Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Performance theory:

(The Mandrakes, Sept. 09)

What are the performers doing when they perform You'll Always Come Back?

YACB is an imagination of the ancestors. To initiate the process, I examined the artifacts associated with my father's family farm, gradually zeroing in on the period of time between 1845 and 1931. My interest was to note how my imagination (and the imaginations of others like you, kind reader...) uses categories to assemble these artifacts, and their implications, into a story, especially how exaggeration and deformation, the chief powers of imagination, are called into play. There was a point when I felt that I should declare that the story that began to emerge had little to do with what we, as a group, call history, but now I'm beginning to wonder.

Performers in YACB make the unseen world of the ancestors apparent, so that it can be observed and contemplated. In this particular work, and indeed in any work dealing with history, status of an image is equivalent to its power of duration. What endures most is by that fact the main material. Pete's Spring, the actual phenomena of the spring, exceeds all the human histories in duration, and gains thereby prominence as a symbol in the performance. It earns signification in a form that is present throughout the performance, as well as becoming a theme in the lyrics.

Consider: "Yoruba conceive spectacle as a permanent, otherworldly dimension of reality which, until REVEALED by knowledgeable actors, is inaccessible to human experience."

I've mentioned before my hypothesis that our imagination of the ancestors is a form of negotiation with the dead; I'll reanimate you (in my imagination, on my terms...) in exchange for an identity. I'm like my ancestors. I'm not like my ancestors.
I'm like what came before me. I'm not like what came before me. I am the history of actions upon me. I am not the history of actions upon me. I am the history of my acts. I am not the history of my acts - I am an actor.

This reminds me of a favorite line from a favorite movie, much about family history, Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny & Alexander", when Alexander's father, playing the ghost of Hamlet's father (they are a theatrical family...) collapses and begins to actually die on stage, or to put it another way, the actor playing the part of Alexander's father, playing the part of Hamlet's father, acts as tho, as tho, etc., says this line; "Where am I?" His wife, (an actress, of course...) tells him. "You're in the theater. You're acting." The dying man asks; "I was acting? Why was I acting?."

When we think of a performer portraying (?) a particular individual, theater in our culture tends to focus on "the important facts" ~ and these are alleged to be the significant incidents in childhood, the heroic act in battle, the conversational details of the romance, the dramatic once-in-a-lifetime decision upon which the rest of the story will hang, etc. Far more important to every human organism would be drinking water, knowing a source of drinking water, and in terms of duration, involving a considerable portion of the individual's duration. Or consider sleep. Or consider death.

A particular human, an ancestor, is permanent only in the sense that their identity is evoked in the imaginations of their descendants. As to there being an otherworldly dimension of reality, surely "the past" is the most potent example. We cannot deny its existence, yet beyond the powers of our imagination, it is utterly inaccessible to us.

To focus on the elemental, that which is (relatively) permanent, or the aspects of reality that seem to have the most duration, may seem to be "anti-theatrical" ~ how can, for instance, the importance of water in daily life, or the human inclination toward patterned behavior make a historical spectacle that is truly an evocation of the ancestors?

I think that the first impulse that I had in staging You'll Always Come Back was to reanimate, somehow, the ancestors and put them through the chronological paces of their artifacts. Today I'm thinking of how Peter Brook approached the staging of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" with his theater group. There was a point when the idea of bringing in tons of sand to cover the stage seemed the best set for the play. Brook pointed out that the final solution to staging might be to work on a bare stage, without props or set, but that this solution required just as much thought and effort as bringing in a ton of sand. You can't take things for granted in art. And in the end, one might have to bring in the ton of sand, rehearse with it, then remove it before the performance, so that the presence of the sand only lingered in the body language of the actors, this invisible, yet powerful detail providing the difference between the spectacular and the truly magical.

Brook said: "Even if it’s ancient, by its very nature theatre is always an art of modernity. A phoenix that has to be constantly brought back to life. Because the image that communicates in the world in which we live, the right effect which creates a direct link between performance and audience, dies very quickly. In five years a production is out of date. So we must entirely abandon any notion of theatrical tradition…"

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