CONFERENCE ADDRESS by Julie Wilson
Theatre that does not recognise its sacredness; its spiritual terrain, looses the very centre of its being. Such a theatre is either afraid, or has lost the means to look into its interior. To look at what it is that it was designed to contain. In such a state of ignorance and denial we as artists cease to understand the deeper dynamics at work in performative acts, we relinquish control and step out in front of performance with the naivety of one stepping off a pavement without understanding from which direction the traffic is coming.
We are continuously surprised when theatre leads us toward personal revelations, when we find ourselves unexpectedly aroused, emotional, hit, affected, transformed in the very core of our being by theatre. We have forgotten why this is.
Our training focuses on the ‘craft’ of theatre; the physical skills, the technical aspects, the aesthetics, to such an extent that we have lost sight of the soul of theatre in the same manner as we have lost slight of the personal soul of the performer; our soul, our will-to, our need to participate, not just in theatre, but in life. To speak about our drives, our desires, our fantasies and our idealism is considered sentimental and of little worth. Instead we sit clutching our bag of tried and tested skills and surround ourselves in quantifiable assurance and technical comfort. It is an investigation into the link between the soul of theatre and the soul of the performer that will perhaps bring us to the heart of what we might recognise as the sacredness of the performative act and will in turn allow us to make certain propositions for the sacred in contemporary performance and in our personal performance practice.
It was Artaud who accused and noted that in our theatre we describe rather than experience, that we mask rather than reveal, that we distance rather than make contact with what is in our ‘nature’ what constitutes the cosmology of the self / the soul and the multiple possibilities of human experience. Artaud proposed theatre on the cruel, essential edge of human exploration. Artaud understood that when we place ourselves in the physical frame; in the psychological, sensorial engine, structure and form of theatre - in the performative - we put ourselves into a powerful space; a liminal space which is the intersection of a number of interior worlds. To me stepping inside the performative action is an objective devotional act - in many cases - an act of faith - in that one does not always know or can anticipate where participation will lead; in what physical, emotional, psychological area the activity will impact. We all accept that theatre can provide the means of “going deep’ - as deep as one can bare to allow... to the very source of ones being... to a theatre of source perhaps. Perhaps an area of the self that one has never encountered before. Theatre has the ability to propel the participant toward what Nietzsche called the “unteachable granite” what Jung later described as the personal and ‘collective unconscious’ and depth psychologists such as James Hillman have recognised as the archetypal solids that people the deep terrain of the soul. Into what Henry Corbin called the ‘Imaginal’ ground, what the alchemists identified as the terrain and the prima material of the soul - the pure elements of the self. Contact with, and the retrieval of personal/collective understandings from this realm of the personal and fundamentally humanistic subsoil is absolutely necessary for our deeper understanding of both ourselves and humanity in general. It is what allows us to place value on our lives. Jung described this process of ‘going deep’ as ‘individuation’ - a process by which a person begins to understand the plurality and density of their own being. It is this desire to structure, to form and explore a deeper understanding of our selves and our social circumstances that I would propose shaped our early movement toward theatre, as an archaic form of what Mircea Eliade might have called mythological thinking and which in a Jungian sense, could be viewed as an original form of active imagination. In the sense of the sacred or ritual act, an attempt to evoke, to envisage, to embody and thereby to rationalise and retrieve something which can be understood through experience.
