Bringing Back the Spectator The Aims, Motives & Explorations Of the Buran Theatre Company By Adam R. Burnett With an onward by Alicia Gian
Bringing Back the Spectator
The Aims, Motives & Explorations
Of the Buran Theatre Company
By Adam R. Burnett
With an onward
by Alicia Gian
© 2008 by Adam R. Burnett & Alicia Gian To the company members of Buran. Present & Future.
© 2008 by Adam R. Burnett & Alicia Gian
To the company members of Buran.
Greetings dear friends and colleagues, those that I have had the sincerest of pleasure working with and those that I greatly anticipate working with. As I sit and write to you from approximately 5,000 miles away, I do not feel far. I feel as close to you now in the spirit of Buran as I did during my physical time with the company – maybe even closer. As I have lived abroad this year, while still working closely with Adam to begin Buran’s international projects, I have come to a much clearer sense of the future of Buran and the spirit of Buran. The ever-evolving spirit of Buran is one of imagination, inspiration, investigation, exploration, implementation and transformation.
The theatre is an interesting place. We dress ourselves up, go to a big dark hall, sit beside a complete stranger, accidentally bumping elbows and saying our usual apologies as we figure out who will use the armrest and who has to keep their arms to themselves. We check four times to make sure that our cell phones are on silent because nobody wants to be “that guy”, and we settle in for...for...for what? Why have we come to the theatre? And more importantly why should the spectator come to our theatre?
People come to the theatre for three main reasons; entertainment, inspiration, and transformation. These three things, my friends, we can provide and have provided in our work with the Buran Theatre Company. The entertainment element is the human element. And regardless of technology, which seems to advance at a startling rate, I do not fear the loss of the spectator in theatre. People want to experience a communal joy and a communal sadness – in the flesh. No one laughs with an accent and no one cries with an accent and that is why our work with Buran as a part of the global community is so important. The theatre provides a house of communal experience, and that is sacred - and that is Buran. If I could I would stand outside on the street of every Buran production and shout “Welcome one, welcome all, welcome – to the house of communal understanding and experience!” We, my fellow creators, are the conduits of communal understanding and human experience.
The second element of why people come to the theatre is inspiration. Adam writes in section seven of Bringing Back the Spectator, “if we ignore our soul, we ignore what gives rise to soaring flight – flight in action, in thought, in inspiration, in love, in creation, and as we attempt to do as theatre arists, flight on the stage” – and inspiration is the stuff of our souls. The role of Buran, first and foremost is the feeding of the soul – the stuff that transcends this physical plane of existence. We must strive physically to feed the metaphysical. We must inspire one another daily, in our rehearsal process, and then as a collective to inspire the spectator.
The third element is transformation. Yes, it is possible to sit in a darkened movie theatre or in the comfort of our own homes and watch transformation occur on screen, but it is something else to watch transformation in the flesh, before our very eyes. A play from beginning to end is the transformation of a situation - as is everyday life the constant transformation of situation. If a spectator can sit, somewhat removed but still very much a present factor in the transformation – then that is our greatest strength and again I would stand out front and shout “Come one, come all – come be a part of transformation!” We all need the hope of transformation, and we, the members of Buran, can provide that within our sacred space.
I would like to conclude with the reason I entitled this an onward and not a forward. I am not trying to be clever or witty, I am only trying to discover the motion of Buran. Where ever we end up as we are leaving or have recently left what Adam calls the “cradle of academia”, we take with us the spirit and ever-evolving work of the Buran Theatre Company. We devote ourselves as members of Buran to the onward work of inspiration and transformation.
June 3rd, 2008
How do you bring the spectator to the stage? This has become a central issue in the work I’ve done with the Buran Company.
The question that remains for me: How can the action of the play, the physical presence of the actor, and the presentation of spectacle (the living, breathing human body seems spectacle enough) readjust the community of spectators away from their cell phones, blackberry’s, iPod’s, the technological devices that now follow them into the arena, attaches them, whether they like it or not, to the world they’ve come to escape from.
As a spectator I admit that I often keep my phone on vibrate – just in case. But why? What is so necessary about keeping in touch with the world outside of the theatre when the creation of the community within the theatre is so much more sacred, more telling, and at specific, unique moments in our experience as artists and audiences – powerful, challenging, and life altering? The relationship between the actor and spectator and that indefinite space between are the components of our supposed alchemy. Through my present work as Artistic Director and resident playwright of the Buran Company I seek new means to challenge this space and discover its potential for a modern audience.
We need to bring the spectator back to the stage – and the Buran Company is investigating how to do this with every theatrical endeavor.
I spent the first half of August 2007 living in a villa in Italy, a renovated 700 year old monastery, ten miles south east of Spoleto - LaMaMa’s summer retreat for directors and playwrights from around the globe. Before I went I was told that LaMaMa’s residency in Italy was as close to heaven as I’ll ever get on earth. This seemed to be quite the grand statement. And although I am all for grand statements, I wasn’t prepared to buy into the image of “as close to heaven as I’ll get on earth.”
After spending a little over a week writing, and workshopping, and eating the kind of food they only place in art galleries, and discussing the future of theatre and playwriting with enormously brilliant people, I felt as if I had found a place where new ground could be broken. A place where getting to heaven on earth was not only possible but at certain moments – realized.
