Playing a Game of Sorrow: Acting within new Dramaturgical Structures

By Tore Vagn Lid

(First Published at (1 June 2014))


First of all I’d like to make a small proposal to at least compensate for a rather obvious methodological problem. To discuss my own experiences, aspects and problems connected to acting and playing within the narrowed frameworks of this text is far from suboptimal. The dialogue between (you as) reader and (me as a) writer is off course a dialogue, and my writing/speaking situation and your reading situation likewise both constitute a scenography, but still we lack the same references, some shared experiences to take as a common point of departure. Until some years ago this problem would have to be either overseen or compensated with the «staged» dialogue as a form of writing essays. Gordon Craig (1872-1966), Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) and Bertolt Brecht (1898- 1956), to mention only the most famous, all went for this «representational strategy» while trying to discuss «living art» in the form of an essay or an article. But when we now have the technological means to digitally represent some of the works and topics at stake in the text, I think this opportunity should be used as intensively as possible. So where you by now ideally should have been

able to visit rehearsals or a complete live version of Fatzer (2012), Ressentiment (2010) or of The Game of sorrow trilogy (2012-13), you will have to settle for a short video cavalcade roughly put together, unfortunately of quite variable video and sound quality, but still with the purpose of giving you at least a certain impression of what frames and challenges the actors meet in my productions within and without Transiteatret-Bergen.2 Introduction

Post-dramatic = post-acting?

To quote freely the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno (1903-69): What has become certain in the post- dramatic theatre is that when it comes to the art of acting, nothing is certain any more. Some people now juxtapose the so-called «post-dramatic turn» to a more or less fundamental attack on the actor, on the actor’s place in theatre, on the actor’s education, trade, status and future.3 As a director and author I think that such an at- tack is both premature and mistaken. The answer is – I believe – quite the contrary. The post-dramatic theatre needs the actor in the same way as a vital art of acting also needs the post-dramatic theatre.

What is decaying, however, is the idea of acting with a capital «A». That is the (once so) hegemonic conception of a psychological realistic acting style as the one and only truthful and unquestionable approach to the art of acting; a timeless, and all- embracing discipline, invented by Konstantin St- anilsavski, with one system, one scientific method and one transcendent vocabulary that historically has settled down with itself and can therefore only be standardized and cultivated. However this doesn’t mean that it’s no longer possible to speak in a meaningful way about what a good actor is. We must only remember to ask: Good at what?


The German philosopher and writer Walter Ben- jamin (1892-1940) once said – to Brecht – that he always read the books that no longer were in fashion. That’s a method that I have a great taste for! Therefore I have spent a lot of time reading (and rereading) Konstantin Stanislavski’s great opus. I’ve been searching everywhere, also by his self-proclaimed American students, like Standford Meisner (1905-97) and Stella Adler (1901-92), picking up tricks and following up leads, not least as a productive way of confronting (you might call it «verfremden») my own thoughts and working methods. And in many ways (and along many pa- rameters) I found – especially in the Russian theatre scientist – a vitality and a willingness to experiment far beyond what I had expected. But still I´m left with a problem: not of the value of this tradition in its self – like other great traditions, no – but by the danger of some totalizing tendencies deeply connected to its fundament and to its vocabulary, cultivated and traded in institutions and schools with their courses more or less written in stone. May it be intended – or not! It´s off course possible – like many people do – to claim the usability of the Stanislavski «method» on every form of theatre as long as you «use it right». But for me there are still some dimensions – some power fields linked to this system of thoughts and methods – which are too problematic only to be overseen and left in silence.

