A rewarding performance experience
“Intense pleasure in skill, machine skill, ceases to be a sin, but an aspect of embodiment” Donna Haraway (Haraway:262)
The parametric (orchestral) compilation of acting work, and parallel rewarding experience on stage are equally as important parts of the performance of theatre, i.e., its realisation. Acting should also comprise an activity, which rewards the actor as an action or event itself. This rewarding experience of acting can only be conceptualised reasonably through its unavoidable and actual embodiment.
The way how I specify the term “embodiment” in this paper and how I use it in my research are based on the modern phenomenological tradition.
My urge to study embodied dimensions on stage originates from my perceptions as an actor or, in other words, as a few of my problems as an actor. My first problem was that I felt an irreconcilable conflict on stage between my thoughts and physical gestures. It felt as if my thoughts on stage were unable to follow my gestures or I was buried in other thoughts while my hands were trying to form a suitable gesture – either way – but this was a fundamental stage-existential problem. My head and other numerous parts of my existence were not synchronised usefully within the reality of the stage. This is what I felt like. It seems obvious that this can cause serious troubles considering the “momentary truth on stage” or a pleasant scenic experience for the actor. In other words, what is/are at the correct time on stage: the slowest or the fastest? The mind, thoughts, senses, reactions or actions? The correct answer to the former could be nothing or neither. In the actual situation on stage, there can basically be only a single time – the experience-based, scenic time that is bound on the actor’s existence, its unavoidable embodiment, and that is felt to be rewarding.
At this point of my career, I did have a few experiences of my own regarding a comprehensive perception of embodied space and time through music (playing and singing), tai chi, mimicry and dance. Within these wordless, abstract forms of art and exercise, I had experienced an indefinable but clear sense of togetherness considering a specific scenic form and all of its elements. I felt that while I was creating something new, I also followed the form closely. In addition, I often forgot any factors that disturb the performance on stage: weariness, income, personal problems, conflicts within the collective, etc. Furthermore, I had received feedback on good and direct performances on stage from spectators. Why did all of this disappear when traditional theatre elements, such as the “character”, “given conditions”, “credibility”, “story” or “thinking”, were added?
During my final year of acting MA-education, I prepared a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape as my MA work. While acting (alone) in the performance, I experienced something that I will call rewarding embodied experiences in acting. As I have already discussed the performance’s working methods in my Master’s thesis, I will not return to them here. My intention is to examine the embodied method of perceiving rewarding experiences on stage. This way, it is also possible to build the reality on stage into a personal (as well as a collective) experience, independent of any other disturbing projects. This also enables discussion, i.e., the point of view can be expanded to the director’s work, controlling actors and perceiving the art of theatre as a whole, multi-dimensional event.
Adding philosophy and phenomenology, in particular, to the praxis of art is hardly unproblematic. It may even be dangerous because, in the worst case, the process may result in a poor discussion over the parameters of art and/or vague, non-critical and unhistorical philosophy. Being aware of the aforementioned problems, I started to research the phenomenological studies of exercise and various related projects conducted by Timo Klemola and Tapio Koski at the University of Tampere.I will also discuss the thought-related and practical processes, following how these studies have ended up as material for the artistic work presented in my research. I will not discuss the thought processes underlying the work of Klemola and Koski as literal-philosophical wholes, but select the research material that I have used in preparing my artistic work and, therefore, the best expresses the existential image of being on stage and rewarding experiences which I aim at rehearsing in my artistic work in theatre and through which I also attempt to express myself as an artist
In my opinion, I have, however, learned the most of Timo Klemola’s way of thinking on his practical tai chi classes that I have irregularly-regularly attended since 1995. Tai chi was closely connected to my basic acting studies. During my first four years of studying tai chi, I obtained my first aware and reflective experience of the process where a new, previously-unknown skill is transformed into a felt and embodied experience through practice. Klemola’s writings have also helped me in understanding his practical teachings better. As a result, theory and practice have formed a circular whole together with theatrical productions.
