Performance, Dialogue, & Dance

For vanity!  I admit it!  There is something rewarding to witness the physical manifestation of how you channeled (helped channel) inspiration, or even to make physical what you have dreamt: aesthete, indulgent, fetishist.

Read Antonin Artaud’s the Theater and It’s Double

Below is an exert from From Liminoid to Liminal; a paper I completed in 2011 at Goddard College.

Theater is based on a division between audience and performer(s).  Although this gap has been bridged in the past, the very act of eliminating the separation creates a second division: between ordinary life and non-ordinary life.  When we require the audience to perform, to actively engage in empathy and mimicking, they are stripped of their persona.  This may be beneficial, but it also creates a clear divide, making a ‘sacred’ space that is separate from their obligatory and ordinary life.  This divide is present in the separation between work and play, but I believe it is even more prevalent when play is given spiritual significance, or when it is also challenging or demanding to the participant.  Thus the performance cannot be a ‘one-off’ experience.  Nor can it be absent of life-integrated components.

To succeed in this endeavor, it is obvious that we must address the division of work and play.  We have to consider incorporating work into play, and play into work.  I wonder if this is not why so many self-help and pseudo-cult movements allot considerable attention to ‘developing yourself professionally’.  Perhaps they have acknowledged the necessary incorporation of occupation into a spiritual practice in order to implement lasting change.  I might be giving them too much credit; it is possible that this is just symptomatic of our capitalist culture and the importance of ‘getting ahead’.  Either way, it seems effective to include all aspects of an ‘iniate’s’ (participant of ritual) life: be them obligatory or leisurely.  This example also brings up an important trapping to be aware of: the slippery slope of theatre, or performance, towards cultish indoctrination.  There is a history of these grayed lines in the Mystery Plays/Schools, which was not a result of a slippery slope, rather a primary example of the successful and intentional use of ritual in theater, however not in a modern context.  I recognize that religious movements, cult-like or not, represent the most tried and true vehicle for engaging in wide spread paradigm shift.  Unfortunately this method of change is neither ‘true’ to me, nor to a large demographic within the industrialized West.  There is a large population that seeks fundamental change, but is wary of denominational religious affiliation, or the ‘blind faith’ in God or religious figures.  Appearing ‘cultish’ may be unavoidable, but it also raises an interesting conversation regarding the boundaries of theater.  For what reason do these boundaries exist?

“Theater comes into existence when a separation occurs between audience and performers.  The paradigmatic theatrical situation is a group of performers soliciting an audience who may or may not respond by attending.” [Schechner]  Whereas, “Ritual… does not distinguish between audience and performers.” [Turner]  If the stage were resituated to include the entirety of life, consciously reshaping the ‘persona’ as an actor does his assumed role, that division between audience and performer would both be blurred as well as pronounced; the audience is both the other (those who bear witness) as well as fellow performers.  “Working in the sphere of theater, preparing productions for many years, step by step we were approaching such a concept of active man/actor, where the point was not to act someone else, but to be oneself, to be with someone, to be in relationship…” [Grotowski]  During the clearly identified ritual, an audience of traditional theatrical appearance (seated, performers on stage) would be a beneficial staging to stimulate our culturally ingrained associations with such a paradigm: we would be performing and ‘playing’, while simultaneously experiencing ‘real’ hardship, ‘real’ trials.

