Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture

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No. 55 : January/February 2012

God in the details of 
CREATION
Some lessons from Dr. Michael Persinger in 
creative processes of theatrical development and presentation

I want to create a physical suggestion of a feeling and that abstract sense of something; a presence that permeates much of life and acts as a kind of gravitational force drawing me to some guessed at direction. I use the processes of creation in theatre involving writing, designing, acting, working with real people and shaping video and sound imagery; experimenting with the effects and finding the trial and error of approximating the feeling and abstract sense being accessed from within me. The source of this is private and known only to me. And it cannot be described in a sentence. If it could, there would be no point in doing a production which encompasses a multiplicity of elements to effect a single expression. It is on the details of so many disparate elements that the whole construction depends.


I am suggesting there are four interconnecting elements that may act as provocations in the emerging of a theatre that can evoke the feeling and abstract perception of human connection with each other and with a wider presence within culture, history, society and self; or, in Peter Brook's terms, "the invisible made visible". (Brook, Peter: 1968, THE EMPTY SPACE, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth UK). These are:

  1. The "God Helmet" metaphor for theatre as a vehicle for creating visions and an indefinable presence

  2. The "Neurotheological" paradigm for theatre investigations

  3. Theatre as "projection"

  4. Negative Capability of the creators

To open up a useful working theatrical working method or means, it is useful to create a paradigm through which to provoke new pathways for creative expression. Through these four areas, we can approach theatre creation through a different consideration of Artaud's contribution and influence. I will attempt here to suggest practical ways of approaching the task outlined above.

 

The God Helmet

Dr Michael Persinger's work as a cognitive neuroscientist, university professor and researcher is relevant in developing our understanding of the movement from the abstract sense of something to the actualization on the stage of a performance or piece of performance art. Amongst a huge diversity of his achievements is the development of the Koren Helmet or God Helmet. This is a device developed in the 1980s used to stimulate parts of the brain for volunteers under experimental conditions to experience a "presence" in a vacant room. A number of people have testified to experiencing what they considered as "god" or other mystical events. While it seems it is not verified as to whether such experiments have the authority of being proven, Persinger's huge body of scientific work has opened up a broad yet succinct synergy of different fields from psychology to biology and chemistry. 

Essentially what Persinger and others working within similar fields have identified scientifically is that part of the frontal lobe of the brain can respond to magnetic stimulation and chemical stimulation (as in drugs both manufactured and naturally occurring) to allow the person to actually be witness to objects and events manufactured by this stimulation. Their work continues to investigate the conditions under which the brain may be stimulated to be conscious of such "mystical" and seemingly "otherworldly" events.

Studies of people with Temporal lobe epilepsy have shown a marked degree of visions and hallucinations. Atheists and religious people alike have reported heightened "religious" phenomena as a result of this condition. This has led to the study of neurotheology; an area where Persinger has contributed significantly. Basically, what he shows is that mystical experience and flashes of insight result from the brain's capacity for heightened processing and are not the result of heavenly interventions. Have a brief look at a sample of his work uploaded to You Tube accessed here.

 

Can theatre itself provide its own neurotheology?

By removing any sense of hocus/ pocus and cult-like manipulations of participants, we may pose the question of the possibility that theatre can act as a mechanism and condition of temporal lobe stimulation on a par with that described by Persinger. Is there a neurotheological basis on which theatrical presentation might touch on the heightened experience, call it mystical or flashes of insight, that Persinger so clearly outlines in his research and indicates in the brief video accessed above?

Persinger points out there is nothing terribly new in the ideas surrounding neurotheology; though such ideas are relatively new for scientific research.  People such as Michael Winkelman argue the "concept of Shamanism as the original neurotheology".
(http://tranceshamanismbodyandsoul.blogspot.com/2011/06/shamanism-and-neurotheology.html
accessed on January 16 2012)

However, if we conceive of Persinger's work within a theatre context, we find it is reminiscent of Antonin Artaud's concepts. Artaud writes of:

"the gnostic sense of a living vortex engulfing darkness, in the sense of the inescapably necessary pain without which life could not continue" and "a sense of constant creation, a wholly magic act (which) obeys this necessity. A play without this desire, this blind zest for life, capable of surpassing everything seen in every gesture or every act, in the transcendent aspect of the plot, would be useless and a failure as theatre."

