Invitation Into a Practice of Practicing Practice

Invitation Into a Practice of Practicing Practice

The following is lifted from the scripted invitation into an encountering of a practice as research enquiry that took place on 3rd July 2019 as part of the BRINK Festival at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, as well as a slideshow presentation and post-encounter questionnaire that accompanied the event.

“An agent who possesses a practical mastery, an art, whatever it may be, is capable of applying in his action the disposition which appears to him only in action, in the relationship with a situation.”

– Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice

 

“During the course of repetitions, meanings are transitory, emerging, dissolving, and being altered.”  

– Ciane Fernandes, The Aesthetics of Repetition and Transformation

I encounter a practice and it encounters me.

How do I utilise repetition to develop my own knowing-how to execute an established practice based on my limited knowing-what that practice is or requires?

How do I then utilise this repetitive practice of my version of the practice to understand profoundly, intuitively and empathetically – or grok, as coined by Robert A. Heinlein – the original practice and the discipline within which it’s situated?

Does the practice grok me in return?

How do I know when I have successfully grokked the practice through the practicing of my practice of the practice?

And what kind of knowledge(s) emerge as a result of this grokking of the practice?

My current practice as research enquiry problematises the preceding set of questions through the continued development of my own practices of pre-existing practices – such as figure drawing, playing the harmonica and playing the piano – based on my own limited prior knowledge or memory of what those practices are and might require, but without any practical knowledge of how to execute the practices.

In other words, I’ve been playing at playing the harmonica. Or playing at figure drawing. And developing and mastering my own practices of these practices, and – in turn – intuitively understanding the disciplines within which these practices are situated.

I believe that by developing a practical mastery through a repeated engagement with an action I am grokking – or understanding profoundly, intuitively and empathetically – that action and the practice or discipline with which it originally belongs.

Your individualised encounter with this practice of practicing practices has allowed me to open up this enquiry and ask how others may develop their own knowing-how to execute established practices based on what they already know.


Utilising the three steps listed below, I am inviting you to master the practice presented before you over the course of 15 minutes:

  • Encounter the practice by identifying what you may already know (and not know) about the object and the practice before you. Drawing from this knowledge and tapping into your gut instinct, spend some time mastering it, perhaps by establishing a series of repeatable actions as a way of executing your own practice.

  • Practice the practice. There are many ways to practice a practice – experimentation, improvisation, reflection, etc. – many of which are executed through a series of repetitions. Allow your practicing of the practice to remain in a constant state of process, placing the emphasis on the practicing itself, not on the outcome.

  • Allow for the possibility of developing an implicit knowing-how to execute your individual practice and the potential occurrence of an “Ah-Ha!” moment – a profound, intuitive and empathetic understanding of the practice that may alter its form or the way you engage with it.

I can assure you that there is no right or wrong way to practice this practice. There is only your way of practicing the practice.

I have spent months encountering a range of practices with which I’ve had no prior training or practical knowledge, often only experiencing an “Ah-Ha!” moment after dedicating many hours to this repetitive and reflective practice of practicing. This is an invitation into the initial stage of this process, so I encourage you to enter into this encounter without the expectation of a tangible product or end-goal.

Enjoy the practice of practicing your practice.

I will leave you alone in the room to encounter your practice, as I have found this initial stage to be a fairly personal and intimate process. After 15 minutes, I will return to the studio – I’ll give a knock on the door to let you know that I’m entering – and ask you a few simple questions about your experience. You will not be expected to present your practice to me or to anyone else. This practice is for you and you alone.


QUESTIONNAIRE —

  • Have you begun to develop your own unique practice over the past 15 minutes? If so, how did you determine that you had developed a practice?

  • What did you learn (if anything) about yourself in the actual doing of the practice?

  • Did you at any time feel beholden to any predetermined or preconceived notions of what this practice should be? And if so, were you able to at any point let go of those notions?

  • How would you know when you know you’ve mastered the practice?

If you would like to continue to develop your practice of practicing this practice beyond today's encounter, I encourage you to take one of the packaged versions of this object home with you. It's yours to practice with as you choose. You may also choose to leave it behind, along with the practice itself.

Thank you for taking part in my practice today.

Practicing MY Practice

Practicing MY Practice

The following is the scripted portion of a seminar presentation that took place on 12 March 2019 as part of the Developing Your Discipline unit of the MFA Performance Practice as Research course at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama:

How can I utilise repetition to develop my own practice of — or “way of doing” — an established practice based on my limited prior knowledge of that practice and the discipline within which it’s situated? And what kinds of knowledge(s) emerge as a result of this practice?

