‘ZEITRAUM: Salon vor der Französischen Revolution/Bunker nach dem dritten Weltkrieg’ (Müller, 1983: 71)
‘TIMESPACE: Drawing Room before the French Revolution. Air Raid Shelter after World War III’ (Müller, 1984a: 106)
These stage directions, which introduce the printed text of East German writer Heiner Müller’s play Quartett, imply multiple performance ‘spaces’ for this dramatic work, an interplay of both material and imaginative ‘spaces’ of performance. The interaction between two time periods, and the physical presentation in space that each implies, varies depending upon the stage one finds oneself at of the production process. In this essay, my discussion of these stages occurs in three parts. Firstly, some of the imaginative or interpretative ‘spaces’ within the playtext itself are noted. In discussing my method of creating a physical ‘score’ to embody Müller’s text, the physical and mental ‘spaces’ of the rehearsal process are then analysed. Thirdly, the physical and interpretive ‘spaces’ of the performance itself and the interaction between stage and auditorium is examined.
The Imaginary Spaces in Müller’s Playtext
In order to specify temporal/material spaces for performance, Heiner Müller opens up an imaginary space (which he calls a ‘timespace’) for the engagement with history. History is a vital concern throughout Müller’s oeuvre; it does not function merely as a temporal backdrop for action depicted on stage. The ‘historical time’ Müller favours is the period immediately prior to the French Revolution – a time of historical significance used by Müller in several texts, for example, the play Der Auftrag (The Commission orThe Task). This historical ‘timespace’, although removed from the playwright’s own moment in time, is nevertheless experienced as present for the author in important ways. This is certainly the case in Quartett, written in 1980-81 when the German Democratic Republic still existed. One might say that Müller uses a Brechtian technique of Historisierung (‘historicisation’), in which the distancing effect of using an analogous incident from the past (or a ‘foreign’ location) allows us to examine the issues of the present. Brecht is not alone in using this technique of course – an example widely known in the English-speaking world is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which uses the Salem witch-hunts to examine McCarthyism.
Unlike Der Auftrag, which is set after the Revolution, as its ideals are crumbling because of the corrupting influence of power, Quartett is set before it. The psychological manipulation of the two aristocrats, representative of the decadence and corruption of the ancien régime, are used to examine the flaws of the East German socialist state, a state in which psychological torture was frequently used for political ends. Müller’s utilisation of simultaneous time periods makes Historisierung more explicit than in Bertolt Brecht’s plays. Whereas Brecht infers the present from his representation of the past, Müller collapses time. We are not definitively seeing the probable past, or the possible future. In the present moment of the performance, or of reading the text, both exist simultaneously. The challenge for theatre practitioners in creating the physical space for a performance of Quartett is how to bleed the time periods together to allow the audience to see both, and their present selves, simultaneously.
The slippage between the time periods, which is highlighted by the role-play of his protagonists, is the real ‘space’ of this performance of ‘time’. One dialectical process for the actor in defining a character’s choices is the ‘not…but’, which shows not what theyare or have done, but what they did not choose: what they could have been or could have done. Rather than this Brechtian ‘not…but’, Müller asks the theatrical interpreters of the text for a ‘both…and’ or a ‘not not’, to use a term from theatre theorist and director Richard Schechner. In examining the slippage that occurs between the actor and the role, Schechner points out that the actor can never be purely the character s/he is playing, nor purely him- or herself. There is always a trace of the actor within the character and of the character within the actor:
My restoration of behaviour theory…. proposes that performances occur in the space between a ‘not’ and a ‘not not’, in the denial of a negative. In other words the actor playing Hamlet is not Hamlet, but neither is he not not Hamlet. Conversely, this actor, while playing, is not himself; but neither is he not not himself. His performance takes place in the ambiguous space between his not being himself and his not being another. Or to put it another way, when Lawrence Olivier plays Hamlet, he takes on the words and gestures, the relationships and patterns of Hamlet (as interpreted by Olivier). During this time Olivier is not Olivier because he is Hamlet, and Hamlet is not Hamlet, because he is Olivier. Neither identity is wholly erased or effaced by the other. What we see and hear, what we can watch move and enact, is a being existing in the space between a denial and the denial of that denial. (Schechner: 134)
This is further heightened in Quartett, as the protagonists, Merteuil and Valmont, slip in and out of role-playing, playing themselves in the act of deceiving another, or represent the victims of their seductions.
Müller himself is famous for a similar slippage between personas (it is not by chance that the ‘mask’ is a major metaphor in his work) in his writings and interviews. His refusal to be pinned down to a meaning is one of the reasons he is considered by many to be the consummate post-modern dramatist – a charge he himself denied, stating: ‘The only Postmodernist I know of was August Stramm, a modernist who worked in a post office’ (Müller, 1984b: 137). As Jonathon Kalb explains:
Müller was not simply an abdicator of authority; he was a strong, clownish intellectual who enjoyed being seen as living proof of the Death of the Author, and who read postmodern theory himself in order to protect himself from it. One could say that he tried to act as his own deconstructionist critic by serving up puzzles of flagrantly contradictory meanings to begin with, so that others wouldn’t have to bother ‘embarrassing’ him by cleverly searching them out. (Kalb 2001: 206)
Kalb’s monograph, The Theater of Heiner Müller, engages directly with Müller’s ‘masks’ as a playwright, by examining the ‘traces’ of his literary predecessors. In chapters entitled ‘Müller as Brecht’, ‘Müller as Kleist’, ‘Müller as Shakespeare’, ‘Müller as Beckett’ and so on, Kalb demonstrates how Müller’s work takes on characteristics of the playwrights whose skins he borrows for a time.
