Forty Years of Avant-Garde
Before us, our first task is to astonish,
And then, harder by far, to be astonished
Avant-garde performer and director Paul Zimet was a member of Joseph Chaikin’s seminal Open Theater until he formed Talking Band in 1974 with Ellen Maddow and Tina Shepard. Talking Band, known for its unique collaborative productions combining language, music, and movement, has influenced generations of artists, both experimental and more mainstream, even in art forms beyond theater. Talking Band’s latest production The Golden Toad, opens at LaMaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre in New York City, January 23, 2015
[caption]The Golden Toad, Part II. photo by Suzanne Opton.[/caption]
I was performing with the Open Theater in Berlin. We were invited by the director of The Berliner Ensemble, Helene Weigel—Bertolt Brecht’s widow and leading actress—to come to East Berlin to see Brecht’s company perform. In the afternoon Weigel showed us around the theater building and I got to glimpse a rehearsal of Woyzeck with Ekkehard Schall, the company’s principle actor, playing the title role. At first I was struck by how unprepossessing he was in his physical appearance. On subsequent evenings, when I saw Schall perform Arturo Ui and Coriolanus, I realized the very ordinariness of his look enhanced his chameleon-like ability to transform.
I had read a great deal by and about Brecht. I knew what he and other critics had said about the Verfremdungseffekt effect or Alienation Effect. In Brecht’s theater the actor was not supposed to identify with or lose himself in the character, but stand apart from it. He should let the audience see how extraordinary and unnatural the character’s behavior is, and hold up this behavior to their judgment. In his essay “The Street Scene,” in Brecht on Theatre Brecht describes the purpose of the A-effect in this way: “What is involved here is, briefly, a technique of taking the human social incidents to be portrayed and labeling them as something striking, something that calls for explanation, is not to be taken for granted, not just natural. The object of this ‘effect’ is to allow the spectator to criticize constructively from a social point of view.” Typically in Brecht productions in the United States, directors interpreted the A-effect to mean that the actor should address the audience directly and comment on the action.
What I saw Schall do was far more subtle, and to me, mysterious. Rather than stand outside his character, he embodied the character in great fullness and detail. At the same time he invited the audience to consider particular aspects of what the character was doing. It was as if I was seeing two people at once: the character who was fully engaged in the moment, and the actor, whose active intelligence was pointing out to me what was remarkable in the person he was portraying. His performance came as a revelation. The A-effect wasn’t about a specific technique, but rather about consciousness. Schall’s Coriolanus existed with a dual consciousness—that of the character and that of the actor, and both were transparently clear to me as audience.
It shouldn’t be surprising that a great actor’s performance clarifies theory because usually the theoretician wrote in an attempt to describe a great performance. But since the theoretical writings long outlast both the writers and performers who inspired them, what we often see is a mechanical repetition of what teachers, directors, and performers think the writings mean.
On a few other rare occasions, I have seen actors’ performances, which embodied the theory of a director or writer in such a way that I suddenly understood the visceral, reality behind the written theory. Ryszard Cieslak, a principal actor with the Polish Lab Theater, came with the company’s director, Jerzy Grotowski to the United States for the first time in 1967. In Towards a Poor Theater, Grotowski envisioned performers stripped of all theatrical embellishments—costumes, lighting, artificial mannerisms—who were, in Artaud’s words “like martyrs burnt alive, still signaling to us from their stakes.” All they had to rely on was their expressive physicality—their bodies, their faces, their voices. Theater was a ritual, and the actors were its priests. They dedicated their bodies and souls to the creation and performance of the rituals.
I participated in a series of workshops that Grotowski and Cieslak led in New York City with The Open Theater. Cieslak seemed both monk and supreme athlete. He demonstrated with grace and total absorption, the rigorous physical and vocal exercises that were part of the actors’ daily training. Grotowski said “what the actor achieves should be a total act, that he does whatever he does with his entire being… The actor should not use his organism to illustrate a ‘movement of the soul,’ he should accomplish this movement with his organism.” Cieslak’s performance in The Constant Prince let me see that this was possible.
It shouldn’t be surprising that a great actor’s performance clarifies theory because usually the theoretician wrote in an attempt to describe a great performance. Brecht developed his thinking about the A-Effect after seeing the Chinese actor Mei Lan-fang. Stanislavski, tried to capture in his writing what he saw in the performances of the opera singer, Feodor Chaliapin. But since the theoretical writings long outlast both the writers and performers who inspired them, what we often see is a mechanical repetition of what teachers, directors, and performers think the writings mean.
