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Introducing Artaud…through exercises

9:50, 4th November 2019

Matt Walters provides Drama teachers with a spooky exercise that will introduce students to Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty.

What Artaud was trying to achieve

In Albert Bermel’s indispensable guide Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, he clearly makes the point that it was not dialogue itself that Artaud objected to, but rather the traditional delivery of it in ‘conversational or argumentative tones’. Artaud
proposed more imaginative, explosive forms of speech, giving words the same
unpredictable quality that he wanted in physical action and through this to shock
and disturb his spectators into a primal intuitive response.

Artaud’s emphasis on sudden change encourages the actor to experiment with
rapid changes in volume, pitch and pace. His short play The Spurt of Blood highlights this style through a surreal approach to accent as well as stylised delivery. It is also highly comic, undermining the belief that Artaud was obsessed with reflecting the misery of existence. Artaud saw laughter as a liberating force, reflecting the influence of the films of the Marx Brothers. For him, theatre could have a cathartic impact. By attempting to reflect the very worst that life could contain, theatre could have a cleansing effect on spectators, a purging that would allow recognition and acceptance of the chaotic, unpredictable nature of existence.

Artaud believed in a form of ‘total theatre’, where all theatrical elements
including technical and design are given equal importance. So as much emphasis is placed on the physical skills of the actors as vocal. Artaud emphasised the use of a ‘concrete physical language’ of signs that would appeal directly to the senses of the spectators, their emotions and subconscious mind. Gesture and dance are able to communicate as clearly to the audience as words. By creating a form of theatre that directly reflects the subconscious and the dreams of his audience, he can release that supressed subconscious and allow dreams to become a reality. This idea is central to the most complex aspect of Artaud theory: the doubles.

Exercise – the nightmare
This exercise is designed for four lessons, culminating in a short polished
performance. Students should rehearse for three lessons and then perform in
the fourth. Start by asking them to make a list of what frightens them the most,
then place them into small groups and set them to rehearsing using the following
performance criteria:

  • Three minutes’ running time
  • The piece should contain no dialogue, however one repeated sound is allowed: this can be a single word, a sentence, a chant or rhyme. During repetition, the delivery (eg tone and volume) can be changed, created by the actors’ vocal skills, not by recorded sound. For example, the sentence ‘what can you see in the shadows?’ can be very effective if stage-whispered, screamed, sobbed or sung to the tune of ‘Rock-abye baby
  • One colour for the group’s costume – this must be exact and should be purposeful in terms of adding to the nightmarish atmosphere
  • Actors must communicate physically: mime must be clear, sudden changes in
    location must be evident, the through narrative of a dream must be created, no props used
  • Must not tell a story or have a traditional narrative – events do not need to be connected traditionally; it should reflect the disconnected nature of dreams
  •  The audience must be on three sides and can be approached. Physical contact with them can be made on two occasions (at most)
  •  The aim of piece is to recreate a nightmare on stage – reflecting a surreal, dreamlike quality, and the work should be original and imaginative.

A longer version of this article, entitled Theatre Practitioners: Artaud Part two  appeared in the 2015 Summer 2 issue of Teaching Drama. To access older issues of Drama & Theatre (previously known as Teaching Drama) subscribe to the digital version of the magazine: http://bit.ly/2MWf9SK

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