… speak, sing, play to yourself, to each other, to those before you, tenderly, with care and curious noticing.
(Ailie Robertson in Vedbæk)
Also in my point of view, inclusivity, like synchronicity, is essential in non-intentional theatre.
Inclusivity is not at all the same thing as diversity. Diversity is a necessary basis for inclusivity. Diversity leads to lack of commitment and to tolerance at best (for other aspects, interpretations, approaches, et cetera, which are part of the whole, are also allowed); inclusivity appeals to curiosity, to being prepared to leave one’s own framework behind to be fed by the other, both persons and influences, so that a new reality can come about by a joint effort.
Inclusivity requires a fundamental attitude of heedful presence. Being present attentively is different from being concentrated or focused. Concentration presupposes exclusivity: anything that disturbs the attention should be expelled. Focus gives more room to peripheral perception. You are focused on a task but do not eliminate the other factors that have influence. These other factors do not have a significant role, though. In the best sense, focus has the result that you get into a flow from which everything seems to go as if by itself.
Inclusivity: an attentive presence, an attitude of open curiosity about the unknown, carefully exploring and ready for the adventure without a specific guaranteed result. In old Japanese, the word tasogare means both ‘twilight’ and ‘who is he?’
Theatre as a ‘must-less’ art.
In non-intentional acting, the actor assumes this attitude of heedfulness with respect to various domains: the fellow performers, the audience, the performance area, the text, the sound, the props, in short everything that presents itself during the performance here and now, and there and then. First of all, however, the actor assumes this attitude towards himself.
THE ACTOR’S DOMAIN
In non-intentional theatre, inclusivity means that the performer assumes an attitude of openness, free of intentions or assumptions, and fully prepared to welcome whatever presents itself.
Since the actor is his own material, everything is important, everything physically and mentally taking place in the actor at any moment of the performance. As an actor you are always aware of what is happening inside you, of all impulses triggered during meetings with the audience, fellow performers, and the entire performance environment. In non-intentional theatre, the actor uses the free space between impulse and the visible response to it.
Even though this is a matter of seconds or milliseconds, in this free space I explore as an actor my emotional relationship with what and who I meet: Do I feel attracted? Does it put me off? Or is it indifferent to me, and do I feel neutral? I also explore which reaction this impulse triggers in me at an unconscious level, to make the performance an intentional event. If I feel attracted to what I see, it will be my intention to go along with it; if it puts me off, I will be inclined to reject it; and if I feel neutral about it, I will not pay any attention to it or I will not even notice it.
In this free space, I have a choice: I either follow my original impulse, or I do not follow it and I wait until a new reaction opportunity presents itself. I may also opt for waiting and explore if I can transform my originally ‘planned’ impulsive reaction into something new, tempted to do so by whom or what I have just met.
In this case, however, I have to be prepared as an actor to accept and explore everything that presents itself at an internal level without subjecting it to censorship from aesthetic or other motives.
This is also the intended basic attitude in my work as a communication trainer and coach. Being able to assume this attitude is also the object of the journey I set out on next, with the participants or coachees.
Back to the theatre. In his book An Actor Adrift, Yoshi Oida repeatedly underlines the importance of an actor maintaining in touch with his hara, the physical and mental centre, situated about two fingers below the navel in eastern philosophies. In oriental martial arts, the hara is the centre of the physical and mental energy. If the actor loses this contact, this lifeline, the play will be dead
As soon as I get the feeling that the play becomes dead, that I am in a deadlock play-wise, I notice that trying to re-establish contact with this centre, and from there to recalibrate contact with the theatrical environment, leads to impassioned moments.
Inclusivity is entirely different from an improviser’s attitude in modern-day theatre. It is true that improvising is based on the rule: do not reject anything, always say ‘yes’, but I often experience an underlying requirement of individual smartness. A search for the best improviser who is able to bring about an unexpected change in an existing convention. A continuous process of overlapping roof tiles: one idea is surpassed by another, and the audience enjoys the performers’ virtuosity. A virtuosity often fed by competition.
