The Grammar of Magic and Science

In: The Five Continents of Theatre
Tatiana Chemi
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Scientific thought – its principles, hypotheses, experiments and laws – provides something essential for artistic practice: the equivalent of a mythology, a collection of fables. Such a mythology – according to Eugenio Barba (2012) – is also a tool to organise thought: a web of interlacements allowing actors and directors to fix, capture and formulate what in their practice presents itself as transitory, impossible to shape, recognise or give a name to. Such supporting mythology does not teach how to walk and progress. It contributes to designating the lost footsteps and the elusive itineraries which, during the theatrical work, lead actors and directors to results but escape rational explanation.

Jerzy Grotowski, discussing theatre anthropology in an interview with Franco Ruffini, defined theatre as a pragmatic science defined by “pragmatic laws” (in Barba - Savarese 1991, p. 236).

Magic, too, is a pragmatic science, and fundamental to the practices of witches and sorcerers are the grimoires1, books of magic, also called “black books” or “witchcraft books” (Mitchell 2015, p. 58). Despite their wide assortment of forms and information, these archives of potential efficiency answer to two basic needs. On the one hand, their function is to retain, document and disseminate knowledge and, on the other, to summon up immaterial forces and realise acts of transformation. Grimoires are extensive witchcraft encyclopaedias, intended to guide, teach, tell stories of occult knowledge, but they are also active tools for triggering changes and letting concrete facts happen.


Gold-crowned Kings of East, West, South and North: illustration from M.L. Cyprianus, Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra, also known as the Black Book, used by witches and sorcerers (18th century, Wellcome Library, London).

The grimoires are the witches’ sources of knowledge: annotations on their practical tools and processes, the know-how of their transformative skill where subjective experience, usefulness, spirituality, superstition and science merge in one single attempt to systematically reach a goal. They channel knowledge about transformation of imaginary and tested processes into material forms, which have the potential to transform materiality back again into processes affecting bodies, imagination and memory.

The actors’ grimoire

The first time I saw a grimoire was during a theatre laboratory. A special kind of dramaturgical ritual was happening: a master was passing on her knowledge to her pupils. These modern magicians used their personal note-books to keep track of their experiments, to record progress, to capture the music of bodies moving in space, coordinated in a shared dance. Words and drawings were trusted to summon artistic power for the time when the performance would be unfolded in its fullness. It was during my study on theatre laboratory and its creative pedagogy (Chemi 2018), when Odin Teatret’s actress Roberta Carreri was giving feedback to her two pupils (Chemi 2018, p. 244). The actresses were working on a creative and pedagogical project aiming at a performance, to which the master contributed in a co-creative role, stirring, guiding, challenging, bending the process towards artistically appropriate directions. The apprenticeship was based on practical doing and redoing throughout a prolonged cycle of transformations. The ways in which the process and the actresses’ perception of it modified across time were captured with handwritten subjective words on small note-books. Both master and pupils made use of this specific artefact, trusting words and drawings to seize and preserve for them what could not be fully explained with words: the metamorphosis of their mental processes into a physicality which became characters, make-believe and the reality of theatre fiction.

These books of annotations contained the essence of grimoires, collecting emerging practical knowledge and channelling intangible energies in material creation. As Eisner (2002) kept reminding scholars and practitioners, we know more than we can – ever – express. Within artistic practices, artists work rationally and logically in order to construct, deconstruct or reconstruct what is not yet there. This imaginative (often visionary) task constantly walks the fine line between what is or can be known and what is there because we dream of it, because we summon it or invent it. This is perhaps one of the reasons that myths about artists and creation emerged. The ability to embrace such a complexity must have felt divine to both professional artists and lay persons. However, the artists interviewed in Chemi et al. (2015) gave voice to a telling paradox. They insisted in reporting, together with the awareness that creativity is nothing but obstinate hard work (“there is nothing magical in the creative process”, N. Rønsholdt in Chemi et al. 2015, p. 81), also the feeling of awe when ideas emerge all of a sudden (“where the hell did that come from?” A. K. Olesen in Chemi et al. 2015, p. 103) or the awareness that creative processes are not fully governable (“we’ll have to accept that we are not fully in control of ourselves or our process” M. Kvium in Chemi et al. 2015, p. 126).