The morning before I left LaMaMa’s home in Italy I met with Ellen Stewart in her bedroom. Before I entered I watched MaMa’s assistant, Mia, put her face on: red lipstick and a pair of large dangly earrings. She wore a plain white cotton nightgown – she was sitting, on this Sunday morning, in bed, waiting to talk to a shy young playwright.
I was ushered in to sit down across from MaMa.
When I travel I kept a strict journal – as I often try to keep for immediacy’s sake- here’s the scene as it was remembered at a time closer to the occurrence:
My last day at LaMaMa Italy, Kaori saw me wondering around watching her & Denise hang up clothes on the clothes line. She said, “Come on. Let’s see if MaMa can see you before you leave.” We took Mia with us through the office.
Mia, beautiful Mia, said, “MaMa, that boy, that shy boy wants to see you before he leaves. Is that alright?”
I heard moans & grunts. Kaori smiles & motioned for me to come in & then motioned for me to stop abruptly.
“Oh – let me take some more medication - & here…” MaMa grumbled with warmth.
“Do you want to put some earrings on?” Mia asked.
Karoi signaled that MaMa was putting on lipstick.
After a few moments Mia gave me the signal to enter.
There she was – MaMa – on her twin sized bed – her TV tray full of medication & jewelry. I sat before her & we talked. I talked about how much I loved the place, how important the week had been to me, how important she was & being around her was like a dream come true. This last statement she didn’t like.
She told me how hard it was to get funding for an artist residency in Italy. The National Arts Foundation has said, “Why not Iowa? Kansas? Montana? Open space for open minds.”
MaMa said, “Sure those all sound fine. But there’s one difference between all those places & LaMaMa’s residence in Italy – here you are only an hour & a half from – Rome.” MaMa said all of this with marked heavy breath. Each word weighed upon me. She said so little but its reverberating power was unlike anything I had ever experienced prior.
MaMa then offered me a bed when I come to visit New York and said goodbye to me. I leaned in – hugged her to the right – hugged her to the left - & pecked a kiss on her left cheek.
MaMa reminded me why I’m doing this. She had nothing – nothing but her gigantic godly soul (which I do not have) - & she made “universes” (to quote Alicia Gian) – she created worlds for our world. In those first years of LaMaMa when they had no permanent home in New York, MaMa rarely saw her shows. She’d ring the bell at curtain & wait outside in case the police tried to come & shut them down. Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Andrei Serban, Robert DeNiro- she saw none of these legendaries working in their first years with LaMaMa. But she protected them. Made sure their work was seen – uninterrupted & safe.
I cannot – now I cannot ever – ever imagine a world without MaMa.
2. The Physical-Life of Buran
Although my work with the Buran Company was forged long before my experience with LaMaMa it made my influence as a director and collaborator so much more specific in my work with David Mamet’s All Men are Whores in the fall of 2007 and Nightmares directly following. I suddenly began to see clearly where the company had previously been under my direction and the possibilities of its future residing under my direction.
What is it that Buran does?
What does Buran mean?
Buran: A creation of new plays for a new audience (closely associate with the now) with respect to the actor’s physical presence in relation to the spectator.
It is not just a physical approach to theatre – it is an all encompassing physical-life approach to theatre.
For the production of The Sensualist in February of 2007 I wrote accompanying notes to go with the premiere production. Here’s what I had to say then about the play and our work:
This past June while I was in constant revision of the script, which is when the real writing happens mind you, I had the chance to attend the opening night of Martin Crimp’s new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull at the National Theatre in London. I wrote the following afterwards in my journal:
“I left the theater in shivers. I walked the dark tunnels leading out of the theater to the Waterloo Station, my entire body convulsing of fever, fervor & fire. Chekhov was in me. The disallowance of every desire I’ve ever had churned and turned over and over again inside my gut. As I took the Bakerloo line under the Thames, I realized I had left the script I was reading prior to the performance under the seat at the theatre. I felt it was only appropriate that I not return to claim it. I could not return. The longing was too great. Upon arriving at my flat, I fell into the hard bed - fatigued, worn, dizzy and soaking wet with sweat. I spent the next 48 hours in a fever recovering from my night at the theatre.”
I traveled for two months throughout Western Europe last summer, and almost nightly I attended the theatre, most of it was really great. But that night in London at the National Theatre, sitting before Chekhov and The Seagull, I was irrevocably changed, the intense visceral answer to the play breathes in me still, reminding me why I live my life in the theatre, and most importantly, why the act of creation for the stage continues to thrust me forward with great passion. Leaving the theatre that night, I had nowhere to turn; I walked the streets of London and turned to the only place I knew I could turn – inward. I believe this is why we go to the theatre.
With The Sensualist I have set out to experiment with new forms of staging for our 21st century stage, our stage that is highly influenced by film, television, iPods, and the postmodern (particularly in art and literature) of the recently passed century – it’s an ambitious aspiration I know. I have no thesis set yet on what I intend to do, but I’m working on it. This production only hints at what could be done with this script if budget, space and manpower were on the producer’s side. For this initial production, all of those were limited. The structure of this new type of drama exists on a plane where time and space are secondary to the action that needs to occur.