In the case of Quartett, Müller’s borrowed ‘masks’ are the Marquis de Sade, Choderlos de Laclos, and Jean Genet. Laclos is the most obvious, as Müller takes as his protagonists the two main characters from Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses: the Marchioness de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. He also borrows the basic action – the plot between the two to seduce a pious wife, Madame de Tourvel; and to deflower Merteuil’s niece, the virginal Cécile de Volanges, in revenge against her future husband for rejecting Merteuil. The ‘mask’ of De Sade is present in the pornographic content of the play – the sexual debaucheries the two aristocrats re-enact to fill the hours of extreme boredom; in memory of their earlier pursuit of pleasure unrestrained by morality or law – and in the twisting of religious doctrine to evil ends (see Kalb 2001: 179). The layers of role-play leading to a murder/suicide echoes Genet’s 1947 play The Maids. Thus traces of these three author’s voices are audible in the interpretive ‘space’ of Müller’s play.
Corporeal and Mental Spaces of the Rehearsal Process
In order to allow these ‘voices’ to be ‘heard’ by an audience, the play must be staged in a way which allows an openness of interpretation. Any approach which reduces the characters of Müller’s play to psychological motivations is too simplistic. In a ‘post-modern’ world, familiar with Erving Goffman’s concept of the ‘role’ in everyday life, and with an understanding of self as ‘fragmented’, acting approaches which aim for a unity of psychological process and physical gesture, such as Stanislavsky’s, are rendered obsolete. We may desire clarity and unity, but ultimately we fail: we may have contradictory feelings about any event, and we are used to operating on several levels at once. Acting methodologies which operate under hierarchies of objectives are too simple for this conception of the world – this certainty died with the master narratives. The most we can achieve is to set the ‘rules of the game’, but there is no guarantee that they won’t be broken. Müller’s dramaturgy reflects this. To perform his plays, evenQuartett, which is far more character-driven and linear than much of his work, actors must engage with the slippages, must create layers of ‘masks’ as part of the ‘game’; and in our process, layers of interior ‘spaces’ to counterpoint the physical images.
The process I used to develop the mise en scene with the actors intentionally disrupts the search for unity. Rather it requires the actors to progress through different mental ‘spaces’ in the development of their role(-play). We lay down a series of mental and physical ‘tracks’ of ever-increasing complexity, which initially operate independently but eventually coalesce, like the individual ‘tracks’ of a sound recording merge to form a coherent composition. This process ensures that any apparent unity of mind and body, of image and text, is the result of a hard-fought battle of oppositions, an integration of the ‘Not…but’ or ‘both…and’, which still allows an openness of play in performance.
From the beginning, any safety the actor feels in reliance on the logic of the text is destroyed. Initially the text is a merely a structural coat-hanger to drape a ‘physical score’ over, a support for the geometry of the actor’s movement in the performance space. This ‘score’ is intentionally unrelated to the meaning of the play in order to break the actor of cliché and to keep the text ‘open’ to interpretation. When physical gesture is chosen on the basis of logical analysis, the options are limited. By removing the option of logic, the actors cannot take refuge in habitual responses or emotional tricks. By randomly creating a physical score, unexpected juxtapositions of physical and verbal imagery open up resonances in the text. Random physical actions begin to make metaphorical sense when ‘read’ against the words of the play; opening up interpretive possibilities for the audience that would not have emerged if we’d taken textual analysis as a starting point.
With texts as dense as Müller’s, it is important to gain distance from the text in order to make a beginning, or it will drown you. The sheer visual impact on the page ofQuartett’s monologue-dominated format is enough to paralyse an actor. Commencing a rehearsal process by analysing what the text ‘means’ or what the characters ‘want’ – as even Stanislavsky discovered in his ‘Tablework’ period – can create a barrier to getting the piece on its feet, as the collaborators are confronted with the impossibility of translating the ideas that have been discussed intellectually into physical reality on the stage. For this reason, I never do a first reading of a play with actors sitting down, as this frequently causes them to focus on how to say the text. They spout pre-prepared intonations that become cemented. Instead, I give them physical provocations. ForQuartett, which consists of huge blocks of text by one actor at a time, I gave the actors physical instructions to follow – such as one actor must seek physical contact while the other avoids it – which were designed to destroy the speaker’s focus on the words, and to force them to react instinctively and physically. In doing so we broke the pre-rehearsed vocal patterns, but also generated material to use in the ‘physical score’ for the show, but we also in effect started playing with the slippage between character and actor that Schechner speaks of – the character’s text filling the aural space, while the actor’s body reacts instinctively to provocations from the other actor. This is a first step towards creating the slippage between ‘roles’ or ‘masks’ in Müller’s stage world.
Before discussing the details of the process itself, it is necessary to clarify two concepts already alluded to: the concept of ‘tracks’ of performance and notion of a ‘physical score’.
A conventional approach to acting, such as the Stanislavskyan techniques, has the physical gesture and psychological intention working in tandem. A more contemporary technique is deliberately to fragment the aspects of performance to allow a more complex ‘reading’ experience for the audience. A recent trend amongst theatre practitioners is to create separate visual (physical) and auditory (textual) ‘tracks’ of performance. The surprising juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory elements necessitates a more active engagement with the interpretation of the performance. Quebecois director Robert Lepage, in recording Japanese influence on his work, explains the use of ‘tracks’ of performance: ‘[The Japanese] have no problem performing the role of a samurai to Brahms or mixing very disparate techniques in the same show’ (Charest: 45-6) in a ‘harmonious counterpoint’ of sound and image.
