EXPERIMENTS IN THE UNDERWORLD
a manifesto for a non-traditional theater
Generally, when theater-goers imagine
theater and how it works, certain basic assumptions come to mind.
Actors are hired by a director, scripts are handed out. Everyone
sits around a table in a drafty rehearsal hall and reads perhaps
less than superlatively. Following which a stage manager hands
out pencils and "blocking" begins. A typically six-week
schedule is devoted to dividing the play into units, a director
coaches actors to move, speak and gesture in certain ways, music
is added in the fifth week, there are two costumed previews,
and the play is considered ready to open. The rationale underlying
this school of production may include the need for profits to
keep a subscription season afloat by finding out what an audience
likes and providing it in the form of "entertainment."
Opposed to this commercial school of production is a practice
in which the theater's underlying goals are strikingly different,
leading in turn to an entirely different rehearsal process.
Such a theater is Theatre of Man, an experimental San Francisco
theater company funded by the City of San Francisco, the San
Francisco Arts Commission, and local foundations. Dedicated to
re-defining the role and the expectations of a theater and to
forging a new performance language, Theatre of Man has worked
since its inception in l969 developing techniques towards creating
original material in a developmental rehearsal process.
The performing imperatives of this theater are quite different
from traditional ones. The assumption that actors will make gestures
and movements in a confined area generally called a set, most
probably located within a proscenium, and that an audience seated
in another area will watch, is called into question. Even the
reasons an audience might want to come to a theater are being
challenged, and finally, the process whereby material is readied
for the public is radically changing and expanding.
To begin with, Theatre of Man assumes that the task of theater
is to renew, both actors and audience, and that to do so, the
theater must create shared ceremonies which celebrate themes
and events beyond the scope of individual lives. The work of
the theater must be grounded as well in a social matrix, that
is, it must reflect present society's deepest fears and highest
aspirations. Through the use of collective images, that is images
created by the interplay of the bodies of the actors moving in
space, theater must express the possibility that people can find
fulfillment in working together. At the same time, theatrical
expression must make positive use of the theater's limitations,
that is, the work of human beings moving in the space must be
the basic unit of presentation in creating atmosphere and setting,
as opposed to reliance on lavishly funded sets and costumes.
And finally, the theater's objective and practice must reflect
and adapt to changing societal and aesthetic needs.
An original text created in the actual rehearsal process becomes
a particular group's unique expression, yielding a kind of urgency
and authenticity in performance which can almost never be realized
through an acquired text. The rehearsal process must therefore
include improvisations through which the actors may contact relevant
felt and remembered experience. At the same time, ways must be
found to re-create living, physical equivalents of the textual
metaphor in the actual space and time of rehearsal, such that
no matter how highly symbolic the event, it acquires an immediacy
available in performance to actor and audience alike.
To these ends, in l972, Theatre of Man began developmental
rehearsals for "After Eurydice," a piece dealing with
sexual consciousness, which occupied a ten-month developmental
rehearsal period. Drawing on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice,
the company found a basis on which to build the archetypic, dream-like
images of the piece. Although, according to the myth, Orpheus
is thought to have led Eurydice out of hell, and contrary to
the gods' warning, looked back to verify that she was actually
following him, consequently losing her forever, Theater of Man
textually re-interpreted the myth in order to demystify it. In
"After Eurydice," Orpheus possesses the image of an
ideal woman. But when finally he really sees the person Eurydice,
he loses his perfect image of her. She can no longer exist merely
as the figment of his romanticized imagination.
The rehearsal process fell into four phases. Phase one occupied
a period in which ways were discovered to translate questions
dealing with sexual role expectation, socialization, women's
and men's work, world view, ideation, sexual fantasy, and language,
into a specific theatrical language with a view to developing
material for incorporation later in actual performance. During
phase two, work was begun with playwright-in-residence, Doris
Baizley of the Mark Taper Forum, in order to develop text which
could help codify these experiences into a more formalized framework.
During this phase, scenes were written and re-written and worked
on by the company to test their validity both from the standpoint
of theme and of dramatic viability. Material was tried, and either
modified, accepted, or entirely rejected. Phase three consisted
of readying a formalized text and score for performance, and
in the course of that process, creating exercises designed to
intensify the emotional and physical commitment by the actors
to the highly symbolic events of the text. Phase four consisted
of a two-month performance period during which the text underwent
further revision and modification dictated by the necessities
of clearer communication vis a vis the audience.
Because the company felt the need to explore the basis of
sexual consciousness and how it actually affected their lives,
the group's objective was to find rehearsal techniques to investigate
these themes, and to develop a performance piece which would
stand as an expression of their feelings and their discoveries.
When the group had worked together for a sufficient length of
time to have evolved a commonly shared artistic language, the
material began to suggest theatrical events which could make
use of the personal reality of the actors in the actual rehearsal
Insisting on shifting the surrogate reality of the theater
to a reality more consistent with a primary event yielded a much
finer, more emotionally charged variety of meanings than could
possibly have been presented by the words of the text alone.
Thus the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice came to transcend its narrative
bounds to become grounded in actual, real-time event by using
the specific and concrete parameters inherently available in
the company's rehearsal space.
The task of the experimental, non-traditional theater is to
develop a new artistic language. The point at which this newly
forged language consistently takes root marks the moment when
the life of the theater transcends re-enactment to become authentic,
primary event. Likewise it becomes the moment in which the new
theater defines itself.
Cecile Pineda, director, Theatre of Man
San Francisco, 1974
---excerpted from "Experiments in the Underground: a
manifesto for a non-traditional theater" by Cecile Pineda,
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