Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture










TRINCULO'S SHADOW News Letter archives
For Arts and Politics in the ACT check out Jorian Gardner

SCREAM: December 2010

Working in a theatre project inspired by the work, life and thinking of Antonin Artaud has a number of very significant advantages. GEESE will be presented at The Canberra Theatre Centre in 2011. So perhaps it is timely to consider why such an awkwardly conceived project has its roots in a dynamic interplay between two giants of theatre, Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht. In comparison with Brecht, Artaud may be seen to tap a more subversive strain in creative expression through the arts.

      Artaud's theatre is one of dreams or, perhaps more appropriately, nightmares. Just as dreams cut through the clutter of everyday existence and survival while showing a complete disregard for social norms and niceties, so too does the theatre suggested by Artaud. The notion of using shocks to waken up the audience is not so different from Brecht's use of making the seemingly familiar into unfamiliar presentation. But it has a vastly different application, source and intention. While Brecht's theatre was analytical, full of world views related to theories of historical development and the way social structures determined human action and morality, Artaud sought to obliterate structure of all kind and to release spontaneous potential derived from "seeing" and heightened sensory awareness.

masks and projections
from previous workshops on stage sculptures
by  Joe Woodward (2001)



"Spectre in Floating Masks"
The use of masks floating over bodies
to give a spectral quality was influenced by expressionist films
and the work of Antonin Artaud.



This artistic zero thinking has obvious flaws and twenty-first century sensibilities rebel against such notions and attempt to pigeon hole such anarchic sentiments into the realms of individualism or even romanticism. Followers and admirers of Artaud have been, over the last sixty years, somewhat excited by his apparent insanity. Linking of Artaud's thought with his very real mental illness only belittle's the genius of the man. He never chose to be insane. His struggle to overcome the effects of medication and life-long physical ailments dating back to his birth, no doubt influenced the way he saw and experienced the world. But if one's contribution to the world can be assessed by the degree to which it released new energy and new ways of revitalizing humanity's engagement with self, community, culture and the past, present and future . . . then Antonin Artaud certainly rates very highly.

The advantages for theatre derived from the threads inherited from Antonin Artaud are not found in the natural rebelliousness of youth nor in the need for artists and would-be artists to be "arty" or different. Rather Artaud's thought frees one from the binds of personal socialization and the tyranny of the us and we confinement; the reductionist tendency within cultural control; the tyranny of majority group thinking. In the age of television, the Internet and social networking the very concept of the individual and independent thought and feeling is very challenging. The coercive nature of group perception, world views and the constant cluttering of the nervous system distorts the distinctions between what is important from what is trivial. The social construction of modern temperaments, dispositions and thought processes is fundamentally different from such construction in traditional societies and from such forming in pre-technological ages.

The recognition of this is used in vastly different ways by conservatives (generally of the right wing in socio/political thought) and social progressives (generally gravitating towards the left).

The embracing of individualism is deceptive. In many ways it is the individual posturing that is embraced; along with a desire to remove any obstacles to the rape and desecration of cultural traditions and the sense of community. While the phrase, "liberty", is invoked, it might well be replaced by the term licence.

The progressives are also deceptive. The tendency to create paradigms and enforcing social compliance has meant that individual freedoms are mostly linked to the dominant and dominating state structures for the supposed benefit of the whole community.

Of course this is an over simplification.

      But it does throw light on to where both Artaud and Brecht lie on the spectrum of theatre's positioning in the social milieu. Artaud's thinking gravitates to the individual and mystical while Brecht gravitates towards the progressive and materialist side.

      This is a broad statement that needs clarification. Artaud defied all politics. For Artaud, a person is not part of a scaffold within a social structure . . . but is a person with a universe of his / her own. There is either an implied relationship or an enforced relationship with others that is determined not by historical or social forces, but by particular elements within the individual psyche that defy social logic.

"Nightmare Dreams"
more use of mirrored projections
bodies and masks from 
Joe Woodward's 2002 
ethereal sculptures workshops

The Queanbeyan Goose
on the banks of the Queanbeyan River

Indeed, the social logic needs to be exposed and exploded in order to release the real dynamics and potential of humanity.

Brecht, on the other hand, conceived of the world through historical materialist eyes. Human consciousness and action is determined by forces outside of the individual. Individual action is largely the result of class consciousness or some kind of coercion. Thus for Brecht, theatre is about using the performance to engage thought and provoke change at a kind of macro level. No meaningful personal change can occur without societal change.

Brecht is nothing if not vibrant, rough and recognizing the need for audiences to engage with strong and exciting performances. Music, comedy, drama and bizarre juxtapositions are theatrical devices to draw attention to socially significant questions. Audiences are encouraged to question the precepts of their thinking. Communist governments were uneasy with Brecht while the liberal intellectual establishments in capitalist Europe and America thirsted for more Brecht . . . as many students still do . . .

As much as Brecht and his plays and ideas are admirable, challenging and exciting, his theoretical framework is related and perhaps even part of that same bureaucratic world of benign and well meaning collectives who share a vision of a better world through paradigm creating . . . and ultimately politically controlling!

Brecht's focus on causal relationships has a reductionist tendency where the heart of the matter can be found in simple exchanges between people being the result of historical forces. It is not the psychology that is important; rather it is the action or the results of actions that are of prime importance. There is an implication that if the apparatus of state changes then so does the actions of the people from within. Change the state, the institution or the curriculum; take control of the political, social and educational organs and then one can change the consciousness and actions of people.

