The action cell
1969 would be a decisive year for the Living Theatre. In June, London’s Roundhouse hosted, as it turned out for a last time, our complete recent repertory. Mysteries, Frankenstein, Antigone and Paradise Now were performed for an extremely appreciative London audience. Stars of the music scene and various subculture icons all gathered to celebrate the event of the Living Theatre. By now we had definitely become underground cult-figures and celebrated artists. But what on earth could we possibly put on in a theatre after Paradise Now? The following months, spent in Morocco, should have brought the answer, but what surfaced instead was something altogether different. In meeting after meeting we tried to define our new goals, but all we got at, to quote from an old gypsy-poem, was that the road was long and even though we were certain to have a destination, we didn’t know where it would lead us, except that once we got there, it would remind us of the places we had left. Our tribe had reached its summit and would soon have to divide. A few months later it was clear that we would split into four groups, one with an ecological emphasis, another with a cultural priority, a third one on a spiritual quest and Judith and Julian’s preference, a cell with a focus on political action. I opted to stay on with Judith and Julian.
We wanted to bring our work to people who normally never set foot in the architectural contraption known as theatre. New forms of theatre would therefore have to evolve, theatre that could be performed wherever people were to be found, in the street, in slums, factories or any number of public places. Form, content and technique could be ascertained in answering three appropriate questions. “Who are we talking to?” rendered the form, “What do we want to say?” the content and “How are we going to say it?” the technique. Plays performed in Paris Subway-stations, Favelas (Shantytowns) and public squares in Brazil or in front of Supermarkets in the U.S., each depicting the backgrounds of human enslavement or supporting different liberating causes.
In Brasile, 1970.
Our play in a Favela in Sao Paolo for instance, resulted in an extended liaison between students and inhabitants. Together with some students, the Living Theatre had performed a surprise “Guerilla Theatre” play about liberation from bondage to money, love, property, the state, war and death there. When the company left for another town to prepare the next play, I remained in Sao Paolo and brainstormed together with some friends, students of architecture, who had attended our play in the Favela, about how to transform an industrial neighborhood into an affordable, modern residential area. To make a long story short, the results they came up with won them a biannual competition and some of the price money was used to acquire building materials for the construction of sanitary equipment which the students then helped the inhabitants of the Favela to install there. The Living Theatre itself wasn’t even aware of that further development of its concept of extended liaison with an audience. The students simply picked up on our idea of constructive, nonviolent guerilla-theatre, returned to the Favela with boxes, some sides of which they had pasted the letters necessary to form the Portuguese word for “thirst”. Once the people there had solved the puzzle of lining up the boxes in the right order, they found the word “drink” together with some pictures, depicting plans for sewage and plumbing on the other side of the boxes and the installation could begin.
Curious by nature I often sought to meet people whose intelligence or accomplishments I hoped would rub off on me enough to get my own intellect working properly. To name and fully acknowledge everyone I met and learned from while touring with the Living Theatre is probably impossible, so I’ll call up just a few.
Roy L. Walford, the eminent gerontologist, told me with a twinkle in his eye, that because he couldn’t find the missing link under his microscope he figured it must be outside his branch of science or maybe even somewhere in the underground. And that this is why he was trying to meet a lot of us underground artists. I still remember his brilliant analogy to science. Given a paragraph you can derive sentences, given sentences you’ll get grammar, given grammar will derive words, words syllables and syllables letters. You can always go down on this ladder, but to go up you need a higher ordering principle not contained in the thing itself. So his analogy was that science was on one of these levels in terms of itself and to go up he needed a higher ordering principle which had to be found elsewhere.
Paul Goodman was a good friend of Judith and Julian’s and I met him in New York at a Theatre of Ideas meeting entitled Theatre or Therapy. No Living Theatre members except Judith and Julian had been invited. Some of us came anyway and we soon turned the meeting into an action straight out of Paradise Now. Instead of attending an orderly moderated panel discussion, New York’s intelligentsia from Susan Sontag to Norman Mailer now found itself engaged in wild dialogues with actors and actresses; the creative chaos had broken loose. Taking a break from the action I felt a hand on my shoulder. Paul Goodman’s touch was a calming gesture that pleasantly warded off the desperate spontaneity I was in danger of falling prey to. “You see Echnaton”, he said in a quiet voice, “They’re all trying to keep up with the geometry of life. But they always just stumble behind.” I’m still thinking about these words today. Will I ever learn the entire geometry of life so well that I will be able to actually keep up with it, or does this geometry change so fast that I should just be happy to know how to permanently adjust to new situations?
