ (even if this is not an earthly life) and the opposite movement is that of death (equally not necessarily a physical death). The reduction of all specific motivations (or objectives) into this one aim is the source of the empathetic identificatory mode of perception associated with the oscillation between fear and pity in the orthodox ‘cathartic’ theory of dramatic art. The emotional exercise of being flung from fear (likeness) to pity (unlikeness) and back again resonates the movement in the actor’s character work described earlier.
There is a very strong ordering insistence in our culture towards the reduction of all values to one value. The arrival of monotheism and money at a crucial moment in the development of our ‘civilisation’ are outward signs of a deep process of coherence and conformity which has made the Western European industrial model so successful, based as it was (at a later stage) on a Cartesian conception of the image of the human.
The conception of the human being, the image of the human, is created in theatre through a double process. The relationships between the characters on stage (in the scene, in the dramatic action) are determined by and determine the relationship between the overall ‘stage’ action and the spectators. The role of the spectators, (whether they are witnesses, participants, celebrants, ‘spectactors’, voyeurs, predators, buyers, clients, customers, observers, samples) is created by the interaction of the characters and this in turn shapes the space of the performance. The key process in this is the work of the actor. The starting point in this is the work on character. The first proposition is that the character for the actor is just like him or her. The likeness is to do with the basic human features of individuality, the fact of having been born, of having at some point to die, the recognition of a shared emotional morphology. As the characters are rounded, individualised and acted within a space that is set out for this purpose, thus the spectators are arranged in relation to the action which takes place between them. As the individuality of the characters emerges, the collectivity of the audience confirms itself. The drama is played out. In its most generalised form this will be redemptive in its celebration of a common shared quality, ‘humanness’, the aspiration for life, to live. Within this framework the greater the tension that can be created by the inhumanity of the action or by the ‘unrecognisability’ of the characters the deeper will be the sense of discovery and affirmation.
As we see the gradual definition of the individualising project at the origins of Western drama in the development from Aeschylus through Sophocles to Euripides, we see the individual emerge from the chorus. At first in Aeschylus there is only the dialogue between the protagonist and the chorus. Then there is the addition of the antagonist. Euripides at times manages to deploy three characters apart from the chorus. By the time this form reaches its zenith in the Russian theatre of the early 20th century the equivalence of all the characters experience is clearly rooted in a fundamental humanist vision. This in turn reflects an aspirational image of politics.
It is significant that the most coherent and thorough-going challenge to the one-dimensional conception of neoliberal economic thinking based on utility has come from someone whose origins and culture lie in the Indian sub continent. Amartya Sen’s project to think through economics on the basis of a polyvalent conception of capability is distinctive. The development of Indian philosophy seems, from my shallow reading of it, to be based on a similar multiplicity of motivations that are combinations of certain key primary forces. Kama, the drive towards sensual pleasure; Artha, the drive towards material wellbeing; Dharma, the drive towards justice and Moksa, the drive towards enlightenment. Obviously there are other dualistic systems like Taoism and its view of the universe being composed of Yin (passive/yielding) and Yang (active/penetrating). Even Freud who for most of his working life held together an idea of models of the human being that were pluralistic, in the end simplified things down to the struggle between Eros (Life force) and Thanatos (Death Drive). However all of these ‘images’ are significantly more dynamic than the conformist orthodox conception of economic thinking that has arisen and been actualised in our current western political structures.
The theatre in its totality (the combination of the scene and the theatron) offers us an image of the human. Also its history has proven to be rich in the forms (the different combinations of its basic elements) that it has thrown up. It still remains for us to clarify whether we need to depart from the orthodoxies of the ‘dramatic’ theatre if we are to express the ‘world’ of globalisation.
In Az Theatre’s War Stories project we have used the idea that actors connect and associate what they portray to experiences that they have lived. We have ran workshops on the basis that people carry stories almost in the way that we may carry the trace of scars so we understand that everything that has happened to us is somehow inside us. We have sought through participatory drama exercises and games to get people to locate their own war story and give this story a form by embodying it in the theatre space. The moment they start to actualise their experiences and give them a dramatic form they become actors. This places them at a creative distance from their own experience. It can give them a view of their responsibility and activate their relationship to war. In our work in Kosovo we used actors to act out the stories told by our audiences who were mainly the families and the communities of the missing from the war at the end of the 90s. We worked with two companies, Serbian and Albanian. The work of the actors was to make the stories and experiences recognisable so that our spectators could see their own stories acted out. They would feel the stories to be familiar and at the same time unfamiliar since they were ‘taken away’ from them and put into the dramatic space. The work was also a way of acknowledging their experiences. The aim was to give them an active relationship to the work so that the sense of the inexpressible isolation of their grief could be worked through in some measure. The participatory acting has been crucial for this project. We recognised that war and violence posed as processes that were in some way like a force of fate over which no-one has control. These processes took away individual initiative and created uniform power blocks or ‘sides’ which in turn played out inner splitting in the participants. We were working with a humanist sense of a compassionate self reflective activity that was turned towards recovery and reintegration. War was conceived primarily as an individual responsibility and by encountering, acting out and seeing your own story in the dramatic space, you could move towards an active reflexive position and be capable of thinking. Of course we worked internationally and the project had to find a way of confronting the difference of people’s experiences in the ‘war producing’ countries of the West and the ‘war receiving’ countries elsewhere. Our workshop experiments with movement and dance led us towards work with professionally trained (or training) dancers and musicians.