While working with Japanese stage artists, I noticed that when improvising as a western actor I am inclined to look for new and original material (widthwise). For Japanese colleagues this attitude is hard to handle. Their improvisation is more in depth; they ask for time and then come back with a fixed choreography or composition, based on material associatively gathered. Their improvisation consists of repeating the choreography again and again – in the case of dancers – and exploring this material in depth: which connections can be made with the theme of the text and even with the entire performance environment on the basis of this material or, even more essentially, from the dancer? This required a renewed internal exploration of the impulses that evoke the same material with the dancer.
Exploring the material more profoundly rather than collecting as much material as possible, of which half is then discarded. It reminds me of performing the kata in karate: gaining depth in the exercise by repeatedly going through the fixed sequence of steps and associated blows, hits, and kicks. Every time, the intensity, the quality, deepens.
THE DOMAIN OF THE NON-BREATHING PERFORMANCE ENVIRONMENT
There are breathing as well as non-breathing entities in the performance environment. During the play, I encounter them all, at a conscious level and an unconscious level. My attitude towards everything that presents itself as non-breathing ‘material’ (e.g. sound, objects, video images, light) as well as everybody who present themselves as breathing material (myself, fellow performers, audience), is one of inclusivity.
Let us not forget the non-breathing material that cannot exist without breath: text spoken or sung. And then there is the encompassing space around us.
The non-breathing, hovering, flying, stagnant, volatile entities – such as light, decor, sound – as well as breathing entities, like plants and animals, normally serve to support the play of the breathing entities, the actors, for those other breathing entities, the audience. The non-breathing elements, but also the breathing elements such as animals and plants, thus confirm the superiority of the breathing elements.
The artistic expressions in which this happens are impressive, like the video performances Confession by Marina Abramovic (2010), with a donkey as the central character, I Like America and America Likes Me by Joseph Beuys (1974), in which he has himself locked up with a coyote for three days, or the central role of living plants in the work of German Wandelweiser composer and visual artist Marcus Kaiser.
In non-intentional theatre, sounds, objects, words, gestures – all together the non-breathing performance environment – are performers themselves. ‘Every sound is a Buddha,’ John Cage said during the masterclass I took in 1984. As a performer, I closely listen to what they tell me at that specific moment. Simultaneously, I control the impulse of having to do something with it, of making a smart and virtuoso impression.
As an actor I adopt an inclusive attitude toward sounds, objects, rays of light, video images, in short everything you find around you as an actor in (and outside) the performance area, whether intentionally added to the performance or come about coincidentally during the performance.
You do not necessarily use them in your play; it is whatever you choose, every time again: I observe, I decide whether to do something with it or to leave it at observing it consciously. This moment of ‘conscious observation’, of reduced deployment, is an intervention just the same. The audience then observes through the eyes of me as an actor. Especially these unplanned events from outside are often rich experiences. I have a host of examples from my practice: cooing pigeons outside on the window sill of the hall in Lana (Italy) during my performance of Empty Words, and the brass band that began to play exactly at the end at six o’clock in the morning; sounds of church bells, trams and playing children during performances in the Kunstraum in Düsseldorf; the crows at the end of Kitan in Trier, in February 2020. These were all unplanned, enriching interventions that become part of the sign system a performance is, provided that you receive them with an open, inclusive attitude.
I have extensively dealt with the theatre text as a solidification of living impulses, and about my need to allow this text to open itself and not have itself pushed forward through the channel of a central interpretation, subservient to the emotions enacted by me as an actor.
The text, too, deserves a tender, careful, heedful approach. Rather than being carelessly flung into space, a text can also be analysed into sentences, words, and letters. Sentences, words, and letters are individual entities that can be explored. They are not subservient to the content, which in turn is subservient to a specific interpretation, but can be explored and will then evoke a meaning of their own. They will do so not only at a cognitive level. Yoshi Oida writes about this approach in An Actor Adrift: ‘By listening to the sound of the text and by sensing how the words are related to the movements of your tongue and lips, you notice that it raises certain feelings in you.’