Throughout this term, I have attempted to establish my own practice of a pre-existing practice — such as figure drawing, playing the harmonica, folding origami and playing the piano — based on my own limited prior knowledge or memory of what that practice is and might require, but without any practical knowledge of how to execute that practice. In other words, I’ve been playing at playing the harmonica. Or playing at figure drawing. And developing and mastering my own practices of these practices, and — in turn — intuitively (and profoundly) understanding the disciplines within which these practices are situated. Through the development of this practice, an inquiry has emerged that is problematising the relationship between knowing-what and knowing-how, and my own relationship to both forms of knowledge. This inquiry has also encouraged me to question and activate the relationships between explicit and implicit memory, drawing from Pil Hansen and Bettina Blässing’s theories regarding the formation of memory in Performing the Remembered Present, as well as between Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theories of practical logic and logical logic.

In considering the concept of discipline, I’ve been reflecting on Experience Bryon’s notion of disciplinarity as a process, “a successive set of displacements of the ways in which we organise and capture knowledge(s) or engage in an act of Knowledging (2018: 8).” Viewing pre-established disciplines as active or fluid processes of knowledging has provided an entry-point through which I can freely dive into and manipulate each practice within its shifting disciplinary field.

I have chosen to view knowledge first through a cognitive lens, relating it to memory, which Matthias Steup refers to as “the capacity to retain knowledge acquired in the past (2018).” I found myself activating Hansen and Blässing’s theories regarding the formation of memory, in which they “differentiate between the consciously accessible declarative memory that comprises personal experiences (episodic memory) and knowledge of facts (semantic memory), and procedural memory, which includes motor and cognitive skills that have typically been acquired implicitly through practice (2017: 16).” Thomas Fuchs would refer to episodic and semantic memory as explicit forms of memory — or a knowing-what — and procedural memory as an implicit memory — or a knowing-how (2012: 11). These two distinctions directly relate to the forms of knowledge that are at the heart of this inquiry.

This differentiation has encouraged me to break down the practice that has emerged into four stages:

Stage One: The Encounter — The first stage — the initial encounter with a pre-established practice — consistently forces me to tap into my own episodic memories of that practice. I initially encountered figure drawing, a practice I had no prior knowledge of besides what I had seen in art galleries or in films, by inexplicably drawing this original figure —

IMG_8873.jpg

I then introduced more materials into the room that I explicitly knew were related to figure drawing (coloured pencils, pastels, paints) and began to experiment with elaborating on the figure in response to a “gut feeling” that occurred in the act of drawing the original figure. Later iterations of this first stage of the practice followed a similar pattern. My initial engagement with my episodic memories of playing the piano led me to assume a specific posture that I had seen pianists assume in concerts and in movies, as well as taping over the black keys of the piano in order to execute what I perceived as a plucking motion. Engaging with playing the harmonica led me to establish a repeatable action that involved a specific placement of my hands on the back of the instrument and a particular blowing technique.

Stage Two: Establishing Repetition — This segues naturally to the second stage, in which I establish a repeatable action that seemingly executes my practice of each practice while still resembling in some way my explicit memory of what the performance of each practice should look or feel like. Attempts were made to engage with the practices of folding origami and calculating complex mathematical equations, but I found myself abandoning those practices once I realised that I could not establish a repeatable way of executing my practice of each practice. Repetition was clearly starting to emerge as a key component of this practice. And while I at first found it be a mysterious presence in the room, Eirini Kartsaki’s description in Repetition in Performance of repetition’s force as “an erotic one: one that establishes a sense of anticipation, that recognises resemblances, that remembers (2017: 7)” has provided some clarity as to why I might be turning to it as a tool for activating this inquiry, though I anticipate engaging in further research into repetition, particularly Deleuze’s concepts of difference and repetition, as I continue to develop this practice.

Stage Three: Practicing the Practice — The third stage ­– the practicing of my practice of each practice — allows me to create new semantic memories of unspoken rules for executing each new practice, and subsequently drop irrelevant movements or episodic memories and develop a certain level of mastery with each practice. This mastery takes time — I repeated my established practice of figure drawing for four consecutive weeks. I’m still in the midst of this stage with my practice of playing the piano —

And while this may — to some — sound like a masochistic act of endurance, I actually have found it quite comforting, which will figure into a key observation later on.

Stage Four: The “Ah-Ha!” Moment — This practicing of each new practice eventually leads me to the fourth stage, in which I store this repeated action in my procedural memory and develop an implicit knowing-how. I now know how to execute my practice of each practice, which is distinct from the formal or institutional practice of each practice. I’ve been able to measure my entrance into this phase by what I have repeatedly referred to as an “Ah-Ha!” moment in which a sudden realisation transforms the practice, altering it due to a slight adjustment in response to an intuitive gut feeling. Playing the harmonica suddenly became a choreographed sound and movement phrase in which the harmonica itself was no longer used to produce sound —

Figure drawing suddenly became a practice of figure sculpting, once I had realised that I could manipulate the paper into three-dimensional sculptures —

These slight derailments of the established repetitive action were indicative of a passing from a more explicit engagement with the action to an implicit engagement wherein I had the freedom to make these adjustments. I would then start to repeat this new action, building up a level of mastery in this form of the practice and welcoming the potential for encountering another “Ah-Ha!” moment as a result —

It was in response to these “Ah-Ha!” moments that I reengaged with a concept from Pierre Bourdieu’s The Logic of Practice —

 “An agent who possesses a practical mastery, an art, whatever it may be, is capable of applying in his action the disposition which appears to him only in action, in the relationship with a situation (1990: 90).”

