by drew davidson
Much of the developmental process of modern performance theorists and practitioners (for example Grotowski, Artaud, Schechner, Joseph Chaikin, the Becks with the Living Theatre) was improvisatory in nature, an attempt to capture deep psychological layering or emotional "authenticity." How have those practices filtered down to impact performance practice in performance studies? In an essay of twenty-five to thirty pages, explore the legacy of avant-garde performance practitioners within our discipline. Reference current and past performance theorists and performances; in addition, speculate on the new manifestations of performance practice as you see them developing in other media.
Point attention; observe a point in a design; close the eyes; hold image of the color and form of the design. This exercise may be preceded, for nervous persons, by simple focus of eye-attention upon a point" (Bridge, 53).
Improvisation has long played a role in the rehearsal process for many modern performance practitioners both on the stage. Extemporaneous exercises were used to explore and express authentic emotions to help performers understand the thoughts and feelings of the parts they were playing. The impact of early practitioners such as Grotowski, Artaud, Schechner, Chaikin, and the Becks, can readily be seen in not only performance spaces but in performance studies. Improvisational exercises are still much used by performers to help them represent their characters as authentically as possible. The idea that a performer's body can know a feeling or a thought and can learn how to better express that feeling or thought has deeply influenced performance studies as a discipline. Embodied knowledge is our raison d'Étre as we look at how people can learn, know and share through their bodies.
"Kinesthetic: . . .
1. Lay the arm relaxed on the table, hand down (closed eye). Lift each finger slowly, separately, endeavoring to sense its weight and to locate the point at which the weight is felt" (Bridge, 59).
Improv has deep musical roots that should be noted at the very least. Classical and jazz musicians often improvise and riff around the written score. In classical music, improvisation has been so integrated into practice that some famous improvisations have been written down so students can learn from these master interpretations of a score. But jazz is the genre of music that lives and breathes improvisation. Jazz musicians careers were, and are, made or lost around their abilities to really blow the lid off of a piece of music.
Improv is also associated with comedians and their ability to ad-lib in front of an audience. The spontaneity and quick wits are rewarded with laughs or groans. Both performers and comedians have explored the edgy scenario of performing off the cuff. It's like walking a tight-rope without a safety net, there's an added rush for both the performer and the audience.
Improvisatory techniques have moved beyond the rehearsal process and the performance stage. With the development of new electronic media that allow for interactive, multimedia experiences, readers improvise their way through the multiple media and choices offered by the text (and the author). With this paper, I am going to explore the impact that modern performance practitioners have had on the theories and functions of the performance studies discipline. I will first look back at the history of the uses and practices improvisation in modern performance art. I will then look at various theories about the nature and meaning of improvisatory expressions using several performances as examples to highlight my points. Finally, I will look ahead to the possibilities of new performative and improvisatory practices that could become manifest in other, emerging media. Interspersed throughout will be improvisatory exercises and pertinent excerpts from past performance journals.
Antonin Artaud lived and breathed theatre like no other. He truly believed in the theatre's ability and power to (re)present life fully. It was through the theatre that Artaud believed we could actually "touch life," but to do so required preparation (The Theatre and Its Double, 13). "The actor does not makes the same gestures twice, but he makes gestures" (12). Artaud believed that performers had to be improvisatory. He likened the theatre to a plague that was a "spontaneous conflagration" that touched everything (27). In the theatre, Artaud took gestures as far as they could go in order to understand what is and what is not (27). Artaud improvised constantly by pushing at expression to try and take it to its limits and reveal what was there. He wanted to fill the stage with its own language that was more than just words; a "concrete language" of the physical senses (37). Artaud felt that this concrete language consisted of everything that could exist on the stage, so he continuously explored what could be on stage. He kept experimenting with gestures to see if and how they could say what words could not. He was trying to develop a gestural vocabulary that could describe every circumstance of life (55). It was a plastic language though, one that constantly changed and grew beyond words (71).