Looking back on my writing it seems that that final statement - of this new structure, this structure that exists on a plane where time and space are secondary – is really an introduction to the notion of performing a priori knowledge, unlike Francis Bacon’s assertion that “whatever deserves to exist also deserves to be known," the plays and productions of Buran display otherwise. It is the immediacy of arriving in the theatre without pretension, without assumption – it is this kind of experience that creates surprisingly unguarded interpretations from spectator and actor alike. Drop in. Drop out. Pick up. Pick out. Choose. And weave.
This may seem like a heightened interpretation of the vague postmodern, but rather, most who work with the company find it to be applicable and concrete, especially once the work we have done in exercises is put in front of the spectator.
Bringing the spectator into the work has been central since the very beginning of the Buran Company in our staged readings where we conducted extensive talkbacks. Although I will later use Nightmares as the key example, our previous endeavors tread closely to the spectator as well, repositioning their role in the theatre (the violent puppet show and use of interviewers in The Sensualist, and the constant roaming amongst and watching of the audience by the Gypsy and her Faithful Troubadour in A Greater Release). Even the approach to acting, that physical approach, one that is life-encompassing for the actors who work with Buran – every production is a physical impossibility that works itself out upon the collaborative company of artists. This physical approach is not just “movement-oriented” acting but a dialogue that incorporates all facets of the production – from composer to designer to actor. This kind of direction I have found allows for a sort of brevity in note taking and giving. Within the company and for each production a set of language is created that is specific to the project and often it becomes a physical dialogue the actor has with the director, most often myself.
In rehearsals for The Sensualist attention was directed towards the animalistic behavior and instincts of the characters – this was a drama based on the decisions of people, a cast of people who engage entirely in immediacy, the action being the result of the moment. The movement of the play, the texture of the thing had to spring the actors from ‘portion’ to ‘portion’, through the non-linear unlinked narrative, and attack the play in the presence of an audience. As the play progressed the world of Leonard, our anti-hero, began to turn in on itself and the women in his life instigated the role of spectator – his wife (#2) watching scenes play out with his young mistress (#3), his young mistress watching scenes between wife and husband, the sister-in-law (#1) watching these scenes and recreating them in her stylized grotesque puppet show (a cruel moment that has become a trademark in the work of Buran). By using this animal imagery and physical work it created this growling, narcissistic, angry, embittered, sex-fueled, godless group of beasts working their action out upon the audience – making the final act of attack on Leonard truly cathartic (a component we all look for on the stage), and empathy began to settle itself in the gut.
To use specific examples: In rehearsals we found The Wife taking the form of a black widow spider, hovering over her eggs – defending her life and lot against the Lion (Leonard) who was hungry for her eggs and her juicy Spider body. The struggle was fierce and I had never seen the female actor ever put up such a battle in her life. Those last moments of the struggle, sweat pouring from the actors, bearing their teeth, both engaged completely in their body, listening to each other’s moves with the sharpest ear – it was a moment of transcendence for everyone in the rehearsal room.
The actors in The Sensualist were put through a painstaking process that was focused on time – on having the time to discover. In the rehearsal room ‘intimacy modules’ were set up throughout the space where actors could confront one another in a space and time that was singular to them. Neither Alicia Gian (who was co-directing the play) nor myself ever knew what happened between the actors in this heightened intimate space. By allowing for this time and space, which is rare in the typical three to four week rehearsal schedule, the actors were given stake in the piece, in the collaborative act of creating. This handing over and placing of responsibility on the actor in rehearsal is vital to the kind of heightened dialogue that can be shared.
Although these exercises often played out as clichéd scenarios after the fact, the work of immediacy and in living in that animal body, this carried into their work as actors in the profoundest ways, taking the leap that is impossible when the actor’s mind gets wrapped up in the work. By pushing towards these physical extremities fiercer, braver, stronger, bolder, more assured performances can be created. This method of pushing towards extremities was powerfully demonstrated upon two male actors in A Greater Release. The scene centered on two young globetrotting men, one American, the other French, who are involved in an encounter that leads to irrevocable, irrational violence. The scene was charged with overt sexuality and kind of eroticism that made the struggle for and against each other potentially devastating.
Our rehearsals for this scene were devised in meeting every other night. For two weeks Meghan Reardon (who was co-directing) and I worked upon these actors, pushing them to a violent, sexual encounter. It led to nightly wrestling.
For an hour at a time we had these two young men wrestling each other.
Attacking one another.
It was awkward for many nights. There were moments of true brilliance, where inhibitions loosened and the actors engaged truthful and without hesitation to the natural homoeroticism of the act. After two weeks of physically awkward encounters something finally broke between these two actors, who had entered into the process uncertain of their skill. We took the wrestling outside to a grassy courtyard in the second week, and on the last night of our physical work they attacked one another, wrestling with one another in an act that was engaged so thoroughly that neither Meghan nor I took our eyes off of them or even took in a breath for, it seemed like, a quarter of an hour.
After this encounter neither of the actors took on the script the same way, they were charged by this elongated intense physical engagement. By the time we opened the production, these two young actors were giving the most assured performance I had ever seen from either of them or many of my colleagues. It was an impressive feat and a moment I feel blessed to have watched - the impossible play itself out on stage.
By working in this intensely physical way actors let go of the analytical side of performance and begin to listen to their physical life - making theatre more theatrical and returning to this notion of bringing the spectator into the stake of the action. This also has the double advantage of allowing the text in the script and the dialogue shared in rehearsals to be more precise and full of a weight that makes the discussion in creation more useful.