I had, through some level of mastery, learned how to follow the knowledge inherent in the action of each of these practices. And out of that knowledge new modes of practicing my practice of each practice were emerging.

Bourdieu became a central figure in the development of this inquiry, particularly his theories surrounding practical knowledge and practice, which he claims “excludes all formal concerns. Reflexive attention to action itself, when it occurs … remains subordinate to the pursuit of the result. So it has nothing in common with the aim of explaining how the result has been achieved, still less of seeking to understand (for understanding’s sake) the logic of practice, which flouts logical logic. (1990: 91–92).”

I now find myself questioning the nature of the knowledge or logic that has emerged as a result of this practice, and Bourdieu’s paradoxical relationship between practical logic — which I relate to this knowing-how — and logical logic — which I relate to this knowing-what. What do I now know and not know about each practice or discipline I’ve encountered? In establishing my own unique cultural fields (of one, notably), as Bourdieu might refer to them, in which I can carry out my own practices of various practices, have I then also established my own habitus — or way in which I can truly become myself — in each cultural field through my engagement with each practice? These questions continue to problematise the relationships I laid out earlier. Which comes first — the know-what or the know-how? The explicit memory or the implicit memory? My hunch is that I am now subverting the ‘logical’ relationships between these sets of binaries by establishing my own ‘practical’ mode of displacing or redefining those binaries, which will hopefully propel my work forward into next term.

Which leads me to my final observation — I have developed a sense of comfort and a sense of power in the doing of this practice. I feel pride in these emergent practices. I have created an environment for myself in which right and wrong no longer preside over my actions. I feel ownership of my practice of each practice. And I can trust that by continuing to repeat each practice, I will build up my own level of mastery that will enable something original to emerge that’s completely my own. Or at least my own practice of the practice. My practice of figure drawing. My practice of playing the harmonica. As well as the emergence of an intuitive and individually unique act of knowledging through which I can develop a greater understanding of these practices and their disciplines.

Bibliography:

Bourdieu, P., 1990. The logic of practice. Stanford University Press.

Bryon, E. ed., 2017. Performing interdisciplinarity: working across disciplinary boundaries through an active aesthetic. Routledge.

Fuchs, T., 2012. The phenomenology of body memory. Body memory, metaphor and movement (Vol. 84). John Benjamins Publishing, pp.9-22.

Hansen, P. and Bläsing, B., 2017. Introduction: studying the cognition of memory in the performing arts. Performing the remembered present: the cognition of memory in dance, theatre and music. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Kartsaki, E., 2017. Repetition in performance: returns and invisible forces. Springer.

Steup, Matthias, "Epistemology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/epistemology/>.

Webb, J., Schirato, T. and Danaher, G., 2002. Understanding Bourdieu. Sage.

Intermediality, emergence and the stated intention of The Wooster Group’s HAMLET

Intermediality, emergence and the stated intention of The Wooster Group’s HAMLET

The following is a critical essay examining the roles of intermediality and emergence in The Wooster Group’s production of HAMLET written for the Critical Contexts unit of the MFA Performance Practice as Research course at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama:

I will be turning to current theoretical debates regarding intermediality and emergence in performance to support my claim that the use of projected archival footage in The Wooster Group’s 2006 production of HAMLET facilitates the emergence of new meaning through the formation of an intermedial event that exceeds their intended re-imagining of Shakespeare’s text. I will be examining three separate elements within one segment of their production through the lenses of intermediality and emergence in order to support this claim, specifically focusing on theories introduced by Peter Boenisch, Freda Chapple and Chiel Kattenbelt in 2006’s Intermediality in theatre and performance; Experience Bryon in 2014’s Integrative performance; and Joanne Scott in 2016’s Intermedial praxis and practice as research. I will be introducing Robin Nelson’s alternative definition of intermediality from 2010’s Mapping intermediality in performance as a counter-argument to my claim, and turning to Greg Giesekam’s account of The Wooster Group’s practice in 2007’s Staging the screen and Scott’s assertion that mediums within an intermedial event are in a constant state of ‘becoming’ to defend my claim against this counter-argument. In order to limit the scope of my claim, I have chosen to work from Chapple and Kattenbelt’s definition of intermediality as “a meeting point in-between the performers, the observers, and the confluence of media involved in a performance at a particular moment in time” and the intermedial as “a space where the boundaries soften – and we are in-between and within a mixing of spaces, media and realities. Thus, intermediality becomes a process of transformation of thoughts and processes where something different is formed through performance (2006: 12).” I will be focusing primarily on their concept of the ‘in-between’ as a space where various media collide, and new meaning emerges as a result. I have also chosen to work from Bryon’s definition of emergence as “what parts of a system do together that they would not do alone, or how collective properties arise from the properties of parts (2014: 14).” I will be connecting this concept of a collective property emerging from the interaction of individual parts to intermediality’s emergence of new meaning from the mixing of media and realities, specifically the interaction between archival footage and live performance in The Wooster Group’s HAMLET.