The American director Robert Wilson was one of the early proponents of this concept, utilising it in his early production of Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine (NYU, 1984). As Laurence explains: ‘He (Wilson) describes the playwright’s texts as ‘very hot emotionally’ and says that he prefers to present them in a cool, objective manner, with… distance and formality… Wilson believes that this seemingly contradictory mode of presentation enhances rather than diminishes their impact: ‘When you’ve got a hot text and you want it to be really hot, you have to be very cold. If you perform it in a hot way, what you’re going to get is… nothing’’(Shyer 1989: 131). If Müller’s verbally violent texts were performed in a ‘hot’, angst-ridden way, they would be too over-the-top, and risk the audience’s switching off. Juxtaposition with Wilson’s calm, repetitive stage picture serves as a counterpoint which makes the text stand out in relief. ForHamletmachine Wilson created a choreography over which the text was layered as both a separate auditory ‘track’ – a voiceover – and a visual textual ‘track’ – a rapidly scrolling screen of the full playtext – and objected if the moves related ‘too much’ to the text. Wilson justifies this approach by saying: Müller’s ‘texts have so many images in the words that one needs a certain amount of space in order to see the pictures’ (Shyer 1989: 130).
Wilson is utilising the concept of ‘tracks’ from a director’s perspective – and his ‘tracks’ of performance are clearly visible. He separates the auditory and physical tracks so the audience can see the individual ‘tracks’ more clearly. What I am more interested in however, is the actor’s ‘tracks’ – and these are not only more numerous, but also invisible. While a physical ‘track’ – the physical ‘score’, to be discussed below – can be seen by the audience, the mental ‘tracks’ – the layers of process in an actor’s mind – cannot. It is the layering of these tracks – physical, subtextual, mnemonic, emotional – which build a performance. You will have experienced the operation of ‘tracks’ yourself. It’s like walking down the street wearing a personal stereo. You have a visual ‘track’ of what you see occurring around you – and it is separate from the auditory ‘track’ which is the music coming through your headphones. At the same time you are thinking about all the things you need to get done – your mental ‘track’, like an actor’s subtextual ‘intention’ for a scene. You also have a ‘physical’ track – you need to be aware of spatial dynamics in the street to avoid bumping into other people or objects. These ‘tracks’ may be contradictory, and in scoring a performance I intentionally make them so, but when the actor is able to hold several ‘tracks’ simultaneously, their performance is incredibly alive. I would go so far as to say that the more tracks that are operating, and the more contradictions between them that the actor has to overcome in their body and mind, the more interesting the performance. As American director Anne Bogart explains: ‘The calibre of the obstacle determines the quality of the expression’ (Bogart 2001: 141).
Bogart presents her audiences with similar contrapuntal reading experiences to Wilson, and she utilises ‘tracks’ from an actor’s perspective. Bogart begins by setting the physical ‘track’. Her work, utilising her ‘Viewpoints’ method, begins with the body in space, not the intellect, and her ‘Sourcework’ and ‘Composition’ exercises use associations and instincts rather than structured reasoning to develop material. As Ellen Lauren, a Bogart collaborator explains: ‘In the best of rehearsals, the body’s priority over the text allows a truer emotional response to surface. One is simply too busy to ‘act’. When the body informs the psychology, the language is startlingly alive. The actor is available to a much greater range of musicality’ (Lauren 1995: 64). Bogart uses the actor’s ‘body knowledge’ (instincts, physical memories, gestural responses) to compose her work. She sets the physical form but allows the actors to have free reign in the interior ‘track/s’. The Viewpoints, as distilled principles of performance, are not merely compositional exercises, rather, as points of focus that operate simultaneously in a performance, they can each constitute a ‘track’ of mental focus. An actor can consciously select one ‘track’ to dominate when they wish to concentrate on a particular aspect of performance, but all layers are operating as background music to their ‘score’.
Perhaps one of the reasons for a dissatisfaction with Stanislavskyan methods is that because mind and body ‘tracks’ are aiming for unity, a performance can become automatic and stale, when the actor has internalised their performance so they no longer have to focus on it to remember the next step. When this happens we say an actor ‘phoned in their performance’. Complex ‘tracks’ of focus can prevent this. Josefina Baez, a New-York-based performer from the Dominican Republic, uses Kathakali finger exercises as a technique for keeping ‘present’ (in the moment) in performance. They enforce a focus that she doesn’t need any more for her text, emotions and basic choreography. The principle I draw from this is that to keep a performance fresh, as soon as an actor masters all their current ‘tracks’, it’s time to add another one. Theatre methodologies like these, which aim to capture the energy and ‘liveness’ of a performance, to keep the performer ‘in the moment’, share concerns with phenomenology. These methods are a very real example of the interaction between consciousness and reality: a conscious provocation of an encounter between the actor’s perception and environment. A point of focus is used to create a palpable physical energy that can be perceived by the audience, but which doesn’t emanate from the intellect.
The technique I used to direct Quartett is a process of laying down progressive layers of ‘tracks’ like a sound engineer in a recording studio. With each layer the performance becomes richer, in both the possibilities for the performer’s focus – giving them a freedom of selection in performance – and in interpretive possibilities for the audience.
To begin with, I have two ‘macro-tracks’ – the text of Müller’s play and the ‘physical score’ we create to accompany it. As a principle, I deliberately create as large an opposition between the ‘meaning’ of the textual ‘track’ and the physical ‘track’ (movement) as possible. The actors create ‘micro-tracks’ to build up their performance in layers. They must merge these tracks to the extent that they become unconscious, so that they can focus on the next layer, and therefore some purely ‘mnemonic’ tracks only serve a temporary function. Any ‘unity’ of internal performance logic for the actors comes from an integration of seemingly disparate elements, a moulding of ‘tracks’ that vary in importance during the composition. Like an orchestral score, a physical ‘score’ implies a set of instructions to follow: rhythm, timing, quality of expression, interaction between individuals or groups may be defined, but open to interpretation in each performance. Both the ‘macro-track’ of the playtext and the ‘macro-track’ of the physical ‘score’ are modified as ‘tracks’ are added. In Quartett, the decision as to when Merteuil is role-playing Valmont and when she is speaking as herself has implications for both the vocal emphasis of the delivery of the text and for the quality of the physical gestures accompanying it.