For Artaud, the theatre was the "only place in the world where a gesture, once made, can never be made the same way twice' (75). It was a theatre of cruelty in that it was difficult for the audience, but especially for the performers because they put their bodies on the line in order to learn (79). The performers went to the extreme action in order to fulfill the truest meaning (85). This allowed both performers and audience a keener perception of the world (91). Artaud believed that the theatre, like life, should exist in "continuous creation" (103). It was an active "site of passage" for ideas and feelings to be expressed. And words lacked for Artaud, he trusted the spontaneous gesture, the outburst, that fit the emotion (110). So, he kept pushing, improvising, looking for the true gesture of an emotion. For Artaud, this improvisation set theatre free (118). It was where audience and performers felt life. The performers were "athlete[s] of the heart" whose breathing supported their bodies (133-4). They made use of, and practiced with, their emotions and gestures and breathing like an athlete (134). This practiced, embodied breathing provoked a spontaneous reappearance of life (136). It was through rigorous, cruel practice, that performers learned how to truly express the range of emotions and fill the theatre with the meaning of life.
Performance Journal I
As performers, Stacy, Nancy and I were all interested in trying to stretch ourselves in new directions for our final performance for Lynn's class. We wanted to have those moments of ad-libbing, taking the risk of not knowing what each other was going to say and relying on our responses to each other to keep the piece flowing. We also wanted to have moments that had us saying lines outside the realm of our daily conversation, trying to find the potential connotations in unfamiliar territory.
We were interested in the visceral embodiment allowed by performance. It definitely was an issue of authenticity. The script was derived from discussions around and about our lives, less rational and more free associational. We were following our instincts, our guts, in terms of what to include and how to include it. Looking back with twenty/twenty vision, it seems that there was a method to our madness, as if we intentionally plugged in these theoretical issues, but the truth of the matter is that it just kind of happened.
"One works at the liminal, one plays with the liminoid" (Turner, 55).
Like Artaud, Jerzy Grotowski, strongly believed that the theatre was a powerful space for expression. Improvisation and experimentation were the foundation of his theatre productions (Towards a Poor Theatre, 15). He was constantly trying to better refine what was distinctly theatre and he believed that the distinction rested in the performers' art in the audience's presence (15). For Grotowski, it is not a matter of developing acting skills, but a matter of a "ripening" of the performers toward the extreme (16). He wanted their gestures and actions to become impulsive and not premeditated. A poor theatre was one that was stripped to the bare essence, performers and audience in the same space (17). Unlike Artaud, who was more prophetic than programmatic, Grotowski set about defining his practices and methods (24). He was not doing anything necessarily new, but he was combining experiments from a variety of sources into a method for reaching the truths of theatre. His improvisation was his research, the stage was his laboratory (27).
Grotowski believed that performers must be able to reveal the innermost secrets of the soul as well as the least impulses of the body (35). By pealing away layers of the self, the performers were able to spontaneously reveal emotions (39). They became organic masks and represented the emotions and meanings through their faces and bodies (77). To reach this revelation, Grotowski realized that each performer would have to do so in their own individual way, so his methods were inherently improvisatory (131). He set up exercises that allowed the performers to explore themselves through their gestures and their bodies. They acted and moved like animals, stretched their bodies, rolled their faces and worked their voices and breathing. Through these exercises, Grotowski felt the performers would learn how to do it, and more importantly, learn what not to do, so as to strip the performance down to its necessities (207). Grotowski believed that it was through theatre that performers could reveal the real substance of life (255). He tried to develop improvisatory methods and exercises that would enable performers to take full advantage of the distinct qualities of theatre.
