Mise en relation: bringing the interplay between nonhuman and human agencies to the core of theatre practice
(a text to be read aloud with an unpure, unclear, unsure ‘global English’ accent firmly in front of an audience – being pulled in place by the paper in front of you
the mouthmask has tightened your jaw
you wanted the middle chair – it was already taken
you imagined a setting
you’ve visited the room earlier today
they’ve changed the location
the room is different
later, as you let the room carry you
instead of the page with the pencil marks dictating where to breathe
you get moved more towards the audience
as you allow your speech to be guided by
people who can’t find focus and blame the bad chair
years after this moment
you won’t remember anything
except the room
as you come to your senses)
– There is no Empty Space
In the Talking Heads song ‘Air’ from their 1979 album ‘Fear of Music’ the character is telling us that the air can hurt us.
“What is happening to my skin? Where is the protection that I needed? Air can hurt you too.
Some people say not to worry about the air. Some people never had experience with (air)”.
According to recent lyrics meaning websites, like genius.com, this song is either a metaphor for love (what isn’t) or about a character so delusional and anxious that even the air around him seems to be harmful. People tell him he’s paranoid, but he can’t shake his irrational fear.
Thirty years later more than 90% of the world population lives in places where the air quality is below WHO guidelines. People get sick by breathing air. Not just the paranoid ones. The song is our reality now. It becomes increasingly delusional to think ‘air’ as a neutral given, surrounding us for our convenience.
Ecological catastrophes and the anthropocene force us to shift our western world view and behavior beyond humanist ideals. We are no longer living on our planet, on earth. We are now living with and within ‘Gaïa’, an assembly of nonhuman forces beyond human control. There is no longer a subject- object divide. There is no longer an outside position from which we, modern humans, can observe and handle things objectively possible. The things handle us too. To use a phrase by Augusto Corrieri: “non-human subjects (,…,) have gatecrashed the party, and they are here to stay.”
Of course, this has always been the case. It’s only now impossible to ignore. So, as humanist humans: what do we learn? What are our response-abilities? Will we be able to redefine our position in and towards our surroundings, at the risk of having to let go of structures, habits and privileges we’re attached to?
In the same breath, these changes in worldview should force us to rethink the way we look at and act in the biosphere ‘theatre’. How do we relate artistically to these shifts and are we able to let our -very humanist, anthropocentric- customs evolve in a fundamental way?
We can address the themes, we can express these themes in form, but how do we/will we allow the themes to address the medium, our art practice, itself? How does this new reality impact our definitions and all dimensions of our practice, straight to the core?
_What happens with the classic definition that calls the co-presence of living beings in the here and now the essential trait of any performance?
_What happens when we truly acknowledge that ‘The Empty Space’, the bare stage, is actually always already full?
_What happens when non-human agency is no longer minimized, when we accept that “decor is no longer decor”, to quote Bruno Latour, and foreground things we consider background?
_Can we allow matter when it is not entirely mastered? When most of us are raised and trained in a school system where (artistic) greatness is often measured by how one is able to realize a singular vision despite circumstances. The model of the autonomous genius as a Platonic ‘demiurge’, the fashioner of the physical world.
How can we as humans, as theatre artists, work within this new worldview? In nature this shift is forced upon us. In theatre we can choose to take it up.
How can one consciously perform and create theatre from a non-anthropocentric attitude? And what is the impact of this kind of practice on the development of the ethos and politics of the people that work in this manner? A posthumanist practice will stimulate posthumanist ethics. Decentralizing the human re-values fragility, humility, playfulness and a ‘heteronomous autonomy’.
Practicing theatre in this care-full way might help us to acknowledge and embrace a relational reality, including non-human agency. It isn’t necessarily political art thematically, it is art done politically as it focuses on an inclusive, non- hierarchical and relational performativity.
The issues provoked by this perspective are already prominent in the discourse of (research on) the practice of contemporary dance and performance art. My research wants to bring this movement into ‘more classical’, text and dialogue based, forms of theatre. I firmly believe that this worldview and its ethical and political dimensions challenge all, and can impact every kind of theatre practice. It would be a shame to privilege certain disciplines or styles above others.
