Two ways to make theatre
The theoretician Patrice Pavis is not altogether happy with directors who become involved in analysis. He is suspicious of them, calling them ‘hybrid and disturbed beings’. On the other hand he makes it plain that in his view all directors are ‘half semiologist and half sorcerer’s apprentice’. As he says, the mise en scene, the essential task of the director is semiology in practice, and hence the difficulty of talking about it after the event in a coherent meta-language. I see the basis of this writing as a kind of self interview; the hybrid divides in two and questions its other half. This schizophrenic task is not as tortuous as it may seem for the director, who is used to acting as the spectator substitute during rehearsal, questioning, creating and receiving your own material as you make it.
The main thrust of avant-garde and experimental performance this century is concerned with revitalising and transforming the relationship between the spectator and the performance. Is essential feature is what Pavis has called the ‘transfer of creativity’, although both Artaud and Brecht stand as the major theoreticians for change and experiments. Contemporary performance has to operate in a world where the ideological and aesthetic centre is no longer located in the performance event itself. The spectator is actively engaged in the creative process as performance receiver, and thereby as co-writers of their own performance texts.
The implications of this for the director and other artists engaged in performance are wide ranging. In my own case I have worked with two techniques that attempt on the one hand to open up the possibilities for the transfer of creativity and yet do not, on the other, reduce the event as a whole to pure subjectivity. The one technique, is improvisation; the other I shall call de-centring, a technique linked to, though not confined to deconstruction.
Both approaches look back to Artaud and Brecht. For Artaud the theatre event was to be dislocated by the crucial removal of the text from the head of the production hierarchy. Like Craig, he argued for an equal and vital priority for all the ingredients of theatre production; colour, rhythm, gesture and space. He was the first to discuss the idea that mise en scene involved more than the faithful reproduction on stage of a meaningful text.
Brecht turned Hamlet’s reflective mirror away from the illusion of a supposed reality and focussed it onto the actor himself. In this approach every gesture signifies a decision, the character on stage remains under observation. For Brecht the actor does not become the character but rather in his phrase presents a report on the character.
In the contemporary period following Artaud and Brecht, theatrical performance continues to show little confidence in the mimetic reproduction of reality. In this deeply disturbed but inescapable rift between the sign and the thing often it is the work of art itself that is the starting point, or the prime reality for theatrical statement.
Pavis isolates two extreme technical approaches to performance in response to the sign crisis; improvisation and serial technique. Serial composition employs the device of repetition. The basic myth or story line of the performance is relayed not by one continuously unfolding statement but by a statement series. The essential feature of this kind of performance is thematic variation. As I have indicated earlier, improvisation is one of the techniques that I shall be discussing in detail in connection with my own work, together with a de-centring technique, an approach based on what you might call the visual discourse of the theatre event.
These two approaches (improvisation and de-centring) represent two contrasting methods of involving the modes of production of performance. Improvisation urges the performance elements to fuse, to lose their separateness in the perception of the spectator. The other approach, as we shall see, splits and divides the elements of production and seeks to deconstruct and dislocate moments of meaning within the performance event.
Improvisation is a performance technique that sets out to deny the necessity for repetition or re-presentation. It is a technique that refuses the distinction between sign and thing and the separateness of stage and life. It is directly descended from Artaud’s theories and in particular on Artaud’s call for a new theatrical language. Improvisation in its purest form rejects all codified language including words, following Artaud’s call for a new physical language based on signs and not on words.
In essence improvisation seeks to abolish all codified performance language in order to break through to a new and spontaneously achieved means of expression. As a technique it splits into two different activities; methods employed to break down and break away from established language, and methods used to create a new language from theatrical expression. In my own work using this method the first technical priority, to break down language, was always used as a rehearsal technique rather than a performance technique.
The techniques I have used to break down language structures are based to a large extent on the via negativa approach developed by Grotowski. It is a technique rooted in a process of rejection where anything that a performer does that holds elements of a recognised performing code is discarded. Carried out over a period of time this purifying and often devastating approach can open up the performer to the possibilities of a new expressive vocabulary.
In some of my early work I found a rich basis for this new language in the structures and analysis of primitive myth and ritual, in particular the structural anthropology of Levi-Strauss and the writing of Mircea Eliade, Ernst Cassirer and Suzanne Langer. The analysis provided by these writers offered intriguing insights into the interaction of myth and ritual within performance structure and it was this aspect that was the source of interest for my theatre work, rather than the details of mythic narrative or even details of gestural and visual elements in ritual action.
Describing the approach of Cassirer, Suzanne Langer gives this explanation of the products of mythic expression:
‘..images charged 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 or musical image, or a word, many meanings may be concentrated, many ideas telescoped and interfuse, and incompatible emotions simultaneously expressed.’
In his Essay on Man Cassirer gives this account of the structure of mythical expression:
‘Nothing has a definite, invariable, static shape. By a sudden metamorphosis everything may be turned into everything. If thee is any characteristic and outstanding feature of the mythical world, any law by which it is governed it is this law of metamorphosis.’
These two variants, Langer’s image full of various possible meanings concentrated together, and Cassirer’s shape offering many potential meanings one after the other, frame by frame as it were, offer useful guides to the construction of performance imagery. They are closely related to the two principles of dream imagery developed by Freud and Lacan; that of condensation and displacement, metaphor and metonymy. In the condensing process, metaphor, two images are pushed together to form a new one that combines elements of both. In displacement, metonymy, one image takes the place of another. These two principles of image organisation are of fundamental importance in the production of new performance material and although they arose in my case out of a need to develop improvisation, they are not restricted to that technique.