Words mean very little, so the words we do use in drama must be infused with importance. The text is, after all, not sacred. It is merely the beginning to a much greater end.
For the fall 2007 Gender Performance project, using Mamet’s All Men Are Whores as a source text, most of the rehearsals were conducted in silence. I would lead the four actors into rehearsal spending the next hour watching them respond to one another and to the text. Oftentimes I would throw out a word, a phrase, an image or prompt them with a piece of music, other than that I remained silent and watched. Over a period of two and a half months we, as a company, had honed the hour long piece into a twenty minute physicalizing of the text. Wearing only a loin clothes over their privates, these two men and two women gave a sexually charged, gender-neutral performance that was arresting and insightful. Here we had the stage, the flesh, and the truth naked for an audience - it was undeniably engaging, even for those who were initially put off by the subject matter.
For the project I wrote the following notes:
Acting on the stage is a physical endeavor – an offering. In our daily lives we strive to live from physical act to physical act without regret, remorse, or guilt. Our precious consciousness breaks this. It would be much easier to fall from one bed to another, in and out of love with anonymous entities – whether the comfort of our own warmth or the presence, the scent, the arms, legs, lips, fingers, bare back, and hair of another. In love and in sex we are crippled by our mind, our intelligence, and our understanding of the condition that disallows us every one of our deepest desires. In rearranging Mamet’s work I have taken liberties with monologues that were assigned to two men and one women, recast them as dialogues in dueling tenses (the past in the present) and without regard to gender. Our interest is to find a universal, physical stage relative to each intimate encounter, prompted by music, impulse, and desire.
By working in these ways it leads to a repeatable process for the actor and director – one that is more focused on the work.
3. We’re all here together…
A gentle idea of inclusion. Bring your hand-drum, maracas. Warm up your voice. We're all here together, let's make something of it.
– asia and the flavors
The music of Buran is another unique component in our productions. In A Greater Release and in Nightmares I relied heavily on the original music of Christopher Luxem, whose collective embodiment of music follows in the ironic folk tradition of Loudon Wainwright, Harry Nilsson and Devandra Banhart. Although the music used in A Greater Release was pulled from previously written music by Christopher (and the improvisatory themes created by both he and Alicia Gian, who played the Faithful Troubadour and the Gypsy Poet, respectively), the music for Nightmares was written to fit the heightened physical encounters of the characters. By composing music in this manner, Christopher pushed towards the extremities of his own territory as an artist, creating music with the actor’s physical-life in mind.
Music is the language of humanity. There is a kind of elevation brought to the theatre when music is present – a sense of awe, a joy, a momentary surge of the sublime. The large company involved in the production of A Greater Release experienced this surge when we broke out in finality with Van Morrison's “Caravan,” bridging in a very physical way the gap between spectator and actor. Company members brought the audience onto the stage to dance and sing, having them follow us out of the theatre, and onto the streets. The play centered on the dizzying, overwhelming, spectacular sensation of travel in foreign lands. In a very real way, the audience partook in a “other” type of travel, a theatrical journey that led them elsewhere – and if nothing else, at least out of their seats.
The space between their experience as spectator and participant narrowed. Some of the spectators merely left the scene once we departed the theatre, others jumped into improvisatory songs and dances. Each night we spent another thirty minutes outside of the theatre performing with our audience.
The music we use for each production is influenced by many factors: by the actors, the text, the rehearsal methodology, the designers, and those influences that we allow to interrupt and enter into the process. These productions are not musicals but rather plays of a musical variance - as the music ties heavily to the songwriter's craft, as expressed earlier, in recent incidents the folk revelry of Christopher's collective musical offerings - which he terms as 'asia and the flavors' - has been used to augment rehearsals and performances. His own persuasion as a musical artist brings the same kind of passion and potpourri to the work that is typical of Buran.
This is what we look for.
Rather than finding a musical theatre artist or a composer of classical music, I sought out a singer-songwriter. Just as in the same fashion for scenic designs, my instinct is to find an interior decorator, an architect, a sculptor - someone outside of the theatrical realm who can implement their form into the production. This becomes a process not only about collaboration of different artistic expressions, but also a chance for new dialogue, for learning and exploration into areas unthought-of for every artist invested. The equation that I always find enlightening here is that by taking two forms (using any artistic model) and bringing them together, there is a quirky homogeny, a kind of queer balance and harmony in discovering the varying interpretations in rehearsal, design, and performance.
This is the mathematics of Buran.
Christopher Luxem's 'asia and the flavors' project has a wonderful slogan that I find universal to any artist who wants to learn and explore through a different medium. Christopher writes on his website:
"asia and the flavors is the name of a collective of musicians organized by christopher luxem to include as many people as possible into the world of music. black/white left/right uptown/downtown, there are no boundaries, simply flavors for the tasting."
This open positivist world view is rare in today's commercial driven artistic society. Artists like Christopher and his collective gathering keep me and others in the company inspired - as we hope to continue working with him and other artists from all walks of life. In the 2004 production of In Black and White, which came before Buran was fully realized, I used a set design that arose out of collaboration between a painter, a graphic designer, and an architect, while implementing filmographic techniques and an original score of classically influenced music. This kind of group dynamic, filling the theatre with artists from distinctly different mediums and having them work towards a theatrical end, was blissful to watch and to be a part of that dialogue was inspiring in so many ways.
