Gavin Bolton, an English educator, Drama practitioner and theorist, taught me something that became the most essential element in everything I've actually tried to do in theatre and drama. I'm not even sure just how prominent this particular element was for him. Yet the idea of thinking and evaluating one's work as a teacher, director and writer in terms of three distinct phases has been at the core of my practice for over forty years. These three phases are the:
sequential elements in the way of viewing and structuring one's engagement in virtually any activity.
While Bolton was concerned mainly with "Context Drama" or what was sometimes called "Process Drama", this simple "phases" concept can be applied much wider. And this is what I am concerned with in this article.
Viola Spolin called for physicalization in Drama. Echoing Stanislavski, she argued and structured her practice to emphasize the physical externalization of roles and emotions when acting out. Her emphasis on improvisation was not the same as Bolton's idea which was more in line with Dorothy Heathcote's better known work. Heathcote's work can be illustrated by her own words in a video she recorded called "Three Looms Waiting". Click on the highlighted link; it will be very worthwhile.
Essentially, Heathcote and Bolton were not concerned with performance ... at least not primarily concerned!
They were more concerned with an inner dramatic form that had personal meaning for the individual and that it could be reflected on by a group through acting out to enhance and enlighten their understanding of social and complex issues. This function of Drama had its zenith in the education concept of "Mantle of the Expert"; while mostly used in Primary schools, the concept has also found favour in High School education though not necessarily even linked to Drama.
But I wish to expand this notion; moving it to a greater application beyond the confines of Process Drama or Context Drama.
The physical mode is not just embodying a person doing something physical like moving or being still and using space. It is the routine or ritual level. It deals with a basic level of life or perhaps the groundwork level. It's something that we need to progress; so it's not of less importance than any of the other levels that we might be working towards. It may or may not fully engage the intellect or even the emotional understanding that might be generated or connected to the action. Think of practicing music scales on the piano!
The physical allows us to have a common understanding and observable sequencing of actions.
The use of rituals and routines is very valuable in establishing this physical level . The painter who does exercises with the hands and with no particular aim in mind other than getting a hand / eye coordination and a feel for the paint or for the materials being used in the painting is working at this physical level.
The pianist who practices the scales to get rhythmic accuracy in the fingers and the right intensity in touch is calling upon this very physical or seemingly simple skill in order to create something when needed.
In Drama, students might focus on simple aspects of movement and voice usage. While applying conceptual levels of theoretical and thematic applications, the student must develop and master this physical level if performance is to mean anything. Without this, the rest is a waste of time and of minimal value other than making students into smug know-alls without the ability to master a craft of performance!
The very forms of theatre and dramatic presentation demand at least a basic level of proficiency in this physical level in order to progress. At the same time, the elements of "process Drama" also require that the participants physicalize their intentions through the use of the body. So from a Viola Spolin perspective or a Dorothy Heathcote's perspective, the physical phase is an essential part in the growth of Drama skills, attitudes and proficiency.
The physical phase is also necessary in constructing stage usage. This is why grounding in "Viewpoints" as espoused by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau can play such a major part in students use of and understanding of the physical phase in dramatic construction and presentation.
Yet unfortunately in a new proposed Drama curriculum for the senior secondary college system in Canberra in the ACT, there is virtually no recognition of this physical essential element.
The Physical Phase of Students' Work
This physical phase in the practice of Drama in education can be identified by a number of different elements that might define student competencies. Application of "Viewpoints", as defined by Anne Bogart, in developing competency in using the stage space and interacting with other actors provides a clear direction for expanding a physical phase in Drama and Theatre.
Tadashi Suzuki places the body and the "invisible body" as the cornerstone of culture and works to expand the actor's physical connections with self, space and others. Suzuki would have actors working in repetitive routine work in outdoor fields for long periods of time before doing a single acting exercise. This emphasis on physical and repetitive routine movements finds itself in much of the alternative theatrical training and approaches.
In my Drama classes, great emphasis is placed on students doing repeated routines at the start of every session. This isn't a disciplinary thing. Nor is it a people management issue. Rather it is focusing on the physical expansion of each student or each actor's need to reign in the clutter of social and emotional pressures. It brings them back to a very basic physical action that needs focus and mastery. Combined with "Viewpoints" and Meyerhold's stick balance exercises and some basic impulse work, students work at physical demonstrations without over-thinking. And without the teacher constantly interjecting ...