Performance Journal I
The performance event itself is where we were most interested in seeing what happened, from our moments of improv, to our audience participation, we were looking at the experience itself. Our exploration of various rituals was definitely a reaction to artifice and intellectuality, both of which have their own limits that seemed to add to an inauthenticity to a piece. We did not want to pontificate, we wanted to do as we do, not say as we say. So, art and life met together on the stage, what you saw were our lives, how we negotiate our days and how we then scripted it together. We were looking for the order found in the chaos of our bags, the clothing that we wear, and the way we brush our teeth. The space was not transformed into some sacred place, but we were hoping to evoke the import of ritual. The ritual of our daily lives and the ritual of performance itself. We were looking to symbolically represent these rituals in our staging and lines.
Leave the room for three minutes, come back and describe, concisely, what you have seen (Bridge, 62).
Joseph Chaikin shared some similar interests with Grotowski. He wanted to find individual methods of improvisation that would allow the meaning of a performance to be better realized. The theatre created endless moments of living situations full of meaning (Presence of the Actor, 1). Through these moments on stage, the audience had a chance to see their lives anew. For Chaikin, the performers could demonstrate the self with or without disguise (2). He believed that by seeing the self in situations on stage is what made the theatre come alive for an audience (3). Through improvisatory technique, the performers freed themselves (5). Chaikin wanted performers to recreate themselves with each role so that they could be as alive as they could be (6). He believed that stage performance informed life performance and was informed by it (6). The performers' impulses were what shaped their performances (8). So, they had to explore their impulses to better realize their emotions. The performance was created through exercises which developed a common ground for the performers (15). For Chaikin, it all started and ended with the body in motion (16). Performers had to learn to express themselves with and through their bodies. The improvisatory exercises helped the performers have a presence on the stage that allowed the audience connect with them (20). Chaikin did not believe that the theatre was a mirror of life. He saw it as a representation of a realm of life (25).
Chaikin was interested in finding the motivation and purpose behind the gestures and their meanings (43). He realized that there was a politics to the theatre (51). He experimented in order to break boundaries and point out limits (57). This allowed the performers to explore different ways of perceiving besides their own (58). And through these exercises, performers developed an empathy with the emotions of the performance and a rhythm with the movements (59). Through their bodies, Chaikin hoped the performers would look for ways to discover and articulate the performance (82). He wanted the performers to begin to trust themselves so they would be able to take more risks on stage (87). For Chaikin, one of the biggest risks was moving from the improvisation stage to the production stage because it moved the performance from exploration to expression (104). Even so, Chaikin never held onto a principle in absolute terms, he was always willing to keep exploring (112). He would jam around a theme with performers to keep pushing at all of its potential meanings (116). He believed that theatre could create new ways of seeing and transform the audience's and the performers' perceptions of the world (118). To do so, all involved had to take the risk of looking at life and its meanings (120). The performers had to use their bodies. Chaikin saw the body as an organ through which wind moves, causing sound and requiring a space that is open and clear (131). He felt that improvisatory exercises allowed the performers to open up their bodies and let them make music (133). He found that experimenting in rehearsal opened up what was seemingly fixed (134). This opening was supposed to allow the performers to release and realize the emotions of the performance (154). Chaikin used improvisation to allow the performers the freedom to realize and connect their stage performances to their life performances.
Performance Journal I
Our exploration of our random rituals was somewhat of a search for a primitive in ourselves. We were looking for a base from which we set up our identities in a way. Now, I do not know if I would claim that we were engaging in Grotowski's "self-penetration", although through our parodying of ourselves, I do believe we were on some levels stripping away our prescribed social selves (Grotowski, 45). We were making fun of ourselves and our oddball rituals that we perform day in and day out. And it was through this playfulness, this impish look as ourselves, that we allowed the space to transform, to change our habits, to learn a new trick or two if you will.
