May 2007

day 2 & 3 at the soap face: rjf project

they insisted on knowing the story of the voices. They wanted her to name, embody and describe them in ways they could understand, with recognisable … imagery and emotions, in a conventional narrative that would be susceptible to conventional disproof. … It seems that for her the voices had no story.

And one day when the judges were pressing her to define the voices as singular or plural, she most wonderfully said:

The light comes in the name of the voice.

He wants to defeat narrative wherever it seeks to arise, which is pretty much everywhere since humans are creatures who crave a story. There is a tendency for story to slip into the space between any two figures or any two marks on a canvas. [Francis] Bacon uses colour to silence this tendency. He pulls colour right up the edges of his figures – a colour so hard, flat, bright, motionless, it is impossible to enter into it or wonder about it. There is a desolation of curiosity in it.

Sometimes he puts a white arrow on top of the colour to speed your eye and denounce storytelling even more. To look at this arrow is to feel an extinguishing of narrative.

a catastrophising of communication.

Bacon has another term for this catastrophising: he calls it “destroying clarity with clarity.”

Bacon says we live through screens. What are these screens? They are part of our normal way of looking at the world, or rather our normal way of seeing the world without looking at it, for Bacon’s claim is that a real seer who looked at the world would notice it to be fairly violent – not violent as narrative surface but somehow violently composed underneath the surface…

the silence that followed Joan of Arc’s response to her judges when they asked her, “In what language do your voices speak to you?” and she answered:

Better language than yours.

To sum up. Honestly, I am not very good at summing up. The best I can do is offer a final splatter. I was trained to strive for exactness and to believe that rigorous knowledge of the world without any residue is possible for us. This residue, which does not exist – just to think of it refreshes me. To think of its position, how it shares its position with drenched layers of nothing, to think of its motion, how it can never stop moving because I am in motion with it, to think of its tone of voice, which is casual (in fact it forgets my existence almost immediately) but every so often betrays a sort of raw pity I don’t understand, to think of its shadow, which is cast by nothing and so has no death in it (or very little) …

– Anne Carson, “Variations on the right to remain silent,” (talk on March 11th 2005 White House Guerlac Room Cornell University)

As well as being less aggressive and more cooperative, immature apes have other qualities … There is good evidence, for example, that younger apes make the best communicators. An experiment that tested the likelihood and ability of different chimpanzees to inform others of where food had been hidden in a large enclosure concluded that ‘the most dramatic and humanoid-looking signals were made by the most infantile and least efficient of leaders, and they decreased markedly as the animals gained experience at leading other chimpanzees.’ But, of course, one of the most noticeable qualities of immature animals, and especially primates, is their inquisitiveness and playful nature.

– Clive Bromhall (The Eternal Child: How evolution made children of us all, Random House, London, 2004, p. 64)

Entering without plan, on the second day, to resume working at the surface in order to soften it somewhat and in the hope of clawing from its immaterial surfactancy at least a few material coordinates for the direction of … what? a progress(ion)? … the work, Jeff, Paul and I cleared the forms and tables – as if this were a positive act – and seated ourselves at a round table on the edge of the space, where we tried to get our hands around “on the square: ninth rendering” (see page, under RJF project). This particular piece was chosen to discuss because of its clear dramatic and imagistic line, for its setting. Even here, however, there is an ambiguity. The piece moves from Francis Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews, as photographed by Perry Ogden, in Bacon’s friend, John Edwards’s reminiscence, to the ‘square’ of the title, a human stockyard, where the ‘friend’ becomes one of a group of spectators to the stumbling passage of the Bacon character across it. He could in fact be heading for the showers under the eyes of the Camp guard. He is at any rate bound for a conclusion, whereat his body will be ‘thrown in the gutter.’ Bacon’s progress is at once that of the Passion, in this piece, and that via a masochistic sexual fantasy, in which Christ-Bacon indulges – being, as the historic Francis Bacon determined to be, extraordinary.

