(My) future in (of) theatre
‘- What? To the toilet? Now? (little gasp) You’re going to the toilet NOW? We’ve got 10 minutes till they come and we’ve got nothing. You’re mad… But go… Go!
– Oh, give me a break… I NEED to go to the toilet! I’m not going to die for a stupid exam!’ (that was Ileana)
If asked to choose a precise starting point for my research, I always refer back to this discussion, up in that attic or whatever it’s called, with its spiral stair, just where you turn right to go out of this building.
In preparation for a practical exam, me and Ileana are sitting amongst piles and piles of dusty random chairs, trying to put together something to show to the teachers and other colleagues. 10 minutes away from them turning up we still hadn’t come up with anything. We are thinking of something connected to Ionesco’s ‘The Chairs’. She comes back from the toilet: ‘I know! Let’s tie them all together with a thread!’
My research in actors and acting in English as a second language has two strands: a theoretical and a practical one. The theoretical side consists of extracting and charting the phenomenon of acting in English as a second language from within the remoteness, insularity and irregularity of its occurrence in the realm of theatre. The practice-as-research side is designed to test out possibilities with regards to what creating theatre in a second language might imply in comparison or as opposed to native language acting but most importantly with regards to the audience reception of such a genre.
In this context, a dilemma that I had has been whether acting in a second language is a strong enough strategy to capture audiences’ imagination. To answer my question I have to go back to the fundamental issues marking the travel of an artist (actor in this case) from one culture to another – from one language to another. From the research that I have done up to this point – which includes interviews with second language actors in Britain and also a historical look at second-language actors of the past – a fact that prevailed was that actors do not tend to move into another language in order only to become part of an distinct ethnic or linguistic community in their newly adopted language. On the contrary, they hope and want to fully integrate into the new culture, bringing along a heritage of performing and acting skills and techniques and creative strategies.
At an early stage of the research, I felt an instinctive rejection of discussing the topic of actors and acting in a second language in connection to the concept of ‘community theatre’. At the present, I understand better why I felt that: actors from a different language and culture are not expecting or wishing for to be put into a special category called Italian actors or Romanian actors in Britain or worse, Foreign actors in Britain. On the contrary, they very strongly believe in a dialogue with the native theatre-making organisations and want to fully integrate into and meaningfully contribute to the native theatre environment. As proof of that I can quote a couple of answers that my interviewees have given to the question: Do you think that second-language actors can have a successful career in the UK? CARMEN, for example, said:
‘Yes, I think so. Otherwise I wouldn’t have spent all these years working abroad. Some foreign musicians and artists are having successful careers all over the UK. I see no compelling reason why this cannot happen for second- language actors too. ‘
One other respondent says: ‘I think they can, yes. But it definitely not an easy one and we are nowhere near the mainstream yet. If we want to be successful we need to speak very good English and write our own work to get ahead. Also, trying to ‘infiltrate’ the British scene – go to British events, network, try to get the idea out there that Second Language Actors are not exotic creatures but there to be hired for work just like Brits.’
Therefore, there is a genuine interest on behalf of these second-language actors to contribute to the theatre scene on an equal footing with the native talent. That is why, to come back to my initial question, I can say with certainty that second language acting cannot be per se an artistic strategy. Becoming another ‘community’ (in the array of innumerable communities in the British society) would be the most detrimental thing that can ever happen to second-language acting. This would without doubt cement (particularly for the second language actors) the highly demoralizing and destructive idea of a division between them and the mainstream, alienating any form of true dialogue. Whether it is possible or indeed wanted – in the context of the British social matrixes – to realize true dialogue between the mainstream and the second language actors is all together another matter. What is though absolutely clear for me is that second language actors must not at any time envisage themselves as part of some sort of particular community. They can make theatre of the same level of quality with that of other native theatre-making organisations. But for this, second language actors need – in my opinion – the backing of unique, innovative and most of all necessary creative strategies.
It is now time to close a circle by going back to the second question I had: How necessary is it to anchor my practice into scenarios of an Apocalypse of Theatre? The working method that we employ and that you will get a taster of during today’s workshop is what we like to call ‘the childlike approach’.
Born in the toilet, as it was the case with so many genius ideas, our ‘method’ is founded on a true aversion towards theatre and performance, with their mechanisms, messages and other secretions (mostly those of a mental and emotional nature), etc. As they all seem inextricably boring and predictable to my colleague Ileana, she has come up with this novel method. It has been initially inspired by Ionesco’s lack of interest in attaching any significance WHATSOEVER to theatre and is anchored further in Cioran’s philosophy:
Cioran says for example:
‘To not get bored, you have to be a saint or imbecile. Boredom is a kind of unstable balance between the emptiness of the heart and the world. Enlightenment or stupidity – one by excess and the other by default – are outside the condition of man, thus outside the reach of boredom.’
Ileana has negotiated Cioran’s thinking by adding a third category to the list of un-bored: the child.
Why are we (Ileana and I) in need of a strategy of the Apocalypse of theatre? Partly because we are located on the outskirts of language and of culture: English language and British culture. Our only real chance is to acknowledge the idea that indeed theatre – for us – has died. Please do not think here of the innumerable theories that claim at every corner of the street that theatre has died, either from the point of view of history, of aesthetics, of audience reception, etc. Perhaps all these theories do expose to some degree a state of fact – even though they sound most of the times sadly myopic. However, if they were to be true, that would be for us little consolation.
If I were to paraphrase Guillermo Gomez Pena, who says: ‘Tonight I am standing on the ruins of Globalisation’. I would say: ‘Today, I may be sitting on the ruins of theatre (since I have been so naïve to choose this occupation in the first place) but you know what, that’s not actually the worst thing that can happen! The worst thing is that theatre FOR ME AND INSIDE OF ME no longer exists, since I am in a foreign language and cultural context and that bridge to MY PERSONAL THEATRE (THE THEATRE WITHIN ME) has been forever destroyed.
My point is that an Apocalyptic view on theatre is in our case almost compulsory – and at the same time entirely healthy – if one wants to start to hope that after the devastation of leaving a culture and a language something new could again spring to life.
The method that Ileana has started to develop is – in my view – emerging from a sentiment of being half-alive after what you feel to have been the absolute perishing of your artistic and creative resources. It is because of this that I believe the method might refer at times to desperate means, to a sense of perdition, of loss, of confusion. At the same time, it is a method that plays with the so-old myth of the Phoenix bird and if you are willing to be naïve enough, you might actually fall into its nowadays-melodramatic charms. And for a few seconds, you might be able to believe that yes, a kind of salvation could exist!
Written by: Bogdan Florea