In the Living Theatre, Julian Beck and Judith Malina believed the theatre was capable of being a space of change. It was a place where struggle occurred. And Beck knew the artist had a role in this revolution (The Life of the Theatre, 5). For Beck and Malina, to work in the theatre was to work in the world, in life (6). They saw performing in theatre as only needing hesitant gestures, no large movements were necessary (7). They tried to break down our language and values by inventing new forms of communication (13). They believed that in order to make a change they needed to bring down all the sides of an issues (16). So, the performers had to fully explore the world in order to transform and realize it. It was a theatre of emergency because changes needed to be made in the world. It was also theatre of awareness and action, for to make change they had to first be aware and then act (30). If they want to express something physically, Beck and Malina did whatever was necessary in order to realize it (31). They realized that the body must be used and would be nourished by its use (31). Beck and Malina believed that improvisation was related to honesty and honesty was related to freedom and freedom was related to food (45). In other words, the exercises they used were freeing themselves up in the world and allowing them to live. They went so far as to try Free Theatre. Free Theatre was theatre invented by the performers as they played it. Free Theatre had never been rehearsed. They noted that sometimes it failed but nothing was ever the same (45).
Beck and Malina used their bodies on stage in order to break down an audience's resistance. The essential resistance that needed to be broken down was the resistance to change (35). Like Grotowski's Poor Theatre, the Living Theatre used only what they needed to express themselves with an audience (41). It was a collective creation for and through the people involved (46). They believed that life was a play, the question they asked was what kind? (70). To find out, they had performers "recreate experience so that it is almost existential" (81). They thought of the performer as, "the antennae of the race" (81). Through this antennae, the performers released the audience's imagination and Beck and Malina believed that the truth has to be found in our imagination (82). Through constant improvisation they tried to reach transformation. Julian Beck and Judith Malina never stayed still. They tried to connect theatre and life and change so that the world could be made into a better place from the space of the stage.
Think of an animal. Roar, chirp, sing, growl, purr, like that animal. Keep at it until you feel you have a good sound of the animal. Now, with your animal's sound, talk like you think the animal would talk.
Performance Journal I
We were excited to try and actively include the audience throughout our piece. We wanted to emphasize the importance of their roll in shaping the tenor of the performance event. We were looking for ways to include them in our process and performance, we wanted them to be active, not passive in their participation. We hoped to raise their awareness of their own random rituals, whether they be similar or not to the ones we represented.
By disrupting the normal experience of theatre, we hoped the audience would not only respond in the live moment of the event itself, but would go home and ponder their rituals. I think it had the potential to be therapeutic for the audience. As they watched and empathized with our rituals they had the opportunity to address their own. They were witnesses to the absurdities of our lives and maybe their own, thus forming a bond with each other, performer and spectator, linked by the uncommon similarities, the common idiosyncrasies of our random rituals.
"The kettle is boiling" (Phelan 150).
In the Performance Group, Richard Schechner worked to make an environmental theatre (3). For Schechner, environmental theatre was to look at the whole design of the performance, taking everything together wholistically (6). The performers worked, trained and improvised to help establish this environment. Schechner believed that it was through the performers that theatre became a collective experience for performers and audience (4). Using improvisatory exercises, Schechner looked for where essential human truth can be found (5). He believed that human truths could be communicated both naturalistically and stylistically (5). Through spontaneity and discipline, the performers could learn how to communicate these truths (7). For him, "spiritual nakedness" was all that was required from the performers (6). The performers discovered and uncovered themselves so they could reveal something of human nature (8). Through their exercises, the performers made these universal emotions their own (9). There were four steps: "getting in touch with yourself; getting in touch with yourself face-to-face with others; relating to others without narrative or other highly formalized structures; relating to others within narrative or other highly formalized structures" (10). Schechner believed these steps helped the performers to express themselves through their wholes bodies and voices (10).