This might almost seem a truism until one sees the opposing views from the mystical tradition that sees change occurring as a result of imagination, creativity and the force of the spirit. Artaud's tendency to separate the collective body or state apparatus from the spirit is based more on the realm of myths, metaphors and the explosive capacities of individual will. Art is itself seen as the prime source and vehicle for such explosive change.

A problem for art and theatre in the Western Liberal democracies is that reductionism, the material view of social interaction, has gradually reduced the notion of reality down to semantics and commodities. What is said about the event is accepted as the reality of the event. The ticking of checklists and boxes and supplying of balance sheets is accepted as evidence of action as much as experience or the phenomenology associated with the actual interaction or engagement. Our thoughts and feelings become a position rather than an experience. We "position" ourselves to make a pitch or we scaffold a way through the bureaucracies and "pathways" of life; moulding ourselves into whatever identity it takes to achieve the goals we shape within the paradigms offered by society. We tend to distance ourselves within alienated work environments and from artistic engagements seen as frivolous or as escape for given slots of time. At a deeper level, personal insecurities are traded and bargained as the ennui of homeless minds needs to be shaped and moulded into commodities further separating experience from semantics and the checklist understanding of one's own life. Only in naming or boxing our problems of life can we "move forward"; as if giving names and titles to experience some how allows us control by simply reducing complexity into labelled boxes for ticking.

This is the antithesis of Artaud's thinking. One can find philosophical discourse to elaborate such alternative thinking from philosophers such as Faucault, Deleuze  and Derrida.

Brecht's theatre is about giving names and labelling the enemy and situation. Artaud's theatre is about constant engagement; exploding the labels and names and understandings at the point of recognition. While Brecht might contain a situation for our examination: Artaud creates nuclear fission of the senses that cannot be contained.

Neither can be faked. Brecht's theatre requires extreme attention to details of gesture and vocal phrasing. Absolute clarity in what the scene is saying within different social contexts for audiences is essential for it to work. Artaud's theatre requires attention to all the details, but also must engage the emotional commitment and personal dramaturgies of the performers to be integrated into each performance. Brecht's theatre allows for the attitude of the actor to the character to sometimes be obviously played.

Artaud's theatre demands that the actor find ways to communicate the essential meaning other than through literal delivery of words. His Theatre Of Cruelty encaptulates this seemingly vague and difficult to define concept. It means evoking the mesmeric state within the self in order to share common archetypes through usually buried understandings brought to the surface. It is less significant what an actor says on stage than what comes through his / her very presence.

This has significant implications for the way theatre is approached. In a way, it means the actor is standing on nails in a performance so that every slight change in balance and nuance of emphasis is felt through the feet and into the sensory system. Every sense of joy is tempered by the feeling of pain. Every engagement with violence and violent movement is further enhanced by the need to overcome the feeling of standing on nails that dig into the very bones at the base of the heels and toes. In most forms of theatre, years of training can alleviate the struggle over such pain. In Artaud's theatre, the struggle is ever increased as the threshold of pain is increased and the work moves beyond the simple actor / character relationship.

    So what is GEESE?

    GEESE is a new dramatic work involving surrealist influences. Stylistically, it is inspired by the writings and efforts of Antonin Artaud, Eugenio Barba and current issues surrounding the way we see the world.

    GEESE asks the question: "Is belief really just delusion? or at best illusion?"

    In the first week of advertised auditions for this project, one gets the impression most potential auditionees were frightened off by the obvious demands that will be made on the actors. The journey through ego and beyond vanity into theatre of cruelty and spirit energizes the metaphorical stones in the water will cause vibrations that go further than the walls of the theatre.

Our project asks questions. It asks of each participant the willingness to search deeply within oneself and then to reach and stretch out to penetrate the audience with the sheer strength of one's charisma and inner light.

This is not simply about mastering technique. Rather it is about the struggle with wrestling the demons associated with challenging material and challenging questions. The resultant performance is to be less about the conveying of story as it is about the relationship between the actor and the material and the resultant communion with audiences.

Years ago when applying for the rights to Artaud's work, I was in email contact with John Calder, the remarkable publisher who published The Theatre And Its Double by Antonin Artaud in Great Britain in 1970. His edition was published in France in 1993. He concludes the publication with a "postface" and the final lines sum up the advantages of working in a form of theatre that derives its inspiration and form from the mind of Antonin Artaud. Calder says:

      ". . . it might be said that surface entertainment is essentially boring because it requires so little concentration, while real entertainment does the opposite, making audiences better able to cope with the complex and dangerous world we inhabit."

There is danger in GEESE. There is a degree of danger for all involved in its creation and presentation. There is a degree of danger for audiences who will attend. Yet, like an inoculation, it provides the protection afforded by knowledge and a sense of affinity with one's own very dangerous shadow of the psyche and the cultural entrapment that provides the lure into the fires of one's own hell.

Joe Woodward

(Director: GEESE)



Antonin Artaud created "Daughters Of The Heart Waiting To Be Born" while in Rodez. One of these imaginary figures was Anais Nin; a very real character who once had an affair with Artaud. Shadow House PITS has created a theatre production inspired by Artaud's imagination. It is GEESE: a fantasia on belief, cultural neurosis and euphoric nightmares.

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