Working with dancers throws into stark relief the relationship between the inner and outer work of the actor. Artaud described the performer as being a an actor dancer and insisted on the performers capacity, at times through heightened awareness and trance, to engage and express deep archetypal forms that arose from humanity’s collective unconscious. From the work in Kosovo we were searching for this contact with the structure of myth, the basic and underlying forms which made human stories recognisable. Performers, whether they are actors or actor/dancers, require stimulus in order to begin and maintain their work. At one end of the spectrum of expressivity, dancers are stimulated by sounds, colours, light, feeling tones and the impulses which come from the physiological logic of the work of their own bodies in space. If there is a stimulus in observed human behaviour it is not the narrative nor behavioural structure of that event that they are able to respond to. Through a sensual transformative process of interpretation they will work from the emotion rather than the structure of an event. They will absorb and process sequence rather than logic. The space of expressive dance is not representational if what is meant by this is a definition of space along the lines of what is public (connected to exchange and display) and what is private (connected to the domestic and the familial). Unlike the space of dramatic acting where the space is that of the individual in relation to the collective, the space of the dancer abolishes the division between the inner and the outer. Everything is outer and everything is inner. This is the relief of dance. If the work of the actor oscillates fruitfully between their presence in the actual moment of the performance and their action as the character in the fictional world of the drama, the dancer seems to inhabit a simpler space. The simple being of the actor, the quality of concentrated relaxed presence that an actor brings to his or her work has been emphasised by practitioners from Zeami to Chaikin. In Zeami’s image the actor’s presence is expressed in the image of the flower, that which is coming into being and passing away. The actor as a ‘being’ presence is the conduit for the spectator’s imagination of the dramatic narrative space. He or she is the signifier and the signified. The actor in the dramatic space is both ‘being’ and ‘meaning’. The dancer just is. He or she is like an inner figure in the audience’s imagination.
Dance has been central to the later stages of the War Stories project because it is emblematic of the repossession of the integrity of the human body. War in its uniformity and its compulsions takes away the body; in its actuality it is concerned with the destruction of bodies. It is a dispossession and dissolution of the individual into the paranoid opposition between friend and enemy, for or against. It is the actualisation of a primordial infantile state. Dance is the movement of fluency and reintegration after the tantrum.
In The Deal we are looking at the possibility of deriving forms of expression from the issues and stories we are exploring. It is possible that, because of developments in science and technology, certain ways of seeing, and of expressing stories about, the world have become redundant. Therefore the forms we are looking for may be linked both to the issues as well as to the changed conditions in which these issues are embedded. As with our War Stories project we are first and foremost interested in how people are experiencing the changes we are going through. What I really mean by this is that we want to view the experiences of people now going through the upheavals of development through the optic or with the perspective of the changing relationship of our species to the planet on which we live. This perspective can to some extent be gained by putting different stories next to each other in the same scenic space. The theatre naturally creates a human dimension within its work. It also works with a kind of self conscious distance. Are special techniques necessary to ensure the world historical human perspective with which we are engaging?
It is likely that, as with the War Stories project, we will involve ourselves in work with both untrained as well as trained actors. The movement in the War Stories work towards participatory forms of theatre based on ideas about activism is central to that project. It was connected to the vital questions we are asking about responsibility, victimhood and passivity. There is similar aspiration in THE DEAL.
There are some images which will have served as starting points for the work.
The first is the image of someone simply standing on the earth in their own space, alert, aware and secure. We have to admit that every human being is the centre of their own world and that we must propose this sense of place and belonging that is not dependent on a given landscape or heritage. It is difficult to see what the future holds but it is likely that most people in the world will experience the transience and instability which modern development has brought. People will feel like victims. People will lose their bearings. People will resist. People will learn to live in and adapt to new circumstances.
With our changed relationship to our world we are suffering from a deep loss. This is the source of a grief which must have its way. The pain can only be temporarily assuaged by the commodities (or addictions) we have been offered in the place of our land. Even if we manage to acquire land to secure our sense of place, it will be acquired or inherited as a commodity and we will not be able to separate ourselves from the common lot of humanity in our loss. The key aspect of this particular manifestation of theatre that we are creating must be the space to admit grief.
As a company based in the developed ‘West’, we will work with stories and communities who are going through events which, in terms of personal experience, were current in our country 200 years ago. We therefore will have to recognise and articulate the different knowledges that there are and the different ways of feeling there will be.
It feels as if the figure of the clown is important and also the extension of the clown into the stock characters of the Commedia dell’ Arte with the world of characters which explore a plurality of human impulses. Certainly the idea that human are polyvalent creatures, diverse in the motivations and aspirations, has to be reflected in the forms and methodologies we adopt.
Brecht’s aesthetic also feels significant, particularly work where he portrays economic forces by using chorus voices. I am thinking of St Joan Of the Stockyards and his last piece Turandot or The Whitewasher’s Congress. It was significant that chorus work played a large part in the epic musical about globalisation written by Jeremy Seabrook and Michael O’Neill with music by Douglas Finch that we produced in 2001 and which is the direct antecedent of THE DEAL.