– A tool to focus on relations
Things exist when they are named. We need a theatre terminology that goes beyond the human, we need words to work with this world. Not to reduce it, but as a lens to focus on the agential capacity of matter and environment and to deepen our reflections.
Recent research proposes concepts to guide performance practice in this direction. For example ’expanded choreography’ by Mette Ingvartsen and ‘choreography in general’ by Rudi Laermans, as names for a practice that expands dance and dance making to include the non-human. And there is the concept ‘dramaturgy of the background’, by Augusto Corrieri, which ables us to foreground things considered inert or working on a different scale. These examples are dance/live art related, illustrating my earlier point regarding the lack of posthumanist reflection on more classic, text based theatre.
I believe it is an important challenge to invest in the further development of concepts, but concepts that are also tools. Means not just to describe or analyze the work from a new materialist, posthumanist standpoint, but to practice it.
‘Mise en relation’ is an attempt to develop such a tool, for theatre makers, actors, to work consciously and non-hierarchical with this interplay between nonhuman and human agencies. Which is present in every theatre performance, but remains unreflected by most practices and methodologies for acting and creating theatre. The latter, and in conjunction most theatre education and training, tend to focus on autonomous acting subjects. We learn that objects and matter are things to use, to give function, to master, to conquer. An objective background or groundwork for the acting subject. Or part of a construction of signs to be presented within a pre-given space.
Building on the concept of ‘mise en scène’, which focuses on placing scenic elements in a space, in order to build an image, inscribing matter with meaning, ’mise en relation’ focuses on making and defining connections between present actants (the scenic elements, human and non human ànd the space). Exploring their individual and inter-relational agency and impact, experiencing the meaning already present in the matter, in order to create a theatre piece.
Using ‘mise en relation’ is considering a performance of a theatre piece as an ‘assemblage’. Not in the sense of a ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ or, evidently, as something conceived of diverse elements and qualities. (Which theatre also always is.) It is an assembly in a relational sense. In parallel with the view that considers the world as an assembly of forces called ‘Gaïa’. A grouping of different ‘vibrant matter’’s that interact, asserting each other’s existence and agency. There is no presence without co-presence.
It views a theatre piece as a system, a biosphere maybe, held together by and functioning on the basis of the relations and dynamics between all possible kinds of actants (e.g. scenography, the text, the space, audience,…) from which meaning, the performance emerges.
The essential act of creating with ‘mise en relation’ is deciding which of the possible relations to consciously use and give focus while performing. It is a matter of selecting which relations can come into play, are highlighted out of all the slumbering present ones.
This way matter can leave its place in the dramaturgy of signs and become part of the dramaturgy of actions. It brings the material beyond e.g. the scenographic and considers the performative capacities of the human and the non-human as equal. In the creation process of the piece, as well as in the performance in the here and now.
– The playful performer
I want to expand on the use of ‘mise en relation’ during the performance of a play itself.
In theatre it is very clear that a work of art is always an active mediator, never a neutral intermediary that transports meaning -enclosed in a play and a staging- to an audience without transforming it. Theatre is not, never an object, it is always out of balance, like any living system.
Theatre performers know this. It makes our work heroic. But at the same time we still tend to consider a performance as the enactment of an ideal, the true artwork, that has to survive the specific circumstances wherein the work is presented as well as possible. We’ve accepted the performative turn, but there’s a longing to erase the unintended. Mastership equals control.
This longing is, for example, represented in our use of spaces. We desire of theatre halls, and especially black box theatres, to be intermediaries, pedestals, that are the same everywhere. But everybody who has toured a play knows the feeling of being angry with spaces (or the other actants in it). “The space prevented me of…” The feeling is similar to being angry about the weather, noise or insects in our house. Things outside ourselves threaten our autonomy. The space wasn’t neutral and docile after all.
We feel these are things to deal with, to overcome or to ignore, if possible. Because: “great artists” are able to erase the unintended. So if we fail to, then we are not.
In contrast, the concept of ‘mise en relation’ can be a tool to explore these dynamics during performance in a different manner.
