Tuesday, November 06, 2012


Church, theatre, social action, law court, public spectacle, counterculture, personal ritual, indigenous ceremony, movies -- they all move in and out of each other, rearranging the “chairs”, putting up and down the curtain. pulling on and off the masks, and abandoning some things altogether while inventing the unheard of, possibly by breaking a taboo or reversing the assumed.  After the post-war years (any of them) things are likely to get hairy and bare.  And loud.  Because a lot of fathers (and now mothers) didn’t come back or came back broken.  So now the kids have their say.

I’m reading Robert Benedetti’s Ph.D. thesis:  “Encounter Theatre.” (1971)  I asked him via email how he got from what I see as “cool” and literary NU Oral Interpretation  (I’m slowly reading “Literature as Experience” by Bacon and Breen, which is Benedetti’s basic guide.) to such intense and abandoned encounter work -- I mean, aside from the fact that it was Sixties going on Seventies.  He said the following and I’ll link you up with some clues from YouTube, which I needed in order to understand.  I do not know this material.

“I got into Grotowski  from seeing The Constant Prince in New York, and The Living Theatre from seeing Paradise Now and Mysteries and Smaller Pieces in Pittsburgh, 

“The Constant Prince”  Grotowski
“Paradise Now”     the Living Theatre

then getting to know Julian [Beck] and Judith [Malina].  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXKBuTyTY9g

When I ran the acting program at Yale, Joe Chaikin taught for me two days a week and we got to be friends. 
Joe Chaikin

So I was directly involved with the whole radical theatre movement, and was friends with Dick Schechner,   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJy1k2gSfAg&feature=fvsr

and others too. And that was why I chose the thesis topic I did. 

Breen had turned me on to Edward Bullough's Psychical Distance by then, and I saw the application at once.”

Benedetti’s thesis is not a “how to” which is what David Press’ thesis about Alvina Krause’s teaching methods was.  This thesis is theory which gives one principles about “why to” before “how to.”  UNdistancing the audience.  Doing what we in the church used to call “unscrewing the pews,” meaning changing the location of the seating.  Introducing social reform as a driving force.  Forming a company that is like a tribe in their willingness to commit to what they are doing.  There might be no scripts, but rather something like a road map, a structure, a set of forces acting against each other.  There might not even be any dialogue.  The action may have been worked out by experiment and rehearsal, but because of weaving different media together, cues need to be followed.  My opinion is that this way of doing things is not a way of skipping out on the skills of traditional theatre but a way of using them differently.  The audience may be asked to participate by representing people in the story -- a crowd maybe.

The 19th century Russian “bourgeois” audience loved natural realism that evoked emotion with which they could identify.  Stanislavski’s method of teaching acting was meant to equip actors to create this illusion of high realism (though it was artful) while the audience sat quietly in their seats.  Of course they were emotionally involved and their muscles must have been reacting vicariously to stage action, but the unsaid bargain was to pretend they weren’t there.  Then came movies.

Movies could create these illusions far more effectively and, as they became more sophisticated, manipulate the audience through flashbacks, controlling angles and nearness, distortions, varying speed -- all sorts of things.  Of course, the same thought processes and tension between realism and abstract affected the movies so that they, too, divided into streams.  One of the most interesting developments IMHO is folding theatre back into movies.  Some films have been watched so many times that we’ve memorized the dialogue and lost the emotional content.  Adding live actors and extravagant reactions suddenly wakes us up to a whole new thought pattern and renewed emotion.

Roundabout Theatre does “Brief Encounter”

Perhaps the link that has been missing in many minds is the one Benedetti identifies as the role of Meyerhold, who was with Stanislavski and then split to be more experimental.  As it worked out, this change revealed political content that was also more offensive to the powers-that-be, so that Meyerhold was suppressed and banished while Stanislavky remained a favorite of the status quo.  Defiant, experimental Meyerhold is the link to Encounter Theatre:  political ideas boldly presented.  I’ll come back to this “theatre genome” a little later.  It’s what I’m deriving from this sequence of theses originating when and where I did my own theatre work, such as it was.  I was totally unaware of these developments at the time.

To me, perhaps the wildest, most absurd, and therefore most engaging of the experimental theatre groups is the Blue Men.  This little video intro uses a voice-over to make it clear that the audience is included in the action.  There is magic, symbolism, social interaction that the audience clearly relishes, and a strange poignancy that comes from being able to read these actions so clearly while never quite forgetting how weird they are.

Blue Men


Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Mary’s reference to the Blue Men brings up the influence of visual artists on the radical theatre. Meyerhold involved important painters in his work and it is no accident that the building in which the Living Theatre worked in New York also housed the studios of people like Robert Indiana and Jasper Johns. Julian Beck was himself a brilliant scenic designer. In 1991 I recreated the 1913 Futurist Opera, VICTORY OVER THE SUN by Kazimir Malevich, a “Suprematist” painter with strong ties to the dada movement. This could be called the first piece of performance art, created by a painter, a poet, and a composer. When we performed the piece at LACMA, there was a near-riot when “New Wave” people like Dennis Hopper and the art-rock group DEVO (formed by Kent State art students) fought to get in. We eventually took it to the Berlin Festival, the Demervaart Avant Garde museum in Amsterdam, the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, and the BAM Next Wave Festival. Robert Wilson’s work is firmly in this tradition (its roots are in the art of autistic children.) I noticed at these performances that the “art” audience was much more open and excited about it than the “theatre” audience, which was resistant to the destruction of recognizable narrative structures, and often booed (which would have delighted the Russian Futurists – there were riots at the 1913 opening also.)

A congenital Aristotleian like me does miss narrative structure and traditional characterization in these works, but if I switch to my painter/designer hat (I began as a lighting designer – that was why I was at Northwestern, to study with Ted Fuchs) I love the new vocabulary, which is being absorbed (as always) into the mainstream by people like Julie Taymor.

I dearly miss the spirit of the Sixties and Seventies in our theatre, but as a movement the radical theatre made the mistake of regarding the audience as an enemy instead of a collaborator. There were exceptions, and that’s why the work of groups like El Teatro Campesino and the San Francisco Mime Troupe lives on, because they were based in a love for the audience instead of treating the audience like a patient in need of therapy and political re-education (even though it was.) In this sense, Artaud, the fountainhead of most of the American radical theatre, was a mixed blessing. He opened up a new vocabulary of performance and the use of theatrical space (he literally “unscrewed the pews”) but he also gave us a messianic and somewhat sadistic streak, heroine addict and misogynist that he was. But if you want to understand the movement, you must read THE THEATRE AND ITS DOUBLE, and the work it spawned, like Grotowski’s TOWARDS A POOR THEATRE.

Beny Benedetti

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

This comment makes me think of the cross-arts collaboration among ballet-related personalities: Diagilev, Bakst, Stravinsky, Picasso et al. I suppose they are "performance theatre."

Prairie Mary