The actresses’ grimoires materialise the very act of creation. Its paradox is that creation happens with bodies, senses and tangible materials, and at the same time creation feels intangible, insubstantial and indefinable. This happens because artworks and artists paradoxically connect tangible and intangible by giving shape to metaphors. Material is meaningful and meaning is materialised. The actors’ daily life unfolds through the lines of metaphor, conjuring make-believe by means of substance and transforming substance into meaning.

The Five Continents of Theatre. Facts and Legends of the Material Culture of the Actor could be considered a grimoire since its inventive intertwining of texts and illustrations describes and visualises the actors’ artisanship (alchemic or magical, as Artaud wished) and their transfiguration in front of the audience out of the various material factors which concur to this transfiguration. Eugenio Barba and Nicola Savarese have worked on this book for over twenty years in a close collaboration that is unusual in the world of theatre and in academia. Barba is a theatre director who has written several books and has outlined the new field of theatre anthropology; Savarese is a scholar with experience as actor and director, a specialist on ancient Roman and Asian theatres, author of the ground-breaking Eurasian Theatre (Savarese 2010).

Historical and archaeological records tend to abound in the case of exceptional deeds or individuals. The past of powerful groups enjoys more attention than the past of common people, the former being disseminated through history books and the latter through folklore studies. Material culture studies attempt to address this bias, by making everyday life part of historical interest. Even artefacts used in trivial situations are looked at as significant records of collective memory, not only as expression or illustration of culture but also as sources to re-think the past.

Barba and Savarese’s book wants to address this methodological bias and contribute to feeding original knowledge into the history of actors and their theatres in global perspectives. Their approach is complementary to the usual methodology since they use as point of departure the actors’ continuous creative adjustments and the auxiliary techniques applied in their encounter with the spectators while facing indifference, hostility or tragic historical circumstances. Object of investigation are material things intended by the actors for the performance proper, but also used around acting (props, tools, tickets, suitcases), venues, the acting space and its organisation in relation to the audience, censorship and economics, ways of travelling and selling performances, even legends and superstitions. In order to investigate the actors’ performative processes, the authors look closely at objects, factors and circumstances that beat the rhythm of professional acting, that materialise their daily needs thus symbolising meanings and artistic achievements for their contemporaries and future scholars. When material culture enters historical methodologies, discourses broaden beyond colonialist or hegemonic views: history is re-negotiated in daily habits (Bourdieu 1993) and in its material frames.


A dancer’s grimoire: pages from Tatsumi Hijikata’s working notebooks. For the Japanese artist, the seed of dance are not just drawings, but all things in nature – flowers, animals, objects, human gestures. Words are used as stimulus to awaken physical images and to create dance.

Things saved from the fire

As actors we regularly work with props. On the sets of television shows we are shown briefcases, watches, and rings for our characters to wear. I confess I never gave my choices much thought. Now I have to wonder, What is my past with this object? Is this something I would save from the fire?

Stephen Tobolowsky (2013)

As in Tobolowsky’s quote (2013), this book deals with objects that we would save from the fire. From the fire of history, destructive with its oblivion, rather than the ritualistic fire of renewal, rebirth and purification (Barba 2009). In order to save the ephemeral dimension of acting and performance from the annihilation of oblivion, the authors engage in an extraordinary quest in search of clues. They find an almost untouched reservoir of data in iconographic materials, building their hybrid method across theatre anthropology, history and iconography.

The idea that iconography can be used as historical evidence is not new. Erwin Panofsky (2018) shows how visual materials can be employed in historiographic research. However, Panofsky rests his attention on visual arts, while the present research investigates an area still negotiating its iconographic methodology: theatre and performance. Moreover, the present book operates on more levels than the usual interpretive approach used in visual art iconography. Similarly to the volume that the authors consider as a first tome to the same enterprise, A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer (Barba - Savarese 2005), the present book aims at addressing the paradox by which manuals of history of the theatre are crafted. Even though their content is visual, they mostly disseminate content by means of language and text. Both volumes – The Secret Art of the Performer before, and The Five Continents of Theatre now – intend to reverse this tendency and to expand the very functions of iconography. According to Savarese (in press), the sampling methodology applied in the present book to collect the iconographic material has three levels: 1) images as icons, 2) images with doors and 3) images for interpretation.

