Scream: January 2003
Sculpturing Dreams: the redefining art of theatre in an age of abstraction
On December 13, 2002, I read in the on-line news sheet, Anorak, that a man named Jurgen, a German microchip designer for Siemens, answered an Internet advertisement seeking a "young, well built 18 to 30-year-old for slaughter". He discovered that the man who placed it was also into fine dining. Jurgen B was slaughtered in front of web cams with his death broadcast over the world wide web. This was after parts of his anatomy were cut from his body and cooked and eaten by both he and his host, a Mr. Armin M. who continued to devour the body after the killing.
The modern English speaking theatre has tended to protect itself within a shield of supercilious cleverness and wit; a fabrication of language edifices which draw plaudits from the clever and well informed while excluding the majority of people beyond its coterie of adherents. I will argue that theatre has access to the means of redefining its limitations, being energized by new technologies, and utilizing the new forms of cultural, social and personal perceptions that inform the way life is experienced.
The gross-out sections of thrillers and horror movies tend now days to be a cause of laughter and comic revulsion. Extreme situations on stage tend to be the territory of Ancient Greek dramas and Shakespeare. Heightened language and reportage of off-stage action are still the main tools for theatre when dealing with extreme situations. The advent of film saw the end of the huge "realism" dramas of the 19th. century. So the modern stage dramas tend to extol the virtues of the spoken text as a container of action. Actual physical action is generally confined to heated argument, and an occasional fight scene or some suggested sexual encounter or descriptions of off-stage action told with appropriate emotion. But essentially the representation has little if any real hold on the spectator.
So now, let's turn off the fluorescent lights of our constricted view of the world and instead of offering a quasi-academic treatise, I ask you to try and capture some dream you couldn't shake off. The sort of dream you were forced to carry with you in your rational persona as you travelled through the day. You didn't want it. It was there and wouldn't go away.
Such remembrances frighten the semi-rational mind struggling to keep the blandness of its trained Pavlovian cause-and-effect world with no mystery, imagination or challenge. But just imagine if that disturbing and irrational dream carriage was your natural state; a secret holding of chronic terror while presenting an outward semblance of bland sociability!
This brings us closer to our gross-out cannibal friend from our story above. If you picture this as a dream where you were one of the players in the story, then it has a totally different resonance than it has while simply a story in the news papers. We now move into the uncomfortable areas of associations that invoke unwanted and deeply ingrained fears and dreads.
Stories like dreams can allude to these same psychic seeds held not only by the individual but also within culture. The Internet story above can transfer very easily into a fairy tale format, not dissimilar to the Grimm brothers tales. Is the Hansel and Grettel story really any more gross? Or the story of Little Red Riding Hood?
Now as artists we have choices as to how we present the story. But to present a story without reference to how we tap the inner associations is to deny the very power of the story. To present the story in the image of the culture we represent may also distort the embedded possibilities that go beyond the literal lineage of the tale. For instance, the Disney organization has become very adept at representing stories in the image of American ideological interests. The Little Mermaid is no longer a terrifyingly frank story of young fears and separation. It becomes a gung ho adventure of cultural denial and superficial "can-do" and to hang with the consequences sentiment where it will all work out in the end. Yet in some aspects the original story isn't that different from a Kafka "Metamorphosis" or even Wild's "Forsaken Merman".
By simply telling stories without seeking the dream within, whole areas of humanity and human experience are denied. There needs to be something from within the voice and from within the shape of the work that gives rise to numinous associations that might even subvert or/and challenge the world view of the audience. The story that is told merely as a morality tale to affirm the world view of the dominant social order is to deny humanity of its creative associative power and in a wider sense to deny society and culture of the means for transforming its current state of self knowledge.
The Absurdist dramatists were able to achieve this. Ionesco, Beckett and, before them, August Strindberg, were keenly aware of the haunting power of dream imagery on stage. Beckett's sculptures were fixed installations that carried as much meaning as the text. Ionesco's fixated and obsessive distortions burst into the dreamer's consciousness; infecting the psyche with nagging provocations to disturb the equilibrium of daily rhythm. Strindberg's Ghost Sonata used dream imagery to ritualize the very essence of creative exposure. In exposing cultural shadows, the artist is at once the object of exposure. But once having done this, he/she is guilty of hypocrisy and must be destroyed. Strindberg's exposer is exposed as the greatest criminal of all. Such thoughts cannot easily be shown using text alone. It requires mixtures of dreamlike distortions in order to shake the complacency of the viewer who might think or assume knowledge of what the writer is attempting to communicate.
