A brief theory of art, and an analogy to Scientology

Friend-Zoned by Answers and Dating Uncertainty

In these past few weeks, I’ve gone from being scared about the show to being excited about it. In a horribly cruel twist, I think I’ve also come to realize that it’s better to be scared about the show. Oops. During table work I answered some of the greatest questions I had about Astrov, perhaps a function of time and also a function of the proper resources (Where does the profession of Dramaturgy go after Jules?). This was great, as I had been feeling blocked, like I could not petretrate this character or the play’s complexities. But I also realized, for any great search-journey (like that of understanding a character), though we receive a cathartic joy from reaching conclusions, we would be foolish to think our journey complete at the first rest-stop. The real value lies only in pressing forward to the brink of the un-answerable. Thereby arises an interesting conundrum: Though we embark on this search in order to reach cathartic conclusions, we gain the most value by depriving ourselves of cathartic comfort and pushing forward to greater uncertainty. We are not allowed to stop, and must instead empty out a place for new answers, and take on new anxiety to fill them. To recontextualize slightly: For the actor to become comfortable with what he is creating on stage is most often to simultaneously kill it, his drive to understand the character analogous to that character’s drive to achieve his own goals, his uneasiness in the skin of the character analogous to that character’s unstable relationships through conflict, and his inevitable nightly transformational arc. So while I crave to solve technical issues of our production, to answer questions and sort-out confusions about Astrov, and to feel at all adept to live within this complex, ingenius, timeless masterpiece, I will likewise seek to balance these goals with others: to never fool myself into thinking I DO understand it; to never relax into comfortable patterns or tropes that may ossify my work; to continue to question and push boundaries. I’ll remain skeptical of conclusions, of easy-fixes, perhaps even of stable blocking-patterns.

Dictionary Definitions and Abstract Substance

In working with Kali, valuable as I found the work, the objective philosopher in me had to temper my appreciation of it with some (mostly harmless) skepticism. Theatre has always impressed and frustrated me by its complete embrace of subjectivity. You can’t teach theatre out of a book, and you can hardly learn it in a classroom. As an example: I once asked a dear theatre professor what they could recommend I do to best hone and improve my art. The only advice they offered was to march out into the world and have experiences (I later learned that it was equally important to “use” those experiences – all vagueness intended here – lest they sit in our attic collecting dust, but this begins to border on the tangential…). I can admit this knowledge has not stopped me from trying to understand theatre with the objective side of my brain, when appropriate, and as much as Kali’s work proved original and inspiring to me, I couldn’t help but seek the connections and similarities to other “methods” to which I’ve been exposed. Where there are great similarities, I sometimes long (with no hope whatsoever) that people would unify the terms we use to refer to certain common themes or phenomenon in the theater. And, of course, I just as soon realize that a standardization of terms would probably ossify these terms and render them meaningless beyond a simple, trite dictionary definition. In my limited understanding of Scientology, this is how L Ron Hubbard got away with passing off simple, old-hat philosophical and psychological ideas as religion- by renaming important terms and disassociating common concepts (psychoanalysis, the soul, trauma, repression…) with their baggage and injecting them with new meaning. I realized that our work with Kali- the games and techniques and terminology we learned with her- it all has meaning because we have collectively undergone a unique experienced to understand these concepts. I doubt we’d be able to take in an outsider and share with them what we learned from Kali in any meaningful way. We could tell them to stop in the middle of a line and experience what that character is experiencing, and we could tell them we sometimes call that a “Roller Coaster”, but they weren’t there when Jamie and Faye were rolling around on the floor. We could describe the process through which we connected our action to our heads, first, and then moved it down into our upper and then whole bodies; we could even describe these body locations’ connection to breath, noting similarities to some of Ellen Hemphill’s teachings, but in the end, even if we’ve arrived at similar concepts through different methods, our results here will look very different from something that Ellen would have created. We’re not interested in definitions or descriptions, anyways. The theatre concerns itself with life, with the movement of humanity through time and space. All that ultimately matters (to any given performance, at least) is our humanly subjective understanding of our action. Now, this doesn’t mean I’m going to let go of my left-brain, but I’ll at least employ it to keep things in perspective.