The first level is the most similar to the visual arts iconography and consists in a plain interpretation of images, looked at as symbolic representation, mere example of the content that is being described. Collecting images with this function implied, for the authors, searching for images that were explicative of the reality they represented. The result is a collection of images that exemplify content and have a strong pedagogical role both for artists and scholars: images can teach by example.

The second level hints at more associative approaches. Here, the visual material signifies beyond its aesthetic characteristics and imposes a more complex interpretive effort from its observer – or spectator. This level looks at the iconographic materials as doors to the past, able to open new understandings. The reader is called to look deeper at the details in the pictures and make connections, look beyond the picture in itself and interpret these connections more as an historian than as an art critic. Here, the role of the pictures is that of a cultural and historical document, not just illustration but questioning tool. Savarese (in press) relates this level to a critical function, typical for door-opening perspectives. In this sense, images can contribute to challenging Eurocentric perspectives and to looking beyond colonial ideologies. The consequence is a methodology towards global perspectives, even though globalisation was not the authors’ topic of interest.

The third level can be defined as images that must be interpreted. Inspired by the practice of rendering, the authors have collected iconographic material that lends itself to readjustment. These images contain a high level of complexity and poetically associative elements. Here, the role of the beholder is co-constructive. Images are to be de-constructed and re-interpreted.

Not only did the authors collect images that they believed worthy of being saved from the fire, but they also constructed a systematic interpretive dramaturgy that runs through the over 1,300 images. This original iconographic methodology allows this book to uniquely address the deficiencies of text-based history of the theatre, which has often been studied in single disciplines separated from each other: architecture, design, costumes and stage set, the literary values of plays, the aesthetic movements – naturalism, symbolism, futurism. Instead, this volume draws from different disciplines in a common search for a deeper understanding of the actors’ craft and their material culture, which until now consisted mostly in mere studies of stage objects or props (Sofer 2010).

Original, too, is the authors’ attention to modern and contemporary actors and performing traditions that focus on the actor’s body/mind and the principles of theatre anthropology. This book, as their previous collection (Barba -Savarese 1991), lays the grounds for a set of principles supported by the actor’s body and materiality. It has a double aim, historical but also pedagogical. On the one hand, the authors intend to disseminate knowledge and generate new knowledge for a more nuanced and engaging understanding of the actors’ creative conditions and contexts. On the other, this corpus of materials is meant to be a history of the theatre: a didactic tool suitable for independent and autonomous study by actors and scholars, a necessary guide for auto-didactic investigations involving the body/mind and the relation with the spectator.

Barba and Savarese’s joint vision and knowledge have resulted in a book whose characteristics can be summed up as:

  1. a new perspective for the history of the theatre focused on the inhabitants of the stage – the actors – and on their relations with the spectators, the economics, the political contingencies and the limits to which they are subjected. In short, an intercultural history of theatre from the point of view of actors and their craft;

  2. the acknowledgement that theatre is an organic environment with a material culture rooted in the inventiveness of the actors and their ability to react to concrete contingencies;

  3. a decisive contribution to theatre anthropology that investigates the actors’ auxiliary techniques;

  4. a challenge to scholars, demonstrating that it is reductive to write a history of theatre as an actor-spectator relationship without the massive contribution of iconographic documents (Barba 2018).

In other words, the present book is a grimoire in itself. It brings a detailed historical and intercultural evidence of the actors’ practices, stratagems and strategies for establishing a relation to their spectators and impacting them with their craft. But it also conjures up embodied practices and hidden or explicit individual motivations employed to make the reality of the performance, the place and time in which they act, the artefacts they use, extraordinary. Its reading is intended to inform, but also to ignite embodied passion. The illustrations in the book are unique archaeological testimonies that allow us to compare and see the affinities in different cultures that seem distant in aesthetics and geography. Above all, they allow us to shape a deeper and more nuanced vision of the actors’ work, throwing light on auxiliary and pre-expressive forms, as much as on expressive and performing techniques.