When I use the term ‘score’ I am using it both for the method and the results of my process. The initial ‘score’ is the instructions I give to generate material. I don’t control the material, I simply set up a series of provocations and see what comes out. We begin by creating the basic physical shape – an empty chronology of movements that fit temporally with the sentences of the play, the first stage of the ‘physical score’ – the undifferentiated ‘macro-track’. For the director this process is a leap into the unknown because when I begin I have no idea how the physicality will look at the end. But it is a necessary leap. Müller himself said that ‘The leap, not the step, is what makes the experience possible’ (Bogart 2001: 113). This dictim applies to the director as well, because I can’t ask the actors to trust the process I have been describing unless I trust it myself. We don’t begin from a sense of who the ‘character’ is, and so many actors trying this process for the first time fear that their role will have no coherence. Yet the factor that gives the role coherence is the actors themselves – their own bodies. Every performer has unique physical capabilities – moves that naturally feel more fluid, physical barriers they can or cannot push. Actors unknowingly create patterns of movement – some of which we must consciously break so they don’t become repetitive. The process enables a director to really get to know an actor’s brains and ‘body-thinking’. The final product, the ‘fixed’ choreography of moves for the performance, which results from the process, is also a ‘score’. It is detailed and defined, but is only a blueprint for performance, the actors still have room to play within it. By choosing to focus on a particular ‘micro-track’, the performance is modified.
My personal explorations with physical scoring were inspired by a visit of the Argentinian-born Cristina Castrillo and her Swiss theatre company Teatro delle Radici to New Zealand in 2001 as a guest of Magdalena Aotearoa, the New Zealand branch of the international Magdalena network of women in professional theatre. I began applying physical scoring to playtexts in 2002 with my production of Wolfgang Borchert’s The Man Outside (Draussen vor der Tür). My ideas on scoring have been influenced by short trips to Odin Teatret in Holstebro, Denmark, training in Biomechanics with Gennadi Bogdanov at the Berlin Mime Centre and Ernst Busch Hochschule für Schauspielkunst (Berlin), and research into the working processes of Anne Bogart and Robert Lepage. Unlike many practitioners who use scoring techniques to devise new work, I have focused my experiments on creating new physical scores to present classic playtexts – Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit (Besuch der alten Dame), Shakespeare’sTitus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors and Frank Wedekind’s Lulu in addition to the Borchert. The techniques developed during these productions have informed my approach to the following methodology:
Generating the Physical Score
The first stage in creating the physical score is generating reserves of physical material to draw on. We are operating on a principle of randomness – by creating physical moves without relating to the text at all, we open the way to surprise associations that illuminate the work at a deeper, more metaphoric level. Randomness allows images to be created which resonate with the text in a way we could never have discovered if we’d started from a logical, rational place. The images seem to ‘fit’ the text somehow. The justification of why this is – the rules of the ‘game’ in the fictional world – occurs in retrospect. This random approach relies on Kuleshov’s theory of montage. His principle states that film scenes shot in completely different locations are ‘read’ as being in the same place by virtue of the scenes occurring in close proximity to each other in the final edit. This is transferable to theatre – when we place two things on stage simultaneously, the audience looks for coherence, for the logical connection between them. The human impulse to search for patterns operates to make sense of the seemingly disparate. Both actor and audience use the text to find a ‘reason’ for the physical images created separately from it.
Broken down step-by-step the process functions as follows:
The actors create a long ‘master’ list of movements or physical poses to imitate, which are randomly allocated to lines of text – thus they must come up with as many moves as they have lines in their text. At this stage the text provides merely a function of form – we work to the punctuation and supply one image/move per phrase of the text. This ‘master list’ is created a number of ways:
a) Guided physical provocations: If these are associated with character, then only peripherally. For example, actors are asked to explore animal physicalities that might be applicable to their character – but given an extended period of time, so they get beyond the clichés (out of boredom they must think beyond the obvious). Or they are asked to choose a daily activity, such as making a sandwich, and to define every detail of this action. Then they play with scale, tempo, or add emotions or visualise physical circumstances to vary the quality of movement. If both actors are present (Quartett is a two-hander), instructions on how to behave in relation to what the other does are added, i.e. one must always be on a lower level than the other; between the two actors only two feet are allowed to touch the ground at one time.
b) Using images: the actors scan printed material for images of interesting physicalities, which they would then embody. The sports pages of newspapers and art books are rich sources of physical material. Brian Hotter, who played Valmont, found a weighty tome on the history of sculpture to be inspirational. Good sculpture naturally incorporates Meyerholdian concept of Rakurs – the viewpoint you present to the audience; the most interesting viewpoint being that which shows as many planes of the body as possible. Ciara Mulholland, who played Merteuil, found a Taschen monograph of Victorian pornography. Interestingly, despite the explicit nature of the source material, once you remove the fellow players from the images, the physical poses themselves are rather innocuous. She also drew on the photography of Wolfgang Tillmans and documentations of Butoh and Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater. Sometimes the use of an image is literal – e.g. Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam for the line ‘I see you wavering’ (Müller 1984: 114) – but frequently we may only use part of a body posture, or turn it upside down, or do the action without walls to lean on, props or whatever other physical barriers are in the image. If the image has multiple protagonists, we may use several different people’s poses as moves for successive lines. Similarly the use can be more associative – an advertising slogan may suggest a physical image, or the line of a drawing may be translated into a line made with the body. Text can be used the same way: actors may randomly open a dictionary or thesaurus and physically enact whatever word their eye falls on.
c) Physical ‘logic’ – sometimes one has to rely on the honesty of the body to determine the next move. When the actor assumes a particular pose, an instinctive reaction (whether from them or the director watching) is that the next move must be X. There might be no rational reason for this action explicable in words; the action just feels physically right. Therefore we follow instinct. If pose A is scored for a particular line and the next pose randomly allocated, Pose B, is radically different, a line or two may be used for a transition, and again a body ‘logic’ must be used – what is the smoothest transition from A to B? We trust the knowledge of the body.
