Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture

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No. 58 : September 2012

TEMPEST IN A BATH TUB 

Trinculo confronts himself in front of his 
invited audience to elicit a phenomenology of theatre making

A "phenomenological" approach to theatre making has a number of advantages. It provides direct access to the essential ingredient of audience connection to key elements in a work immediately.

The recent Short and Sweet Festival provided an ideal opportunity to work from within the character's very being while directly interacting with a real live audience with a defined role to play.


Recently I performed a short play in a bathtub. The role of Trinculo emerged from my newsletter. Living in a street called Trinculo Place added to the creation of an alter-ego that grew from a jester in Shakespeare's The Tempest. I used Trinculo as an irreverent shadow-self who could be both physical and metaphorical. One of his long rants written for the purpose of the newsletter, became a central speech in my play, GEESE. It attempted to distill some of the key aspects of Antonin Artaud's attitude to words and the very nature of theatre as a gravitation utilizing dreams. Trinculo bridged the basis of linear narrative with an articulation going to the imprecision of language to fully express meaning. The text indicated how all meaning through language was negotiated meaning and precision is a delusion. Trinculo was not a character in GEESE, but the lines were spoken by a Trinculo-like figure played brilliantly by Braiden Dunn.


Also featured are Jack Spahr, Anna Voronoff, Ali McGregor, Hannah Cormick
and Carolyn  Minchin with Jessica Fairbairn in the background as an artist

If we accept that language is fluid and contextual, then we need to be careful as writers of theatre that we consider the multi-dimensionality of its presentation. Film maker, Terence Malick, and theatre maker, Robert Wilson, link visual, sound and sculpture with language in such a way to fully challenge any stereotype one might hold in relation to whatever subject they are exploring. Ironically, both men were born only two years apart in Waco, Texas; a place less renowned for artistic expression and imaginative thinking! Perhaps Waco was a necessary pre-condition for their artistry.

Eugenio Barba quotes Arthur Koestler in suggesting that a pre-condition for creating anything of artistic value is a stripping away of learned and applied values, perceptions and understandings so that a more primitive personal regression can be discovered as a starting point. Such thinking nullifies the validity of the "how to" book on stage writing, directing and acting. No such "how to" is possible as it can only lead to what has already been done in a refined kind of way that needs undermining and subverting. Such writings at best can serve as interesting possible scenarios for approaching creative work. But that is all! Prescription is deadly.

Outcomes based art is by such definition DEADLY! 

Knowledge of elements that contribute to the creation of theatre and film does not in any way suggest a blueprint or template for success. While it might be argued that without such knowledge, there is no understanding of the art form; it must further be argued that such knowledge is NOT sufficient for any creation.

This might be a truism; except that institutions and theatre programs aimed at stimulated creative and artistic expression adopt practices that seem to assume that up-skilling in knowledge of the elements is the way to improve and increase the artistic output of communities and individuals. In effect, such methodologies enforce the blanding out of artistic industry. The rough, the imperfect, the personal imagination is left gutted and bled of its possibilities and potentiality.

An alternative approach is through phenomenology. The world English Dictionary defines it as a branch of philosophy that:

    "concentrates on the detailed description of conscious experience, without recourse to explanation, metaphysical assumptions, and traditional philosophical questions".

It is similar to the John Keats idea of "negative capability":

    "...capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason -"

A phenomenological approach to theatre making must utilize all the frustrating and messy fluidity that comes with experience. But in this case it is a particular kind of experience.

Sitting in a phenomenological bathtub

Trinculo's Bathtub was scheduled as a ten minute performance as part of the Short and Sweet Festival in Canberra. Initially, the plan was to adapt one or two of the Trinculo rants from Trinculo's Shadow Newsletter into a play. It became obvious that it wasn't working. I then set about performing each night with a different focus. It wasn't simply an improvisation. Trinculo had been working up a considerable back-story; a story focused on philosophical/political and physical scenarios and concerns.

