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Theater on the flat floor

By ROBERT W. BETHUNE
ART TIMES Jan/Feb 2006

In rehearsal and in class, we usually make do with a great deal less than we do in performance. In performance, we want some spectacle; we want a set, or at least some furniture, or at the very least some stuff we can handle, sit on, lie down on, stand up on, or put things on.

Now, Iím very interested in how to do theater with a bare minimum of stuff, meaning all the stuff you have to find, lug around, pay for and store. The less of that, the better; the less of that, the more resources I free up for what really matters to me, which is performance itself; the expressiveness of performers seen live.

It occurs to me that the functions of the stuff I mentioned above—handling, sitting upon, lying down upon, standing up upon, and putting things upon—can be abstracted. I donít need a knife, a gun, a pencil, a toothbrush, an umbrella, a pipe, or whatever else my character may have in hand; I can do all those things with an abstract object. A plain undecorated Japanese dance fan works very well. Any other medium-sized conveniently manipulable object, preferably one with no strong connotations of its own, would do also. In other words, I can handle anything I want to handle by establishing the convention that the abstract object I have in my hand stands for the thing. A little mime takes care of that very well.

Likewise, I donít need a chair, a table, a bed, a staircase, or whatever. I need surfaces, but any sturdy nondescript object of the right height and size will do the job. In fact, the more nondescript, the better; it then provides less resistance to the imagination that turns it into whatever we want it to be.

I would love to see a clever designer, probably a sculptor with a theatrical bent, create a set of universal theatrical objects: sittables, standables, lie-ables, handle-ables, set-ables. You get the one set, you do all your productions from then on using them. Perhaps you decorate them differently from one show to the next, but you donít need to re-build them every time.

However, I donít think we really know how to do this yet. Thereís a level we need to explore first—the level at which we often find ourselves in class or rehearsal, the level at which we have nothing. Nothing? Well, not quite nothing. We always have the floor.

Hmm. The floor. The ever-present, indestructible, utterly unassuming floor, the floor that can be the top of a mountain, the bottom of the ocean, the surface of Mars, the shore of the still-vexíd Bermoothes, or anything else we like. ďThis is the forest of Arden, Lady.Ē And by George it is, then and there.

What can we do on the floor? What canít we do on the floor in some way that we might want to do? How far can the range of motion available to the body, or better yet to multiple bodies in contrast, take us? Can we not abstract the physical relationships we need? If I need to be low, and you are high, cannot I crouch, and you stretch? What human relationship cannot be expressed by finding the right physical engagement of bodies, without any need for stuff?

We donít often explore this territory. We are hooked, like addicts, on stuff. I would love to see a company quit cold turkey on stuff and return to the ultimate source of acting, the unaided body. Imagine that—a performance without stuff, ready to take the stage at any time, any place. Two trestles, three boards and a passion? Letís leave the trestles and boards home.

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