The discourse surrounding intermediality has led to numerous interpretations, and the term has been defined and redefined accordingly (we will encounter an example of this reinterpretation in my counter-argument below).[1] While this frequent reconfiguration of the term provides insight into the intermedial turn in performance over the past several decades, I have chosen to focus specifically on Chapple and Kattenbelt’s notion of the ‘in-between’ space where various media mix in order to create new meaning. I am particularly interested in the relationship between this emergence of meaning and the expressed intention of a theatrical production. Intermediality relies on the mixing of media within the ‘in-between’ space, and the spectator’s own observation and interpretation of this ‘in-between’ space. Each individual spectator will encounter the event with her own unique understanding of the media in play, and thus the new meaning that emerges will differ greatly from one spectator to the next. While the creators of an intermedial event can be selective of the media they choose to present and stage as part of a theatrical production, I question an expressed intention for the mixing of that media from the outset. If intermediality is “an effect performed in-between mediality, supplying multiple perspectives and foregrounding the making of meaning by the receivers of the performance (Chapple and Kattenbelt 2006: 20),” then the intention of an intermedial event might best be expressed by its spectators. The live mixing of media inherently places the emergence of new meaning in the hands of the spectator observing the ‘in-between’ space, not the maker establishing that space. Therefore, the maker’s intention seems to be negated by the use of intermediality in performance and the implicit emergence of new meaning by the spectator.

Bryon’s concept of emergence as the formation of a collective property from the properties of individual parts appears to speak directly to this development of new meaning within an intermedial event (2014: 14). While the individual elements of the intermedial event may retain their own unique properties, by introducing them into an ‘in-between’ or intermedial space they form a new collective property that emerges directly from their interactions with one another. The collective properties that emerge cannot be pre-determined but will only reveal themselves in the doing of the intermedial event – the performance. The intention, then, of the intermedial event cannot be entirely formed by any one individual property of the various media in play, but rather must support the emergence of a new and unknown collective property or meaning. In essence, the emergence of new meaning occurs when an intermedial performance is received by the spectator, and it is in the mind of the spectator that a formation of collective properties transpires. If the theatrical production presenting this intermedial event attempts to dictate an intended meaning from the outset, in particular one that focuses solely on one particular element of the event, it is then negating or hindering the inevitable emergence of new meaning that will occur in performance and will dictate the spectator’s individual formation of an intended meaning.

One particular intermedial performance that exemplifies the tension that arises from this predetermined declaration of intent is The Wooster Group’s production of HAMLET directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. The Wooster Group, formed in 1975, is a New York-based experimental theatre troupe led by Artistic Director LeCompte that has spent the past several decades devising original works of live performance that incorporate various media, most notably archival footage. In 2006, they first presented a new piece centered around William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet and archival footage of a 1964 Broadway production starring Richard Burton and directed by John Gielgud. The premise of their intermedial production was straight-forward – they projected an edited and abridged version of the 1964 production on a screen at the rear of the stage while the performers within their ensemble manipulated their bodies and the bare set pieces in front of this projection in order to sync-up with the projected video (HAMLET 2006). Often, they were in perfect unison with the 1964 performance, even going so far as to imitate the voices and physical expressions of Richard Burton and his supporting cast. At other times, they diverged from the archival footage, almost as though the two performances were occurring simultaneously in separate locations. While they never attempted to hide the fact that they were working directly with and in response to the archival footage (even presenting the technology used to manipulate the footage in a lengthy prologue), they clearly stated the intention of the production in their marketing material as a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s classic text and a “repurposing of Richard Burton's 1964 Broadway production (The Wooster Group n.d.).” It is my claim that the inclusion of the archival footage from the 1964 production creates an intermedial event within their 2006 production that facilitates the emergence of new meaning – meaning that speaks more to the relationship between live performers and archival video – that exceeds (and possibly negates) their stated intention. In essence, the individual parts of their production – Shakespeare’s text, Richard Burton’s filmed performance, and LeCompte’s staging – are combined in an ‘in-between’ space (The Wooster Group’s production) and new meaning emerges as the spectators observe this performance. The new collective property of this performance cannot be predetermined; therefore, the intention of The Wooster Group’s production cannot be limited to a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s text nor a repurposing of the archival footage. In order to further support this claim, I will be limiting the scope of my inquiry to three separate elements of LeCompte’s staging from one particular segment of their production that coincides with Act I, scene ii of Shakespeare’s text.

