(Originally published in Scream: January 2005; revised 5 January 2019)
Workshops on Antonin Artaud’s contradictory Theatre of Cruelty involve more than the development of techniques and approaches to theatre practice, development and presentation. While there are probably unlimited approaches abounding in the area, the underlying necessity is a shift in one’s thinking about the social / cultural constructions of reality. The human being’s contradictory self protective and aggressive natures are manifest in the behaviours which lock out threats to the system (be it self, family, group, culture or society) while locking in personal opportunities and creativity. The greater the need to lock out threats, then the greater is the likelihood of violence and war! The greater the need to lock in personal opportunities and creativity the greater is the likelihood of neurosis and related diseases!
A huge benefit of Artaud’s thinking for actors is the need to confront the straitjacket of one’s ego and forging a release from the body’s emotional and pent up baggage. In this article, I will attempt to show how two equally restrictive personal qualities from actors need to be released in order that acting can in fact take place with any degree of competency. While there is much that can be written on the subject, this article will focus on one very simple exercise that, if repeated, can produce an excellent vehicle for change, self realisation and development.
Firstly let us examine the phenomena of Lock-Out and see what it looks like. It is a form of narcissism that rejects any real possibility for opening up to new possibilities.
Lock-out for the actor results in aggressive even tantrum behaviour in rehearsals and an inability to open up for suggestion to re-evaluate possibilities for a role or a way of approaching a work. It results in overly protective behaviours placing a shield around the performance and approach to performance and working with others. The conceit and vanity of the actor overrides any sense of development or play. Semantics are used with acidic effect to deflect criticism and ensure the actor is the centre of the stage universe rather than a contributor to a collective picture. Most of us have worked with such people.
Some lock-out actors survive by displaying exquisite technical skills or audience pulling power. Others are very good at auditioning and providing a completed package at the point of first contact. Unfortunately, this is too often the sum total of what is going to be offered. Their range is so restricted by personality factors that lock-out mechanisms ensure they have to justify and defend very fixed positions at every phase or turn of a rehearsal, workshop or development phase. Their view of what is required cannot be challenged without a fight. No vulnerability will ever be deliberately revealed. And the vulnerabilities of work colleagues will be seen as weakness to be exploited in rounds of interpersonal games playing. When given research tasks or additional reading, the lock-out actor smugly assumes it is not necessary and so either doesn’t read the text or only reads enough so as to illustrate his or her proficiency.
The second trait is that of Lock-In. It may take the guise of perfectionism where nothing can ever be right. This might initially appear as a positive trait. However it will soon become obvious that the actor is resistant to any direction.
Lock-in results in similar behaviours as Lock-out but for different reasons and with different nuances. The Lock-In actor always has a problem; a problem involving a precarious emotional state that needs to be injected into the rehearsal and performance space. The Lock-In actor often takes the persona of a perfectionist. But this only results in constant break down while attempting tasks and a refusal to commit to the moment. The headiness of the Lock-In actor is often more frustrating than the smugness of the Lock-Out actor. Though both are very jarring in a development process. Phrases like “I’m confused” or “I just don’t get it” or half completed sentences like “Look, I” with a shake of the head followed by silences are some observable features of the Lock-In actor.
One always has a sense that the real issue is not within the focus of the work at hand but in some unstated inner personal turmoil of the actor. Unlike the Lock-Out actor, the Lock-In actor is in constant need of personal attention and support. The rehearsal or workshop process becomes a therapy excuse where the focus is not on the work at hand but on the personal connection with an incomprehensible universe.
At some stage in an acting life, most of us have probably veered towards one of these ends of the Lock-Out / Lock-In spectrum. As a director, I prefer to avoid engaging actors with either of these characteristics. However, in truth most of us display such recognizable characteristics in certain circumstances. Directors also display the same tendencies. As do writers, designers, administrators, technicians etc.!
And it doesn’t take too much imagination to apply such thoughts across the spectrum of the individual through to the group, society and culture. Most Drama schools attempt to face these characteristics head on. Concepts such as letting go, detachment, focus etc. are common to all acting training and desirable traits. However, with all the pressures on the individual in a competitive world, it is very understandable that real life pressures affect the theatre practitioner.