For Schechner, the improvisatory exercises were a process of creation (12). He felt that all the work began and ended with the body (14). The performers had to get to know their bodies and become more aware of them so that they could better use them to express themselves. Schechner had them work every part of their bodies and faces. He then had them do exercises to build trust among each other (33). This allowed everyone to get in synch and work together to best perform as a group. Next, Schechner had them do exercises to try and express themselves to each other through gestures and sounds in relation with each other (42). And finally, they did exercises to try and relate through narrative and structures with each other (47). Through these exercises, Schechner believed the creation always started with the self that is eventually related into collective action that connects with the audience (49). Schechner felt that the logic behind the exercises was about "doing, showing, impersonating, singing, dancing and playing" (54). For him, the performance was about the body and the story (63). The story was related through the performers bodies and stimulates the audience's bodies (63). Schechner wanted a visceral experience, where each time both performer and audience try to find the "process of birthing, growing, opening up, spilling out, dying and rebirthing" (63). It was through improvisation that the performers found out how to fully realize and express the mysteries of our world. For Schechner, it was through this improvisatory process that theatre could realize the mysteries of life.
Performance Journal I
There is the difficulty of separating the text from the performance, especially since we had many ad-libbed moments by ourselves and the audience as well as the performative qualities of the script itself (the representation of the process unique to us). And yet I think we use this to our advantage, if the moment is born and gone and will never happen again then one most acknowledge the ephemerality of the medium and utilize its strengths, reveling in the moment.
On the table is a jeweled box. See it; pick it up; describe it; open it" (Bridges, 62).
Vanden Heuvel theorizes that the inherent nature of performance is chaotic and (ir)rational (5). Like natural chaos (the world in all its unpredictable complexities), performance's first gesture is to break down rational order (5). This disordering can initiate higher levels of complexity and open up new systems of meaning (5). Vanden Heuvel sees performance as a process, where the self is indeterminate and can diffuse into "ludic diffractions" (6). Performance is an authentic representation because it is always full of potential (6). As he terms it, "avant-garde performance" is all about improvisation (10). The performers are (de)constructing the potential meanings through their exercises (20). Not only are the performers using a variety of improvisatory exercises, but in the performance itself, the meaning is displaced to the audience who "co-creates" the meaning with their presence (12). The meaning of a performance emerges in the moment with an audience present. Through the cooperative improvisation between performers and audiences, theatre has developed new languages of expression (14). For Vanden Heuvel, the indeterminate power of performance rests in its improvisatory nature.
Performance Journal I
Our performance definitely steered away from the literary text and into the chaos of the performative. The script is almost verbatim from conversations we had during our meetings over the semester. Meetings I might add, where we all felt that nothing was getting accomplished. Nonetheless we were laying the foundation for good work in spite of ourselves.
We opened ourselves to the potential that we may just flop big time, and scripted for and about the process of the performance, a chaotic one indeed. In doing so, we broke away from asserting our authorial control almost inherent in a text, allowing ourselves to improvise around some of the scenes in two ways. One, we developed some scenes out of improvisational work during the rehearsal process and then set them into the script. Two, we had places where we left it open to ad-lib freely during the performance itself.
With these improvisational moments we were moving to a less linear flow and into a more indeterminate linking. The content and form of our piece was not meant to go from time to time and space to space, the blocking and lines were used to undermine the potential to feel such a comfort.
We were trying to deconstruct the potential for a coherent meaning throughout the piece, it was entitled after all, ""Random Ritual in Three Acts." We were playing with the surreality of our daily habits and rituals on several levels. We had multiple scenes in which we played ourselves for exaggeration, parodying ourselves through the ludic power of performance.
"...performance is constructed in terms of networks that may appear disorderly but that contain unique forms of internal order" (Vanden Heuvel 5).
Peggy Phelan illustrates that performance lives and dies in the moment (146). Performance is highly improvisatory in that it only becomes itself when it disappears, when it can never happen that way again (146). The real is implicated through the presence of the living bodies of the performers and audience (148). In other words, because it is live and people are in the same space and time, there is the feel of live itself. Phelan notes that in performance, a "limited number of people in a specific time/space frame can have an experience of value which leaves no visible trace" (149). After the performance is over, all that is left is the moment that has since past. Like Vanden Heuvel, Phelan believes that the performance space can break down the opposition between watching and doing (161). The audience is an active part in the meaning that is being improvised as the performance progresses. Meaning emerges through the interaction between audience, performers, space and text. The space and power of performance rests in its improvisatory coming into being as it simultaneously is disappearing.