By the act of incorporating performance (or play) into the daily life, including the obligatory periods of occupation (or work), we begin to establish a normative co-existence of the two.  The specific means by which we manifest this practice I will explore in “My Template”.  Once ‘sufficiently’ integrating our new roles into daily practice, the actors will be, in effect, primed for the transitory ritual, no longer an alien novelty, but an intentional process with clear purpose, familiar components, and known outcomes: “…in simpler preindustrial societies, acting a role and exemplifying a status was so much a part of everyday life that the ritual playing of a role, even if it was a different role from that played in mundane life, was of the same kind as one played [in daily life]…  The difference between ordinary and ritual (or extraordinary) life was mainly a matter of framing and quantity, not of quality.” [Turner]

This is not to say that the experience would not contain ‘mysterious’ and ‘illusionary’ elements of magical realism.  It is crucial that these performative aspects exist, but also that the participants recognize the same elements within their observations of daily life; in the ‘normalization’ of the ‘super-natural’.  The intended result is that participants understand that illusion is both representational as well as real in its representation, therefore the ‘man behind the curtain’ needn’t be entirely invisible for the gesture to be effective.

Note that these will be ‘practices’.  I do not anticipate liminal experiences from the first attempt.  It will be through repetition, normalization, adjustment, and alteration by the influence of the participants that the liminoid will begin to find liminality.  Some framework that ensures sustainability will be essential for continual integration of the practice into daily life.

My Template

            The following is greatly influenced by the work of Michael Chekhov.  I read his book To the Actor, taking few notes, then allowed my own ideas to come forth.  I am sure there are many things within my writing that mirrors his, and I am sure there is much more that I could gain from his book that is missing from my own ideas that I will later incorporate upon second reading, and in future practice of his techniques.  Consider the following to be a very rough draft; thoughts and suggestions that demand further contemplation and necessary revision.  They are in a sense my “first images” [Chekhov] which I should discard and begin anew.

We begin by exercising the imagination, our senses, and empathy.  We begin with observation.  We observe our surroundings, the atmosphere, the smells, the tastes; we observe them and our first judgments of them; we observe them again with new judgments looking for new things.  We observe ourselves and how we see things, others.  We observe how we feel, how we move, how this changes in different environments.  We observe others in the same way we observed things: seeing once, erasing the thoughts, and seeing again in a new way.  We might then begin imagining things.  Imagining great details: an object, ourselves, and others.  We imagine once, erase the thought and imagine again in greater detail and within new light.  We imagine a feeling; we imagine an atmosphere.  We imagine ourselves within that space, once, then erasing the thought, again in a new manner, with different feelings.  We imagine how we might hold ourselves differently in the company of some versus others; how we might choose words, or tone.  We imagine once, erase, then again with more detail and in new light.  We imagine others in this same way.  We imagine someone who is rude and think of when he might not be.  We think of the kindness he shows to his children or to birds in a park.  We imagine once, erase, then again with more detail and in new light.  Then we begin to imagine ourselves as the other, as the other person, as the object.  We imagine how we feel, we imagine once, erase, then again.  Through this empathy we become the other.  We are the other.  We imagine the other as ourselves.

Once our imagination, our senses, and our empathy has grown muscles, we can begin to notice how we see things; our fundamental perspective.  Think first of what is dire, what is obligatory, and what creates stress.  Think next of what is ‘unimportant’, leisurely, or relaxing.  For each of these, really indulge in why it makes you feel that way.  Now let go of why and think only of that feeling and that thing.  Then erase the thought, and imagine the opposite.  Give details to the unimportant, stress over the details of beer or sleep.  See the job as nothing much, something you like to do, but don’t have enough time for.  Exercise this reversal for work and play, for humor and sadness, for anger and joy, for any-two fold division.  We are still divided, reversed, but divided.

Now observe those divisions.  All the divisions that you know.  Pick one, observe the extremes, reversed, and as you typically know them.  Begin working towards the middle of these two extremes.  Be honest, but imagine where they grey, where they intersect.  The divisions all blur somewhere.  Now imagine that blur, don’t think of it as the middle any longer, see all of these iterations as on one plane projected out into space.  Observe the blur, see this thing, this idea, this person, this feeling, as it is.  Imagine it once, erase it, and then imagine again with more detail, and in new light.

