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An Improvisation

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I have been listening to Keith Jarrett. Something about the way the sound seems to flow from the strings to the hammers, the hammers to the keys, the keys to his fingers, his fingers through his body, his body to somewhere indefinable and back again. He improvises nearly all of his work. I wonder what type of energy it is that runs through his veins. Whatever it is, I want some. 

I have been thinking about improvisation in life, art, talk, thought, decision-making, movement. I think it’s the freedom or the openness that attracts me to it. I learn more and more (as if I didn’t already know) that I appreciate freedom. To me, improvisation is freedom, the freedom to think and play. I realize that the greatest, most influential and dangerous minds were free minds. Before publishing his findings on an anti-Ptolemaic universe, a young Galileo described watching a group of masons reinvent the process of lifting large granite blocks: in five minutes’ discussion, a method that had been used for centuries was abandoned for a more efficient system. Stopping to look at something and allow our instincts to choose for us is unusual in a world where everyone seems to have an answer.

I have been reading about Samuel Beckett. He wrote in French so that his work wouldn’t be unnecessarily clouded with linguistic flourishes and turns of phrase that would serve only to sacrifice clarity. He too seems to have listened to his gut. His characters are symbolic fractions of a human. Lucky is Pozzo’s critical mind and Didi is Gogo’s other half. He tried to find the skeleton of language.

I have been thinking about William Blake. I don’t even know his work very well, but I do know that he was a printmaker and a poet who used copper plates as his molds. He would complete intricate drawings and the text of poems with an acid-resistant chemical and then pour acid over the plate quickly revealing the positive space. It has been said he worked with God’s spirit moving through him. At any rate, he freed the print from the copper.

I have been thinking about acting. Even after the lines are learned, I wonder if there is a place where an actor can reach an optimal experience: one where it is like being half asleep and being unaware of anyone else around you. Climbing is the only time I have ever found such a focus. It is always improvised. There is no next move until you make it. And without focus, you fall and get hurt or die. How does the actor raise their stakes to such a level?

Keith Jarrett’s fingers are talking by themselves. His screams of elation at whatever it is that is pouring out of him are indicative that it is as new to him as to the audience. Like a happy Artaud, who crossed thresholds often with his instincts, Jarrett glides along in the world of his intuition.

Uninterrupted discussion is rare. We’d do good to find more time for reflection in our work because our work is, after all, about looking ahead.

A Letter to A. Artaud

M. Artaud,

You say the theatre is essential, that it is the re-localization or revelation into the depths of the mind. Why is it not treated as such? Where is your metaphor now?

You outline in detail the process of the body’s boiling point and we’re left only with the cruel fear that it is our lungs and our brains, those systems over which we have the only power, will liquefy, blacken, and be the first to carbonize and return to Earth. Is this why you turned to theatre?

Your body without organs is like a pitcher, some kind of coffer that can be filled, emptied and refilled with new and illuminating substances. It is the butterfly’s cocoon after the caterpillar liquefies and undergoes transmutation. It is your intestinal cancer that left you alone, seated upright, and dead, holding your left shoe. Did your body desert or honor you?

Neither the theatre nor the plague’s symptomatic effects seemed to affect you. It is the “demoralizing and prodigious effect produced on the victims’ minds” (17)* which starts you in fits. All the while, however, you’re aware of and convinced by fate. The story of your village and its Viceroy who listened to his dreams, the Assyrian Army’s decimation at the hands of an unknown, all-powerful General of putrefaction, are your expressions of acceptance, appreciation that there is no control, there is no means for expectation, there is only what is and what will be so why try to stop it?

This must be why “our will operates even in absurdity, even in the negation of possibility, even in the transmutation of the lies from which truth can be remade” (15). Free Will and Good Will, if absurd or cruel, must not be willful at all, for why would you or I or they will that which is untrue, fragmented, or rearranged? Is it a conscious will or a will born from the “streaming aberration of [our] mind[s]” (19)? If the latter, is it a will at all? For, to will requires intentionality and intentionality does not exist in the abating mind. Maybe it is within this plague-ridden brain that has yet to terminate, but is well into the throes of infection that a healthy environment is landed upon for the recrudescence of the puppeteers of death. Is it in this realm, the realm of an infected mind that has not yet given in, that creative expression must exist?

You say the theatre is “the supreme equilibrium which cannot be achieved without destruction” (31). I have two, balanced thoughts about that, but I keep them to myself from fear of ideational combustion. I don’t want my ideas to explode because I only have so many from time to time.

You and I function in our bodies on entirely different levels and our minds operate in different worlds, but the aesthetic boundaries you erected like barbed wire around a death camp are, like a crowd at a car crash, too disturbing to ignore. They capture that fundamental, but unwanted biological impulse to look when we should not, to think about what we should not think about, to say what we’re told not to say, to write and read out loud that which is disgusting and embarrassing, to open the space and time within which to actually create theatre based on the darkest corners of the human mind while all the time knowing the stage lighting comes from the lightest corners, to breathe in fresh mountain air only to blow out smoke into the watery eyes of the audience. Your theatre may be cruel, but physics says it must react and return in kind. And so, it is a kind theatre. After all, the smoke it stage smoke, the words are just words, the blood is fake, and the howls of pain are imitated.

