Faced with new staging mechanisms, the actor must develop new strategies, which must lead to specific acting that navigates between real presence and virtual presence. The director, who is still at the heart of the creation, sometimes develops his own video and even cinematic expertise. The list of directors and companies who work in this vein is a long one:
Bud Berlin, the Big Art Group, Blast Theory, Guy Cassiers, Romeo Castellucci, Frank Castorf, CREW, Dumb Type, Pippo Delbon, la Fura dels Baus, Rodrigo Garc, Heiner Goebbels, Station House Opera, Ivo van Hove, Christiane Jatahy, John Jesurun, William Kentridge, Marc Lainé, Elizabeth Lecompte, Michel Lemieux et Victor Pilon (4D-Art), Robert Lepage, Krystian Lupa, Simon McBurney, Denis Marleau, Katie Mitchell, Fabrice Murgia, Motus, Carole Nadeau, Ontroerend Goed, Thomas Ostermeier, Jean-François Peyret, René Pollesch, Jay Scheib, Studio Azzurro, Temporary Distortion, Cyril Teste, Kris Verdonck, Marianne Weems
This list, which focuses on European and North American directors and companies, would be even longer if we included other continents, where there are numerous forms of theater that use on-stage audio-visual screens.
Along with the help of collaborators and with the work of the actor, who remains at the center of the stage, the director surrounds himself with experts in visual images, who can sometimes take a large role, to the point of being co-creator of the production (as in the case of Leo Warner with Katie Mitchell). The director’s work also includes translating the dialogue among the bodies (real and virtual) in the space—bodies expressed in diverse densities on the stage.
These are the questions addressed by this dossier1 to the contributors. It brought together participants from nearly twenty countries (Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, Libya, Lithuania, Malta, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Thus the texts selected here open onto multiple horizons, complementing and dialoguing with each other. Centered on theatrical practice, they nonetheless remain open to different artistic forms, as seen explicitly in the chapter “Interdisciplinarity,”—the performing arts as well as the visual arts (performance, video or media arts, but also cinema and drawing). Over the course of this inquiry, our concern was not only to analyze, but also to stress the dialogue among the arts and among the forms. The artists are aware of these intersections, which they have pioneered. Some of them talk in this dossier about their particular relation to technologies and their vision of the widening of their field of practice, like Kris Verdonck, Sebastian Samur, and Richard Windeyer, and André Carreira. The artists themselves are the ones who are not circumscribed by categories or by fields of research. Rather, they summon, as needed, theater and installation, performance and media arts.
The question of technology is obviously not new, nor is the onstage presence of screens. Important studies have been published on these topics for more than thirty years. Researchers like Clarisse Bardiot, Steve Dixon, Gabriella Giannacchi, Greg Giesekam, Jean-Marc Lachaud and Olivier Lussac, Béatrice Picon-Vallin, Izabella Pluta, and Chris Salter have focused on the proliferation of visual and sound devices for the stage. Others, like Chantal Hébert, Irène Perelli-Contos, Jean-Pierre Ryngaert, and Julie Sermon and have traced its effects on the modalities of the story, as well as on the space of the performance, which is suddenly either amplified or shrunk. They have focused on the repercussions of these installations on the stage’s temporality, both real and modified (slowed down or speeded up), and on the scenography, whose nature has changed profoundly in the digital era. Finally, they have studied the relationship to offstage reality, suddenly summoned (and simultaneously denied) via images, deconstructed and reconstructed, stressing the re-questioning of the representation produced by these staging devices.
Hence we are now in the “second wave” of this research, where we are no longer stressing the novelty of these procedures, but focusing on their position in the landscape of theater, on their recurrence, even their permanence, creating new aesthetics and widening the field of possible stagings. If past problematics remain fertile (relationships to time, space, and narration), today’s technological devices (multiple fixed and mobile cameras; amplification of voices, sounds, and noises; screens of every sort; motion-capture devices) give rise to questions about how they affect the actor’s subjectivity, as Tony McCaffrey’s contribution suggests. in situations where he must act alongside moving images, dealing with them and sometimes merging with them, even though he does not activate them, as do members of companies as diverse as The Big Art Group, Temporary Distortion, Blast Theory, The Wooster Group or, in Europe and beyond, directors like Guy Cassiers, Jacques Delcuvellerie, Kris Verdonck, Christiane Jatahy, Joris Mathieu, Jean-François Peyret (all present at the 2015 conference), or Frank Castorf, Heiner Goebbels, Robert Lepage, Wajdi Mouawad, René Pollesch, Marianne Weems, and others. This inquiry also includes members of the audience, who often must filter the images and devices through their own perceptions, or, as in the case of Blast Theory or CREW, are constrained by the device in question, as Kurt Vanhoutte’s text shows.