Having done this, many of us, our friends, the audience, our fellow actors; now we are given a role.  The role is the person we were.  The person we are known to be.  The person that we are with some, and are with others.  The person in work, the person at play.  Throughout the day we perform this role.  We are brilliant actors, we will master this role.  It is important that we remain cognoscente of the role we are playing and ensure that we are playing it right.

After all this is complete, to a satisfaction that is decided by time or conversation we will embark on an evening to days of ritual.  I have used the same template Skelding laid out for ritual.

  • Develop community- through participation, solidarity of the daily practice leading up to, friends and common demographic, empathy and intention, music/percussion playing (instrument familiar to participants), eye contact, focused effort towards this common goal, the group creates the sacred space by being here together.  The audience will also be part of the community.  It is essential to keep a theatrical component for the sake of cultural familiarity, and to establish the feeling of both ‘work’ and ‘play’ within the ‘antagonist’ as well as ‘real’ and ‘staged’.
  • Elders- photographs of respected ‘authorities’: Jim Henson, Jordorowsky, Brian Wilson, Herman Hesse, an ‘obligatory’ Native American (this addresses a slew of cultural appropriation implications, but within the ironic/post-ironic cultural climate I believe it is a necessary and appropriate method of acknowledging numerous levels of respect and recognition as to our history and misgivings in perspective), Jung, Shel Silverstein, Christian Vander, Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Martin Luther King, Kate Bush, Helen Keller; there is sincerity and humor in this, and acknowledgement of our ‘ridiculous’ commitment.  We may also include (if appropriate) parents, grandparents, mentors, teachers, and bosses.
  • Separation- “forced or voluntary removal from parents”, community, and ourselves represented through a sign that says parents, or pictures of them, a separation from ourselves, an image of ourselves, or of what we associate with ourselves.
    • Must be removed from the group as well,
    • and from a sense of normal time, which may be attained by the length of the ritual or a unnatural start time (from deepest sleep)
    • Create a sacred space- the theatre will create this space.  We are taken out of time, by changes in scene, by the audience that will observe our transition.  The actions of the night are both real to us and performative to the audience.  The audience will also hold us up in the space, for we are the protagonist and they know the course of our struggle and want us to succeed.
    • Symbolic Death- we lose to a fight with ourselves (multi mirror masked people or we are given the impossible task of defeating a mirror).  We are buried; there is mourning for our death; friends speak of the person we were, tell stories of us; we experience our own funeral and the moving on from our death.  The acting must be sincere, and the actors must believe, in their well developed imagination, that we are in fact dead, so that ‘the dead’ can also experience this and believe it as well.
    • Ordeal- pain or endurance (note to self/participants: please manage actual risk vs. perceived risk).  Along with the endurance of time, and sleep deprivation, we might incorporate fear, and terrific feats of strength over long periods; the ritual may take days.
    • Revelation- the antagonist is taught new truths by the elders some ‘truths’ and some challenges (questionable teachings), for example new proposed limitations.  We are told how the world is, and how we shall now be in the world.  Observe also the teachings that may come from the active imagining during ‘death’ and ‘ordeal’.  We will share this during ‘disenchantment’
    • Disenchantment- questioning of these so called truths, sharing what we have been taught by the images and spirits that have come to us, declaring what we will be, how we will see.
    • Rebirth- brought back from death, dug up, cleaned and redressed
    • Reentry- communnity celebratory and reintegration activity; one in which duty and leisure are unified, work and play are one.

There is music throughout, motifs and themes change according to the component phase of the ritual.  It can be fragmented.  There can be signals within percussion to indicate change in the phases, however, the flow should be apparent as the group listens to one another and allows for fullness in experience.

Having completed the ritual, life continues: the same but different.  It is through this new perspective that we might see things differently.  The obligatory becomes our choice.  The leisurely becomes a great task.  The limitations that were set on us before are no different that the freedoms.  The insistence of truth is no different than wonderful works of art or story.  They do not talk down to us or imprison us; they inspire us to look further or to have form, or to abandon form.