20th century innovators of theatre Essay

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20th century innovators of theatre

In this essay I will contrast and explore the key innovations and methodologies of the director/practitioner Peter Brook, and the Polish director/practitioner Wlodzimierz Staniewski and the workings of his theatre company, Gardzienice. One of Peter Brooks methodologies that I feel is key is his use of site specific work. Peter Brook felt a need to try and create theatre outside of ‘traditional theatres’. So in the early 1970’s he started the experimentation of acting in the street, in hospitals, carparks, anywhere there was a space big enough to hold a production.

‘In the early seventies we began doing experiments outside what was regarded as ‘theatre’. ‘For the first three years we played hundreds of times in streets, in cafes, in hospitals, in the ancient ruins of Persepolis, in African villages, in American garages, in barracks, between concrete benches in urban parks…. We learned a lot, and the major experience for the actor was playing to an audience they could see, as opposed to the invisible audience to which they were accustomed. ‘

This key innovation has helped both directors and actors all over the world, especially actors in third world/war torn countries who either don’t have access to theatre buildings due to financial constraints, or who have no theatre buildings due to bombings. Peter Brook encountered a theatre director from Soweto in Africa. This African director explained that his theatre company had been helped greatly by Peter Brooks book ‘The Empty Space’, when Peter Brook asked ‘how? ‘ the African director replied “The first sentence”, which is, ‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.

A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all I need for an act of theatre to be engaged. ‘ Peter Brook felt that the newfound relationship between actor/audience would create a new and different dynamic for the actors involved, mainly due to the proximity (closeness) of the actors and audience. One of the actor’s main defences previously in conventional theatre was not being able to see the audience’s faces. With this new site-specific theatre this defence was shattered.

Peter Brook felt that this newly created relationship between actor/audience was key in the shared experience of the theatrical performance, so rather than the audience being alienated by the space, the audience sharing the auditorium and the actors the stage, suddenly both parties were sharing exactly the same space. ‘Another aspect of the empty space is that the emptiness is shared: it’s the same space for everyone who is present. ‘ He also felt that there was no need for an elaborate set, lighting and the comfort of a theatre to produce living theatre, he felt that this so called living theatre was not linked to external conditions.

‘I wish to compare what can occur only on a regular stage, with set and lighting, with what can take place only without lighting, without scenery, out of doors, in order to demonstrate that the phenomenon of a living theatre is not linked to external conditions. ‘ Gardzienice also used site specific work within their company, but what made their use of site-specific work different to Peter Brook’s form was the way in which they executed it. Firstly they would interconnect their form of site-specific work and interculterallism.

The Theatre Company would travel to a village and set up for a performance, this would be done in full view of the villages’ inhabitants so to insure a large turnout. A small group of performers would then walk between the houses either engaging in short performances in front of or inside the houses. They did this to make the villages feel like part of their performances rather than ‘outside’ of them, this method connects to Peter Brook’s method of actor/audience sharing the same space rather than feeling alienated, just spectators.

The difference with Gardzienice’s performance/gatherings is that they actively encourage the villagers to participate/share in the performances. ‘You may rehearse with local musicians, and if there are storytellers you try and include them as well, if not in the performance scenario then in the gatherings. So the preparations should animate the local community as much as possible. ‘ Gardzienice created these gatherings in order to share their work with agrarian communities and also give members of these communities a chance to share lifelong skills, in any performance-related art with them.

‘If you present your skills, they will respond with their highest abilities. ‘ This method is used not only to share artistic forms, it is also used as a refining vehicle, because the responses of these villagers are so unblemished by society as we know it, Gardzienice felt that the responses of the villagers would be completely primitive and instinctive. ‘The expedition tests and proves the strength and the ‘causing effect’ of the performance, of the scenes, of acting, of timing-all the aspects which indicate whether it is alive or not. It is a very good camp for refining your craft. ‘

The use of the gatherings/performances changed the theatre of its time, as did the use of site-specific spaces for Brook. These gatherings created a whole newworld of what was seen as ‘theatre’. In the 1970’s theatre was seen as a performance of a play in a conventional theatre space to a paying audience. Gardzienice changed this by using the natural environment of the village as the theatre. He also had no set play, the drama would ‘unfold’ in an organic completely natural way, and this also reflected upon the environment in which it was set. ‘I am of the opinion that ‘gathering’ is a moment of theatre born of itself.