Early Greek theatre provided a frame in which to place two seemingly conflicting worlds; the world of the polis; the social and physical restraints of the state, and the seemingly irreconcilable world of the gods; of the blood bonds, blood ties, and of their emotive, fateful effects on the human body. Taken literally these are epic stories which stage the conflict between man and his gods. Seen from another perspective they are representations of a very real conflict within the human body and soul which is as relevant today as it was in the fifth century BC. From a Jungian point of view these plays staged the struggle between the archetypal features of the human psyche; their individual traits illustrated through the myth, their characteristic dynamics shown in their influence and dealings with man. The actor is a figures which stands in a liminal space between social responsibility and the influence of the gods; between the external voice of the polis and the internal voices of the soul. These early dramas also staged the internal undercurrent of a conflict between excess and balance; between the rule of the instinctual, the animalistic and the unconscious act, and the rational, intellectual, and conscious, through the collision and personified influence of Dionysus and Apollo.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche provides us with a composite of the Dionysus/Apollo complex in the form of a description of the ‘artist-god’ and makes one of the first psychological suggests for the archetypal trait of the actor/artist. According to Nietzsche, the artist-gods’ ‘will-to’ create is a reaction to internal conflict and a means of taking control and venting the fullness of his conflicts, Nietzsche writes:
Nietzsche continues “we are simply images and artistic projections for the true creator” the artist-god the one driven by his own need to create, because in the words of Genesis P-Orridge, “what we have” our internal dynamics “creates our need” – our will-to – the ‘Warzone’ between balance and excess is part of who we are as artists. Indeed the warzone of the soul is what brings us close to the archetypal qualities of the divine. It creates the dynamic condition for creativity. Indeed in his extensive exploration of symbols and archetypes Jung found that the constellation of the artist-god or the human element ‘in eclipse’ with the divine is not confined to western spiritual practices but extends into the majority of eastern spiritual forms. For instance in;
Indeed Jung found that the mandala, yantra, circular motif which is both a conceptual and actual structural confine for a great variety of sacred, spiritual and I would suggest performative practices, both east and west, is a symbol for, and a physical attempt to unify and eclipse seemingly irreconcilable elements. Jung, talking about the psychoanalytical function of the circular motif, suggested that its occurrence “... often represent very bold attempts to see and put together apparently irreconcilable opposites and bridge over apparently hopeless splits” (Jung:1972:p5) As we have seen in the structural premise of early Greek theatre, this attempt to bring together social and spiritual elements was perhaps an attempt to see into the very internal workings and dynamics of that culture, and beyond that, into the complex and pluralistic workings of the soul. I have sited only one example here, but we can find this type of mytho’ psycho-physical system in early theatrical forms in the east as well as the west. On closer inspection it is also possible to recognise its veiled presence in contemporary theatre practice across all the art forms. Theatre and the act of performance remains a robust vessel in which to place - to stage and interrogate - the collision between external influences and the life of the soul. Weather we pay attention to this fact or not, weather we pay homage, weather we work with theatres innate capacity to explore the deepest regions of humanity, we can not deny its presence, and we can not call ourselves theatre practitioners unless we seek to understand it. Nietzsche suggested that as instruments of the soul - as actors - we “have our highest dignity in our significance as works of art” in our abilities to articulate to teach and learn, to be poetic; to explore and speak the language of the soul. In another time and place Ian Magilton of the Roy Hart Theatre describes what this means in terms of theatre, and the obligations this places on the artist. He writes;
Jung recognised, as did the anthropologist Mircea Eliade that some forms of ‘mythical behaviour’ still survive in our day. But that this does not constitute the survival of an archaic mentality, but that some aspects and functions of mythological thought are inherent constituents of all human beings. That it is part of our mental function, our conceptual thought processes, and a reflex of our imagination; it is part of the fabric of who we are (Eliade:1963:pp181-182). It was the realisation of this basic premise that drove Grotowski to explore the dynamics and reflexes of mytho’ pyscho-physical action. Grotowski’s objective exploration into the mechanics, into the structure, form and content, of this the original theatre engine
led him to an understanding of the role and responsibility of the actor, and the extra-religious, humanistic sacred vocation of the actor. Grotowski writes:
This conference seeks to relocate what we might call ‘the sacred’ within our contemporary practice. But before we are able to reflect upon the shape of our art forms, it is important to begin to attempt to relocate what this means to us as performers. To attempt to relocate the soul, to accept its dynamic qualities for better or for worse, to approach the work with an openness, and a willingness to go deep in order that we recover something of real value in ourselves, perhaps even something that we might personally recognise as sacred. This is why this conference is not simply a paper exercise, but includes workshops which will provide us with the practical space in which to attempt some personal explorations. The various guest speakers and workshop leaders are here to help you explore the terrain. A performer such as Genesis P-Orridge is an artist who are actively engaged in the exploration of a psycho-physical, inherently spiritual form of practice and spontaneous experience in-performance. He is an artist who seeks to “accomplish an act of soul” in, and through work, and for me it was very important to provide the means and the space for this artist to participate in this event. We are here to work hard. To participate with an open mind and not a ‘vague’ intention of being ‘true to oneself’; but I hope with real commitment. We must be broad minded, but willing to fuel productive debate. We must be prepared to be challenged as well as inspired.
Julie Wilson - April 2001