With Your Brains & My Body:
The Future Imperfect of Physical Theatre
by John Towsen
George Bernard Shaw once explained that his
way of joking was "to tell the truth: it's the funniest joke in the
world." Martha Graham, for her part, claims that "nothing is more
revealing than movement." Most of the performing artists seen in this and
previous issues of Mime Journal -- be they movers or laughmakers or both --
would probably agree.
Call it mime, new vaudeville, clown-theatre, movement theatre, or simply
physical theatre, there is no denying that it has given our contemporary
performing arts scene a much needed shot of adrenalin. Audiences have discovered
something unique about these artists -- be they Bill Irwin or Daniel Stein --
whose entire being is invested in a live and highly physicalized performance,
who work independently of stunt doubles, flattering camera angles, and assorted
technological tricks. Shaw and Graham notwithstanding, it would no doubt be
extremist of me to grant these innovative artists a monopoly on the truth. If,
however, the medium is indeed the message, then perhaps audiences are beginning
to equate the "honesty" of performance technique with the honesty of a
show's dramatic content.
Comedians are not always physical and mime not always funny, but what they do
share is the risk inherent in an unpredictable, anything might-happen
performance. A movement artist literally totters on the brink of disaster,
investing every fiber of muscle, every neural ending in the successful
completion of a long and exhausting display of biomechanical marvels. Clowns and
comics gleefully batter down the fourth wall, boldly inviting the audience into
the conversation. They all do what they do in the here and now, day in and day
out. No second takes, no splicing and editing, no laugh track.
Today they are the exception to the rule, and that alone may explain their
renewed popularity. Buster Keaton only used a stuntman once in his film career,
and that was for a brief pole vaulting sequence. Fred Astaire insisted that his
dances be shot in a single take. Today such an attitude would be dismissed as
hopelessly purist. Watch any movie, any television show or commercial, and you
will notice that outside of professional sports there is little attempt to
present physical truth. An object is propelled through space and an object hits
its target. The object could be a knife, a car, or a human being, but it's
always shown in two takes. Is it even the same object? Today it seems a comic
can't even slip on a banana peel in a single take.
Performances that are "sweetened" by technology (and cannot be seen
without the aid of technology) are a small part of a larger and more ominous
picture. We live at the dawn of the Age of Home Entertainment. A mere century
ago, your typical earthling may have witnessed a show or two per year. But today
the average American household keeps that television set on seven hours a day,
and our typical citizen is exposed to over a million commercials by the age of
forty. Instead of spending an hour or two in the same room with a live
performer, the tv viewer is bombarded by a new image on the average of every 3.5
The communications revolution of the 80's, spawned by the computer chip and
magnetic tape, is just the tip of this electrified iceberg. By the turn of the
century, the typical American family will not dream of being without its own
home communications center, conveniently combining in one unit the functions of
a tv, radio, tape player, vcr, compact disk, musical keyboard, speaker,
computer, printer, scanner, modem, telephone, and six other devices yet to be
invented -- all of which will come equipped with camcorder and satellite dish
antenna. At long last, we will be able to access almost any film, any tv program
ever made at the mere push of a button. All public performances will be taped
and made available -- even that clown show you did for the K-3's over at JFK
No doubt this will in turn spawn the ultimate Age of Narcissism, one that will
put the home movies of yesteryear to shame. Our private lives will become mere
fodder for homemade docudramas. Children will grow up watching tapes of their
own birth, if not of their actual conception, and will learn the facts of life
from videos smuggled into backyard treehouses. Everything we do will be
documented, and this trend will not abate until we are spending half of our
lives watching the videotapes we have made of the other half.
It would be futile to dismiss this revolution in communications. It is not all
bad and it will not go away; quite the contrary. But we would do well to think
twice before kneeling down to this new god and hailing it as a great, historical
triumph for the performing arts. We should think thrice about what we might be
losing in the transition from live performance to canned entertainment.
Forget for a moment that 99% of what we see is at best bland, homogenized pablum
guaranteed to offend nothing but one's intelligence. The other 1% is still
quality stuff, and rather than lose it, we are seeing it transposed from the
concert hall to the tv studio, and reaching millions more than it did a
generation ago. What, then, are we losing?
Western art, with its emphasis on aesthetic distance and its preference for
music, movement, and language that is planned out and meticulously rehearsed
well in advance, may feel it is losing little and gaining much in the transition
from stage to PBS. But there is another, more endangered tradition of live
performance -- one more prevalent in folk and popular theatre forms, and
surviving somewhat better in so called "backward" countries -- that is
raw, live, spontaneous, physical, and communal in nature.
Live performance can be more than a recital or a representation. It can be an
event, what theatre anthropologist Richard Schechner calls an
"actual," a ritual existing in the here and now for performer and
audience alike. They both give, they both take. It is (to borrow Carlo Mazzone
Clementi's definition of commedia acting) a form of 3-ball juggling -- an
exchange between you, your partner, and the audience. It takes all three to
complete the picture, and the audience bears some responsibility for the
Some twenty years ago (when transistor radios were still the rage), Norman
Mailer wrote that it was better to step out to a local club to catch a little
known jazz quartet than to stay home listening to the world's finest jazz
recording on the most expensive hi-fi. To sit in that jazz audience is to be
party to the performing contract. Live jazz, with its insistence on
improvisation and embellishment, its call-and-response structure, its vocal
audience, is as good a model as any for modern comedic and movement theatre.
Rather than passively tuning in from the safety of one's living room sofa, ready
to switch channels at the flick of a remote control, the jazz audience is
engaged in a dialogue by the performers, and plays a far more active role than
it imagines in the experience.
Audience members are often the last to realize the crucial effect they have on a
live performance. But performers are keenly aware of it. It's their business.