1. VIEW ON HUMAN NATURE- outdated?

There is no «system.» What exists is nature. My entire life I have tried to get as close as possible to what we can call «a system.» This is synonymous with the creative work’s being. The laws of art are nothing more than laws of nature. A child that is born, a tree that grows and the creation of a stage character are manifestations of equal caliber.4 One critical dimension from my point of view is how inextricably and intimately linked the Stanislavski School’s acting ideal seems to the prevailing view on human nature of his time. Individualism, the thought of the organic core of the personal- ity and of the «real» and «authentic» subject, is translated more or less directly into the intentions of the actor’s I, meaning introspection, self- control and overview.5 The way I see it, a decisive founding principal in the entirety of Stanislavski’s author- ship rests upon the concept of the «living,» «organic» individual as a self-realizing process. When «the method» isn’t freed subconsciously from its ideological pre-requisites, an equally subconscious surrender of these pre-requisites occurs. In short: a more or less non-social view of human life from the decades around 1900 is added to the mix. Because so what if the ambitions of the theater are precisely the desire to problematize such a view of humanity? What if the actual concept of the «living» and «developing» subjects becomes the subject of the theater? How is it to be reunited with a direction (and an audience’s preference) that has to watch «living people» on the stage so that the performance and the actor can receive the mark of «approval?» There are no human methods that arise from nature. Not one system that in itself is grounded in objective criteria. And that is not a problem. The problem comes when one forgets these pre-requisites; when a method hides its ideological roots so that the relationship between acting technique and view of humanity is made natural (a priori). Adorno’s Minima Moralia opens with the motto: «das Leben lebt nicht» – life doesn’t live. This paradox touches the root of our problem: The individual who believes he takes action, who feels alive – is not alive. Instrumentalism, capital and cultural industry have – at least according to this pessimistic philosopher – soaked into every pore of our modern way of life. Spontaneity is not spontaneous and the demand for «authenticity» and «true felt feeling» has in itself become an instrumental and false jargon in a market in continual expansion. One can of course agree or disagree with Adorno’s dystopia, and this is not the main theme here. But if one as a director would at least make an attempt to place Adorno’s view of humanity on stage, then Stanislavski’s demand for the «organic», «living» and «authentic» actor would at best emerge as paradoxical – at worst as something coarsely ironic.

Maybe it´s too nice? – Rooms without intentional action

To give you a counterpoint to this organic-essensialistic approach: In his last speech on German soil in the summer of 2000 the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was talking – quite contrary both to the naturalists and the idealists of the early 1900 – about rooms without intentional actors: In a global economy, with its boardrooms, institutions et cetera, the rooms and structures create their own personalities rather than vice versa. In the 2004 performance Maybe it’s too Nice? – a visual audio play I tried to work with a performance where a particular economical language itself played the leading part – not the actors who it made use of. The key word for the play was the struggle with and against the language, and the desperate attempts to get out of it. The idea was to let the characters develop from a battle-zone of a language rather than from a psychological «point of departure», a story line (Aristotelian or Brechtian) or from well defined dramaturgical situations. Although Maybe it’s too nice? in fact had a narrative structure6, the actors did not know the story until the day before the premiere. Rather, the dramaturgy of the performance was split up in sequences of language-battles (numbered 1-12) – where the actors could decide which battle to fight. This focus on strategic rhetoric rather than on organic development, coherent (story)lines or dialogues motivated by retrospectian (individual) psychology, led to a focus on language and rhetorical virtuosity, revealing also the hidden musical dimensions of this language. Here are two short taped parts of this Transiteatret-Bergen project. From Maybe it´s to nice? – a visual listening play (Transiteatret-Bergen in Bit/BlackBox,2004/5)

2. DRAMA-overrated

My second main concern is how the basis for Stanislavski’s approach to acting takes for granted the dramatic text as the «first-» and the «last mover». Accordingly everything from the actor’s work with himself to his work with the role seems conditioned by a dramatic universe «handed over» from the author – the genius of the theatre – and translated by the actor as a loyal craftsman. Due to the time and discursive context of Stanislavski’s acting and writing, it´s not surprising that he takes this «point of departure» as something obvious – or in philosophical terms, a priori:

It is the theater’s job to gestalt a piece’s inner life and it’s roles so that the core and basic concept that the poet’s and composer’s work arise from can be expressed on the stage.7