There are many examples of theatre where some aspect of this dream/story has taken place. Unfortunately, the ephemeral nature of theatre makes it difficult to refer to such work. The piece may have been effective for one performance and lost it in another. I have seen productions of the above writers' works which certainly did not utilize the dream possibilities but rather, treated the subject with academic precision and a sense of self-importance and smugness: much like the central character of The Ghost Sonata.
Discussion of the topic is easier when applied to film where reference can be made and verified with continued viewing (albeit from different historical periods). Some classic examples might include: Edward Albie's Who's Afraid Of Virginia Wolf, Peter Greenaway's The Cook The Thief, The Wife and The Lover, and Counting By Numbers, Frank Capra's Meet John Doe, Nicholas Roag's Walkabout, Jan Campion's The Piano, Jim Jarmush's Dead Man, and a whole myriad of others that can be identified by the way the text, imagery and additional sound tracking have been integrated with stories of mythic proportion and simplicity.
It is a truism to say that this integration is essential to the over-all effectiveness of the film. In no way is it an imposed embellishment. Take out any aspect of these areas and you have a different film. If we begin to see theatre as embracing sculptural metaphors which embrace echoes and shadows from our perceived universe, then we draw different conclusions about how and what should be presented than if we simply regarded theatre as an empty space where an actor is seen and heard and communicates with an audience. In this sense, we can draw a much stronger parallel with the methodology of film. And this is where there is a split mid the thinking of our theatre colleagues. The romantic view presents a mind set where there can be no cross referencing with film techniques. The sculptural view accepts the legitimacy of any and all techniques which add weight and value to the subject matter; where the actor becomes part of the over-all architecture of meaning and form.
To deny the legitimacy of the sculptural view is to deny a whole cache of possibilities for a functioning theatre. Such denial constrains theatre and separates it from history and from on-going technological, social and cultural developments. It assumes a static universe where there is some blue print already existing to which all theatre and performance must somehow comply.
The adherents of this romantic view seem to subscribe to a quasi Platonic view of "forms" where, what can legitimately be viewed as, "art" (in this case theatre) merely represents some notion of a predetermined shape or design. The best theatre from this viewpoint becomes that which best imitates or conforms to some academic treatise or some personally informed paradigm. Any new work is immediately problematic. It is either viewed as favorably conforming to particular prototypes through the viewer's own narcissism in which case it is given a thumbs up. Or the production is dismissed (even if parts of it are seen as noteworthy) as not conforming to the form of some designated "good" theatre.
Now the howl of protest at this assertion is deafening. "Do you mean to say that there are no standards to be adhered to in theatre? No criteria on which we can judge and evaluate what is produced?" I hear it cried.
If you are howling, then stop. I am not suggesting this. What I am suggesting is the need for greater rigor in the analysis of what is both seen and offered in theatre. This means greater structural analysis. It means revising our definitions of elemental aspects of theatre and their structural and sculptural linkages. It means forcing ourselves to take into account the ever changing environment in which our theatre struggles and defines itself. It means making the effort to create more than simply representing some notion of a static universe where perceived truths ARE truths; where characters represent some sense of pre-conceived universal truth rather than constructing truths from within their own tunnels of vision. The romantic view seems to suggest characters can exist in isolation from the social/historical universe which plays such a large role in shaping their thoughts, emotions and reactions.
I also suggest we rid ourselves of the tendency towards canonization of certain works and certain artists against which we judge all we do and experience. There are no heroes; only struggling individuals using every ounce of their being to create works that reflect a sense of their desperation in the face of incomprehension and and infinite nature of compelling mystery.
Yet how often do we hear people speaking as if a production of a play has somehow achieved the Platonic "form of the good" play; as if the writer and/or director has managed to hit the blue print of Plato's architecture?
This is romantic nonsense. Yet how often do we hear of the theatre romantics referring to such and such a play as being perfect: with "not a word or comma out of place". How absurd! What they are saying is that such a play has somehow fallen into a jigsaw like a perfectly matching piece. In so doing, the playwright is given hero status like a god. The fact that every word and comma is a negotiated vulnerability with infinite other possibilities available to the writer is lost or forgotten. But the romantic needs to elevate human beings to the status of heroes and promote some concept of "perfection" much as those who cling to religion also do.
