excerpts from interview with Alan Schneider (12 December 1917 to 3 May 1984) & Reza Abdoh (23 February 1963 to 12 May 1995) and the classicism of avant-garde performance, by John Bell

– Beckett left & Schneider right

Alan Schneider: … indicative of my whole position, philosophical or aesthetic, if I have any – is that, to the theatricalist guys, I tend to be a realistic director, a Stanislavski-oriented director; to the Stanislavski guys, I’m a theatricalist director.

I will use any and all methods to achieve whatever I feel necessary; and indeed, if I tried to confine myself, I’d simply fail. I wouldn’t know how to operate. … And increasingly over the years, I know less and less of how I’m going to achieve what I vaguely sense or feel.

The only real problem that I have with realistically trained actors is that, over the years, I’ve come to believe that there is no such thing as an abstract, rigid ‘reality;’ every play, every scene and every moment demands for its presentation a great selection of reality. The selection is partly a result of the director’s inclination, the style of the production, the casting, the theatre you’re in, accident, costuming, and so on. The actor tends to believe that there is somewhere an ideal or arbitrary ‘reality’ which will work in any production. I do not believe that’s so. ‘Reality’ depends on the texture of the play or the production, and that is selected by somebody and must be worked for […] [in interview as printed; bigness added]

I think anything, within the author’s intention, that works – that the audience will accept – is all you’re after. I’m not interested in being a teacher of actors while I’m directing – as a matter of fact, I’m bloody annoyed at it. ‘If you can’t do something right away in rehearsal, please do some homework. You’re a talented actor and I know you can do it.’ I had an actor, Gerry Hiken, whom I admire tremendously, who, when I put him in as Clov in Endgame – he was a replacement […] and I had to put him in in five days – and the first day, he wanted to explore Clov’s behaviour. He didn’t think Clov would go up that ladder, but here’s Beckett, who says Clov ‘gets up on it [the ladder], draws back the curtain…’ and so on … And here’s this very talented actor who’s a friend of mine, who’s been in a company with me for four seasons, … and he wants to ‘explore‘ the behaviour of Clov. So I gave him twenty minutes to explore the behaviour of Clov, then I said, ‘Look, I think what you have to explore is why he goes up the ladder, not why he doesn’t go up‘ […] [bigness added]

Schechner: You’ve been doing Beckett’s plays for eight or nine years; what sort of development do you see in him?

Schneider: I think, again, he works in more and more specific metaphors. He is searching for the ultimate stripping down of his medium – he is trying to reduce the whole theatrical spectrum to a toneless voice in a disembodied head, and I see nothing wrong with that. It’s theatrical as hell. [bigness added]

Schechner: What is Beckett’s theatricalism?

Schneider: … you might say that Beckett is a Mozart; there’s a precise, elegant, graceful, formal, but small-scale pattern of rhythm and tone in his work. […] … and I think Pinter couldn’t have existed as a playwright had he not read Beckett. But then he goes into his own field – a rhythmical, contrapuntal use of language and repetition of words, playing on words so that his plays are colloquial in a funny way and formal in another way …

Uta [Hagen; Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf] came prepared much more than I did; she had a notebook with a floorplan of the part of the room we didn’t see. [ditto]

– “Reality is Not Enough: An interview with Alan Schneider,” Richard Schecher, 1965, pp. 73-83 in Re:direction: A Theoretical and Practical Guide, ed. Rebecca Schneider and Gabrielle Cody, Routledge, London, 2002, pp. 76-81

– Reza Abdoh

Reza Abdoh Bio available here

Reza Abdoh turned away from linear plot development in 1986 … Quotations from a Ruined City was his most successful combination of nonlinearity and effective theatricality. Unlike minimalist theatre, which tends to shun content as well as linearity, Abdoh’s work reveals his obsession with imparting relevant information; he admitted, ‘I usually have something to say.’ However is it possible to say something, to impart information, without telling stories, without engaging in plot? Like 1970s minimalism, avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century often allowed the form of their work to stand as message, an effective strategy at a moment when abstraction and collage – simply by themselves – could produce splendid outrage in audiences unaccustomed to considering such forms as ‘real’ art. Abdoh’s work, at the other end of the century, abides in a very different environment, addressing an audience almost exclusively immersed in montage, collage, and the intense symbolism of advertising, especially through television. Faced with a culture in which abstraction and collage are normative, Abdoh combined nonlinear structure with subversive subject matter in Quotations to address issues of patriarchy, religion , intolerance, will, and desire. In order to deliver fragments of content through nonlinear structure, Abdoh used repetition and variation on many different levels. [bigness added]

Abdoh’s method of creating ‘realities that [are] multilayered’ … was not an extemporized gesture, but a considered strategy drawing not only from MGM musicals by means of Duchamp … but from the structures of Persian poetry and Islamic ritual theatre.