Antonin Artaud: A letter to Jean Paulhan, 14 November 1932

Artaud's theatre is the casing, the whirlwind within which the magnetic field of the production enacts on the audience and its collective consciousness to evoke a transcendental experience. Gabriel Urbain Fauré, the great French composer, spoke of music as a means through which to be in touch with the eternal. The notions of transcendence and elevated consciousness being attributed to both theatre and music are not unusual. Are we seeing visions like in Persinger's God Helmet when in theatre? In a desirable theatre, I suggest these visions connecting with personal and collective inner states are exactly what theatre needs to be invoking.

But god is in the detail of its creation. Just as claims made by Reiki music composers suggesting Reiki meditation music can have a calming effect on the brain and emotions of a person, so too we might imagine a theatre where the shape, colours, spacial settings and sculptures, texts, vibrations from music and voices, movements and physical appearances of performers, skills and juxtapositions of subject matter might all be combined to become incorporated into the "god helmet" of a theatre apparatus. And that this apparatus might have a very real neurological effect.

In 1974 Philippe Petit walked on a tight rope between the tops of the Twin Towers. This was an amazing achievement. With his forty minutes on the wire, it is hard to surpass as a theatre of spectacle. Nothing achieved by Cirque Du Soliel can compete with such an event if taken in isolation. The linking of the act with the later numinosity of the Twin Towers themselves forever expands the significance of Petit's action. His circus act provided "great theatre" of spectacle. It was a "reality" show before the genre of reality TV was a phenomenon. In the best tradition of the circus it was a "step this way ladies and gentlemen have we got something for you". It ignited curiosity. It was a theatre of daring; a theatre which sources the most basic aspect of human nature to peer on to that moment of revelation where something beyond the necessity of human existence is exposed; a theatre which reveals the transcendence of accepted possibility. And in the telling of it, the event grows!

As a purely physical theatre act, Petit's walking across the tops of our created structures is in the highest category of achievement.

However, is this what our theatre can aspire to? Some exponents of physical theatre seem to suggest just this; as if the physicality of presentation is the ultimate aim; assuming audiences no longer regard theatre as having any further relevance.

"The clown art form has, in recent years, escaped from the traditional circus, into the theatre and the streets and, more recently, returned to help shape modern circus-theatre. Somewhere in there, physical theatre was born, as clown rejuvenated the traditional script based theatrical form, and we got the emotionally-powered, physical performance work that we know today as physical theatre. Audiences today want a real experience in their live performance, because they can get great script based entertainment at home, through various new media sources. Traditional theatre, which appeals on a mental, and hopefully also emotional level, has not been enough to compete with other media, and audiences have been declining. Physical theatre, by contrast appeals to the audience on a physical and emotional level, providing a much more immediate experience than traditional theatre, and audiences here have been growing. Today physical theatre is a broad term which covers the range of circus theatre forms, clown, mime, mask, commedia, visual theatre, and dance theatre."
(http://www.artmedia.com.au/faq_physical.htm) accessed on 04.02.2012

Art Media seem to suggest the death of theatre in the traditional sense; totally ignoring the influence of Butoh or traditional and tribal forms of ritualized physical theatre on a burgeoning under-current of theatrical exploration. Still, this definition of physical theatre is one part of the current trend in dynamic theatrical exploration.

On a completely different plain, we see the laudability for The Sydney Theatre Company under Kate Blanche's artistic direction. It is traditional theatre with massive multi-million dollar public funding and a "cool" veneer. Is there a more "cool" experience of theatre than a visit to the Opera House Drama Theatre or to the Wharf Theatre under the iconic Harbour Bridge? I doubt it! There are a lot of players with much to gain and loose by having a very high profile identity theatre. It then becomes hard to even relate the street busker presenting some amazing physical presentation with the edifice that is the state sanctioned theatrical apparatus.

