Politics / Embodiment / Specificity / Immediacy

Posted on April 17, 2011


The section below is an extension of a previous manifesto, of which the writing will no longer take the form of. This is all in process, and will be continually developed in coming months.

Politics of stance

The historical Avant-garde theatres were intrinsically political in nature. While this can come to mean an association with factions and political parties of their time, what I am more interested in is the reasons for their genesis and their stance against other artistic movements under the umbrella of the Avant-garde. It might seem that there is a bit of irony in this. Broad overviews of these artistic movements often look upon them as a homogenous brand, taking the stand of the anti-traditionalist, manifesting as excitable proponents of the Modern theatre. As one would have realised in a comparative study of their manifestos and writings, the founders of different movements did not at all agree with each other, and much less, like each other.

In this light, the point I will emphasise about this paper, is that it is only an inquiry into such a position. I do so with full awareness and acknowledgement of the immense possibilities of approach, although in popular Avant-garde fashion, I will still quite proudly choose to see my discoveries as most gratifying and effectual.

To initiate an alternative approach to performance, I would quite necessarily have to implement or suggest a fresh methodology of performance. Understandably, this is difficult and prone to criticism. But, my intent is not to declare a definitive model. I am rather more interested in charting this journey, during which, I hope the discoveries and issues that arise will shed light on dramaturgical processes that underlie such pursuits. Thus, I will begin by introducing a series of questions I have arrived at during the planning of this paper and in the devising of a new work.

Within the Avant-garde history, the Symbolists, Expressionists, Futurists, Surrealists, Dadaists, Artaudian practitioners and others, can be characterized by a fascination with fronting new perceptive models. Some took to reinventing or annihilating the use of text, some took to the revolutionizing of stage aesthetics to forgo mimicry, some took to the suggestion of a more psychological dimension, some took to the acknowledgement of the real stage space, and some took to the intense stylistic physicalisation of emotions to compensate for the otherwise falsity that had perpetrated most of Western Drama’s history. They were all varying approaches to the same anti-traditionalist stance. I wonder then, how we could look upon the tendencies and methods of contemporary performances in recent times? I think there needs to be a way of articulating the several directions contemporary performance is headed.

Christopher Innes gives an example of the different understandings in his insightful book Avant Garde Theatre 1892 – 1992:

“Since directors like Brook or Grotowski are primarily concerned with the physical performance, they tend to see a return to ‘primitive roots’ as being located in the body. By contrast, Ionesco is typical of the dramatists in turning to the subconscious; and this is equally the case with Sam Shepard, whose work has largely defined the themes and techniques of contemporary American drama.”[1]

But, taking a stance on theatre involves more than the consideration of performance aesthetics and attitudes to presentation. The issue of actor-training is also one that has enormous consequences on the effectiveness and success of the aforementioned tendencies.

The prolific writer and educator Robert W. Corrigan presents a broad run-down of whom he considers to be the most significant contributors to the training of actors in the last century, in his book The World of the Theatre:

Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1942?): Stanislavski’s student and of the major influences in twentieth-century theatre, he rejected his master’s psychological techniques (working from the inside out) and developed a system of training based on complete body control and acrobatics known as “bio-mechanics.” Meyerhold believed in approaching a part from the outside, through mastery of physical skills and vocal techniques.

Jacques Copeau (1878-1949): This French actor-director founded the Theatre du Vieux Colombier where he developed a program for training actors that combined Stanislavski’s psychological approach with the training methods of the classical French theatre. This method was refined and adapted by Copeau’s student, Michel Saint-Denis, who established the “Young Vic” School is England after World War II and later was instrumental in founding the Juilliard Theatre School in New York.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956): A German playwright-director, his theories and practice were a major challenge to those of Stanislavski, whose system Brecht thought “mystical and cultish.” Brecht was not anti-psychological, but he believed this approach should not be given undue importance. He stressed the actor’s need for intellectual development and social awareness.

Lee Strasberg (b. 1901): He has been the best-known acting teacher in America. Strasberg transformed Stanislavski’s system of acting into an American “method.” His main emphasis is on the creation of “true emotion” through improvisation and exercises in emotional recall.

