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Gabriella Giannachi: Is the notion of presence culturally specific?
Phillip Zarrilli: At the most obvious level, the whole notion of there being something called “presence” is a contemporary pre-occupation, historically determined and, obviously, culturally determined. In the late nineteenth and through the twentieth century people have often been concerned with “presence” in the West - with trying to identify something about the issue of “presence” in relation to the work of the actor. In my own research, it’s something I’ve been considering and it’s always been in the foreground. But I have tended not to use the term “presence”, because I find it so problematic. Almost all of my work, as you will know, is about trying to identify ways of working with actors to develop techniques and communication processes so that what is marked by the term ”presence” is being explored without having to reach some kind of definition of it. As I said in the presentation, my own my way of approaching it, is that, whatever it is, it’s emergent, so it’s quite difficult to get a hold of. My work in other cultures too – like all the ethnographic work in India - is really about identifying processes and procedures that mark this territory. I don’t know that ‘presence’ is really the right word for this territory. It depends on what particular kind of practise is being undergone or undertaken. This is why I tend not to use the term. Because I am so influenced by the non-Western context where the term “presence” wouldn’t necessarily be used. There’s not a translation for the term. I think it would be untranslatable.
Nick Kaye: Is there some sense in which those traditions deal with this notion as an emergent process?
Phillip Zarrilli: Well, yes. Just to take something related to acting--the nature of aesthetic theory is always about how the audience is engaged. This is the case with indigenous, non-Western theories, really. Most of the ones that are highly developed focus on the audience’s experience. This is the notion that something is emerging in that moment in the context of a particular aesthetic--between highly virtuosic actors and their audiences, within highly virtuosic forms. But that virtuosity is culturally variable and it is just like I showed [on the ‘’kathakali’’ dance-drama tape] at the beginning [of the workshop], at one point the actor “steps out” of what they are doing within the acting score, and moves a stool. I think I pointed out that at this moment in the performance—at this moment of high melodrama with its heightened its acting style and the actor’s heightened psycho-physiological engagement in this highly dramatic moment--the actor “steps out” and moves a stool. Or in other instances the actor steps out to do something else--and then the actor steps back in to the score where he left off. That moment of inhabitation of the heightened melodramatic state is where the virtuosity lies - whether it’s a subtle state or a something made obvious and moving toward the overtly melodramatic, like anger.
Gabriella Giannachi: In the workshop you associated presence with the actor’s ‘dispositional state of readiness’ - could you elaborate a little bit on that?
Phillip Zarrilli: Well, if there is something like ‘presence’ it’s emergent, and that has to do again with the relationship between the performer and what emerges in the moment of performance. It is that relationship that I am trying to mark by a ‘dispositional state of readiness’. In other words, a disposition to be ready with no intentionality--not getting ahead of oneself as a performer. Again, this is the constant difficulty in performance when you are doing anything repetitious. It’s that age-old problem for the actor/performer. If you are doing something that’s scored in some way, how does one repeat something to the ‘nth’ time, so that one is present in that doing, and find what there is ‘’within that’’ rather than projecting onto it. Again, it depends on what actually that performance score is, what pitfalls there might be with a certain form of anticipation, or a certain form of lack of being ready. What is important is to see what happens as it’s happening. So “presence” is this sense of constantly and unremittingly--as much as one can as imperfect human beings--attempting to inhabit that space of the unknown, or of “play”, in the moment. So the training is about trying to get people to a place where they can begin to possibly have some glimpse of what this unknown territory is—the moment of being at “play”. Then this moment or state has to obviously be recaptured with every single performance one works on, which is the difficulty. It might happen once or twice, but how do people gain that ability to repeatedly enter this unknown territory? Part of this process has to do with how the rehearsal process goes on, really, and whether the work has gotten to a point of a certain kind of integrity and clarity for the performers so that they are able to allow themselves to be in this dispositional state of readiness. When I am working directorially or in training I am always trying to get the actors to this place of readiness--to get into a certain kind of alignment--so that performers and actors are able to inhabit that unknown territory. And it’s quite interesting when they do enter this place, because whether working with student actors or even with professionals they often don’t known this place of the “unknown”--and it’s often a surprise when they get to the place where they experience this unknown. Although this is always the goal, it’s just so much work that it does not happen very often. It occasionally shows itself for moments. Does that help clarify it?
