Theatre, music and improvisation
The potential for improvised performance between actors and musicians is enormous. Not the least of several pitfalls and obstacles however, is a basic mistrust on the part of the actor to the whole question. This is not surprising since the actor has reason to know better than anyone the dangers of relying on spontaneity or leaving things to chance. Obviously, improvisation as a technique for performance cannot get very far if it is simply another way of saying ‘let’s see what happens’. Traditionally, improvisation where actors are concerned is very much a means to an end; a rehearsal technique. Once written, these documentary and improvised plays are structurally like any other; improvisation has been limited to being another approach to writing the script.
Does the actor have to become a dancer to work with music? The key lies naturally with movement, and so in the relationship of the performer to his own body. In dance, physical expertise is supremely important and is the medium through which the choreographer evokes and suggests his theme. The actor however, although physical skill may be just as important, has to concern himself with motive. One crucial difference between the dancer and the actor in this respect seems to be the use of the eyes; it could be called the difference between gazing and looking. The eyes of any actor can often be the key to the state of the whole and through them we learn of a whole gamut of emotions from joy through to despair. Interestingly enough, what makes some dance companies particularly exciting is the way the performers’ eyes play a more important role, using them to bring characters and situations into the dance.
Improvisation between actor and musician cannot be left solely as a question of movement and music. The actor cannot abdicate from the responsibility of bringing to life whatever lies behind his eyes. Music can make us laugh and cry as well as frighten us, and so the actor cannot abandon emotional reality in favour of a series of physical gestures. In other words he must not reverse the conventional roles and become an accompaniment to the music. The performers must all be creative partners; the actor must make us laugh and cry, he must horrify and uplift us. The need, therefore, is for a different approach to the organisation, purpose and projection of the actor’s skill in performance; an approach that puts the sound of the voice, the spoken word, gestures and movement into a form that both requires and enhances the power and beauty of music.
Examples of a truly integrated theatre of this kind are very rare; they require the special talents and aspirations of performers who see in the other art form only the illusion of separateness, and who, tired of the morass of contemporary ‘abstract’ work, seek to re-discover the emotional presence in music, and what I can call the harmonic tone in theatre. The American composer Harry Partch has given the name ‘corporeal’ to this kind of music, and corporeal music has no instrumentalists; actors and musicians cannot separate and fix roles rigidly. Talking about his theatre piece ‘Delusions of the Fury – a ritual of dream and delusion’, Partch has this to say about roles, ‘The concept of this work inheres in the presence of the instruments on stage, the movements of musicians and chorus, the sounds they produce, the actuality of actors, singers, of mime, of lights, in fine the actuality of truly integrated theatre.’
So the musician has to get a fresh awareness of the ‘tangibility’ of his music, and of his presence as a performer. The actor, familiar with the idea of presence, must feel the need for fresh approaches too, in the light of what could be called ‘harmonic acting’.
For the improvised play, the actor has the opportunity during rehearsal to dig down into himself and the character he is playing, this holds true even in less conventional, but nevertheless structured performances. Cieslak has spoken of the flame within the glass, the glass being the structure of the play; glass which he felt could not be broken.
The pattern for working-up a performance normally rests on a development of the relation between character and plot, or situation. The drama comes from a clash of personalities with each other, or with their environment, for which the actor has to provide a credible emotional background. Consistency and precision are important virtues as they are the demands of a logical, linear plot. This is not the case with harmonic acting. Specific personality-centred motivation has to give way to a very different source, in keeping with the source of the music. The fate of individuals in particular situations is incompatible with the historically imprecise, timeless world opened up by music; a world Partch aptly described as ‘lost recollections, and dimly seen prophetic projections’. The actor is the physical embodiment of this timeless reality, being king and pauper, monster, mother and child.