It can help actors to incorporate what is present, the particular personality of a space and the contingent nonhuman forces in it, in their fiction, in their acting. With ‘mise en relation’ actors can make relations with actants they sensorially register in the here and now, to trigger a certain reaction, movement, meaning,.., that is right for the intentions of the theatre piece. They can use them to play – instead of experiencing them as obstacles. What makes you move is concretely around you.
A actor using ‘mise en relation’ may become more like a skateboarder. Letting the existing terrain define the ride. Tackling stairs and ledges with an intention (‘I will attempt a kick flip tail slide down the rail’) but surrendering to the objects at the same time. The art is to balance intention and responsiveness, openness.
It resembles the playful attitude of a child, bringing everything in its orbit into play. Guiding and surrendering to agency at the same time. A never ending chain of action and reaction. Reaction and action.
By working with ‘mise en relation’, you make a thing’s agency specific, by acknowledging it through the lens of the theatre piece. This specificity isn’t per sé manifesting explicitly for the audience. But the interaction, which the actor instigates, makes this potential visible.
In this way it creates a double experience, it interweaves the two layers of a performance, the fictional and the factual. You get a kind of ‘conceptual blend’ (to borrow a term from cognition science). The actor on stage is a character in a fictional, represented world. But the reality of the stage is allowed to impact the character, the fiction.
The matter and the physics that the audience itself experiences are brought in relation with the existing intentions and made part of the theatre piece.
Using ‘mise en relation’ and making the relational agency and emergence the core of a performance, instead of the enactment of -say- a script in the here and now of the ‘play space’, is a shift. It is a shift from the evident ‘liveness’ of every theatre performance to ‘aliveness’. A performance in which the being-present as well as the relational dimension of this presence is being reflected.
From this point of view, a re-written opening of ‘The Empty Space’ by Peter Brook could be something like this:
“A man has the intention to walk across this empty space, the space impacts the walk. Out of the relation between the intention, the man and the impact of the space a certain walk emerges, whilst someone else is watching, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
I want to stress that ‘mise en relation’ is not a replacement of ‘mise en scène’ as a working principle. It is an addition, an expansion of it. From a richer knowledge of the dynamics of reality. Just as the shift from ‘liveness’ to ‘aliveness’ does not mean ‘real’. It does not go beyond representation. It is a deepening of representation. It is an attempt to reflect in theatre forces that, as Jane Bennett puts it: “resists representation” without cancelling the fictionality.
I hope that the focus on relations also makes clear that it is not about decentering the human in favor of the non-human. It makes more clear how we can go beyond humans as the primary focus.
Without having to resort to removing the body altogether. It is about taking away privilege, making all actants equal.
– New realism?
Writing this presentation, I wonder: can we regard this way of creating and performing theatre as a new ‘realism’?
Not realism as realistic in a stylistic sense (To paraphrase Brecht: ‘Realism is not a question of
form but of intention’.) but realism as in: reflecting on certain fundamental principals of our reality and how we might deal with them.
From the late 19th century on, realism sought ways to reflect on the (domestic) lives of civilians. And how these are defined by specific social structures, surroundings and, later, psychology and the unconscious.
Of course people’s actions will always be influenced by these and a myriad of other, some shifting in relevance through time, anthropocentric aspects of reality.
But what happens when we force realism out of our humanist box towards a non-anthropocentric worldview? It would be true to its intentions. The non-human and the human constitute our reality. Thus, they should also constitute our realism.
Theatre frames attempts to deal with circumstances. There are the fictional circumstances, part of the work, like the ones meant in Stanislavski’s phrase: ‘acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances’. Can we add the non-human to these circumstances?
We could create a realist piece in which, e.g., the air isn’t a metaphor for love but a force in itself, made to act by its presence and relations to others. Impacting the progress of the play.
But there are also factual circumstances. The ones that might not intentionally be part of the work but are nevertheless present and active. Working with mise en relation, these specifics can explicitly become part of the theatre piece. An audience can watch actors and actants dealing with their ‘aliveness’ and relations. Watch them release control, decentering themselves, and be virtuously open to what is present, humble and playful.
A new non-anthropocentric realism might be the sum of these two layers.
A theatre that builds on the relationship between the human and the non-human.
In the fiction but also in the act of performing as such.
For everyone to see.