"Note the relative tempos in the gestures and bodily movements of people." Mimic these gestures and make them your own (Bridges, 57).
Performance Journal I
In our playfulness we focused on the multiplicity of meaning. Several times in the performance we repeatedly asked ourselves and the audience variations on the same questions. Aiming these questions at the audience was our way of acknowledging the primacy of the performance event and space over the text, allowing the spectator a place in the piece as a co-author if you will.
Philip Auslander notes that part of what makes performance feel authentic is that it is live as opposed to mediatized. It is the occasional nature of performance that gives it its improvisatory feel (66). By living in the moment, the audience and performer have the chance to see something highly original that has never happened before and will never happen again (66). Mediatized performances feel less improvisatory because they have been prepackaged or prerecorded. Of course, many artists are blurring this distinction and including videos in their stage performances or are filming their televised show live. Laurie Anderson's United States is a good example of a performance that blurs live and mediatized performance together (72). Not only does she mix in videos, but she also alters her voice through voice synthesizers to give an other effect of multiple characters being ad-libbed around (80). Nevertheless, it is the electric charge that both audience and performers get from performance that reveals performance's improvisatory roots.
Auslander points out that the adaptations of past works through improvisatory pastiche makes the issue of intellectual property quite sticky. The focus of improvisation is on the author(s), performers and audience. The Wooster Group's unauthorized adaptation of Arthur Miller's The Crucible illustrates this rather clearly. They did not perform the play, but merely quoted it in context of a performance space to add a layer of improvisatory interpretation and critique to the performance (106). Miller strenuously objected to this "adaptation" and the Wooster Group's performance raised the question of whose ideas were on stage, his, or their interpretation of them. Auslander justly notes that the Wooster Group was improvising with his ideas, but the question remains problematic to be sure.
Auslander also explores the realm of stand-up comedy and sees the similarities and differences it has with performance art (125). Issues of authenticity come into play for similar reasons as performance artists. The audience and comic are in a dance around the monologue, or call and response, of the comic. The comic lives or dies with the audience's laughs or groans. It is in the improvisatory moment of the act that the feel of authenticity occurs, to hear a recording of the act misses out the dynamics of the live space and moment (133).
Auslander shows how Andy Kaufman was one comic who pushed the improvisatory nature of the live space to its utmost limits. Kaufman did conceptual comedy; comedy about the expectations of comedy (140). He used the audience to get reactions that he could then further manipulate. It was a constant ad-libbed interaction between the audience and Kaufman. Kaufman never dropped this mask of performative confrontation with the audience, so their reactions were quite authentic to say the least. Their reactions were occurring in the heat of the moment of the performance. Kaufman wanted audiences to feel "uncomfortable, uneasy, unhappy, ecstatic, deeply moved, derisive, bored" (149). The most disturbing example of this confrontational interaction was Kaufman's Intergender Wrestling matches where he would taunt the women in the crowd until someone came up and tried to fight him and he would beat them (146). The crowds loved to hate him at these events, they wanted to see him lose. Through his confrontational improvisatory actions, Kaufman unsettled people. Auslander points out that this is one of the powers of theatre; to put you face-to-face with transforming thoughts and feeling. Theatre can take you somewhere you don't want to go and when you come back, you've been changed.
Performance Journal II
This solo performance on Andy Kaufman raised some interesting performative issues for me. First, there is the issue of ad-libbing. I found it interesting because I cannot remember exactly what I said and did during the performance. It was truly a performance that lived and died in the present, for both audience and performer. Although, this is rather problematic from the perspective of reproducing it. I have no way to do the same performance again. Also, there is the issue of a good explanation in a bad performance. I wonder if I could tightly script a bunch of bad explanations so to speak, so that it sounds as if I'm explaining my ideas, even though I'm speaking nonsense and non sequitur. This would be a way to mock my earlier performance concept of a lecturer and also add levels to my performance similar to the levels Kaufman added in "Andy's Fun House." Finally, there is the issue of my self-performance. My performance of myself in this class has a direct effect on the class' expectations and interpretations of my performances for the class. So, there is a sort of continued performance throughout the class that I believe is especially pertinent to autobiographical performance. Your performance of yourself in class, influences your performances of others. Which begs the question, can you do a non-performance? A performance that is not performative (probably not).
