For those of you who have been paying attention to the session titles on the syllabus, you will have noticed that last week’s class was entitled “Performing Pedagogy I: Teaching (and Learning) as Theatre.” And this week we met under the follow-up rubric “Performing Pedagogy II: Theory as Acting.” One inevitably makes up these titles without a terribly clear sense of how the seminar conversation is going to go, but in retrospect I feel our discussions in both Class 8 and 9 tracked our titular themes quite closely.
Discussion today opened with some reflections on the cultic mood of Grotowski. We heard anecdotal accounts of the body severity and self-sacrificing exigencies of the deep woods Polish camp-retreats where Grotowskian acolytes learn to lay body and soul on the line. We also heard a bit about Eugenio Barba’s slightly less chiliastic version of the Grotowski project — namely the “Odin Theatre,” with its utopian communitarian globetrotting and east-west syncretism. Watching some archival footage of Grotowski working with actors brought out the intensity of his “poor theatre,” which clearly asks a great deal of everyone.
The religious/spiritual/sacrificial mood of Grotowski’s project met with mixed reviews in the seminar. Perhaps predictably, I was sympathetic: the notion of a (secular) “holy actor” — an actor willing to sacrifice him/herself in a commitment to the other (the role? the audience?) with an eye on some form of (secular) “redemption” — spoke to the part of me that remains unconvinced that the category of “art” can ever meaningfully escape its historically specific status as a metaphysical dilapidation of a fundamentally theological enterprise. (And I should add that I found Grotowski’s allusion to the possibility of a “holy spectator” enticing; it articulates suggestively with respect to the work of what is sometimes called “The Order of the Third Bird,” a kind of collective or loose association of individuals apparently committed to durational practices of sustained attention — often to works of art).
Others were markedly less enthusiastic. Matthew once again fingered what he takes to be a not-wholly-savory cocktail of private language, ritualistic practices, charismatic leadership, and self-sequestering enthusiasm— and by this point we have come to recognize, I think, a kind of slightly old-school, Enlightenment-rationalist concern to which Matthew (helpfully) recurs when it starts to look like everybody may just be experiencing a little too much ecstasy in their mutuality (especially if said enthusiasts start using the language of “knowledge” or “understanding”). Matthew has been wonderfully vigorous in his willingness to make his views explicit here on the website, so he is invited to nuance/clarify my effort at summary/paraphrase of his position.
It was about this moment (in the wake of a vigorous review of antinomianism in the Grotowskian enterprise) that somebody (Chiara? Yes, it was me) wanted the word “university” up on the board (you can see it there up above in the photograph). What about the “universal” aspirations of the univers-ity? Isn’t the “university” precisely conceived as a special place for the “all”? And shouldn’t we therefore understand such micro-communities of psycho-cognitive consilience as fundamentally at odds with the universalizing aspirations of the university itself?
Maybe. The provocation sat heavy in the room for some time. We sat with it.
Eventually I did a little back-of-the-envelope history of the university, one that (polemically) emphasized the extent to which any genealogy of a place like Princeton reaches back to (and passes through) a set of institutions (e.g., seminaries, monasteries) that look precisely like small self-sequestering aggregations of acolyte-devotees.
But this maneuver, while hopefully suggestive, did not really resolve the matter. At some point in here we ended up with the fascinating question that occupies the center of the blackboard in the photograph above: “is understanding achieved by/through ‘creating’?” Although I cannot say we made any real progress answering this question, I was left with a feeling that merely posing that question clearly, and thinking about it in relation to the material we have been reading, afforded one of the basic kinds of satisfaction that a seminar in the humanities can sometimes afford.
About this time, the question of universalizing knowledge versus exquisite micro-communities of affective/intellectual consonants was reframed as a question of scale: maybe the lecture, for instance, and some of the other pedagogical mechanisms of university life are basic solutions to a number problem. Niche experiences of thought-intimacy may be terrific, and perhaps even utopian, but they are not suitable to the exigencies of mass education. Or they haven’t been, anyway, under the technological and social conditions of the last several hundred years.