Phillip Zarrilli: Maybe I should elaborate that a little bit more, just in terms of the training. This is why I use martial arts in training actors, because it is so repetitious, because you are working over time with developing a kind of relationship to form that most people don’t have, unlike musicians or dancers. This is a cliché, too, because acting, contemporary acting, unlike in a conventional system of acting, doesn’t have a technique of its own. How do you gain a kind of embodied experience of repetition, which operates at such a deep level? I think this training attracts people because - you can go to a million workshops, but where do they actually have an opportunity, even in drama school for heaven’s sake, to train five days a week on one thing, to really enter into a very deep relationship with themselves in relation to a particular kind of system or set of forms. And again the system, here - because I am not trying to make them into martial artists - isn’t ultimately about virtuosity, but about that experience of the repetition of form and how form inscribes itself neuro-physiologically. We know now what’s going on within us with repetition and the kind of neural patterns that are inscribed and what that does to one’s awareness. So this systemic form training gives people a very different kind of experience. Now, I think I said this [in the workshop] - it’s not necessarily these techniques, but the time and attentiveness to the detail of the exercises and so on that is where the potential benefit comes. I think these particular forms I work with are quite useful for this purpose, and I am glad I happened onto them,; however, this same kind of relationship can be achieved with other modes of what I would call “deep training”. I think Suzuki’s work operates in a similar way, because people who are doing those systems are doing them constantly.
Phillip Zarrilli: So, again, I would point to these kinds of trainings as paramount in terms of the subtle level of awareness that you can eventually experience through practice of such systems. But too often unfortunately, in the US or the UK, people will do Suzuki work for six weeks. Some might think this is a long time. However, until people have practiced for at least six months or a year or two years, the kind of progressive way in which there’s a shift in one’s awareness through those disciplines is, I think unknown. Such long-term training is an invaluable experience for people who are interested of how their bodies work in relation to performance work. But it’s not like you can’t have what we would call “presence” without going through such long-term training.
Gabriella Giannachi: Emerging from that, it seems that presence is somehow engaged with the balance between form and energy, because we are talking on the one hand about being in the moment and skill, and on the other about repetition in form and structure. To some extent, perhaps, one could argue that you need both in order to achieve presence, and see presence emerge. If you only have energy you would not ‘feel’ presence.
Phillip Zarrilli: It’s energy in relation to the form and structure clearly, whether that’s in a martial art or even in an internal practice in relation to acting or performance work as well. I always think it’s in relation to form and structure. It’s not something that can exist without those, because it’s relational. It is about the relationship that you have to what you are doing. It’s an exploration of the relationship between the do-er and the done, to put it in the one phrase that tries not to pin it down. It’s the relationship between the one doing something and what they are doing, where something emerges - as that relationship happens at a particular time.
Nick Kaye: And is that a relationship that you think is seen?
Phillip Zarrilli: Well, I think it can be seen. Again, when I am working with students it’s always interesting, because as soon as they start doing this kind of work they start watching things differently. They start seeing how often in performance work people’s awareness is not as complete as it might be - and as soon as somebody starts to work on their own awareness, and a certain psycho-physiological awareness, you can see dead spots quite easily. When I am teaching people, that’s what I am doing. I am really working constantly with, you know - the awareness is missing over here. It’s also shaping that awareness. When I work with structures -- we showed one or two examples in the workshop --you can shape the structures in certain ways by just defining where you want the awareness to be at certain points. Then you have a different form through which the energy is travelling -
Nick Kaye: Is it about obtaining a unity?
Phillip Zarrilli: No, not necessarily, no, no, no. It’s just a relationship. This is why, again, I prefer not to define it in the first instance because that would delimit the aesthetic possibilities of the exploration. It depends on the kind of work as to what that relationship might be. Sometimes you don’t want “presence” that is a “unity”. I mean, with some kinds of performance work you want to deaden things, to not have a kind of a heightened relationship. That, to me, is an aesthetic as well as a pragmatic choice – but you can’t know how not to unless you know how. You [need to] know how to enter into the relationship in order, also, to actually [be able to] dispose of the relationship in [as] self-conscious a way as possible.
Gabriella Giannachi: How do you think this is reflected in the scenario you were discussing were the performer steps in and out of their heightened mode of work?
