Excess and extreme
written by Yuko Takeda
The Week 2 of Imagination of Violence – atelier 2: Sacrifice and playing the victim is over.
Before going into the highlights of the week, I think that now is a good time to explain a little about how the word “sacrifice” is defined in this course.
Davide starts with the etymology of the word. Sacrifice is the latest etymological evolution from the Latin sacrificium, which is equivalent to sacri-, combining form of sacare (holy) + fic-, combining form of facere (to do, make) + -ium, suffix. He then states that to sacrifice is essentially to make something sacred. Davide’s etymological search continues even further in order to know how something is made sacred. He speculates that the word sacer might derive from the Proto-Indo-European word sek (to cut). So, to sacrifice could imply that something is being cut off from the world or setting something apart from the ordinary, mundane reality. Having dissected the word as such, Davide points at two aspects of sacrifice that are relevant to reflecting violence on the stage: exclusion and crystallization of sacredness.
So, the next step in theory is to explore what is being sacrificed or being cut off. This, of course, depends on the cultural, societal, and/or historical contexts. But generally speaking, it is usually the “excess” of some sort that gets excluded from what is considered as the norm in a human community. And in the act of excluding the excess, violence is extremified and ultimately justified, and sometimes even rarified. One of the examples of excess Davide gives in his article is the animality of human being, our primal, irrational, sensual, instinctual nature. Since the modern world often demands us to be rational, cerebral, and somewhat pacified for social order, our animality is controlled by the state. The institutions such as police would isolate and eradicate the excess of animality. We “sacrifice” our animality to maintain the norm of the society.
And there are many other forms of sacrifice, be it obvious or hidden, in almost every fiber of human communities. What are they? Why and how they exist? Are there any sacrifices that are particularly relevant to theatre and/or the actor?...
Now that we’ve established the starting point for the research on sacrifice, here are some highlights from the Week 2.
Reading Davide’s article
They finally got to reading the last portion of Davide’s 50-page article on sacrifice. It specifically deals with the notion of sacrifice in the making of theatre and capitalizing on excess.
Western theatre is said to have its origin in ancient Greek theatre, which evolved from religious festivals. Other than this historical lineage suggesting the theatre’s strong affinity to sacrificial attitude, there is yet another layer of sacrifice in making theatre. It is the sacrifice the actor makes on the stage. Davide mentioned that there usually was a distinction between the sacrifice of the character (the fictional body) and that of the actor (the private body). While the character might suffer violence as sacrifice on the stage, the audience knows that the actor should be fine. In other words, the actor has personal boundaries to protect him or herself from actually getting afflicted by stage violence.
However, sometimes the actor is asked to cross those boundaries on the stage. This often leads to physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, making the actor vulnerable and free of inhibition, a fertile ground for creative genius. This kind of sacrifice by the actor is often viewed as passion and devotion. His or her act of generating excess in total exhaustion and extremity and offering it to the audience or the director becomes “sacred” in the name of making theatre.
This part of the article, of course, triggered a fascinating discussion about the potential abuse of power in theatre making and the relationship between the actor and the audience. What and/or who drives the actor to go over the limit to sacrifice him or herself? How is the relationship with the audience affected by such self-sacrifice of the actor on the stage? etc.
The discussion was nicely tied into the week’s theme “excess and extreme.”
The students did one mapping session about “excess.” Davide divided them into three pairs and asked each pair to write down what they think are “the excess” under a specific topic. There were three topics total: art, physicality and mental/behavioral. The excess in this context was almost synonymous with what is outside the norm or the comfort zone. As they discussed what they had written down, it became clear that the notion of excess was dependent on what they considered normality was, which was a bundle of preconceived feelings and thoughts.
In order to tackle the notion of “extreme,” and also to prepare a few students for their personal question work, Davide introduced them to a series of exercises from the Xtreme Workshop, which has been developed by NÄTY (the Degree Programme in Theatre Arts) at the University of Tampere.
The exercises were about exploring personal boundaries of the actor, both physical and mental. First, they sat down in front of big sheets of paper to do mapping. The topic was “Places that are difficult for me to be.” This could be either a specific location or a situation. They were brainstorming what their personal boundaries might be.
