The Process is God? What Has God Got To Do With It?
This is a transcribe of a talk by George Mann from Theatre Ad Infinitum at Radar platform, 12 Nov. For info about Theatre Ad Infinitum visit www.theatreadinfinitum.co.uk. To hear this speech visit http://bushtheatre.podomatic.com/entry/2012-11-29T09_59_37-08_00
What the hell has god got to do with it? That was my immediate thought when I was asked to come and respond to the title of this platform ‘The Process is God’.
I’m the co-artistic director of a company named Theatre Ad Infinitum. My fellow co-artistic directors and I make theatre via a creative process, and not from a pre-written script, or a play.
Something about the title of this platform troubled me.
‘The Process is God’… it made me ask: is this how other people see the work we do, they think we have a ‘god’, and that this ‘god’ is the process? At the same time I comprehended something else: an implication of them and us. A divide. We’re ‘us’, the process guys with our process god, on one side of this divide, and they have inadvertently defined themselves as ‘them’, with their god, on the other. And that got me thinking: if our ‘god’ is the process, then who is their god in theatre?
It took me back to my university days. I was studying theatre and the work of practitioners from Grotowski to Stanislavksi, Meyerhold to Meisner, Lecoq through Peter Brook to Michael Chekhov and beyond. The possibilities were not only exciting, they seemed endless, and this is what has always provoked my passion for theatre-making:
An empty space in which artists and audiences allow their imaginations to meet and make the impossible, possible.
But when I went to the theatre so many of these exciting ideas and possibilities were absent? In London my options were new writing plays, or classical texts restaged. Occasionally a rarity, like Theatre de Complicité, a Lecoq trained company led by Simon McBurney, would come to town and wow everyone with a theatrical feast for the imagination, like A Minute Too Late. Or Theatre ‘O’s The Argument would leave me in bits; Trestle Theatre’s Stone Heads without any words at all made me laugh and cry with their beautiful mask piece and once a year the London International Mime Festival would come around and remind me what else theatre can be. But these occasions were few and far between.
That was eleven years ago. And to this day not that much has changed.
Now don’t get me wrong, the theatre in this country, represents some of the best in the world. In fact, I’m greatly inspired by the works of Shakespeare, Pinter, Tucker-Green, Potter, Stenham, Albee, Churchill, Beckett, and directors too, Peter Hall’s all male Propeller Company, to name but one, have staged some of the best Shakespeare’s I’ve ever seen...
But there was, and still is a very clear and predominant norm that takes up the majority of theatres’ cultural landscape. The norm I’m referring to is of course, the written play.
The play is a theatrical tradition that goes back hundreds of years in this country to the time of Johnson, Marlowe and Shakespeare; a tradition in which literature is intrinsically linked to theatre, and one that continues to this day.
Now, with exception to a few, many theatres have their own literary department, literary associate, or an artistic director who’s job it is to bring mostly, if not only, written plays to the stage she or he runs.
The fact that ‘literature’ and ‘theatre’ are not necessarily the same thing, doesn’t seem to factor into the equation. When did literature –an art in it’s own right, come to be so inextricably linked to theatre, which for me is a completely different art and has it’s own unique form? I’m not saying the two cannot be connected, or in dialogue, but by putting these literary departments and associates in theatres, we’re effectively defining theatre as an art that is symbiotically linked to, even dependant on, literature. Consequently, this means that all other forms of theatre that don’t originate in the same way, for example, devised collaborative theatre, are not able to submit their work because they don’t have a written play, which is the accepted format.
Lets go back to the notion of them and us and my question: if our ‘god’ is the process, then who is their god in theatre?
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard religious terminology used to describe theatre. In theatre theory, many look at the work of Gardzience in Poland, or Grotowski, for example, as ‘sacred theatre’ because of their ritualistic approaches and links with Orthodox Christianity. The titles of books can be revealing too, such as ‘In Contact with the Gods? Directors Talk Theatre’ by Delgado and Heritage, for example. So looking at the prevalent form of theatre in the UK, the written play, be it new, or a classic, it would appear that their god is in fact The Playwright.
The religious connotations go further, there’s an established hierarchy.
Playwrights are gods, and a playwright’s text is like an ancient scripture that companies pour over trying to decipher their meaning and secret codes. Then come directors, like the sons and daughters of the immortals, ordained visionaries interpreting the text, while actors are mere mortals at the service of both playwright and director.
This hierarchy is linked to the prevalent art of acting known as The Method, and could further explain the inextricable link between theatre and literature here in the UK.
Around the time that Darwin’s ideas were taking hold the rise of naturalism took place in theatre in the late 19th and early 20th century. Playwrights like Ibsen, Strindberg and Checkhov warranted the need for a new approach to theatre-making in order to bring these seemingly realist plays to life. And it was at this time that Stanislavski’s writings on acting and directing became known. Stanislavksi’s initial ideas, the given circumstances and the emotional moment for example, put forward a notion that the key to truth in acting is to approach it through psychological methods using the actors life experience and personal emotions to make real those of their character’s.