What followed then was a turn into a relatively astringent (I think — feel free to correct me if you think that’s not right) critique of the position and function the university (and its professorial denizens) in the era of “late capitalism” (if you are sufficiently optimistic as to feel comfortable with that formulation). And this part really focused on the humanities. I will omit the summary, but the analysis was on the bleak side, and emphasized the way that domains of specialized scholarship in the humanities have substantially come to serve as elaborate mechanisms for levigating the aspiring hoards of prospective plutocrats — an exemplary close reading of Gide in an undergraduate class amounting (under the normal conditions of bourgeois proto-professional development) to a proxy/index of a student’s capacity for post-law-school document review on a corporate merger deal. The humanistic professoriate serves as an (almost, but not quite) obligatory passage point in the conventional passage to membership in the one percent — since we do a fair bit of reading of student work, and are therefore positioned to write the letters that play a significant role in determining who goes where for professional school.
Oops. I did sort of do a summary.
Anyway, all this framed a return to the question of experimental pedagogy/inquiry in relation to texts and ideas. Such investigations can be understood as part of an effort to create forms of teaching and learning that resist assimilation to the dynamics of power/money triage that continuously encroach upon the high ideals of great colleges and universities.
And we turned to Ulmer’s Applied Grammatology (and the conclusion of Teletheory) in this context. Here was a surprisingly early and clear defense of a radical rethinking of classroom practice based on a kind of light-footed commitment to a pure “poetry of daily life.” What if the project were to learn, maintain, share, and practice a continuous “Writing” in the grammatological sense? i.e., Continuously to attend to, and contribute to, the scintillation-field of difference/différence? What would life look like? Thought? Teaching?
It might look like “Derrida at the Little Bighorn — A Fragment” (Chapter 6 of Teletheory; see joke here). Would this be bad? It would certainly be different. And it would certainly look much more like an “art” practice than like the scientistic doings of university humanists that characterize the current paradigm. Anything-goes-ism? Maybe. But harder to use as the basis for a sorting out who goes to Harvard and who goes to George Mason for law school. It would have that going for it.
And it was in something of that mood that we turned to our exercises, and began seeing who had actually mastered their texts. Comments on the process of memorization and performance of the texts (both in class on Wednesday, and in our rehearsal class at The Emily Harvey Foundation on Friday the 26th, from 2pm-6pm) are welcome here below. (I will circle back on this later…).
COMMENTS ABOUT THE REHEARSALS FOLLOW
LHP: I certainly felt the challenge of communicating ideas – not your own – while all eyes are fixed on you and the context of “performance” is established. Going through lines, acting, not acting, too theatrical, but with emphasis, you but not you…it’s frustrating, especially for someone not used to acting. Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch. Paradox of acting much?! Part of me wanted an understanding of the “composition” / staging / tone / attitude / position / theme of our project beforehand in order to figure out how best to act and inhabit the words. But inherent to our developing performance, part of the experiment, it seems is in figuring out different forms of presentation, what the words compel us to do in relation to them without the strictures of staging.
EVT: Both performance exercises from last week challenged my definition of performing a text and theatricality. As a trained actor in Spanish, it has always been a challenge to perform a text in English—or at least I’ve always been very reluctant to do so as I do not “feel” the English language as naturally as I feel Spanish when performing a role. However, ironically enough, I think I can read or give a paper in English at a conference without much trouble and as I would do it in Spanish. For those of my friends who know me, and I feel comfortable with around, I am usually a very “theatrical” person when I speak and interact with others. When I was told I was performing a role while saying Fried’s text, I did it unconsciously since I’m very expressive regularly when I speak. I unconsciously move my hands a lot and overuse gestures since I do not feel comfortable at speaking English; I feel that my body language makes up for my accent interference or my lack of correct English. I say this because the exercises from last week allowed me to realize this once again and I feel like I have a challenge to perform without letting my second guessing in speaking in English come in the way. I cannot help to think about our initial conversations about theatricality and performativity and I feel it will be a challenge for me to be able to draw the line between the two. To me, Fried is inherently theatrical, then how can we show that without being theatrical ourselves? How can I set my own “theatricality” aside when performing him? Those are questions I will definitely consider moving forward.
I join in the chorus with Lucy’s kvetching about feeling the paradox of acting! and found it to be an experience of a weird disjuncture between having previously felt to be understanding the direction of my text (and — at least maybe — its semantic content) and then standing on our “stage” and feeling like it all had fallen away, like the words I was articulating were husks of what they had been when I was reading it alone (…or in a highly rhetorical language like this, all of it is husk and it requires the acting in order to communicate the anger still exuding from Fried’s aging body… okay, full disclosure, I had assumed he was dead and//unfortunately it would seem that my post wasn’t saved correctly. If I’m remembering correctly what I had posted much earlier this morning, it went something like this: Fried is indeed still alive. I really enjoyed Nathaniel’s and Graham’s performance on Thursday, of the devil whispering in the speaker’s ear, using him as a mouthpiece, a husk of a human, for his proselytization of modernism; and perhaps we can see Fried as such: the young, furiously ranting Fried breathing the life-force into the frail, decaying body of his aging self. Maybe? Luckily we, in performing this text, have some agency in our own articulation of it. And here I again join into Graham’s chorus of this entry: maybe.