I am glad I have not had to suffer like you, Hamlet, Shakespeare, Webster, the Marquis de Sade, de Vere, or any other poet/aristocrat/prince/madman. Thanks for the pavement – I’ll tread lightly and I promise to pick up the litter but leave the road-kill.

Yours Truly,

A 21st Century Theatre-Maker in the Western Hemisphere

* All quotes from The Theater and Its Double. Trans. Mary Caroline Richards. New York: Grove Press, 1958.

Performance Journal: Going Through the Tunnels

Tonight I will be working what has become, for me, a very difficult scene in The Elephant Man.

Toward the end of the play, Treves, so disturbed by being confronted with his own beliefs releases an emotional torrent onto the Bishop. While trying to maintain face at first and make his troubles about other people (mainly his patients who he sees as intent on destroying themselves), he unleashes a spontaneous search for the answer to all his professional decisions until this point. I think he realizes at this point in the play that he’s adhered to a structure of rules in which he never chose to believe in the first place – rules that require judgment, analysis, and deduction in order to make ‘informed’ decisions for his patients.

I’ve had my own confrontation with a system of rules to which I believed I had to adhere. Objectively, I am trying to ‘bottle’ a sense of what it feels like emotionally as well as physically. It is a rather raw feeling. A feeling of humility, of peeling back the layers of ‘that is just the way things are’. There is a constriction in my throat, a loss of appetite, a tightening in my solar plexus.

Having been here before, I know these sensations are inherently warning signs and also a light at the end of the tunnel. In order to push through to the other side, however, I have to acknowledge my stubbornness and remove the blinders I’ve put over certain areas of my life. Like Treves’ path, mine is like a train going in and out of tunnels – each exit reveals a new perspective, a new landscape, and new horizons.

Another analogy is a snake shedding its skin. While he feels guilty for going against these rules he’s become so familiar with, Treves cannot resist the itch beckoning the birth of a new man, a new skin. Even if the skin is old, rough, and patchy, it is safe. But safety is not why we’re here. And though we’re all afraid of change, new beginnings, new directions, and new horizons, for some the temptation to reach the end of the tunnel is too great… it just feels like shit at first.

Epic or Not: The Influence of Brechtian Techniques in The Elephant Man

            The Elephant Man was written under the support of the Foco Novo Theatre Company in the mid 70s in London. While finally authored by founding member American playwright Bernard Pomerance, the entire company was involved in its development. Foco Novo, or ‘new starting point’ was a small touring company committed to the development of new plays and touring new works throughout the United Kingdom to unusual audiences. In their brief existence, the company also produced translations and/or adaptations of Büchner’s Woyzeck, Genet’s Deathwatch and Brecht’s Edward II and A Man’s A Man. Pomerance was admittedly heavily influenced by Brecht and many of Brecht’s early admirers including his friend leftist British playwright John Arden.

Including The Elephant Man, Pomerance’s plays almost always deal with or are based upon historical events or characters. He typically writes scenes as ‘snapshots’ or ‘slice of life’ moments leaving most of his scripts, like Brecht’s, short and episodic. He calls for the doubling of roles, or multiple castings for each actor. His plays, again like Brecht’s, though oftentimes short in length, will have over twenty characters to be played by a cast of more or less than ten. The most readily recognizable Brechtian influence in The Elephant Man and other Pomerance dramas are his aesthetic suggestions. While he does not write specifically in the text about scenic arrangements, the textual structure alone intuitively restricts a designer from ‘over-designing’ the piece. The use of pre-scene placards indicating either the whole or the gist of what is to come. There is no attempt at nail-biting apprehension, suspense or typical dramatic arc for that matter. Pomerance indicates the use of musical interludes at the end of almost every scene. Like Brecht’s early plays, the thematic structure relies on a central character, Dr. Treves, to deliver the thematic engine of the play.

Brecht’s earlier plays consisted of short, staccato scenes which begin in the middle of the action and, rather than arcing toward any conclusion, simply end in the middle of the action. That isn’t to say nothing happens within them, but unlike traditional realism where a scene has a progressive, chronological sequence of events aiding in the development of a coherent plotline, Brecht’s scenes serve in the interest of the development of character and motivated themes. Hence, they are not restricted to filling in the gaps. The gaps are everywhere, the gaps are accepted, and the gaps are important.  The Elephant Man is the same in that while we may see a chronological progression of time moving forward, it doesn’t hesitate to skip large periods without indicating as such, nor is it unwilling to simply stop the action mid-scene to go to blackout, project a title, play some music only pick right back where it was moments before. This disregard for the current of the action is so the audience cannot be lulled into passive observance, but must stay awake and listen to everything that is said so as not to lose track of time and place.