Herbert Marcuse, a friend of Günther Anders who’s Hiroshima is Everywhere I would much later get to adapt in parts for one of my performances, also gave me lots to think about. Paraphrasing him as well as I can remember today, he said that theatre by itself could not bring about the changes we all hoped for. At best it would strengthen the familiarity with what it attempts to achieve. Reasons being, that change in character could only be brought about by an experience as intense as the one that formed the pattern which lay at the base of the character. Any attempts to change merely by will, can result in no more than what remains of a sentimental effort. But if this is true, then the Living Theatre must have been pretty close to creating experiences which where intense enough to change the imprint on a mental, psychic or physical matrix.
Ronald D. Laing, who’s The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise had also found its way into our work, but whom I remember best for his The Divided Self, visited us in Morocco (as did Jimi Hendrix). He had his little boy with him. Some of us, sitting in a Café with Ronny, were joined by a French intellectual who smilingly tried to make eye contact with Ronny’s son and say cute little things to the kid. The child got up, climbed on to the intellectuals lap and bit him in the nose as hard as he dared to. Shocked the French gentleman looked at Ronny whose only response was, “And you thought he’d love you”.
While in London I met Alan Watts, whose work on Zen I had read at age sixteen. What I remember best of him is that there was a complete absence of anything superfluous in his whole appearance. Everything about him had a specific significance or function. He struck me as a genuinely concerned, sincere human being.
Marshall McLuhan, controversial as he might have been, also left a lasting impression on me. His approach that mechanical inventions were but extensions of human limbs got me to speculate that maybe everything around us might be the result of our own feelings and desires, and that we therefore should take the responsibility for these extensions a little bit more personal.
From Richard Buckminster Fuller, the genius inventor and concise thinker, the little man with the thick glasses, I learned to consciously locate myself standing on a rotating earth flying through space at an enormous speed and that educational or vocational overspecialization can easily lead to a complete loss of keeping a more important and larger picture in sight. His principle of synergy as additional bonus I was happy to evoke whenever possible.
Is there life after the “Living”?
Still in Brazil, at age twenty-four, I started to give workshops and direct my own projects, like an audio-visual about the dangers of the lure of money for a high-school in Sao Paolo or a theatre-workshop at an arts-foundation there. I wasn’t at all thinking of leaving the Living Theatre yet. Still, taking off from time to time to do “my own thing” must have been the result of a growing need to gain practice in different fields. Years later, after having participated in a number of more Living Theatre productions and the company’s development from a community into a collective, the bifurcation was inevitable. I came to the conclusion that there was no real need for me to continue working within the group, because there were enough people who not only wished to, but also could do the work well enough and that I could apply myself better elsewhere, possibly not to a greater immediately visible effect, but in the long run, maybe just as importantly.
Steve Ben Israel, a mentor of mine during my beginnings with the Living Theatre, said that whenever there was an avant-garde forging ahead, somebody would also have to bring up the rear. Now this made me think of lesson in the Tower of Babel. No matter how magnificent any manmade innovation might be, it will collapse like a house of cards when the wind blows unless evolution has risen to a level to support it.
Many people have great visions, but very few want to take all the small steps required to put them into practice. Also, lots of people know so much, but hardly anyone knows what it really is about. And that’s what I wanted to find out. What of all the things I had experienced up to now would actually be of use to others? All the theatrical traditions I had learned about while in the Living Theatre or later from post-modern dancers and performance artists in New York, from the antique theatre of Greece to the traditions of the Far East, Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Artaud’s Athletes of the Heart, or what I had learned in broadcasting, would I be able to forge all I knew into methods, techniques and tools for just about everyone to use? I was somehow certain that I could, but one thing after the other.
In 1982 I taught acting classes in Paris. Together with the students I created and performed Spheres, a short piece about people attempting to break through the barriers set by one's own personality and dominating power structures. Individuals caught in their own bubbles became confronted with different forms of violence going on outside of their protected spheres. No longer enduring what they had to witness, they broke out of their bubbles and supported the victims.