The predominant actor training in the US for at least the second half of the twentieth century was a variant on what was thought to be the method developed by Stanislavski. The emphasis was heavily on psychological truthfulness—objectives, subtext, moment to moment shifts in intention and emotional states. The training served the naturalism demanded in movies, television dramas, and most conventional theater, but it also strongly influenced the performance of classical theater and even, the avant-garde, since the actors and directors who worked in these different genres often had similar training. Yet, the performances that were most vivid to me seemed to have no debt to this psychological training. A few that come immediately to mind are:
- Charles Ludlam in the Theater of the Ridiculous playing Camille, dying of consumption, throwing her last small log in the fireplace, then turning to the largely gay audience to grandly and pitifully ask, “Is there a faggot in the house?”
- Ron Vawter in the Wooster Group’s North Atlantic, singing “Danny Boy” and bringing himself (and the audience) to tears by squeezing drops of glycerin into his eyes.
- Pricilla Smith as Hecuba in Andre Serban’s and Elizabeth Swados’s Trojan Woman, her eyes slits of grief, keening in an unknown language.
As a student and teacher I’ve read a lot of writing about acting: descriptions, methods, manuals, textbooks, criticism, performance studies. But as an actor and director, I know the process of creating a role and the experience of performing it is specific to the individual, and, at times, mysterious. When I see a performance that engages me, a part of me wonders: How did she do that? What was she thinking? How much was calculated, or even conscious, and how much intuitive? How much of the performance was shaped by the actor, and how much by the director? How did he train or prepare? Did he do research? Did she have other performances in mind as models or inspiration? What was she intending?
On the Way to Open Theater
I’ve spent most of my theater career working with “experimental” ensembles that create new work, but my love of theater started as a child when my parents would take me to Broadway or the NY City Center to see classic musicals—South Pacific, Oklahoma, Damn Yankees, The Pajama Game, My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls. At summer camp (a camp that specialized in basketball), I performed in some of these musicals, and my engagement deepened. At the High School of Music and Art I studied clarinet and voice. I went to Columbia College when there wasn’t a theater department, but we were fortunate that our student drama group—Columbia Players—could hire adventurous directors, e.g., Wilford Leach and Isaiah Sheffer—who did productions of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, and Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule with a newly commissioned score by Stefan Wolpe. These productions, along with theater courses taught by Eric Bentley and Robert Brustein, expanded my idea of what theater could be. Nonetheless, I didn’t think of theater as a career. I went to Harvard Medical School, intending to become a psychiatrist. At medical school, in 1964, I directed a production of T.S. Elliot’s Sweeney Agonistes, and then at Harvard College, a production of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. The pleasure I felt directing plays contrasted sharply with the misery I felt studying medicine, so after one year I left medical school and returned from Boston to New York.
In New York I spent several years supporting myself as first as a social worker and then an elementary school science teacher, while directing and taking acting classes. I directed a Michel de Ghelderode play in a basement café in the Village, and a new play by Marc Kaminsky at the Judson Poet’s Theater. I studied classical mime with Moni and Mina Yakim, and acting Shakespeare with Barry Boys. In 1966, a high school friend, Marcia Jean Kurtz, told me she was working with a company called the Open Theater, and asked if I would be interested in coming with her to check it out.
The Open Theater started in 1963 when Joseph Chaikin and a group of writers, actors, and critics formed a workshop to investigate new modes of performance and writing that they felt were not possible in the commercial theater. Some of the writers associated with the early years of the Open Theater were Maríe Irene Fornés, Megan Terry, and Jean Claude Van Itallie. Joe had been an actor with the Living Theater, directed by Julian Beck and Judith Malina, and had played principal roles in their famed productions of Jack Gelber’s The Connection and Brecht’s Man is Man. He was inspired by Julian and Judith’s daring, and their desire to create a poetic and political theater that challenged the status quo. But he also felt limited by their increasingly polemical approach.
The work I observed was unlike anything I had seen before. It was improvisatory, passionate, funny, surprising. No one was telling the actors how something should be done. Everyone was in a process of discovering, and all seemed equally engaged. One of the members, Lee Worley, was starting a new workshop, and I joined.
At the time I joined the workshop, the Open Theater was producing scripted plays by Megan Terry and Jean Claude Van-Itallie. The company just had its first commercial success with Van-Itallie’s America Hurrah, which was enjoying an open-ended Off-Broadway run. Joe Chaikin was wary of critical success—he felt it could easily entice you into repeating yourself—and he was about to embark on a new long-term project: an investigation into the missing years in Christ’s life (from thirty to thirty-three). The group’s research into the Bible never got past Genesis, and this piece ultimately became The Serpent, which was perhaps the first collectively created theater piece in the American theater. Joe invited some of the actors from Lee Worley’s workshop into this investigation, and I was among them.
