Okay, so I’ve heard lots about Jerzy Grotowski over the years, done the odd Grotowski-based workshop, talked Grotowski with various people, and I’ve even seen My Dinner With Andre about three times!!! But I’ve never actually read Towards a Poor Theatre and that is clearly my own loss.

I happen to be a theatre artist who holds the arts and the spiritual very close together, and very close to my heart, so you can imagine the fireworks that were going off inside of me as I read about the value that Grotowski places on the role of the spiritual when it comes to making theatre and performance.  In fact he intentionally quotes scripture and makes biblical references many times throughout the book.  He differentiates between the “holy actor” and the “courtesan actor” and speaks of their differences as being the same as between “the skill of the courtesan and the attitude of giving and receiving which springs from true love: in other words, self-sacrifice.”  Grotowski’s language is steeped in the language of the Christian church as if he knows intimately the people with whom he is trying to communicate, although he makes it clear that when he speaks “about holiness as an unbeliever, (he) means a secular holiness.”  What a fascinating concept!  Is it possible to attain holiness without God?  Perhaps it depends on the kind of holiness we are speaking about, or better still, perhaps God honours holiness no matter what context within which it is sought and what is important is the quest itself, but regardless it is a noble pursuit for any actor to aim for.  Grotowski clarifies by saying “only a sinner can become a saint…in the same way the actor’s wretchedness can be transformed into a kind of holiness.”  He is not interested in lukewarm actors.  Grotowski defines the term “holy” as a “metaphor defining a person who, through his art, climbs upon the stake and performs an act of self-sacrifice.”

The level at which Grotowski places the bar for his actors is extremely high.  The actor must be willing and able to “reveal himself and sacrifice the innermost part of himself – the most painful, that which is not intended for the eyes of the world.”  Only through this process is the actor able to publically challenge others “and through excess, profanation, and outrageous sacrifice reveal himself by casting off his everyday mask, he (then) makes it possible for the spectator to undertake a similar process of self-penetration.”

The actor’s body or instrument “must be capable of performing a spiritual act.”  Grotowski wants the actor to go beyond Stanislavski’s method.  And although he holds Stanislavski as “a secular saint,” Grotowski maintains that the actor must “dissect himself.  It is not a question of portraying himself under certain given circumstances or of living the part,” but rather the actor’s job is to “give oneself totally, in one’s deepest intimacy, with confidence, as when one gives oneself in love.”  This requires that actor act in a kind of trance that allows him/her to completely leave oneself and enter fully and totally in the work.  It’s as if Grotowski is calling on actors to go beyond anything thing they have been taught before, beyond presenting, beyond representing, beyond any of the traditional approaches to acting, to a point where whatever is happening to the actor in the play is actually happening to him/her.  It ceases to be any kind of a “show” and actually becomes the real thing.  In Catholic terms it’s almost a kind of transubstantiation of the actor and his/her circumstances.  In the same way that for many Catholics the Eucharist is able to actually become the body and blood of Jesus, the actor is able to actually become whatever he/she needs to become in any given moment of performance, and it in fact ceases to be a performance but becomes the actual event.  In other words for the actor to succeed in his/her task, requires a kind of secular miracle of holiness.  Grotowski might call this a transmutation of the actor.  In speaking about this process as well as his own relationship to the actor Grotowski shares that “The actor is reborn – not only as an actor but as a man – and with him, I am reborn.”  The result is “total acceptance of one human being by another.”

I was lucky enough to watch a video of Grotowski’s Akropolis on the weekend.  Having never seen any of Grotowski’s work I had no idea of what to expect.  I was blown away! Of course it all in Polish so I didn’t understand a thing, however there was a voice-over that occasionally let the viewer know what was going on, and with this it was remarkable easy to follow.  That being said I had the feeling that following the story was hardly the point.  Set in Auschwitz “the characters re-enact the great moments of our cultural history; but they bring to life not the figures immortalized in the monuments of the past, but the fumes and emanations from Auschwitz” itself.  However what I was left with was must less about the “story” but rather a feeling of the overall production.  The intensity, and I can think of no other word, of the actors was at a level that made it difficult to breath, and this was a video!  I can’t fathom what it must’ve been like for the spectators who were actually there in person.  I can’t help thinking that there is something of Artaud’s theatre of cruelty in what I saw in Akropolis.  It certainly was able to grab hold of an audience in a vicious, visceral and violent way, and hold us in a way that would be deeply affecting to dullest among us.  And now I think I need to watch My Dinner with Andre again.