The performer understands far more than laughs, applause, and hacking coughs.
The performer has a sixth sense that monitors audience chemistry, offering
instant feedback on energy levels, depth of focus, eye contact thresholds,
attention span -- the whole gamut of good and not-so-good vibrations that
constantly bombard the stage like so many invisible gamma rays.
The faith of the live performer is that though he/she may be only reaching 75
people at a time, the experience is more "real" because it is live,
communal, visceral, three-dimensional, riskier, and ultimately more memorable
than the television sitcom that reaches 75 million. Through their willingness to
risk all with body and soul, they keep alive a vital performance tradition that
engages the audience, that is neither chewing gum for the mind nor opiate for
I am not advocating the death sentence for videotape, PBS, or classical Western
art. They will survive nicely, and they deserve to. The real threat, the
imminent danger, is not to any of these, but to a specific tradition of live
performance: One that is intimate and personal enough not to be confused with a
rock concert at the local sports arena, where 95% of the audience is seated
somewhere in the next county. One that means more than just a chance to see a
media superstar in the flesh or to be dazzled by special effects. And of course
even this intimate brand of live performance that I am championing will never
disappear altogether. The worry here is that, like home-baked bread or
full-bodied beer, so few will experience it that we as a people will not even
miss it. And we will become a little more passive, a little less connected to
one another, a little easier to manipulate.
A live theatre that is also a physical theatre faces its own particular perils.
Instead of being seen as part of an ongoing, vital, and diverse global tradition
-- one that may even have socio-political implications -- the physicalized
theatre of the 80's has been dubbed "new vaudeville" by the media, a
convenient pigeonhole whose one size supposedly fits all. In
America, art is just another consumer product, and thus our habit of neatly
labeling something, praising it to the skies, and then dropping it like a hot
potato when the next fad comes along. This is already happening and there is
little we can do about it.
A graver threat to physical theatre, but one we can exercise some control over,
comes from within. The danger is that our art will too infrequently transcend
its technique, contenting itself with dazzling displays of physical and/or
comedic virtuosity, growing more and more isolated from the world we live in.
Too often the tricks performed seem far riskier than the artistic statement. Too
often the amount of homework that goes into mastering the craft dwarfs the
amount of time spent exploring and evolving an artistic vision.
This is a problem we have all struggled with. We have all seen too many clown
shows, too many mime performances, that bear an uncanny resemblance to one
another, as though conceived by committee and then assembled and packaged in
some factory south of the border. We've seen too many shows built around tricks
-- as many tricks as possible -- with the content tacked on almost as an
afterthought. We have seen too many movement training curriculums totally devoid
of ideas, much less of a writing/choreography element. And, personally, I know
too many clowns who don't even go to the theatre, too many mimes who haven't
read a serious novel in years, and too many dancers whose political awareness
doesn't extend much beyond calorie counting.
The not so coincidental result is a preponderance of lightweight (if not
insipid) material. "Sure these performers are lots of fun," society
seems to be saying. "They're a barrel of laughs, but we don't really take
them seriously." With a few notable exceptions, critics do not discuss them
in the same breath with "serious" writers, choreographers, or visual
artists. Audiences don't argue about their work weeks and months afterwards.
The straight theatre, of course, has its own blind spots: A theatre of
"talking heads" who might as well be invisible from the neck down.
Method acting teachers who insist endlessly (and I think correctly) on emotional
truth but are often the first to abandon ship when it comes to exploring the
physical truth of a character or a situation. Theatre schools where movement --
when taught at all -- is taught detached from acting, as a specialized skill to
be trotted out for festive occasions.
The problem can hardly be separated from the general fragmentation of American
culture. We are at best a nation of specialists, the notion of a
"Renaissance man" growing more quaint by the minute. We have, as I
write, two presidential candidates who readily admit to rarely if ever reading a
novel, going to the theatre, or visiting a museum. Instead of Leonardo Da Vinci,
we have scientists who don't know Bosch from Bush and artists who wouldn't know
a quark from Judge Bork.
For the performing artists of tomorrow, the challenge is not simply one of
education, of enhanced cultural literacy and global awareness -- though that
couldn't hurt. The fragmentation is also internal, and is perhaps analogous to
what pop psychologists like to call the right brain, left brain dichotomy: the
impulsive, creative side vs. the analytical, rational side. Probably the brain
is not split so neatly down the middle; nor are most people. But we do tend more
and more to close ourselves off to those modes of perception and creation where
we are not "naturals."
Not every dancer is going to make a great choreographer, not every clown or mime
is a born director or playwright. But we need to make more conceptual
connections within our own heads and we need to make more connections to the
world outside our heads -- connections with other artists whose natural talents
complement rather than mirror ours. The artist speaks with a voice that is no
greater than his or her own experience and knowledge. It is a singular voice,
but one that must grow richer, that must reflect more of the complexity of the
world we live in, if it is not to be a hollow voice.
A broadening of horizons cannot help but enrich the future of physical theatre.
When collaborations work, when two worlds collide without destroying each
another, the effect is positively galvanizing. Such is the experience we get
from much of Mike Nichols' new production of Waiting for Godot. To see clowns
and movers -- in this case Bill Irwin, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and F.
Murray Abraham -- breathe new life into a text so highly acclaimed yet rarely
well performed is a reminder of the potential for a theatre that is alive with
imagination, physicality, and bold intelligence.
"You have the greatest brain in the world," a woman from Zurich once
wrote George Bernard Shaw, "and I have the most beautiful body; so we ought
to produce the perfect child." Shaw, ever the skeptic, wrote back to her,
"What if the child inherits your brains and my body?" Physical theatre
seems to be in a similar predicament, but if the risk is only 50 50, then it is
one well worth taking.
copyright John Towsen, 1987
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