For me, this was an extremely exciting time. It was one of those rare moments when I was aware, not in retrospect, but at the time it was happening, that I was part of history. We felt we were creating theater in a way that it had never been created before. As an actor in a collective creation I began to see my role not only as an interpreter of a part, but as a collaborating artist who shared with the writer, designers, and director a responsibility for the whole theater work.
During my seven years with the company I received the training and experience that would become the foundation for most of my work in the theater world. Some of the training came from guest artists: Jerzy Grotowski and Ryszard Cieslak; the Jose Limon Company dancers, Clyde Morgan and Carla Maxwell; the soprano, Jan Degaetani; the voice teacher, Kristin Linkletter; the Kyogen-trained actor, Yoshi Oida, who joined Peter Brook’s company; composers Richard Peaslee and Stan Walden; a Sufi dervish and a Brazilian voodoo priestess.
However, the most important training came from Joe himself, who had to invent exercises, and in fact, a vocabulary, to enable us to do the theatrical research we wished to do.
I think, in his work with the Open Theater, Joe was ultimately looking for a theater that aspired to the condition of music: the images, movement, language moved through the time span of the theatrical work according to the rules of music rather than the logic of literary narrative. He repeated an observation made by the poet, Ted Hughes: when people converse they first listen to the music of the other’s speech. If they are interested in what the music is telling them, only then will they listen to the specific meaning of the words. Joe devised numerous exercises to explore the musicality of speech: the intention that are implicit in the melodies, the musical modes in which groups of people agree to converse; the emotional expressiveness of individual consonants and vowels within a word.
Joe was not trying to create a training method that could be handed down. In fact, he regarded the exercises he created as impermanent as paper plates—once they fulfilled their purpose they should be discarded. The exercises he created were meant to explore specific theatrical questions he was asking at the time.
Although the training with the Open Theater did not constitute a method, it did seep into my body and understanding, and continued to inform my work. The training and the experience of performing with the company became an intuitive resource. Even more, Joe’s constant questioning, his search for ways to expand the notion of what it is to be human, and the pleasure I felt in doing this work, left me with a desire to keep exploring.
When Joe disbanded the Open Theater in 1973, I and two other members of the company, Ellen Maddow and Tina Shepard, decided to continue our theatrical investigations, and we formed a workshop, which in 1974 would become Talking Band.
In the Open Theater’s final work, Nightwalk (1973) the language was minimal. The actors spoke in musical modes, with distinct words only occasionally bubbling to the surface. Speeches were pared down to a sentence or phrase. In the most extreme example of distillation, Sam Shepard had written a long speech for the show that contained the phrase “in the middle of the night.” By the time the speech reached performance, it had been pared away to two consonants, m and n (the beginning sounds of middle and night).
When Tina, Ellen and I started a workshop, we were interested in seeing if we could find ways of performing potent language, with the immediacy and vividness we had found in the physical, largely nonverbal performance of the Open Theater. We turned to the most charged, vital language we could find, and began to explore the performance of poetry. (In addition to Tina, Ellen and myself, early company members in this workshop were: Charles Stanley, Margo Lee Sherman, Sybille Hayn, Marc Samuels, and Arthur Strimling,)
Music was the common link between our new explorations and the work of the Open Theater. After making long lists of names, we chose to call ourselves Talking Band, in part because we imagined ourselves as a travelling band of players, but mainly because it suggested both speech and music. We performed poems of Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Alan Ginsberg, César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Bertolt Brecht, Nâzim Hikmet, Shakespeare, and others. Sometimes we accompanied the poems with music; often we tried to convey the musicality of the language without accompaniment. What was important to us was that the music of the language illuminated the meaning of the words, and made the poet’s intention, thought, and emotion palpable to a live audience.
The first full-length work we performed was The Kalevala, the epic Finnish poem. Elizabeth Swados composed the music. The staging was spare—we wished to tell the story almost solely through the language and music. In subsequent productions we began to reintroduce other theatrical elements: sets, costumes, lighting; sometimes puppetry, dance; eventually video. The contributions of our designers and choreographers—Julie Taymor, Janie Geiser, Karinne Keithley, Lenore Doxsee, Carol Mullins, Gabriel Berry, Kiki Smith, Nic Ularu, Anna Kiraly, Kit Fitzgerald, Simon Tarr, Ralph Lee, Hilary Easton, Christine Jones, Jun Maeda, Arden Fingerhut, among others—became central to our work. Our interest grew into experimenting with how the various theatrical elements worked in counterpoint with one another. When was it strongest to let just the music, or just a visual image, take over the telling of a story? How did the audience’s perception shift when we juxtaposed one element against another?