Without a doubt I believe and contend that there is a New Theatre emerging at the beginning of this 21st century. It is a theatre that is being returned to the spectator and to the artist.
We are the forerunners of this.
Theatre is not something to be hoarded by the select few, it should be given freely to as many as possible and this begins with the creation of new work for a new audience that we are seeking to cultivate.
Buran is placing itself in the center of this.
We want to maintain the bridges of communication between all artists who work with the company and delve into the varying modes of performance for a New Theatre that challenges both artists and audiences, allowing the actor and spectator to leave the theatre, the stage, and the community of bodies in that sacred space - conflicted and irrevocably changed.
4. The Rarity of Flesh
Our choice now, it seems to me, is either to accept or deny our current condition.
And it takes so much negative effort to deny.
For years I kept myself at a distance from technological advances – the iPod, the cell phone, social networking systems on the internet such as Facebook– because I felt these were somehow harmful to my creative life. My folly in this thinking was double-fold. By denying the culture I live in I was denying the possibility for a creative world, a new one, influenced by and for the great masses – the audience. I was merely not listening – fingers in my ears, listening to my own cries reverberate throughout my cavities.
I don’t believe the individual is losing power, in fact, I believe we are living in a time where a certain type of power is handed over to the individual. With the rise of social networking via Facebook or Myspace and the extreme popularity of YouTube where anyone can post just about anything, individuals are taking stake of their creative work in startling ways that allows for new audiences in ways never imagined. These types of audiences can be utilized in the theatre.
When so much time is spent watching the body on a screen, from a distance – flesh becomes a rarity. When we return to the theatre there is always the shock that, “He or she is doing this or that – right in front of me.” An act, a physical act, on the stage will remain and reverberate longer than any word spoken. Words lose their meaning as soon as they are said, an act lives on the stage forever.
Roman Catholics return to mass for the Holy Sacrament – unleavened bread turned into the Body of Christ, wine turned into the Blood of Christ. Audiences return to the theatre because we get the whole damned thing – the blood, the body, the organs, the soul, and most importantly, if we’re lucky, the truth.
There is much to learn about our current culture if we watch and listen, but we must remember what the theatre is for and why we’re doing it. Theatre is not film, nor is it television, or radio, or a painting, or a book. It is alive in the most profound ways – incomparable to any other form. We take stake in this and we must hold onto this. Audiences don’t come to the theatre to see something resembling a sitcom or a blockbuster – they come for the Body and Blood of the Truth.
Playwright Charles Mee (www.charlesmee.org) says that culture writes us first and as a consequence, we write culture. Therefore there is no such thing as an original idea; these concepts were given or handed down to us by our culture. By denying culture, by denying the wave and swimming against it we are putting our fingers in our ears and listening to our own cries reverberate. I am not trying to influence others to spend hours in front of the television, riding the wave through VH1, MTV, and CNN, or on the internet mindlessly surfing – but rather, not to deny what is being consumed because it informs our work in drastic ways. If we listen closely we can hear our audience, that audience of a New Theatre who craves the flesh due to the direction our culture pushes away from it.
Perhaps it is my idealism that leads me to believe that no single figure will ever become powerful enough to singularly dictate culture. Corporations - ABC –GAP – Time Warner – Churches- The Government – The Bushes- Yada Yada- etc. – can influence what we see and hear, but culture, that great mass, our audience, will go where they want regardless of what is shoved down their throat. This is something I must believe in.
If nothing else, I’ve been convinced in my short time living and breathing amongst others, that a deep faith in humanity is humbling and necessary to move forward in these quickly advancing times.
I rest my faith and my livelihood in the desire and quench for truth in the flesh.
5. Nightmares: An Example of Buran in Action
Sex is the ultimate body language…When somebody’s in pain and says “I love you,” you don’t know if it’s true. When they scream, you know it’s real.
-Ang Lee on Lust, Caution
How does an actor physicalize an idea, mobilize a concept, create a dialogue of extremities, engage an audience by warranting their responsibility – how does an actor make a painting, a seemingly static piece of work come to life, in particular a painting of such instantaneous and irrational eroticism such as Henry Fuseli’s Nightmare? In directing my play Nightmares: An Artful Demonstration of the Sublime with the Buran Company a language had to be created, a new landscape on which to build a method of training and rehearsal that was specific to the script, to the production, and to the company of actors. In the rehearsal process for every production it is an ideal, especially for the Buran Company, that there is a constructed, shared dialogue between actor and director and designers; but the process for this production is one that I consider repeatable and that I will continue to use in my work with the company as we leave the cradle of academia and take a step into professional theatre.
Though the performances were well received in February 2008 at the Lawrence Arts Center it was the process that was central to this research. The two months leading up to the performances, the five to six hours spent daily in devised rehearsals during the winter, creating this system in close proximity to one another where trust and space were key elements. Since the experience was process oriented it is only appropriate that I lead you through our rehearsals, where my research took place, discoveries were made, and the relationship between the actor and the spectator was significantly explored.
