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  • Writer's pictureJOE WOODWARD

The Power of a Liminal Theatre

Children and Bike by Poe Wei Chuen from Unsplash

Filling the gap in theatre training and practice

Understanding and applying principles of liminality in theatre practice can substantially enhance the power and reach of theatre's potential for relevance in social construction. But with little attention in theatre training given to the likes of Antonin Artaud or Julian Beck and Judith Malina, there is a conservative reinforcement of techniques and approaches that assume a kind of static universe with little attention to the reality of change and uncertainty. Through the concept of liminal experience, theatre practice can gain a greater penetration into the very notion of relevance.

Where do we see the liminal in performance?

In the Netflix series, "The Sinner", Bill Pullman plays Harry Ambrose a flawed though brilliant detective. In virtually every scene, we are aware of Ambrose's teetering on an edge. His world is wondrous and full of complexity, terror and ambiguity. Pullman's ability to evoke a liminal experience allows him to create a unique character full of mystery and surprise. It allows for a seemingly thin plot to compel the interest of the audience.

In the third series of "The Sinner" the plot deals exclusively with this moment. Matt Bomer's "Jamie" and Chris Messina's Nick toy with experiments in chance and decisions at the precipice of death and disaster. They draw on philosophical problems taking them to absurd ends. The compulsion in the series comes from this constant questioning and characters stepping outside certainty and into a tricky and dangerous taunting of the self. The theme of the series might well be stated as psychological liminality.

“Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (Victor Turner, 1967: 97)

We see much the same qualities in the film Joker where Joaquin Phoenix portrays Arthur Fleck, a highly disturbed though seemingly ordinary loser who enjoys performing and dreaming of better things. The highly discussed and publicized scene where he interacts with talk show host Murray Franklin (played by Robert de Niro) illustrates the actor's engagement with the liminal as Joker realizes the nature of the situation and decides on the moment to act. The actor's control of this moment is stunning; so also is the use of camera angles and text. Phoenix then interposes dance gesture with facial intensity to provide a kind of after-shock that prolongs the liminal and sets up a whole new possible world that is neither in the past or future as yet.

What are some strategies for creating a Liminal theatre experience?

The emerging actor, student, professional theatre practitioner has much to gain from the vulnerability that comes with the liminal. It is a state of mind that can be cultivated. It is a mindset born of acceptance that everything you thought you knew and believed might well be a lie.

It is an understanding that your particular cultural proclivities, religious or non-religious beliefs may well be deceptions and even delusions.

It is an understanding that all law and order is created from somewhere for a particular reason; that such a reason may or may not be relevant today. Consider the following:

  • If you are atheist, you would understand that god was created for particular circumstances that need to be explored and understood before decrying religion;

  • if you are religious you would need to understand the particularity of your conception so that you remain open to challenge;

  • if you are ideological you need to see the validity of your occupation of that particular space while also acknowledging your limited basis for such a space ...

In short all can be understood as personal and cultural absurdity! This means your work needs to be open to moments of execution no matter how far away it is from a conception of the universe according you personally!

While liminality may be understood as more a state of mind, there are practical strategies one might engage for liminality in theatre. These include:

  • breaking down the fourth wall; acknowledging the spectator as part of the show

  • working those moments in a play or theatre presentation where there is some ambiguity over the form: for example look at the above image and note the real bike with the paintings of the children and note connection

  • use of unsettling silences and deliberate eye contact with audience members

  • willingness to expose the vulnerabilities of the performer or even the writer in front of the audience and applying these vulnerabilities and doubts to the specific moments of scenes; ie. exploring personal dramaturgies (see Julia Varley's chapter on her personal dramaturgy)

  • creating moments of real choice within a set structure; more than improvisation, live choices within the production could be a way of unsettling and destabilizing the certainty within the production

  • addressing a particular spectator in a way that creates a wondering if the person was part of the act or was simply engaged as bystander

  • use of irrational and unexpected links that are seemingly totally impossible and non-linear (witness Joaquin Phoenix in "Joker")

  • holding up moments of thought and allowing them to be exposed through nuanced gesture

  • willingness to question every moment on stage and in text analysis, including the pauses and silences

  • passionately being devil's advocate for extreme views and attitudes that are way outside your own system of thinking and attitude; Morris West wrote that the writer "... turns the world upside down and says, look at it, it looks different ...”

  • creating performance through design and artistic provocations resulting from multi-arts approaches; see the example of Liminal Studio

  • using provocations (ie. Edward de Bono's PO) to extend beyond the known and the preempting of outcomes

  • rehearsing in costumes, even costumes unrelated to the characters or roles

  • spending hours looking into a mirror and meditating on the face

  • reading and re-reading Antonin Artaud's writing, especially "The Theatre and its Double"

  • rehearsing in front of audiences and incorporating them while still in a vulnerable state

  • trying out a set piece while under the influence of alcohol or drugs in order to test oneself or group when all defences are down; but take care in a safe space if this is seriously considered ...

  • deliberately use verbal grotesque in order to desensitize oneself to anti-social language.

While no doubt some of these above points will be controversial and considered irresponsible, I suggest what you as the artist are contemplating is not necessarily responsible ... rather it is investigative and exploratory in the extreme and so is dangerous. Once we take out the danger from art and the risks involved we are left with a bland and stable output that conforms with what is known and acceptable. Remember that what is NOT acceptable today, may well be mainstream tomorrow! And the reverse is true!

I must say that as a theatre practitioner and teacher of modest achievements, I still aim at being an agent of change and so apply the above points in my work. We shall see the results. The cockroach theatre approach is very applicable for today. And I ask you, the reader, to join me and all those who see liminality as a key to powerful rejuvenation of theatre in society and life ... join me in creating and presenting highly engaging and life-altering works of theatre. It will be worthwhile ...


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