Three Questions I’m Asking About Theater, These Days

This post was originally published on July 13th, 2022 on the original Soprano on the Verge blog. 

At the end of June, I was at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Lyon pitching a project called A Voice in an Empty Space, the title of which is a rather on-the-nose nod to Peter Brook’s 1968 book An Empty Space which is, from what I understand, required reading for most theater students, particularly directors. I pitched the project as one meant to explore “the voice as a vehicle of drama” and, more importantly, an experiment in working with singers in a way akin to how choreographers might work with dancers – think Pina Bausch, an important figure of Tanztheater, who once asked her dancers in the beginning stages of a project to each come up with six movements expressing that their shoes were too small. This is not totally unprecedented for singers of contemporary music; when I studied at the Cage Haus in Halberstadt, I went to a talk by singer Lucy Dhegrae, founder of Resonant Bodies Festival, who said she simply wasn’t interested in working on projects in which she was not involved in the composition of the pieces she would be interpreting. Most singers don’t share her approach, however. There really is a particular conservatism to the education of singers, one that mirrors the education of musicians in general. Cathy Berberian’s 1966 manifesto on contemporary vocality could be written today. Yet singing is somewhere between playing an instrument and dancing. 

I found out Peter Brook died just two days after I quoted him during my project pitch in that audition room in Lyon, which means nothing to my project, on the one hand, and on the other hand means everything, in the sense that it represents both how long and how recent the conversation I’m just now coming to really is. The first chapter of The Empty Space, entitled “Deadly Theater,” is one big complaint about bad theater and the conditions leading to bad theater and yet, despite the book being required reading for theater students for generations, this chapter could be written today (and some of the conditions Brook describes, namely short rehearsal times, have gotten worse). I have also been reading Jerzy Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theater (I had the privilege of taking a class with one of his disciples, Iben Nagel Rasmussen, last January) in which he lays out his approach to theater (a type Brook would classify as Holy Theater) which, at its core, was simply a reaction to the rise of recorded media, cinema and TV. 

My personal chain of questions, one that mirrors that of Grotowski over half a century ago, goes like this: 

What does live spectacle mean in our world? 

The deeper question being: 

What does being in the presence of others mean in our world? 

Which leads to the question: 

What does place (space) mean in our world? 

Maybe the voice is a particularly interesting instrument with which to explore these questions for reasons anyone who has heard a singer live and then heard a recording of that performance can attest to. Built into my project is also a challenge to myself: like Pina Bausch and Dimitris Papaioannou (just to name two examples I happen to know, and perhaps not the best ones), I have decided not to work with intellectual concepts I can clearly articulate but with the rehearsal process itself and the performers themselves. In other words, I want the birth of the performance not to go through the bottleneck of the page (as it does in classical music and in traditional theater) but in space, within the bodies of the singers. Even a year ago, I would have found this to be a cop-out, one of those things artists who want works to happen but don’t want to do the planning necessary to make them happen, say. Yet there must be a reason why those working within that periphery of live spectacle in the 20th and 21st century seemed to prefer this form of composition, one that happens off the page. Grotowski, Eugenio Barba and Iben Nagel Rasmussen – and, judging by the available interviews, perhaps Pina Bausch, though using different vocabulary – called this “work,” and talked a lot of discipline. This is the kind of work one cannot “write into a drawer,” as we say in Czech, the way one can write poetry and never show it to anyone. This work needs community and it needs a space within which to find itself through public trial and error. In other words, a school. That is why I am very happy to have gotten an opportunity to pursue this project at the CNSMD in Lyon, and now that the imposter syndrome has died down a bit I am able to start contemplating what that actually means. Perhaps feeling unworthy before a task is a sign that one is on the right track.