The problem is how heavy these things get outside of dramatic dialogue, outside of conversation. It’s not simply about interpreting a text that goes into the inevitable abysm. Conversation might be said to be the opposite of a speech that takes with it, that holds within it, either gaping and ignored or hidden like a trap, the residue of nothing Anne Carson writes about. You hope, as she says in her reluctant summation, it will refresh and refresh others too, with whom one shares its implications and plumbs its surface-effects of depth. But with the pragmatics of making drama from it, the opposite of making conversation threatens even when, especially when, its complexity is acknowledged as all surface. The ‘conversational style’ in dominating dramatic writing habituates its translators to a another order of relation to the word. Interpretation occurs by addition. Whereas with the classic texts of the theatre, omission, the bounded history, the surface-tense rule of limiting interpretation, and also discussion, removes the risk of descending endlessly through the substrata of the text. Rather, it encounters the risk and allows just enough, the sufficiency in keeping with the recognition of the greatness of the classic text. The ease of an after-dinner conversation contrasts with the difficulty of the hunger-artist’s soliloquy. The latter for its intimacy makes it a problem of an inhuman intimacy or an intimacy of animal intensity, lebendig, which is how Anne Carson pegs Hoelderlin’s standard for poetry in the talk quoted above. The passional speech is not dramatic. Or it is overly dramatic – it puts the course of theatre back at least a hundred years.

Francis Bacon said, I think in the celebrated interviews with David Sylvester, we require a shorthand for emotion – for getting things across up on to the nervous system. This shorthand will not anyway be conversational. But it will not either be cliche, the cliches of a Bernhardt in Russia, the gestural shorthand that had dominated theatre, to which the notion of the ‘dramatic’ is latterly a shorthand, encompassing the idea of an unnatural excess, an exaggerated and externalised, exaggerated for being externalised, dramatic language of symbolic poses and ‘muggings,’ facial contortions, physical deformations from a nature only afterwards discovered; like the discovery of single-point perspective’s ‘natural’ representation of the extent of a physical space. Francis Bacon is remarkable for putting the course of painting back in a way that many, like Picasso’s reversion – among others and amongst diverse other things – to ‘primitive’ models, assayed but never achieved. For theatre there is the model of Howard Barker’s Wrestling School. But the important point is that the ‘wrestling’ has to begin – and if need be make its great leap back – again every time the angel is encountered.

Day two we spent in the disembodied state in which one is never sure if anything at all for all the careless talk is being put and got across up on to the nervous system. We found a depth without extension… into theatre.

Day three Erica, Tallulah, Jeff and I did the opposite. We moved. Without charging the air. Without a lot of talk, we mapped the text of the same piece, “on the square: ninth rendering,” onto the improvised stations of a dance, from the dance, onto the dramatic externalisations of the action, the drama. Without depth. Interesting where nothing matters – as that great movie Deathwatch says or, “everything is of interest but nothing matters.” No, the play is not the thing. Except where its orbit is damaged, the first gravity deformed by another centre into the ellipse… Christ’s returning to the not-himself of the divine at once outside him but within his orbit (or how He is constellated?) – which is how Slavoj Zizek has it but says it better.

And I must say this is how I’ve found things in the past: what everybody in the company can recognise as a play because it fulfils certain minimal requirements is easily surpassed as the company finds its own centre, assembles it, to each their own, outside of that in the script, which is only its pretext. Now the first gravity wants and the second forms. And I’ve never been entirely happy with the resultant closure of the company onto itself and of the work, text-work, script seemingly left unquestioned enclosed within its own presuppositions. Is this really realisation? Tautology intended. Here at the Soap Face of the current work I need to find a way of making it matter to the actors beyond their technique, to have the discipline of freedom, the necessity of chance.

The exercise we followed through with on day three – that led me to believe there is a way through – was The Burrow, Herbert Blau’s take on the story by Franz Kafka, reconstituted for our purposes from the evidence in Take up the Bodies.

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notes on day one of The Soap Factory, pt. 2

That was the sense we had in the work on the Enemy, as we did later in the Burrow, where the Enemy seemed to split asunder and reproduce, invading from all sides – the body so besieged, it seemed to be divested of any power to resist. … So, fear of surprise, fear of being taken unawares, from behind (as Freud realised about paranoia, fear of being buggered). We are talking of a paranoid consciousness in which, as in the paintings of Francis Bacon, even shadows bleed. Wherever the enemies are, the Enemy is, keeping its distance. There is no reciprocal trade agreement nor non-aggression treaty. The invasion may or may not happen, but it is feared, desired, tempted.