Jerzy Grotowski (b. 1933): As director of the Theatre Laboratory in Wroclaw, Poland, Grotowski has been particularly influential in actor training in the last decade. Although greatly influenced by Stanislavski, Grotowski is primarily interested in the actor-audience relationship. His method of training involves arduous physical exercise as a mean of giving the actor complete control of his whole being in performance.[2]

Evidently, every artist has their inclinations and abiding practice. Given the wide-ranging options available to theatre practitioners these days, common with the interdisciplinary interests and practice of so many, what would be the methods of experimentation reflective of our times? Or rather, what other ways can we rethink performance methodologies? This is not to say contemporary theatre practitioners are not already pursuing such essential questions. The SITI (Saratoga International Theatre Institute) Company founded in 1992 by Anne Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki is a case in point. Suzuki created the Suzuki Method of Actor Training in the early eighties, which is a mentally and physically intensive training method that works on stamina and inner sensibilities. ‘The Viewpoints Book’ co-authored by Tina Landau and Bogart presents the Viewpoints approach and their theories to theatre-making. Together, the Suzuki and Viewpoints model has garnered increasing international popularity, no doubt due to their use and application in a wide variety of performance types. The dialectics of these approaches as well as others, can and should be analysed to the benefit of theatrical development.

Embodying Place

In identifying a direction to guide this investigation, the foremost question I had found myself asking, is how one might come to perform a place? I ask this, because the frameworks that persist in representational theatre seem to necessitate focus on performing character, works with social bearing are underscored by the performing of a problematic situation, and the defining elements of live art are framed by the performing of a body.

The performance of ‘place’ will still retain an interest in pursuing bodily presence, and I do not wish to slight the importance of this emphasis, which is just as heavily reliant on shared time. I am still a strong proponent of presence, or ‘Eventhood’ as Adrian Heathfield calls it in his essay ‘Alive’. This involves “bringing the reception of the artwork into the elusive conditions of the real, where the relation between experience and thought can be tested and re-articulated.”[3] But to take it beyond this, the pursuit carries an additional task of relating to a text with no right or wrong, no start or end, no physical limits as a place is, as one would consider to be in comparison to the corporeality of the body, quite certainly inanimate. This will by no means negate the potential and dynamism of space. I will be taking on understandings of behavioural geography and the psychoanalysis of space in an attempt to unpack the complexities of ‘place’ as subject. Theories of phenomenology will also feed into this argument, and will hopefully garner more insight on the body-space relationship.

Hence, answering this would involve the inclusion of the environment as a co-player in the generative semiotics of the performance, as well as an interest in audience reception. The theatre space as ‘place’ is the first level of contact activated in the performer/spectator relationship. Beyond this physical co-presence, numerous other relations exist – of which, the allusion to cognitive environmental images, and a dependency on sensorial memory would be important sections in my later discussion.

(Also, how does one perform a place?)


I wish to open the can of worms that is, the unconscious. Existent views on the unconscious, within and without performance theory, is often conflictual and indeterminable. It is not something we can prove; yet everything we can agree with (as some might say). I could just as well be talking about the dream: the dream being the state closest to an authentic participation in one’s being – pure uninhibited desires, emotions, uncluttered by self-imposed restraints. I had desired to use the term ‘real’ before I took to ‘authentic’ but with the knowledge that both risk being confused with their physical manifestation (‘authentic’ perhaps less so?) The dream explores how we function, without social conventions and physical limitations. Anything and everything can evolve.

One night I dreamt that it was time for me to perform. To do what, I wondered. With what, I looked around. I had nothing. It was just the audience, the space, and me. So I sat, and I spoke, and I asked questions, and the audience gave me answers. What it was all about, I don’t remember. The dilemma was resolved, the content unimportant. I gathered this came from an anxiety to create, all without material that could be grasped. There is a pressing need to find this space that exists between imagination and reality. The answer exists – it is there, and at the same time, it is not.