The Language of the Body: Now Accessible through Rosetta Stone

Some of the growth I am most grateful for experiencing this past summer has been in how I experience the world. I’ve come to believe that there are a number of ways in which we can experience the world, and a number of ways in which we can transmit experiences to others. Much of formal schooling concerns itself with the clearest and most objective form of communication, writing. But imagine what kinds of different ideas can be transmitted through images alone. Through sketching the world (Berlin, specifically) I came to know it in an entirely new way. And I tried to find other methods of receiving the world. We can make logical sense of things, and we can try to note the distinct experience that is emotional connection to a moment in time, for example. If I call these “languages” in which we can experience the world or communicate to others, then focusing so stringently on movement has made me identify the different realms of communication we employ on stage (which is hopefully all of them, though I can’t claim I’ve found an exhaustive list). My background (which I believe to often be the case with amateurs) has made me most confident in my verbal communication and aural understanding, perhaps due in part to bodily insecurities and the literary-theater’s obsession with “the reading.” But there is certainly another realm of communication and experience surrounding static image, and perhaps yet another for movement through space(and furthermore I would note a difference between experiencing the world through moving in it, and experiencing the world through watching the movements of others). I question if our emotional reception to experiences add a separate (perhaps not mutually exclusive) realm, as well. Even how we communicate with our faces might be relevantly distinguishable from how we communicate with our bodies. What I mean to conclude is simply that each of these variables can be honed and manipulated on stage to create a variety of effects, and it’s been a pleasures exploring a realm that for me had been relatively ignored in my performing career.

With the new vocabulary I’ve/we’ve created, I can at least analyze my own or others’ performances or styles in new interesting ways. I see in myself a comfort in some realms and weakness in others, and I see how where a character devotes their energy (do they express themselves vocally, or corporeally, or facially? How much so in each region?) can become yet another variable that can defines them. I should clarify: I only mean to pick these categories apart for intellectual purposes; obviously every character will utilize every realm of expression, and it will mostly be difficult to separate one from another (We very purposefully had trouble separating vocal work from our movement work). If anything, I’ve only learned more how great things happen when these languages are translated into one another:

In the extra movement workshop with Kali that I attended, I realized that I was taking one realm of understanding/expression (say an image), and translating that into another (a specific type of movement), and then maybe translating that into something new again (a noise that I probably wouldn’t have associated with the original image at all). Combining these different elements created something original and special. Good art. Or consider this phenomenon: When we see a repeated human movement paired with some non-linguistic vocalization, for example, we are able to grant it a name that has meaning for us. We translate these methods of experiencing and understanding the world in trying to make sense of them, based on the methods we are more comfortable with (which for most of us is language- hence these written blog posts- But note that I have not even attempted to describe to you in language the specific movement I wrote about at the beginning of this paragraph. It wouldn’t suffice.). To conclude: I’ve become very excited about exploring the corporeal method of experiencing and communicating. Thanks for the guidance, Kali!

–Mike Myers

2 thoughts on “A brief theory of art, and an analogy to Scientology

  1. Jules Odendahl-James


    First off thanks! : )

    Second, I’m struck by your characterization of writing as the most “objective” communication. Certainly some forms of writing strive to give such an impression but everything we use in the construction of prose (from tone to sources to venue to organizational structure) has subjective influences & effects. If not them there wouldn’t be disciplinary dust-ups about what knowledge counts or has particular weight/value. I’m playing Devil’s advocate here but I wonder if physically-driven communication has been dismissed too summarily as subjective and therefore untrustworthy. At its core, those exercises are asking folks to meet each other in full awareness and with a sense of transparency or at least openness about what holds us back from that kind of openness & transparency. I think the way you’re thinking of all these systems as “languages”, systems of meaning in communication (hopefully) with each other, is the key to feeling like you can constantly interweave them in your explorations and produce a richer, more dense (in a good way) performance.

    Finally, there’s a Canadian dramaturg named DD Kugler who I absolutely adore. He won a dramaturgy award a few years back and in his acceptance speech he talked about striving to leave every play “just unfinished enough for the next production.” I keep that idea front and center especially as I strive to provide detailed (!) research and responses throughout the rehearsal process. It helps me maintain that state you mention of never thinking I *know* things for certain, even as I hope I work from a place of knowledge and a place of wonder. Such tension allows me to remember it is never too late for new discoveries…especially the next time.


  2. Jeffrey

    Excellent entry Mike. Every theatrical world you enter will call upon a different set of skills. Ultimately your ability to challenge yourself, your collaborators, and your audience will take a kind of adaptation of your tool belt of skills. The search for the right movement, breath, vocal choice will shape a living performance not a collection of results. Thanks for your thoughtful reflections of the process thus far.

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