Multiple characters played by the same actor presents a similar aim: for the characters to be represented by new forms of old characters. In a way, it suggests that one person is no different from another. To have the actress playing the Princess of Wales also play a pinhead in a freak-show says something specific about the royalty of the period and thusly, of the political figures of 1970s England. This is a simple, but effective manifestation of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. Seeing our princess as mentally inept one or two scenes later quickly reminds us that we cannot become empathically involved with the characters onstage because they just may become someone else. We see this more in Brecht’s earlier non-epic plays.

The options for scenic arrangements for a play with so many short scenes seems limiting at first. Upon further investigation, however, it is clear that the key to designing such a play will require simplicity in order to allow for versatility. When the location changes back and forth quickly and often, multiple sets cannot be flown in one after another and not become exhaustingly tedious. Therefore, as Brecht insisted, blocks and flats can be rearranged to create and recreate specific locations. Once the audience recognizes which arrangement is where, they can let it go and get on with it. The use of projections of photographs and/or video can serve as a reminder as well. Brecht used this technique to great aesthetic success with Mother Courage and her Children because the central scenic focal point was a mobile cart which was oftentimes the only scenic element present onstage but provided all the necessary properties to allow the recognition of each new location.

When many short scenes occur in quick succession, the transitions become a major part of the play. Brecht insisted on cutting out any sense of anticipation by clearly printing on placards or projecting brief aphorisms or synopses of what was to come in the following scene. During the presentation of placards or projections, there would be a brief musical interlude to either set the atmosphere or to sometimes completely destroy any sense of one. Pomerance calls for music at the blackout near the end of many scenes. Unlike the later more epic plays where the music and singing was a key element of the action and dialogue of the play, intermittent instrumental music used in his earlier plays is more atmospheric and thusly more traditional. More often than not, we’re sure to find the musical interludes in productions of The Elephant Man an important aid in setting the atmosphere for the following scene.

All of Brecht’s plays relied on a central tragic (or tragicomic) character beginning, going thorough, or perishing within a personal crisis. It is this character’s progression or regression that provides the engine for the distribution of the play’s themes and ideas. Like Brecht’s early plays, and ironically much like Aristotelian tragedy, The Elephant Man uses a central figure and his dilemma as an allegorical focal point. And the dilemma of this central figure fits a similar mold each time: to discover the truth about themselves and the world. Like Treves, Galy Gay must define his role in the war, in his marriage, in the world. Like Oedipus, Treves must initially play his given role with strength and fortitude. When he is bucked from his horse, however, he must see himself in his true light and, in reaction, destroy what he sees. Pomerance asks us to admit that we are what we eat: that the improper use of and domestication of others for their own good will in turn domesticate ourselves. As Galy Gay the porter is inserted into the role of another soldier, it is clear that in war there is no individuality and it is precisely the suppression of individuality that is the crime. Galy Gay is Treves’ Merrick and the English colonial army is Merrick’s Treves.

While it has epic elements, The Elephant Man is not an entirely epic play. While it borrows many of Brecht’s devices, it does not carry the same narrative and is not carried or delivered by important musical devices. It has the epic elements of avoiding any attempt at pure realism or naturalism, and it has living characters with plausible psychological motivations and challenges. Its dialogue, while naturalistic enough to lull an audience into thinking the characters are real, it is far too poetic, articulated, stylized, punctuated and precise. Pomerance’s direction of A Man’s A Man and Edward II, both very early plays, is an indicator that his interest in Brecht was not necessarily in the highly experimental, pedagogical (lehrstück), audience and political-oriented aims, which the epic drama tried to produce. It was the experimentation with the unrealistic passage of time, suggestive sets, expressionistic lighting, the doubling or tripling of roles and the use of placards and intermittent, instrumental music which created the atmosphere of Pomerance’s drama. The Elephant Man certainly tries to incarnate the historical characters and the events affecting them through storytelling, while epic theatre would relate the events and insist the audience make the decisions. The Elephant Man does not try to predict the future, it shows the way the world is within a specific realm and asks us to look at it and ourselves within that realm, while the epic theatre, as Brecht writes, shows “the world as it is becoming.”[1] The Elephant Man is not an unabashed misrepresentation of ‘Brechtian Drama’, but rather an inspired reuse of Brechtian techniques in a fusing of forms intended to tell a good story and ask its audience to take a closer look.


[1] Brecht, Bertolt. “Theatre for Learning.” Trans. Edith Anderson. Brecht Sourcebook. Ed.       Henry Bial & Carol Martin. New  York & London: Routledge, 2000. 23.

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I have created this site as a posting place for my latest thoughts on theatre, performance theory, literature, education, and whatever else passes before my cerebral cortex.

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