With apologies to Antonio Damasio this is a theatre director’s reflection on acting and spectating. I draw in particular on a cycle of my performance work Optik Performance. At their most complex these performances involved actors, musicians and live processing by sound and video artists. But however dense the production some key principles always remained – this is an attempt to tease them out.
- has to do something
- own what they are doing – literally have authority in what they do – this does not mean control – it does mean have responsibility, engagement
- what moves the body?
- what impulse, desire, decision?
More principles to consider:
For me, as a director, it is always the human performer that has the most radical potential.
- to be unpredictable
The performer always has a choice
- to collaborate
- to compete
- go along with, support, develop, sustain
- go against, disrupt, change, transform.
My ambition is for the actor to work as freely as possible –(with no artificially imposed limits – aesthetic or otherwise).
- to be free to explore.
- for that process of exploration, discovery, to become intrinsic to the content of the performance itself.
The actor works inside three key relationships:
with the environment – the physical and aural/acoustic architecture of the buildings, equipment, technology etc in which they find themselves performing
with other performers – the collective made up of individual artists performing together (this can and does include sound and video artists)
with those that watch, who have come to see or who are there when the performance happens – the spectators (the audience).
An actor’s actions are generally linked to a narrative line or an image sequence – what Patrice Pavis called ‘sign clusters’. The acting strategies devised by Konstanin Stanislavski illustrate this very clearly – the actor has an objective or ‘through line’ – a cause and effect cycle that tells ‘the story’.
But there’s a problem here – as R D Laing pointed out – humans are both the centre of experience and the originators of action – so this applies to actors too. And this raises a very interesting question – first asked by William James and developed by writers on consciousness such as Antonio Damasio – what if we act first – then experience the emotional response. What if you wanted actors to work this way – working with actions that preceded conscious awareness ? Is it possible to perform engaging a pre-reflective ‘embodied consciousness’ as Merleau-Ponty put it.
My own strategy goes like this: to start with only with those gestural templates and movement actions that are there anyway – as constant default actions if you like – which I defined as walking, running, standing still, lying down and all variations in between. Put another way, this is the classic mime’s neutral position but seen as movement rather than held position. It’s worth pointing out here that an actor is not like a musical instrument – you can’t put the instrument – the body – in a case and silence it. Even standing still without voice the actor is in an act of performing – they are present. The spectator perception of this action is illuminating – from my experience it seems that perception flips from image to movement in a seamless continuum. But one does seem to cancel out the other – to use Merleau-Ponty’s phrase ‘vision is suspended in movement’. To see the actor as still, means to see them as not moving – but also maybe about to move – with the potential to move.
So starting with these basic action templates I asked the actors to make split-second decisions around the transition moments from one action state to another – from walking to running for example, standingstill to walking and so on. The fundamental underpinning of all action is what Grotowski called the balance between movement and repose. Discussed by Victor Turner similarly as the inter-play between the ergotrophic – the urge to action – what a much earlier anthropologist Marcel Jousse named ‘dynamogenesis’ – and the tropotrophic – the urge to rest.
This self-regulatory system is constantly at play in the human body to maintain homeostasis – and what we find interesting to watch in live performance is the ability of actors to de-stabilise this balance by pushing their energy beyond certain limits.
Importantly, each performer works this decision making process – which is constant – as an independent agent, without pre-arrangement or covert complicity with another. We are not alone, but we are solely responsible for our own actions (though they will have consequences for others and ourselves).
As an approach to performance composition this enabled transitions or changes in pattern and texture to take place at enormous speed – far quicker than would be possible if learned in advance – one critic described this is an ‘impossible choreography’. This strategy also enabled imperceptible shifts of emotional mood to erupt or fade without warning – a kind of ‘visible body chemistry’ as Tracey Warr described it. This is something that has always appealed to me as a director – the dynamic and turbulent nature of emotional response and recognition. The work of the philosopher Suzanne Langer resonates for me here: ‘In the image, which may be a vision, a gesture, a sound-form or musical image, or a word, many meanings may be concentrated, many ideas telescoped and interfuse, and incompatible emotions simultaneously expressed’.