In reality, nothing is perfect beyond what it IS. The fact that something happens is testament to its perfection. What we are concerned with is validity and value within given contexts and structures. For each work contains its own universe; it's own context within the infinite possibilities of contexts and variants. Theatre provides its own parallel universe like in a laboratory. It isn't real life. Yet to be effective, it needs to have its own resonance of real experience by real people.
Such a thought is subversive to romantic/conservatives who prefer to reduce all existence into easily digested consumption. The theatre romantic is an ultimately conservative personality who gets anxious when confronted with possibilities beyond the neatly contextualized art of some never-existent theatre escape. The most admired work never existed beyond a false memory of some personal need. Or perhaps it was work that exalted the invisible form of their need: their religion, their particular world view, their own particular personal circumstance at 4.30 in the morning! In short their own peculiar narcissism! Such art can only ever be a vehicle for something else. It can never exist of itself.
And so theatre becomes an affirmation of the Bible or the Koran or the Communist Manifesto or MEIN KAMPF or some New Age or Feminist text or high camp exhibitionist cult etc.
But of course NO theatre practitioner or enthusiast would ever admit to such a thing. Yet so many of our theatre writers, practitioners, academics and reviewers live by such constriction and such narcissism. They try to impose a kind of drained emotional anaemia to constrict theatrical expression while trying to poison the imagination of those who might benefit from experience of something more. Their cynicism over-rides the loss of youthful idealism and sense of wonder!
And I see such activity recorded in the daily papers.
I read with such sadness how an English group went to Iran to present productions of Shakespeare and then modified the work to suit an extreme form of Islamic culture in that country. And I thought, how sad! Particularly when I considered how much culture in this country has been enriched with the presentation of works over recent decades from different cultural bases that challenged our own narrow world views. I recall the fight to achieve such benefits. And I am appalled at the condescension of my colleagues who seek to appease cultural tyrannies and so affirm rather than challenge the social hegemony.
The Iranian authorities couldn't have characters of opposite sex touching each other lest it somehow offend the cultural control in that country. So theatre had to take on the appearance of an anti-human exterior (for surely touching is a most human thing to do) to fit the anti-human dictates of mind controllers using the vestiges of pre-medieval writings subjugating populations where the idea of different cultures co-existing seems like an alien concept.
How sad! So once again theatre prostitutes itself to confirm and conform to the wishes and iron fist of the cultural and social masters. And it is done as a "progressive" act by hand shaking administrators leeching their art with economic and egoistic vanities completely devoid of any heart-felt understanding of (or willingness for) their art to stand on its own as a contextual exploration of the human condition.
Our cannibal friend has colleagues among cultural controllers that feed on their populations' need for certainty as people are fearful of their own mortality and existence. Perhaps these same masters enjoy the company of artistic practitioners who act like frightened charlatans parading as messengers of compromised artistic outcomes.
In this country, where we haven't been subject to death by the sword or stone or being thrown from an aeroplane etc., for expressing contrary cultural viewpoints, the idea of art has an almost surreal aspect. It is too often seen as having a frilly coated feeling where it doesn't really matter after all!
And so our arguments tend to become more about superficialities and professional rivalries. Details of the wood from the trees over-ride the main issue of what is in the forest. Reviewers succumb to the sentiment of their own nostalgia for a simple theatre that might touch on some aspects of their youth and easily consumed memory: or a theatre that touches nothing but the heart strings of their pet subjects. The very notion of a theatre of sculpture that exists to illustrate the relationship between individual experience and the constantly changing environment is beyond them because the relationship is assumed rather than illustrated through the work. And woe betide anything that challenges these assumptions! Unless, of course, it comes from over-seas or from Mars!
For theatre to undermine and bypass the disapproval of cultural masters it becomes necessary to sharpen and clarify its sculptural ability: ie. to create its own universe within the artificial confines of its own contexts. To be engaging, this theatre needs to be cognizant of the changing environment and the starting points for the perceptions of the audience.
One method for doing this, is to utilize film, video and/or computer generated imagery in the way that large concerts do and even major business and trade presentations do. Most new theatre groups are experimenting in some way with this technology. The tradition for this kind of presentation goes back to Piscator and other European directors of the 1920s and 30s. And this usage is to be encouraged.