Throughout this segment, the aforementioned scene as staged by John Gielgud in 1964 is projected on a large screen at the rear of the stage. Gielgud’s staging is minimal – the actors are seated around a long table, with additional actors standing nearby, including Richard Burton as Hamlet. The Wooster Group’s performers are positioned around a similarly long table fitted with wheels in front of the screen. As the projected scene progresses, the live performers carry out the same staging as the performers from 1964. If the camera angle changes, the table and chairs are wheeled into a new position that aligns with the new angle. If the actors in Gielgud’s production physically accelerate or decelerate, the live performers follow suit. However, the two scenes are progressing simultaneously without any apparent interaction taking place that would alter either. The Wooster Group’s performers have seemingly rehearsed their own staging of the scene in such a way that it could be executed without the presence of the projected video. Throughout this segment, it becomes very apparent that two separate ‘performances’ with their own individual properties are being presented simultaneously in such a way that a new collective property begins to emerge from the space in-between the archival footage and the live performance. This is particularly evident in the way in which the live performers manipulate their own bodies and the various set pieces in order to align with the performance captured from the 1964 production. By rolling the long table into a new position each time the camera angle shifts in the archival footage, and by adjusting the positions of their bodies as to align with the performers from the 1964 production, the live performers are establishing a new emergent narrative of sorts that exists somewhere between the camera angle of the projected footage and the physical movement of their live performance. While the circumstances for the mixing of these elements may have been established in response to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this context does not define the emergent meaning or intention of this intermedial event. Joanne Scott even goes so far as to state that “live intermedial events always overflow their context” and that “the practice is set up to exceed its context, to constitute an act of emergence (2016: 80).” This act of emergence in the case of The Wooster Group’s HAMLET is facilitated by the alignment of the projected footage and the live performers onstage. Shakespeare’s text, while a property of each individual part of this intermedial event, is exceeded and a new meaning emerges. 

As stated above, the text of Hamlet is active in this intermedial exchange. In this particular segment, Scott Shepard – a member of The Wooster Group portraying the role of Hamlet – not only speaks his dialogue in alignment with Richard Burton’s speed and rhythm, he even manipulates his voice as to imitate Burton’s tone and timbre. Again, while the context of this vocal imitation might stem from an investigation into Shakespeare’s play, the intermedial event created by mixing Burton’s recorded voice and Shepard’s live imitation of his voice facilitates an emergence of new meaning. The individual properties of live and recorded voice combine to create a new collective property that is observed by the spectator, who establishes her own emergent narrative or meaning. Peter Boenisch asserts that the spectators of an intermedial performance are invited “to find their own paths through the pluri-focal networks of signs, worlds, messages, and meanings offered by the performances, often without being closed into the single, unanimous meaning (2006: 115).” If we focus solely on the intermedial exchange between live and recorded voice in The Wooster Group’s HAMLET, Shakespeare’s text becomes just one message or meaning within a network of signs that includes (but is not limited to) recorded voice, vocal dexterity, imitation, rhythm, etc. To claim that the intention of this intermedial exchange is to re-imagine Shakespeare’s play, as The Wooster Group clearly states, ignores not only the additional messages within this network, but the unknown emergent meanings that are bound to be produced in performance.

This ‘network of signs’ is physically manifested in LeCompte and set designer Ruud van den Akker’s construction of the playing space. They make no attempt to hide the technology used to create their intermedial event. The video operator can be seen at her post near the front of the stage. Wires are in full view as they snake their way from the grid and across the playing space. The set pieces are simply constructed, and no attempt is made to mask the wheels that allow them to line up with the angles of the projected footage from 1964. In this particular segment, the performers correct themselves when they are out of sync with the projection. There is a clinical and calculated quality to their performances that matches the clinical nature of the scenic design. The exposure of the ‘nuts and bolts’ used to execute their dual performances – the projection of the 1964 production and the live stage event taking place in front of that projection – firmly establishes the ‘in-between’ space in which the intermedial event of the production occurs and challenges the intended meaning of that event. Joanne Scott argues that “the practice of live intermediality focuses attention on the intermedial space as a site of discourse and exchange between the distinct mediums of which it is composed (2016: 38).” The mediums at play in The Wooster Group’s HAMLET are woven into the scenic design itself, entering into the discourse they are facilitating. Again, while the original context for the construction of this intermedial space might have been an investigation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the execution of that construction is encouraging the emergence of new meaning that cannot be predetermined and exceeds that context. The physical space itself – the ‘in-between’ space – makes up part of the network of signs in play and enters into the intermedial exchange.

