Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture

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SCREAM: APRIL 2003

Sculpturing Visions in an Ethereal Landscape

World cultures and societies need injections of imagination and intuition in order to survive crises. Shadow House PITS offers an alternative laboratory through which human beings may explore the human condition through an art form which links into the very psyche of cultural and personal expression. Central to this is an acceptance of the human condition as being part of a larger natural order with the mysteries of life and existence being the subject of our exploration.

 

But the application of theatre process and presentation to areas considered to be the prerogative of religion, or/and psychology or/and education is simply recognizing theatre's spiritual roots and mystical applications.

The use of rites, rituals and symbolic action have all been used to evoke the powers of nature or draw focus for areas of experience that are not easily defined or explained. Sex, power, love, hate, survival, acceptance and rejection and the need for some representation of a paternal god and an all embracing goddess are themes that appear in ancient art as they do in virtually all religions. Some use these themes for controlling human behavior. Others use them as reference points and the exampling of metaphors drawn from experience. One only has to see the richness of Aboriginal stories to witness the power of metaphor in culture and the relationship between our subconscious minds and our collective experience to guide our destiny.

The history of Western political, philosophical and artistic tradition is one of resolving contradictions in thought and action; the pitting of skills against restriction and ignorance enshrined in orthodoxy. And in this history we can find a thread of humanity that guides the protagonists through the prison cell and the burning at the stake towards Magna Carta and the enshrining of rights in constitutions and the realization that we can imagine a better existence and the face of love in collective humanity.

Unfortunately, we get tunnelled visioned by cynical political leaders who know how to press the buttons of ignorance and savagery. Our current Prime Minister, along with the President of the United States, joins the Sadams, Osamas and Pol Pots of the world to become in league with the anti-human princes of darkness who see all reality as the encasing of human controls and the threat of death. The sanctimonious bleating they give out for the still ignorant masses on TV is both sickening and yet strangely inspiring. For it encourages the need for our little pockets of turbulence and the need for us to link up with fellow travellers throughout the world. It encourages the individual artist to follow the personal Dhama; not out of choice, but from a point of necessity.

For instance, the spin doctors for our current dark princes of the Western world present small children from Iraq with arms and legs blown off as a result of the deliberate bombing of their homes and suburbs as acceptable collateral for the aims of their administrations and who they represent. And by and large, our civilized populations seem to accept such a view.

But can you imagine the outcry and sense of horror if one American child was hacked about by a knife wielding terrorist in New York. Can you imagine it. A child left armless or legless by a crazed and deadly terrorist with a machete or make-shift dagger! Horrific as it would be, the only essential difference between this scenario and that of the Iraqi child mutilated by the bombing is that the bomber never has to confront the evil of the action while the hacker with the knife will remain covered in the blood of the victim until his or her own point of death. A less significant difference is that the terrorist was limited in the number of children maimed while the precision bomber and missile launcher creates a pattern of multiple death and mutilation.

Yet the sanctimonious bleating continues about the evil 'gassing' of Kurdish children by Saddam while ignoring the irony of the US led coalition's deliberate targeting of suburban areas to create psychological shock and awe, deadly fear, death and mutilation. Somehow, the 'nobility' of aims makes a difference. Somehow, not seeing the eyes of the child as she or he is being murdered or mutilated; somehow this makes a difference! The aims, agendas and actions of the enemy are all demonized while we have 'god on our side'; so all is well.

  • If our art were to do no more than share the sacrifice of the child's blood unto the heart and psyche of the bombers and gullible supporters of these killings, then we would over-turn the key operational art form of our modern technological world:

  • ie. the abstraction of all human existence into easily managed boxes for the manipulation of agendas.

And so to the artist's Dhama! I use the term to refer to the path we travel through life; and how we find and determine what that path is for us. It makes us consider our ego and vanity and to go beneath it to identify how our personal gifts, inclinations and circumstances can be utilized for a higher purpose.

Theatre today seems to take place in a world divorced from the forces of the epoch and the historical / technological revolution that so dominates the new thinking and the new manifesting of human feeling and experience. Before presenting theatre, we must then come back to our basic humanity.

There is a sense that by denying our function as partial custodians of the human story and its cache of metaphors we deprive our collective growth of the vital seeds for cultural, social and personal enrichment. As artists we need to consider this vital function. If we betray our destiny and our purpose, we lend our weight and spirit to that same desperation that drives the darkest and most cynical forces of destruction.

In trying to create a theatre of sculpture whereby the actors and all artists concerned try to tap their inner most being to give external shape to hidden fragments and potentials of human experience, we must truly accept each person as a kind of temple or conduit for intuition and imagination.