For me this is an obvious problem first and foremost because I normally work with projects that don’t have the drama as their «first mover», but the piece of music, the academic thesis, or – and I’ll come back to that – the board game. What if the theatre and the actor just don’t work with oneself and the role, but with a Passacaglia from J.S. Bach8, a DUB figure from Lee Scratch Perry9 or a dissertation on evolutionary theory from the orthodox naturalist Steven Pinker?1 In Tt-Bs Polyfonia Variations the actors’ point of artistic departure requires an almost chamber-musical way of acting and synchronizing voices and gestures. Here in a rehearsal from Bergen Kunsthall Landmark: From Polyfonia-Variasjoner, Transiteatret- Bergen 2010:

In this «double-monologue» the aim was both to challenge the subjectivity of apparently highly private and lonely «messages» as well as the tradition- al concept of the choir expressing the «mass» or the «collective». The methodical solution became an almost schizophrenic montage, first in terms of a naturalistic approach to the text, and then in terms of a musicalization of the «non-musical», meaning the stylization and choristic doubling of the fumbling expression of one young girl. Hence for the actors two almost contradictory approaches had to be combined, so that the very artistic tension of this «double monologue» found its expression due to this polyphonic approach. One other «try» in this direction was to combine Gerhart Hauptmanns naturalistic «classic» drama Before Sunrise11 with Franz Schubert’s only String quintet, here in an arrangement I made for four voices and cello. The manuscript – structuring the tragic end of the play – looks like this, with Helene (the young main female character of the play) re- peating «Alfred!» before her predetermined suicide:

The experiment was – by means of music dramaturgy – to convert the new naturalism of today with its merciless genetic determinism in a score that at this specific point (the end of the play) also freezes all spontaneity, all psychology, all «free choices», also «forcing» the actor to (re-en)act inside the fixed (or predetermined) structures of the musical score. Here from the concrete scenic realisation: From Before Sunrise, The National Stage in Bergen (2011):


My last (and to me probably the most important) objection to the essensialistic stanislavskian concept of an acting-style or «system», drawn from nature itself is what I see as an understanding of the concept of situation that is too narrow. My experience is that Stanislavski’s key concepts – situation and situation understanding – lock themselves out of the real social room (situation) in which theatrical and musical expressions actually take place. The reason why – I think – is that the definition of situation and dialogue is taken from the inside – that is once again from the organic drama – and consequently these concepts are unable to escape from the gravities of this introspective dramatic universe. What I here typically call the problem of the situation, is rooted directly in Stanislavski’s «an actor must work with himself.» Following the key chapter «Attention on stage,» the fourth wall in what the dramatic situation defines as a situation on stage is closed: «the actor requires an object for his attention, not in the hall but on the stage. And the more interesting this object is, the greater the control it has on the actor’s attention.»12 Unlike Stanislavski, to me the theatre room is not first and foremost a room determined by the inner organic drama, but a socio-rhetoric room: A polyphonic space of equal participants who share contemporary experiences and adventures. Such an understanding was the basis for Transiteatret- Bergen’s reconstruction of Brecht’s Fatzer (2012) as well as Brecht/Eislers Die Massnahme (2007). No fourth wall. No stage. Only one shared room. From Die Massnahme13 From Fatzer14

But when the dialogue – like here – does not take place in a central perspective but decentralized, one very important Stanislavskian premise will disintegrate together with the psychological safety of the fourth wall and – for many excellent actors – leave them with a highly practical and technical vacuum. So for a post-dramatic theatre to expand beyond the safe borders of the dramatic situation means – for the art of acting – a challenge that needs to be taken as seriously as Stanislavsky did with his once so ground-breaking techniques for the naturalistic actor and his drama. Because one thing is that a safe and good gravity is set aside, but quite another thing is what we replace it with – in other words; where shall one as an actor find something firm to «cling to»?