– Herbert Blau (Take Up The Bodies, p. 138)

We intend, at The Soap Factory, to touch on a number of themes, inspired chiefly by the need to work. The imperative comprehends a need to make work and to make work that works. The work in question is theatre, so it is vital work! And here on these pages, in these posts, I hope to work out an approach as if stalking the possibility of a theatre as prey or prize or making a trap to be set elsewhere than here. It is of course difficult to make an approach or a trap with the very medium that one seeks to either trap or approach, just as it’s almost impossible to capture words with words – and call it poetry. The calling of it from the medium with which one works should finally be left up to others. So that it is their time in question in the cliche time will tell and not one’s own. One’s own is better spent standing a fraction of a hair’s breadth out of the way of the accident and the teeth snapping shut of the trap and covering one’s scent with the perfume of the prey.

Day one found us, Jeff, Paul, Tallulah and I, in the rather oppressive space under St. Kevin’s Arcade literally walking in circles, avoiding bumping into one another, while the question what are we doing? was treated with a similar circularity and a like avoidance. Although the walking itself suggested a way of being in the space, one that suspends the requirement for interaction, one that is appropriately oblique as far as what the communication consists in, generically, mentally, emotionally, taking place amongst the figures. Because we are communicating insofar as we’re continuously aware of each other, if only for the fact that we have to consider each other perambulatory obstructions. There came into play in the group walking/talking an actorly, but more importantly, impersonal mutual consideration: a sense of stage.

Once the direction was given, however, to make conscious the avoidance of other figures moving in the room, the professional liability of staginess entered the picture; until, that is, the figures grew still and standing as close to one another as they could without touching continued to avoid communication or any form of interaction: I’d used the word ‘snubbing’ in the direction. Any interest provided by the exercise came more from an additional direction, to Tallulah, to talk about how she felt, while Paul and Jeff riffed on memory, than from the direction to snub. The result, through the consideration that the performers showed to each other in allowing each to speak and then weaving their own voices in or riding over the top until a space opened in the interweaving of voices, was more effectively musical than the expected psychological one of a discomforture arising from the isolation, by snubbing, of each figure from the rest. Except that Tallulah in expressing her feelings contributed a kind of subversive emotional undercurrent, that for the lightness of her voice, and for the fact that she’d reduced her volume as soon as she started talking her feelings out loud, gave the exercise a fragility, a walking-on-glass, rather than thin ice, quality, less tentative than attenuated.

It would be easy to dismiss this effect as psychodramatic – in the sense you could say Tallulah was deliberately placed in breakdown mode. The direction was not to be honest and honestly express feelings, although this was how it was taken and although Tallulah could not be said to have been indulging. No, the effect came from an interplay of the three voices’ varying acoustic qualities and the affective speech and an attenuation in the female voice, the lightness noted. What was being said as much as how it was being said produced a change in the overall tone and texture of the voices, made a different music. So to vary the texture what is said must be considered separately. For instance, memory, direct observation, whether of internal emotional states or external physical features, thematic improvisation – e.g. talk soap! – will be determining factors, changing the interrelationship of the voices, if only at this level.

I described later the link between the snubbing exercise and soap – as genre: the typical emotionally charged two-shot, sometimes in declarations of love or in admissions of guilt, where one figure turns out at the critical moment 180 degrees away from their interlocutor so that both faces, both reactions, remain clearly in shot, compressed into the screen, in a kind of symbolic abstraction or shorthand for the viewer, a conventional departure from ‘realistic’ shooting. Of course, the characters in this shot are not snubbing or avoiding each other, quite the opposite. But the direction to snub came from a desire to circumvent direct recourse to narrative or situation, emotional connexion or relation, in order to arrive at the structure: two – three in our case – faces turn away from each other. And of course, the adoption of the TV convention in the stage setting is problematic. If it exist only as a formal component, is it interesting? What is being stylised?

