Acting the old way
Chasin' every dream down Hollywood Boulevard
(Blackbird, Lost In The Middle)
Historiography of western drama traditionally starts with the emergence of Greek tragedy. It is generally believed that tragedy developed from the Dithyrambe, a narrative in honour of the god Dionysos. In the course of time, one singer took a more individualist role in the chorus and became a soloist. Later on, a second and third singer did the same. These singers also began to speak and played parts, becoming actors.
Austrian writer Oswald Egger has an interesting thought that appeals to me: what if this soloist did not take a step forward but was pushed forward and given room by his fellow performers? This is at odds with the actor as a star, as a soloist with narcissistic traits, whose individual capabilities are praised and then exploited, and who is also convinced of his own superior qualities.
In other words, the actor as part of the theatre as an earning model in a market system. Here you can succeed or fail: an actor has to shine and excel, the house has to be full, and the performance has to pass the test of criticism with at least four stars. The downside of the system is visible in the streets of Hollywood: down-and-outs who were drawn by everlasting fame and riches, chasing their dreams on Hollywood Boulevard, hoping for a job in the wheels of the theatre, but who failed in the attempt.
In the theatre as an earning model, the actor steps forward to be a success, sometimes literally at the expense of a fellow actor. I have experienced several exceptional cases myself: colleagues standing in my light, manoeuvring themselves in a way that I ended up with my back to the audience, or hamming it up: intentionally trying to confuse other actors on stage by performing unexpected actions or by drawing the audience’s full attention by overacting. Fortunately, I have primarily experienced the opposite, telling the story of the performance as faithfully and as well as possible together with my colleagues. However, the negative experiences are a logical experience of the principle that an actor has to shine on stage and therefore has to step forward. The stardom virus. Like my colleagues, I anxiously waited for the reviews of the first night in the newspapers. When I read ‘Joep Dorren is not even able to hold a candle to Johnny Kraaykamp Sr’ (in a review on De Humorist, 1988), I get on stage in a different mood than when I read: ‘What a wonderful actor Joep Dorren is. Singing and narrating, he effortlessly guides the young audience through the performance’ (Nijntje Gaat Logeren, 1990).
Frequently occurring conversation topics in the dressing room: ‘poorly performing’ colleagues, the never-ending pursuit of a new contract. Actors as each other’s competitors.
I do not feel at home in this context, which – in my case – has a paralysing impact on my creativity. Some colleagues need an atmosphere like this to be stirred up to amazing feats, albeit at the cost of panic attacks and serious stress right before the performance. From this perspective, theatre is not an honest ‘new search every time again’ of all performers and the audience, where a full house is not a criterion, where the result does not need to meet the expectations of a producer or subsidiser who cannot afford any risks due to a business model.
I consider my own productions since 2012 as a liberation from these types of principles. I often find it a painful process, since I have really done my utmost to function within the theatre system for many years. I noticed that many of these principles had become a fixed part of my thinking. J.G. Baggerman of Global Performing Arts Group successful sells many international music theatre performances to festivals and theatres. When he enthusiastically and with a firm believe in the concept introduced Kitan to theatre directors, it was hard to take that he was told: ‘No, it is too experimental. We do not have an audience for this.’ The subsidy application with the Performing Arts Fund (Fonds Podiumkunsten) for the same project was rejected, or rather partly rejected: they were impressed by the record and the capabilities of the participants, but the Fund ‘has too few guarantees for the success of the project, because it lacks a central director who can manage the project from a central vision.’ As a result, Kitan was classed in the category of ‘positive assessment and partial acceptance of the application, if some money is left from the other projects.’
In my naivety, I had expected that the principle of synchronism in a project, without a central director and with the participation of professionals with an internationally attractive CV, would be embraced. The rejection was hard to swallow from the perspective that eventually a performance process would have to end up in a theatre.
Continuing to focus on looking for performance locations within the frameworks of the commercial system has a paralysing effect on creativity. Meanwhile, I have managed to abandon this focus, but with difficulty. After all, a project still needs to be realised. The focus has shifted to the search itself, the process I want to take on, without concentrating on the result, but honest and true to my fascinations. A search of performers and audience. Performance locations will present themselves little by little, like the annual series Klangraum by Antoine Beuger in Düsseldorf, the annual OPENING Festival in Trier by Bernd Bleffert and Thomas Rath, the Klang im Dach series by Christoph Nicolaus and Rasha Ragab in Munich so far.
The former orientation on a performance location suitable for theatre still lingers in the background for me, but to a lesser and lesser extent. A location where sufficiently large enough(!) an audience can gather, where there is room for decor, light – in short for the whole theatrical machinery.
Here, Jerzy Grotowski speaks liberating words in Towards a Poor Theatre: ‘Many theatre people hit upon the wrong solution: since the cinema dominates theatre from a technical point of view, why not make the theatre more technical? […] The theatre must recognise its own limitations. If it cannot be as lavish as television, let it be ascetic. If it cannot be a technical attraction, let it renounce all outward technique. Thus we are left with a ‘holy’ actor in a poor theatre.’ In the chapter Theatre is an Encounter, he explains that all supporting means can be left out from the theatre, until only the essence remains: an actor and a spectator. Theatre is pre-eminently a ‘meeting art’.
In the opening sentence in The Empty Space, Peter Brook writes: ‘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 that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.’
Elsewhere in Towards a Poor Theatre, Grotowski argues that the ‘poor theatre’ has to abandon the existing performance locations, the existing theatres. The theatre has to look for a room that fits in with the performance. The traditional actor-versus-audience set-up has to be departed from so that the genuine meeting between actor and audience can take place. The right audience and actor set-up has to be determined per performance. He also advocates smaller audiences, as the meeting will lose intensity as audiences grow larger. Grotowski: ‘Specific for theatre is the closeness of the living organism. If it is therefore necessary to abolish the distance between actor and audience: remove all frontiers, eliminate the stage. This implies the necessity for a chamber theatre.’ For the performances of Krapp’s Last Tape, we opted for having the audience move about in the performance area, in between the performers. The spectators chose the focus themselves by moving around, possible taking a chair with them and putting it at a spot of their choosing. The nearness of the audience is inspiring, because you notice immediately, at close proximity, how your action comes across to a spectator. At the last performance, this led to a logical step: as an actor I frequently stepped out of my part and had 1-to-1 conversations with varying spectators, not loud and clearly audible for everybody, but I shared a dilemma from the part, an observation from the part or from myself as an actor. Theatre as a Meeting Art.
Beckett speaks about his theatre work as ‘peep hole art’.
Forgiving towards traditional theatre-makers who reviled him in the sixties, Grotowski writes that in addition to the ‘chamber theatre’ for small audiences the commercial theatre has a right to exist but that it serves a different audience. I noticed the same forgiving nature in John Cage, when during his masterclass in 1980 he reacted to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s devastating remarks about his work: ‘Our works are different, and both have a right to exist.’
The stories need to be told again and again, in one thousand and one different ways. The search is more important than getting bogged down in a polemic.