With a text like Müller’s, where there are huge amounts of lines to set moves to, the most interesting work often comes when the actors have exhausted their reserves of movements; when they reach the edges of their patience, and are beyond self-censorship. In their desperation to finish the scoring, they often come up with the most interesting physical material. When asked to come up with yet another move, they often ‘blurt’ an action in expression of their frustration, which has a spontaneity and honesty lacking from the more calculated moves. The director has to capture and define these ‘blurts’. We work chronologically through scoring the play, so by the time this frustration peaks, it is often towards the end of the text. Dramaturgically, as is the case in Quartett, this is usually when the tensions in the text are building, so the intensity of frustration, which increases the intensity of the physical response unconsciously keys in to the inherent tension in the text.
Up to this point, the process I have elucidated implies that all the moves in the physical score are unrelated to the text. There are some exceptions, where the score is text-inspired, though not in a literal, psychological way. For example, when I used this technique to direct The Visit, Will Connor, the actor playing Alfred Ill, was looking for physical material for the scene at the railway station. The text, in the translation by Patrick Bowles, which we used for the production, was as follows:
POLICEMAN: Where are you going?
ILL: I don’t know. First to Kalberstadt, then a bit further to…
SCHOOLMASTER: Ah! Then a bit further?
ILL: To Australia preferably. I’ll get the money somehow or other…
(Dürrenmatt 1962: 58)
When Will was stuck for a move, I suggested he try to physically represent a map of Australia. So he stood on one leg with one arm mapping the curve of the Northern Territory and the other as the Cape York Peninsula, and a toe pointing out Tasmania. Thus the physical move was abstract – and few in the audience would see its geographical origin – but did emerge from the text in an associative way.
Similarly in Quartett, when we came to the seduction of the virgin, we were faced with the ‘Müllerism’ of capitalised sentences in the text. As I’ve never discovered an all-inclusive explanation for these, we simply made up our own. We decided that each phrase in capitals was an orgasm for Valmont. For the sake of variety, we concluded that each orgasm should be in a different sexual position, and as the text speaks of a Holy Trinity of three ‘gateways’ to Paradise, the sexual positions were somewhat predetermined. Much of the scoring for this scene was designed to either heighten the ridiculousness of the positions or to aid the transition from one to another. Thus we made a physical expression for a textual convention. In case you’ve ever wondering, playing a washing machine rotator gives a great metaphorical representation of an orgasm!
Most of the scoring of this master list of moves to text was done individually, then we put the individual moves of the actors together and adjusted them in response to each other. The exception was this seduction scene, which was largely scored together, as the one moment where the characters physically connect.
In fitting the moves randomly to the lines of text, the rhythm of the monologues became clearer. The length of the line determines how the move must be adjusted to ‘fit’. Either the move needs to be fitted to the length of line – a small move perhaps extended and slowed down to fit a long line; or a complicated move sped up to fit a short line – or broken down into parts to fit across several lines. Or the line must be said at a speed appropriate to fit the move.
Notating the Score
Once the rough physical ‘score’ has been created the actors must memorise it. In order to do this, they must notate it in a way that they can be prompted on it. The biggest challenge for the actors in the early stages of the process is trying to remember which actions go with which lines – as they were randomly associated there is no mental crutch so pure physical repetition is necessary to ingrain them. Few actors learn Labanotation, and, besides, it is too complex. They need something which immediately suggests a physical form to them, so they can be cued quickly by the Stage Manager.
So the initial mental ‘track’ is a series of mental associations for each move. It may be a visual image of the physicality if it was derived from an artwork or image. However, I have found that the simplest technique is to create a ‘track’ consisting of a series of names given to each physical position. This is not a subtext, but a simple mnemonic device – an abbreviated verbal prompt that can be given by the Stage Manager the way they normally prompt lines is crucial until the actor has internalised the moves. Thus our scripts often have numbers next to each phrase of text, correlating to a long list of summary prompts or images down the blank page opposite.
At this point the actor’s internal monologue has two logics or two ‘tracks’: the lines of the text, and a series of verbal prompts of moves to fit with the text.
Integration of Score and Text
After a period of repetition, a ‘body memory’ of the score is made and the verbal prompts (a purely mnemonic ‘track’) become redundant. The moves begin to flow smoothly into each other, and to resonate. As Anne Bogart explains: ‘The Japanese use the word kata to describe a prescribed set of movements that are repeatable. … In executing a kata it is essential never to question its meaning but through the endless repetition the meaning starts to vibrate and acquire substance’ (Bogart 2001: 101). The physical ‘score’ is an extended kata.
Once the ‘score’ is internalised, the actor’s mind is open to exploring layers of the text. The physical score is operating independently with its own logic, so now the actor can begin to lay down ‘tracks’ which ‘justify’ the seemingly unrelated moves in terms of the text. Psychological ‘tracks’ replace the simple mnemonic ‘track’. On a micro-level we created an ‘actioning’ track. Using this Mike Alfreds method, the actors assign a verb, which expresses the psychological subtext, to each line of the text, and they use this verb to colour the way they speak that text. For example, Merteuil’s first monologue contains this section (‘actions’ are in brackets):
Or was your virility damaged in my successors. (I poke at your sore spot)
Your breath tastes of solitude (I pity you)
Did the successor of my successors send you packing. (I gloat)
(Müller 1984: 107)
In doing this we discovered another ‘macro-track’: the ‘rules of the game’ between Merteuil and Valmont. Rule number one is that they know how the game will end (someone will die) but they don’t know when it will come. Each character has psychological ‘micro-tracks’ for different role-plays, i.e. when the characters are using their role-playing as a mask, when they are speaking their opinion of the other character directly to them and when they are speaking to themselves.