From my journal, written on the morning of auditions for Nightmares:
We tend to compartmentalize our bodies – we’re not as tall or wide or long or even strange as we think ourselves – our bodies to be. Our bodies are a canvas. This compartmentalizing can be seen as economics at play, habits of culture & identity & gender. Our physical world is wider & grander than our intellectual or verbal world. An actor does not do –he or she responds – responds to impulses. But an ear for physical impulse must be honed.
What we’re looking for are the extremities. An actor on stage will produce the impossible. That is an actor’s position in the theatre, to create a universe of impossible possibilities.
As my journal entry demonstrates, I think in too precious of tones - for the actor to obtain the fullest amount of physical expression the inner world has to be prepared, has to be sitting on the threshold of purity, of openness prompted and awaiting discoveries. This form of expression involves every organ – it involves the actor’s heart, mind, lungs, groin. This is not a science, but an equation can enter into it, as I will later demonstrate. But before adding anything to the actor’s expression in rehearsal we had to strip away a lot of baggage, the everyday world in which we each inhabit and that inhabits (inhibits) us. Our rehearsals during this time of discovery were divided daily into two parts. In the afternoon we would spend two to three hours working physically and in the evening we would spend another two to three hours bringing that physical work to the text. These afternoon rehearsals were conducted with the notion of opening up the vessel of the actor for the fullest amount of physical and emotional expression. Conducted mostly in our underwear and then in the nude we were able to watch, as a company, these inhibitions loosen and fall from the guard of the actor. An hour prior to rehearsal beginning I would arrive in the rehearsal space and reconstruct its appearance down to the minutest details so the actors would enter daily in a space that was ever so slightly changing in direct relation to their change. This element of the rehearsal process successfully went unnoticed.
As soon as the actors arrived, the doors of the rehearsal room shutting behind them, a precedent was set that the outside world was of no concern and that we were investing ourselves in the work and only the work. Many of the introductory exercises I garnered from the writings and physical approach to acting of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, especially his plastique isolations, isolating every part of the actor’s body – from the eyelids to the neck to the wrists, fingers, down to the knees and feet. What designates something a plastique is that the movement is specific, that it is filled with life and that it is related to an image. The role of images was central to our understanding of the text as we always returned to the paintings of Henry Fuseli and his contemporaries as a signal.
Rehearsals began with the actor’s finding a safe space to conduct their initial warm-ups and then, when they felt this space was adequately explored, they would disrobe. By giving the actor a sense of responsibility and allowing for personal time and space in the rehearsal, we all found ourselves disarmed quicker than we had prepared for and surprisingly, feeling extremely comfortable with it. After disrobing - a range of physical, interactive exercises followed, with the main intention being physical engagement of the body, an awareness of sight, and the possibility for a physical encounter. This stripping away, both literally and figuratively, gave us more options as we began to add textures that were initiated by with the physical world of the actor, responding only to impulse and instinct. Answering first with the body and then with the mind. In an exercise actors were asked to walk back and forth across the rehearsal space as I prompted them with questions about their characters, these questions soon became very personal and charged. These Character Walks, without the armor of clothing, jewelry, make up, or any other guard worn by both actor and spectator in the theatrical arena, opened up insights and discoveries that were unprecedented.
This led us right into the heart of our work – the Five Point Method, used primarily by artists and our chief subject, Henry Fuseli. The Five Point Method as I interpret it became a useful tool for engaging actors with the text and their world on the stage in electrifying and interactive ways. To quote the text of the play:
Five points of a man. His mind. His heart. His hands. His feet. And his groin. What a man thinks, how a man feels, what a man does, where a man goes, and how a man loves. The five points. These are our extremities. Not uniquely mine or his or yours. This is something we all share.
By using this definition of the Five Point Method we plunged into the life of the text working towards extremities. There are two exercises I devised in attempts that we could explore the possibilities of the Five Points. In the first of these explorations the actors again sought a safe space to warm up, first trying many other spaces in the rehearsal room that deemed not as safe or as comfortable as others to disrobe. After disrobing the actors came into the middle of the space making contact, engaging at their own will. I always had orchestral music playing to spur physical contact, a method I use in all physical explorative exercises as a director. In the case of these rehearsals I found myself primarily using the music of Ravel, Stravinsky, Astor Piazolla, and traditional Kabuki music. (Previously with The Sensualist we found ourselves with Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, Nina Simone and again, Stravinksy.) I placed enclosed units of space marked by standing mats. The circular space in these mats had a radius of two and a half to three feet. The music continued to play as the actors walked the entirety of the rehearsal space engaging their bodies, their eyes, and the forward initiative of movement - moving in and out of the center of the room in unrepeatable formations. The actors at their own will chose when to enter the units of space. Once the actors chose to enter into these spaces they were given an object or two – sometimes a chair, a coat hanger, a ball, a sheet, etc. The rule was that at some point there must be a confrontation with another actor leading to an elongated engagement. These explorations found the actors enabling every part of their bodies – there was a constant struggle in the muscles, in the eyes, in their brows. Once they had a confrontation in the units of space the actors were free to exit the unit and watch from outside at another vantage point, or walk the area surrounding the unit of space. These explorations lasted up to an hour at a time and by the end of each exercise the actors had exhausted their habitual bodily arrangements and began to find new rhythms, themes, mutations, and forms in relation to one another. These explorations then were two-fold, in fluxing the Five Point Method and in character relationship building.