2. A human in the world
In his research, Timo Klemola studies a mobile human who is materialised in the world. Klemola’s idea is based on Heidegger’s word representing the human reality, Dasei, “out there”, in the world (Klemola:19). Klemola continues:
”(…)it is not that Man has already some kind of “being” when he arrives to the world. Man recieves his being from his existence in the world (…) Heidegger states, that Man understands himself ontologically mainly through objects, and their being, which he himself is not, but which he encounters(…) in Heideggerian world being is always being in a some kind of situation. (Klemola:19) (translation to english my own)
This idea, i.e. one feature in the structure of the existing world, could, in the articulated form, contain pieces of the experience acting on stage (in making theatre) has raised within me. On one hand, it also narrows the material examined (the world and being there) – this, on the other hand, helps us in focusing our discussion of working in the theatre over the factor that is probably the most important in achieving a successful work of art: articulation of the scope of the artistic fragment in question or even its “world”. What is significant in this process is the return to the phenomenon itself and its manifestation. We are and act in this situation as if we were forced to be there – cast there.
Naturally, the world (or its concept) can by understood in thousands of different ways. Can, however, the word “world” (Welt) used by Heidegger be directly applied to the meaning of the “world of theatre”, the “event context on stage” or the “inner world of these performances”?
Probably not, because I do not wish to claim (or even hazard a guess) what Heidegger or Klemola (really) mean with the quotation above. I may wish to understand and interpret it differently, and apply it in artistic practice. If we can, this way, deepen or specify the discussion over the experience of being on stage or identify the type of art I am looking for, I should be, if not in the right, at least on the correct way.
What would “world” be in my research performances? What do we examine? Where do we limit such massive concepts as “the theatre”, “acting event” or “this particular performance”? Let us try. For the performances included in this research, we could define the theatre event or phenomenon as follows:
There is a person or a group of people who are assigned to status (by collective agreement) which has been prescribed as a “situation of performativity”. They perform performative actions. There is also a second person or a group of people who are assigned to status (by collective agreement) which has been prescribed as a “situation of an audience”. Between these two statuses occurs the phenomenon of theatre.
I will select the former status of performing situations as the world of artistic activities for this research. In this world, the actor has built the performance consciously and, above all, experiences it as an embodiment. This status of performing situations enables the experience-based event for the actor and opens a space for it. As a result, we are not interested in the actor’s personal preparation before the performance within the parameter considering embodied experience, or any other activities taking place in the dressing rooms or behind the curtains. We have not entered into the complex work content of the director within our current commercial theatre organisations. We accept the fact that whatever happens behind the scenes, and events that are outside the performance and often highly personal, have an influence on the artistic input and content of all theatre workers. However, all of the abovementioned is not within the scope of this parameter, these performances and the related performance experience. We are examining the actor (theatre-maker) in the space (the world) where the actor is on stage in the existential sense (i.e., where the actor is strongly aware of being at some level). Furthermore, the audience present in these performances experiences the actor and connects him/her as part of the event of the artistic work. This also applies to rehearsals where the theatre event is mutually accepted to exist so that it is possible to generate entire, thoroughly considered and orchestrated works of theatrical art within the collective without any pressure and disturbance caused by a actual audience. Therefore, the theatre, as it was defined at the beginning of this chapter, is also realised during rehearsals if all accept it mutually and aim at making it real.
In this world, the performer’s body is cast into these performances and this situation. The body is the performer’s tool and his/her centre for existing in the theatre. The performer experiences the performances through his/her body.
4. Embodied experience and phenomenology
How could we talk about the body and experiencing the world through the body across the phenomenological tradition? People experience the world through their bodies. Through bodies, the world becomes actual reality for people – its essence, possibilities and rules are revealed. Through bodies, people reach towards their environment. This environment includes what is at hand and on display.
”Body is our channel of being in the world. Having a body means inclusion into certain surroundings as a living being – involvement in certain projects(…)”( Klemola:38) (translation to english my own)
”It (body) is also a centre of the world in a sense, that I understand that objects have multiple faces – i am able to walk around them and perceive them in different angles. In this sense I am aware of the world through body” (Klemola:38) (translation to english my own)
However, being a body in the world does not mean that it would provide us with a precise map or some kind of coordinates for our existence in the world. Through experiences, the body forms a separate subjective experience which is different from any possible “objective” world.