Improvisation brings a particular quality to this form that enables it to reach great depth and subtleties of expression. An actor integrating totally with corporeal music cannot be content with symbolising abstract themes like death and famine. His acting must produce the great spectrum of humanity as it is expressed in its many relationships of man to beast, man to man and ultimately, man to God and present them in such a way that enables us to recognise the realness, joy, despair and awe of those relationships. It has to be a supremely non-intellectual process, a time when the actor’s mental and basic physical responses are working and integrating very closely indeed. Yet this results in a certain paradox. How can a relationship on stage be non-specific, timeless and have the reality and depth to move the audience? The answer is that the audience supplies the specific details from its own experience. The audience chooses what to take as significant in a particular relationship, because it is already involved in its emotional truth by the persuasion of the performance. In other words the structure of the reality of the performance comes from within each spectator. The performers do not present a specific image; the audience is faced with a certain emotional and physical tension which it uses to form a relationship.
It is as a forum for developing this potential to the full that improvisation comes into its own. It is the art of creating a performance that moves the audience as deeply as any other, while not determining the exact configurations and relationships involved. These remain a matter of personal interpretation for the spectator; not an intellectual interpretation, but more of an unconscious one, the entirely subjective nature of which may only become apparent at the end of the performance, and possibly not even then. Stockhausen talks about the listener ‘being’ the music. In the same way in improvised music-theatre the listener/spectator is the total image, since the fear, joy and even the awe come from within himself. Secrets of the aural world become visual; the eye joins the ear.
Improvisation rests on a delicate balance between chance and control, which the performer straddles as the agent through which the performance evolves. It is the paradox of artistic composition of all kinds of course, otherwise known as inspiration and technique. As the central paradox of a performing technique it holds deep significance and meaning both for the musician and the actor. Improvised performance is a process of continual decision-making. The prospect of total possibility lies before each performance; the performance transforms the possibility into an immanent reality. Far from being in the happy-go-lucky state of ‘anything can happen’ however, once the performance is underway the actor and musician are transfixed between the complete freedom of no-script and no-score, and the demands of the whole piece at any particular moment, in which he is only one element.
This, for the actor, provides the very basis for his performance. Our ability to sense motive through a reading of gesture, sound and stance is very refined and very subtle, and it is amplified when what we are looking at is on the stage. Were an actor to present a particular character-type, or base a series of actions on the development of a psychological theme, such as anger, then the spectator would acknowledge the actor as the source of this material, and prepare for further details and revelations in linear fashion. The music would become a background accompaniment to this process. Similarly, if technique were used to overcome the dilemma of freedom versus contact, and the actor displayed enormous versatility and range, as Grotowski put it in another context, ‘one does not reveal oneself, one only reveals the skill for doing’. The actor is caught in the chasm between desire and fulfilment; here is the tension, the source of harmonic acting. He listens with his whole body, is aware of everything he can do, and yet conscious that every decision at each moment depends on the situation around him. That is the fate of the actor, and not by coincidence, of the human condition too and it is a matter for both joy, and despair. Although either emotion may dominate the other at certain times during a performance, the work will certainly reach its highest point when both emotions are caught, and the paradox is experienced in full.
Talking about myth, Ernst Cassirer said the following about the products of myth-making:
‘Images changed with meaning, but the meanings remain implicit, so that the emotions they command seem to be centred on the image, rather than on anything it merely conveys; in the image, which may be a vision, a gesture, a sound-form (musical image) or a word, many meanings may be concentrated, many ideas telescoped and interfused, and incompatible emotions simultaneously expressed’.
The parallels between the products of improvisation and Cassirer’s comments are very striking. It provides, if it were needed, a hint at the origins of such things in the myth-making faculties we all possess. It also makes clarifies how much we are losing by ignoring the transcendent power of theatre as we so often do.
Music and theatre are only separate art forms in certain traditions, notably the Western post-renaissance model. It is not a question of learning particular non-Western idioms however, but rather of re-discovering old truths in new forms. Performance based on improvisation between corporeal music and harmonic acting is an attempt to do just this. It was Brook after all, who spoke about ‘a form of theatre which acts like music’. Theatre is music, and the actor taking that to his heart will find it opening up new and powerful forms of expression.