The second exploration that relied heavily on the Five Point Method for Actors was an exercise I titled Building Sculptures. As I explained it in rehearsal, “This exercise is about an expression of opinion, emotion, artistic fervor – without speaking, using only the bodies of the other participants and “sculpting” with them a group of statues in a way that your idea becomes evident. The only rule is that the actors all must be touching one another.”
This exercise had two parts – the first being the actor’s participation as the sculptor and their fellow actors as the mold by which to construct their sometimes epic sculpture. This exercise, done in the nude, portrayed the Five Point Method most predominately. After maintaining often excruciating elegant poses, the sculptor-actor asked the molded-actors to begin moving, transitioning into another moment of the sculpture. Using the motion that the sculptor-actor had placed in their muscles at the moment of conception, so to speak, the group of molded-actors began to engage with one another, moving, physically discovering moment to moment where their bodies would lead them in relation to the body of the other molded-actor they had been attached to. When the sculptor-actor felt as if their sculpture had reached a moment of finality they asked the molded-actors to pause again before releasing from the exercise. The sculptor-actor then replaced a molded-actor who took the position of sculptor-actor. This going in and out of roles was extremely important to our work as it leads to the next topic of research and innovation in rehearsals – the role of the spectator and the playwright in relation to the actor on stage.
In this area I drew heavily from Augusto Boal’s writings in Theatre of the Oppressed and his Joker System. “We propose a ‘Joker’ who is a contemporary or neighbor of the spectator. For this is necessary to restrict his ‘explanations’, it is necessary to move him away from the other characters, to bring him close to the spectators” (Boal, 175). The role of the Uber-Joker, as I termed it in this instance, was filled by the role of the Narrator who reveals himself to be Henry Fuseli, only to later reveal himself to be the playwright, Adam R. Burnett.
The Joker’s function is “the only one that can perform any role in the play, being able even to replace the protagonist when the latter’s realistic nature prevents him from doing something” (182). I built upon Boal’s notion of the Joker, which is closely tied to his Arena Theatre in Sao Paolo, Brazil. By inserting an Uber-Joker, the voice of the actor-spectator, I felt it necessary for there to be Quisling-Jokers, the collaborators of the Uber-Joker. These came in the forms of two actors, one male and one female, who took the role of many characters without any regard to age or gender. This trio of Joker’s engendered a dialogue between the audience and the action of the play. At certain points Fuseli would come out to the audience and ask them how they were feeling, how they thought the play was progressing, whether or not they had had enough yet. The Quisling-Jokers did not interact as obviously, but by shifting in and out of roles (Drop in. Drop out. Pick up. Pick out. Choose. And weave.) a thread was created and by the time they reached their last formation – two bumbling Investigators ala Chico and Harpo Marx, the audience had become desensitized to the violence on stage, not so much the physical violence that takes place on stage (soaring angry speeches by an embittered professor, a husband raping his wife, self inflicted paper cuts, a fantastical nude display of Fuseli’s Nightmare, etc), but rather the violence of language, of gesture, alienation. To quote Boal one last time from his chapter on “The Poetics of the Opressed”:
The spectator is less than a man and it is necessary to humanize him, to restore to him his capacity of action in all its fullness. He too must be a subject, an actor on an equal place with those generally accepted as actors, who must also be spectators. All these experiments – the liberation of the spectator, on whom the theatre has imposed finished visions of the world.
In performances of Nightmares..., the dynamics of the relationship between actor and spectator became very clear. At the end of the first act, Henry Fuseli (played by actor Justin Knudsen) repositioned himself to sitting in the audience to watch the act of rape occur beneath the proscenium arch. As the lights faded to black – Justin asked blankly to the spectator sitting next to him, in a tone that was hushed and pointed, “How does that make you feel?” He then brought it out again, louder, “How does that make you feel?” And a third time to everyone, “How does that make you feel?” During one performance he asked the question the first time and a spectator burst into tears. The ability to reposition himself – to be on stage for the spectator had given him the volition to perform for everyone in the theatre that night. If a spectator did jump boat and leave before the end of the play, it was not due to the overt sexuality, or violence - but because Justin Knudsen, the actor, as Henry Fuseli was constantly making the spectator aware of the theatrics. The melodrama of the action and the commentary of Knudsen became emotionally, and perhaps physically, overwhelming for them.
The audience must go through something while they are still in the space. We lead them towards catharsis so that when they do leave there is safety in numbers.
If we cannot confront these issues in our theatres, where are we going to confront them? Not in our Cineplex’s, not in our art galleries, not at our daily Sunday service – but in the flesh, in the only communal gathering space where we are shown ourselves.
The theatre is a world of the unfinished. And it is my intent, and the intent of the Buran Theatre Company to delve into the unfinished and create theatre for a modern audience, theatre that can alter, can change, can bring the spectator back to the stage, back into the action. The actor is complete, just like the spectator, when they walk into the space, any space. In a process of rehearsal you cannot aim to change the actor, make them become the character by some alchemy or an abundance of makeup and a wig, but I hope this analogy, The Five Point Method, will continue to aid me and perhaps others in discovering new terrains of performance methodology.
We live in an American culture inundated by mass media –a constant choosing to forget – yes, our forgetting, it is a choosing we do. So we must represent all of that in the flesh, which is shared. And if we can release that, it might save us.
