Does it make sense to point at a group of trees and ask: ‘Do you understand what is meant with this group?’ In general, it would not make sense, but couldn’t you express some meaning by the manner in which trees are grouped? Couldn’t this be a secret language?

(Wittgenstein in Philosophische Grammatik)



In non-intentional theatre, I consider two principles leading: synchronism and inclusivity. Both principles are applicable to all parameters in theatre: text, décor, light, sound, playing with fellow performers, audience, and the physical performance environment.

In Wikipedia, synchronism is defined as: significant coincidence of outer and inner events that are not causally interconnected.

My introduction to this principle on the stage took place at the theatre in Breda in the evening of 26 June 1970: at the Holland Festival, John Cage, together with David Tudor and Gordon Mumma, performed several of his compositions. Simultaneoulsy, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company danced choreographies by Merce Cunningham, in décors by Jasper Johns and Bruce Nauman. Décor, dance and music did not have a planned mutual coherence. While John Cage read from diary notes, dancers moved about on the stage, musicians walked through the hall and knocked on walls where contact microphones transferred the sounds that were electronically processed, and Rauschenberg’s objects hovered over the stage like large clouds. The performance was kept together by a framework of scenario books, one for every performer, which had been prepared on the basis of chance operations. Every performer had his own series, so-called time brackets: blocks of certain duration, separated from each other by silence and within which a certain series of actions had to be performed. The synchronous actions of the various performers were not mutually adjusted, and the combinations that came about were the result of coincidence. To me it was fascinating that every time again this principle of synchronism caused surprising combinations, which were unintentional and therefore unpredictable and allowed me as a spectator freedom to tell my own story.

In Paris, on 19 January 1981, I had the same fascinating experience. At the IRCAM studios, Cage performed his composition Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake. Audio recorded by Cage in Ireland at locations mentioned in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, could be heard from dozens of loudspeakers. Simultaneous with these field recordings, Cage read passages from this book, and on various stages in the hall Irish folk musicians played traditional Irish music independent from each other. Here, too, every performer had his own scenario book that had resulted from chance operations. John Cage used the I Ching, the Chinese book of oracles, for the purpose. ‘Because I like to deal with mystery,’ he said during a masterclass I attended in 1988. In this masterclass, Cage called the selected audio fragments ‘selected musical instruments’. As a composer, he non-intentionally he excluded himself from this selection process: the selection was based on the questions ‘which locations are mentioned in Finnegans Wake, and which sounds do I find there?’

In the previous blog, I quoted Robert Rauschenberg: ‘Art is the imitation of nature in her manner of operation.’

Synchronous acts, without any central directions from a director for instance, yield spontaneously woven threads of meaning, for both the audience and the performers, at unexpected moments in the theatre. Nobody forces me, as a member of the audience, towards a central interpretation placed on the performance by a director or performer. Nobody forces me, as a performer, to subordinate my creativity to a director’s interpretation; to regard every word, every act, and every action in the performance as subservient to the ‘only correct interpretation’ of the text of the play.

In the principle of synchronism, the focus of the audience and performers is not forced into a certain direction: watch this, for this is important. The spectator is not stupid and can create his or her own story. The performer is a professional, who connects with the performance in his or her own way. As an actor I have confidence in my fellow performers’ professionalism and creativity. The performance as an anarchist process.

Consequently, no one will watch the same performance. For me as a performer it is impossible to be on the stage everywhere simultaneously, so I do not have a total overview. What is more, there is no central line that has been set by the director in advance and which I am to follow as an actor, a central line that causes me to know exactly what my dramatic function in this play is, what is happening on the stage at any given moment, and why it is to be happening, even when I am briefly in the dressing room. For that matter, why would I ‘be briefly in the dressing room’ during a scene I am not involved in? I want to remain involved in the adventure of the performance.

All across the stage, unintended situations may come about that are meaningful, even though the performers themselves are not aware of it. In Lear Lesen, I reached as King Lear to my daughter Cordelia, who was far away on the stage. Roshanak (the dancer) was not even thinking about Cordelia at that moment, she could not even see me since her back was turned towards me. For me, however, immersed as I was in the part of Lear, she was Cordelia at that moment. We did not notice that on the ceiling our shadows touched. This effect had not been intended by Els (film, video) or Nora (stage and light design) either; it was a coincidence. Many people in the audience reflected on this moment afterwards and interpreted it as ‘the impossibility of two individuals of actually reaching each other.’ If this effect had been intended by the director, it might have led to serious discussions afterwards. What if it had failed? ‘I’ve clearly told you to stand on that mark! This effect is crucial in this scene!’