Secondly, the students formed pairs to do some physical action to the limit. One person does the action and the other encourages him or her to do more. The exercise looked like a hard-core workout at a gym.
Once the student reached his or her physical limit, he or she could stop and walk around to take in all the energy generated by the work. After everyone did the exercise, they sat down in pair to share their experiences.
As the third phase, two students volunteered to do physical action to the limit before others. In other words, they “performed” the physical action for the audience. Afterwards, the students discussed what it felt like to watch and to be watched with Davide. Somehow the presence of the audience made their action look like “a freak show” or the performance of excess.
And lastly, each student picked one personal boundary or fearful situation they had written down at the beginning during mapping and had other students help him or her to explore it.
Afterwards they reflected on the exploration. Some of them said that it was difficult to test personal boundaries in a classroom setting because many of the boundaries were situational, requiring very specific circumstances for them to feel real. Similar to this, the expectation of going over the limit or crossing the boundary shut down something internally in the student, making it difficult to explore. Listening to what the student said, I was thinking that maybe there was no such thing as a personal boundary that is set in stone. It may be something that appears in the heat of direct contact between the actor and the other, which is always dynamic and mutable. Or maybe the personal boundaries become clearer to cross when the actor is driven by something other than fear or expectation. An interesting thing to ponder over…
During Week 2, two of the six students worked with Davide on their personal questions regarding acting. One student was dealing with dominance on the stage. The other was wanting to find out how to be strong or vulnerable.
Davide focused on physical modulation to see how it affects the performance of the actor. He once used archetypes and clichés to inspire certain physicality such as Cleopatra, Amazon, Wonder Woman, etc. On other occasion he asked the student to emulate the physicality of a strong masculine character on TV by looking at the image of it. For other times the physical modulation was about changing a specific part of the student’s body, including voice.
Each student revealed his or her unique inclination toward a certain approach in going through the experiments. Specific physical modulation seemed to free up acting impulses for one, while it did the opposite for the other. Archetypes and clichés gave a strong starting point for one, while it did the opposite for the other.. and so and so forth. It is very important to become aware of this kind of thing in actor training so that one could enhance his or her strength and illuminate his or her blind spots.
Like the last week, Davide had others observe the experiments like scientists. Each observing student had a specific thing to watch out for in each experimentation. As a step up to making simple observations, Davide asked the students to synthesize their observations and come up with a hypothesis or supposition based on it at the end. “This is how scientific knowledge is built,” Davide explained with a smile. The students were all game and ended up giving elaborate presentations to form their hypotheses with graphs, illustrations, storytelling… It was entertaining, and at the same time, some of them made very perceptive points about acting.
Physical training and assignments
Davide was away for the last two days of the week and put me in charge. So, I spent the first hour or so on leading a physical training session and then let the students do the assignment given by Davide for the rest of the class period.
Most of the students seemed tired from all the work in the course and other things they had to do for school. It is a very common thing to encounter for me as a teacher nowadays. And when I do face a student who is too overwhelmed to do any more work, my focus in physical training tends to be not so much on the physical work itself but on how the student thinks about and in his or her body. In other words, I encourage them to pay closer attention to their bodies by listening with their entire being instead of dragging and pushing the body to work harder. For this purpose, I often let them do simple physical exercises such as moving a point in the chest bone back and force slowly, taking as much time as they need to actually feel something in the body and know what is happening there.
At one point, I also told them to think beyond physical training and connect the training with their acting work. What I want the student to work on has very little to do with building physical stamina or muscles but everything to do with developing the body that is present enough to express something on the stage.
We also did a little bit of Suzuki Method training as well.
As for the assignments, Davide had asked the students to do three things for the next week.
(1) Pick the part from Davide’s article on sacrifice that means something personal to you. Then write down two questions. One for Davide to answer, and the other for yourself.
(2) Form a pair to find two examples from everyday life about self-sacrifice, playing the victim, or collective sacrifice (or scapegoating). Then find three moments in each example to form a scene or narration. Also tell why you picked those examples.
(3) Come up with a thought experiment by choosing a personal or social boundary you would need to take risks to cross.
The students had two days to do those tasks in pairs. Although they seemed a little unsure as to where and what exactly to look for, at the end of the week, they told me that they had completed the assignments.
Looking forward to the third week! Good work!