This was precisely the experience I had while performing Cage’s Empty Words, a composition for speaker which I performed integrally three times. It consists of four parts of two and a half hours each and takes eleven hours, including three 20-minute intervals. The first part is a collection of fragments of sentences, words, syllables, and letters selected by Cage from Henry David Thoreau’s diaries. The second part does not include any sentence fragments anymore. Each part becomes emptier semantically, until only letters are left in the last part. Cage calls this work a ‘demilitarisation of language’: language freed from interpretation, released from the semantic context.
Since interpretation in traditional theatre always goes hand in hand with expression, the manner of speaking here is therefore always subservient to the emotions. In the case of Empty Words, it is exactly the other way around: I pronounced the chunks of text as accurately as possible, tasting them; speech as a careful, assiduous process of craftsmanship, without any focus on the meaning of the text. At certain moments, I was surprisingly caught by an emotion that was possibly evoked by a word, a sound, and possibly also by the time passing by, rendering me more sensitive and open as a performer.
Non-intentional theatre, therefore, does not mean theatre without emotions. However, we are not looking for emotions; evoking emotions in performers and audience is not the object, it is not the criterion for a performance being successful or not. Emotions as a positive consequence, not as a purpose.
THE DOMAIN OF THE BREATHING PERFORMANCE ENVIRONMENT
I adopt the same heedful attitude towards my fellow performers and the audience.
I came across the most beautiful description of this attitude in the score of Vedbæk, by Scottish composer Ailie Robertson, a composition for ‘any number of speaking, singing, playing people’ from 2019. It is a textual score, without any notes, including a fragment from the poem Swan, by American poet Mary Oliver, with a personal reference to a newspaper article. Ailie Robertson provides the following performance direction:
‘The text is a sort of connective tissue that holds you, holds each other and holds the past: speak, sing, play to yourself, to each other, to those before you, tenderly, with care and curious noticing.’
The description of the text as ‘a sort of connective tissue’ links up with the use of a theatre text the way I see it and as described in the previous blog.
What touched me in her deception of the text as a ‘connective tissue’ was that not only the author’s impulses are included in the text; ‘connective’ also refers to the collective nature of the search, to the connection I make with my fellow performers and with ‘those before you’ (the audience for instance) within the space opened up by the text.
The description also includes the searchers’ mental attitude: ‘tenderly, with care and curious noticing.’ In other words, heedful presence, with care and responsibility for the joint process as a basis for inclusivity, as a possibility for bringing about a new reality. Theatre as Meeting Art.
What does this inclusivity, this attentive presence, this ‘tenderness, carefulness and curious noticing,’ this preparedness to enter into this commitment, mean to me as an actor in the play with my fellow performers?
I welcome their interventions without immediately following the impulse I might feel to involve them right away in my own play. ‘Curious noticing’ precedes any intervention of my own. Perhaps, as towards the objects, doing nothing suffices as an intervention. I leave all room to the fellow performer’s intervention. I observe in which direction it develops, what the intervention evokes in me, and next whether I can integrate it with my next choice – and with a continuous, inclusive, welcoming attitude throughout the process. This will even apply, if I am not pleased with the intervention initially, for if I would act on the basis of my dislike, my attitude would change into an exclusive attitude; I would be engaged in excluding, and my play would change from non-intentional into intentional. In that case, it could be my intention to silence my fellow performers and by drawing attention to myself by eye-catching play. A better option would be to let the play be, or to see how I could welcome the intervention in the performance as a whole.
Strangely enough, I almost always succeed in doing this by allowing the other more room from an attitude of ‘curious noticing’ and in my quiet self redirecting the focus, the heedful attention, to my own attitude, my own intensity. ‘Act better,’ actor Michael Mould of Community Theatre Group Bruvvers (Newcastle-upon-Tyne) used to hiss to us on stage, while beer bottles were flying all over the place during a performance at the Community Centre and we, as actors, tried to rise above the tumult with larger gestures and louder voices. Oddly enough, this has always been effective; Michael urged us to adopt an attitude of inclusivity: accepting the situation and then retaining the focus on our own play and collective play. Instead of increasing the volume, reducing it to manageable proportions and slowing down the action slightly. In the ensuing vacuum, the tumult eased, and the focus of the audience was again drawn to the stage.