The same year, at the One World Poetry Festival in Amsterdam I got to perform Billy the Kid in Robert Cordier’s production of Michael McClure’s The Beard and was asked if I would like to prepare a work of my own for next year’s festival. Times had changed since the sixties, young people’s rhythms and attention spans had become adjusted to the speed and duration of Pac Man and Space Invaders. No problem. I just had to come up with a multi-purpose solution. As the festival could not afford to pay actors, I decided to create a workshop-play in hopes that all who participated in the workshop would also want to do the play. Each scene offered learning and experiencing a different aspect of theatrical work and transported content, that I wanted the audience to examine a little bit closer. What evolved was the workshop-play Pan-Out, which was first performed on Oct. 21st 1983, at the One World Poetry Festival in Amsterdam by the members of the One World Theatre. Today, this workshop-play contains a prologue and twelve scenes, designed to help workshop participants to form an ensemble. It is also an attempt to arouse the natural processes of increase through a quick dismantling of common illusions by bringing together some of the extreme opposites of time, space, history and human relations in a contemporary play of essences.
The One World Theatre at first consisted of the workshop participants who had come together to perform Pan-Out. But it was also conceived to become a concept hopefully soon to be applied by many people everywhere. I presented the original idea to all the artists at the One World Poetry Festival and many opted to participate right away. The plan was to decide upon themes which should be worked on simultaneously in many places and in all kinds of different ways to create a psychic atmosphere which might prompt larger numbers of people to reflect the same causes at the same time to produce a snowball-effect of rising awareness. Immediately most agreed that at the eve of 1984, the theme should be Big Brother. Poets in Hungary for instance, then still behind the “Iron Curtain”, were to register a telephone number under Big Brother, and all those calling that number would find themselves talking to someone reciting a poem and informing them about dates and venues where performances, otherwise unannounced, would take place. My goal was to get people to understand that a collective effort to saturate society with selective themes over an extended period of time would put these issues into a position no longer to be ignored. Years later, at the European Media Conference in Vienna, I presented the same idea to media-representatives of many countries and even received an honorable mention for my contribution to the conference. In 2012, public service TV-and radio-stations, including some private ones throughout the European Union, agreed to raise “Poverty” to their focal theme and broadcast informative programs about poverty altogether and everywhere during the same extended time span. It was a good try, but so much more will have to be done to combat poverty and transform the inherent system.
In 1989 the One World Theatre production of Frank Bradley’s One-Man Show Many Shades of Fade, was presented at the Living Theatre, then residing on 3rd Street. The Living Theatre had worked a lot with homeless people that season, and Frank Bradley’s hoboes-story about “The lonely that live in such a violent world and the violent that live in such a lonely world” seemed to fit quite nicely. I performed it myself. In spring of 1990, the Conservatory of Vienna invited me to give a month long acting-seminar for operetta and musical students.
Seminars, workshops and lectures
Recently, in December of 2012, at Skena Up, the student theatre-and film festival in Prishtina, Kosovo, I was invited to serve as president of the theatre jury and give a two-day workshop for all the participating international theatre-companies and another two-day workshop for the students of Bekim Lumi, one of the most respected theatre directors in Kosovo. It was wonderful to see how all these young people responded to and welcomed the synthesis of years of immediately applicable theatrical experience.
Also, all the plays I got to see there brought special and important elements to the culture of the day. Therefore to say which one was the best turned out to be a rather lengthy process of evaluation. But in the end, socio-anthropological considerations and criteria regarding form, content, technique, and directing and acting altogether, did produce some winners. The best performance combined a powerful physical theatre with a content of dissolving gender specific and unnecessary cycles of violence. It opened the doors to the public imagination by applying, as Julian Beck might have said, a theatrical language far from the quotidian use of our common languages, thereby allowing the spectators to see many decisive aspects of themselves with brand-new eyes.
And so, I am back now to sharing methods and techniques of every kind of theatre with everyone who really wants to know, be it political street-theatre, stage productions for a “captive audience”, or the celebration of the original irreplaceable vision of one’s own being in a collective theatrical improvisation. In practical exercises designed to further creative breath, sensual awareness, immediate perception, reflex excitability, sensory feeling-tone in vocal and mimetic expression, visualization, rhythm and dynamics, sound - and movement coordination, differentiation of voluntary and involuntary processes, of individuality and persona and of natural, of ritualized and of original irreplaceable expressions, participants may gain a new and largely facilitated approach to the complex relationship between form, content and technique in performance and theatre.