But for the marketing minds and political advisors who comprise the sum totals of state sanctioned theatre enterprises, it is impossible to envisage or comprehend the issues of a theatre neurotheology; and it is doubtful if any of them would have ever heard of such a term or possibility.

So then if we aspire to more than a LCD traditional theatre presentation, do we simply bring out some USA identity (eg. a Kevin Spacey to play in a theatre totally unsuited for Richard 111) or a Philip Seymour Hoffman to put the US-of-A touch on theatre production that will strike our LCD viewers with awe. Alternatively, we turn to the magic and brilliance of Cirque Du Soliel  to fill our need for a repeatable awe inspiring physical theatre event.

Theatre has always possessed its BOS Brigade: ie. the "BUMS ON SEATS" realists who speak only in terms of providing bums on seats and satisfying the "PUNTERS". Virtually no other consideration enters into the equations concerning theatrical presentation. All else is WANKING. And for this brigade, theatre is so full of WANKERS; this fact, for them, being the essential problem for theatre. The BOS Brigade has no time for the likes of Philippe Petit unless such acts can be bottled and return a profit and so they wouldn't see how any discussion of his work was in any respect relevant for theatre. The BOS Brigade would however bow down at the altar of Cirque Du Soliel simply on the basis of the huge financial investments involved and the ultimate artistic and market success.

The BOS Brigade misses the point that the awe experienced by audiences at performances by Cirque Du Soliel or by works imbued with the talents of Kevin Spacey et al is an awe akin to the religious bliss experienced by those in the presence of what some believed to be "god". As a bridge between art, culture and individual perception, it would be hard to imagine a more significant enterprise than Cirque Du Soliel anywhere in the world. Just as a live performance from Kevin Spacey is about as good as acting gets on the professional stage!

In a practical sense, conceiving theatre as neurotheology provides a means for utilizing physical and traditional / academic values for the evoking of Faure's "eternal" and Artaud's "vautex engulfing the darkness". It removes any divide between "physical" theatre and "traditional" theatre and focuses on allowing "witness to objects and events manufactured by this stimulation" by theatrical presentation: whatever that might be. Accepting the physical daring of Philippe Petit
and utilizing the controlled environment that is theatre, it might well be possible to create the conditions of the God Helmut and the dynamics suggested by Artaud.

I would however caution that "appeals to the audience on a physical and emotional level"
are not enough to constitute a truly valid or significant theatre experience. I also suggest that a lowest common denominator theatre offering as suggested by the BOS Brigade is under-valuing the possibilities of theatre.

 

Projection

The screaming girls at Beatles concerts in the 1960s were totally connected in a very physical sense with some force that seemed to take them over completely. What might have began with a degree of marvelling at the fact of being present at a Beatles concert soon gave way to much more than enjoyment or a degree of satisfaction. Experiencing the event itself caused physical, emotional and tangible mental changes within individuals. Both the presenters of the events and the audience for the events were projecting very different things on to each other. Yet both were intertwined with the historical mood of the time and the releasing of pent up energies that significantly were catalysts for change. The cause of the screaming had little to do with artistic product: ie. music.

In the article, MASS COMMUNICATION AND PARA-SOCIAL INTERACTION: Observations on intimacy at a distance by Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl (accessed Jan 21 2012) it is posited that a "para-social relationship" exists between audience and performer. While the main thrust of their argument is about radio and television they reveal some very telling aspects of this relationship that might be relevant here.

The point they make is that much of the experience is determined by what is projected on to the performer. While their argument is mostly about how performances are designed to play to the projections of audiences by in turn projecting certain assumptions on audiences (through focus group analysis etc). But the notion of a "para-social relationship" and its functioning described as "para-social interaction" is very useful here.

For me, nothing can surpass the effect a theatre show in 1975 had on my whole being. It was FLOWERS presented by Lindsey Kemp's troupe at the New Arts Cinema in Glebe, Sydney. A sense of change and revolt from the sixties had given way to a need to re-see the universe in a different light. Flowers depicted cultural unease as nothing else had at that time. The individual struggling with the need for re-evaluation of everything could find the intimidation and over-whelming assault of Flowers as a necessary shock to the system.