Peter Greenaway has utilized the live and projected image very effectively in his staged operas. Pink Floyd utilized live and pre-recorded imagery to facilitate the magnificent sculpturing of their stage performance of The Wall. Laurie Anderson has been pioneering these sculptural effects for nearly thirty years. Her Home Of The Brave was surely one of the most exciting theatrical events of the 1980s. Robert Wilson and Phillip Glass offer extraordinary sculptural theatre and music. Madonna, a few years ago, performed within a beautifully crafted set that utilized an Oriental / Gothic mix of exquisitely filmed footage projected on screens within some very surreal thorn bush-like shapes as if within a mystical forest. In each case, the effect has been to extend the metaphorical contexts beyond what could be achieved within any single medium of presentation.
Does all of this mixing of mediums detract from the original work? Are they merely unnecessary embellishments? Or is the resultant sculpturing similar to the integration of disparate elements in a film? Is the final presentation effectively a new product which utilizes the initial text, music and performance as part of the larger structuring of the work?
It really depends on how you see things. If you see theatre as solely a performer or performers presenting words and music, then the rest may well be a confusing and unwelcomed distraction. If, however, you see the whole presentation as reflecting some essential essence of which the words and music are but partial elements, then you will see and experience a totally different thing.
The development of the video clip to accompany popular music has opened up a universe of surrealism and new ways of approaching the integration of text and image. Technology has essentially abstracted so much of experience that we are becoming, in many respects, vicarious beings for whom the image of the experience is as important as the tactile experience. I discussed some of this in my April 2001 SCREAM on Theatre and Eros / Artaud's Legacy, but now I am suggesting that this phenomena opens up possibilities for effectively incorporating these same techniques on to the live theatre stage.
Ironically, I came to these conclusions while working on a show dealing with advertising. In 1985, I began work on Eclipse '86 for The Human Veins Dance Theatre. The work grew from my study of advertising and how it utilized shape, colour, numinous effects of images and icons, and deliberate abstractions from words. I discovered that advertising has effectively altered our whole way of meeting the world and shaping reality. I read how the CEO of BMW at the time used the slogan "Image Is Everything". In the play, the central character, played by Don Asker, used the expression: "Image is everything and everything is IMAGE".
The first act was set against a trade exhibition where a large multi-national company was launching its new range of condoms: The Eclipse 86. It utilized eight slide projectors on a computer link up; advertising art work by Theo Tremblay; live and pre-recorded music by Jeff Evans; choreography and lighting design by John Salisbury; and an external anti-advertising demonstration by WADA (Women Against Demeaning Advertising) taking place outside the theatre attacking the foundations of what was to take place in the product launch. The clear and streamlined imagery of the product launch gradually gave way to surreal dream imagery of the man lost mid his own deceptions and images. He finally dies leaving his share of the business to his wife (played by Jane Mortis) who originally despised his efforts in business. In the process of time, however, she too learns the deceptions of living the image and takes over from where he left off.
The production played to full houses in The ANU Arts Centre to audiences mostly drawn from a non-theatrical cache. It became a most commercially successful show for the company. However, it drew flack from much of the dance fraternity and animosity from the theatre coterie. Don Asker was bitterly attacked for allowing his company to perform the work.
In spite of this, the production was reviewed favourably by Lady Hope Hewitt in The Canberra Times and reviewed slightly less favourably in The Australian. The Reviewer for the arts journal, MUSE, thought it needed more dialogue to sharpen the satire and less dance. But what was unique about this production was the fact that it was also reviewed very positively by Sasha Grishin in The Canberra Times as a work of art. Theo Tremblay's design was reviewed as an art installation quite separate to the theatre production but utilizing actors/dancers to complement the sculpture. I don't think this has ever happened before or since in Canberra: ie. a work being reviewed simultaneously as two separate art forms on the one occasion.
For me, this provoked a new way of conceiving theatrical expression. Though it would be ten years before I was able to return to the concept and develop it further through the Shadow House PITS production of Sanctimony. The script actually called for integrating live performance with video and animation effects. Slide projectors and video monitors were used to complement live music and live acting performances. We only had the technology for very limited animation effects.
Essentially, it dealt with someone recording himself while at the end of a career. He exposes the dirt on a department he served for most of his adult life. This recording then becomes the subject of his replacement. Sanctimony like Eclipse 86 used a "medium is the message" sort of approach. In this case, once the man was separated from his medium of operation, he was reduced to the status of a child in a play pen begging to be put out of his misery. This is done. However, his young replacement, a woman named Chess, is then voluntarily screwed by the system in order to proceed through it. A public service friend of mine described some of these scenes as tacky and tasteless. Strange how she looked and sounded so much like the Chess Reason in the play!