This is why we need theatre now more than ever.
I was trying to consider a solution to the great hubs of culture in America – New York, Chicago, LA, Seattle, Atlanta – all the places my fellow artists were scurrying off to and I was, more likely than not, joining them in these epicenters of American culture. I concluded that Buran must be everywhere, because it can be. Wherever two or more are gathered, to be religious! But sincerely, if Buran is everywhere, Buran is everyone. This open minded approach to the theatre, paired with an understanding of the complex culture we are representing makes me optimistic for the future of a New Theatre. And it must be a “grass roots” effort. It cannot be commercial. And it must be for the people – not the impoverished, or the rich, or the poor, or the hungry, or the overfed. We do no choosing. We do not call out to any group, any section, any race, any creed, any man, any woman – we call out to everyone. Because we’re all in this together.
The artist, the true artist, has come to see himself as less than human – I echo Boal here, but we don’t see ourselves as worthy (if we ‘re worth anything). All an artist asks is to be reimbursed for their art – not paid, not praised, not awarded – reimbursed. And often, it is in that give and take with the spectator where we are all reimbursed, given something back as we return in offer.
I will continue working with this method of acting, to continue my research in this direction. Just as there is no fixity in theatre, no such thing as a flawless performance, my work with the Buran Theatre Company will never be finished and never absolute. As long as there is the presence of the audience, that relationship between the actor and the spectator, the unpredictability that makes the human will so strong in the indefinite space between the two, there is the hope that the theatre will always remain a restless reminder of possibility.
6. The Mission of Buran
· Producing new theatre that challenges the relationship between spectator and actor- bringing the spectator back to the stage.
· Bridging the gap between theatre artists and other forms of artistic expression: music, dance, architecture, design, sculpture...
· Working in a sensitive environment that allows for an open collaborative process between the actor, the text, and the audience.
· Research on physical acting via text, music, and experimental methods relating to the role of the audience and the global community.
· Creating theatre in as many environments and communities as possible to discover new audiences.
These are the current tenants of the Buran Company and they will undoubtedly change as we add to our repertoire new plays, new places, and new faces. We are setting up satellite systems around the globe for Buran – company member’s Justin Knudsen and Brady Blevins in Minneapolis, Lara Thomas and Jenna Bleecker in Los Angeles, Meghan Reardon in Chicago, Meg Saricks in Kansas City, Alica Gian in Vilnius, Lithuania, and myself and Stephen Ferrell in New York City.
By creating this system of satellites it is the hope that the Buran Company will find a place in all of these communities, garnering new plays, new actors, new directions, and new visions that will one day open itself up for a permanent home – a place for the artist, to conduct their work- safe and uninterrupted - a space, a theatre they can finally call home.
7. The Future of Buran
It is imperative we consider the next work.
The next work to unite us – to ignite us.
All there is to consider is the next work and I’ve done so much time considering work that has already been done. But these plays, specifically The Sensualist, A Greater Release, and Nightmares are the forerunners of the Buran plays to come. Our work as theatre artists, whether with the Buran Company or not, is to conduct ourselves as forerunners. Virginia Woolf said something to this effect – and in a much more dignified and startling fashion than I ever could.
But it’s true.
We are signaling towards the future of theatre.
Our generation needs it more than any other.
When the flesh has become such a rarity – the stage is more shocking and vital than ever. We must continue to work and discover means to consider the spectator in our work. If we don’t, we lose them. We need them as much they need us.
I have spent this time writing about my own work, my plays that have served as exploration for the Buran Company, but my deepest desire is to share this company with others – others whose visions will shape the theatre.
Come to our home!
Our home is where you are and we are ready to create and invite and share the spectacle of our collaborative work. It is a feat of the impossible, as every production is, but it is a feat well worth the taking especially when the energy is so palpable and present.
When writing the notes that accompanied the production of Nightmares I felt it was put quite appropriately, the spirit and soul which this company creates and will continue to create by:
It is vital to the human experience that we return to the dark places of our soul. As we expressed it in rehearsals- "shine a light in on the dark closet to discover what's hiding there." We shut that closet tight because it scares us. Rightfully so. What we find is often surprising, maddening, terrifying, and very powerful - we cannot function day to day accompanied with a gale of such overwhelming emotions. Keeping the closet locked day in and day out, through the potential fear of the night and the terror that lurks in our heart, our mind, our extremities; we are imprisoning the essential material of the soul.
If we ignore our soul, we ignore what gives rise to soaring flight - flight in action, in thought, in inspiration, in love, in creation, and as we attempt to do as theatre artists, flight on the stage. What we share when we shine the light into that dark closet together is strength in unity. Merely being amongst one another, in this social union, in the theatre for a few passing hours, we can handle anything. As a community in this space we are unstoppable, unbreakable, making flight achievable for every spectator in the darkened audience and every actor on the lit stage. The relation between actor and spectator defies logic, allowing our souls an escape to sing, or scream, or laugh, and we find the potential for soaring.
And this is not my poetry, this is my reasoning.
Special thanksto Dr. Henry Bial, Stephen Ferrell, Alicia Gian, Ron Willis,
Russ & Vicki Burnett, Vicki & Edward Fulmer, Christopher Luxem,Lara Thomas, Tom Picasso, and Charles Mee