Follow the quest Grotowski…and may you find holiness…

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Antonin Artaud (1896 – 1948) was nothing if not outspoken and direct.  It appears that even from a young age he felt the need to speak out and fully let his feelings about a variety of topics be known.  He was in fact thought to have had neuralgia and depression and spent five years in a sanatorium, and in the end he was put on laudanum which launched his addiction to a variety of opiates throughout his life.

His passion regarding the potential power that theatre could and should have on society is truly inspiring and cannot be ignored.  The collection of essays on theatre contained in The Theatre and its Double will raise the blood pressure and speed up the heart-rate of anyone who has a deep love for the theatre and what its place is in society.  One may agree or disagree with Artaud, but whatever the response is, his writing demands a reaction.

Artaud’s description of the plague is nothing short of diabolical and reads like something you might come across in a screenplay for a horror movie; I could barely breathe as I read it.  And then the kicker is that Artaud compares the various plagues throughout history to the theatre, and I come away from that discussion feeling like I have to side with Artaud.  In many ways the theatre of today does need to be like a plague.  We are in a time where our need to purge or cleanse the theatre of everything that is mediocre and/or meaningless is almost a necessity.  One just has to read my blog (and Victor’s for that matter) about True Love Lies to know that this is true right here in Toronto, Canada’s theatre capitol.

Artuad states that, “Like the plague, theatre is a formidable call to the forces that impel the mind by example to the source of its conflicts.”  He goes on to say that he not comparing the fact that the plague is contagious, rather that, “like the plague it is revelation, the bringing forth, the exteriorization of a depth of latent cruelty by means of which all the perverse possibilities of the mind, whether of an individual or a people, are localized.”  Artaud saw the theatre as something that was, “created to drain abscesses collectively” and that it, like the plague, is a “crisis which is resolved by death or cure.”  Theatre is, “a disease because it is the supreme equilibrium which cannot be achieved without destruction.”

For Artuad, involvement in theatre in any way, as part of the creative team or as an observer, should have an inherent cost.  It should require something from our soul or our mind or our spirit, and because we have paid the toll we will ideally walk away forever changed.  What a marvellous vision of the power of theatre!  Oh, that we should be devastated to that degree in our theatre here in Canada!  And when I say devastated I mean driven to utter madness through fits of laughter or by way of being wracked in tears.

Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty is toward this end.  He has created it to “restore to the theatre a passionate and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigor and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood.”  Artaud longs to be so visceral and so real that the an audience is almost shocked out of their complacency and launched into a mindset that allows for the theatrical experience to travel directly to the core of our humanity like an arrow piercing the flesh cutting straight through the heart.  It’s not that he is looking to make violence gratuitous, but he does not want to shy away from it in any way.

I wonder if some of the film work of Lars Von Trier could be categorized as Theatre of Cruelty.  I think of Dogville and his latest, Antichrist.  Although I have not seen it, from what I’ve read it almost dares the audience to walk out of the theatre.  Now I don’t think Artaud wants to alienate the audience, which would be contrary to how passionately he wants to reach them.  I believe he wants to keep the audience in the theatre, but he wants to make sure that the audience is truly, madly, deeply affected by what they experience.

It’s worth noting the “Affective Athleticism” Artaud demands for the actor.  “ The actor is an athlete of the heart.”  And not only that but that Artuad’s actor depends heavily on breath, in fact “the actor’s body is supported by his breath whereas the physical athlete’s breath is supported by his body.”  Given the amount of breath work here at York University I can only think that David Smukler must agree!