After image construction, the next important structural principle I employed as a creative tool is related to the temporal structure of the performance event. Again, the analysis that proved most useful in helping to organise the approach to this question from the perspective of improvisation came from anthropology. It is an analysis of the structural organisation of ritual action that I applied directly to my own performance making.
In a description of the ritual action of the aborigines, one analyst divided the ritual event into four temporal categories; offertory, destruction, transformation and communion/celebration. In terms of the performance event these units can also be used as a means of categorising the spectator-performance relationship. In the offertory stage the spectator is seeing everything for the first time and the ingredients of the whole performance can be revealed without development as new. The transformation and destruction stages are the core of the event where the spectator sees their initial expectations destroyed and is presented with a reality that springs directly from the performance even itself in its interaction with the spectator. In the so-called celebration stage no new information is given and images, actions that appear are workings-out, or resonances of previous action and imagery.
I used this temporal structure in my improvised performances as a score with which the performers could read their own performances and so make judgements about what to contribute and when.
This almost instantaneous reading and crafting of the performance event as it proceeds is a feature if improvisation. The performer is no longer the interpretive agent between signifier and signified but rather as Pavis points out ‘hieroglyphic emblem’. This monumental task or responsibility puts a weighty emphasis on the actor/performer, and the third element arising from analysis relates directly to the view of the actor.
The role of the shaman or medicine man plays an important part in certain analysis. He is the central agent in a major category of ritual action. He is the one who, through the presentation of ritual performances, unites the mythical world with the actual. He is the ‘technician of the sacred’ (see note 5), and in the shamanic rite goes on a journey to the underworld and returns to name the place she has visited. In Jungian terms he projects a sacred significance onto the real world, thus bringing it into focus, creating a structural framework which brings the natural world from a dangerous incoherence into a coherent and manageable order. Seeking a similar process for the contemporary shaman-actor involves a shift of perspective, but uses the basic structure. The journey to the underworld now becomes a journey to the underworld of contemporary man, the unconscious. Following the Jungian terminology, this transformation is a move from the projection of the primitive process onto the natural world to the introjection of contemporary man into himself.
So a question arises, if a modern shaman-actor journeys into the unconscious, what mystical geography can he describe on his return, in performance?
Improvisation as a technique can be caught in a contradiction; that of at the same time rejecting and yet searching for a specifically theatrical language. Its overall thrust is holistic, it seeks to bring together, to unify not to separate the various elements that produce it. It stresses the primacy of the performance as an event in real time. Following Artaud its key fulcrum is the actor-shaman experiencing and ritualising the spectator’s neuroses, fears and dreams.
In contrast the other compositional process I have worked with has very different features. Instead of the experiential immediacy of the improvised performance event, the key structural mechanism here is that of the riddle, or puzzle.
Whereas, in the improvisatory mode all language is at first rejected, here there is spoken dialogue, but text as spoken dialogue is not the source of the performance. Rather it is the production of images that channels the energy of the event and which integrates the dialogue/text as one of the scenic accessories. Whereas improvisation depends on the fusion of the various stage systems, my work in this process presents a perpetual dialectic between the systems involved and emphasises their disintegration rather than their integration.
Crucial for me here is the use of the cultural sign, and what Barthes calls ‘the anonymous utterances of advertising, mass consumer goods’ and ‘the corpus of stereotypes’. This type of performance statement is not available to improvisation since it needs to be assembled piece by piece, the right object, and piece of costume, phrase or gesture. Also their relationship to one another in the spatial and temporal framework of the performance is precisely known and organised.
My piece One spectacle (Edwards and collaborators / Optik 1981/82) is based on the spatial opposition – inside and outside. This organisation of the stage space is the primary means of interpretation of all the other scenic systems in production. This does not mean that other systems do not take over the leading role at times during the performance. What is interesting to note is that in the improvisatory approach the actor draws all the stage systems into themselves and are the primary source of meaning. In this approach the actor is a juggler, the various systems each potentially a clue in the overall picture held together in different combinations.
As with structural anthropology and improvisation, so semiology as an analytic technique dances, as Pavis puts it a curious ballet with performance practice. Moving away from the search for the minimal unit, too fragmenting for the performance event, semiology has produced the notion of a cluster of signs which together develop what is called a signifying function, or put another way which share a common semiotic objective.
What I find interesting here for my own performance practice is the idea of a group of signs which are out of sync, out of harmony. This raises the opportunity for the performance event to generate meaning from the divergence and reconciliation of the various scenic systems. The role of the spectator is crucial here, intervening to re-centre the performance as the different signifying systems bring various possibilities of meaning into view. Meaning is not assumed in advance, it emerges. The different systems are out of stop with one another and so certain stage elements can be delayed or in advance as we move from one grouping to another.
This overall framework (sign clusters) serves a similar function in creative terms to the categories of ritual action. Pavis calls it a rapid reading process. The spectator sees one thing they understand and then looks around for other signifiers to corroborate what they think they have just understood. The spectators reading of the performance event thus progresses by a series of syntheses, or tying up of focal points of meaning.
Image production itself within this overall structure is thus liberated from linguistic discursiveness and is related to the structures of fantasy and imagination. Two kinds of image making have already been discussed; what Pavis calls the portmanteau image, the condensing of various elements to make an image, and displacement, the displacing of one image by another.
In all of this there is always the importance of the actor – the performance element that moves in space and in time. The actor is the fulcrum between the geometric/visual ordering of the performance and the temporal framework, what Pavis calls the ‘continuous pulsational element’. Live performance will always depend on the actor, who is both the shaman and the juggler.