Robin Nelson argues against Chapple and Kattenbelt’s definition of intermediality as an ‘in-between’ space, claiming that their terminology establishes “a sort of negative definition (neither this nor that but something in the middle)” and that “the compound ‘both-and’ better characterises contemporary performance cultures (2010: 17).” Joanne Scott, in analyzing Nelson’s definition, claims that “the very construction of the phrase ‘both-and’ allows for analysis of the multiplicity and numerous tensions created by intermediality in performance. Also the grammatical balancing act of the phrasing places the mediums in a concurrent but not conflated form allowing both to exist in that moment, similarly to the intermedial effect itself (2016: 40).” Thus, the mixing of individual properties within an intermedial event not only facilitates the emergence of a new collective property, but those original properties actually retain their individual meanings within the event. The event itself is not establishing an ‘in-between’ space where new meaning emerges but is rather allowing for new meanings to exist alongside and in conversation with the original meanings of the individual parts of the intermedial whole – a ‘both-and’ space. Nelson’s claim directly counters my argument that the use of archival footage within The Wooster Group’s HAMLET facilitates the emergence of new meaning that exceeds their stated intention by allowing the individual property within that intention (the re-imagining of Shakespeare’s text) to enter into conversation with the archival footage with equal weight and force, and suggests that both the archival footage and the stated intention make up the intermedial event. The focus is no longer on the ‘in-between’ space where new meaning emerges, but rather on the individual parts of the intermedial event and the emergent collective properties.

While I understand the basis for Nelson’s definition of intermediality, I am not convinced that the individual properties of an intermedial event exist in equal measure with the collective property that emerges as a result of that event. Following Chapple and Kattenbelt’s logic, the mixing of those properties facilitates the emergence of new meaning within the intermedial event, placing the emphasis on that emergence of meaning rather than the individual parts in play. Elements of those properties exist within the emergent meaning, but the event itself relies on that act of emergence. Joanne Scott suggests that each individual part of the work “represents a new iteration of intermediality, that the mediums themselves can be seen to be in a constant state of ‘becoming’, while simultaneously generating discourse between such ‘becomings’ in the intermedial space (2016: 39).” This repeated emergence of meaning through constant discourse suggests that an emphasis be placed on how the mediums transform and generate new meaning through an act of ‘becoming’. In the case of The Wooster Group’s HAMLET, the placement of archival footage alongside and in conversation with live performance places the emphasis of the event on the emergence of meaning developed by that conversation, not on the individual parts of that event. While Shakespeare’s text, Richard Burton’s filmed performance, and LeCompte’s staging are all necessary elements within the intermedial event, they are merely entering into conversation with one another to allow for the emergence of an unknown meaning that will be formed by each individual spectator. LeCompte herself, in describing her rehearsal process, insists on “allowing different elements to be in the space together, without this demand for meaning (Giesekam 2007: 81).” She appears to be aware of the fact that meaning will not emerge until the performance takes place – until it has been observed and interpreted by the spectator. It thus seems counterintuitive to offer meaning within a statement of intent before an intermedial performance takes place, especially if that statement of intent focusses on the meaning inherent in the individual parts of the event rather than on the potential collective emergence of new meaning – in this case, meaning that exceeds The Wooster Group’s stated intention.

To reiterate, I have argued that the inclusion of projected archival footage in The Wooster Group’s 2006 production of HAMLET establishes an intermedial event that facilitates the emergence of new meaning that in turn exceeds the company’s stated intention of re-imagining Shakespeare’s text. I have turned to current theoretical discourse regarding intermediality and emergence in performance to help support my claim, specifically the writings of Peter Boenisch, Freda Chapple and Chiel Kattenbelt in 2006’s Intermediality in theatre and performance; Experience Bryon in 2014’s Integrative performance; and Joanne Scott in 2016’s Intermedial praxis and practice as research. While the basis for my inquiry began as an investigation into the use of archival video in intermedial performance, an interest in the stated intention of an intermedial event has emerged in response to my research. I believe this tension between a company’s need to express their production’s intended meaning and the implicit emergence of new and unknown meaning as a result of an intermedial event points to a growing source of conflict that exists in contemporary performance practices. How do we market intermedial performance in a way that supports both the emergence of new meaning and the commercial demands inherent in producing live performance? In the case of The Wooster Group’s HAMLET, where the inclusion of archival footage had established an intermedial event and thus facilitated the emergence of new meaning in performance, could they have stated the intention of their production in such a way that not only called attention to the individual parts of the performance but also placed an emphasis on the unknown collective property that would emerge in performance? If I were to take this inquiry further, I would begin to research intention and the use of mission statements in theatrical practices, particularly those of experimental nonprofit company’s like The Wooster Group who often incorporate intermedial events within live performance. I believe much could be learned by investigating how these statements of intent are formed, how they support intermedial practices, and how those practices are marketed in production.

