Here's the news. My play, THE LONG FORGOTTEN DREAM is debuting next year in the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House. The last year has been a wild ride with rough drafts, development and long chats with staff from Sydney Theatre Company.
I am so grateful to Kip Williams and Polly Rowe for showing such support for a piece of work that for the better part of a year, turned me into a bearded, robe wearing recluse.
Today of all days then, I find it necessary to re-examine how I arrived at this point in time.
In my coastal town of Goolwa during a 2012 arts conference RESILIENCE became the new buzz word. Words like 'cultural maintenance' and 'cultural resilience' fell from the mouths of guest speakers, like wisdom from the mouth of Minerva.
Within a week or so, all of these well travelled, well payed keynote speakers flew back to whatever holy loft they came from and most artisans in Goolwa got on with their art, as did I.
I'm glad to say that when all the conference prophets left town I chose to just keep doing what I did. Over the last five years I've managed to keep writing, studying and creating.
Resilience isn't given to you because you attend a high priced conference. Resilience is the stuff that anchors you to your work when everyone else has left the room. Some of what follows I've written elsewhere, scrapped and reworked, until I found my footing around what cultural maintenance and resilience are for me.
RESILIENCE AND IDENTITY
It can be argued that from federation, the arts scene in Australian society has been dominated by an artistic milieu of colonialism. Historically, the type of art that hung on the walls of parliament, art houses and galleries, the various plays that were performed and the kind of music available, was chosen by people who were heavily influenced by Social Darwinism. As a result, theatres, galleries and cultural exhibitions became the stomping ground for elitism and the most insidiously covert form of racism – artistic colonialism. Even when emerging artists of the 1950s and 1960s began to throw off the restraints of their predecessors and art was increasingly used as a form of protest (in a time when intellectuals were declaring that Australia was part of a network of herronvolk democracies), the protester’s involvement in arts practice always had a powerful fall back position. The majority of them came from the dominant culture.
There is no sense of destiny without a sense of history. In our desire to press forward into artistic destiny, we must secure a reasonable understanding of history, painful as it may be. A devastating by-product of the historical promotion of British / European art was the potent disregard for Aboriginal artistry. If it was not being totally disregarded, Aboriginal culture and art forms were regarded as less than civilized and fell into the dangerous category of ‘the other’. In much the same way as it was comforting for plunderers to categorize Australian Aborigines as less than human (Chan 1999), it is correspondingly comfortable to view Aboriginal art as ‘other’ and Aboriginal artists as needy recipients of funding.
With major funding organizations promoting their funding ‘success stories’ on websites it is plain to see that the emphasis of a majority of funding for visual art is placed on art derived from traditional form, or is of a political nature. In other words, the majority of Aboriginal visual art that is funded is stereotypically ‘other’ or discusses ‘otherness’. It suits the needs of an artistic colonial mindset to maintain a perception that Aboriginal people are only skilled in basket weaving, dot painting and making political statements. This is not cultural maintenance – it is a perpetuation of cultural dominance.
If we see culture as something that is socially constructed and maintained then the ongoing construction of Aboriginal culture is in danger of grinding to a halt. This is due to the fact that Aboriginal artists who desire to express themselves artistically outside the boundaries of a colonial paradigm are not viewed as ‘genuine’ Aboriginal artists, but as abberations.
A standout example being the most famous Aboriginal visual artist, Albert Namatjira. “As the first prominent Aboriginal artist to work in a modern idiom, he was widely regarded as a representative of assimilation. Namatjira's brilliant career highlighted the gap between the rhetoric and reality of assimilation policies. He encountered an ambiguous response from the art world. Some criticized his water color landscapes as derivative and conventional, others viewed them as evidence of acculturation and a loss of tribal traditions.”
It is important to acknowledge heritage.
But to continually refer to people as ‘Aboriginal’ artists is to classify rather than promote. It does a disservice to members of a community who have struggled to maintain specific expressions of culture when that expression is undermined, misappropriated, misrepresented and taken advantage of. Conversely it is also detrimental to pigeon-hole artists according to their race, color or creed, unless that artist expressly intends for their work to articulate that meaning or they give their permission to be so labelled. The sad point in the above quote is that Albert Namatjira was widely regarded as a representative of assimilation rather than widely regarded as an artist.
In the 2018 Sydney Theatre Company season brochure, I have been described as a "Ngarrindjeri writer". It doesn't offend me. Because it is not racialising my job. It is making the audience aware of my claim to authenticity. So before any Indigenous activist discourse begins around this play and how I am represented, let me be very clear. My appeal to authority is my work and my culture. I have no issue with the label 'Ngarrindjeri artist'. If anyone cares to notice, I'm also called an Australian playwright on the same website... so can I gently say, move on.
Having said that, in the definition of artists used by major organizations, colonialism and whiteness continually re-centres itself. Rarely is the term ‘White artist’ or ‘Artist of English descent’ used. This argument was also taken up in 2011 by Carrie Miller in issue 57 of The Australian Art Collector. “This conjuring into being of the Aboriginal other in relation to white European Australian art seems to be more of a function of the generalised and institutionalised racism that colonisation instantiated rather than an overt and explicit racism on the part of individuals operating in the art world now. Nevertheless, using categories like Aboriginal or Indigenous, if only as seemingly benign ethnographic classifications, have real effects in the present, allowing past practices to persist through a lack of confrontation with them.”