This new grammar of things imposes on the reader-spectator the responsibility of thinking again, of scrutinising, of extending one’s interpretations beyond “the lazy habit of considering results as the simple realisation of ideas and visions” (Barba 2018). Ideas and visions, as much as concrete results, are undoubtedly fundamental. Together with personal motives and values they constitute one of the pillars on which the progress of theatre is built, “but the other pillar is the ingenuity of the actors rooted in a technical sagacity. The actors, like scientists, often perceive new paths by means of errors and fortuitous coincidences” (Barba 2018). And like the actors, readers of the present book must prepare for poetic and serendipitous encounters, of which the following pages are full.

The book series

The present volume could not be a better introduction for the newly established book series Arts, Creativities and Learning Environments in Global Perspectives. According to the series editors – Tatiana Chemi2, Chunfang Zhou3 & Anu M. Mitra4 – the aims and scope of the book series are the investigation of the encounters that can occur between the arts and creativities in various learning environments and cultural contexts. The editors’ purpose is to explore the multiplicity of these approaches by presenting perspectives, not solely from formal institutions such as schools, universities, academies and colleges but also from non-formal ones (cultural institutions, libraries, museums, theatres, orchestras, archives, organisations, workplaces), as well as from informal ones (play and games, community projects, amateur art, clubs, technology hubs, maker spaces). This means that a pluralistic view on the arts – indeed, plural – is being embraced by including artistic expressions from all genres and artistic encounters at all levels, including the technological, design-driven, arts-based, artist-led, arts-inspired and arts-integrated.


Mark Rothko, New Forms. “I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame. Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance. They begin an unknown adventure in an unknown space” (M. Rothko, Abstract Expressionism, Creators and Critics, New York 1990).

This book series aims at publishing about one to four volumes per year of between 200-400 pages. Authors are strongly encouraged to propose bold, unconventional and academically strong contributions within the topics described. Co-creation and collaborative works are preferred working forms, but the series does not exclude any kind of original proposal: contributions will be (single author or co-authored) monographies or anthologies (thematic collected works) or even texts beyond text. The submissions to (web site) will be prioritised according to originality, creativity and truly innovative perspectives.


  • Barba 2009, E., On Directing: Burning the House, London: Routledge.

  • Barba 2012, E., Il teatro e le scienze, in G. Sofia ed., Le acrobazie dello spettatore: Dal teatro alle neuroscienze e ritorno, Roma: Bulzoni.

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  • Barba 2018, E., Personal Communication with Tatiana Chemi, 1 June 2018.

  • Barba 2005, E. - N. Savarese, A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer, London: Routledge.

  • Bourdieu 1993, P., The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, Cambridge UK: Polity.

  • Chemi 2018, T., A Theatre Laboratory Approach to Pedagogy and Creativity: Odin Teatret and Group Learning, London: Palgrave.

  • Chemi 2015, T. - J.B. Jensen - L. Hersted, Behind the Scenes of Artistic Creativity: Processes of Learning, Creating and Organising, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

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  • Davies 2009, O., Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Eisner 2002, E.W., The Arts and the Creation of Mind, Yale: Yale University Press.

  • Mitchell 2015, S.A., Leechbooks, Manuals, and Grimoires: On the Early History of Magical Texts in Scandinavia, in Nordic Yearbook of Folklore, Uppsala, Sweden: The Royal Gustavus Adolphus Academy, 70, 2014, 5774.

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  • Panofsky 2018, E., Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, London and New York: Routledge.

  • Savarese, N. (2010), Eurasian Theatre. Drama and Performance between East and West from Classical Antiquity to the Present, Holstebro - Malta - Wrocław: Icarus-Routledge.

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  • Savarese, N. (in press), Figure efficienti, un altro capitolo dell’opsis, in Teatro e Storia, Roma: Bulzoni.

  • Sofer 2010, A., The Stage Life of Props, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

  • Tobolowsky 2013, S., The Secret Life of Things, in Back Stage (1946-5440), 9.12.2013, 54 (37).


According to Davies (2009), the etymology of grimoire is to be referred to the French grammaire, meaning originally “a work written in Latin” (p. 1), and therefore obscure.


Department of Learning and Philosophy, Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark.


Department of Planning, Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark.


Faculty, Ph.D. program in Interdisciplinary Studies, Union Institute & University, USA.

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