”It is not so that we perceive with our body. Instead we perceive in our boby – thus body becomes the subject our our perception” (Klemola:38) (translation to english my own)
Therefore, the embodied experience of our world is always subjective, a kind of a parallel universe of being that we are aware of through experienced similarities with the experiences of other people. This enables us to perceive the experience of acting as a common matter which is within the phenomenon of performance and shared with others – because others share the same world with us. Actors are not alone with their experiences; they are not fully separate subjects or single “atoms” but active parts of the performance “swarm”.
The phenomenological point of view consists of several ways of approaching the embodied experience. One way is to separate the object body from the experienced body (Klemola:77). Object body refers to the body as viewed from the outside. When working on stage, it could be the moment when the parameters of the embodied stage object are defined, i.e., when the actor considers “how that character would walk” for the first time. In this study, we are referring to an “orchestrated”, “composed” or even “programmed” body. The experienced body is present in our experiences. We never move our object body but our experienced body. Once actors start to think of this object’s parameters within their body, they immediately take a step towards the experienced body from their object body.
”…while playing piano it is not necessary to watch one`s fingers, because they are not just fingers among fingers: the whole act of playing occurs in an experienced body”. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (Klemola:78) (translation to english my own)
The body’s existence in the world and the way we can consciously transfer from the object body to the experience body involve the question of skills. When making observations and reaching towards the world, the body is also continuously learning. In order for individuals to move between the object body (consideration and conscious building of an embodied skill) and the experienced body, they must develop their skills through practice. In the desired skills, the experienced body can only be reached through constant practice. Through practice, the image of a skill attained and the movement of the body are in a greater harmony. This experience is often a rewarding one. According to Klemola, this is referred to as a harmony of the mind and the body (Klemola:229). The body must also be open for the skills practised. The body must be open to and towards the world. Moreover, the body must contain the possibility of opening towards new skills and their experiences. The “open” body as such is also a skill which needs to be practised or for which the body must be prepared and trained. Good exercises for keeping the actor’s body “open” include all conscious movement using the body – moving as a whole (tai chi, yoga, dance, running, etc.).
Let us take riding a bicycle as an example. When we start learning a new skill, all our attention is focused on single parameters of that skill: pedalling, steering, balance, ringing the bell. I noticed this as I was watching my son learning how to ride a bike. He always had to stop for ringing the bell screwed to the handlebar. He still rode his bicycle very close to his object body – all of the various skills required needed to be examined as separate units, largely outside their entire experiences. Later, his skills will, hopefully, develop so that he does not need to think about all of the riding parameters consciously and separately, but can, while riding his bicycle, observe the traffic and feel a warm summer breeze on his skin, while greeting his friends.
In his book, Klemola presents Hubert L. Dreyfus’s five-level model as an example of different learning stages (Klemola:93). Dreyfus divides these stages as follows:
- advanced beginner
The final two stages Dreyfus describes as levels where “intuitive behaviour replaces deduction”. Klemola elaborates on this idea by describing the process of learning tai chi (Klemola:96). I consider it to be an interesting description of learning a skill because it contains the imitation and repetition of an embodied skill. Both of these methods are highly familiar and practical terms considering actors stage work in this research.
9. Stage object as a skill
Let us illustrate the stage object, its orchestration and experience-based performance using a line segment.
It is essential that we can move in either direction along the segment and the segment does not contain any pre-defined, numbered or fixed “stages”. At first, the segment serves in defining a few parameters that are developed (through imitation and repetition) into “intuitive” experience-based, multidimensional stage movements and skills by moving forward on the segment. We can always consciously return to these parameters (orchestration), their small sections, so that the performance structure is consciously with us and available for development. This is aimed at preventing us from disappearing into a meditative, intuitive and imagined trance world of the experienced body during the theatre performance; instead, we should consciously develop these parameters of our stage object. All of this takes place in the performance “swarm”, together with the bodies of other actors, continuously learning and attempting to identify new, common possibilities for executing the performance swarm.
