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  • Writer's pictureJOE WOODWARD

Surreal Architecture of Play Writing

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

Dream potential in theatre presentation has been present in many forms including Surrealism, Expressionism, Theatre of the Absurd, Theatre of Cruelty and many forms of Physical Theatre ... as well as many traditional theatre forms. The idea of distortion to highlight particular aspects of otherwise hidden realities can be a key component of theatre making. Yet how rarely do we actually see it in contemporary written play texts? Distortion can be in the form of physical, vocal or visual juxtapositioning. It moves the performance from a representational mode to a presentation that may challenge the very notion of realistic characterisation or balance. With its roots in Expressionism, it can highlight and hone in on aspects of a human situation that is not easily focused by other means. I wish to show that by using elements of Butoh or Butoh inspired forms partnered with Verbal Grotesque text, theatre scripts can provide a surrealist architecture tapping the dream potential for a theatre production.

The editing of thought before its application

I once worked with an actor who expressed disdain for the absurd and the likes of Artaud. For this actor, only realism and representational acting had any real hold on his psyche. One could see the resistance put up when being encouraged to try an unorthodox approach to creating the performance. There was a kind of cantankerousness that built up to a point where it was becoming impossible to work productively. The very idea of liminality was threatening to a mindset that resolved to deal only in certainties; translating into theatre objectives, actions and concrete circumstances. In effect it meant editing the process where ever it seemed to clash with specific tangible directions. The director tried to encourage links between character and audience connection that jolted the theatrical smugness; tried to work within that ambiguous space between the stage and the audience. But entrenched representational acting won out.

Before any discoveries could be made in the messy world of creative investment in searching for possibilities, the process was cut. The "ah but wait a minute" actor who would rather talk instead of working on the floor thinks the halt to proceedings is a clarifying process; when actually, it destroys potential clarity and denies that liminal space between the idea and the potential act.

Butoh and the impossible way forward

Butoh uses grotesque gargoyle-like contortions and physical sculptures (see p 17 in the linked paper) in order to evoke impossible imaginings. The intensity of the body relationship with space and other bodies allows for a spectral invasion of the viewer's psyche. By this, I mean it is possible to evoke invisible and unrecognised emotional states that go well beyond the personal.

Exercises for the Butoh actor might include any number of seemingly impossible actions. For example, "Move across the space without making any contact with the ground" or "While moving, allow each atom and molecule in your body to explode and separate spreading into the air".

Butoh provides excellent training for the actor to overcome personal lock down and resistance to stepping out from areas of comfort and certainty.

There can be no vanity for the Butoh actor; and certainly it requires a subdued ego! For these reasons Butoh training is the best way to come to some understanding of Antonin Artaud's "Theatre of Cruelty". Coming to understand the new language of the body and even the actor's psyche is part of this understanding.

Verbal Grotesque and overcoming the fear of words

While Butoh is extremely strenuous, in some ways it provides a kind of protection for the performer who is in a large metaphorical bubble. Meaning is totally subjective and is contained within the actor's body and control of gesture; though if considering one of the first Butoh performances which featured the founder, Hijikata, making love to a chicken ... you might challenge my point!

The use of words provides NO such protection! The tradition of "verbal grotesquery" is something contemporary writers have shied away from. It is too dangerous. And for many actors, the fear of certain words and the heightened awareness of danger words means that a whole tradition of theatre is being largely forgotten.

Theatre has always been a dangerous art form. A study of Shakespeare's company will show just how dangerous it was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Brecht's theatre at the time of Nazi ascendancy in Germany is another case in point. Today David Mamet's themes and word play draws attack from various quarters of society. His work is considered dangerous.

For playwrights and actors, there are thresholds of concepts and specific words and their contexts that can be off-limits. The shield in one's mind that prevents transgressing into the minefield of prohibited words and ideas is perhaps the greatest barrier to creating the contradictory and dynamic tensions that are necessary for a challenging theatre. The self-editing of thought before finding its fictional position has become a huge issue in theatre. The use of Dramaturgical services to help shape a playwright's work at the behest of a theatre company or organisation can have the effect of editing the consciousness of the writer before fully fleshing out the "formles hunch" (Peter Brook's term).

It is difficult enough for a writer, or an actor for that matter, to step over thresholds of fear and trepidation without being made self-conscious by the early intervening of an outside critical eye. Embedding verbal grotesque elements along with the suggestion of Butoh or similarly inspired physical approaches into texts may very well allow for the kinds of distortions that rightly target the more difficult concepts for the stage.

A number of plays on this site have attempted to do this. The dream potential becomes a kind of nightmare. Though like the mystery film, the horror movie or the Gothic novel there is something so compelling about the grotesque, the distorted surreal reality and struggle to escape its hold.

APE a venture into the verbal grotesque with Butoh undertones

APE was first presented in 1982 in Canberra and caused considerable controversy. Especially in the final act, the play uses a heightened verbal grotesque dialogue coupled with rhythmic considerations and a very violent physical playing between the two characters of My Love and Poor Dear.

The text actually encourages producers and actors to play with the presentation and not to hold it "precious". While it is in no way a true Surrealist play, it does utilise aspects of surrealism; the Ape, for instance, is ambiguous and seen in ways that are very out of context. An actor with a strong Butoh training background and mime skills provides something other-worldly to the Ape. Some rewriting and a change to the ending gives the work probably a more dangerous connection with social niceties and what audiences might find acceptable.

There were good reasons why Vladimir Nabokov with his acknowledge invoking of the grotesque in language and situation found himself the subject of severe criticism. There are also good reasons for the popularity of physical theatre which does not have such a reliance on verbal narratives that could be culturally and socially problematic.

As a result, I would certainly find it very difficult to actually produce APE now; not the least of the problem would be to find three superb actors who were not afraid of the verbal grotesque and the very high level of physical demands. It would be unlikely to find Government funding and professional performers couldn't be paid enough for the difficult work involved. But in all honesty, perhaps forty years after writing the play, my own threshold for stepping over the precipice into the liminal world evoked in APE might be too frightening!


Architectural elements of the plays on this site

The elements embedded in APE include:

  • the changing sexual mores of the growing upper middle-class during the 1970s

  • the accompanying superficiality of relationships devoid or old notions of morality

  • the mannered language used for dialogue between My Love and Poor Dear

  • the symbolic figure of the APE and its relationship to the Trickster archetype

  • the effect of the unseen children whose voices are heard

  • the claustrophobic nature of the whole play being set inside the couple's bedroom

  • the use of the video as an ominous foreshadowing

  • the use of verbal grotesque dialogue

  • the playing of games that can turn deadly.

One could probably find more. But these elements provided the architecture for the production. They are revealed in the deliberate way the text is actually written and presented ... at least that's what I intended.

If you choose to have a look at the text, please let me know your thoughts.

Best wishes

Joe Woodward

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