Nora had placed three columns on the stage with some props. Somebody in the audience took these three columns for Lear’s daughters and had retained this image in his story throughout the performance.

For Lear Lesen, we used the following method. Roshanak (dance), Els (film/video), Nora (stage design), Antoine (composer, musician), and I (actor) read Shakespeare’s text, and next we spoke with each other for a week about this rich, multi-layered text. In the process, we included sources that Shakespeare may have used while writing the text (such as the work of French philosopher Michel de Montaigne), and above all we told one another why certain passages affected us individually. This was a rich phase, and I would not have missed it for the world. I can remember some very personal stories. We also discussed why this text could still be relevant today. In this way, every performer felt connected with the text, and gradually we became a collective.

The performance consisted of five nights, each centred on one act. Some spectators showed up every night, others came to one or several nights.

During the day, we individually prepared for the act of that respective night, thinking from the language and the possibilities of our respective art discipline. We collected any material required and gathered at five in the afternoon to tell each other briefly and in great outline – sometimes in only one sentence – what we had in mind for that night.

By the time the audience entered the hall at about eight, we were waiting for them, fully prepared, and at a moment that had not been prearranged, the performance began, which – always about one hour later – ended at a moment that had not been prearranged.

As an actor I could not possibly play all characters, of course. I opted for following a route through the space and the universe created by light, video, sounds, and objects, and by assuming a different character every time again, and leaving it while moving to the next character and the next text fragment. Various text fragments were spread across the area, some of which I knew by heart, whereas some others I did not. Finding a text fragment, I began to read it for myself. Then, for a brief moment, I assumed – or did not assume – the corresponding character and declaimed the text, or said it for myself, audibly, sometimes inaudibly. Every time, I made the choice whether or not to assume the corresponding emotion and, if I did not, to read the text in a supposedly flat tone, without any emotion but purely for its content.

In this way, I varied the parameters of part, emotion, and text treatment. I did not play a part with uninterrupted texts, led by a fixed corresponding emotion and timing, so that the spectator was taken along in the director’s interpretation. I rather entered and left a number of text fragments, partly selected at random and partly because they appealed to me. I played an emotion and stepped out of it, or I did not play an emotion. I got into and out of various parts, and at the moments at which I was out of them, I was the actor, present in the hall, like the audience watching and waiting for a next occasion or on my way on the prearranged route, looking for what would present itself. On my way, I met Roshanak, I saw video images, I heard sounds, I entered designed spaces, et cetera. Every time, I had the option to decide if I was going to do something with it or if I was going to let it be, without any intervention from my part; perhaps my intervention of looking on attentively was sufficient in itself. Somebody in the audience might be watching me and everything I did, or I might be performing an activity to the best of my ability at that moment which would then interfere with another performer’s actions in one way or another.

In this manner, the text of the play would not become hard and fast, concentrated into an impressive interpretation intended to fascinate the audience; the text is rather unravelled and opened to the audience and performers. The audience and performers decide what they believe is the relevance of the text of the play.

In the Kitan project, we opted for having the performers’ interventions (film, music, dance) run sequentially instead of simultaneously. Every performer was allocated a time bracket on the basis of the syllable structure in Haiku poetry: 3-5-3-7-3-5-3. Traditionally, the 5-7-5 structure is referred to, one unit for each syllable, each character. In the declamation, however, each line is preceded and followed by three units of silence. During the passages from one time bracket to the next, brief moments of unintended simultaneity, of synchronism, could occur. When designing Kitan, we thought of the Japanese kire principle: the isolation of events in the empty space, a central principle in Japanese art. Again, every performer opted for an individual contribution on the basis of associations with the central theme: the seasons of the principle of change in nature. And again, the interventions were not structurally adjusted to each other intentionally, but possibly intuitively here and there, particularly as we played the performance more often. Also with Kitan the audience wove their own threads of meaning.

Applying the synchronism principle in theatre therefore renders a performance a collection of shorter interventions and actions, like the knots in a net. Between these knots, run the threads of meaning, which are different for every spectator and performer. In this structure, the meshes of the net are essential: the spaces of silence in between, of transitions from appearing and fading. It is in these spaces in between where the threads of meaning emerge that manifest themselves to the audience and the performers. Meanings embedded in the fundamental themes of the performance.

A performance is a hospitable collection of sign systems arising from an idea in a theatre context.