Last week was our first chance to hear the text read aloud in performance, as opposed to “in our heads” via the private, interior experience of reading. I was most struck by the disparity between these two modes of engagement, and the difficulty of the task we’ve set for ourselves.
David described the Fried text as intensely rhetorical. By this I took him to mean that the text has a certain dramatic quality that mirrors speech spoken with the intent to persuade. But does a text’s having rhetorical qualities mean it lends itself to oral performance? At first listen, it certainly seems to, because one hears all kinds of communicative cues that we use in everyday conversation (“Here it is worth noting” etc.).
But, I couldn’t help but feel that, while every performer produced moments of clarity – a run of a sentence or two or three where a chunk of meaning emerged – such moments were continually swallowed up in the dense forest of references, the endless reformulations, and the clauses qualifying clauses qualifying clauses (positively Germanic in their ability to postpone the actual meaning of the sentence until the very end!)
This, of course, is partially a function of practice. But it also reminded me that this text is not necessarily written so as to be easily accessible to the ear – or, for that matter, to be easily accessible at all. Is it possible that Fried, in wanting to safeguard a certain old-school idea of hierarchical quality, in which there are those who get it and those who do not, is also using a rhetorical style that mirrors his desire to separate the wheat from the chaff?
I say this because one usually enters a rehearsal room assuming a text has been written so as to be maximally communicable to audience. I’m not so sure this is true with Fried. Should that have any bearing on how we perform it?
Also, I present DBG playing souffleur to Nathaniel’s performance:
At our run-through in the city I I felt that I was forcing a “character” or an exaggerated theatricality that wasn’t my own. I didn’t feel comfortable speaking loudly and aggressively, but I also knew that I did not yet “own” the text and needed to be able to convey it with more confidence. This past Wednesday I felt that I was able to own the text and feel comfortable with it without being aggressive or particularly loud. I found it especially helpful to bring to the text not so much the feeling of discovering these insights for the first time– which might give rise to a sense of uncertainty about the validity of these sudden revelations–but the feeling of having come to these insights already, and only now conveying these insights in a way that has been internalized. I was especially at ease when I felt that I was directing my speech at individuals, at peers; directing the speech at an audience considered my inferior because lacking in my knowledge only made me feel defensive. I liked the sense of intimate communication and a kind of learning from one another that came out of our exercise this past Wednesday.
Our session with David was my nearest exposure to the craft of acting, live and in the flesh! As I’ve been working through the text at home, I had trouble imagining new ways of motivating Fried’s words in my mouth. Therefore, I found David’s prompts extremely helpful. His suggestion to several of us that we recite the text twice, beginning our second reading in the mood arrived at by the end of the first recitation was, I thought, a fantastically simple way to locate another “character” within my own dispositional range.
As we learnt from this weeks reading Silence is one of the strongest forms bith of conversation and of interruption. It was definitely the silence that captivated me with others ‘performances’, a slight pause between sentences a slow intake of breath before an important phrase. It was these moments that seemed to say more than the words themselves. David’s emphasis on embodiment of a certain mood, a certain persona, definitely changed the meaning of the words beyond recognition.
PRE CLASS POSTS
Enzo Vasquez Toral & Nathaniel Whitfield
First, let me start with a full disclosure: I am a Grotowski and Brecht fan so I was very captivated and immersed with both their texts, and my opinions might be slightly (just slightly) biased.
In terms of Grotowski, I found fascinating his technique of “trance” and of the extreme for actor training. Moreover his idea of a Poor theatre, one without the “traditional” and “synthetic” elements of theater, is a powerful concept as it unmasks aspects that we could classify under the theatricality of a mise-en-scene and of a theater itself. One important point to highlight is that Grotowski, after all, prioritized the actor-spectator relationship and understood it as one of “perpetual, direct, “live” communion” (19). In extending this to teaching and performance, we might want to start thinking on how we can create such “impulses” and “signs” that Grotowski refers to, in order to convey our text during our performance. Inspired by Grotwoski, this actor-spectator or teacher-spectator communion might be an important point of departure in constructing our final project. Grotowski also mentioned that theater is “what takes place between spectator and actor”(32). In the context of a classroom, for example, can we understand theater as teaching or theater as the relationship established for teaching to take place and thus provide/encourage/facilitate understanding?