It can seem that highlighting this erroneous type of categorization could result in funding bodies adopting a ‘damned if we do and damned if we don’t’ mentality. However, the error lies not in the practice, but in the perception behind the practice. Namely, the perception that Aboriginality as only defined by colonial patriarchy is a prerequisite for funding. Nowhere else is this more clearly seen than in the degrading practice of including a certificate of Aboriginality along with funding applications.
Artists do not create art in a vacuum. They exist on a continuum spanning generations, past and future. They are influenced and inspired by artisans who have gone before and have the potential to inspire those who come after them. We are able to recognize a painting by Pro Hart or Drysdale or McCubbin. In respect to identity, Namatjira transcended racial identity and became one of those artists that we can name as we walk through a gallery, simply saying ‘That’s a Namatjira’. By doing so, we close the book on the phrase "Aboriginal Artist" and open the way for future art students to walk through a gallery and proclaim ‘That’s a Queenie McKenzie’. The artist’s identity is no longer attached to racial qualifications, but artistic ones.
RESILIENCE, CULTURAL MAINTENANCE AND MEANING
Cultural maintenance has been defined as the effort to sustain a culture by asserting its way of life and preserving its material embodiment. For the most part, when it came to Aboriginal cultures, preserving material embodiment meant the collection and preservation of artefacts. More recently, emphasis has been placed on the preservation and restoration of language. Cultural maintenance is more than the preservation of a language. “In a culture, meaning often depends on larger units of analysis - narratives, statements, groups of images, whole discourses which operate over a variety of texts – areas of knowledge about a subject which have acquired widespread authority.”
If something is living it grows. Remaining faithful to the definition of cultural maintenance means we must allow the whole definition to find expression. Giving room for the assertion a culture’s way of life is to allow space for the ongoing cultural discourses and interaction between the members of that
culture. It is to allow and support the growth of new expressions of meaning in an ever-changing world over a variety of texts. The language and cosmology of a culture is a foundational source of strength to its members. But while that may provide structure, the articulation of that cosmology can be more fluid. For example, there are many expressions of Christ’s Passion, from classical music, to paintings and even film. But the meaning remains the same. There is a shared knowledge and understanding of The Passion amongst the members of the Christian world, regardless of denomination.
So too, amongst the members of the Aboriginal community, foundational beliefs can be expressed in different ways, irrespective of the location or language group. A point in case - a deep and abiding sense of connection to the land can be seen in a Papunya dot painting, a Ngarrindjeri traditional dance, the songs of Archie Roach, the plays of Jack Davis and in the films of Warwick Thornton and Rachel Perkins.
“To belong to a culture is to belong to roughly the same linguistic and conceptual universe…” Cultural maintenance falls prey to ambiguity when the individuals doing the maintenance do not belong to that culture but feel entitled to ‘cherry pick’ what is meaningful and what is not. The arrival of European artistic expression is a relatively new phenomena on the cultural landscape of what is now called Australia. Aboriginal traditions, cosmology and oral history have been sustained over thousands of years but the keepers of that history have had to come to terms with the loss of sacred places, languages and ceremony in a very brief time. The fact that Indigenous ceremonial artistic expression still thrives is testament to the resilience of a people who, in spite of their collective grief and loss, continue to assert what is meaningful and what is not, through the protocol of Eldership.
In genuine cultural maintenance it is the duty of rightfully appointed Elders to draw meaning from collective ceremony and interpret it. That duty belongs to no one else. In the same manner, contemporary artists within an Aboriginal community bear a similar responsibility for their own work. The discourse, coded or not, contained within the work is the property of the individual artist.
Within the context of an Aboriginal community, if the work is an individual work, then the artist alone should be accountable for meaning and interpretation. There is a discernible difference between a collective ritual and an individual piece of art.
There exists a manifest difference between a group ceremony handed down from generation to generation and a modern artistic expression. Therefore, we might well ask, does an Elder have the right to reject a piece of work as genuinely Aboriginal? If, in an effort to assert a continued way of life or cultural expression, an Elder disapproves of an individual piece of work, where does his/her responsibility lie? To cultural maintenance or the continuation of a living, breathing culture that is forming new expressions of resistance with each new generation of Aboriginal artists?
Where do the new Aboriginal Hip Hop musicians sit within the parameters of cultural maintenance? Are they seriously engaged in the continuation of resistance and thereby maintaining their culture or, to paraphrase Drew Barrymore in the film Music and Lyrics, are they destroying ‘two musical cultures’ at once? Who decides whether their music is ‘genuine’ Aboriginal art?
Australia Council encourages Aboriginal musicians to apply for funding but on their website they state “… traditional knowledge that underpins Indigenous artwork is what defines it and sets it apart from mainstream art.” Are not these musicians continuing to assert their culture and way of life by putting
political discourse into song? We need only look at the success of Non Indigenous bands like Hilltop Hoods to consider that Hip Hop is a genuine form of resistance and artistic expression in Australia for Indigenous artists.