Far from everywhere, or everyone, recognizes that which is given by nature as a guide for theatrical activity. Mostly, she (nature) is treated brutally, so that the actor ends up affected. If you on the other hand have exact knowledge about true art’s boundaries and its organic natural laws, then you won’t go astray, and you will be able to discover your mistakes and correct them. Without these solid principles, the way they emanate from art’s natural base of experience, you must become insecure, go astray, loose your standards.15

For my part one possible answer to this has been to use the way of thinking and the logic of the board game in and for the theatre.16 From 2011 until now I’ve been working at what I’ve called a sociological game of sorrow trilogy, whose objective has been to look for the individual in the systems and the systems in the individual. My hope has been to break away from the immanent tendency of theatre to privatize all problems and tragedies, also where the tragedies obviously are shared by many people and are caused by crises and structures independent of the choices and spiritual life of individual destinies axiom-games.

From actor to player

The first sociological game of sorrow was Punishment (HOT/Logen) from 2012. The attempt simply aimed at trying to approach the essence of punishment along artistic parameters. A long field-study in a closed Norwegian prison formed the basis of the performance. I experienced the prison and the prison system more or less like a strange, almost dreamlike game, with its silent and killing rules, its slow-flowing time, characteristic architecture and merciless hierarchies. To capture this in the form of documentary theatre would not have been possible; likewise all forms of «psychological» portrayals of the prison’s individual destinies. The solution was to turn the actors and the musicians into «players» who take their «pieces» – more or less authentic convicts (their voices, stories, reflections and deaths) – through a labyrinth of written and unwritten rules, where you – for each decision, each step – are in danger of having to move back to the start or leave the game. This became the starting point of the self-imposed rules of the whole game of sorrow trilogy. To the players – musicians, actors and technicians – the rules of the game mean a situation where one does not represent characters, but instead works for one’s game-pieces, sacrifices a piece (for example in Punishment the pedophile who no one wants to play with) or exchange pieces with another. Since the dramaturgy of the game of sorrow is structured after rounds and moves – not scenes and acts – strategy and acting style can radically be changed and adapted to each new round. Consequently all imaginable game strategies are in principle at the disposal of the players of the game of sorrow: In one move the song is chosen as a game strategy, in a second one, a more or less realistic chamber play, and in a third one, a visual radio play. In the last round of Punishment, the piece «Africa» – one of seven game pieces – has the choice either to injure a co-prisoner or to sacrifice itself to avoid extradition from Norway. My choice for this expressive last round was what I have called a radical artistic and dramaturgical work share.17 The actors model «the fire» after voice-instructions from an old jailer who personally had experienced that an African prisoner burned himself to death in a Norwegian prison-cell in the winter of 1992. The whole round is structured after J.S. Bach’s gigantic Chaconne. From Punishment – Game of sorrow #I (Logen, 2012)

In the second part of the trilogy, Kill them all! (at The National Theatre in Oslo 2013), it’s the Euro- pean financial crisis that is being played for in the game of sorrow. The game board this time covers the whole stage and a team of actors, DJs and in- strumentalists move their game-pieces around in a murderous system of economic power and power- lessness. In the seventh round of the game the lines of the piece of «The old Actor» – on the train from Norway to Greece to buy the dream flat on sale – crosses with the line of «The Eternal Student» – a piece who’s native to Italy, but now adrift in the North-West on the map. The work share is clear: The players stage the dialogue between the two pieces. In this round the remaining players – actors and musicians – con- centrate on playing our brand new version of Steve Reich’s minimalistic percussion piece Pieces of Wood and in this way – supported by a model train and a video – take care of the geographic transfer. From Kill them all! – Game of sorrow #II (At the National Theatre, Oslo) (NB: Password to the vimeo-link = kill) (and the nal round of the second game of sor- row:)

What’s decisive here – as in the other games of sorrow – is the actors’ ability to adjust techniques and strategies according to the different challenges the pieces meet in the actual game. This approach makes it possible – and necessary – to unite radically different approaches to acting skills, forms of working and thinking also within the dramaturgical framework of one and the same performance, one and the same game of sorrow. This does not mean – however – that for an actor to play within the dramaturgical framework of the game of sorrow would offer some sort of vague «all round skills». Not unlike the lawyer preparing her defense, it’s rather the task for both the actors and the director to search for – and decide which strategies and hence which techniques – each player will use for the task of defending his or her game piece.