Another reason for securing movement in both directions along the segment is to ensure that the performance orchestration does not become too familiar, an insignificant and self-evident fact that we are no longer aware of – similar to how the clothes that we put on in the morning feel in the afternoon. In this case, we can return and re-learn the skills required by the stage object or review them critically – renew them. In such a process, we can use (for example) the ideas of inhibition or unlearning provided by the Alexander technique (Gelb:80-88).
A practical example of this segment in my work is the opening scene of Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy. In the opening-scene, all actors walk slowly from the back of the stage to the front, while reviewing the “parameters” of their stage characters before the actual “performance text”. For observing and learning movement, they had studied tai chi and butoh before and during the rehearsal process. However, the purpose was not to build any direct performance analogy with these disciplines in that the scene had been butoh or tai chi within the theatre performance, but to apply the embodied experiences developed through these disciplines to the perception of the stage experience produced through their performance and to deepen the perception time after time. This scene has a number of other, even aesthetic, meanings in the aesthetics of the performance and its narration with deeper and more complex interpretations but, for the being of a single stage object and the embodied swarm of the performance, it is important that the embodied parameters are reviewed at the beginning of the performance, while returning the parameters of the desired stage object’s embodied image to the body (as a swarm).
10. A problem in sharing an embodied experience
The embodied experience is always subjective. It is difficult, impossible even, to put into words. The more complex the experiences that are described, the more impossible it is to control the number of words or return from words to the experience. As I started to compile material for describing the stage experience, I bothered myself with endless questions of how I could compile such material (text, music, descriptions of movement) that could be turned into an analogy of such embodied experience I was aiming at in my research. After many thoughts, I ended up in the exercises through which I had opened up a new way of thinking about movement and the stage experience for myself: butoh and tai chi. They are connected in that nearly all movement exists at the same time as an activity and a described symbolic text or collection of images. They can be spoken and experienced simultaneously. I will present butoh as an example of rehearsing the stage experience in this study because I have discussed tai chi in my previous texts. However, both of these disciplines supported each other in the rehearsals of the performances within this research.
10.1 Butoh as an exercise for a rewarding embodied experience
I will not describe the history of butoh as a form of art or its global significance on cultural history. For me, it is important that butoh was a form of modern art in its time (in Japan in the 1960s). Its time as such (i.e., modern art) is over. It continues to raise interest for me as a practical discipline (embodied experience) for descriptions and the words used. In other words, what is important in butoh exercises is the dialectic relationship between speech and its actual stage activities – the wisdom butoh identifies in both. I have practised butoh with Ari Tenhula and Aki Suzuki, who was also involved in the rehearsals of Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy as a butoh instructor.
What was important for me in these butoh exercises was the relationship of the body with the surrounding “reality” or “the world itself”. In Exercise 2, the aim is to “communicate” with bodies in a space: insects are eating your body, spreading your awareness over the surrounding space. This is one of the sources of rewarding experiences: the feeling that your body/awareness is part of something larger, a collective whole, but still controllable. As a result, the body is not a sealed “container” but open to the world and influences. According to my experience, such a fundamental change in the concept of the subject is a harmonic rewarding experience.
In the following, I will present a few exercises carried out with Aki Suzuki for Yvonne. The first two exercises prepare the actor for the third exercise. The purpose of the first two exercises is to open a meaningful relationship between the text and embodied activities, i.e., to prepare for “butoh”. The third exercise practises butoh, or “butoh walking”. The exercise text says also something about the purpose of the exercise. Spoken text heard in a space takes place in the actor’s body which also experiences it collectively with other participants and subjectively in the body. The exercise text is simple and easy to adapt and, as a result, years of studying is not required if the objective is to observe the “experience of butoh”. Mastery in the butoh art requires years of dedicated practice. The video clips have been taken during the rehearsals of Ruotsalaisen kesän yö.
The performers are Antti Mankonen and Pia Soikkeli. Finnish and English was mixed in the exercises because Aki Suzuki was unable to find the correct Finnish form for all of the expressions.
“Siirrä sydämesi selkäsi taakse niin näet itsesi”. Aki Suzuki
The first objective is to find Condition B as stated in the exercise. All progress forward is carried out in this “state”. The aim is to achieve a conscious change in observing all that exists. Eyes move from a single object in the field of vision towards a more general perception.