If artists do not create art in a vacuum then we might say that in forming new expressions of resilience and resistance in song, dance and art, individual artists within an Aboriginal community are able to consolidate their own place on the continuum. In doing so they give meaning to their own lives, much like their ancestors did. “The truths of social living…were enshrined in their religion…A strong belief in that religion ensured maintenance of a social and cultural order that most of them (Aborigines) seemed to have regarded as eminently satisfactory. Within they found recognition of the dignity of man as a person, and assurance that his life had pattern and meaning, and that in death he was not lost to his society; that an essential essence remained and could never be dissipated.” (Berndt & Phillips 1973)
The complexity of processing and interpreting meaning from ceremonies, songs, painting, films and theatre in order to assess what is viable for the ongoing survival of a people and its culture needs to be left up to the people who are active participants in that culture.
The title Traditional Owner does not just apply to land, but to knowledge and meaning. Just because a new work does not appear ancient, or does not fit the funding bodies definition of Aboriginal art, that does not disqualify it from having as much Aboriginality and meaning as those works that the world is already familiar with. From bark paintings to stage plays, from didjeridus to digital samplers – discourse that brings meaning and operates over a variety of texts is a sign of a healthy, resilient culture. It is also a sign that artists in Aboriginal communities have the ability to break free from the semiotic limitations of texts imposed on them in bygone eras.
RESILIENCE AND ACCOMMODATION
“Much of twentieth-century Aboriginal art is ‘transitional’ in a number of ways. It is the art of people overwhelmed by an alien culture within which they have had to learn to live in order to survive, since the whites have made few adjustments.” J & M Megaw, 1988
Two needs have been illuminated so far. (1) The need for mainstream arts organizations and funding bodies to disengage from the practice of classifying artists by race and (2) The need for the Aboriginal community to identify and allow discourse that is authentic in the work of individual artists for the purpose of cultural maintenance. The first point speaks to an external action that can bolster the confidence of the Aboriginal community. Confidence to create and present work, knowing that the work will be appreciated for it’s own sake and not simply because it is part of a colonial ‘otherness’ paradigm. The second point speaks to an internal process of maturation on the part of Elders and individual artists in an Aboriginal community. Becoming mature enough to recognize that change is inevitable, but traditions can still be maintained with integrity. In the bigger scheme of the current arts system, these two needs are simply a starting point for Aboriginal groups who are on the journey to becoming more resilient artistic communities. They are mechanisms to resist further erosion of Aboriginal values. But to be resilient is to not merely be resistant and defensive.
Resilience has more to do with accommodation than resistance. In the resistance and accommodation model used in the historical study of Aboriginal/Colonial relations, accommodating and making room for an external influence can be seen as just as valid as resisting it. Trading with or taking on the customs of an occupying force was a means of survival for some Aboriginal groups. While resistance can be seen as simplistic in its methodology (Attacking cattle, protecting land or refusal to give up a native language), accommodation, though ostensibly passive, was a complicated choice and a more adaptive form of resistance for some individuals. To be able to accommodate the loss of land while continuing with ceremony, ritual and art in the face of overwhelming change is more akin to what Mark Robinson ( one of the keynotes at the aforementioned conference in Goolwa) calls adaptive resilience.
“Adaptive resilience is the capacity to remain productive and true to core purposeand identity whilst absorbing disturbance and adapting with integrity in response to changing circumstances.” – Making Adaptive Resilience Real, 2010.
In this paper Robinson advocates a move toward an artistic philosophy that embraces a more ecological systems approach rather than a business stance. He freely admits that this philosophy should be used as a starting point for discussion and analysis, rather than just considered another fad. While warning that resilience should not merely be the latest buzz-word he proposes that resilience theory shifts the perception of the arts sector from economy to ecology. This draws on the assumption that living ecological systems are adaptive and resilient in times of change. The shift from ‘arts economy’ to ‘arts ecology’ is likely to be a more functional parallel for South Australian Aboriginal communities in the Alexandrina region, since accommodation as a form of resilience was already being practiced in the 1830s. During this turbulent time of change ‘…Kaurna people and groups from areas such as Encounter Bay and along the Murray needed little encouragement to come into the colonial capital, Adelaide.’(Pope, 1989). They saw it as a peaceful way of surviving. Europeans saw it as an opportunity to concentrate an Aboriginal population into one area, thus making it easier to claim land that was not ‘occupied’. While Aboriginal and European groups of Adelaide lived peacefully during a time of mutual accommodation, agendas for land were never far from colonial thinking. With this in mind, it is useful to point out that Robinson warns against resilience theory becoming simply another arts sector agenda, ‘the post-2010 box for people to tick by generating so-called Resilience Plans.’
Aboriginal communities have been the subject of so many health, education and arts initiatives by successive governments that it is almost tiresome to hear about the arrival of a new paradigm. Also, having each successive government or arts board impose an initiative can create an unhealthy dependency on government, leading to a collective learned helplessness – the antithesis of resilience.
Again, cultural maintenance is more than the preservation of a language. It is the ongoing effort to maintain life, creativity and a functional artistic lifestyle in midst of turbulent times.
To be resilient, one must be in the fight. One must be tempered by the fray. In the end, as always, it is the work that matters.
Originally posted August 1st 2013
As I type, I’m sitting in the library of NIDA…getting ready to work with the third year NIDA actors.