Phillip Zarrilli: Well, in most acting work, you want what is marked by “presence” - especially conventional stage acting. But in much performance work you want something absolutely daily, where you are not in any way trying to get beyond a certain kind of very pedestrian relationship. If somebody hasn’t been in front of an audience and they are trying to do something pedestrian, they don’t know how their energy operates just because of the performance environment. It might be very difficult to be very pedestrian unless you are trained, in some way, to make that choice evident. So, I think, that is what is interesting about the history of performance art, happenings and other things, working with, you know, so many different shapes and forms historically, or even today. The work I do has always not just been for conventional actors; it’s also for people who are interested in performance work. I have had a number of people who have worked with me who are dancers or performance artists. They are interested in working on this conundrum. If you are animating a puppet, the animation of the puppets is all about “presence”. Sometimes if you are working with objects you want them to be pedestrian and not to have this remarkable energy that virtuoso puppeteers can animate a puppet with. So again that becomes an interesting kind of problematic for people working with objects. This work with martial arts becomes eventually work with weapons - you are working with that extension of your energy into objects. Again, you can turn “it” off - you can shift it or change it or put a different quality into the energy that you are working with. That can be quite useful, I think, for performance practitioners who are not working with acting, but who want to evacuate, in a certain sense, the stereotypical way that presence would be thought about among actors, for example.
Nick Kaye: I wanted to pick up on your description of stepping out and stepping back into the heightened state of performance. Is the stepping out of that state important to obtaining it?
Phillip Zarrilli: No, it’s purely the function of an aesthetic that isn’t built on a Western notion of continuity. It’s discontinuous - and attention is discontinuous – so, for sections of the performance, people don’t pay much attention. The performance goes on and the audience talks until the virtuosi performer comes on and you want to watch. There are so many variables, but this is a kind of discontinuous attentiveness both for the performer and for the audience. That’s why I try to be careful about how I look at these things. When Westerners watch they may not know anything about these conventions and then they’ll find a performance very disconcerting when the actor-dancer does something that is not “in character”. Picking up the stool is done as the actor. But this stepping out of character momentarily is not an aesthetic - ‘oh, I am going to do something post-modern and step out of character and move the stool as myself’. The actor is simply moving the stool and then he returns to his score. That’s the part that got me thinking about all this, because I was sitting there watching the first time I was in Kerala - trying to figure out and understand what was going on onstage with the actors and their conventions. At first it was just so different, fabulously different. So this whole notion of continuity and Western notions that I was used to at the time when I went to India for the first time, just didn’t make any sense. You know - any notion of a certain kind of Western dramaturgy just couldn’t explain what I was seeing – experiencing, too, not just seeing.
Gabriella Giannachi: In the workshop you were talking about the ‘absent body’ - the disappearance of the body from one’s awareness. I wondered if work on awareness would make the body re-appear, so that the reappearance of the body, in that sense, is somehow linked to presence?
Phillip Zarrilli: It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Again, I think it’s one of those tools that’s available for allowing that relational process to become manifest if one wanted it to. It’s so remarkable to me that so many actors don’t use more awareness – don’t have that available as a tool. I think it’s very useful for people if you are trying to create the kind of performance where you want to capture and keep people’s attention.
Gabriella Giannachi: Yes. At some point you talked about presence as an optimal moment of performance. Can you expand on what you mean by that?
Phillip Zarrilli: It depends on the dramaturgy and what you are shaping, so what’s optimal in one performance may be completely different in another. I am using it there to mark what is optimal to a particular dramaturgy as it’s developed within a particular rehearsal process or devising process: what is optimal to performance ‘a,’ may not be optimal to performance ‘b’. So what’s optimal depends on that very specific score that you are trying to develop with the performers.
Gabriella Giannachi: Are you talking about an inter-connectedness?
Phillip Zarrilli and Theatre Aszou, Speaking Stones (2002)
Phillip Zarrilli: Did I talk a little bit about Speaking Stones? It’s a project that I did with Klaus Seewald’s company in Austria. There are several moments there where there is an absolute intentional disjunction, where you are making no reference whatsoever, and you don’t want the actors’ energy to be connected to what came before. You want it clear that this is something different. So something is dropped, everything is shaped in a different way - in a certain sense you have a clear juxtaposition. In conventional realist acting you often use juxtaposition, but in a different way - and the actors’ experience of it may be of a whole. In Speaking Stones, it is not about experiencing as a whole, but actually experiencing that you are doing something very different. So there’s that kind of a map of the actors’ interiority that sometimes has a gap in it - it’s not necessarily a continuous shaping of one kind of presence, a manifest presence.
Gabriella Giannachi: In the workshop you said presence was not an instant, but an engagement. Does this engagement include the audience?
