20th Century Theatre History Project

Students at GHP always seemed to enjoy this one:

Vision Quest–What was preoccupying your precursors?

Find the Latin beat in that phrase and you can have some fun dancing with it– my take: 20th century theatre, inscribing occult curses on the present scene…An exercise in art and academics.

Ah, you Boulevard players, you Children of Paradise, you moon-gazers and truth-tellers, raised on representation, rocked in arms you cannot possibly remember, babbling rhymes first sung by the Western Mother. Your roots run deep. You carry around a great deal of unconscious knowledge. You have no idea. It is time to tap into it. As shamans on the path you must sooner or later venture into the land of ancestral spirits and converse with the Fathers (Fathers and Mothers are referenced in this primordial paragraph; I’m trying to be politically correct, but some archetypes are unavoidable). As researchers you must know how to…well, research.

Western Twentieth Century Theatre has given us new stories to tell and new types of amusement. But it has done something else, which will be more of our concern this summer. Theatre, through the efforts of various artists/thinkers, has strived more than ever in the past century to hold a place in the culture with a privileged view of existence unavailable to any other art form. Truly, perhaps it has done more than find a unique part of human existence in this venture; perhaps it has actually created it. That’s a move from Modernist vision to Post-Modern versions, and we don’t have much time to debate it with all we have to do. Suffice to say, modern theatre has sought to find the new and has been fraught with artists and visionaries who have offered new ways to do it.

What does it mean to taking up such strong original perspectives in a group effort? Before we see with fresh eyes and speak with new voices, it is valuable to try on the robes of those who shaped the very landscape we now dare to travel. Walk in their shoes. We need to get intimate with the powerful minds which shaped our theatre art for the last 50 to 100 years if we want our present group to grasp the present moment in a relevant way. Remember, the director of The Lion King, the stage version, has traversed this path; you never know when you might experience its benefits.

In Stanislavsky’s key text on acting, An Actor Prepares, the teacher, Tortsov, has his students grapple with the following improvisation scenario:

“Very well. We can try it. Here is a tragedy, which I hope, will take your minds off the audience.

“It takes place here in this apartment. Maria has married Kostya, who is treasurer of some public organization. They have a charming, new-born baby, that is being bathed by its mother in a room off the dining-room. The husband is going through some papers and counting money. It is not his money, but prop­erty in his care, just brought from the bank. A stack of packets of bank bills has been thrown on the table. In front of Kostya stands Maria’s younger brother, Vanya, a low type of moron, who watches him tear the coloured bindings off the packets, and throw them in the fire, where they blaze up and make a lovely glow.

“All the money is counted. As she judges her husband has finished his work Maria calls him in to admire the baby in his bath. The half-witted brother, in imitation of what he has seen, throws some papers into the fire, and whole packets, he finds, make the best blaze, so that in a frenzy of delight he throws in all, the public funds, just drawn from the bank by the treasurer! At this moment Kostya returns, and sees the last packet flaring up. Beside himself, he rushes to the fireplace and knocks down the moron, who falls with a groan, and, with a cry, pulls the last half-burned packet out of the fire.

“His frightened wife runs into the room and sees her brother stretched out on the floor. She tries to raise him, but cannot. Seeing blood on her hands she cries to her husband to bring some water, but he is in a daze and pays no heed, so she runs after it herself. From the other room a heart-rending scream is heard. The darling baby is dead, drowned in its bath.

“Is this enough of a tragedy to keep your minds off the audience?”

This passage is from the beginning of Chapter Five on “Concentration.” The exercise is taken up again in Chapter Eight. (I apologize for the dated indelicacy in the choice of the word “moron”).

You will divide into six groups. Each group will work from this passage in a certain way, in a way influenced by particular Western theatrical visionaries. In other words, how would various artists work with this suggested scenario if for some peculiar reason each decided to do so, and how does it affect your group to work in these ways?

Group 1: Constantin Stanislavsky, the master himself, the fabricator of this little domestic tragedy. Use his texts on acting as a guide. You might want to read about his approach to directing Chekov, as well. Remember, you want to apply his particular sensibilities for Realism; you do not have to set your piece in turn of the century Russia. (If you ask respectfully for the privilege, one of your teachers will offer a personal anecdote about actually performing in this scenario and learning a profound lesson on how thought can help maximize a moment…not crucial information for this exercise, but instructive nonetheless.)