Focus on a single object in the field of vision, “eyes front”, leaning forward.
Eyes have moved ten centimetres backwards from the back of the head, focus on the entire space, “full back”.
BODY EATEN BY THE INSECTS.
To be performed one section at a time while maintaining Condition B.
- “Body made into dry condition” – dry your body of all water so that insects can eat you.
- The right hand is turned so that the back of the hand is facing forward – like the branch of a tree.
- An insect stings you between the right-hand index and middle finger and starts to climb upwards circling the hand. You start walking.
- An insect stings you behind the left ear and starts moving downwards towards your back.
- An insect stings you to the sole of your left foot and starts climbing upwards along your inner thigh.
- An insect stings you to the right side of your neck and starts climbing towards your chest and navel area.
- 500 insects gather around your eyes, ears, mouth, fingers, inner thighs and toes, and start biting.
- 10,000 insects gather inside your mouth, ears and eyes and along your inner thighs.
- The insects penetrate your skin, eating your inner organs. You can no longer walk.
- The insects eat your entire body.
- The insects spread, covering the entire area. Your cells are outside your body.
- Other insects come and eat these insects.
BUTOH BODY WALKING. HOKUI-TAI.
Being between heaven and hell.
Its not a walk it is not a shift.
This is not walking but measuring.
It is a measure.
You can measure any distance you wish.
Your feet are hovering 30 cm above the floor.
Thousands of wires are supporting your body towards the heaven.
– From the joints of your fingers upwards
– From the joints of your toes upwards
– From your temples
– From your forehead
– From behind your ears
– From your shoulders
– From your waist. Front and back.
– From your elbows
– From your stomach
– From your knees
– From your ankles
– From behind your neck
There is a single large glass eye in your forehead. You cannot see with your real eyes. The rate at which the glass eye sees and senses its environment is much quicker. Your environment speeds up.
There is a wire in your forehead, pulling you forward.
Two large hands are pushing you forward from your shoulders. Wind.
A large fish cuts your stomach and swims out, forward from your stomach. You say “wait” and go after the fish.
A vase full of nitroglycerin is on top of your head. Carry it with care.
There is a forest behind you. There is a forest behind your teeth. Your mouth is divided horizontally and connected to the forest behind you. You say “chii”. Fresh mint tastes in your mouth.
Two long razor blades are under your feet. They extend in both directions: forward and backward.
Bodies around you are cut into slices. You walk through the slices. There are dozens of slices. You can count them as you walk through them. This way, your body spreads to cover the entire space.
Four bodies are walking with you – in front, behind, on the left and on the right. This affects how fast you can turn. Remember that you are supported by wires.
11. Obstacles to rewarding experiences
If the starting point, as set at the beginning, is that acting must also comprise a rewarding act or event (experience) for the actor, what could be possible obstacles to the fulfilment of such experiences? How can rewarding, experience-based acting be made impossible?
If the definition of a rewarding, experience-based performance is that skills can be in a harmonious relationship with the task’s requirements, the skill segment presented above could also be a good tool here.
A breakage in the segment could be an obstacle to rewarding experiences.
- The theatre director requires an experience-based performance even if the initial orchestration parameters are not known or have not been rehearsed enough.
- The actor leaps (forces himself/herself) directly into this experience without knowing/defining the parameters. The actor is directly aiming at the experience without examining the parameters thoroughly.
- Minutes before the show, the director adds so many new parameters that the actor cannot go through the entire segment with these unknown parameters in order to reach the experience-based performance.
This could be assisted by a number of other performance theories and practices. For example, the FLOW theory has covered meaningful, experience-based work in the artistic field. One of its definitions is that the “flow experience” can only be achieved when the person’s skills and the task’s requirements meet in a pleasant manner. This may be true but, in my opinion, concerns other research and discourse…
Donna Haraway proposes the concept of cyborg skills as the new aspect of embodied enjoyment. When embodied “origins” or sanctities are abandoned, a cyborg, collective, rewarding embodied experience becomes possible. In my opinion, rewarding acting must be embodied, and the embodied experience must also be collective. Through butoh exercises, we learned to cloud the boundaries of our bodies and expand our awareness to cover the entire “swarm” of the performance.