I’m half way through the NIDA year and have learnt that methodology is more useful to me as a reflective tool than a creative one. Stanislavski was a genius…but applying a regime to a play is fraught with potholes. It’s necessary to take from Stanislavski what you find useful for yourself as a director, rather than adopt a whole set of ideas. It is a marvelous toolkit…one that will stand me in good stead as I move further along the track.
For now, all I can do is look back over some of the highlights from my time here and hope that the year keeps progressing the way it has. Each new week brings different challenges and different rewards. I can’t help but admire the actors I have worked with so far. At times they have left me awestruck…both ACA and at The University of Woollongong.
My fellow directors are just as talented…and I am extremely jealous of their youth, vitality and intellect. I have no problem boasting about them. They are the future of Australian Theatre. I feel rich when I am around them. I am a blessed man indeed to be in the company of such talent. All that is left to do in this post is to provide you with some visuals from the year so far.
As I polished this piece of writing a few nights ago I looked out to the roof of NIDA from my balcony where a recent Gala was held to raise money. I sat through the tech run the night before and, apparently, mention is to be made of Nick Enright and his contribution to theatre. During the tech run a small spotlight falls on the glass cabinet dedicated to him. The rich and the elite of the theatre world will no doubt be in attendance. Amongst them, so I was told, will be past directorial alumni. Theatrical lineage is discussed a lot at NIDA, so I anticipate the names of Jim Sharman through to Kip Williams will be discussed in that foyer tonight. My eyes move back to my desk and I see on the shelf a text book. Fifty Key Theatre Directors. A subjective list at best. Names like Stanislavsky, Bausch and Armfield appear.
A name not found in this book and even more likely to not be discussed at tonight’s NIDA Gala is the nameSteven Berkoff.
I had the pleasure of his company for a brief hour in the bistro of the Adelaide Festival Centre in 1994. I was in the middle of a directorial traineeship with South Australia’s State Theatre Company. Berkoff was there in rehearsal for his one man show. The memory of the conversation is vivid. We were introduced and he began to bluntly ask about why I worked in theatre, where I started and if my practice was informed by my connection to the land as an Aboriginal man. I lied and said it was, to which he seemed pleased. He advised me to get out into the desert more and seek creativity. I was so in awe that he would have me at his lunch table. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was not from a desert people. All I cared was that he was genuinely interested in me as an artist. I have been intrigued by his work ever since.
I was surprised by the reaction of a colleague at NIDA when I told them I had changed my essay subject to Steven Berkoff. ‘He’s a fucking Zionist.’, they snorted. This is, quintessentially, why he intrigues me. He polarizes people.
In various texts, be they newspaper articles, television interviews or books, Berkoff describes himself as somewhat of a transfigured director. On the one hand he speaks about his youth and the days of longing to get into the club, the theatrical clique. He became vehemently opposed to mainstream . Nowadays, he is ostensibly part of it. His participation in a Hollywood flop like The Tourist is as far away as any artist could get from their origins. On the BBC arts program Hard Talk, Sarah Montague questions him about his anger and hatred of current theatre. She boasts that last year British Theatre had its most successful year. Berkoff replies ‘No, that’s not true. Last year musicals were successful. The masses came to the theatre to see musicals. They are a valid art form, but they take up time in the big theatre spaces. A year, five years, ten years…all for one musical.’. Berkoff will not give in.
Why is Steven Berkoff such a polarizing force? Is this a deliberate choice on his part?
A Theatre of Extremes.
‘Mediocrity is not a crime, by no means. Most of you are mediocre, which is why you go to the theatre. To watch other mediocrities.’
The audience is given no quarter during a Steven Berkoff production. Having now seen him on stage three times, once for Tell Tale Heart / Actor/ Dog and twice for Shakespeare’s Villains, I can attest to being drawn in as Berkoff takes you to the limit of his performativity and commentary in his one man shows. In Dog I watched in horror as Berkoff portrayed a skinhead so in love with his pet bulldog that he began French kissing it. The mime kissing became extreme, Berkoff opening the jaws of the pet and passing himself through the canine, coming out the other end from dog mouth to dog rectum. All mimicry, all gross.
In Shakespeare’s Villains, the line from Richard the Third, ‘lascivious pleasings of a lute…’ is spoken by Berkoff while he mimes fellatio. His commentary on how political correctness destroyed his opportunity to play Othello is blunt and striking.
If his is a theatre of extremes then, to Berkoff, it is one surrounded by the theatre of the mediocre. Berkoff developed his theatrical form in direct response to his dislike of naturalism in British theatre, which was filled with bad acting in ‘…grim, plodding attempts to be natural.’ Berkoff’s minimalistic use of space steered well clear from the trickery of set designs and audience pleasing spectacles such as revolving stages. ‘What is lost on the stage is the entire space since the ugly monster sits like a great turd in the middle of the playing area….If I go to the theatre and see one of those things on a stage, my heart sinks, since there can be no art of the player, no choreography, since the director knows not that form’
I am intrigued by Berkoff firstly because his was an indirect route to becoming a director. From a poor immigrant family, Berkoff longed for purpose and escape. Having been rejected after auditioning for Olivier (who didn’t bother to show up) when the National theatre was being set up and being rejected sparked in Berkoff a fierce determination. His memoirs tell of years wandering through various branches of theatre. Acting, mime, directing for community theatre, movement study and eventually ending up in Paris where he found his aesthetic. Minimal set and pushing bodies to the extreme are Berkoff’s calling card. The heightened gestures, physical mechanics and the mixture of science with choreography are direct results of his time in Paris, having studied movement with Jacque LeCoq With this aesthetic Berkoff captured an audience for himself, with bodies in simplistic sets. The most stunning of which was the set and body design for Kafka’sMetamorphosis. ‘A skeletal framework of steel scaffolding suggesting an abstract sculpture of a giant insect is stretched across the stage.’ The stage is sharply lit, throwing shadows of the frame and the human body against the upstage wall.