Group 2: Antonin Artaud. French surrealist poet and theatre prophet. Dip into The Theatre and Its Double. You’re closer to Artaud than you think; see any film by David Cronenberg or Dario Argento. Your teacher has a pantomime text written by Artaud. Find a copy of Spurt (Jet) of Blood, if you dare (suggestion: don’t read it to your little sister). One has to always wonder when and when not to take Artaud literally. His theatre dreams of burning up your soul in the fires of an impossible psychological cataclysm. And, seriously, “No more masterpieces!”

Group 3: Bertoldt Brecht. German poet, playwright, communist didact, advocate of the “epic” stage and ironic distance. We are making our history at this moment. If you love this business we call show, Bertie’s your man. Analyze the modes of production. See if you can figure out what gestus is. Brecht on Theatre is a good start. Read The Good Person (Mensch) of Setzuan. Theatre is an instrument used to criticize and change society; forget art: you can’t have a soul on an empty stomach or when a cop is whacking you with his stick. Edward Bond is the pre-eminent English playwright influenced by Brecht. Try his Lear.

(We can view Marat/Sade, which is a kind of theatrical fusion of Brecht and Artaud brought to us by Peter Brook, who is not in this list.)

Group 4: Jerzy Grotowski. Yes, Peter Brooks stuff is in English, but he’s the great assimilator. Grotowski’s the thing itself. His Polish Laboratory set the standard for serious performance group “research.” Read some of Towards a Poor Theatre. We can get a film of Akropolis. Your teacher has photos and materials. The Vocal Sequence wouldn’t have been conceived without Grotowski. Chaikin’s Open Theatre is a respectable reference, and a film exists of their work.

Group 5: Playwrights, Memories of Powerful Meanings. Samuel Beckett. Harold Pinter. Peter Handke. Three playwrights who have uncompromising visions which ask new things of actors and directors. What is time on stage and how is it filled? What does it mean to try to speak? Who’s in charge? Do we really know anything? Character? Self? Pinter: Old Times is a must; The Dumb Waiter more basic and visceral. Handke: Kaspar and The Ride Across Lake Constance. Beckett: Anything; teacher has films of all the stage works, you might should watch Krapp’s Last Tape if you choose only one.

Group 6: The End of History. Heiner Muller–a playwright from the former East Germany who created texts for the stage; directors and actors have a great deal of freedom in interpretation and choice of images–a community of effort. Our Western collective myths are dredged up and collided with history. His Hamletmachine needs to be experienced; try reading it out loud with stage directions included. Beginning in the early Sixties, Adrienne Kennedy cleared a path for poetic, visionary theatre that few other artists have had the courage or imaginative power to follow. No other American theatre poet of our time has managed such a radical transformation of personal history into a cosmic, apocalyptic vision, particularly in her early Funnyhouse of a Negro, A Rat’s Mass, or Sun. To read these and her later works are to understand how a playwright can achieve a visionary fusion of the personal and the social into sublime possibilities of performance. Also look into the last American collectives (last to make the history books, that is): Mabou Mines and The Wooster Group. Elinor Fuchs writes about them in The Death of Character (your teacher edited video for her once, years ago; nice lady, decent book), and the text can be found online through Galileo. Here at the end when we know everything and have felt everything, artists still insist on putting pieces together and offering something to us. Remember, the “job market” is a pervasive and subtle extortion. People will pay for dinner and a show, but not for you to ask these questions, and if you insist on working without an intermission…You’re on your own. Good luck.

The Groups will create pieces using the Stanislavsky scenario and through the influences of these powerful ancestors.

After your piece, offer your insights on the following;

How did work divide up among you? Why? Did someone become director? Voice of the Author. Ghost of the Luminary?

What happened to the text and the story? Was it represented? If other choices were made, how did they come about?

What were the acting problems? Was “acting” required or something else?

What were the staging problems?

What desires emerged among you? Did the group take them up as one? How or why not?

Did this approach contribute anything to your ideas about collective creation in the theatre? What and why or why not?

Did this experience rival the falling chandelier in Phantom or the arrival of Old Deuteronomy in Cats? Well then, why not?

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