Although cultural theory has demolished the modernist narratives of a unified self, a ‘fragmented self’ is little use on a rehearsal room floor. Actors need a principle to cling to – they must discover the ‘rules’ of this fictive world. In this case we found four layers of role-play:
- Valmont and Merteuil’s relationship
- Playing each other; and also enacting Cécile Volanges, Merteuil’s virginal niece, and Mme. de Tourvel, the pious wife Valmont is challenged to seduce. This has two levels: are they playing what they think the other wants to see; or using it to say what they want to say to them but don’t dare?
- The entry of metatheatre – an awareness of their role as a performer before an audience. This also has two levels: are Merteuil and Valmont performing for the audience; or are they merely ‘macro-roles’ being played by a pair of actors, to pass the time until death, in the bunker.
- The actors also have two levels: the ‘persona’ of the actors in the bunker, as part of the fictional world, and the people in the real world behind the fictive ‘actors’ – Brian Hotter and Ciara Mulholland. While there were moments when I could tell it was Brian or Ciara saying the line, because they’d fallen ‘out of character’, we haven’t consistently explored this level. This level can bring a deeper resonance, as it did with Müller’s own 1994 production at the Berliner Ensemble with Marianne Hoppe as Merteuil. The actress has a huge persona and her history, including a marriage to controversial theatre director Gustaf Gründgens, a leading theatre artist under the Nazis, is known to an audience at the Berliner Ensemble, and this colours their reading of her as Merteuil. As Müller’s dramaturg, Stephan Suschke, states: “Sie kannte die Lügen des Jahrhunderts, die grossen wie die kleinen.” (Suschke 2003: 237 – “She knew the lies of the century, the large as well as the small”). Hoppe was 85 when the production premiered, which gave extra bite to the jibes about age that Valmont and Merteuil trade with each other.
Discovering these psychological levels or ‘tracks’ is an ongoing process with a text as multi-faceted as Quartett. However, this gradual discovery of the ‘rules’ of the ‘game’ assists in editing the ‘physical score’ for public presentation. It is necessary to pare it back to allow the audience to absorb it. Moments of stillness are necessary to counterpoint the movement, just as silence is necessary to recover from the torrent of language – the audience needs a visual and mental ‘breather’. One moment clearly marked in the text as ‘falling out of role’ – Merteuil and Valmont speaking directly to each other – gave this breather:
Valmont: I believe I could get used to being a woman, Marchioness.
Merteuil: I wish I could.
Valmont: What now. Are we to go on playing.
Merteuil: Are we playing? Go on to what? (Müller 1984: 114 – 115)
The actors played it stock still facing the audience.
The Physical and Interpretative Spaces of the Performance
The final aspect of this discussion is the interaction between the physical ‘space’ of the performance and the imaginative ‘space’ of the audience observing it, who decode the ‘rules’ of this world for themselves. The actors’ ‘tracks’ inform the audience’s understanding of the words but the spectators must draw the ‘tracks’ together to interpret the contrapuntal relationship between Müller’s text and the physical ‘score’. If there is any ‘implied spectator’ for this work, it is one who is willing to work hard to construct an interpretation. However, I hope that this understanding is not purely intellectual, but made of associations, sensory responses and visual patterns. There is no literal ‘meaning’ of the physical score, so the audience has freer interpretive range. My earlier productions using this physical scoring technique were of ‘classic’ texts which had ‘heightened’, non-naturalistic tendencies. In these, the audience decoding process was simpler, because they had the mental crutch of a linear plot and defined characters to hang their interpretation of the movement on. Müller’s matrix of role-play levels inQuartett increases the amount of audience decoding necessary: in addition to creating their own logic for the physical score, spectators must also determine, moment to moment, the layer of roleplay i.e. ‘who’ is speaking, and ‘to whom’. Yet the performance can also be enjoyed by just letting the text and the visuals wash over you – as Robert Wilson once said, you can just ‘listen to the pictures’. Phenomenologists have critiqued semioticians’ focus on ‘meaning’ to the exclusion of the experience, of feeling. The actors’ simultaneous ‘tracks’ allow them to access both ways of thinking, and hopefully the complexity of the performance we have constructed also allows both responses in the audience.
Since the emergence of reader response/reception theory, it has been posited that the ‘meaning’ of any particular theatre performance is unique to each audience member, depending on their personal associations. Theatre theorist Marvin Carlson claims the openness of stage performance creates a ‘psychic polyphony’ where the spectator chooses their own points of focus, thus creating ‘an unique and individual ‘synchronic’ reading as the play moved forward diachronically’ (Carlson 1990:99). However, the audience’s meaning-making influence on the performance goes further than this. The actor’s experience of an individual performance, and thus the shape this performance takes, is also dependent on audience members’ responses. Which ‘micro-tracks’ the actors focus on during a given performance may make minute changes to their performance, but one ‘micro-track’ which only emerges during a performance season is the intuitive modification of the action in response to their reading of the audience’s responses. As Anne Bogart explains:
Quantum physics teaches us that the act of observation alters the thing observed. To observe is to disturb. ‘To observe’ is not a passive verb. As a director I have learnt that the quality of my observation and attention can determine the outcome of a process. Under the right circumstances the audience’s observation and attention can significantly affect the quality of an actor’s performance. Actors can respond to an audience’s powers of observation. It is the contact/response cycle at the heart of live performance that makes being there so extraordinary. … The reception is palpable. Listening to the listening, the actor makes adjustments in the speed of an entrance, the intensity of the first line spoken or the length of a pause. An actor learns when to hold back and when to open up based on the agility of the audience. …The audience is engaged in a collaboration of silence which makes possible the extended intercourse of performance (Bogart 2001: 72-73)
This effectiveness of this ‘listening to the listening’ is mediated by the physical space of the performance. Especially in Quartett, where the structure contains long periods when an actor speaks to the audience rather than connecting with the other actor, the performers really need to feel the audience are working with them. The architecture of performance venues impacts hugely upon this relationship. BATS theatre in Wellington, where we first staged Quartett, is an intimate ‘black box’ theatre, where the audience, in raked seating, shares the same space as the performers. The solid black walls create a sense of enclosure and the sound travels easily in both directions. The actors can hear and see the audience’s responses easily. In contrast, the Allen Hall theatre space, used for the Dunedin season, is a reversed proscenium arch set-up. That is, the audience sit on what used to be the stage, again in raked seating, but they are clearly separated from the performers, who work on the floor of the former auditorium. There is a large potential performance space for the actors, with a high ceiling. Our attempts to enclose the space with ‘blacks’ (stage curtains) failed to give the claustrophobic sense the play needs, as they lack the solidity that suggests a ‘bunker’ environment. But the most dramatic impact of this space on the actors was the acoustics. Sound seemed to bounce in only one direction: from the actors, over the heads of the audience and into the ceiling behind the proscenium arch. The performers could hear no responses from the audience, and combined with the need to work physically harder to ‘fill’ the larger space, they felt that they were operating in the ‘void’ that is constantly being referred to in the text.