In the 1960s, Timothy Leary exposed a primal mechanism in human behaviour: at an impulsive level, struggle always incites new struggle; giving room to someone else, and trying to make genuine connection with someone else, leads to cooperation. His model ‘The Rose of Leary’ is still in general use in communication training and coaching.
In non-intentional theatre, inclusivity is the performer’s basic attitude. I found another wonderful description of this attitude in the score of Livre d’Heures, les Petites Heures by Wandelweiser composer Eva-Maria Houben:
‘being occupied – in a peaceful way, without haste.
a balance between intervention and restraint, between doing and not doing.
being alone – with others, near to each other.
meeting yourself – and each other.
perhaps time seems to stand still sometimes.’
Playing from the principle of inclusivity calls for the attitude of a helping actor, not the attitude of a theatre star. Yoshi Oida: ‘As an actor, never try to draw attention to yourself, but create a space that is beneficial to the play of others.’ By acting from a serving approach one avoids actor egoism, playing to remain clearly visible and excel. Actor egoism causes rigidity and thwarts the flexibility required for a meeting, for inclusivity.
Grotowski mentions some of the characters of the theatre he wants to avoid, such as ‘seeing a charming actor’ with an actor’s attitude of ‘theatre is me and all I do’ towards an audience: ‘Assured of his own high standard of moral values.’
In his essays on the theatre, Fushikaden, Zeami (1363-1443), the father of the Nō theatre, describes ‘The Flowers’. The Flowers could be defined as an actor’s artistic, aesthetic, as well as ethical skills. Starting with the phase of a child-actor, Zeami describes The Flower for each respective stage of life. He adds: ‘By understanding the limits of your own ability, you will not lose that particular Flower.
‘Put strength into your practice and avoid conceit’ applies to every phase. ‘Make your performance more moderate’ applies to one of the later phases. He describes his father as an example of an actor in the final phase of his life: ‘He performed the easy parts with restraint and understatement. [...] However, his Flower seemed to have expanded.’
So the basic attitude is not that of the actor stepping forward but one of the actor who is given the space, if I may return to Oswald Egger’s description as quoted in the previous blog.
THE DOMAIN OF THE PERFORMANCE ENVIRONMENT
Performers, objects, sounds, light, video projections, audience: everything is encompassed by the performance environment. As the performance area is the shell of the performance, it should be determined for each individual performance how the area is designed in order for the celebration (the meeting the performance essentially is) to take place under the best circumstances possible. For the very reason that the meeting between actor and audience is the essence of the performance, the possibilities of connection with the audience should take first priority in setting up the area.
During performances in Japan and in collaboration with Japanese performers, I noticed the high extent to which this awareness has developed in Japanese performing art. The principle of social distancing, which we have so much difficulty with in western countries (think of the protests against COVID-19 containment measures), is part of Japanese culture. This is related to the bu principle, which is also found in the name of the Butō dancing style.
Depending on the context, bu has many meanings, including that of circular energy. Nearness, contact, is not measured in physical terms, or distance expressed in metres if you like, as in our culture, but in the presence of a circular energy, which is continuously moving between me and the other and which connects us.
In designing the space, this energy comes first and foremost as it has to be able to move freely. This is a very precise affair. When I played two performances with dancer Sanae Kagaya in Munich, I had used a bamboo curtain to partition off a dark open space filled with stored objects. I believed that this dark hole with objects would only distract the attention of the audience. Sanae was adamant that the curtain had to go. With the curtain in place, the energy – the ki – would not be able to move about freely; the audience would be distracted by the bamboo curtain. I would be inclined to say: ‘This white surface has a distracting effect,’ but her reaction arose from an energetic approach.
When stage props are used in a performance, only the most essential items are used. Anything else would obstruct the free flow of energy. Consequently, placing a chair or any object whatsoever on the stage, is a very precise act, in which even millimetres matter. In western countries, we only know this precision from the film set, where this is important for the camera position, especially with respect to close-ups or medium shots. During the preparation of a Butō performance, the dancers establish from various positions in the room whether they are satisfied with the energy flow.