“One is too few, and two is only one possibility.” (Haraway:262)
I started to study this rewarding experience from phenomenology because it was the only way I knew to concretise “the body” and “the embodied experience”. In the middle of my research, I found several problems in this approach, especially in relations to the limits and identity of the mind and body. Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto helped me open the embodied experience as a whole “field” rather than a closed subjective and individual experience. I also found, to my surprise, that butoh exercises involve the same logic which questions the boundaries of the body.
At the end of his book, Timo Klemola proposes “cognitive synesthesia” as a category for the process how an embodied experience can simultaneously be true, beautiful and good (Klemola:456). In synesthesia, different sensory areas become intermingled. What makes this enjoyable, according to Klemola, is the crumbling of cognitive barriers. Examples include the “hearing” of one’s own movement, the “feeling” of visual senses or sound turning into an internal “landscape”.
The analysis of the embodied experience through “phenomenological eyes” is not a new invention. World literature and theatre history contain plenty of discussions and perceptions that could easily be regarded as “phenomenological perceptions”. In his foreword to Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty notes that:
”…phenomenology can be practised and identified as a manner or style of thinking, that it existed as a movement before arriving at a complete awareness of itself as a philosophy” (Merleau-Ponty:viii)
In the same foreword, Merleau-Ponty states that, even if phenomenology after Husserl has set “strictly scientific” objectives, they may never be reached and, even if they were, “strict science” will always be second to true experiences of the world (Merleau-Ponty:x). This also applies to this research.
What is important is what we learn in practice when making theatre and setting, for example, “the study of the embodied phenomenon of the stage” as our objective in the preparation of artistic work.
Finally, I wish to present an example from the history of world literature. Here, Tolstoy examines the work of peasants in the field through a “phenomenological eye”. Our analyses of the rewarding experience of stage work could learn from the accuracy of the description.
LEO TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (1875), p. 302 (highlights in bold by me)
”… Another row, and yet another row, followed—long rows and short rows, with good grass and with poor grass. Levin lost all sense of time, and could not have told whether it was late or early now. A change began to come over his work, which gave him immense satisfaction. In the midst of his toil there were moments during which he forgot what he was doing, and it came all easy to him, and at those same moments his row was almost as smooth and well cut as Tit’s. But so soon as he recollected what he was doing, and began trying to do better, he was at once conscious of all the difficulty of his task, and the row was badly mown…”
”… The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and well-finished of itself. These were the most blissful moments…..”
”… It was only hard work when he had to break off the motion, which had become unconscious, and to think; when he had to mow round a hillock or a tuft of sorrel….”
- Gelb, Michael (1981). Ryhtiä elämään (Body learning). Johdatus Alexander-tekniikkaan. Suomennos Päivi Saraste-Halme. WSOY. Porvoo.
- Klemola, Timo (2004). Taidon filosofia: filosofin taito. Tampere University Press. Tampere.
- Klemola, Timo (1998). Ruumis liikkuu – liikkuuko henki? Fenomenologinen tutkimus liikunnan projekteista. Filosofisia tutkimuksia liikunnan projekteista vol 66. Tampereen Yliopisto. Tampere.
- Koski, Tapio (2000). Liikunta elämäntapana ja henkisen kasvun välineenä. Filosofinen tutkimus liikunnan merkityksestä. Tampereen yliopisto. Tampere.
- Merleau – Ponty, Maurice (1962). Phenomenology of Perception. Colin Smith tr. Routledge (1992). London.
- Tolstoi, Leo (1875-1877). Anna Karenina. Finnish translation by Lea Pyykkö. Karisto. Hämeenlinna 1997.
Theatre as a Project of a Body - artistic research on the theoretical and practial possibilities of moders acting
To be presented, with the permission of the board of School of Communication, Media and Theatre of the University of Tampere,
for public discussion in the Teatterimonttu theatre, D-wing, Kalevantie 4, Tampere on April 22nd, 2012 ay 12 o`clock.
UNIVERSITY OF TAMPERE
(c) Mikko Kanninen 2012