In phenomenological terms, this had the effect of giving the actors a real ‘lived experience’ analogous to the content of the play – a failure to really connect with other human beings present – but this perception was agonising for them. In retrospect, it is clear to me that the circumstances created by this scoring process also paralleled the content of Müller’s play. The isolation the actor feels in the initial scoring process creates an empathy with the ‘Dialogunfähigkeit’ (inability to engage in dialogue) of Müller’s characters. The battle to remember text and moves before they enter the body memory mirrors the characters’ frustration at the lack of control over the fantasy they wish to enact, because their nemesis won’t play along. Valmont and Merteuil rarely ‘connect’ with each other at a level not masked by role-play. What was a shock to the actors in this venue was that they had overcome the earlier obstacles only to encounter a new, overwhelming one. One astute observer commented that the audience suffered a similar experience. As the only entrance/exit to Allen Hall is behind the performance space, spectators cannot leave without totally disrupting the performance. Thus both – actors, who are cut off from hearing or seeing those they are playing to; and any audience members not enjoying the performance – were trapped together in a Beckettian situation. The actors feel doomed to go through the motions of ‘the game’ and the audience is compelled to remain until ‘the game’ ends. Perhaps the space unintentionally contributed to a Müller-like joint experience of the tediousness of passing the time until death in a bunker!
Ironically, of the two venues, the one least physically like a bunker, most effectively created this aspect of ‘timespace’ mentally. As discussed at the beginning, the challenge for producers of this play is to evoke the two periods simultaneously in the minds of the audience. Our understanding of the simultaneity, in this production, is that while the world of the characters’ ‘game’ is a luxurious palace, the physical ‘reality’ is a bunker. For the BATS season, which had a full design, our intention was to suggest treasures looted from a destroyed palace in the bunker. The ‘treasures’ were an antique mirror and a chandelier which only partially worked. Other objects were contemporary: simple chairs, a milk bottle which is ‘endowed’ as being a wine glass, the period costumes were tattered and stained, and worn over contemporary clothing. The lighting design was a ‘real-time’ sequence suggesting chinks of sunlight coming through holes in the bunker walls. Despite these attempts to blur the time periods, we failed in this objective. Many BATS audience members read the antiques metonymically – envisaging the whole fictional ‘world’ as a sumptuous palace, rather than seeing the blank walls as blank walls of a bunker.
One production choice that did work, and equally well in both spaces, was the use of real red wine for the ritual murder/suicide. The wine would pool on the floor and slowly creep across the stage throughout the final speeches. Many audience members commented on being fascinated by its almost imperceptible progress. We chose to use real wine to add another sensory experience to the ending of the play – rather than just seeing and hearing the poisoning, the audience could also smell it, their encounter with the onstage world occurring within their own bodily senses.
For the actors, the direct encounter with their environment was kept ‘live’ and unpredictable in the BATS season with Martyn Roberts’ lighting design (which unfortunately couldn’t be recreated for the tour). Except for very few hand-operated cues, the lights were on a timer. As mentioned above, the design consisted of slowly moving, strong shafts of light dissecting the space, as if coming through holes in the bunker walls. Small variations in the actors’ timing in any one performance meant that it was not predictable where a shaft of light would be on any given line of text. This kept the actors ‘present’ and playful – they had to interact with the light as with another player, choosing to move into light or shadow in the moment. These choices dramatically affected the spectator’s ‘reading’ of the character’s intentions in that moment, and provides another example of the physical and imaginative ‘spaces’ of the performance overlapping unpredictably.
In this article I have attempted to elucidate the interaction of a number of physical and mental spaces in the creation and reception of this production of Quartett. The way in which these spaces overlap differ depending on the phase of production: (con)textual analysis, rehearsal or performance. The working process has been strongly influenced by contemporary theatre theory and practice, which playfully explores the interaction of these spaces, but my explanation of it also touches on the intersection of these theories with broader cultural theory. Theatre theories which aim to keep the actor ‘present’ by creating actor’s ‘tracks’ of performance (Bogart, Butoh, Biomechanics) connect with phenomenological concerns: of engagement in a ‘lived’ experience between the individual consciousness and reality; and reflection on encounters with the environment. The theatre practices which consciously construct director’s ‘tracks’ of performance (Wilson, Lepage), aim to create a complex and open reading experience for the audience in line with broader reader response/reception theories. Both these approaches access a matrix of spaces. In rehearsal and performance the actor operates within a variety of internal (mental) and external (corporeal) spaces. The invisible (emotional, subtextual, mnemonic) ‘tracks’ affect the visible (gestural, spatial, interactive) ‘tracks’. The audience perceives these in their imaginative (mental) and sensual (corporeal) spaces. The overall aim of this process is to engage both creators and receivers in an engagement with the complexity of Müller’s multi-layered text, by setting up seemingly contradictory mental and physical actions. Müller, himself a great paradox, hints at exactly this kind of simultaneous but diametrically opposed physical action and mental response, when he quips: ‘Even dying we can laugh’ (Holmberg 2001: 65).
