Meditations on Identity

Last night's scene study class was a further extension of our discussion of tragedy as an identity-creation machine, this time focused on the creation of a National identity. Using Yeats' work at the turn of the 20th century as a starting point, we looked at the ways in which theatre and theatrical events (national ceremony, ritual, sport) can help to shape the identity of a nation and provide the values on which that nation define itself. This reciprocal, circular relationship is a confusing one, for arguably if done well, the image in the art reflects the image of the nation while simultaneiously propagating it.

I often find these discussions particularly engaging in their focus on post-colonial nations and their struggle to create an identity after the absence of the oppressor. This is fascinating to me, coming from Canada, as a result of our unique situation. Canada has only been a nation since 1867, and has primarily been a nation of immigrants. The very fact that our first peoples were shipped off, forced into assimilation, is only in recent years with the residential schools inquiries and commissions beginning to come into light as an issue for artistic contention. But for the rest of us, for the immigrant Canadians, the sense of identity has always had a necessary duality. We are at once Canadian, and our family's country of origin - Irish, Ukrainian, Polish, German, what have you. Even myself, a third and fourth generation Canadian, identify as a Ukrainian-Canadian. We identify strongly with the histories of our families, while also engaging with the future of our nation; that nation which was shaped by luminaries such as Pearson and Trudeau. My generation, the young thinkers and artists of today, are the first to have grown up in a Canada which had this view of our nation for the entirety of our lives, and this bodes well for the creation of an increasing amount of theatre that truly has a Canadian voice.

I found it interesting that in a brief discussion of the "global" citizen, versus the Nationalist citizen, our tutor raised Robert Lepage's theatre as an example of Global theatrical values - of duality. In fact, this is a distinctly Canadian identity, in the case of Lepage a French-Canadian identity, but one that echoes for all Canadians' sense of duality. Fascinating that the identity of a nation formed by thinkers like Pearson et al would be picked up as a global identity; I suspect he would be proud. I know I am. I just hope we can live up to it.


I am starting to find such wonderful overlap in the themes we are discussing across all classes, and in what I'm looking at for my dissertation. It might just be Genet seeping into my very existence, but I am acutely aware of layers and what people want you to see versus what you do see, both in themselves, in their work, what they present to the world. Where is that core of truth? Do we want to know?

I have also been reading Violence and the Sacred by Rene Girard, an examination of the roots of tragedy in sacrifice, in violence and ritual, and how sexuality is linked to all of these. This is linking with Genet in many many places, and leading me to exciting thoughts for my installation project for the end of term. What is our ritual that is shared, since we as a people no longer share religion? How do we practice this ritual?

Beginning to think about our end of term presentations in response to Genet as well, and what themes we would like to look at. I'm reading up on Paris and politics in Genet's time for inspiration, and also some poetry from his contemporaries. Visually I am inspired by Picasso, Cocteau, and De Francia. Still searching, watching, apsorbing everything I can.

Encountered a ballet, Poppy, by Graeme Murphy with Sydney Dance Company, premiered in 1978. This is inspired by the work and lives of Cocteau and Genet. Warning - beautiful. But also, contains some nudity (I need to be a responsible adult sometimes at least).

One hurdle

My dissertation proposal has been approved!! Sparing you the boring academic bibliography bit, here it is in a nutshell. You can look forward to many obsessive posts on this subject in the future.

The aim of this dissertation is to use a performance-based approach to understand questions of identity for the performer when approaching historical texts. Marvin Carlson argues in The Haunted Stage that audiences bring with them the history of a performance, so are never simply watching the performance in front of them; instead, they are seeing the current performer, all previous performers, and their ideal version of the character. This supposition is problematic artistically, as it creates a barrier of communication; added filters through which the artistic message of a piece needs to permeate. Using Sartre's ideas of Being and Perception in Being and Nothingness as a starting point (to be is to be perceived), I will examine perception of a performer and perception of a character as they are mediated through re-writes of the same story in different contexts. The filters of audience context and re-imagined characters interplay to impact engagement with the work; I endeavor to explore how these filters function in performance, and what can be done from a creative perspective to counteract them or make use of them. I have selected Antigone as my base text as she is a familiar character in Western mythology, and through history, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries, has been re-written numerous times, each instance changing the character of Antigone to serve the time. My goal is to develop, through workshopped performance, key findings on approaches that will aid the director in using these filters in a positive creative manner when creating work.

