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1. To the reader

Dear Reader, I’d like to tell you here how the idea of this book was born, because an origin, as you know, is simultaneously a beginning and a foundation.

At the end of the last century, in one of my many meetings with Eugenio Barba, we were discussing the research we’d done and which remained to do, and our surprise that our book, A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology. The Secret Art of the Performer, first published in Italian in 1983, continued to enjoy new printings and translations into various languages. Clearly its simple format with text and illustrations having equal importance, each referencing the other, had proven effective. The illustrations played the role of protagonists in a new field of study, theatre anthropology, which Eugenio had invented.

I had a playful impulse: why not do it again, another book by the award-winning firm of Barba-Savarese? Since I had collaborated as a theatre historian in his project on theatre anthropology, now it would be Eugenio’s turn to participate in a history project, on a book I imagined as a complement to the first. In the grand firmament of ideas it’s always good to have the pole star of a title. I proposed The Golden Age of Theatre, because I’d read that art exhibitions with the word “gold” in them always attract big audiences (in Italy we’d recently had The Gold of Taranto, Venetian Gold, The Gold of the Horsemen of the Steppe). It’s okay to kid around with Eugenio, but you’re always walking on a razor’s edge. Although we had no idea what the book might consist of, Eugenio said it was a good idea and suggested we focus on actor techniques that had never been sufficiently studied.

To work

In 1996, a group of Italian scholars – Eugenia Casini Ropa, Marco De Marinis, Clelia Falletti, Bruna Filippi, Piero Giacché, Laura Mariani, Claudio Meldolesi, Franco Ruffini, Mirella Schino and Ferdinando Taviani – took part in an early discussion about our future book during a session of the University of Eurasian Theatre held in Scilla, in Southern Italy, organised by Claudio La Camera’s theatre group Proskenion. These sessions, planned by Barba, were similar to his ISTA (International School of Theatre Anthropology): a “school of the gaze”, but with fewer participants – no more than fifty – coming from different theatrical cultures. It was a temporary village of actors, artists and scholars who wished to deepen their awareness of their own techniques and become acquainted with those of others, sharing questions, comparative research and technical demonstrations.

The scholars declared their interest in the undertaking, suggesting ideas and filling out forms. The idea emerged of a history of theatre that would start from the present and proceed upriver into the past, centring on actors and their techniques. We would also include the research by the scholars around the journal Teatro e Storia. The title of the future book underwent extensive metamorphosis: The Golden Age of Theatre, An Atlas of Actor Technique, A History of the Craft of Acting. There’s nothing wrong with thinking big, but the project had grown out of proportion. I was worried about how to subdivide under coherent headings the database of ten thousand images I had collected.

As time went by, the scholars became absorbed by other commitments. Expressing his trust in the project, Marco De Marinis went so far as to write Theatre After the Golden Age. At the end, only Eugenio and I were left: Bouvard and Pécuchet, two gardeners dedicated to cultivating this book-garden. It has taken exactly twenty years to complete, stealing time from other activities. We are responsible for the final title, and for extending theatre anthropology to the material culture of the actor. Old and new friends left us texts which they had composed, and we requested others. We were still, however, a bit lost. We leafed through books on theatre history, but mostly set them aside as examples not to imitate. We kept on looking at pictures, commenting on them and making notes. Time passed between one meeting and another because we both have professional duties to carry on: Eugenio at Odin Teatret in Holstebro, Denmark, and me at Rome University. Every time we met, we began all over again.

One day Eugenio said, “Nicò, we have to start from something concrete. Let’s start with the English Five W’s – Who? What? When? Where? and Why? – and see what happens.” Considered by some the golden rule of Anglo-Saxon journalism, by others used as a simple mnemonic to remember the basic questions to apply to any subject of inquiry, these five interrogatives, with their illustrious precedents in Cicero, Quintilian and Thomas Aquinas, had the merit of brevity and directness. Best of all, they have the impertinence of children. Rudyard Kipling immortalised them in a nursery rhyme:

I keep six honest serving men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.

(Just So Stories for Little Children, 1902)

We adopted these questions as a trail that we might follow or not, but that we would adapt to the subject of theatre: When, Where, How, For Whom, and Why do people do theatre? And they have stayed with us till the end.