… it is clear that Persian poetry was not only a textual and thematic touchstone for Abdoh, but a structural one as well. […] Influenced by Sufi mysticism, Hafiz’s pantheistic poetry employs an elaborate, conventionalized symbol system that in many ways conflicts with orthodox Islam because of the poems’ hedonistic bent. All of Hafiz’s couplet-based ghazels have at least three levels of signification, working simultaneously as celebrations of love and wine, as Sufi mystic theology, and as sexually symbolic odes to a divine male lover …

The other major Iranian cultural influence on Abdoh’s work was Ta’yizeh, the Shi’i Muslim tradition of processions and martyr plays performed annually during the ten-day Muslim festival of Muharram … Formally, Ta’yizeh features a broad, stylized acting technique, emphasizing histrionic gesture and declamatory speech. … Ta’yizeh, for Abdoh, was

a very powerful form of theatre. It’s not even really theatre, it’s a ritual. It’s mystical and at the same time it’s very theatrical. It’s very simple but very theatrical and complex and it’s as if it’s in a hyperreality – you know it’s all hyper. And I think that’s probably the most important connection between it and my work.

… part of Ta’yizeh’s ‘hyperreality’ consists of its ability to exist simultaneously in three different modes of time and space (‘literal,’ ‘representational’ and ‘non-time’) which ‘totally interpenetrate each other … Ta’yizeh’s depiction of ‘real’ events in heightened circumstances so fraught with emotion that they provoke a true Greek tragedy catharsis was emulated by Abdoh, who wished to bring the same kind of experience to his audiences, although they may not ‘believe’ in the ritual efficacy of theatre the way Shi’i audiences in Iran believe in Ta’yizeh. This made Abdoh’s search for a collective sensitive nerve in his audience that much more intense, and when he found the nerve, he produced shocks.

… Ta’yizeh focuses on the act of death, pauses over its minutiae, ponders its meaning, and, as Abdoh has said, finds redemption and significance in it.

Abdoh transferred Ta’yizeh’s method of making great sense of death from an environment (Iran) and religion (Islam) no longer hospitable to him, to a new context in a society struggling over the meaning of AIDS.

Abdoh’s theatre work, especially his post-HIV+ productions with Dar A Luz, marks a significant break with high-postmodernist theatre as represented by Wilson, Foreman, and the 1980s work of the Wooster Group. Postmodern cultural theory of the 1980s proposed or rationalized a retreat from point-of-view as a logical response to the collapse of aesthetics into politics. … In postmodernist theatre the refusal to fix meaning is concurrent with a steadfast attention to form over content, or, when the question of content becomes inevitable, with the embrace of irony as the only viable point of view.

Beginning with the brilliant political performance actions of ACT-UP, and the AIDS-conscious works of such gay men as Larry Kramer, Marlon Riggs, Robert Mapplethorpe, and David Wojnarowicz, a whole body of late twentieth-century avant-garde performance came into definition, a body of work which, once again, demanded that common individual concerns connect to larger social and political issues. This change of focus is probably the single most important factor in the development of what might inelegantly be termed post-postmodernist performance.

At the close of the twentieth century, … avant-garde performance has indeed established a language, an aesthetic tradition built from a hundred years of piecing together performance fragments and shards of performing techniques into what Abdoh called ‘a kind of vocabulary that everybody sort of shares.’ In ‘Dynamics of the Sign in the Theatre’ Jindrich Honzl refers to the ‘structural stability’ of ‘theatres with a centuries-old tradition;’ a ‘constancy of structure’ which ’causes theatrical signs to develop complex meanings’ (1986:79). While a solidified structure might be thought to inhibit innovation, in Honzl’s opinion ‘the immutability of the structure’s key points does not necessarily impoverish its expressivity because within this traditional structure subtler and finer changes can take place’ (80). What we ought to consider is the fact that ‘avant-garde’ theatre has now created is own century-old tradition. [bigness added]

… Abdoh’s work has opposed conventional culture and the power structures it represents by posing avant-garde style as its ownlanguage,’ a tradition of performance as dependent upon its particular structure as Western opera, wayang kulit, or Yoruba ritual are dependent on their structures. Working confidently within the established theatre language of the twentieth-century avant-garde, Abdoh freed himself to return to political, social and spiritual content in a way normally unavailable to high-postmodernist performance. In this sense, Abdoh’s work has confounded the view of avant-garde performance as gesture. Instead, … Abdoh’s theatre demands to be considered as a particular combination of and variation on existing forms. With Abdoh’s Dar A Luz productions, avant-garde performance becomesclassic,’ and the creative possibilities of the avant-garde artist play in a very different space than they did at the previous turn of the century. [Cf. Deleuze on minor languages in Un manifeste de moins, and variationism, and the nature of original repetition grounded on ontological memory. & as usual, bigness added]

– John Bell, “AIDS and Avant-Garde Classicism: Reza Abdoh’s Quotations from a Ruined City,” 1995, pp. 175-192 in Re:direction, op.cit., pp. 182-188