Notwithstanding the multiple axes of exploration, one constant remains: the importance of the actor’s body, which, like that of the spectator, is a motor for sensations and desire in this technological environment. What happens to the actor’s body in this technological context? How does it react? What changes does it undergo? These are fundamental questions at the heart of this anthology—hence the title: Bodies On Stage. What happens to the body, and through it, the actor, confronted with screens, in interaction with them, in fusion or rupture with the image, as shown in Vincenzo Sansone’s text? What does the image do to the performer’s body (and to that of the spectator)? Does it transform the body, as would suggest Himalay K. Gohel? Does it absorb it? Does it modify the body’s structure or identity, a question that preoccupies Avra Sidiropoulou and Proshot Kalami? Some texts in this collection address this question head-on, such as those of Edmond Couchot and Philip Auslander, who open up surprising perspectives on the subject.
The texts assembled here shed light not only on the mutations of the last thirty years in the conception of an actor’s playing, but also, more concretely, on the way that bodies—our flesh-and-blood bodies—are affected by the images that surround them and into which they sometimes merge, as Johan Callens explains. The results might be measured in terms of alienation from the art of speaking and acting in these contexts, or at least in different conceptions of theatrical acting when compared to the grand traditions. The great theatrical models of a few years ago (Anatoli Vassiliev, Jerzy Grotowski, Eugenio Barba, Peter Brook, Antoine Vitez, Constantin Stanislavski, Michael Chekhov, Tadashi Suzuki) no longer seem to have a place, since more performative acting prevails in these mediatized contexts (as seen in Ivo van Hove’s actors in Kings Of War, or André Wilms in Eraritjaritjaka), a question raised in Dorota Sajewska and Dorota Sosnowska’s contribution. The staged event takes on a different nature; it represents rather than performs 2. At the basis of any reflection, today on performativity is J. L. Austin’s 1962 How To Do Things With Words, translated into French as Quand Dire, C’est Faire3. We could reverse the formula and say that today, on stage, faire c’est dire (doing is saying). But what is one doing there? What is one saying via technological devices? What discourse holds the actors’ bodies in front of screens, as seen in the work of Guy Cassiers, Rodrigo García, or Heiner Goebbels, for example? It seems that the relationship to acting, even the very vision that acting implies, has changed and that this has transformed the character, the story, as well as our very conception of theatricality, a thematic, explored in the chapter “Theatricality And Performativity.” This can be seen clearly in the productions of Robert Lepage, Katie Mitchell, Elizabeth Lecompte, Cyril Teste, Jean-François Peyret, or Marianne Weems.
As for schools of acting, have they taken into account these changes? Have they modified their programs accordingly? In a roundtable discussion at the 2015 conference, participants, representing major European acting schools 4, gave a wide range of answers. Teachers concurred that young people are more attuned to multimedia than their elders, but some maintained that technology is not an aesthetic necessity in theater, since it is part of everyone’s everyday environment, this is, for example, Maria Kapsali’s approach in training her students. For Stanislas Nordey and Jacques Delcuvellerie, the crucial questions today are not so much about technology on stage, but about the onstage existence of the actor, the expression of the fragility of his body on stage–his here-and-now presence. Nordey repeated his conviction that the theatrical act is an act of resistance, and that the theater’s fascination with images is on the wane. On the other hand, in a text that has all the power of a manifesto, Jacques Delcuvellerie proclaims the necessity for finding singular techniques and for combating “the presumed positivity of presence”—whether presence of the image or of the actor. He recommends not separating the real from the virtual; one must not think that whatever the audience sees is “presence.” Presence is something else entirely, and if the image can increase it, it can also diminish it. Delcuvellerie reminds us that what we love about theater is the presence and fragility of the actor, and the long history of this encounter, which must be preserved. Even if the use of technologies has been totally integrated in some artists’ practice, like Andy Lavender’s, Hilary Halba, and Stuart Young’s, as well as Gwenyth Dobie, William J. Mackwood and Don Sinclair’s, the question of presence is still–even sometimes more–important to them than to performance artists who wish to preserve the stage from the intrusion of the screen.