Another relevant point to include in our discussion is what “go beyond yourself” on stage means for Grotowski. In reference to pushing oneself beyond our limits, Grotowski believed that “these are the limits we impose upon ourselves that block the creative process because creativity is never comfortable” (205). Thus, in surpassing these limits, we should transform body movements into personal impulses. In possible opposition to what we read before on Stanislavski, digging/tapping on one’s personal experiences might be an early activation that could block the work of acting, according to Grotowski. In relation to this and our work towards “performing a text”, I believe that animating the words of the text might need to be a product instead of a process that might “block” an impulse mechanism for “acting”. Or, conversely, should we rely on our own personal experiences to elicit the impulses we see or interpret in Fried’s text? What is the difference between performing a text by impulse (not as impulsive actors) and performing it “naturally”? What is the performer-spectator relationship we want to frame moving forward? How distant it is to the author-reader relationship of Fried’s text, or any text?
Since the 1970s, Grupo de Teatro Macunaíma from Brazil has applied in many of their productions some of Grotowski’s ideas, particularly those of the poor theater related to set design. Here is a small video featuring Marlene Fortuna in her performance in All nudity shall be punished by Nelson Rodrigues in 1984:
If you want to see Grotowski in action, watch the next video which is part 1 out of 4 videos that make up a documentary about his work. The videos are in Polish but the images are very powerful and need no language translation:
Now on to Brecht… I would like to point three interesting ideas of the chapters we read for today. First, in relation to the A-effect (alienation effect), Brecht insisted on the actor remaining as demonstrator of an action (125). It is in this demonstration that social commentary and a social point of view arises in the spectator. According to Brecht, this distancing and empowerment to understand actors such as actors, and spectators as possible “actors” in real life happens because “artistic abilities in some small degree are to be found in any man” (126).
A second relevant point of discussion is the understanding and use of the concept of empathy in Brechtian terms. Brecht asserted that “the technique which produces an A-effect is the exact opposite of that which aims at empathy”. However, Brecht acknowledged that in creating a character the actor might not renounce to empathy to that character entirely; instead, the actor should “use these means just as any normal person with no particular acting talent would use them if he wanted to portray someone else” (136). Therefore, Brecht invites us to achieve a level of empathy to the character we are creating without allowing for such character to become ourselves. I find this very important because at first sight, being a demonstrator and alienating oneself might preclude us from a full sense/state of empathy. Nevertheless, I think that the big take away is that empathy must be done in a dose size comparable to one that any of our spectators would have in showing how someone else behaves.
Third, and more of as an invitation, chapter 37 talks about the Messingkauf Dialogues, which is a fascinating piece by Brecht in particular because it serves as a philosophical exploration of his own dramatic ideas. I find it very related to our earlier conversation on philosophy as a dramatic exercise. Here a video of a performance of part of the Messingkauf Dialogues:
Also, I want to point you guys to the work of Grupo Yuyachkani in Peru. This group has been one of the most important theater groups in Peru (and South America, I would say) over decades. They explore social, political and historical theater. Here a video of a one-woman performance by actress, and founder of the group, Ana Correa. The piece is titled Rosa Cuchillo and was performed initially in local markets in the Andean region of Peru. The performance talks about an Andean woman and thus the relation to the intended space for performance. Yuyachkani’s work is self-proclaimed Brechtian, and you will notice this in this video; particularly the use of music (starting at minute 13) would resonate to what we read for today as well. As the character says “te voy a danzar para que florezca la memoria” [I’m going to dance for you, for the memories to flourish]. Enjoy!
Finally, I want to comment briefly on Ulmer’s book on Applied Grammatology. I believe that the first part of the book makes a strong case for looking at Derrida’s work, and his difficult texts, beyond his deconstruction discourse and contributions. In particular, understanding grammatology as a “boundary science and science of boundaries” (130) underscores Ulmer’s argument that grammatology in light of Derrida’s experimental writing is both pictographic and homonymic. With this said, I was not completely sold on the second part of the book, particularly the chapter on Eisenstein. In relation to the language of cinema and its traditionally understood representational characteristic, and to exemplify the language of cinema as a system of writing instead, Ulmer uses Eisenstein’s theory of montage. Nevertheless, I believe that the author’s argument loses strength because of the particularity of Eisenstein’s case. I was left a little confused towards this part of the book in understanding Einstein’s montage as not just a mere representational exercise, and whether it would actually fit under Derrida’s conception of writing and grammatology.