Sense Experience Exercise:
"5. Set up an afternoon tea table; pour and serve tea" (Bridges, 61).
Victor Turner looks at how our cultural rituals develop into performances. At first glance this may seem to be the antithesis of improvisation; a look at our ingrained culturally specific performative actions. But actually, it is not. Turner focuses on how people learn through play (23). It is through play, through improvisatory games and interactions that we learn how to perform in life. We learn our communicative symbols and play with the possibilities of their form and meaning (23). He looks at the liminal, ludic acts and events we go through to better understand and express ourselves (27). It is through this play that we learn the structures of our communications (29). And it is through the liminal play that we form liminoid innovations in communication (32). By liminal playing with the structures of communication, we often discover new, limonoid ways to express ourselves. This not only happens in our everyday lives, but can happen through improvisation on the stage. It is through the community experience of performers and audience together that we experience the liminoid in the theatre and incorporate it into our lives (47). This is a spontaneous community formed in the moment around the mutual experience that lets each participant reflect on themselves (47). There is a flow of communication between performers to audience and back and again (56). Turner believes that it is through this improvisatory flow that the liminal becomes the liminoid, that the play becomes life experience.
Performance Journal I
Looking at our rituals was our way of looking for new languages through which we could represent ourselves. The strange things we put in our bags, the odd ways in which we handle our stress, the clothes we wear day in and day out. These actions and objects are sets of symbols that represent who we are, not only to ourselves but to others as well. We were digging into our lives instead of into art to look for the answers to our questions, or, to find better questions to our answers. The focus was on life over art, or at the least, we were trying to make art out of our lives (a scary proposition indeed). Even so, through our parodying of ourselves, we destabilized any coherent characterization of each other, eschewing plot and a theme, unless you consider randomness our theme.
Our representations of these rituals allowed us to emphasize the process of the performance medium. We dug into the rehearsal process and the audition process as well as the discussions and stresses that we had around and about the performance itself. This allowed us to disrupt the meanings in the piece. And with our questions posed to our audience, we opened up the stage to the community of the space. Everyone was involved, we all carry a bag of some sort filled with some strange stuff I'm sure. We all wear clothes and stress about work, each of us in some way or another has had to deal with difficult situations in the best or worst of ways. The stage may have been proscenium in its lay out, but we opened the performance to go beyond the time and space of the performance event.
"...[The] ambivalent participation in the postmodern redistribution of analytical foci from the center to the periphery, delimitation to dispersal, whole to fragment, metropole to margin" (Conquergood 183).
Ironically, like most avant-garde theatre, there is no documentation of this event outside of the script, we have no video footage or anything of that manner. In this day and age, we should have known better, and we did, but under the time pressure, we as a class let it slip us by. Although I do believe we had a sense of history, our piece is steeped in the experiments of those that trod the boards before us. We were trying to build on that foundation with contemporary issues (at least in terms of the process).
And while it may be impossible - one) for the artifice of theatre to supplant immediate experience, and two) to divorce meaning and interpretation from performance, I believe this is where we have made the most interesting strides in performance art. The theatre will never be "real." That said it can symbolically evoke our lives in such a way that our points of view are forever colored. And here is where interpretation and meaning come into play, there will always be audiences who walk away talking about what they thought it meant, they are a vital part of the performance dynamic. Without them, it would be the sound of one hand clapping. With them, we have to let go and revel in our and their various interpretations. It may be the illusion of ecstasy, but it takes a pretty damn good illusion to enable us to represent our lives to ourselves.