The traditional gathering has, Within it, the fundamental structure and principles of drama. It has an enormous theatricality and dynamism. If you observe the traditional gatherings in the villages where the people meet to sing, play their music and tell their stories, you will see that they are richer and more developed than many dramas on the stage. ‘ Gardzienice also created this innovation of gathering/performance to truly allow their audience to be an integral part of the performance. For without them the performance is not actually possible.

‘The real performance, the real event is the gathering. ‘ Staniewski’s company wished to change the passive audience into the active one through the constant evoking of their senses. He did this through his deeply moving performances, which involved music and song, this musical song was used in a very ritualistic way. This performance type has elements of religious ritual and the natural environment, which usually connects greatly with these villages, as most of their lives are rooted in tradition and religious activity and their constant connection with the land.

‘The performance demonstration is very important because it allows you to identify your work. The village is never passive during the performance because this sort of society still has liveliness, an immediate reaction to an action, a picture, to events, happenings. But the gathering is much more significant because you are changing the passive audience into the active one. ‘ In both Staniewski’s and Brook’s work they share a common interest in the role of the spectator. Brook’s methodologies are such that the audience must be an alert energy whilst speculating.

Within Brook’s work he is aware that the audience should be alert to the action but not directly involved. He sees the audience as active through the channelling of their positive energy onto the actors; they have an awakened presence that manifests itself onto the energy of the performers. ‘The eye of the audience is the first element, which helps. If one feels this scrutiny as a true expectation, which demands at every moment that nothing be gratuitous, that nothing can come from limpness, but all from alertness, one understands then that the audience does not have a fully passive function.

It does not need to intervene or manifest itself in order to participate. It is a constant participant through it’s wakened precence. ‘On the contrary Staniewski encourages the spectator to become an integral part of the performance process (within gatherings), sometimes even encouraging the audience to actively taking part in the creation of the action. Gardzienice display their skills, to which the villagers then respond with skills of their own. ‘You must demonstrate your own abilities as perfectly as possible.

If you present your skills, they will respond with their highest ability’s. ‘ Another very important innovation of Peter Brook’s is interculterallism. He is very interested in the idea of sharing forms. Especially those that come from a long line of tradition, forms that were inbred into a people, rather than learnt/acquired as forms are usually ‘learnt’ in the western world. When talking about a Ta’azieh performance that he saw in Iran he said about the performer ‘It was although we heard his father’s voice, and his father’s father’s, and so on back’.

Although Peter Brook admires the greatness of these age-old plays/rituals/ceremonies, he also discusses the way in which these forms can become ‘out of touch’ with society. Peter Brook believes in taking a form from another culture and adapting it. He believes that trying to create an exact representation of a form so alien to an outsider, yet that comes so naturally to it’s inhabitant is useless. Peter Brook felt that once a form was formed it was rigidly stuck and unable to progress. He said, ‘Generally speaking, we can conclude that tradition, in the sense of the word, means ‘frozen’.

It is a frozen form more or less obsolete, reproduced through automatism. ‘ He feels that forms are just like any natural cycle within our universe that everyone must accept, everything is born and everything must die. He believes that only the constant re-evaluation and adaptation of a form will keep it alive. ‘There is no form beginning with ourselves that is not subject to the fundamental law of the universe: that of disappearance. All religion, all understanding, all tradition, all wisdom accepts birth and death.

In 1968 he met a Japanese actor named Yoshi Oida who was trained in No theatre. He believed that although his training was beneficial to him, it wasn’t truly in touch with the world around him. Peter Brook agreed with this actor’s outlook, he felt that it was important to assess the context in which you are producing/performing the form in, and inevitably it’s connection with an audience. ‘A magnificent form is not necessarily the appropriate vehicle to carry a living experience once the historical context changes.

‘ So in Peter Brook’s productions he takes elements of ritualistic traditions/forms that he has encountered by indigenous people, and he adapts them to suit western actors/audiences. For Peter Brook’s production of The Conference of the Birds, he brought in a Balinese actor with a vast experience in the use of traditional Balinese masks, to work with his actors. Although the acting company was in awe of what they saw him do with these masks, they knew that it would be almost impossible to recreate. ‘He used the mask as a Balinese tradition, with a thousand years of ritual behind it.

It would have been ridiculous for us to try to be what we were not. Finally we asked him what it was possible for him to do. ‘ Gardzienice has a similar methodology with regards to interculterallism but rather then heavily reforming the customs the Theatre Company try to translate the nature of the form that is shared with them whether in song or dance. ‘Staniewski and his collaborators in Gardzienice translate what they explore and discover in their expeditions into their own highly complex and innovative theatre language’.