Any new production of this work, now titled Sanctimonious, should engage a Laurie Anderson style interplay of sculptural effects. There is a lone dancer who needs to partner the animated version and almost disappear into the projections. The live music performance needs to be maintained to give it a concert appearance.
In the 1998 production of Brecht's BAAL for Culturally Innovative Arts (CIA inc), I used live video and pre-recorded video to highlight the 'alienation' effect within the work. Rather than simply following the action, the live camera would deliberately focus on close ups of minor characters to illustrate their counter-point to the main action. David Branson's superb performance of Baal, was only rarely caught in close-up. In doing this, the meaning of the scene was not held solely by the character in close focus but was the subject of the relationship between the character, the minor characters and, at times, forces outside the focus of the central character/s.
This was the first production where I used the principle of deliberate distraction in order to heighten the relationship of the main action to its context. The whole stage became a sculpture regardless of where the prime focus was located. And like a sculpture, at any moment it is possible to take in different aspects of the work in order to gain a sense of the whole.
This becomes possible even when actors are in spotlight with most of the stage in darkness.
The sculpturing became even more significant in the productions of Cathedral Song and particularly in SexandViolets.com where the actors were sculptured in very close proximity to a large screen with the appearance of a computer screen. In both these productions it was necessary to consider the sculptural aspects at every moment. Cathedral Song took place on a large stage where it was crucial to create an effect of a Cathedral which also had to be destroyed in the final scenes. The use of stained glass windows and screens shaped as windows aided this. The merging of reality and the metaphorical was achieved through the sculpturing of live and pre-recorded video and conventional stage blocking on a minimal set.
Video mixing off-stage allowed for complex merging of on-stage imagery with pre-shot material. For instance, there was a scene where the central character of Jessie is dying on the altar. She is visited by the ghost of her aunt and a number of playful statues of angels. As the building is about to collapse on her, she has a vision of her face and that of Christ becoming the same. This enabled the audience to see her thoughts as the action of her death became clear. Her arms reach up like the legs of a beetle lying on its back. The building collapses in on her. But at the moment before death we see her realization of something higher than herself.
This illumination of otherwise invisible realities is made possible through the use of technologies which can be integrated with live performance. By integrating colours, shapes and sculptured positions, there is no conflict in using multi-media effects. Though they can be used to create very useful tensions of a sculptural nature.
SexandViolets.com took this sculpturing a few steps further. By use of a delay/gain feature on the live camera and having actors mostly close to the screen in a small space, it was possible to provide a sense of reality inside the mind of people tripping through cyber space.
The effect is captured in these stills from the production. All the imagery is live and unprocessed beyond the use of a gain effect, and the angle of the camera in relation to the action. The use of cameras and screens allows for greater variety in the proportioning aspects of directorial choice. In effect, the director becomes more than an interpreter of text and focuser of actors. He/she is now a sculptor creating an installation which may or may not have a narrative basis. No wonder Beckett was so strict in demanding that the sculptures described in his texts had to be exactly as is when performed.
SexandViolets.com is not prescriptive in what is sculptured, however it is essential that it BE sculptured to give weight to the very minds of the participants in the drama. As with its use of nudity, the aim is to create a dreamlike structure that subverts natural personas of the people being depicted. It also attempts to relate the inner states of mind to the wider cultural, historical and social environment that shapes thinking and experience. In this case, it is the vicarious nature of experience in the age of the Internet.
The methodology employed in SexandViolets.com has been a long time in development. Theatre in this context is more about sculpturing a dreamworld; redefining theatre's function in an age of growing abstraction; creating self-contained contexts or worlds through which the unspoken and unthinkable can be illuminated. In such a theatre, it becomes more significant to enhance the echoes of what people have said because what people say is less significant than the other's memory of what was said; or what one thinks one said. The shaping of such echoing is influenced by so many factors that should themselves be considered for inclusion in the over all sculpture. Such echoes are shaped by metaphors in language, advertising, popular communications, the everyday encounters, the jargon used in one's daily working life etc.
Theatre is then more concerned with echoes and shadows from events, conversations, private ruminations and distorted proportions like abstract art than it is about sequencing of artificial action as in the notion of a well-made play. The unity is a product of both linear direction and the sculpturing of each moment of the work's existence. And above all it is about transcending the world of the mundane fluorescence to achieve that supra-experience where secrets are released and drained of their power to lock in psychic energies in need of exorcism.
Joe Woodward (26th. January 2003)
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