My seminars, workshops and lectures have always brought people closer to themselves. The exercises for breath and voice encompass the widest range of human feelings and desires imaginable in a balanced state of body and mind, and I’ve worked to develop a personal dynamic that guides students and sometimes also professionals to a better understanding of the true range of their own potential and to a greater sensibility towards others. And there is always time for exciting anecdotes about the Living Theatre, and other such stories of common interest.
Theatre on the whole
If we want to know what of political activism may have survived in today’s theatre, we best go and see for ourselves. We can find a lot more courageous productions now, than for instance fifty years ago, because there certainly has been a steady development in approaching burning social issues in much more outspoken ways than before. But even when old, conservative and established houses, in hopes to create one or the other powerful effect, shamelessly help themselves to staging techniques which were originally developed by avant-garde theatres of the sixties to raise political awareness, they too may bring their audiences a little closer to feeling something. Remembering Antonin Artaud, who said that if people could feel again, the pain in the world would become intolerable to them but the joy of life irresistible, makes me certain that any kind of theatre which has that effect is better than no theatre at all. When I was fourteen, I saw Calderon’s The Judge of Zalamea at Vienna’s most conservative house, the Burgtheater, and it too made me feel like I wanted to jump on stage and stop whatever injustice I had just witnessed. But as long as elitist cultural institutions still function as a profit oriented industrial sector, using up most of the cultural budget for themselves, a thorough rethinking leading to a more just distribution of funds is definitely called for.
A Vienna nel 2006.
Thankfully there also is a lot of good and determinately activist theatre around these days as well. I’ve done quite a bit of that myself; produced and direct street-theatre with the women of a “Frauenhaus”, a shelter for misused women in Vienna. Interestingly enough, they didn’t even want to create attention for their own misfortunes, but chose to bring the dire fate of asylum-seeking foreigners to public attention. Another project was to hold theatre and poetry workshops with folks at a homeless-shelter, who then performed their own works publicly. Or the street theatre piece The Mysterious We, showing how the vicious cycle of economic expansion disregards our real needs and asking who this mysterious “We” might be, that everyone is always talking about when it comes to such nebulous conclusions as “We ought to do this and we must do that”.
Theatre on the whole is something wonderful. And it has gone through so much. It survived from Ritual to Sophocles, from Shakespeare to Kafka, Brecht, Sartre and the many others, through all the cultural developments and revolutions. Sometimes it might have been swept along by political waves to become an instrument of propaganda for good or for bad, for one side or the other; but ultimately the theatre has not been here to take sides, but to ask and show what it is all about. It gives us a chance to look at ourselves and the effects of our doing. Music, epic, tragedy, comedy, they all live in us. They are part of our lives and the theatre is the medium to explore and research them, to give us a live, close up perspective of what moves us.
Today we live in times of success-oriented pressure. Everything has to bring immediate results. If it doesn’t make us money or bring us fame right away, it is not good enough for now. So why not at least let the theatre be the place or the event, wherein body and mind, artists and audiences, can come together to celebrate the event of human renewal, where we are also allowed to observe, to contemplate and to reason without the immediate goal of achieving instant effectiveness. Where we may not have all the answers right away, but where we and the audiences become partners in watching and questioning all the aspects of our existence as we represent it, and so allow us to slowly but profoundly approach the area of real understanding instead of constantly having to jump to premature conclusions.
Conferenza in Kosovo.
The duty of the theatre as cultural institution is not to tell someone what they have to think or what they must do. But it is maybe, to eventually support each other in our quest for a better understanding and hereby also in the finding and making of intelligent and reasonable decisions, without however trying to exert undue influence. The theatre asks for your patience and your involvement with the work of author, director and performer. It invites you to dream and to dare, to feel and to think, and to behold your very own vision of how things could be. And it hopes that you will take that vision home with you, and if it is in accordance with rightness and reason, that you may also achieve to make it come true.
Yours in theatre, Hans Echnaton Schano