BREATHE…and thanks for telling us how you really feel Artaud!  We are better for it, and may we one day reach a place where we are truly devastated by the theatre we participate in…

Carl Weber, who was fortunate enough to work with Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble in the 1950’s, appears to have had amazing experiences with him.  In his article titled Brecht As Director he relays a kinder, gentler Brecht than that which we are used to hearing about.  I adore his descriptions of the atmosphere in Brecht’s rehearsals.  How fascinating to think of this iconic figure, who from my memory is usually described with words such as intense, demanding, unrelenting and uncompromising, as someone who is so relaxed and laid back in rehearsals that one is not really sure if this is work or a break.  And it seems that Brecht took on an extremely caring position with regard to his actors.  He would go to such an extent to make them feel comfortable and secure that he would even listen to them drivel on about nonsense for a very long time, when apparently Mr. Weber was certain that Brecht vehemently disagreed with whatever the actor was on about.  Brecht’s attitude of “play” and “exploration” sounds as if it would be heaven for any actor.

Now we must be reminded that this is the fifties now and it would appear that Berthold Brecht may well have mellowed a bit in his later years, but that being said I sometimes find it hard to reconcile the two Brechts.  On the one hand he appears to be coddling his actors, and on the other hand he appears to laying it out clearly that they “act wrong” and that actors don’t really know how to communicate, at least not the way Brecht would like them to.  He even rakes his wife’s performance over the coals!  Mr. Weber maintains that Brecht “never cared about how his actors worked.”  “He didn’t give a damn about the mechanics they used, he just cared about results.”  This contradicts some of what Brecht seems to be saying in Brecht on Theatre where he lays out a kind of Brechtian approach to acting.  Now to Brecht’s credit, Mr. Weber’s comment that his experience watching Mother Courage in 1949 “remains the great theatrical experience of (his) life,” cannot be ignored.  Nor can the fact that he states that this was “the first time (he) had ever seen people on the stage behave like real human beings; there was not a trace of “acting” in that performance.”  So, Brecht’s demanding yet relaxed standards must’ve brought about some significant results.

What struck me most about this article was Mr. Weber’s description of how a production was conceived.  The attentions to detail is staggering, as well as the preparation time involved.  In fact it reminds me of how most high-budget films are conceived.  The detail put into story-boarding every scene, and the breakdown of scenic elements is very similar to the process that Brecht and Caspar Neher would go through.

Brecht’s emphasis on clarity is astounding as well.  Being that we are in an age today where it often appears that clarity has taken a bit of back seat to spectacle, mystery and sometimes angst, it’s refreshing to read of Berthold Brecht going to such extremes to make things clear for the audience.  Even going to the lengths of bring in a group of youngsters to watch a performance of Katzgraben and spending two hours with them finding what they thought worked and what didn’t.  Brecht’s emphasis on blocking further supports his desire for clarity.  His notion that the blocking should be able to deliver the gist of the storyline even if one was not able to hear the dialogue is a marvellous and attainable goal.

I’m also fascinated by Brecht’s exploration of acting as an art form.  He is very clear about what the actor does in the theatre and what the eyewitness does on the street-corner when retelling the events of a tragic car accident.  One must agree with Brecht that there is a significant difference, and then one must ask, “Why don’t we take the street-corner into the theatre?”  Will there always be this disassociation from reality in the theatre?  I expect there will be.  When we go into the theatre we are preparing ourselves for an experience of some sort.  We know we are going to be told a story.  We may get wrapped up in an excellent production and begin to feel that the characters and their circumstances are real, but we are still aware that we are watching something that is separated from reality.  Is this okay?  If we still manage to provoke, to engage, to stimulate, to move, to transport, etc., does it matter if this disconnect is still there?  It might even be that this separation between reality and what happens in the theatre, or cinema for that matter, is the very thing that allows an audience the safety and security to fully engage in a story.  Without that separation we might find that all our efforts in the theatre that are designed to reach an audience might be for naught.  I expect it is that distance that allows us to fully engage in a story.  At times our task is to break that barrier in an attempt to shock an audience into a new mode of understanding, and without that barrier we would not have that option.