Ryūteki player Mami Tsunoda called this energy kuki, energy of the empty space. In this sense, Ki does not only mean ‘energy’ but also ‘breath’. It is the collective space that connects players mutually and the players with the audience, through the energy, the collective breath space. According to Mami, the kuki’s composition changes during a good performance. Every performance begins with attuning to the energy field present. This is not only a task for the performers but also for the audience. In Japan, I was struck by the focus of the audience. No rustling sound or coughing could be heard during the performance. Utter silence at the beginning, no welcoming applause when a (well-known) musician, dancer, or actor came on stage, and at the end intense silence, followed by a brief applause. No standing ovations, no chanting for encores.
When I indicated to hichiriki player Hitomi Nakamura that this struck me, she said: ‘Why should there be so much applause for us? It is not about us, is it? We are not important.’ To my question ‘So what is important?’ she replied: ‘I don’t know. The gods? The universe?’
In Japan, the performance is a scared celebration, so to speak, in which both the performer and the audience have a task: the performer tries to play as well as possible (well meaning with craftsmanship and dedication, whereby virtuoso is not part of the equation even if the play can be virtuoso in our point of view). The performer is an intermediary between the universe and the audience, and the audience attunes to the universe by means of the performer.
A Japanese musician or actor will not be carried away by emotion at a performance. Individual emotions do not matter. What matters is intensity. The material is in this intensity, and it is released by meeting it with craftsmanship and dedication.
The finest example of the latter occurred at a primary school in Trier where one of the pupils asked the Chitose Trio during a workshop: ‘When I play the flute, I feel so emotional, so happy. What do you feel when you play?’ A long discussion in Japanese ensued, and finally the answer came: ‘We do not feel any emotions. We feel energy. The power of the dragon.’ This does not mean that emotion cannot occur in a player or spectator, but emotions are not the object, not the purpose; they are the possible result of intensity. Exactly like the experience I described earlier in this blog, during the performance of Cage’s Empty Words. They occur unexpectedly, caused by the intensity of the meeting with the performance material (notes, texts, objects, movements), with the audience, and with the fellow performers – by the collective attuning to the kuki, the atmosphere.
In an e-mail, Sanae Kagaya wrote that in the practice of her company, the Tomoe Shizune & Hakutobo Dance Company, the performance process always follows a given set of steps. The first step is Integration. The performer attunes to the energy that is present, the kuki, which comprises the audience, material, and fellow performers, and which can be different per performance. The second step is Assimilation: the performer converges with the existing energy. The next step is interesting for me: Conflict. This is where the performer’s personality comes in. Conflict should not be considered a struggle but a meeting between the collective energy and the performer’s personal baggage. The impact of this meeting is visible. She calls it the ‘Rebound’: the eventually visible action on the stage. This is a circular process, so every time again there has to be attunement with the kuki, which will change as the performance goes forward. After all, a good performance changes the kuki, and every action on stage contributes to this.
Also in western countries, we speak after a performance of ‘a good audience’, ‘a nice house’, or conversely ‘a bad audience’, ‘a poor performance’. In that case, this is blamed on the performers’ poor technique or focus, with techniques like diction, timing, empathy being central. Or the actor clears himself of all blame and blames the audience. But isn’t this an approach from the concept of exclusivity? In my projects, in which I explore the non-intentional theatre, this actually never is the issue, since our basis is that of inclusivity. Of course, there may be an individual spectator who finds it hard to get into a performance, but if this happens I do not have to win him over or convince him. A tree does not do so either.
I also notice that at a performance I consciously attune to the existing energy at the beginning of the performance. I create a field of attention for the audience to join in. Next, I place the intervention via space, fellow performers and audience, actually according to the bu principle. I do not cast the intervention into space just like that, but I allow it to originate with me and then I ‘brush’ it into existence (to quote Cage on the sounds a musician creates: ‘They should be brushed into existence’). I let the intervention make an imaginary circle via the audience, via the space beyond the audience, and back to me, enriched with the echo in the space and the energy of the audience, and sometimes with the echo of something happening outside the performance area.
Allowing silence in, is essential here. From a neuropsychological perspective, the audience has the opportunity to let the signals sink in. Next, the spectators are given the time to process them and add them to their own system. In this space, the spectator unravels the signal system and the spectator’s own story unfolds. At this point, theatre becomes a meeting.