Theatre, as an art form, has always attracted big ideas. Given how complex, varied, and influential the medium can be, it is unsurprising that big thinkers are often drawn to the wings, eager to stage work and discuss performances.
There is no bigger theatrical thinker at the moment than the legendary Anne Bogart. Whether creating art as the Co-Artistic Director of the ever-influential, ensemble-based SITI Company, or inspiring the next generation of creators and thinkers through teaching at Columbia University, USA, and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, UK, Anne Bogart has led theatre forward with her bold ideas.
When it comes to essays on theatre, Anne Bogart has literally written the book; five of them, in fact! Her latest collection, The Art of Resonance, is her most insightful and incisive anthology yet. Central to this new book is the idea of ‘resonance’… but what does that mean? Here, in this exclusive extract, Bogart breaks down the art of ‘resonance’: defining what it is, highlighting why it matters, and explaining how the ‘global situation’ of 2020 spurred her into writing.
I am writing in the midst of a pause. Theaters have been shut down for an indeterminate amount of time and no one knows what the future holds for the art of gathering-together-to- experience-performance. In this current moment of empty space, I return to the director Peter Brook’s work, to his initial writings, for guidance. Over the years, his books of essays have been a model for my own writing.
In 1968, Brook began his seminal work The Empty Space with the following words: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theater to be engaged.” The book fomented a revolution in the theater. Derived from a series of lectures begun in 1965, The Empty Space was a blunt assessment of the theater’s failures and deficiencies and a call for change that was forthright, informed and rebellious. It felt novel. Although the more conservative theater world resisted, the book nevertheless became an invitation to make the antiquated stage relevant again and ushered in an era of radical experimentation and deconstruction in small black box spaces, while exploring the classics in an intimate relationship to the audience.
Brook extended an invitation to theater makers to strip away the overabundance of stuff strewn across the stages; the diversions, the excessive scenery and the noise. The “deadly theater,” as he called it, was in a rut, overly jacked up on sound, money and music, all which was keeping audiences from experiencing, feeling, listening. In other words, the clutter in the theater space was preventing resonance. He proposed a search for what is essential in the theater and wrote, “We have largely forgotten silence. It even embarrasses us; we clap our hands mechanically because we do not know what else to do and we are unaware that silence is also permitted, that silence also is good.” The final chapter, “The Immediate Theater,” proposed a theater that “asserts itself in the present,” where an audience reacts to what is actually happening on the stage. The responses are different every time because the audience members are different, and it is impossible to predict their feelings, understandings and behavior.
“Theater exists so that the unsaid can breathe and a quality of life can be sensed which gives a motive to the endless struggle.” PETER BROOK
The Empty Space spoke to its time, its particular moment. And yet, the essence of the book, the “author’s message,” connects across the forty-some years since its publication. The message is: the essence of good theater is the human connection. During this current moment, 2020, this year of suspension and upheaval, a great deal of noise is happening all over the internet. Zoom performances, readings, dance and concerts abound. And yet, personally I resist this noise. What is lacking, for me, is resonance.
The Oxford dictionary defines resonance as, “responding to vibrations of a particular frequency, especially by itself strongly vibrating.” Resonance is what ripples and radiates; one energetic being influences the vibrations of another. If something has resonance for me, it typically also implies that it has a special meaning or a particular importance for me through its connections to my own life and experiences.
Humans are resonating bodies that vibrate and fluctuate and each of us gains our identity, a sense of who we are, through the quality of our relationships to experiences outside of ourselves. In order to adapt effectively to our changing circumstances, we require stimulation. No good can be achieved by shutting oneself off from the world or from the environment because exposure to discomfort and dissonance is as vital to our development as our need for food and water. We become forceful human beings only through our processes of interaction with the world, starting with our own families and communities and then moving outwards. But there are no guarantees. The quality of our lives and the impact of our work cannot be predicted by the options made available to us or by the amount of resources or budgets afforded us. The impact is contingent upon the way the work resonates with our audiences and then spreads out into the world.
Until recently, I assumed that the job of the theater was to plant lasting memories in the minds of audiences. I thought that the sign of a successful production is the enduring memories, literally the proteins, created in the minds and bodies of the audience in the heat of a performance. If the theater were a verb, I thought, it would be to re-member, to put the pieces back together again. But then my colleague Leon Ingulsrud, who was thinking a great deal about memory loss due to a family member’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, challenged my assumptions by asking me how the theater might be beneficial to those without the capacity to remember. What about people who have trouble forming memories?
Stymied, I had to ask once again: What should a play or an opera do? What is the sign of a successful production? What matters most in the experience of theater and how that impact can be measured? I started to think about my own formative experiences in art, performance and literature. And this led me to consider more deeply the role of resonance.
Since I was a child, I have loved to read. I mostly read non- fiction. I read biography, science and history. I read about religion and I read theoretical writings about art and performance. But I also forget a great deal of what I have read. I forget the facts and I even forget what triggered the specific insights that happened while reading. Content seems to slip away. Sometimes I forget that I have even read certain books. This forgetfulness used to bother me. But I now realize that the experiences that happen while reading, the insights and the ensuing emotions are the point. The act of reading attunes me to new channels, adjusts what I pay attention to and changes the patterns and frequencies of my day-to-day life. Reading has, in large part, transformed me made me who I am and who I am still becoming.
Perhaps, like reading, I thought, the most successful theater experiences, indeed the great art experiences, generate resonance as well as memories. The reverberations engendered in the moment of an artistic encounter can have a profound effect on the body, on neural pathways and consequently upon one’s actions in the world and subsequently, in the world at large.
Generally, my decisions about whether or not to take on a new project are based upon my own resonance with the specific material. In opera, the choice is often dependent upon my feeling for and response to the music. In theater, the play or project must literally provoke a frisson de corps—or goose bumps—in my own body. I think of my body as a barometer or as a tuning fork. I pay careful attention to the gradations of reverberations, the resonances, that arise when considering a new venture.
The Art of Resonance is now available to buy at bloomsbury.com