Enough musings!  That being said I enjoy the dialogue and I look forward to the discussion tomorrow in class. J

True Love Lies…Lies

November 7, 2009

What happens when we set out to truly communicate something to an audience, and instead end up doing the opposite?  What do we do when the very thing that we’ve set out to accomplish backfires on us and we end up working against our own intentions?  What if we’ve tried to draw an audience in, but instead we end up pushing them away?  Unfortunately I feel this was the case with True Love Lies written and directed by Brad Fraser.  Where shall I begin…

In my humble opinion this was a very unfortunate, short-sighted and shallow production and in the final analysis it simply did not work.  That is not to say however that nothing worked.  There were moments that were quite powerful so there was definitely some potential; it’s just too bad that those moments were sent to their room without dinner rather than being able to sit at the dinner table with all the other dysfunctional grown-ups. 

This play tells the story of a family’s response to the discovery that Kane (the husband/father played by the capable Ashley Wright) was once in a serious homosexual relationship and now his former gay lover (David), portrayed by David E. Keeley, has come back onto the scene.  This character is also clearly the playwright.  The play looks at how this affects the longsuffering wife (Carolyn), embodied by the talented Julie Stewart, and the troubled teenage daughter and son, Madison (Susanna Fournier) and Royce (Andrew Craig) respectively. Carolyn begins to doubt her husband’s sexual orientation even though they have supposedly have had a great marriage and have a great sex life.  They appear to be working out their relationship in the best way they can.  Madison wants to find out what this former gay lover is all about and ends up seducing him and sleeps with him because in her words, “I have to sleep with every man I meet. And only then do I know I’m okay.”  In fact we think she’s trying to get back at her father for something, and although it’s not exactly clear what, it would seem likely that it has something to do with her father’s lack of involvement and honesty in her life.  This could’ve been explored much more.  The younger sibling Royce is having a major identity crisis that is combined with a sexual identity crisis.  He thinks he wants David to sleep with him, but is actually desperately trying to reach out to his dysfunctional parents in some way.  He is so desperate for some kind of role model and some kind of authentic connection with his parents that he’ll do anything, including attempting to kill David, and/or maybe himself.  So as one can clearly see there is in fact a lot of meat here that could make for some scintillating drama.  Instead what happens is that the portrayal of this family is so plastic and paper-thin that we don’t care about them, and if we don’t care about them, I for one begin to question why I’m sitting in the theatre.  I end up feeling distanced from them and I can’t seem to find a way in.

Some of this may be due to the fact that the playwright was both author and director.  Unless one is extremely skilled and discerning this is more often than not a set up for failure.  But let’s talk a bit about the elements of the production.  I mentioned earlier that the portrayal of the family was “paper-thin”, and this was true of the set design as well.  Bretta Gerecke’s set was all made of tissue-paper.  The large, square tissue-paper flats at the back of stage was the most successful design element, mostly because they could be lit in a way that was at times very beautiful.  That being said, I don’t feel that Ms. Garecke used these to their fullest potential.  They were evocative of light boxes and could’ve been used so much more to echo what was going on with the wrecked lives on stage, or in the relationship between David and the other members of the family, or to even give the audience a sense of the cloud of oppression that that the characters were living under.  The actual set pieces (kitchen table & chairs and kitchen counter on stage-right, and a kind of curb/step/bed on stage-left) were also covered in tissue-paper.  It made them look like bad Paper Mache.  There was nothing elegant or imaginative about how this design was conceived.  I also felt like the design has no visual movement in it; nothing danced in it.  There was very little depth to the design and the playing areas felt cramped and static.  The costumes worked on a very basic level to simply convey only that first, shallow layer of the character, suggesting that they we all skin-deep and I really felt that the concept (if there was one) could’ve gone much deeper.  Again, this may have all been intentional to drive home that “paper-thin” quality of the relationships, but I have to ask the question why these choices were made.  Was there not a better way to achieve this?  Why not let us see the full three-dimensional depth of the characters and the relationships and then break our hearts when they make shallow or destructive choices?  We might then have the opportunity to experience a deep visceral reaction to the characters and their circumstances.  I feel the production countered what the playwright may have intended.