Berkoff, The Master Self Promoter
The ability to develop a unique style of theatre that relies on only the voice and body in a time when musicals and spectacle began to dominate is the area of his practice I am most influenced by. To shun the conventions of your contemporaries and go it alone. This distinctive element of Berkoff’s work is what I find most compelling. The audacity of flagrant self promotion. Berkoff created, and still creates, an image of himself in the media. He has become known as the difficult guy to work with. Long before Christian Bale graced film sets with his tantrums, Berkoff was threatening his colleagues. His work at self promotion is informed by his decision to be creative in spite of his contemporaries. Building iconography around himself, he forged his own path in his day, mainly because those around him were wanting to put him into a box. Harry the actor, His fictional character from Berkoff’s book of short stories, Graft, is obviously autobiographical when read in conjunction with his official autobiography Free Association. His hatred for theatre critics is well known, partly because of his extreme reaction to them, ‘…insults, bannings, even a death threat.
Berkoff sees himself and his aesthetic as a unique product. Although he now has an agent he is still an independent artist, steering clear of submitting himself to any company that would dilute or pollute his vision. For that reason he is personally involved in his publicity. He controls the perception that the public and theatre community have of him. Rather than waiting to labeled, he is aggressive in his resolve to maintain his persona and set the record straight about his work when the odd critic has written a disparaging review.
Since image and publicity are forefront in his practice, Berkoff believes the image of Olivier is problematic for British theatre and British actors. Berkoff describes Olivier as ‘…the great statue that sits upon every stage.’, and Olivier’s Shakespearean reputation as Mountain Everest, telling how so many actors have attempted the climb and ended dead at the base of ‘…that great mountain.’. Olivier is problematic for Berkoff because of the perception that people have of Shakespeare and acting, as something that is sacred and available only to the few.
Berkoff’s attitude to publicity, persona and perception are of interest to me because I have struggled with a similar theatrical experience. Coming from a very poor background, being the only Indigenous family in a school of mostly British immigrants, I developed a keen awareness of difference. As I moved up through secondary school and discovered Shakespeare through Othello, I found that teachers were unwilling (or unable) to unpack these texts for me due to their perception that Shakespeare was not for the likes of me.
Pursuing a career in theatre was problematic for me in Australia, largely due to the constant attitude that as an Indigenous actor I was , and continue to be, offered parts that speak to my appearance. The image and perception of Aboriginality sits like a great statue on the Australian stage and screen. In auditions and interviews I am openly compared to other Aboriginal directors and find myself frustrated at the temerity of companies to even think that, just because I have the same heritage as Warwick Thornton or Wesley Enoch, I would want to follow their path of making specifically Indigenous film or theatre.
I have therefore had to shape my persona over the years, and have to do so with every theatre company or theatrical institution I work with. My application for NIDA did not appeal to any part of my cultural background, but at the interview for the directing course I found myself answering questions about whether or not I wanted to write Indigenous plays and would I be open to sitting in on the playwriting course as well. Recent tutorials here have also been problematic in that there seems to be very little effort to be factual about Indigenous history.
For each play and company I have been involved with, whether it be a Chekhov, Shakespeare or Nowra, I have had to work doubly hard to overcome the unuttered perception that I should be in a loin cloth for every production I’m in.
Not being able to escape these perceptions, I used it to my advantage. Like Berkoff, I decided to create my own shows and am involved in shaping the image that people have of me. It has become part of my practice to shape people’s perception of me. If I am considered a difficult person to work with then it will be for good reason. I do not accept mediocrity in my fellow actors when rehearsing. I do not accept the path of least resistance in directing. While I steer clear from strong remarks about other people’s performances, I will hold my ground and justify my own reasons for choosing a play or choosing a particular actor to work with. I have a handful of people that I trust, creatively and am always willing to jump in if I see an opportunity to be on a team with creative people who are better than me. It's the only way to learn. This can be difficult since my aim is to travel as far away from current Australian theatre practice as possible and shape my own identity and aesthetic, without having to ingratiate others to myself or, as Berkoff puts it, sit around the foyer and ‘…socialise with the luvvies.’
To return to my initial observation, I believe that Steven Berkoff has made a deliberate choice to polarize the theatrical community, due to its initial exclusion of him as a performer of Jewish heritage. This decision has served him well. I have yet to see whether my decision to polarize will benefit me in the same way.