However, this said, the use of "observation and reflection" techniques as exemplified in the ORID method when discussing the experience and the objective physical appearance of the participants in the exercises can be an extremely powerful stimulus for further working and exploration.
It is concrete, observable and measurable. It is PHYSICAL!
To attempt conceptual explorations in Drama without real and solid acknowledgement of the very basic needs of the physical body, including the voice, is to create an abstraction from Drama that might have philosophical value but which has the effect of denying the essential element that comprises the Dramatic form.
It is one thing to learn about theorists and practitioners; it is quite another thing to then deeply integrate their work into physical creation of new work ... new explorations in meaning and expression! This is where the physical condition and physical surrounding to stand and shape dramatic expression requires a solid physical phase to start with. And yes, FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION! The architecture of the stage or acting space may well be shaped by conceptual concerns and understandings that inform the physical levels required to perform. Even untrained actors can achieve significant works when motivated highly enough. However, the same basic necessity for a physical phase of dramatic practice is still in place and must be applied if the work is to have credibility.
The Experiential Phase and the Phenomenologist
When we focus solely upon technique and a routine level, we are working really on a physical phase. The same might be said for working on the "given circumstances" for a particular dramatic situation. The actor must find the physical embodiment for these circumstances and this can provide a significant time and emotional commitment. Viola Spolin actually suggested holding off the introduction of "conflict" as an element in Drama education until the physical domain was completely internalized by students. But if we were to say that this was the end product of artistry in developing performance we miss the whole notion of an inner dramaturgy that extends beyond the perfection of physical detail.
The student of Drama and the actor / director / writer of dramatic work searches for their own unique understanding and feeling towards gesture and situation. Stanislavski's "what-if" is more than an acting incentive! Something in a word, gesture, situation may trigger a personalized reaction ... even if completely internalized and vague! This need not be limited to realism and Stanislavski's notions of sense memory. Even the wildest physical theatre of Robert Wilson, requires of actors/dancers much more than physical dexterity. Wilson will "never" tell a performer what to think. To bring something of meaning to the over-arching gestures he might demand, the performer needs to search from within their own dramaturgy; they need to partake of their own phenomenology.
And this is what separates Drama as a form from the other arts. The the Actor is the instrument and the artist of creation. This suggests that to create anything, there needs to be an acceptance of the self being studied as much as the subject being constructed. In short the actor / creator is also a phenomenologist. The physical / emotional / intellectual self is inseparable from the product of the effort. But coming to this understanding is not simple or self-explanatory. Most of our development as people being educated and socialized is derived from mimesis: a kind of osmosis from our socialization and enculturation.
It isn't enough for the Drama to study practitioners who spoke about dreams. It is more important to evoke the dream in each participant. The actor standing in the empty space is vulnerable and in a dream-like state. But to experience what this means is to be grounding and grown from within ritual and physical reproduction.
Peter Brook best describes something of this relationship between the "physical" and the "experiential" in "The Empty Space" when describing his three phases as "repetition, representation and assistance".
The need to inculcate physical repetition and practise in the creation of Drama can be seen, not only in rehearsals, but also in routines and rituals. Once they become boring, there is time to dig deeper and find a way to recreate something from the past in a way that is innovative and unique. But this can only come once a thorough physical expression is put into the actor's body. The physical can evoke the experiential body and emotions of the actor / student. Discovery becomes possible from the physical mantra of action that sorts out the clutter like a meditation.
Openness to possibility and the connection of an individual dramaturgy to whatever subject matter being investigated results from continuous physical training, engagement and relationship. The experiential phase then is the dream phase; the subconscious connection through the electricity and magnetism of the body and the body in connection with other bodies and space. It is not necessarily logical but is always personal. The experiential phase is more than mimesis; it is a new presentation of subject matter drawn the personal connection released from deep within the individual.
This phenomenological state applies even when working with the most fascist of directors or teachers.
For the student and for the actor, it results from personal processing of study and information derived from both physical engagement and from reflective study. Any course of drama study then must integrate into itself a structural potential for the drama student to explore and come to an understanding of the their own body in relationship with ideas, texts, situations, other bodies, space, social and cultural contexts. This is where the source of creativity and the discovery and sharing of meaning can truly take place.
