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Theatre Anthropology

Theatre Anthropology is the study of the performer’s pre-expressive scenic behaviour which constitutes the basis of different genres, roles and personal or collective traditions.

In an organised performance situation the performer’s physical and mental presence is modelled according to principles which are different from those applied in daily life. This extra-daily use of the body-mind is what is called technique.

The performer’s different techniques can be conscious and codified or else unconscious but implicit in the use and repetition of a scenic practice. Transcultural analysis shows that it is possible to distinguish recurring principles in these techniques. The recurring principles, when applied to certain physiological factors – weight, balance, the position of the spinal column, the direction of the eyes in space – produce physical, pre-expressive tensions. These new tensions generate a different quality of energy, they render the body theatrically “decided”, “alive”, “believable” and manifest the performer’s “presence”, or scenic bios, attracting the spectator’s attention “before” any form of message is transmitted. This “before” is of course logical and not chronological.

The pre-expressive layer constitutes the elementary level of organisation in theatre. The various levels of organisation are for the spectator and in the performance, inseparable and indistinguishable. They can only be separated by means of abstraction, in a situation of analytical research or during the technical work of composition done by the performer. The capacity to focus on the pre-expressive level makes possible the expansion of knowledge with immediate consequences both in the practical, professional, as well as in the historical and critical fields of work. Knowledge of the pre-expressive principles which govern the scenic bios can make it possible for one to learn to learn.

Theatre Anthropology is not concerned with the application of the paradigms of cultural anthropology to theatre and dance. It is not the study of the performative phenomena in those cultures which are traditionally studied by anthropologists, nor should Theatre Anthropology be confused with the anthropology of performance.

The performer’s work fuses, in a single profile, three different aspects that relate to three distinct levels of organisation. The first aspect is individual, the second is common to all those who belong to the same performance genre and the third concerns all performers from every era and culture.

These three aspects are:

  1. The performer’s personality, her/his sensitivity, artistic intelligence, social persona: those characteristics which render the individual performer unique.
  2. The particularity of the scenic tradition and the historical-cultural context through which the performer’s unique personality manifests itself.
  3. The uses of the body-mind according to extra-daily techniques in which transcultural recurring principles can be found. These recurring principles are defined by Theatre Anthropology as the field of pre-expressivity.

The first two aspects determine the transition from pre-expressivity to performing. The third is the idem, that which does not vary; it underlies the various personal, stylistic and cultural differences. It is the level of the scenic bios, the ‘biological’ level of performance, upon which the various techniques and the particular uses of the performer’s scenic presence and dynamism are founded. The only affinity connecting Theatre Anthropology to the methods and fields of study of cultural anthropology is the awareness that what belongs to our tradition and appears obvious to us can instead reveal itself to be a knot of unexplored problems. This implies a displacement, a journey, a détour strategy which makes it possible for us to single out that which is ‘ours’ through confrontation with what we experience as ‘other’. Displacement educates our way of seeing and renders it both participatory and detached. Thus a new light is thrown on our own professional ‘country’.

Among the different forms of ethnocentrism that often blinker our point of view, there is one which does not depend on geography and culture but rather on the scenic relationship. It is an ethnocentrism that observes the performance only from the point of view of the spectator, that is, of the finished result. It therefore omits the complementary point of view: that of the creative process of the individual performers and the ensemble of which they are part, the whole web of relationships, skills, ways of thinking and adapting oneself of which the performance is the fruit.

Historical understanding of theatre and dance is often blocked or rendered superficial because of neglect of the logic of the creative process, because of misunderstandings of the performer’s empirical way of thinking, and because of an inability to overcome the confines established for the spectator. The study of the performance practices of the past is essential. Theatre history is not just the reservoir of the past, it is also the reservoir of the new, a pool of knowledge that from time to time makes it possible for us to transcend the present. The entire history of the theatre reforms of the twentieth century, both in the East and in the West, shows the strong link of interdependence between the reconstruction of the past and new artistic creation.

Often, however, theatre historians come face to face with testimonies without themselves having sufficient experience of the craft and process of theatre making. They run the risk, therefore, of not writing history but of accumulating the deformations of memory. They do not possess a personal knowledge of the theatre with which to compare the testimonies of the past and therefore they cannot interpret them and restore the living and autonomous image of the theatre life of other times and cultures.

The historian without awareness of the practical craft corresponds to the ‘artist’ shut within the confines of her/his own practice, ignorant of the whole course of the river in which her/his little boat is navigating, and yet convinced of being in touch with the only true reality of the theatre. This results in a yielding to the ephemeral. The non-expert in history and the non-expert in practice involuntarily unite their strengths to defile the theatre. Those who have fought against a defiled theatre and who have sought to transform it into an environment with cultural, aesthetic and human dignity have drawn strength from books. Often they have themselves written books, especially when trying to liberate scenic practice from its enslavement to literature.

The relationship that links theatre and books is a fertile one. But it is often unbalanced in favour of the written word, which remains. Stable things have one weakness: their stability. Thus the memory of experience lived as theatre, once translated into sentences that last, risks becoming petrified into pages that cannot be penetrated.

Source: E. Barba, The Paper Canoe. A Guide to Theatre Anthropology, translated by Richard Fowler, Routledge, London and New York 2005, p. 9-11 (first English edition 1995)