Phillip Zarrilli: I would say so, yes. This is where, again, when I am thinking about audiences, I am thinking about what kind of experience they are having and not what the project means to them. Meanings may be thrown up, but those often come later. I think there are, unfortunately, pedestrian ways in which performance is often thought about critically. We all know students, especially when they are coming out of literature, who want to know what something means. I am completely uninterested in meaning, in a certain sense, because what I am trying to do is to structure experience so that some kind of range of meanings might be emergent for an audience. So engagement is about a quality of relationship appropriate to the moment. It’s going to be variable and it’s going to [be in relationship with] form and structure, as we were discussing earlier.
Nick Kaye: So the sense of presence is integral to this experience, but you don’t articulate it as ‘presence’ because that would imply it was some thing.
Phillip Zarrilli: Yes, that’s why I always choose not to make that attempt, because I think otherwise it’s essentialized.
Gabriella Giannachi: I have a question that has to do with, partly, with the title of the workshop, ‘Towards a dispositional state of presence - with a touch of “madness”’. Firstly, I wondered if you could expand on this reference to a ‘madness’. I was also interested in your statement in the workshop synopsis, in which you say ‘if the absolute is constantly present at hand to the performer my presence emerge as a performer to the disposition’. I was interested in this relationship between the absent at hand and the presence which you qualify within quotation marks.
Phillip Zarrilli: Again, that goes back to the problem of anything approaching intentionality, i.e., as soon as there’s effort, or as soon one is ahead and not inhabiting the moment as a set of possibilities implicit in a performance score that’s been rehearsed, then there is a problem actualizing something as emergent in the moment. So when I am talking about absence, it’s about the fact that one should not get ahead of oneself when one is performing. Well, there could be exceptions because there might be a kind of structure in which you really want to get ahead of yourself and that might create its own relationship to a certain kind of “presence”. This is why I would always want to examine this phenomenon in relation to specific performance structures. Even when I say something like this, I choose to contradict it since I can imagine possibilities where you choose to “get ahead” of yourself. This might of course produce its own kind of relationship termed “presence”. If I am working with a text like Ohio Impromptu - this is where the text is in front of me, I’m reading a story, and so I have performed this a million times. I read the story. What is one’s engagement with and what is the actual relationship to the words as one reads them?
Phillip Zarrilli: When I talk about absence, here again, I am trying to mark that state of disposition where it’s totally in that relationship to the saying of the words as emergent now--with the words on the page, as they are being read and not in relation to anything else. Other things will appear because of the resonance of that particular reading. It is a reading, in this case, that has to do with all the other readings, that has to do with all of the preparation. It has to do with everything else but it’s what emerges right now to me - that is what is important. And it is the place where the possibility of “presence” might emerge in that relationship to those words, as they are being said this time. So it’s a kind of unremitting attention to that process - and that’s where the “madness” or the unknown or the absent comes in. I have used the expression ‘acting at the nerve ends,’ which is a quote from Antonin Artaud—for this. It’s that sense of being on the edge. You know, as soon as you are in that territory of expectational projection you can’t inhabit this present moment. You can’t find a relationship now, because you are somewhere else - you are trying to project something onto it, you are trying to find something else. Then all this training again – well, if you have had a good teacher you get to a place where you realise that trying is the worst thing to do - and that it is so often unfortunately there in so much performance work -
Nick Kaye: In part, it sounds like the engagement with presence is this state of becoming.
Phillip Zarrilli: Yes, that’s where I think it lies - in that state. It is ‘’becoming’’ and that’s why, in a certain sense, it can’t be defined except in relation, again, to particular forms and structures, as one engages them.
Nick Kaye: Would it be too much to say that if it’s a state of becoming then it’s always achieved in some element of its not being there – in absence?
Phillip Zarrilli: Yes - that’s where the “madness” lies, because you are there and you are not there at the same time. All those paradoxes that have to do with the performer’s state or condition are absolute, I think, and that’s why people often talk about them that way. They are so difficult to get hold of - and this is where again I think other cultures have terminologies that are much more fruitful for defining these kinds of things. In Japanese the state of ‘’no-mind’’ is really a description of this kind of state - it’s what I call a state of inhabitation. You are inhabiting that relational mode ‘’with’’ something, not by projecting with a will or with ego or whatever else. Those things just get in the way. So it’s this constant evacuation - of taking a bucket and getting the water out of the boat, because it’s liable to sink - so it’s constantly getting all that stuff out of the way.
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