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the what and the how

July 16, 2011

I know it’s an oversimplification, but I am thinking at the moment that in any performance there are two core elements: what is being performed and how it is being performed. You would think that those two things would always be intimately related, but I think that it is not often so.

The ‘what’ is the content – the narrative, politics, characterisations, kinaesthetic language, intended audience, visual imagery, sound. Often the ‘what’ is the concept or the ‘idea’ – the intention or (at its crudest and least interesting) the ‘message’ of the show. It is the ‘what are you trying to say’ of a creative process. It is the ‘rationale’.

The ‘how’ is not only the aesthetic but also the ethics and skill of execution. At it’s simplest level the ‘how’ is the style – visual theatre, multi-media, aerial – but at its deeper level the ‘how’ is much more than this. The ‘how’ is the moment-by-moment experience that an audience has when sitting in front of a piece of work and it is, I think, much more significant in an individual’s experience than the ‘what’.

Some of the elements  of ‘how’ need separating out just a little. One aspect of the ‘how’ is skill. Do the performers have the high level skills to deliver the details of the aesthetic they have chosen? Another aspect is the ‘ethics’ of a performance – how does each individual performer locate herself in relationship to the work she is performing, to the other performers and to the audience? Though this can seem a little ‘theoretical’, it is in fact something we respond to immediately and at a deep level. Imagine a primary school christmas production. All the performers (assuming it is a production that has been joyous in its creative process) are proud of what they are doing. They want to show it. They especially want to show it to the special one or two people in the audience who are their immediate family. But they also want to show it to the rest of the audience. And they are enjoying being with (and perhaps giggling at the funny-ness of) their fellow performers. This is where they are locating themselves in relationship to their work and we, the audience, respond with utter delight (and perhaps with a little tear in the eye….). And we see, recognise  and respond to the struggle of the performer who, perhaps, has no one to perform for, or who is too unconfident to find joy. We feel for her. Even if the ‘what’ is a tired and familiar nativity play, the ‘how’ is unique and engaging.

This is what I mean by ‘locating oneself in relationship to the performance and audience’. I think of it as an ‘ethical’ process in that it is developed by our choosing to base the creative process on certain ways of behaving and not basing it on other ways of behaving. The foundations of the creative process (the creative and interpersonal principles on which it is based) will define the position the performer adopts when placed in front of the audience.

However, what primary school children do NOT have is the high-level skill and discipline required to deliver complex aesthetics. That is why, as artists, we train  – so that we can develop the detailed capacity to realise sophisticated aesthetic visions.

The ‘what’ and the ‘how’ combine to create the experience of a performance. But, certainly for me, if I had to choose between watching something which was a great ‘idea’ poorly executed, or something that was a fairly ordinary ‘idea’ performed with deep engagement and enormous skill, I would choose the second one every time. (God save me from boring Shakespeare – great ‘what’ but all too often a lousy ‘how’)

I suspect the ‘how’ is considerably more important to me than the ‘what’. I attend performance for the experience (at a deep, physical, somatic level) of being in front of that performance, not, primarily, to be ‘told’ things, or even to encounter interesting stories. After all, I can get stories from books and ideas from philosophy. But I can get the experience of being in the presence of the live-performance only by being in the presence of live performance.

I suspect, like most of my views, this is not the majority view – most emphasis usually it seems is on the ‘what’ of a work – while I think my deep interest is in the manner of execution of performance, the skills, aesthetics, details of being in front of an audience.

I mulling on this after watching “The Life and Death of Marina Abramovich’ last night. It’s directed by Robert Wilson and has Marina Abramovich, Anthony, Willem Dafoe among an extraordinary cast. I was utterly delighted by the sheer skill of the work, reminding me of how much I love the craft of making performance. Images slowly materialise and then, in tiny disruptions of rhythm, they come into focus. Suddenly you notice someone is on the stage whom you did not see appear, for Wilson, an absolute craftsman, has directed your gaze to one place while he creates an effect elsewhere. There are moments of such extraordinary beauty that I find myself forgetting to breath. All created by an auteur who has simply followed his own path over many, many years.

But most noticeable to me was Willem Dafoe. I have seen him perform once before in a Wooster Group show. I recognised him immediately. I don’t mean ‘I knew who he was’ – I mean that his physical presence, his inner life, the ferocious intelligent discipline of his every gesture, the fearlessness of his self-exposure and the effortlessness (which manifests as a relaxation – even a ‘good-humour’) of his relationship to the performance and the audience bring the ‘how’ into extraordinary synergy with the ‘what’ of his performance. The same is true of the entire production – a beautiful and (for me) a rare coming together of what and how.

Inevitably my thinking returns to ‘Echo Chamber’. As I prepare the ‘what’ – the structure, details of narrative, the motifs and themes, I wonder whether there is enough in there to fill an hour. There is. For the hour will be filled by the how of performance (at which I profoundly trust myself) being placed at the service of the ‘what’ of performance. I do not have to ‘think up’ the totality of the show, I need to conceive its skeleton and then animate it through a combination of skill and ethics. I am not constructing an idea, I am constructing an experience.

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