Behind these compelling discourses, can we be witnessing a growing schism between the convictions of certain acting teachers and the practices that we see on stage? If nostalgia can draw us toward the actor alone on the stage, and if a yearning for onstage purity sometimes overtakes us, it nonetheless seems that the new onstage technologies, especially the presence of screens, has opened the stage to unsuspected possibilities, and brought about practices that do not leave the actor behind, but bring to light his mastery of the devices, along with a fragility that does not overcome the image or the device. This is what Guy Cassiers and his actors have powerfully demonstrated, as has Claire Lasne-Darcueil, a strong and dissident voice, affirming that technology and art promote a creativity that suits our times.
The question of presence and its definition is unavoidable. If the image does indeed trigger our sensitivity to the body of the other, does it also increase that body’s stage presence? The texts in this dossier all address this question, in different ways. The participants in this project are not necessarily euphoric about these social and aesthetic changes. Jacques Delcuvellerie does a good job of summarizing the ambiguity of our relationship to these changes that affect the stage, when he reminds us that it is a question of “taming” the tool, while stressing that technology is not the road to renewing theater.
The main interest of this book, beyond its very interesting texts, beyond the discovery of unknown practices and artists, beyond familiarization or re-familiarization with aspects of this field that we think we know (and which the reading of an article makes us suddenly think otherwise), is to open our horizons and undermine our certainties. In fact, to think that there is an essence to theater—even a quintessence—(which Brook would have defined in simple terms: a space, an actor, and a spectator–to which he later added the condition that an actor must speak to another actor) is to think that theater is singular, that it is not multiform, nor alterable over the course of the centuries. It seems to me that these new devices rearticulate in a different way the very notion of theater, and that confronted with certain creations, the term “theater” becomes insufficient. The new performative forms encompass installation, performance, dance, and theater. Thus it is our vision that we must enlarge and adapt to today’s practices, rather than trying to continue to use narrow categories. It is this kind of reflection, so crucial for many of us, that makes this book possible. As David Le Breton, wrote in La Sociologie Du Corps,
“If man only exists through the corporal forms that place him in the world, any modification of his form requires a different definition of his humanity. If man’s boundaries are established by the flesh that composes him, to subtract or add to him other element changes his personal identity and changes his reference points in the eyes of others 5.”
For his part, Edmond Couchot prefers to stress how technology can limit the physical and sensorial capacities of the body, rather than focusing on the body seen as an obstacle in confrontation with technology. In his view, technology allows for the development of a more complex language, in which “the limpid and cold world of the algorithm and the organic and psychic world of the body, sensations and movements are ordered to commute 6.”
It is up to the reader to choose the vision he would endorse.
1. They originally presented their texts at the June 2015 conference “Corps en scène: l’acteur face aux écrans” (Bodies on Stage: The Actor Confronted with Screens). The conference took place at the Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3 University, and was organized by the University of Quebec at Montreal’s research group “Performativité et effets de présence.”
2. See Catherine Cyr’s text on the performance Résonances, by Carole Nadeau in the French edition of this volume: “Résonances: théâtre immersif et poétique de l’instabilité”.
3. Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures Delivered at Harvard University in 1955, ed. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962. Translated into French as Quand dire, c’est faire, Paris: Seuil, 1970.
4. Stanislas Nordey, of TNS (Théâtre National de Strasbourg), Claire Lasne-Darcueil, of the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique, Frédéric Plazy, of La Haute École de Théâtre de Suisse Romande, and Didier Abadie, of ERAC (École Régionale d’Acteurs de Cannes).
5. Le Breton, David. “Vers la fin du corps: cyberculture et identité” in Fintz, Claude (dir.), Du corps virtuel à la réalité des corps: littérature, arts, sociologie, t. 1, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2002, pp. 173-195, p. 174.
6. Couchot, Edmond. “Autre corps, autre image, autre image, autre corps” in Sultan, Josette et Jean-Christophe Vilatte (dir.), Ce corps incertain de l’image : art / technologies, L’Harmattan, Paris, 1998, coll. Champs visuels, n°10, pp. 12-16, p. 15.
This article originally appeared in Archee and has been reposted with permission.
Translated by Roxanne Lapidus)
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.