Control and Letting Go: Ratio
Through the Lock-Out / Lock-In model we can formulate a Control and Letting-go Acceptance ratio within individuals and groups. Whether the problem is one of Lock-Out or Lock-In, the underpinning issue is one’s need for control. One’s need to control outcomes may lead to committed practice of key skills or actions. However it can also lead to misplaced tightening up and locking of the moment; killing the very essence of theatre.
Antonin Artaud provided us with key elements, concepts and inspiration to use such notions and such paradigms for constant rejuvenating our work within a changing world environment.
On balancing a balloon
Balloons hold a key to illustrating the Control / Acceptance Ratio in ephemeral presentation. Acting is an ephemeral art. It exists only at the moment of its construction. It is a paradoxical art requiring preparation yet an ability to respond at the moment of stimulus. Balloons can provide a unique tool for preparing the body and mind for Artaud’s theatre of liberation from the organs. This simple utility can be used as a gauge of an actor’s temperament for handling the ephemeral being of theatre that cannot be rehearsed, fixed and controlled.
But why should an actor waste time balancing balloons to explore beyond the confines of the body when most of our thinking is about control. Control of our bowls, control of our voice, control of our reading, control of our movement, control of our delivery of lines, control of our presentation of self, control over our role, control of our image. And more!
And the audiences are also about control. They are being educated to control the artists and what the artists deliver on stage. Through controls on funding and even over reality TV and shows like Australian Idol, there is the encouragement to make the artist like the gladiator striking down mercilessly all opponents until there emerges just one who soars for a few moments before being discarded and forgotten. Is this democratising art?
All this can be confusing and cluttering. So forget for a while about the end product and the need to make a living and vie for the next job. Take a balloon or two balloons. Blow them up. Humm into them and feel the vibrations. Keep humming until the vibrations are strong. Then balance on your finger tips. Keep contact with the balloon. Push too hard and it bounces away. Apply not enough pressure and it falls over. Then try it with two. Then try it with eyes closed. Keep building with it. Feel the maddening desire to be done with them. But persevere. And when you discover that thin line between control and letting go, that is the point at which to begin releasing one’s own fears of being a performer.
Then allow for the mesmeric state of flow to absorb you and take you into the silent meditative world of just being. Just try it. Then see if the above makes any sense for you.
But what about the cruelty?
A theatre of cruelty isn’t about being cruel or violent or simulating such things for their own sakes. To create work that goes into the heart of cultural / social / personal bestial nature requires us to accept much more about ourselves and our working relationships. It requires more than superimposing some other world view or paradigm over a series of stage actions construed by a writer or director or both. Acceptance of our own violence, weakness, vulnerability are crucial for a work that subverts the theatrical in order to infect audiences with a virus of awareness and potential for change.
In 2004 I spent time over a year of working on a project that studied Acting Artaud with a most willing ensemble of actors. I saw the group opening out with some extremely potent imagery and the release of incredible erotic and physical energy. I became convinced of the need for this discovering of the Letting-go/ Acceptance ratio. The result was an amazing freeing up of performers to journey where-ever the work leads. With such freedom comes an energy that is beautiful, frightening and infectious for the psyche of the individual and society.
This cannot be achieved without a positive ratio of control and letting-go. Nor can it be achieved with the jarring of processes caused by the Lock-Out and Lock-In phenomena.
It was suggested to me recently that Artaud despised society; that he was filled with hate and aggression towards the pigs of culture and society. It was suggested that any sense of toning down the hate and the neurosis was counter to Artaud’s sensibility and aims. It was further suggested that to even perform our work in certain theatre spaces was contrary to the spirit of Artaud.
To such a person, I suggest he take two balloons, balance them on the back of outstretched hands, close the eyes and be still or walk … but don’t drop the balloons. Then contemplate an existence without the constraints of one’s own body that is made brittle by unharvested emotions; then “dance inside out as in the frenzy of dance halls and this wrong side out will be his real place.” (Antonin Artaud: To Have Done With The Judgement Of God).
Joe Woodward (Jan. 2005 / 5 Jan 2019)