In the 2002 film HERO, directed by Zhang Yimou, Jet Li plays a Nameless assassin who has come to the royal palace to claim reward for a bounty that was placed on several enemies of the Emperor. Upon entering the throne room the Nameless assassin is kept at a distance from the Emperor until he reveals how he destroyed each enemy. As each tale of death is told the Nameless assassin is permitted to proceed closer toward the throne. Little does the emperor know that the Nameless assassin has planned to dethrone him. Access to a seat of power is deftly used as a narrative tool by Zhang Yimou and screen writers Feng Li and Bin Yang (Yimou, 2002). Just as subtle are the directors and designers of the television series, The West Wing and Jonathan Demme in his role as director on The Silence of the Lambs.
With specific reference to notions of knowledge, power, reward and access to power, this article serves to explore the symbolic effect of the mis-en-scene upon lead characters in The West Wing and The Silence of the Lambs. Beginning with Josiah Bartlett and the Oval Office set, comparisons will be made to The Silence of the Lambs to contrast and/or highlight notions of knowledge, power and reward. Furthermore, this chapter serves to examine the filmic spaces that lead characters occupy in order to interpret the various metonymic signifiers and interrogate the symbolic effect of mis-en-scene upon their occupants.
Props, presidents and power
‘Oh Lord, my boat is so small and your sea is so great.’ So says the wood and brass plaque sitting on the desk of fictitious President Josiah Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen in The West Wing (Sorkin 1999). This old Breton fisherman’s prayer faces out toward anyone standing on set in front of the Presidents desk. While it may serve to signify the religious side of ‘Jed’ Bartlett, the plaque provides the television character with a direct link to an historical figure, the late John F Kennedy. A similar plaque with this quote was gifted to President Kennedy by Admiral Hyman Rickover and had pride of place on Kennedy’s desk (http://www.jfklibrary.org/). Just as significant in the opening credits of The West Wing, actor Martin Sheen is portrayed against a coloured backdrop of the US flag in a black and white photo, leaning on the Oval office desk in similar fashion to one of the most famously candid photos of Kennedy. In fact the opening credits of The West Wing are replete with metonymic symbols of American patriotism (Stadler 2009). The effect of prop placement, lighting and camera angle in these instances is to semiotically endow Josiah Bartlett with the qualities of one of the most revered presidential figures in history.
Apart from direct links to historical Presidents, Bartlett is afforded power by use of a crane shot of the Oval Office set. Whenever a national crisis occurs and President Bartlett has given his orders to senior staff one of two things will occur. The characters either remain in the Oval Office set or they collect their belongings and leave the set quickly. In either case, the direct overhead crane shot is used. This provides Bartlett with the semiotic assignation of the coach, the guy who sees the whole game plan. Not only does this give the viewer a visual cue that ‘the games is on’ and the play has been called, but that all the players are moving into place at the command of Bartlett. Symbolically, the shot is also noteworthy in that all the characters are moving while framed against the Presidential seal, embedded in carpet on the Oval Office floor. Aside from the opening sequence of Season 1: Episode 1 when Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spence) enters the White House lobby and walks across the presidential seal, no other characters office is afforded this rare camera angle. It is strictly used for Bartlett.
Cubicles, corridors and closed doors
Whether the character is a president or a paper distribution manager in Slough, England, office spaces on television shows are signifiers that carry semiotic meanings of power. In the real world office space is a physical expression of practicality, a specific space allocated to a specific person for a specific task. Offices can also express varying degrees of status that have been attained in an institution. In the television portrayal of White House administrative activity and office space, the Oval Office is the extreme signified example of a power base. Largely due to the cultural meaning that is given to it (Howells, 2003).
Actors on The West Wing move through corridors in fast paced style that was relatively new in late 1990s television. The camera style was parodied on Saturday Night Live and is now a feature on other US television dramas such as House. Hand-held cameras follow the busy West Wing characters through corridors. While this style of camera work does signify, in almost news like fashion, that these characters live lives of utmost importance, it is also a device to allow the audience to become familiar with the location of each characters office and their symbolic proximity to the Oval Office. Once invested in the character and their office space the audience is more likely to be emotionally invested in the mis-en-scene during periods of denied access. For one reason or another, lead characters on The West Wing may be out of favor with President Bartlett for several episodes. This denial of access to President Bartlett is often portrayed by the closing of a door. While it is no great leap to explain the semiotic meaning of a closed door, the idea that a political operative has been shut off from the President carries ramifications for plot, character development and continued story arcs. At some stage that lead character has ignored, abused or refused knowledge. They have not applied knowledge and are consequently denied access to power and reward.
The semiotic meaning of a closed door is starkly portrayed in Season 5: Episodes 5 through 8 when deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Brad Whitford) is denied access to the Oval Office as punishment for his lack of humility when dealing with a senior senator. Josh Lyman is on his way to the Oval Office when he is stopped by the Chief of Staff and told not to enter. The audience is given an over the shoulder wide shot of the Oval Office door closing. Several staff can be seen talking to the president beyond the door as it closes. This is immediately followed by a close up of Josh Lymans’ face. The symbolic effect of denied access on this particular lead character is driven home by the exacerbated sound of a door slamming shut. For all of his political prowess and knowledge, Josh Lyman is denied access.
Cells, cellars and quid pro quo
Long before The West Wing or Hero hit our screens, symbolic progression toward a seat of power was used by director Jonathan Demme in the movie The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991). As a hand-held camera follows Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) through various corridors the progression is made towards a very different category of power altogether. Unlike the responsible power and authority granted to an elected president, Clarice Starling comes face to face with the brutal power of a serial killer.