The Possibility of Choice and the Existential Phase
Without entering into discussions on whether "free choice" really exists in life and society, we can look at and inculcate the very real possibility for choice in Dramatic form. However, we can distinguish choices made out of a sense of mimesis and choices made from a real base of experience. And this is the core area that not all participants in dramatic study will ever reach or achieve.
The complicating issue in working from the physical through to the experiential is the problem of narcissism. Personal, cultural and social narcissism is a real issue and one that is disguised within most contexts through which social interaction takes place. Drama is not personal therapy. Even at its best practice in theatre, screen and community events, it is limited by the experiences of the practitioners or students concerned.
Even utilizing efforts to stretch outside cultural boundaries and conventions does not guarantee the potential or possibility for breaking through narcissistic blinding. When the breaking of cultural barriers actually works, it is where there is a real connection made between the practitioner or student and the form presented through the cultural traditions. Real choices within such work is rare.
Peter Brook's journey with a company of actors through Africa in trying to create a theatre form that did not depend on the cultural expectations of the audience attempted such a movement. Aptly documented in John Heilpern's "Conference of the Birds, The Story of Peter Brook in Africa" Brook's company of international actors from different cultural and racial backgrounds made themselves very vulnerable while stretching their skills into extraordinary situations for performance. But were they successful?
Who can judge! Certainly, like Artaud's work, Brook's adventures have opened many doors to allow a seeing beyond the confines of a closed box. Certainly, the result of Brook's African venture produced some of the most challenging and exciting theatre I have ever seen. Brook's presentation of "The Conference of the Birds", "Ubu Roi" and "The Ik" in a quarry in Adelaide in 1980 was awe inspiring and totally deconstructed theatre; removing it from its fixed bias.
The choices made from within the evoked forms presented by Brook and his actors were of an existential nature. They came from a very grounded place born of ritual and routine actions, the challenging experiences that helped shape the rituals and actions and then from there grew a necessity to create work far removed from straight mimesis and the boundaries of any one cultural precept.
So are we asking students to go to Africa? NO!
In Drama, we set out to introduce competing historical, contextual and challenging ideas, modes of action and rituals that stretch individuals and groups from the bombardment of reinforcing media presentations which dominate the forming of their experience.
By starting with a neutralizing space and set of routines and rituals for working in a physical phase, the students and practitioners are then motivated to become aware of their own experiences as valid starting points for dramatic investigation. They become aware of how with repetition of physical activity, there grows awareness of their experience. Gesture itself can evoke experience. Sound and image likewise! The vague impressions that a new script or one's own dreams might leave with individuals become acceptable and notable starting points for dramatic exploration. We come to accept the physical body as having value; the body itself as incorporating feelings, senses, emotions, weaknesses and strengths. We accept this body as an instrument; as our very personal instrument. And this can't really happen without a strong ability to "experience". And so Drama works from a physical phase through an experiential phase while never losing touch with the physical. It is a phenomenological process.
However, the paradox is ever present. The existential phase of working poses Sartre's point: "existence precedes essence." Are we in fact capable of working out the intrinsic nature of what we are as human beings? Or can we only make decisions based on what our senses tell us? Or are those senses themselves controlled by the limits of experience?
To work within an existential phase requires challenge to all that precedes and thus requires an extreme openness to new experience. Perhaps working in an existential phase is more an aspiration than a generally feasible process.
In Drama, we hope to provide and facilitate actions, routines, rituals and processes that might encourage participants to work towards creating art; to be genuinely creative and so change the world in some small or large respect. But to change, not by dictatorship, but through genuine explorations in experiential modes that challenge oneself to reconsider; to reignite one's humanity and co-existence!
Drama cannot divide creativity from experience or meaning from the meaningless. Rather, Drama provides a process for creating physical relationship with experience in order to create, recognize and communicate meaningful moments of insight.
I think any Drama course worth anything needs to respect the language that it uses and be specific in its intents. It needs to provide a framework for processes that guide the instruction and active ingratiation of rituals, routines and contexts through which experience may be shaped and reflected upon. There needs to be the potential or at least the aspiration for the creating of existential choices within the extended parameters that open doors to existence beyond our limited experience.
The new Drama course for the ACT unfortunately does not do this; and that is a problem.
Joe Woodward 8 March 2021
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