Spinoza on Stage: the Search for Equilibrium

In traditional theatre practice, the actors are directed by one person who sits and observes from where the audience will eventually sit. The actors are the observed element in this equation and the director/audience are the observing element. In a clear break from this paradigm, Pulse is a process of ensemble theatre improvisation, derived from a form of conducted jazz improvisation, that effectively removes the director from the process of theatre creation and instils in the actor the eye of the director. Thus, the actor becomes the observed and the observer. Through the application of Spinoza’s terminology with respect to the dialectic of kinesis and stasis and the notion of equilibrium, one can find a metalanguage to categorise the complexities of Pulse and, indeed, theatre in general. Also, by relating some of Michel Foucault’s work on visual art to Pulse, the scope of expressive detail allowed by this non-traditional form of theatre-making becomes all the more apparent.

Pulse finds its origin and precedent not in theatre, but in the distinct style of musical improvisation developed by Lawrence “Butch” Morris. His method of composition, called conduction, is based on the live and unrehearsed interplay between him as conductor and an ensemble of improvisers. Through the use of a vocabulary of ideographic signs and gestures he is able to activate, modify or construct a musical composition in real-time. In Spinoza’s terms, the conductor stands as a static focal point around which the musicians are arranged, like planets orbiting a star. Another analogous image is that of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, a structure not foreign to Foucault. The notion of the panopticon is perhaps the best illustration that the power in this creative relationship is largely one-sided. A central observer has an immediate and inexorable advantage over the observed subjects. Power, in this structure, lies with the observer, not the observed. Similarly, the musicians in a conduction are only given as much input as is allowed by the conductor. For all their improvised offers, they remain effectively impotent because, in the balance of observer and observed, they are at a disadvantage.

Having attended workshops where Morris was presenting conduction, Tanya Gerstle, a lecturer in acting at VCA, began examining how conduction could be used in devising theatre. Drawing inspiration directly from Morris’ format, she imagined actors working improvisatorially while receiving live feedback from a director. However, maintaining the attention of actors who were moving about a space and interacting with each other proved to be far more difficult than it was for a conductor to direct musicians. The spatial anarchy of the stage did not allow for the same power-structure between the static observer and the kinetic subjects to arise. The actors, in moving and interacting, began observing one another. Suddenly, the balance of power shifts away from the director because the actors take on the role of observer and can, in their improvisation, be fed by influences other than the director. Acknowledging this, Gerstle found that the most practical solution was to instil in the actors basic precepts that would guide their work and, thus, largely free the director from having to interrupt. Hence, the role of the director is a pedagogical and aesthetic one. The fundamental precepts and shared performance language that the actors are given are determined by Gerstle and, therefore, influence the outcomes but the final creative power rests with the actors. Eventually, the director is entirely removed from the equation and the ensemble of actors becomes an autonomous entity. However, that is not to suggest that the static eye of the director is annulled. Instead, it is incorporated into the actors. Thus, Pulse springs from conduction but, in the end, revolutionizes it into a creative technique that demands of the actors that they inhabit the static outside eye of the director and take on the power that this entails.

Spinoza’s dialectic of stasis and kinesis can, in traditional theatre, be equated with the dialectic of audience and actor. The static eye of the director and the kinetic nature of the actor have already been touched on, but the static quality of the audience is something quite different. Stasis, for Spinoza, is in its purest form only commensurate with God. This derives from the theory that God is everything. And this pantheistic appreciation of the universe means that God cannot have motion, because motion necessitates counter-motion, and there can be no counter-motion outside of God when God contains all possibilities. Similarly, the audience in a theatre for any given performance contains the totality of possibilities with regard to observation. Each and every infinitesimally short moment of theatre is ephemeral, unrepeatable and unique. Thus, the audience, with their hundreds of eyes, ears and other senses, receive, interpret and make meaning in every possible way for every particular moment. No videorecording, no review, no other form of account can recreate or communicate the experience of theatre for a given audience. Therefore, no interpretation outside of the audience applies—the audience is everything, it is completely static.