The first seat of power Clarice Starling must approach is that of FBI boss Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). On entering Crawford’s office at the FBI training facility at Quantico, Virginia, Starling scans his office briefly but fails to look over her left shoulder at the back wall. When she eventually turns she is shocked by a startling array of photographic violence on the wall. Violence perpetrated by the serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). Later in the movie, as the camera follows Clarice through a training corridor into a simulated forced entry situation, she again fails to look back over her left shoulder. With gun pointed, an instructor steps out from behind a door and tells her she failed to ‘check her six’. Six being the position on a clock face if you are facing twelve. Jonathan Demme has used the mis-en-scene to highlight a character flaw.
Starling is sent to the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane to interview a serial killer housed in the basement there. She makes a brief stop at the office of Dr. Chilton (John Heald). This apparent acquiescence to another seat of power is actually a red herring. Power may be signified by Dr. Chilton sitting at his desk, in his own office. There may be close up shots of Chiltons’ face in contrast to the medium shots of Clarice, making her seem smaller and less powerful. But Dr. Chilton has no power to deny Clarice access. Clarice has been sent by Jack Crawford, carrying with her all the authority of the FBI.
In approaching the next seat of power, that of Hannibal ‘The cannibal’ Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), the hand-held camera does not follow Clarice but is positioned in front and moved in such a way that the point of view is one of wanting to escape. This gives the impression that whatever is waiting in the next seat of power is something or someone the character might choose to avoid. On The West Wing the hand-held camera is traveling with the lead characters, capturing their discussion. In The Silence of the Lambs the camera is more often ahead of the characters and moving towards them, against the flow of action. This creates dissonance of movement with the express intention of un-nerving the audience. Once Clarice gains access to Hannibal she offers up private knowledge in exchange for progression to the next seat of power.
Clarice Starling now progresses to the home of Jame Gumb in Belvedere, Ohio. Clarice is unaware that Gumb is Buffalo Bill and that the daughter of a senator is being held in the cellar of Jame Gumbs’ house. Here, the mis-en-scene has the most symbolic effect on Clarice Starling. Failing to ‘check her six’ after entering the home she also fails to notice the collection of rare butterflies mounted on a wall behind her, a critical clue to Buffalo Bills identity. By the time a stray moth has raised her suspicion Jame Gumb has backed away and flees to his seat of power. All of the knowledge Clarice has gained and shared must now come to bear on this final seat of power. Like the Nameless assassin, she must dethrone Jame Gumb. As Clarice searches the house, the full symbolic weight of the mis-en-scene is displayed. Implements of death, dark rooms and crawling moths all suggest that Clarice is in the lair of a killer, but symbolically in the slaughter house of a butcher in search of a lamb to rescue.
Presidents and predators
When compared to The West Wing, the mis-en-scene of The Silence of the Lambs reveals two striking similarities. Like Josiah Bartlett the only overhead crane shot afforded a character in The Silence of the Lambs is given to Hannibal Lecter after he subdues two guards. Like Bartlett, this shot gives the viewer a visual cue that ‘the game is on’ and Hannibal is now in charge. Secondly, Lecter and Bartlett share above average intellect as displayed in the books that adorn their shelves.
The conspicuous differences say more about mis-en-scene than not. Throughout the course of The West Wing, Bartlett has made critical military decisions sitting at his Oval Office desk. Both the desk and the plaque on his desk give symbolic meaning in that they speak directly to the ethical and volitional restraint of executive power. While the Oval Office might have doors that shut out prying eyes and ears, Lecters’ main cell wall is made of thick clear Perspex. Perhaps with any other character this may have suggested vulnerability, but with Hannibal Lecter the symbolic effect is also one of restrained power. Much like an animal exhibit, the transparent wall allows Clarice Starling a symbolic kind of open access to Lecter. A piece of dialogue about Lecter delivered by Dr Chilton offers a small hint to the mis-en-scene of Hannibal’s cell, ‘It is so rare to capture one alive’. Surprisingly, after Lecter has escaped and is afforded the opportunity to vent his power unrestrainedly, he makes an ethical choice to not pursue Clarice Starling.
The ultimate symbolic effect of mis-en-scene upon Clarice Starling is her own ascent to the final seat of power. After all the doors, corridors and cellars she emerges as a fully fledged FBI agent. Should she ever face Hannibal in the future she may not be so reticent to show her badge and approach when he again utters those symbolic words… ‘Closer, please….closer’.
Demme, J, 1991, The Silence of the Lambs, Special Ed, MGM Home Entertainment, U.S.
Howells, R, 2003, Visual culture, Polity Press , Cambridge.
Sorkin, A, 1999 , The West Wing , Distributed by Warner Bros. Entertainment Australia, Neutral Bay, N.S.W.
Stadler, J & McWilliam, K, 2009, Screen media: analysing film and television , Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, N.S.W.
Yimou, Z, 2002, Ying xiong: Hero, Miramax Home Entertainment, [Burbank, CA].
Directing Experience Methodology – DE
Line of Psycho-Physical Action, or LOPPA.