The technique of layering theatrical elements in different combinations was used by Anne Bogart when she directed Talking Band’s production of No Plays No Poetry (1988). Bertolt Brecht’s theoretical writings on theater provided the text for the show. Some sentences or passages were used repeatedly, e.g., “The actor must not only sing but show a man singing.” But each time they were repeated it was in a different context. Each section of the show was presented in a different genre of performance: fairground booths, a Nuremburg rally, an academic panel debate, the Theater of Images (à la Robert Wilson). The same text might be spoken by a fortune-teller in the fairground; then by a Charlie Chaplinesque dictator at the rally; later by one of many cigar-smoking Brechts at the panel debate; and again by an elegantly gowned chanteuse in the Theater of Images. Each time the lines were heard in a different visual and musical setting, the audience understood them in a different way.
From No Plays No Poetry, 1988[/caption]
Music in plays is usually called “incidental music.” It’s there to provide an atmosphere, transition, or punctuation to a scene. In Talking Band, we made music intrinsic to the work. The music was not necessarily sung, as in opera, nor did characters burst out into song periodically in moments of high emotion or comedy, as in musicals. Rather the musical score was woven into the fabric so that all the elements—text, design, choreography—were part of the music of the production. The meaning, humor, and humanity of what the characters said and did were rooted in their melodies and rhythms.
There are reasons why the work that Talking Band wanted to do required music.
In terms of content, many of our pieces look at ordinary-seeming people in quotidian settings and reveal what is extraordinary about them and the events in which they participate. The works explore the poetry in the commonplace, and this poetry is often made manifest through music. This is particularly true of the works written and composed by Ellen Maddow. In the eighties she created a series of plays about Betty Suffer, an avant-garde housewife. In Betty and the Blenders, she and two friends sit around in her kitchen making music with food blenders, hair dryers, and plastic take-out containers fastened with rubber bands. In Painted Snake in a Painted Chair, five friends gather periodically in one of their houses. When they are apart they lead uneventful lives, but when they come together everything becomes heightened. Setting the table for dinner becomes a dance, when they lift the cover off the soup tureen a lovely chord emanates from the bowl. Delicious Rivers is set in a post office. The work explores the relationship between order and the unexpected in our lives, and how this reflects the idea of symmetry and dissymmetry. Because these mathematical phenomena involve various repetitions, they are intrinsically related to music. The language of the postal workers and customers, and the music played by three musicians waiting on the post office line, reflect the patterns exhibited by different types of geometrical symmetry. It is these structures that organize and lend beauty to the commonplace—in nature as well as post offices.
In terms of medium, we choose to do live theater, rather than film or television, because, at least during the time span of a performance, there is the possibility of creating a community that includes the performers and audience. It is a potent experience to be in a room where everyone breathes as one. Music has always been a powerful tool for bringing numbers of people into a common experience. Because of this power, music is also used to manipulate group emotions. That is the function of military music, national anthems, and many film scores. It is this manipulation—the Nuremberg Rally effect of music—that Brecht inveighed against. The songs in his plays were meant to step outside the dramatic action, to comment on it, or frame it in a different light. The music was meant to make the audience observe and think: it was a dash of cold water to wake them up.
In Talking Band, sometimes we have used music as Brecht does: to reveal the theatricality of the event, to stop the flow of the dramatic action, and present it in a different light. Sometimes we have used music more traditionally: to support a particular atmosphere or emotion so that the audience is pulled into the same time and experience. At other times we have used it to contradict another theatrical element: to create a tension between what is seen and heard. And probably, we have used music for the pure joy of it: to delight in counterpoint and juxtaposition; the music’s ordering of and interplay with all the show’s components.
Our work with the Open Theater had suggested a way of questioning and an approach, but the exercises we developed there would not in themselves have enabled us to discover what we needed for the present work with Talking Band.
When I taught acting, I found that students were often eager to learn a method. I realized they believed there was some formula, some combination of techniques that would ensure that they would become good actors. This is not surprising since many teachers and acting manuals suggest the same. I hope this history, however, will suggest the opposite; that there are multiplicities of approaches and they are specific to the individual actor; to the ensemble, and even more importantly, to the work at hand. Jerzy Grotowski warned about the danger of seeking the safety of a method. It’s not that they don’t work, but that they limit you. One needs to have skills and techniques, but one has to be ready to abandon them if they don’t serve the present work, and then acquire new techniques that will.