So what does the game of sorrow demand of its players?

The player in the game of sorrows has a key role, but is not in himself enough. As an intrinsic part of the game’s (musical) dramaturgical mechanism, a challenge is made to players who simultaneously are aware of what light and light-technicians work with, who are interested in – and allow space for – the orchestra’s efforts, and who recognize that a video screen can have just as great an impact upon it’s audience as an actor can. The game of sorrows demands, in other words, players who recognize the theater space as a polyphonic space of participants and media who in principle have equal status (which is not the same as to say that that all dramaturgical parameters should necessarily be equal present at the same time!) Simultaneously these sociological players of sorrow challenge a theater space in which precisely the actor is also valued as a specialist. That is to say, an approach to the game that doesn’t dis- miss the actor’s work «with himself» (as little as a musician’s), that doesn’t dismiss the concentrated and multi-dimensional theatrical work simply as a naïve romantic remnant, and that doesn’t forget the simple logical point that in a principally equitable dramaturgy, the actor in also included.


1 The article is based on a lecture given at the Hebbel-Theatre, 30.11.2013 and is written as part of my artistic research- concept; Kunnskaper og ferdigheter for et postdramatisk teater Kunsthøgskolen i Oslo/Teaterhøgskolen 2014-2016. 2 This text is inspired by the work of many great actors, both within and without the organizational framework of Tran- siteatret-Bergen. For the names of each of these great actors, follow the video-links embedded in the script. 3 Bernd Stegemann – dramaturge and professor – argues for example i his newest book Kritik des Theatres (Theatre der Zeit Verlag, 2013) against a «post-dramatic turn» in which he believes that the art of acting, understood as representa- tive of a role gestalt, is lost. 4 Konstantin Stanislavskij: Skuespillerens arbeid med seg selv, del II, german edition by Bernd Stegmann (Stanislawski Reader – Die Arbeid des Schauspielers an sich selbst und an der Rolle, Henschel Verlag, 2007) p.204. 5 This is also the case with Stanislavskis epigone’s, Meyerhold and Eisenstein. Where Stanislavski ideologically modulates between classical idealism and biological naturalism, Meyer- hold and Eisenstein are founding their «methods» on Marx- ian sociology and Pavlovian reflexology. 6 Maybe it’s to nice? was based on Richard Dressers play Be- low the belt (1995) 7 Konstantin Stanislavskij: «Skuespillerens arbeid med seg selv, del II», German edition by Bernd Stegmann (Stanislawski Reader – Die Arbeid des Schauspielers an sich selbst und an der Rolle, Henschel Verlag, 2007) p.194 8 Elephant Stories, Transitearet-Bergen (2009) 9 DUB Leviathan #1, Transiteatret-Bergen (2014) 10 Sound of Science, Transiteatret-Bergen (2012) 11 Den Nationale Scene, 2011. Director: Tore Vagn Lid. 12 Konstantin Stanislavskij: «Skuespillerens arbeid med seg selv, del II», German edition by Bernd Stegmann (Stanislawski Reader – Die Arbeid des Schauspielers an sich selbst und an der Rolle, Henschel Verlag, 2007) p.51 13 Transiteatret-Bergen: Festspillene I Bergen/Salzburger Fest- spiele 2007/8) 14 Transiteatret-Bergen: Festspillene I Bergen/Nationaltheatret, Oslo 2012 15 Konstantin Stanislavskij: Skuespillerens arbeid med seg selv, del II, German edition by Bernd Stegmann (Stanislawski Reader – Die Arbeid des Schauspielers an sich selbst und an der Rolle, Henschel Verlag, 2007) p.26 16 This must not be confused with the German term «Trauer- spiel». 17 To read more about this approach I recommend my book, Gegenseitige Verfremdungen: Theater als kritischer Erfah- rungsraum im Stoffwechsel zwischen Bühne und Musik. Teil III. (Peter Lang Verlag, Frankfurt a. Mein, 2011)