The other side of the dialectic is the kinetic actor. The nature of kinesis in an actor is a complex proposition but, to my mind, the essence of an actor is synonymous with kinesis, though this does not imply that an actor must be forever in physical motion. Rather, the kinesis here is an internal one that is, nevertheless, externally palpable. Even in stillness, there is the paradoxical motion of inertia, a phenomenon that might otherwise be described as stage-presence. The actor is constantly alive in the moment, constantly moving forward and outward from within. If this motion stops or breaks, the suspension of disbelief is lost and the audience receives no meaning other than the literal aspect of an actor on a stage. Metaphor, illusion and abstraction rely on the internal kinesis of the actor. Of course, some theatre-makers deliberately undercut this internal kinesis in order to draw the audience’s attention to the very dialectic at work. Indeed, dialectic is used here in the Hegelian sense, in that it would be misleading to consider the static nature of the audience and the kinetic nature of the actor in isolation, because the one cannot exist without the other and it is the interchange, the tension and the equilibrium between the two elements that gives rise to the synthesis of theatre.

So, Pulse requires that the synthesis, or equilibrium, of stasis and kinesis occurs within the actor. The actor needs to remain fully engaged with their kinetic energy and commit to the action they are in but must also have a clear awareness of the piece as a whole—what it needs and how it is composed: spatially, dynamically and texturally. Neither of these engagements is more important than the other and, with equilibrium attained, great theatre arises. In Spinoza’s time, the quality of true equilibrium could only be granted to God, but when theatre is at its peak, when the visceral and intellectual, the micro and the macro, the stasis and the kinesis are balanced and synthesised, the effect is metaphysical and transcendental. At the moment of dramatic success, there exists nothing else outside of the theatre for the audience or the actor—together, at that time, they are everything that is possible, they are God.

Having applied Spinoza’s philosophy to theatre in general and to Pulse, let us now look in more detail at a particular instance of theatre. At the recent Next Wave festival in Melbourne, an installation, created by an ensemble of VCA students (myself included), took Pulse a step further. Not only was the director removed, but so was the traditional notion of an audience. Being in a space largely occupied by visual arts, the audience was transient and mobile. This instance of Pulse asked that the actors maintain their own kinetic eye within the work, the static director’s eye on the work as a whole, as well as consider the kinetic eye of a mobile audience. The mobility and shifting perspective of the audience meant that the composition of the piece needed to be considered from a multitude of angles that changed every time an audience member approached, remained or shuffled away. However, the kinetic quality of the audience is most keenly realised not in their physical freedom but in the fact that they were visible. In this installation of Pulse, the audience was fully lit and not subject to the usual rituals of a theatre space. In other words, the audience was free to speak, gesture, move and otherwise live out meaningful relationships. One of Pulse’s central pillars is the constant interplay between the actor’s imagination and the surrounding world as a source. Thus, the audience became a scene from which the actors could draw inspiration.

A parallel situation can be found in Foucault’s analysis of Velazquez’s painting, Las Meninas. A painting in which a complex array of observers, models, reflections and perspectives results in a picture that “is looking out at a scene for which it is itself a scene.” In the case of the painting, the observer standing before it at the Prado is in the same position as the sitters for an unseen portrait—sitters who are seen in a mirror that reflects the space that the observer is now occupying. There emerges what Foucault describes as a volute of seeing and being seen. Likewise, in the Next Wave installation, a reciprocal link emerges between the observed and observing actors and the similarly observed and observing audience.

This link allows for an improvised theatre that is constantly alive and mutable, open to the finest shifts in space and mood, constantly feeding both audience and actor and unifying them in the experience of theatre. It can take theatre out of the theatres and away from the associated stigma of privilege, and, in so doing, remove that stigma. It can speak to and from an audience that feels disconnected and apathetic, and, in so doing, inspire them. This interplay is simply a heightened version of the existing dialectic between actor and audience—a dialectic that is both powerful and threatened; a dialectic that is political, social and revolutionary; a dialectic that is necessary.