Anne Bogart (2001). A Director Prepares – Seven Essays on Art and Theatre (London & New York: Routledge).
Marvin Carlson (1990). Theatre Semiotics: Signs of Life, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press).
Rémy Charest (1997). Robert Lepage Connecting Flights, transl. Wanda Romer Taylor (London: Methuen).
Mel Gordon (1987). The Stanislavsky Technique (New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers).
Lawrence Halprin, Jim Burns, Anna Halprin, and Paul Baum (1974). Taking Part – A Workshop Approach to Collective Creativity (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press).
Arthur Holmberg (2001). ‘Heiner Müller: The Political Beast – A Never-Before-Published Interview with the Late German Writer,’ American Theater, December 2001: 62-65.
Jonathan Kalb (2001). The Theater of Heiner Müller (New York: Limelight Editions).
Tina Landau (1995). ‘Sourcework, The Viewpoints and Composition: What are They?’ in Michael Bigelow Dixon & Joel A. Smith (es.) Anne Bogart Viewpoints (Lyme, NH: Smith and Kraus).
Ellen Lauren (1995). ‘Seven Points of View,’ in Michael Bigelow Dixon & Joel A. Smith (eds.) Anne Bogart Viewpoints (Lyme, NH: Smith and Kraus).
Heiner Müller (1984b). ‘19 Answers byHeiner Müller,’ in Carl Weber (transl.),Hamletmachine and Other Texts for the Stage (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications).
Richard Schechner (1999). ‘Re-wrighting Shakespeare: A Conversation with Richard Schechner,’ in Milla Cozart Riggio (ed.) Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance(New York: MLA).
Laurence Shyer (1989). Robert Wilson and His Collaborators (New York: Theatre Communications Group).
Stephan Suschke (2003). Müller macht Theater – Zehn Inszenierungen und ein Epilog(Berlin: Theater der Zeit).
Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1962). The Visit: A Tragi-Comedy transl. Patrick Bowles (London: Cape).
Heiner Müller (1983). ‘Quartett,’ in Herzstück (Berlin: Rotbuch Verlag).
Heiner Müller (1984). Quartet, in Carl Weber (transl.), Hamletmachine and Other Texts for the Stage (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications).
NOTES ON PRACTICES AND PRACTIONERS
Bogdanov is one of the few master teachers of Meyerhold’s Biomechanics in the world today. Frustrated with Stanislavsky’s methods Vsevelod Meyerhold (1874 –1942) began creating a system he called ‘theatrical Biomechanics’, influenced by the motion economy studies of Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856 – 1915) and ‘reflexology’: the study of principles governing human reflexes, that is, the body’s automatic response to stimuli (the work of William James, Vladimir Bekhterev and Pavlov). Meyerhold created a series of études to teach theatrical principles of scenic movement, such as economy, and his ‘acting cycle’ – Otkas (preparation), Posyl, (main action), Stoika (fixing of the action) – is based on Taylorist ‘work cycles’. The development of Biomechanics was cut short when Meyerhold was executed for refusing to toe the Stalinist ‘socialist realism’ line. As Biomechanics was banned, some of the only extant archival records of the system are the series of photos of Meyerhold’s collaborator Nikolai Kustow, which the American director Lee Strasberg took during a 1934 trip to Moscow. However Kustow himself was a ‘corporeal archive’ of the system. He taught it to a group of young actors, including Gennadi Bogdanov, at Moscow’s Theatre of Satire in the 1970s. Bogdanov has been a teacher of the system since 1986.
The Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863 – 1938) known for creating a System of approaching a role, which was later adapted by American director Lee Strasberg et al. to form ‘The Method’. Stanislavsky articulated two key ways of working. In his ‘Tablework’ period (c. 1925 – 1928), psychological objectives for individual characters in each moment of a scene were derived in a process of breaking scenes down into Units of Action after analysing their Through Action (over-riding idea that guides the character through the play) and their Super-Objective (character’s overall aim in life). In working these psychological objectives, the actor draws on his or her ‘affective memory’ (their storehouse of experiences) and finds an equivalent one to the emotion necessary for the scene. Thus the evocation of an emotion determines physical movement. From approximately 1935, Stanislavsky consciously took the opposite approach in his Method of Physical Actions. In this, physical gestures appropriate to a moment in the scene were perfected and this led to an evocation of the emotion, as internal feeling and character identification can be stimulated by pure movement, action and rhythm. With either method, Stanislavsky relied on the interconnectedness of body and emotions to inform one another and present a unified concept. See Gordon (1987).
Texan-born Wilson (b. 1941) made his name in his early, self-created theatre works which explored alternate ways of seeing the world. His staging of Deafman Glance(1970) reflected the ‘inner screen’, image-based viewpoint of his deaf-mute collaborator Raymond Andrews and the key visual element of the set of Letter to Queen Victoria(1974) was the repetitive, pattern-based experimentation with words of the autistic Christopher Knowles. His fine arts background has led Wilson to treat his stage composition like a painting. He prefers to work on a proscenium arch stage, and movement of actors is frequently divided into three spatial ‘tracks’: horizontal movement across the foreground, mid-ground and background, with a playful use of scale. In recent years Wilson has applied his trademark clear washes of colour, use of silhouette and stylisation of costume to classic texts, such as the hugely successful production of Büchner’s Leonce and Lena at the Berliner Ensemble (2003).