Main Event – or scene – ME
In attempting to create a detailed understanding of the physical and psychological life of the Scene or Main Event (ME), the untested DE theory behind the LOPPA offers that …
”The Line of Physical Actions was an early Active Analysis method where the actors traced the physical movement that the script required them to undertake in every event. With the physical life imprinted they would continue with rehearsals. The LOPPA is adapted and extended from that idea.”(Kipste, 2012).
The notion of external ACTION as foundational to an internal desire or objective can be traced back to Stanislavski who believed that “…Every physical action must be dynamic and lead to the accomplishment of some goal…”, (Toporkov,1950). In her discussion of using ACTION to build psycho-physical coordination, Bella Merlin places stronger emphasis on two key elements to map. These two elements are Logic and Coherence. Her concern is on action that is genuine and organic, (Merlin, 2007).
By examining and combining the above references in consideration that a detailed understanding of the physical and psychological life of the ME must be created, the question arises ‘for what purpose?’ In DE methodology the LOPPA is found under the category of Visuality of the scene (ME). In Merlin’s text the Psycho Physical is discussed in relation to the figure. Both require the use of Inner Monologue through the action of the scene.
Interestingly, Jean Benedetti also uses the term organic when referring to the Method of Physical Actionsdescribed in his text(Benedetti, 1998). If something is organic I would dare to suggest that the growth and development of it has a Logic. The growth of the organic is easily accounted for, with every stage of growth in place.
I would offer, then, that a LOPPA facilitates the internal and external logic of a character within a Scene or Main Event, bringing the scene to its most human and organic state. In other words, there is an ORGANIC LOGIC to the scene which can be played by actors (figure exploration) and read by an audience (Visuality).
It is the Organic Logic that began to manifest in this LOPPA for 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. As we began to step through the visualised scene with each figure conducting their own normal voice inner monologue, we found that, along with the normal mode of reporting action, the actors were announcing quite profound insights intowhy the figure was doing the action. More sub-text was uncovered in our LOPPA than was uncovered in the sub-text etude.
This shouldn’t have been surprising had we been fully cognisant that Bella Merlin links it to sub-text, in that figures justify their actions by internally agreeing or disagreeing with other figures almost 100 percent of the time. The cast were able to quickly relate inner monologue thoughts with actions that came out in the sub-text etudes. The silent, primal, inner monolog had now found a logical place in the ME.
One of the potent characteristics of the LOPPA is the way it can reinforce or negate visual choices. On two occasions we found that the inner monologue of a figure was not matching the physical placement of a flicker, or a succinct moment in time of the play. It was easy to adjust the physicality of moment once we had the LOPPA to verify it was in it’s correct place. The first occasion had to do with finding a reason to place one male figure so close behind the female. Rather than just ‘block’ as a moment for the audience to see that the female figure is vulnerable, it became obvious that the position had more to do with sex than with vulnerability.
The second occasion was a straight forward matter of the actor working out why the figure would kneel down to feed someone else’s chickens. As the actor physicalized the moment with the inner monolog a moment of illumination occurred for the actor and the figure. The figure wasn’t simply kneeling to feed a chicken – he was kneeling to ascertain the distance of his farm to his neighbor’s porch.
Self reflection and innovationAt NIDA, I found the LOPPA my most useful tool for clarifying my own directorial choices, in spite of being told that those choices were incorrect.
While the silent and verbal etudes were focused on the figures discovering their objectives, strategies and inner motivations, there seemed little opportunity to clarify why I was choosing certain visual moments over others. I simply knew that they struck a chord with me. It wasn’t until our first quiet voice Inner Monologue LOPPA that I felt completely comfortable with my choices. The choices I had made concerning the figure’s external journey through the ME were validated by the figure’s journey through their own internal landscape.
There arose one innovation that appeared during our LOPPA explorations. We decided to work backwards and take away the voices and the text, also completely removing the actors from the stage. In place of the stage was a white board with cardboard shapes on it representing a Gods eye view of the set. Each actor had a different coloured marker and they were instructed to trace their journey through each ME without speaking. The result was a visual map detailing the physical movement of each figure. Trails, if you will. I also used this ‘map’ in my graduation piece, WASP.
The actors would then step away and discuss any patterns that emerged. This led to several observations including why a certain figure kept retreating behind a chair. We hadn’t seen this on the floor during the LOPPA. But with our Whiteboard LOPPA we were able to see patterns, trails, repetitive retreat behaviours and sloppy entrances and exits.
The LOPPA is an invaluable part of my directorial toolkit. I use it now with cameras running and include some of the footage from our rehearsal of 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. Here, the actors attempted to layer their accents. I am still undecided as to whether an inner monologue with the accent is necessary, but it was great to hear.
With each actor running their inner dialogue and physical movements it can get messy and appear haphazard. But insightful drama can be drawn from the chaos.
After a year of reviewing my writings and disengaging my own directorial choices from those that were suggested by the DE methodology, I present these thoughts and video to the public.
My heartfelt thanks to the actors from ACA, Lukasz Embart, David Bruce and Anna Phillips.
References:Benedetti, J. Stanislavksi & The Actor, 1998.
Kipste, E. Directing Experience Handbook, 2012.
Merlin, B. The Complete Stanislavski Toolkit, 2007
Toporkov, V. Stanislavski in Rehearsal, 1949, Translation by Jean Benedetti, 2001.