The advent of various new media are allowing us to better incorporate improvisatory practices in our words and deeds. Performative encounters have moved beyond the stage and onto our computer screens. Hypertextual, multimedia documents are fluid works that have multilinear links and allow authors/readers/performers to continuously explore and discover the meanings of the "text." And what a text it can be, with the potential to combine video, sound, text and graphics into an immersive, three-dimensional simulacrum of a world. Each and every "reading" is a performative experience that lives and dies in the moment.
The potential meanings of the hypertext piece are dependent on the "readers" choices as they point and click their way through and around the world. Myst and Riven are two excellent examples of such texts where the meaning emerges with the reader's active participation. As Brenda Laurel notes, computers (and the hypertextual, multimedia documents on them) are theatre becuase they represent action in which humans can participate (1). Hypertext allows the improvisatory nature of performance into a document. There may not be live bodies together in the room, but there can be the cybernetic simulation of such. As I stated above, improvisatory techniques have moved beyond the rehearsal and the performance. Hypertextual multimedia actually allow for interactive, improvisatory experiences. Readers improvise their way through the multiple media and various choices offered in the text.
Improvisation is alive and well in performance space and performance studies. I explored the impact that modern performance practitioners have had on the performance studies discipline. I looked at the improvisatory practices of Grotowski, Artaud, Schechner, Chaikin, and the Becks. All of these performance artists strongly believed that the way to best express thoughts and feelings was through the body. Their attempts to better understand and communicate with each other and audiences began and ended with the body and its gestural capabilities. I also reviewed various theorists and their ideas on the improvisatory nature of performance. All of the theorists agreed that the nature of performance revolved around the live bodies of performers and audience together in the same space and time.
In the end, I gave a brief note to the possibilities of the performative and improvisatory potential of hypertextual multimedia documents. Throughout, I included relevant journal entries. My apologies to those who did not seen the two performances that were mentioned in passing. My purpose in using these passages was to highlight the strength and weakness of the improvisatory nature of performance. In those two performances, live bodies were together in time and space and hopefully a moment of value did occur, but it has since been lost in its disappearance (attached are the two scripts, a pale representation at best). Hypertextual multimedia may be a way to have a performative document. It could serve as a prosthetic document to our cybernetic bodies. It could be an extension of the live performance into cyberspace and cybertime. It is not the same thing as a live performance, but hypertextual multimedia does allow for some form of documentation that is improvisatory in nature.
Performers will hopefully always use improvisatory exercises to help them represent their characters as authentically as possible in a performance space and time. And hopefully, performance studies as a discipline will always acknowledge and explore embodied knowledge, learning and communication as a valuable way to interact with the world and each other. Traditional academia as a whole is so depressingly text-bound. I for one, long to express myself with thought and feeling and with my whole body.
Think of all the ways that improvisatory practice could help change the process of academia and open our work in new and different directions. Now, incorporate them, make them yours, and share them with others.
Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and its Double. New York: Grove Press, 1958.
Auslander, Philip. Presence and Resistance. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994.
Beck, Julian. The Life of The Theatre. San Francisco: City Lights, 1972.
Bridges. William H. Actor in the Making. Boston: Expression Co., 1936.
Chaikin, Joseph. The Presence of The Actor. New York: Atheneum, 1972.
Conquergood, Dwight. "Rethinking Ethnography: Towards a Critical Cultural Politics." Communications Monographs. Vol 58, June 1991.
Grotowski, Jerzy. Towards a Poor Theatre. Denmark: Methuen, 1968.
Laurel, Brenda. Computers as Theatre. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1993.
Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Schechner, Richard. "Aspects of Training at the Performance Group."
Actor Training I. Ed. Richard P. Brown. New York: Drama Book Specialists/Publishers, 1972.
Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: PAJ Publishers, 1982.
Vandon Heuvel, Michael. Performing Drama/Dramatizing Performance: Alternative Theater and the Dramatic Text. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1993.