In essence what we call the performance (the totality of experiences and actions arising from it) organises itself – the self-organising characteristic of all emergent complex systems – around a series of events. Singular, unique moments of happening inter-lace with the flow of time – what Pavis called ‘the continuous pulsational moment’ – which is inescapable. As Herbert Blau points out – the only thing you can say for certain that will always happen in a performance is that you will be older at the end of it than you were at the beginning.
The day after an Optik performance in Berlin’s Tacheles a letter was handed to the company. The author gave his name but no other contact details, so this rather extraordinary personal statement is published here anonymously but with thanks to the person who wrote it.
I am able to make very precise observations, look with a new intensity at the relationship between the performers and the spectators. Optik’s performing develops a mood of sensitivity which lets me listen, watch, respond to private, to public sensations. The performers raised for me the whole questions of what makes a ‘successful’ piece of theatre. We all have the capacity to experience worlds of feeling and possibilities, of potential. We often marginalise these, block our own selves, ‘sectarianise’ areas of ourselves in order to control and manipulate. Tonight, Optik offered us a theatre which opens up the ‘ no go’ areas, which entertains, which heals. The movements are not based on virtuoso technical ‘gimmicks’. They are at once elementary and deeply innocent: an opening up of the performer as him/herself and as link to the spectator’s self, too. The sequence of movements is impossible to predict, and can come at an extraordinary pace. A performer moves here and there in the space. Stands runs and then stands again. Breathes, lies down.
The performers sometimes do this very close to one another, or very close to a spectator, sometimes ‘isolated’. Suddenly one of them goes diagonally across the path of the others. A ‘hindrance’ is created, and with it a performance koan of contact/ non-contact. The communication is intense, inexplicable. Buried in such moments is the continuous ‘flow’ or pulse of the performance. This deep underground rhythmic score surfaces as shattered silences, as long held sequences of repeated actions, as sound. Each spectator seems to perceive fragments of story in some of these moments. But as soon as they are recognised (and sometimes even before then) the moment has passed, the stage dissolves. There is no story, no meaning. This performance has left me awash with impulses, sensations. I have spent an hour in the company of a large number of people, acutely aware of watching and being watched, of bodies sitting, moving. It is a strange and peculiarly exhilarating experience. Simple things fill your mind: how people walk toward one another, how they meet, have contact, leave one another. Postures, movements become startlingly clear. I am left with a feeling that is absolutely precise yet impossible to determine exactly. I settle finally for this: I have been watching what people are.
Blau, Herbert. The Audience John Hopkins University Press 1990
Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens Heinemann 2000
Edwards, Barry. ‘A tele-presence experiment: Optik in Sao Paulo and London’
Body, Space and Technology Journal Vol 1 No 2 2001
——————-. ‘Performing Presence’ Consciousness Reframed Ed Ascott, Roy Intellect Books 1999
Edwards, Barry and Jarlett, Ben. ‘Body Waves Sound Waves: Optik Live Sound and Performance’ Performance and Technology Practices of Virtual Embodiment and Interactivity Ed Broadhurst S and Machon J Palgrave Macmillan 2006
Grotowski, Jerzy. Towards a Poor Theatre Methuen 1969
James, William. What is an Emotion? Wilder Publications 2007
Jouse, Marcel. The Oral Style translated from the French by Edgard Sienaert and Richard Whitaker New York : Garland Pub., 1990.
Laing, Ronald D. The Politics of Experience Penguin 1990
Langer, Suzanne. Feeling and Form Routledge 1953
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception Routledge 1962
——————-. L-Oeil et L’Esprit Gallimard 1964
Stanislavski, Konstantin. An Actor Prepares Methuen 1980
Warr, Tracey. ‘A Moving Meditation on a Dead Line’
Performance Research Journal Moving Bodies Issue Volume 8 No 1 December 2003