Gardzienice take the use of interculterallism to a completely new level through their use of the ‘Gathering’. This event not only involves sharing of cultural forms, it also takes the reactions of the spectators, or the sounds of the natural environment during a performance, and adds this to its theatre language, so it can be recreated in later rehearsals/performances. This innovation Staniewski calls ‘interference in dialogue’ ‘For example, an actor speaks a monologue and a voice from the crowd is constantly adding something. This is when they interject with material belonging to their own lives.

‘ So Gardzienice not only share and receive songs and rituals with these ‘villagers’, crossing the boundaries of culture, they also apply their natural reactions to aid the growth of their material. This innovation again bears similarities to Peter Brooks methodologies, although Brook does not directly involve the spectators in the action. Although he believes that the actors and the audience have a link through their imagination, he doesn’t want them too directly participate as in the ‘gatherings’ of Gardzienice. ‘In the sixties we dreamed of an audience ‘participating’. Nai??

vely, we thought that participating meant demonstrating with one’s body, jumping onto the stage, running around and being part of the group of actors. ‘ The participation that Brook talks of is more of a silent participation, not in the sense of conventional theatre where the audiences are there to just watch. They must finely tune their energies into the energies of the actors in order to create an ‘extra daily’ atmosphere/energy. ‘The audience does not need to intervene or manifest itself in order to participate. It is a constant participant through its awakened presence. ‘

De-urbanisation is a key innovation shared by both practitioners. This de-urbanisation was thought to have helped cleanse the acting company of the ‘pollution’s’ of city life. It also helped them to get more accustomed to the natural world. ‘De-urbinisation is a recognizable process in the history of twentieth-century actor training. Stanislavski, Vakhtangov, Brook and Copeau have, at some point, sought rural retreats for their work’. The differences in their use of de-urbinisation being that Brook retreated to country retreats whilst being involved in certain rehearsals, but Gardzienice has a permanent residence in rural Poland.

Brook and Staniewski believe that urban life warps our bodies. Staniewski holds the same view he said in an interview’ Habitants brought from the city slowly die out the defensive attitude (necessary there), the dullness of the senses, and the indifference…. Gradually we become sensitive to one another, we feel our constant, tangible, warm presence’. Another of Staniewski’s key methodologies is incorporating religious/ritualistic ceremonies into nearly all of their performances. This is not a new innovation as theatre was born originally out of religion, but it is a key factor within Garzienice’s theatre practices.

His theatre is a spiritual theatre that encompasses outside factors and digests them in order to externalize them whenever necessary. Staniewski expects greatness in his performances not only through the actors transmission of the material gathered over the long rehearsal period, but also with regards to the reaction of the audience. I think that Staniewski wishes the reaction of the audience (and to some extent the actor) to be similar to the transcendence that some religious ceremonies awake in people. ‘Should one expect miracles from a performance? Yes.

You have to know how to prepare the ingredients, ignite the fire under the crucible, and then the actors can transmute their material into gold. ‘ Peter Brook believes that the religious/ritualistic ceremony/performance can be completely lost once taken out of its natural environment. In the community where the ritual originates from religious sense usually pervades everything. A western audience may not understand or want to understand the importance of the religious element/indigenous peoples way of life with regards to the context of this ritual, therefore something in the spectators reaction will be lost.

Brook gave an example of a performance by the Bengal Chauu a group of villagers who act out battle, moving forward in little jumps. In India Bengal Chauu are greatly received, a big excitement for the villagers. But when the same performance was performed in front of a British audience Peter Brook felt that there was no energy left within it. ‘The spirit was no longer present, nothing was left but a show, a show with nothing to show’. Another key innovation that Staniewski discovered was that of musicality.

It not only involves Music in its true sense through the use of choral work, but also musicality created through the body (rhythms). This form is seen to have a direct connection with the earth, Staniewski believes that every natural element contains musicality within it. ‘I am utterly convinced that the earth is musical, that it has musicality and that every part of nature can be musical’ He believes that musical composition can be composed in a totally new way to it’s traditional form of writing a score. He feels that the western music is in some way inhibited by its strictness in form.

‘That’s why our western music, codified since the middle ages, is sometimes refereed to as reduced’. Through the use of breath, animal sounds that occur through our connection with the earth (such as stamping), using these sounds can help to create a musical composition, full of the earth’s richness. ‘The entire world is filled with sound. But natural sounds represent a rich world of music. In dogs barking in the village and birds singing at my window, I hear musical compositions, which inspire me’. These innovations have revolutionized the way in which theatre is produced today.