Theatre practitioners cannot ignore the deep psychological and sociological power that is in their hands. Theatre can be a place of projection; creating a neurotheological effect in a very real way by:

creating a meeting place between artistic intuition/insight/expression and a particular audience and its particular unarticulated dreams, desires and perceptions, the unanswered social contradictions and the numinous strength of the production elements themselves.

We do have contemporary access to another form of theatre projection in the form of the late Sathya Sai Baba. And in his case, there are videos, promotional and critical! Here is a modern god/man who performed miracles: raising the dead etc. rivaling anything Jesus was claimed to have done. His promotional videos with pious and mystical sounding music could be a model for Christian rock bands and perhaps even Josef Islam, formerly Kat Stevens, who could take inspiration from the Sai Baba song featured in the video. The lyrics of the song portray the audience projection on to him; with such projection the result of cultural and social conditions and the manipulation of this projection by Sathya Sai himself.

Now consider this video and the extent to which aspects of Baba's "magic" was contrived.

Note the similarity and feel in this fundamentalist Christian song:

From a theatrical point of view, it would be interesting to argue that Sai Baba was not solely a trickster as he certainly generated massive developments in health care and support for the people who felt little sense of hope without him. What if he was in fact the vehicle like the "god helmet" through which his audience saw the "presence" of something transcending themselves. In theatre, since Stanislavski, we have become accustomed to asking "what if". So what if we accept the notion of "para-social-relationships" and further accept that Sathya Sai Baba understood clearly his audience and so went about creating the object (being himself) on which his audience might project themselves and ultimately the solution for their existential dilemmas. And what if we were to say likewise with other "mystical" prophets or gods?

If we accept there is a degree of audience projection on to individuals within space and time parameters then we must also accept that our theatre can have a profound effect on both the participants and audience members alike even though there is agreement on the artificial nature of its contrivance. Might it then also provide a means for facilitating "mystical" and seemingly "otherworldly" experiences; but experiences framed without religious and specific claims of revealing divinities and created by physical means (even tricks).

This would seem the antithesis of Brecht's thinking. And it probably is! His attempts to demystify the theatre works against such thinking. His aim was to encourage people to think about their world and use the stories of the stage and its poetry to reconstruct the real world.

I suggest a neurotheological theatre is the theatre inspired by Artaud. It understands the nature of "projection" and then subverts the concept. It aims to engage people in the constant disassembling of fixed positions and opening the way to utilizing their engagement with a constant movement. There is NO REAL WORLD to construct or reconstruct. The actor is no longer simply representing; rather he/she is providing the screen or form on which the audience is stimulated to see their own act within a wider dramaturgy.

 

Theatre and Negative Capability

Such a theatre would be a subversive theatre that undermined all dogmas and set pieces of control. As such it might also be thought of as having the qualities of apparitions; but with the shock and awe of revolution and violent disruption. A theatre of this kind could not possibly hold true to any belief outside its own ephemeral explorations. And while all this might seem a truism, if we consider that the content of the theatre is not just the text but is the actual sum total of all elements contributing to the creation of a kind of neurotheological experience, then we can see its manifestation will be significantly identifiable and different from the tradition stage.

As collective minds gravitate to comforting dogmas, mindsets, belief systems and religions, we can look to a long tradition of poetic construction, including such constructions in theatre, that has always challenged and provided alternatives or ways of subverting such gravitations. One may look to Shakespeare as a model of such creativity. But the most insightful initial identification of a process was first articulated by John Keats in his coining of the term "negative capability".

While Percy Bysshe Shelley elevated poetry as a cultural and social agent of change and challenge, Keats went much deeper with his describing a mindset that not only accepted and looked at various sides to given arguments and standpoints; but which actively engaged conflicting and diametrically opposed viewpoints and forces. He went so far as to insist that the poet negate the self and become a sieve through which all things could pass. Of the poetic mind he said:

"As to the poetical character itself....it is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character- it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon poet" (Keats:Letters:157).

and:

"let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts" (Keats:Letters:326)

and in describing "negative capability":

"that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties; Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." (Keats:Letters:43)

By extension, if we subsume our theatre within the ambit of the "poetic" rather than within the contexts of theatre as propaganda or as "slice-of-life realism", we might apply Keats' description of "negative capability". The result is the creative urge in theatre being akin to the poetic impulse rather than the dogmatic or activist strain within the minds of the creators. This isn't to suggest the creators of any theatrical work are passive or uncommitted. In other words, what might have been the initial inspiration and motivation for writing or developing the production, needs to be set aside so that the work itself becomes its own journey free of the limitations of the creators. What it entails is the ability to suspend whatever external commitment or activism when the process of creation has begun.