[1] Kattenbelt, in his 2008 article ‘Intermediality in theatre and performance: Definitions, perceptions, and medial relations’, points out that “over many years the concept of intermediality has been so frequently used in different discourses and in different meanings that it is almost impossible to map out its semantic field or range” and suggests that everyone who chooses to use the term should define it for themselves (2008: 25). This statement alone suggests that the discourse surrounding intermediality in performance is vast and constantly evolving.

Bibliography:

Boenisch, P.M., 2006. Aesthetic art to aisthetic act: Theatre, media, intermedial performance. Intermediality in theatre and performance. Rodopi, pp.103-116.

Bryon, E., 2014. Integrative performance: practice and theory for the interdisciplinary performer. Routledge.

Chapple, F. and Kattenbelt, C., 2006. Key issues in intermediality in theatre and performance. Intermediality in theatre and performance. Rodopi, pp.19-29.

Giesekam, G., 2007. Postmodern collage: The Wooster Group. Staging the screen: the use of film and video in theatre. Palgrave Macmillan, pp.80-115.

HAMLET by William Shakespeare, 2006. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte [The Wooster Group in partnership with the Edinburgh International Festival at the Royal Lyceum Theatre. Filmed 13 August 2013].

Kattenbelt, C., 2008. Intermediality in theatre and performance: Definitions, perceptions and medial relationships. Cultura, lenguaje y representación: revista de estudios culturales de la Universitat Jaume I6, pp.19-29.

Nelson, R., 2010. Prospective mapping. Mapping intermediality in performance. Amsterdam University Press, pp.13-23.

Scott, J., 2016. Intermedial praxis and practice as research. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

The Wooster Group, n.d. HAMLET. <http://thewoostergroup.org/hamlet>. Accessed 19 November 2018.

The Art of Copying

The Art of Copying

I recently concluded the final workshop and presentation of Cc: FANNY! – my final project in NYC before relocating to London this fall. While the initial focus of this project was to investigate the rather tumultuous process of adaptation carried out by filmmaker Orson Welles as he attempted to bring Booth Tarkington's 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons to the silver screen, it quickly shifted to an unexpected and unusual focus on the art of copying and how it relates to adaptation in general. Over the course of a year's worth of developmental workshops, my collaborators and I began inexplicably and instinctually viewing the outcome of Orson Welles' adaptive process – the film The Magnificent Ambersons – not merely as an adaptation but as an artistically crafted copy of the original novel. By redefining the type of film we were investigating, we were able to tap into an artistic process that most of us had rarely explored. We developed a set of questions: What did it mean to copy the product of one particular artistic practice into that of another? What are the various techniques utilized when making copies? And what are the artistic merits of copying?

Early on, we found ourselves eager to define this concept of copying in an admittedly artistic context. We eventually settled on the following definition:

copy: to present the same –

  1. for practical purposes
  2. for interpretive purposes
  3. for deceptive purposes

These three modes of copying when placed within our collective practice of theater-making allowed for a more concentrated process of research and inquiry to take place. We were no longer dealing with the broadest definition of copying, but rather had limited ourselves to three unique ways in which we could investigate the source material in play – namely, the Welles film adaptation. We were also able to establish three sets of rules – one for each mode of copying. These rules also allowed us to create our own original material inspired by our experiences with copying other artists or artworks entirely unrelated to the Ambersons. Eventually, the sketches inspired by the source material and the original material inspired by our own experiences were presented simultaneously, illuminating where the source material and our individual experiences aligned and diverged.

Unsurprisingly, the final presentation dealt almost exclusively with the mechanics of copying – the Ambersons were rarely referenced or conjured. Three performers stood between two mirrors, their bodies infinitely reflected. They took turns welcoming the audience, casually yet carefully claiming to be Orson Welles introducing his latest piece with his Mercury Players. The first performer would set the tone with particular intonations and hand gestures that the next two performers would have to copy, almost as if they were playing a game of telephone. This eventually led to the final performer introducing the Ambersons themselves with a small piece of text clumsily remembered from our original viewing of the film months earlier. This text was repeated twice by the same performer. The first delivery of the text was inspired by the previously defined practical mode of copying. The next, interpretive copying. The final, deceptive copying. We were essentially posing a question that had emerged throughout our work together – could an artist copy herself?

As the piece continued, this rule of three was firmly established and executed by each performer. Each speech was delivered two additional times by the original performer, playing with various interpretations of our three-mode system of copying. These interpretations were set within an array of circumstances inspired by our work over the previous year, as well as the film itself. And seemingly, each attempt to further develop our individual and collective understandings of the practice of copying led to a stronger need to push the boundaries of our three-mode system even further. By the end, the performers found themselves not only copying themselves and one another, but the audience as well. The mirrors were eventually repositioned in front of a now standing audience, reflecting their faces as they watched performers copying specific members of the audience as well as specific actors in the original film.