The play was written in a style that reminded me a great deal of mediocre TV sit-com writing.  Now I know that Mr. Fraser has been working in TV for the last while and I feel that some of that genre may have crept into his play writing.  The dialogue was abrupt and stilted and every scene seemed to be gunning for an unearned resolution or button.  This approach in the writing was supported by an imposed acting style that made it feel like every scene, and ultimately the entire play, was a furious race to an ambiguous unresolved conclusion.  The actors seemed to have been directed to play every scene as fast as possible and to not let any of the deeper meaning of the lines or the circumstances affect their characters in any way or to affect their line delivery.  I’m guessing that the intent of this direction was again to try to convey a “paper-thin”, fragile family unit.  Instead I felt as though we were watching unfeeling robots going through bizarre circumstances in fast-forward without giving the audience any opportunity to find out who these people really are and why they are doing the things they do.  One might compare this play to something like Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?, a play that is also fraught with dysfunction and relational conflict and yet the major difference is that we care deeply about George and Martha and the choices they make even after all the difficult things we watch them go through.  One could make a similar comparison to Miller’s A View from a Bridge or even more recently Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County.  Now maybe these are unfair comparisons, but surely True Love Lies longs to be part of that same canon of dysfunctional family drama.  But this is an assumption.  I could be wrong.

It’s worth stating that I don’t hold the actor’s accountable for these infringements as I can tell from their performances that they are all very strong and committed performers.  I have seen some of them in other productions and can attest to the fact that they truly are seasoned, well-trained actors.  Ironically it was the younger actors (Andrew Craig & Susanna Fournier) who had some of the best moments.  As they played the “kids” in the family, they had moments where they were able to cut through much of the shallowness that the play was fraught with, and actually let us discover some tiny thing about who they were.  These moments were a scarce few; and the production needed much more of this.

In his attempt to rocket this play to its conclusion in under two hours Mr. Fraser has also chosen a rather dull and boring staging device.  Basically as soon as a scene is finished on one half of the playing space the actors run offstage behind one of the big tissue-paper flats while two other actors entered on the other side of the stage from behind one of the other tissue-paper flats.  This went on and on in rapid succession to the point where I was not only anticipating it (“Don’t tell me, the next scene is going to be over there with the actors running on there.”) but I was becoming hypnotized by the back-and-forth action of the blocking.  I think Mr. Fraser may have been trying to imitate the kind of wipes that one might see in TV land, but again it simply didn’t work.

It’s curious to me that Mr. Fraser reveals in his program notes that “it’s been nine years since (he’s) directed for the stage” and that he “finds it very taxing.”  He also states that his “general rule is never to direct the first production of (his) own plays.”  His intention with this rule is to “allow another director to premier it and then stage the second production (himself) – allowing (him) to avoid all of the first director’s pitfalls while also stealing his or her best ideas.” As it turned out due to the need for sudden spinal surgery he was not able to see the first production in Manchester.  In his abandonment of his “general rule” he apparently feels somewhat liberated in the fact that this “ensures that all of (his) work is entirely original.”One wonders if Mr. Fraser should stick to his “general rule.”

It’s also worth mentioning that I do understand what Mr. Fraser is saying in his notes when he challenges that, “Far too much of our stage work is obsessed with the past, relies on events from the past and is told almost entirely, often including the delivery of the performances by the actors, in that safe, slightly sentimental ‘past tense’ style that keeps everything from being too immediate.”  Mr. Fraser is clearly attempting in the production to keep the action very present and even hurtling toward the future.  While this is a noble and commendable pursuit, I feel he has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.  The reason good stories and good story-telling have some emphasis on the past is that it is by bringing the past into focus and understanding past events that our characters can then make choices in the present, healthy or unhealthy, that then hurtle them into an unknown future.  This is what makes good drama.  If we the audience are given a chance to understand some of the character’s past, we can then understand why they make the choices they make and we have an opportunity to truly grieve with them when destructive choices are made, and rejoice with them when choices are made that lead to healing, wholeness, forgiveness and redemption.  Without that past-perspective our character’s choices are meaningless and without understanding.

Once again, ultimately I felt that this production was unsuccessful.  It’s too bad because the framework and storyline of the characters, their circumstances and relationships have a lot of potential for great drama.  Perhaps Mr. Fraser will make some better strides towards keeping contemporary theatre in the present, in the future.