Thanks to them, a way of composing the book emerged that Eugenio said resembled the preparation of a performance. We conducted improvisations on a technical term, an aspect of actors’ daily routine, a particular stage object. These improvisations provoked ideas and suggested combinations we fixed in pages of images or texts. As we refined them, some were discarded, while others grew in a sequence of evolving montages. Some examples of these improvisations can be found in Chapter 6.

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Joan Miró, sketch for the set design of the ballet Jeux d’enfants (1932, Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona). Ballet in one act, with choreography by Leonide Massine, libretto by Boris Kochno, music by Georges Bizet, debuted in 1932 in Monte Carlo. A girl plays with her toys and falls in love with one of them, the Voyager, who turns into a living being.

For some years we devoted ourselves to composing a book on the history of theatre by seeking the way of telling it through the techniques of actors. It was clear, however, that we needed to take up the discourse where it had begun, with theatre anthropology.

Body-mind techniques and auxiliary techniques

The techniques of the body-mind of the actor are the foundation of the actor’s relation with the spectator. The principles are listed by Barba in The Paper Canoe and in our Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology. The Secret Art of the Performer. We soon realised that the relation with the spectator presupposed another element, of equal efficacy, constituted by auxiliary techniques. The immediacy and efficacy of the actor-spectator relation depends on a complementary relation of body-mind techniques and auxiliary techniques. In their variety and materiality, the auxiliary techniques concern:

  • the diverse circumstances and times that generate theatre performances (the festive or civil occasions, celebrations of power, popular feasts such as carnival, calendar recurrences such as New Year, spring and summer festivals);

  • the economic and organisational aspects (costs, contracts, salaries, impresarios, tickets, subscriptions, tours);

  • the information to be provided to the public (announcements, parades, posters, advertising);

  • the space for the performance and that for the spectators (theatre spaces in every possible sense of the term);

  • lighting, sound, sets, makeup, costumes, props;

  • the relation established between actor and spectator;

  • the means of transport adopted by actors and even by spectators.

All these elements are managed through a practical knowledge stratified in time and experience, founded on techniques that facilitate the work of the actors and favour the realisation of their profession. This is the material culture of the actor, organised within the double spiral of body-mind and auxiliary techniques.

The field of exploration of material culture involves the actors’ pragmatic relations and technical functionality, their behaviour, the norms and conventions that interact with those of the audience and the society in which actors and spectators equally take part.

The perspective of the material culture of the actor does not take into consideration any meta-theatrical discourse (dramatic genres, social problems, gender etc.) or the aspect of the dramatic text which, together with buildings, are the only concrete residue remaining of the past. The goal is to concentrate on auxiliary techniques, on solutions, means and pragmatic procedures, ways of thinking and superstitions that actors of all cultures apply in the realisation, consumption and results of their craft.

Auxiliary techniques are not only recurrent across the various historical eras but also – according to diverse modalities – in every theatrical tradition. Interacting dialectically in the different layers of practice, they respond to fundamental needs that are analogous in every tradition when it comes to preparing/enacting a performance. A comparative view of auxiliary techniques shows that the material culture of the actor, in diverse processes, forms and styles, finds its roots in the ways actors respond to the same practical demands.

Within the framework of material culture focused on efficiency, promptness, and ductility, a collection of myths, anecdotes and superstitions impregnate the craft of theatre. The emotional aspect of values such as friendship, gratitude, rebellion, patriotism, spirit of sacrifice, inner search, refusal of discrimination and social revolt are motivations that have manifested themselves in the subterranean history of theatre, its myths and legends.

Where do I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? To answer these questions, we have to re-examine from a different perspective the innumerable forms, experiences, findings and mysteries that the story of our profession hands down to us. It is the only way for us to construct a personal compass for crossing the five continents of our craft: when, where, how, for whom and why we do theatre.

With these words, Eugenio one day presented me with the “lateral perspective”. It seemed like reinventing the wheel. From the darkness of my still-disorganised database two images of the sun blazed out. They show the nuclear and magnetic phenomena produced on the sun’s surface that disturb radio and satellite communication, often causing serious damage to electronic devices. It isn’t easy to know when these phenomena are coming in our direction, and so NASA launched an observation programme with two twin satellites that move together. The two images, taken on 14th October 2012, display the same phenomenon from two different perspectives. The image taken by satellite A shows a simple filament that looks like a small dark stripe on the solar surface. From the perspective of satellite B the same filament turns out to be a gigantic protuberance exploding from the solar atmosphere. The filament and the protuberance are the same thing, but the two perspectives offer different information. This image seemed a favourable sign. We put it at the beginning of our book and there it has remained.

