Monday, April 30, 2012

With Your Brains & My Body: The Future Imperfect of Physical Theatre

George Bernard Shaw
[post 268]

"Live performance in a defined public space is our last bulwark against two-dimensional images taking over reality. Theater may turn out to have been only a brief interlude between ritual and electronics; be glad you're here to see it."  — Erika Munk

As I wrote in my last post, I was excited when I saw that the London Guardian was live streaming the latest production from Circkus Cirkör. I wasn't in London to see it, but now with the click of a button I could watch the entire 74-minute piece at home, and for free no less.

Is this a good thing?

Part of the philosophy behind nouveau cirque, especially in France, gives primacy to live performance. People need to get out of their house and engage living, breathing performers, sharing the same time and space.

I agree with this, and I've loved most of the nouveau cirque productions I've seen in my trips to Europe, yet there are dozens and dozens I've missed and wish were available on DVD or online in high-quality versions. By and large they are not — unlike, say, the work of Cirque du Soleil. 

Which brings me to this piece I wrote 25 years ago loudly extolling the many virtues of live (physical) performance over "artificial" technology-aided media.

Confession: the hot head who wrote this polemic a quarter-century ago subsequently got hooked on digital this and that, including VFX (visual effects). I still agree with most of this, though these days I can't imagine me writing anything so damn preachy. In those days, I was into manifestoes!

This piece first appeared in a special 1987/88 double edition of Mime Journal edited by Tom Leabhart and featuring the photography of Jim Moore.

With Your Brains


Jonathan Lyons said...

Maybe this is one of the reasons I am so fascinated with Eric Davis' Red Bastard character. From watching the videos I can see he gets extremely intimate with his audience. I'm sure being at the show is a far different experience from just seeing it on youtube.

David Carlyon said...


Strong article. Prescient, lots of good points, and it didn't seem preachy to me.

I do disagree about one point. Actually, you might even disagree with it yourself, if you take a step back and reconsider what you're written. After making such a strong case for the importance of that holy trinity, of clown, partner, and audience, you do a flip on page 6, or so it seems to me. There, you argue that the internal threat to physical theater is, essentially, not being cerebral enough. I use the word "cerebral" not for any specific meaning but more as a catch-all for your focus on ideas, art, politics.

It's precisely that focus, I believe, that is the problem with physical theater. Instead of focusing on making their performances work, in some idealized, Platonic meaning of the word "work," physical theater folks emphasize their IDEAS. A bit doesn't work? Too challenging for this audience. A gag flops? That's okay, we're just experimenting. The audience is bored or hostile or, worst, politely applauds? It's probably their fault. A dull stretch? We and the director want us to "keep things fresh" by exploring.

This is partly solipsistic, the performer believing that if s/he likes it, it must be artistic truth. Cementing the attitude though is that this approach gets tons of artistic cred, not to mention financial support. Writers, bloggers, and especially the folks who give foundation money favor anything that savors of doing more than "mere clowning." Cite Beckett or LeCog, and regardless of what the work actually looks like, you're likely to be seen as an artist.

Ironically, the ideas themselves don't even matter, as much as using the right words in the publicity, mission statements, foundation grants, and even in the performance itself.

You and I have both seen performances like this, John. Ideas are fine. As I believe I've written here before, some of my best friends have ideas. And ideas can be woven into the strongest, best work. But too often physical theater treats ideas as the highest aspiration, rather than simply another tool. Too often it regards the announcement of ideas as sufficient.