A sense of anxiety seemed to permeate the piece, as well as the room itself. What had started out as a simple game of telephone had become a more desperate attempt at deception. And this transition seemed to appropriately mirror my own understanding of the art of copying – which in and of itself seemed to mirror the art of performing. Our three modes of copying could subjectively reflect three possible stages of acting – the practical memorization of lines and blocking, the eventual interpretation of those lines, and the inevitable desire to deceive your audience into believing that the lines being spoken are those of the character, not of a playwright. While this investigation into the art of copying had initially baffled me – How on earth had we shifted our focus so drastically to copying from the film The Magnificent Ambersons and the adaptive process? – I had finally drawn the connection. We were simply attempting to understand the performative nature of adaptation. How do we perform the action of adapting the product of one artistic medium into that of another? What are the parallels between that particular process of adaptation and the process of stage performance? And how do we as contemporary theater makers relate to that process? In short, is the art of copying merely the same as the art of acting?

The Remembered Past in the Observable Present

The Remembered Past in the Observable Present

The more I experiment with the theatrical manifestation of memory, the more significant the space between the remembered past and the observable present has grown. In my experience, memory is observed internally - the recollection of an event in our mind's eye. That event is "observed" only by the rememberer, and therefore is subject to interpretation, manipulation, and inaccuracy. The remembered event may be relayed to another individual - in particular, an individual who did not witness the remembered event himself - but this individual is in turn interpreting the event and creating his own memory of that memory (as well as the active recollection of that event) as projected in his mind's eye. Thus, the act of remembering may be viewed as a form of storytelling - one remembers an event and then must relay that event to another in order to share the memory. Memories themselves are not necessarily being conjured by the act of storytelling, but rather individual adaptations are being presented in order to best represent an internal memory in the external world. Individuals are then often challenging the conventional forms of storytelling as they struggle to "perform" their memories in the present moment in ways that best convey the "essence" of their remembered past. How do you relay (and thus interpret) an image in your mind's eye - an image that was created by observing what was once a present action - as a performative activity in the observable present?

Let's assume that present activity - an action that's being performed directly in front of an able and willing spectator - is observed not by the mind's eye, but by what I'll refer to as the physical eye. This assumption is inherently problematic - aren't our physical eyes constantly "projecting" and interpreting external images using our mind's eye? But let's acknowledge and accept these glaring issues, and thus assume that the mind's eye (where our internal memories are observed) and the physical eye (where the external present is observed) are separate. An activity taking place in the present can be observed by the physical eye by multiple individuals from multiple angles, and thus interpreted individually. These individual observations form individual memories of the event, which are then observed in our mind's eye. So let's then assert that the "observable present" involves some sort of external/physical action, while the "remembered past" involves an internal/intellectual action. Present action exists in the world beyond one's own self (again, I acknowledge the phenomenological "can of worms" I'm opening with this statement), while remembered action exists in one's own mind.

The performance of memory, thus, may exist in the space between the present and the past - the area between the internal recollection of a memory and the external representation of that memory. How do we "perform" the interpretative act that takes place when one attempts to convey the image seen in the mind's eye as an observable act in the present moment? In order to develop such a style or method of performance, we must first begin to explore that act of interpretation. What occurs both internally and externally when we set out to remember an event and thus convey that event to others? How are our mind's eye and our physical eyes communicating? And how might that method of communication affect the more traditional methods of communication executed by theatre practitioners?

In posing these questions, I find myself often recalling images or films that seem to pose similar questions within their own artistic mediums. The image above, for example, depicts an outstretched hand that is clearly in focus, while the head and body attached to the hand are out of focus and in the background. The definable "action" of the image - reaching out - is clear and observable, while the individual behind that action - and thus the motivation for reaching out - is blurry and amorphous. But the image itself represents a distinct memory - a moment in time captured by the photographer's lens. The physical eye observes the physical action of this memory, while the mind's eye must assume a motivation for the action. The middle ground - the space between the action and its motivation - is unobservable, but somehow becomes the focus of the image. This middle ground is seemingly where the physical eye and the mind's eye meet and communicate. It's where the past and the present merge in order to convey the memory of a specific event. 

Similar examples of this unique mode of communication pop up throughout film and television. The most glaringly obvious example is the use of a flashback (specific examples can be found in the video above). Consider the moment a character in a film begins to recall a memory to another character. The camera may zoom in on the rememberers face as the image crossfades to the scene being recalled. For several moments, the two images exist together - blurred, yet in direct conversation. How are these two images - the present action of remembering and the memory itself - communicating? And what is occurring performatively during that transition? 

Without the ability to capture and manipulate two images simultaneously, how do we begin to explore the space between the remembered past and the observable present in live performance? What does that space look like in a theatrical setting or a performance-based process? And how may we begin to set more traditional theatrical texts in such a setting? In other words, can a dramatic text be presented in such a way that both the mind's eye and the physical eye are observing the same action of remembering in the present moment?