Fistly I will push back off Enzo slightly – I admire and applaud Grotowski in his efforts and his methods are interesting, however I feel in the contemporary age a complete absence of ‘spectacle’ within the work is not necessarily the best reaction to ‘unmasking’ the ‘truth’ (although his theatre was in the late 50s/60s and here I am writing this over 50 years later, on a laptop via the internet, the world has changed somewhat). With that banal observation out of the way here goes…
Grotowski’s view towards an actor’s education as an ‘attempt to eliminate his organisms resistance to the psychic process’ a sort of via negaiva, ‘not a collection of skills but an eradication of blocks’ . That state where one does not want to do something but rather ‘resigns from not doing it’.
For Grotowski the ‘artificial’ is what limits the ‘spiritual’, forms of ‘common natural behaviour obscure the truth’ – now I can role with that for a certain extent but after a while I am left cold, what he means by truth other than simply not ‘artificial’, not constructed is not entirely clear. The question of the ‘real’ for Grotowski never seems to get further than these throwaway references to ‘truth’ and ‘unmasking’ (please correct me if I’m wrong) – I can get behind this somewhat, the real is constructed through a presentation and has to be deconstructed (Holla Derrida) – and here I am reminded of Archimboldo and his portraits, exquisite for those of you who are unaware, but Lacan writes on his portrait of the librarian in Seminar VIII Ch. 17;
“In short this production of that which in its essential shape presents itself as the human image, the image of another, will be realized in the Mannerist method by the coalescence, combination, the accumulation of a pile of objects the total of which will be charged with representing what henceforth manifests itself at once as substance and illusion because, at the same time as the appearance of the human image is sustained, something is suggested which can be imagined in the disaggregation of objects which, by presenting in a way the function of the mask, show at the same time the problematic of this mask.”
For Lacan what lies at stake within this work is not the visual trickery of painting an imaginary man but the clear declaration of artifice of his Symbolic identity, where Arcimboldo’s librarian dons the symbolic disguise of his social persona (perhaps because beneath this mask there is nothing to see, its books all the way down). For Grotowski it is these forms of common ‘natural’ behaviour that obscure the truth, this composition of a system of signs that demonstrate ‘what is behind the mask of common vision’ he refers to this as ‘The Dialectics of human behaviour’.
His attempts at distilling the theatre are very interesting, pushing back from TV and film and scratching away the unnecessary parts of theatre he is left with the actor – spectator relationship of ‘perceptual, direct, ‘live’ communion’ (notice the deployment of religious language, suggesting the theatre as somewhat divine).
His new kind of theatre is distilled into 3 parts:
- Actors can play among the spectators, directly contacting the audience
- Actors build structures among the audience and include them in the architecture of the action.
- The spectators may be separated form the actors, ie by a high fence where only there heads protrude.
Here I would just like to draw your attention to the work of Emma Smith – I had a tutorial with her once – and her work is very interesting contemporary counterpart…
Grotowski’s writing on the lighting of his theatre – ‘the spectator must become visible, he too beings to play a part in the performance’ – reminds me of something that I’ve been looking at in my work and that is the reference to a ‘participatory panopticon’ (James Cascio’s idea, not mine). A spectator has to move out of the dark shadows and into the light, In order to see one has to be seen. He references it to the contemporary nature of the internet, a stage where a wilful participation of ones own surveillance occurs, in order to reach a point of social or informational access.
“By his controlled gesture the actor transforms the floor into a sea, a table into a confessional, a piece of iron into an animate partner”
reminded me of Anthony Howell – whose theatre of mistakes is also of relevance – but don’t take my word for it… from Stewart Lee
and on the theatre of mistakes…
Some other great moments:
‘collision with the roots’, ‘the dialectics of mockery and apotheosis’, ‘religion expressed through blasphemy, love speaking out through hate’
Ahhh, now time to move on…
to “what very visibly manifests itself is a little pedagogue who teaches the student that there is nothing outside of the text” – not my description but Foucault’s…
A nice summary of Derrida’s Grammatology here
On Shamanistic practises and personal calling…