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Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? (1897, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). “I think this painting canvas is not only superior to all that came before, but also that I will never be able to make a better or even similar one. Before dying, I have put all my energy into it, and such painful passion under such terrible circumstances, a vision so pure, without corrections, that everything that is hasty in it disappears and life arises from it. […] My dream will not be captured, there is no allegory; it is a musical poem that does without any libretto. The essential in a work of art is in what is not expressed” (Authors’ translation).
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Images of the sun taken on 14th October 2012 by the two NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) satellites named STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory).

2. The two friends Bouvard and Pécuchet discuss the history of theatre and of actors

BOUVARD – We could say that the history of theatre means plotting out a sequence of facts and circumstances proven by documentary evidence. We then end up with a history of dramatic texts, another one about buildings, yet another about all the different plays, and also a history of styles and aesthetics. But shouldn’t the fundamental sequence be the history of the people who actually do theatre, meaning actors and their techniques?

PÉCUCHET – Blessed words! But not all actors are worthy of being enshrined in history. A book on the history of actors would have to face some extremely problematic issues. For example, how to describe that element essential to the craft of acting: the hidden, intimate relationship between an actor and one or more spectators? This relation is different and unique for each spectator. So how can its memory be handed down?

BOUVARD – You could hand down not only stories of actors, but also their stories in History.

PÉCUCHET – I’m reminded of Buster Keaton in his film, The General. Totally concentrated on getting back to his girlfriend, he tosses logs into the boiler of the steam locomotive, without noticing that a decisive battle in the Civil War is taking place all around him; that is, History with a capital H.

BOUVARD – I’m thinking about Trotsky, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Whites and the Reds, and the actors’ train that crossed the front from one side to the other, performing plays for enemy troops trying to kill one another.

PÉCUCHET – In Theo Angelopoulos’s film O Thiasos (The Travelling Players, 1975), a film camera is aimed at a street. The buildings on both sides function as stage wings for groups of soldiers who cross first in one direction, then in another, first with one flag, then another, advancing and retreating repeatedly across the camera’s plane of vision. Then we see seven actors fleeing. Do their lives depend on the audience? On the critics? On the quality of their technique? Or on the senselessness of History?

BOUVARD – The tiny story of individual actors compared to History with a capital H: an abyss! When you read a book on theatre history, it’s all so clear, quantifiable: this guy was the pioneer, then came his followers; this guy was influenced by So-and-So; this is the Cause and that is the Effect. But a whole other human adventure flows under this comforting evidence, a subterranean history that can’t be trapped by the linearity of a posteriori explanation.

PÉCUCHET – That’s right. It’s undeniable that behind the perspicacity of artistic choice and the greatness of some results, there are forces that no rationality can break down: political belief, loneliness, affinity, patriotism, spirit of sacrifice, and the inability to reconcile oneself to the spirit of the times. And above all, passion and love. How can all that be written down?

BOUVARD – With the same poetry emanated by performances, that which touches the senses and memory of spectators.

PÉCUCHET – But spectators come to the theatre with their eyes and minds already stuffed with dramatic images. They are conditioned by situations of tragedy, pathos, and surreal absurdity offered up freely by the reality of daily life. The true school of spectators – what fills their eyes and brains – is History.

BOUVARD – So why do people go to the theatre, then? To escape from life, to encounter poetry springing from the play? And what does this poetry consist of? The evening news we watch over dinner repeats awful news with horrifying images of violence and death inflicted on helpless people. When the news is over, they broadcast films also full of bloody scenes, or gorgeous landscapes with happy young people, and VIPs preparing exquisite meals. How can stage actors, in their little boxes, motivate spectators to come and visit them?

PÉCUCHET – Are you asking what special extra thing a theatre performance has to have to compete with images from daily life, from television, media, and the internet?… I think actors have to be bears and hummingbirds. As sly as snakes and as spotless as doves. They have to be able to entertain, amuse, debate, tell an interesting story, make a banal one fascinating, reawaken civic responsibility, reveal the conditions of minority groups, be didactic, provocative, transform themselves into vehicles of spirituality, affirm ethnic, religious, or gender identity, confront a community’s problems, and seek beauty, aesthetic experience and individual originality… And, naturally, they have to transgress.

