Sunday, March 27, 2005

Insight and Change

Anagnoresis and Peripeteia
(Note) I've removed the descriptions of the International Playback Theater Network conference Feb. 25-27, 2005. They seemed time-limited and relevant for people who wanted to follow the conference in a concurrent way.

This is a much-abbreviated version of an article I wrote in 1995 for the then-new Applied and Interactive Theater Guide, revised to focus on Playback Theater. I had been visiting workshops and conferences of several action methods: drama therapy, psychodrama, theater of the oppressed, and I had been working with a company that used structured improvisation for workplace training. I was excited by the commonalities I found among the different practitioners, and concerned about the lack of interaction among practitioners of the different modalities.

I looked for a way to show that these forms were, in fact, theater as I had known, practiced, and defined it since college. I found in the classic by Aristotle, The Poetics, elements and terms that were useful. Free yourself from prejudices about Aristotle, largely engendered by the Renaissance and Neo-classical theorists who used him as a club to punish innovation, but also echoed by Brecht and Boal, who associate him with dreadful and drippy well-made plays.

See him simply as an amazingly perceptive communication theorist who, as one of the 15,000 audience members in the Theater of Dionysus, managed to get many things right in trying to understand the power of the most influential communications medium of his time. Here are some of his observations:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each type of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in several parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions
Aristotle, The Poetics, Book VI, ll.2-3 (tr. S. H. Butcher)

Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality: namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song.
Book VI, l.7

For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.
Book VI, l. 9

the most powerful elements of emotional interest in Tragedy, i.e.,Peripeteia or Reversal of the Situation, and Recognition scenes, are part of the plot.
Book VI, l. 13

Here is my effort at rewriting these to account for contemporary action methods:

Theater, whether in its several literary genres(1) or its non-scripted, improvisational forms(2), is both an imitation of human interaction(3) and an exemplar(4) of human interaction--between and among characters, performers, audience, and community. Its grammar is language, movement, spectacle, relationship, and emotion, configured through empathy(5) and suspense(6) to both depict and to create a powerful experience(7) of Awareness or Insight(8) , and a subsequent Reversal or Change(9), potentiated by the group mass and its sharings(10). Emotion in theater is transformed from its experiential rawness, distanced and rendered a safer savor(11) of the original, so that audience and performers can balance between complete involvement(12)and aesthetic distance (13), dipping now one way, then the other.

(1) Tragedy, comedy, tragico-comical-historical-pastoral, etc.
(2) Playback, TO, Improv, psychodrama, etc.
(3) On stage
(4) i.e., theater is REAL, not a mirror
(5) Pity
(6) Fear
(7) Catharsis
(8) Anagnoresis
(9) Peripeteia
(10) Crowd effect, pheromones, knowledge of current events or context
(11) rasa, in Sanskrit
(12) Rapture, loss of self, emotional transport
(13) Critical awareness, Brechtian alienation, judgment

With that as my starting point, I could reconcile my academic training and my fascination with the new forms. The emphasis is on Insight and Change. Catharsis, the arguable point for many theorists throughout history, is the name given to the mental gasp that accompanies insight and change. Freed from having to wonder whether the C-word meant Purgation, Rectification, or Healthy Exercise, I had no difficulty seeing the essence of theater both on stage and in DT or TO workshops.

I concluded my article in 1995 by saying that scripted theater was at a point of major paradigm change, devolving into Broadway theme park spectacles and elitist regional theater menus on the one hand, and esoteric and precious experimental performance and conceptual art on the other. The commitment to personal and social change I saw in the new action methods gave me more hope for the future of theater than any other work that I saw. Committed to emotion, safety, creativity, and movement, applied and interactive theater artists were creating a theater that would survive the aggrandizement of drama by the sensory-rich media of film and TV, and would, indeed, surpass anything that virtual reality could offer (In 1995, Howard Rheingold and other futurists were telling us that VR would be a commonplace in 5 years).

When I began this work ten years ago, it seemed critical to me that people be aware of one another's work. I think that has been accomplished, although rigidity and rejection still characterizes many practitioners. Today, in 2005, I feel no further interest in helping to create a dialogue among practitioners of Action methods. Those who are interested in shared approaches, enriching one another's outcomes, creating new awarenesses and community uses, are doing so; others remain hidebound in their turf rings or simply devoted to perfecting their technique before moving outward. I've stopped using the term Applied Theater, partly because of the objections of one of the most practiced and knowledgeable theorists in the field. For myself, I've chosen to explore Playback Theater, which I feel most suited to my abilities and temperament.

I'll continue to survey the field, and particularly wish to hear from people who are blending and blurring "disciplinary" and ideological lines. I'd also like to hear from folks who want to expand the AITG to include other disciplines or categories. Write me here at the blog or my old e-ddress: joel at