Stanislavski’s ideas have since become hugely popular forming the basis of The Method, an approach to acting that brings plays to life in a realistic and believable manner. (This, despite the fact that his writings were notes and thoughts, not directions or truths, and notwithstanding that at the end of his life his third book, Building A Character, on the art of acting rejects everything he had previously written and believed in. He had realised that the physical action, which approaches acting through the body, was the way to a characters inner life –via the external, rather than the psychological, though this is largely ignored or forgotten now.)
In reality The Method has become the name for bastardised versions of Stanislavski’s ideas, a set of a belief systems propagated by directors, actors, drama teachers (perhaps most dangerously) and many more in the profession. This so called ‘method’ exists in different guises –just as Catholicism, Anglicanism, Methodism and so on are differing takes on Christianity, so ‘the method’ exists in many different guises all springing from Stanislavksi’s ideas, claiming to lead to truth in acting and in the theatre.
The supremacy of this method is its assertion to be ‘the truth’, the light, and the way of acting in theatre. It’s hard to argue with the truth – I mean, if we accept that one thing is true, then anything else that sits in opposition to this ‘truth’ is by definition untrue.
But there is also a great history of theatre that comes from, and is ‘written’ by, the body and is not governed by any one method. Such theatrical styles that emerged from the ‘physical’ like Commedia Del Arte and Mask, the tragic Greek Chorus, Mime, Buffon, Clown and many more value all of the tools that theatre has to offer, not only words. Some eliminate text entirely.
I’m not saying theatre from text, or theatre using the method is bad. But as the accepted norm, it is extremely limiting.
At present, the theatre establishment at large still struggles to profoundly embrace anything other than the ‘text-based’ norm.
And I believe this is related to the fact that many of us no longer differentiate between the play text, or literature, and theatre or how we make theatre. The last time I was in the Royal Court watching a play by Debbie Tucker Green I turned to see a woman to my right reading the script as it was performed instead of watching the play. It astonished and disturbed me. That the naturalist playwrights and Stanislavski’s ideas about approaching such texts represent valuable and significant contributions to theatre, there is no doubt. But somehow the union of these two movements has cemented a norm into our theatre culture that has linked literature to theatre.
And I wonder if the dominance of this norm has inadvertently constrained many other forms of theatre from having a profound and long lasting impact on our cultural heritage? There’s no proper system in place to cultivate and develop new work, new practitioners, or new ways of making theatre unless the new work conforms to the norm: the written play, hence the heavily supported culture of new writing.
For some new writing is new theatre making. But is such a norm, which maintains the status quo of our theatre culture, ever going to help us find genuinely new ways of theatre making? I don’t think it is.
I don’t think the way we use religious terminology –the idea of god, for example, when talking about different approaches to theatre making is helpful either. In fact it reveals the divisive nature of our theatre culture. In this case it’s the Accepted Norm vs. the ‘Other’ –theatre-making practices that don’t fit into the norm. By saying that for one group ‘The Process is God’ and for the other group Gods are playwrights, you’re unavoidably reducing theatre to religious ideology. Suddenly we become one ‘religion’ facing another either side of a division –you have your god and we have ours. This inevitably creates opposition between forms that are actually united under one name: theatre.
Another reason I believe that thinking about theatre in religious terms is counterproductive is because as with religion, we finish up with truisms, simplifications; answers instead of questions; we end up with the truth, the light and the way of theatre –when in reality, there’s no such thing.
For me there’s a significant difference between theatre and religion and this is the reason why we should never mix or confuse the two.
Religion simplifies the great questions and pretends to have all the answers, it creates dichotomies that separate human beings in to good and evil and asks us to believe in things that don’t exist in order to draw meaning from life. Theatre is an art form that presents both artists and audiences with a rare, chaotic and beautiful problem, namely, life. Theatre reveals the complexity of our lives, it allows us to see ourselves reflected, asks us to question everything around us, it can show us our reality and it can help us to escape it. Theatre is inextricably linked to human nature, and the best theatre reveals to us the paradoxical truth of the human condition in all its complexity.
Above all religion divides us into believers of one god or another; into believers and non-believers. But theatre brings us together, it creates connections, it unites us with our shared humanity.
It’s this tendency to correlate theatre and religion that troubled me when I read the title of this platform discussion. In that simple four-word title a whole cultural norm and way of thinking about theatre is revealed.
I hope we can change all that.
But inspiring imaginations to find new ways of theatre making is about more than a workshop, public forum, brief passing fashion, or one night performance in a studio space. If we’re serious about cultivating and nurturing new theatre it’s about a long-term commitment to, and recognition of ‘new’ and ‘other’ forms of theatre. It’s about giving all theatre, text based or not, an equal platform, so that audiences can begin to experience, appreciate, and value everything that theatre can be.
If we really want to find new ways of theatre making then we need to change. Can Literary Departments become ‘New Theatre’ Departments? Can New Writing become ‘New Work’? Can Literary Associates become Artistic Associates, or Dramaturgs? Can we embrace everything that theatre can be instead of one norm and really have an impact on theatre in this country and beyond?
I think we can.
If we’re to truly inspire imaginations to think of new ways of theatre making, then we have to encourage all forms of theatre and value them equally in our cultural landscape.