Prashant Mishra, Professor of English, Govt. S.V.P.G.College Neemuch(M.P.) article titled, Keats’s Negative Capability: Parallel Concepts in Derrida’s Theory of Deconstruction, discusses the possible links between "Negative Capability" and Derrida's theory of Deconstruction. There are relatively few discussions linking Keats with post modernist and deconstructionist thinking. However, I suggest it is a key element in our search to shape a theatre born of Artaud's ideas.

 

Concluding

The illusion of a unified work of art and of set meanings as conveyed by the writer are challenged by deconstruction and by negative capability.  On the other hand, a purely physical approach to theatre does not fulfill theatre's potential for expanding perception. While the exploits of Philippe Petit may be described as having theatrical value, such description is analogous and metaphorical rather than accurately equated as theatre. It does have common elements that compel an audience to be spectators at a performance. But it is no more a work of theatre than is the climbing of Mount Everest. With great feats of endurance and physical skill, as in the case of an Olympic sport such as Gymnastics, there comes an element of great spectacle. This element has been incorporated into theatrical performances. Art Media is correct in identifying the immediate audience appeal of such work. But almost by definition, this theatre of spectacle negates the audience input. While it is no doubt admirable; it is more a vehicle of escape rather than a means for engagement.

For a kind of theatre that I am seeking, we need to consider the notion of the "para-social relationship" and its "para-social interaction". This forces a greater consideration of "projection" from both the audience and from the performance. Within our paradigm for making theatre, we then need to let go of the initial motivations for creating a work of art and allow the attitude of "negative capability" to go with the energy flow of a work. In consideration of all of this, we need to set about creating the mechanism, like the "god helmet", within our space and our devising of performances to stimulate the deepest recesses of people's brains to become open to experiencing the unfamiliar. This means increasing our capability to unlock deep seated cultural, emotional, psychological lock-in defensive mechanisms that result in shut-down and tunnelled vision and restrictions on an ability to see the other. In short it means opening access to the Jungian shadow of both cultural and personal psyche.

Such a paradigm suggests a radical approach to theatre; one that cannot be seconded to push a particular social, religious or political agenda. Whatever the views of its creators, the theatre remains open to engaging with real human conditions without the imposition of belief. In a very real sense, it is poetic and yet scientific (at least by analogy). It evolves a model of action that becomes tested; but without any undue or dogmatic impositions. Judgement is suspended.

This capability when applied to theatre may be used to evoke:

  • a theatre of release;

  • a theatre of imagination that cannot be put into words;

  • a theatre that journeys into the locked-in recesses within collective imagination;

  • a theatre that shadows what appears to be reality;

  • a theatre with the vitality to allow for such explorations;

  • a theatre of potential for revealing what is beyond the scope of our individual limitations;

  • a theatrical vision of significance to each viewer;

  • a literal and metaphorical magnetic field through which the spectator may engage the presence of something both within and without him/her self;

  • a theatre of poetics;

  • a theatrical virus that installs itself within the individual and collective psyche.

To achieve this requires something of the four elements suggested above. Furthermore it requires the setting aside of personal ego, vanity and artistic neurosis that can accompany artistic creation. As Keats suggests, only with the subjugation of the self can a genuine creation occur.

Joe Woodward
(February 2012)

 

If you enjoyed this essay, you might have a look at:

http://www.shadowhousepits.com.au/releasing%20artaud.htm
http://www.shadowhousepits.com.au/releasing%20a%20theatre%20of%20cruelty.htm

http://www.shadowhousepits.com.au/to%20believe%20is%20to%20kill.htm

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