In the 1970’s when these forms were first discovered music would only appear within theatrical performances in the traditional musical theatre setting, or to increase tension, or as background music. Peter Brook uses music to create dramatic tension. He sees music as accompanying the action, rather then as in Gardzienice’s work music being a through line during all performances. He sees music as a complimentary tool that can help develop the energies of the actor. In contrast to Staniewski He imagines this music to be outside of the actor, composed, rather then created by the performers.

‘The simple present of a pulse or a throb is already a tightening the action and a sharpening of the interest. Then other instruments enter to play a role-always in relation to the action’. But feels that this music must contain a unified language with relation to the performance, and can’t contain a language of it’s own language, whereas Staniewski combines the two to create a newer more innovative language. Staniewski connects musicality to spirituality, although he believes that the church has had a negative influence in the codification of music.

‘The church’s influence on Western music is a well-known story. Dissonance was regarded as a sin. Ornamentation is not only an expression of emotion but also an intellectual statement-the Church found it too dangerous and reduced it’. The connection and utter concentration of the senses that musicality techniques arouse can awake the inner senses making it an almost religious experience. Codified music is usually in the background of this ‘musicality’, creating a great juxtaposition in the finished performances.

He sees the music as ‘framing’ the musicality. ‘My performances incorporate music and musicality. You have to form your artistic proposal and frame it. Once you repeat this framed work, you are developing a uniform structure of sound. Musicality is like a rough diamond, which is perfectly framed by the gold of the codified music’. Song is also an important aspect of Garzienice’s ‘musicality’; singing/choral work is incorporated in some way into every one of their performances. Song is not used in a traditional sense within their practices.

The act of singing is seen as something sacred, like sharing something with you audience. It is not about communicating a skill or ability as in the conventional meaning. It must not just involve your head your whole body must become consumed by the song. ‘Song is a being; it is not just a composition or melody which must simply be sung. Nor is it a pretext for an actor to express his or her ability as an actor. Song is not illustration;’ Most of the songs that are used within Gardzienice’s performances are strongly linked to a given community or tradition (as with all of his work).

‘The creative potential of this way of perceiving performance has received further confirmation through Staniewski’s discovery of related techniques found in native cultures. He feels that the song in its natural tradition is sung from deep within and that is what he wants his actors to recreate. They take the song and then deconstruct it using varying words, harmonies and tempo’s etc. ‘You have to penetrate the song through experimentation: through making different combinations of voices and harmonies.

You explore different musical ideas, which will suddenly show you different plants within the organism of the song’. Gardzienice have explored harmony, polyphony and dissonance rhythm and counterpoint. This way of singing is seen to produce an almost cathartic effect, through the deep training and the actor’s real sincerity in ‘giving’ the song through humbleness rather than through self and ego. ‘I am an idealist. I always believe that there must be a final destination within a song, a way of singing it, which explains everything, bringing a sort of catharses’.

In conclusion I have compared the methodologies of two key 20th century innovators of theatre. I started off talking about Peter Brook’s use of site-specific spaces. I feel that this has been a key and revolutionary innovation in terms of the freedom it has given actors/theatre companies. It has in a way broken a barrier between the classes. Poorer companies of actors may not have been able to afford to hire out large theatre spaces. It has also encouraged the actors to be more creativity within the context of performance.

Gardzienice’s methodology is similar to Brook’s in relation to using a non-theatrical space as a setting for a performance. But they take it one step further with the involvement of the people of the village within their performances also talked about actor/audience relationship and audience participation. Peter Brook believes that the spectators are active through their silent energies. Gardzienice wants the audience to directly participate in the action. With regards to inter/cross culturalism Gardzienice embraces other cultures forms and incorporates many of them into their unique theatre language.

Peter Brook also embraces other cultures forms, but he constantly evolves them, retaining little of their original substance. Both Peter Brook and Staniewski have embraced de-urbanisation. Peter Brook during some of his rehearsal periods. Gardzienice indefinitely. Both practitioners were interested in ritual. Peter Brook felt that something is lost when these rituals are performed out of their original contexts. Gardzienice have a great respect for other cultures rituals, they rehearse these songs/dances so much that they become a part of them, thus becoming re-contextualised.

The last topic discussed was music/musicality/song. Gardzienice have revolutionised the process of creating music within a performance. A new non-codified type of music has arisen that can work alongside the codified form. Peter Brookes’ music as a background element in a performance to at times highlights the action. In my estimation all of these innovations have been important in the development of theatre, as we know it. But I believe that Garzienice on every level have taken Peter Brook’s methodologies one step further.

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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

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  • Date: 7 July 2017

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