The brilliant work of Tadashi Suzuki acknowledges the power and individual potential of the body to contain the spirit of nature. He deliberately taps the traditional Noh culture where the gods become manifest through the enactment on the stage. His work is incredibly evocative with the ability to stimulate the actor to reach into depths seldom encountered. As with Butoh theatre, the work seeks to transcend the known and observable world so as to encourage a knowledge of the inner experienced world of both the culture and the individual.

These thoughts inspire us and our work. However, we live in a different environment and cultural circumstance to these traditions. In some ways, our work here is the antithesis of Suzuki's emphasis on following the stern directions of the master in order to perfect the details of exercises.

Ethereal Sculpturing

Ethereal sculpturing works on extensive visualization and the creation of a personal connection with an ethereal landscape. The action follows the visualization of a universe through which the actor sculpts a performance. It accepts the space, all space, as being like an ethereal landscape which is alive and which needs to be breathed into the actor while allowing the actor to shape it and make it according to the actor's own imagery and conception. It is essentially the space substance outlined in Viola Spolin's wonderful Improvisation for the Theatre.

The crucial element is that of reaching out and contacting an artificially created universe and making it so real as to invoke a state of induced creative autism. This process is then further enhanced by all those involved. The use of technology and alternative ways of staging can be employed economically to enhance the metaphor of ethereal space or landscape. The sculpturing is not done in an empty space. Rather it draws on the living space to transform or morph into shapes imbued with meaning drawn form the understanding and conception of the actor aided by the designer, director and all involved.

I am currently working on the blending of live distorting video images drawn from the actions of the actors as sculptors on stage. By playing with the gain effect on the camera and carefully weighting lighting colours and textures, it becomes possible to create very abstract and beautiful imagery to complement the actions of the live actor on stage.

But the must crucial attributes of our work are 'imagination' and 'intuition'. And once we delve into these areas, we touch on the most elemental aspects of the human spirit.

Theatre, Art and Spirituality

So much of our theatre and art is seen as simple diversion from reality. And with the popularity of movies, the Internet, video, DVD and television, the very basis and validity of theatre comes into question. At one level, it races to outdo the movies with spectacle and charismatic stars. At another level, it settles for a comic and rough immediacy that is easily accessible in clubs and popular gathering centres. And all the while pundits talk of the 'crisis' in our theatre.

Theatre is seen as being so irrelevant and marginalized that any serious review of its working and operation is conducted by accountancy firms within an industry paradigm that takes no account of spiritual and social health benefits to a culture and / or society. The non-acceptance of imagination as a vital component in any arts achievement is perhaps the greatest flaw in the whole process. Or where it is begrudgingly accepted, it is within very constrained or, as John Ralston Saul suggests, "managed" structures.

There is nothing new in this. But what is new and of a more recent phenomena is the institutionalized self-consciousness of arts practice, training and function. The creeping collectivization of arts endeavour and creation is reversing the function of arts as an innovative, imaginative and essentially stimulating process to that of a self conscious matrix of outcomes pitted against marketing research. The individual voice of love, rage and perception is being constantly blunted and silenced by the will of coercive and institutionalized expertise.

The actor is being trained to become an alienated figure well able to fit the post industrial assembly line of stage and screen performance outcomes. David Mamet seems to suggest personal exploratory work done in some drama schools is only for amateurs. Professional actors need to be trained to respond quickly and efficiently to the needs outlined by the writer. While few could argue with this necessity for any actor, it is surely not the whole story. And it is inadequate for the kind of new expressionism that is finding outlets in contemporary theatre.

Our Ethereal Sculpturing demands the kind of spiritual journey that traditionally has been a part of the artist's make up. This journey is not simply the prerogative of religion. It is both part of a personal and cultural mental health issue while being essential as a conjuring act for generally unseen and repressed or denied forces that sometimes need acknowledgement and exorcising. Such concepts go back to the Ancient Greeks and possibly earlier. As far as actors are concerned this goes far beyond the interpreting and delivering texts. It is akin to the Grotowski view and those of the Japanese traditions referred to earlier.

It starts with emphasis offered in training and practice and then in the style of theatre creation that results from a collaborative and paradoxically more personal, even spiritual, approach. A challenge for us is that the vulnerable and tentative steps in an individual creation are being institutionally appropriated by interventions from both monetary and ideological forces that ultimately destroy whatever might appear outside of the acceptable and fashionable forms of presentation. Checks and balances are being applied at all levels of theatre funding and creation that make the presentation of individual insight and perception almost impossible.

To reverse this trend, time and patience will be required to awaken imagination and sharpen intuition as applied within our art and our theatre. By utilizing the power of metaphor and visualization through the acceptance of an ethereal sculpturing, a small step in this direction is being taken; all be it in a small pond in a small part of a large universe!

Joe Woodward (April 2003)

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