A device was concocted to open up the performance to audience interaction. A brief statement was provided on a pamphlett and distributed to audiences before the show in the foyer. They were asked to write down a question as they were invited to be in attendance with Trinculo in a bathtub; just as revolutionaries visited Marat who met them while in a bathtub during the French Revolution. At a point in the performance, Trinculo would ask for the collector of the questions to bring them to him.

On the preview night, the focus was simply on the audience reaction to a guy with wings sitting in a bathtub on stage. On the official opening night, the focus was on politics and some more controversial aspects. On the second night it was on philosophical / religious issues. On the third night, the focus was on Marat, the revolutionary. The final night of the initial season, focused on a strange "love" story between Trinculo and an imaginary Charlotte Corday who would come to kill him. This was bizarre; but worked best of all and gained the play a place in the final to be performed on the Saturday. Over the week, I was able to tease out where the play was forming best with its audience.

The different focus each night utilized De Bono's concept of the "provocative operant" or PO to structure the balance between improvisation and the dropping into set pieces of text. De Bono suggests random provocations when applied to a focus area will provide the essential ingredient to break through arrogant tunnel vision. It will open new areas that were previously unknown. And most importantly, it will challenge one's own narrow experience.

Sitting in a bathtub and splashing water about, I needed to increase my stress levels to the point where I had to react and find a way to connect with the hundred or so members of the audience who had paid for a serious and rehearsed piece of theatre. This could not be done in a safe rehearsal room. Nor could it be done in front of a computer. Integrating my own experience of sitting in a bath each night in front of my audience allowed me to discover how my own acting and writing skills might be applied to discover a significant plot line that seemed to find the numinous relationship with an audience. And what I found could not have been devised in isolation.

At the beginning of the performance, Trinculo opened with:

    "I seek the perfect question; the one with an impossible answer."

He aimed to finish on the line:

    "Now I can die."

Over the eventual seven performances, a surreal and absurdist play emerged from the testing and experimenting with balances and emphasis. To do this, I had to become Trinculo and believe how significant and essential was every moment. I had to fret when the audience seemed distant. I had to share with them my joy as they became energetic with him. I had to gain a heightened sensitivity to their every nuance. To achieve this, required a minimum of two hours in the space and working at my preparation. I had to assume a connection between their questions and Trinculo's own predisposition. The Opening Night and night 3 were the most difficult. On the Opening Night, I became aware of the bath leaking through the plug and on to the stage. I had to keep my foot on the plug to keep it in place. This distracted me no end and caused my performance to be strained and unnecessarily strident. The plug was siliconed tight for the following performances. By the final performance, I found a play.

The very literal fluidity of the process has served as a metaphorical basis for understanding my own possibilities for creating new and fresher works. It is nothing new. But it does reinforce the need for newness and challenge in the artistic process. I prefer to think of it as a phenomenological approach; even if I have to offer apologies to Husserl, Heideggar, Artaud et al. By switching the object of my attention from my pre-defined and pre-determined script on to the audience and to interaction between the audience and the bathtub, I was able to test out and change my creative response and then seek a new object; this new object being a new play!

This process relied more on negation of self and my own ideas than on any positive attitude I had towards the character and its possibilities. And it had virtually nothing to do with shaping work to fit a particular form; other than the form imposed by a man with feathers on his back in a bathtub. What becomes of Trinculo is anyone's guess. I suspect I am more interested in creating something based on the little play that fermented over that week.  I only hope I can keep him fresh and open to engagement in whatever capacity Trinculo finds himself. Shakespeare's original Trinculo from The Tempest was never one of Shakespeare's stronger or refined characters. Perhaps my Trinculo is closer to the satellite circling Uranus. He is difficult to see and understand; and is constantly in need of rediscovering.

Joe Woodward

 

 


Trinculo is taking a bath and working it all out. First appearance was in August 2012.


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