I also recall the one time my blood glucose levels went dangerously low and I found myself in a state of psychosis, influx between consciousness and unconsciousness. This was similar yet different to a dream. There was no hallucination. Every image I saw was reality, but I thought otherwise – as opposed to a dream where you think it is reality but it is not. How do you relive the moment where a dream crosses over to reality? I longed to recreate that struggle in a performance. That would be powerful because it takes you from and into different worlds, implicating your every sense. But it would be difficult. That inexpressible horror is more terrifying than a nightmare. A sudden coming to terms, that the faces staring at you are real people – family, paramedics. They are there holding on to you for dear life, while you hurl insults and rude remarks at them. You do that quite intentionally, but not by whom you know yourself to be in rational circumstances. You live in one inescapable reality, and then you straddle both, before you arrive at another. You recall the faces, the smiles, the fear and terror, the feeling that they were enemies, and then the horrid feeling that no, they were not. As you get pushed in to the back of the ambulance, the clinical white box that envelops you, you watch the faces of the men in constant observance of your face and every move. You read their names off their tags, mumble and scream at their every attempt to appease you. They try every bit of what they know will save you, and thankfully they do.

I lay in the back, in full knowledge of but without any control, stuck in a dual-reality. Minutes before I disembarked the vehicle, I had made the full transit – from consciousness to consciousness, now aware and surprised. I apologized. I was now alright. This was the end. I remembered just moments ago I was battling with my mum and dad, like a demon child. I didn’t know why I had done it, just that I could and I did. During those minutes, I had spat out every ounce of juice they fed me, whacked at every limb that followed my way. Fight, fight all I could while I could. That seemed like the motto for the moment. Now the bruises that remain from failed needles and necessary drips act as temporary reminders of that tumultuous four hours I subjected the people around me to. I am afraid, perhaps rather perturbed by the events. That failed reality, that moment of transit, was a precious awakening in so many senses. Somehow, I hope I remember it. As I sit here today, I am trying to remember, trying to relive those moments. It is almost an obsessive attempt to re-enter that instance of dread but with no success except momentary emotional recollections. As much as I hated it, that moment of crossing over and back, was a moment of victory and that experience ever so precious.

For decades and centuries, many have sought to realize that headspace in the realm of the visible. This can mean many things. All these different artistic movements had aimed toward an emotional immediacy that is universal and unrelenting. Of course, the aim for universalism is a tough challenge. So many have argued against the humanist logic. I am not concerned with this discourse surrounding classification. Where physical circumstances are specific and limiting, I perceive the metaphorical basis of the psyche as giving more access to a diversity of people. Indeed there are numerous ways of accessing that unconsciousness, and all these methods are differently accessible. The dream is a space that should be experienced – a wealth of emotions that need no proper logic, hampered perhaps only by an attempt at mimetic conditions. Perhaps, I am talking about a performance with nothing to hide, nothing to lose, nothing to prove, except for its own existence.

The reflexive nature of this process may be seen in tandem with the performer-specificity of similarly generated work. This does not mean that no thought is spent on calibrating gestures and time in the crafting of every exacting moment. On the contrary, such dramaturgical efforts are highly complementary. What this process does reflect though, is a helpless dependency on the situatedness of lived experiences within a liminality that so belies a balance of cognitive awareness and psychological undercurrents. I am drawing upon personal associations with spaces in the devising of my performances, and these responses can possibly be considered highly autobiographical. The embodiment of these environments will be manifested in task-based scenarios, but this pursuit of authenticity also extends far beyond the corporeal.

Gauging Immediacy

This broad tendency of contemporary performance towards immediacy, not just present in those practices based on physical limits, endurance or pain, enables artists to make works whose live force is excessive. The aesthetic powers and cultural consequences of such moves are often reduced by their popular miscomprehension within a generic notion of ‘shock tactics’, which supposes a fixation on and superficial taste for the very moment of a spectator’s ‘trauma’. However, the interests of Live artists very rarely reside in this little scene of difficulty, rather in its implications and consequences, its complex course through consciousness and out towards social and cultural values. Excessive performance tend to make evident that the event of its encounter, as the trauma theorists put it, is constituted by the collapse of its understanding. In this way, artists can create fissures or holes in perception and interpretation, de-structuring thought, causing spectators to return repeatedly to the driven but open question of the work’s statement.[4]

(more to come!)

[1] Christopher Innes, Avant Garde Theatre 1892-1992, London & New York: Routledge, 1993, p. 218

[2] Robert W. Corrigan, The World of the Theatre, Glenview IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1979, p. 174

[3] Adrian Heathfield (ed.), Live: Art and Performance, London: Tate Publishing, 2004, p. 9

[4] ibid.

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