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standard form: notes on day one of The Soap Factory, pt. 1

The life of a group is, by the nature of the thing, in a nervously transient state. … In the sociology of institutions, it is held that groups do not move irreversibly deathward as individuals do. But continuity is also a function of number, that is, the size of an institution or a culture. … The group is more like an elemental molecular organism, dissolving and coming together at best, consuming itself to extinction at worst. … There are not, overall, many groups that have survived for very long. With rare exceptions, they start out young. They don’t age in their own service. They usually disintegrate before maturity, when the task of earning something other than a marginal living also enters the behavioural structure. Some … can’t resolve the participatory dilemma, rejecting leadership and needing it. One of Grotowski’s achievements was that he was able, over the years, to draw upon the cohesive integrity of actors aging on their own behalf. … No sooner did his group come to America than it was as if the virus of dispersion entered the organism. On their return to Poland, the original unity was gone. … In America, characteristically, we lose our innocence not to maturity but to impatience. The disintegrative forces are all around us. The years are wasted, they divide us.

– Herbert Blau, Take Up The Bodies, University of Illinois Press, USA, 1982, p. 129.

I suppose that’s what we are, have been always. The idea of the group has remained in the heart and head even when reduced to a couple of friends. To paraphrase it, there is Bruce Chatwin’s admission, that he never had a friend he couldn’t in some way use. Unlike the experience – that vast and varied experience – of Herbert Blau in the U.S., however close we come to a loss of innocence due to impatience, there is another feature, a professional idealism, because we have since 1992 been a company, Stronghold Theatre Co., co-founded by Marton Csokas and myself.

Friends are those who’ve been infected by the bug of serving the professional ideal of a company, a company inspired and informed by a professional idealism deriving more from the European model of ensemble than from the industrial model of workers involved in production – than from a remunerative model. This may be in recognition of the stakes: New Zealand has too small a population base to justify financial optimism when one is involved in artistic production. At stake is less due payment than due process, less the use of time in pursuing uncertain monetary goals, than the waste of time in proceeding without professionally gaining from the participation in company. The nearest corollary we now have to a professional theatre ethos or culture is safety culture, as it exists particularly among technicians and production workers, as it ceases to apply to performers, except in companies like ours – the couple of friends who form its core.

As for the ‘use’ of friends, perhaps there is here an Idea that allows us to remain friends still, even those who in absentia pursue their ambitions, theatrical or otherwise, according to different agenda, elsewhere. For example, in our equally but less conventionally theatrical capacity as the company owning Cafe Brazil, 256 Karangahape Rd., Auckland, professionally different but articulated according to an identical expectation of professionalism, there are friends, more numerous than those who’ve worked in the eponymous theatre company, who remain such, regardless of any acknowledgement of the Idea. Brazil is the institution. Stronghold Theatre is not. That part of its activities identified with the cafe is professional insofar as it is businesslike, serious, productive – although for not being treated in a businesslike serious manner, it’s quite friendly – while, naturally, the on-off-again involvement of the statutory company in theatre, film and media, possessing the continuity of the Idea, gets relegated to amateur hobbyism, to that group of activities indulged in by likeminded ‘friends.’

A cafe may be a place which makes coffee. A theatre may be invisible, even to the culture in which it takes up the pretense of being one. A company may be friends and give the lie to the notion of industrial, or latterly asocially, albeit organised relations, coordinated fields in which the individual pursues his or her self-interest. The social breaks down. And the social takes up – at the margins. This has been the most disconcerting to observe: friends need each other more than they need what they are doing, regardless of the accidental and chance uses to which they are put, whether industrial, postindustrial, service, secretive or creative. In fact, creative liaisons and true collaborations in the general field of the arts are much rarer, weaker and more ephemeral than factory-floor, water-cooler or photo-copier friendships. The margins of the social occupy a terrain vague, a no-man’s land, where the social actually occurs and it has little to do with the imaginatively fulfilled potential inside communication. Lovers need not greater honesty but better fictions, as David Byrne writes in The New Sins.

So, how to pursue the sort of misdirected energy giving rise to personal affiliation and influence? the game of distraction away from serving social needs that serves those needs in producing social effects? How to give amateurism the rights of freedom while having the Idea of an absolute standard in mind and heart, genital, as it were, in groin? The Idea is inessential after all.

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