BOUVARD – Is that all?… take it easy! Whatever objective they pose themselves, actors must, above all, master the famous extra-daily techniques that empower their performance and stimulate the attention of spectators.

PÉCUCHET – Agreed, but to achieve this glorious relationship with spectators, they also need other kinds of knowledge. A play has to be organised. You need to find the space, set it up in a certain way, create costumes and props, choose the music, and use the right lighting. You have to know how to locate a hall to perform in, how to get permits from authorities and the fire department, how to arrange ticket sales, invite critics and other influential people, how to pay copyrights…

BOUVARD – Just hearing the list makes me tremble. What makes a young person decide to become an actor, then? Why should a man or woman want to pretend to be a man or woman different from the one they are? Is it a natural instinct? Is it to achieve social prestige, for exhibitionism, artistic calling, spiritual need? To compensate for a sense of inferiority? Because they want to escape their own destiny?

PÉCUCHET – When an actor went to Alfred Hitchcock to discuss his character in the film, the director answered, “It’s in the script.” When the actor asked, “But what’s my motivation?” Hitchcock explained, “To get paid.”

BOUVARD – Many actors do theatre without getting paid, though; they must have a strong motivation too. Perhaps it would be more exact to ask, “For whom” has an actor chosen to become an actor?

PÉCUCHET – The first answer that comes to me is: they do it for the one who paid for the ticket. We could also give other answers: for their patrons and those who commissioned the work; for people they don’t know, who bought the ticket online; for those who want to spend a nice evening with their boyfriend or girlfriend; for believers in a certain dogma; to cheer up the elderly; to incite derelicts to revolt…

BOUVARD – You always go off on a tangent! For me, theatre finds its reason for existing in where the actors perform. Then I ask myself, “Does the place where the performance occurs determine the actors’ function and purposes?”

PÉCUCHET – I have to grant you that there is a certain difference whether you do theatre in a handsome building with cosy velvet seats or in a gym on the city’s squalid outskirts, sitting on plastic chairs. Whether you do it in the street or in a prison. There’s no denying that the where reveals the motivations for doing it.

BOUVARD – The actors can choose the place. Can they also choose the when? At what time of day or night, in what periods of normality or festivity can they stand before spectators to act, speak, demonstrate, or criticise something?

PÉCUCHET – Theatre is a trade with rules and conditions that actors must accept. Sometimes doing theatre is prohibited, while other times you can be paid richly to go on stage. It is only rarely up to actors to decide the moment for the encounter with spectators. When this encounter takes place is usually determined by other factors, especially by civil, religious or military authorities. Further, there are customs, the factor of when you can attract the largest audience, the likelihood of making a profit. You don’t offer theatre at three in the morning, when your spectators are in bed.

BOUVARD – Sometimes, however, performances take place at the strangest hours of day or night. And they get an audience! There must be something that drives spectators to overcome obstacles or an exhausting trip. As though this effort had some value for them…

PÉCUCHET – Value: such a big word! But you’re right: there’s something true in it. Perhaps the spectator is the true depositary of the meaning of theatre, and this meaning is found in the connection with the actor. How, then, are actors able to surprise the expectations of those who need them? With lightning-fast movements or by standing still, by whispering, singing, dancing, sitting in a chair or climbing onto a bench to entertain them, move them, or provoke them?

BOUVARD – If spectators are the depositaries of theatre, then actors are travellers who come to knock on their door, asking to be admitted to their intimate space. When they succeed, the sky falls on the spectators’ heads. That has happened to me on rare occasions, and I hope it can still happen to me. What was it that Anais Nin said? “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.”

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Buster Keaton in The General (1926). The title is the name of his locomotive.
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Engraving from the fifth edition of A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift (London, 1710), a satire that mocked the prejudices, pedantry and arrogance of his time. The image shows “the three stages of humanity”: the pulpit, the gallows and the theatre. Sermons, executions and theatre performances were the era’s only occasions for public spectacle at the time. Judging from the boredom of those listening to the sermon, the most interesting spectacles seem those going on outside the window.

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The Five Continents of Theatre

Facts and Legends about the Material Culture of the Actor

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