Key Research Questions
What being is perceived when audiences see a performance?
What impact do changes in text and context have on audience perception?
How can the practitioner utilize these in production?

Working with 1 male performer and 1 female performer, I will workshop:
Original Antigone - Masked Male performer
Transitional Antigone - Becoming Female
Dionysian Antigone - Music & Opera
Politicized Antigone - 20th Century in Germany (Brecht)
Feminized Antigone - 20th Century in France (Anouilh)
Rebellious Antigone - 20th Century Ireland (Paulin)
Post-Colonial Antigone* - 20th Century Africa & South America (Osofisan, Gambaro, Sanchez)
Who do you see? Antigone's Identity

* Session 7 is subject to change: currently I am struggling to locate a copy of these plays. If I am unable to locate these texts, an alternate will be proposed for this session.

The 8 workshop subjects will serve to create material from which a work in progress performance will be devised. Each workshop will focus on exploring the questions of identity for the performer, using the source texts as a guide, and a physical theatre aesthetic. Within each session we will investigate the layers of performer identity; actor-self, character-self, character-perceived.


I have a terrible habit of selling myself short - either by not stepping forward when I know I am best for a task, or by letting myself settle for something less that my best work. Usually this happens when I worry I am being overwhelmed, or that I am being overwhelming....most commonly a twisted combination of the two. I did just that at the end of last term, and am now feeling the effects of it. At the time, I told myself it was good enough. But is good enough okay? Not for me it isn't. I am more than a little disasppointed in myself for this, as I feel I poured a lot of energy and thought into something without really thinking through the focus and the goal of it. I have, however, learned from it. It will not be happening again.

Anyway...enough self-musing. My scene from The Balcony went up today, with decent success. My 3 actors did a great job of bringing to life the layers I was hoping to see, with the short rehearsal time. The feedback was positive, that my choices made sense, and I was able to bring out something interesting about the parallels and rivalry between Carmen and Irma. So that is good. I didn't really get a chance to talk about what inspired me, all of the research I had done in Prisoner of Love, and the Gene Plunka "Rites of Passage of Jean Genet", not to mention the DeFrancia painting that inspired a lot of the connections in the movement. I did get to bring up the ideas I latched to from Genet's "Pour Jouer Le Balcon" which was good.

I have a mountain of films to watch, and a novel to read, and a book...and 2 scenes to write. Goodness me. Blogging might be slow for a couple days.


I went by the National Portrait Gallery yesterday, while out for Chinese New Year celebrations in Trafalgar Square; we thought we'd have a warm up and take in some paintings. One of my favourite periods of English history is the Tudor (and thereabouts) largely because I have studied it in some detail. Meandering through the second floor, we encountered busts of Queen Victoria, large paintings of period families, etc, and then came upon the room of Tudors. It was really startling to be confronted with the actual paintings that make up the images that have become so familiar in books and other media. One that really stood out was the painting of King Henry VIII - it is toward the end of his life. We see the layers of identity; the clothing and jewels of kingship, the regal, lush fabrics and gold necklaces. This is what he wants us to see, what he presents to the world. Next, we see his skin; only the face, fleshy from rich diet, another symbol of his wealth and power, and by extension that of his nation. But when we look at the eyes, we see something else. This unknown painter has succeeded in capturing a clarity, a vulnerability in his eyes, which seems to imply a falsity of the preceeding layers. Having read my history, I know of the paranoia from which Henry suffered - worries about contracting The Plague, not having an heir, losing his kingdom. . . each of these seem to glimmer behind the facade of the exterior.

Of course, looking back, knowing what happened (or at least what has been recorded) we can see this. But I wonder what was perceived at the time? Could his subjects see the vulnerability? Clearly the painter was able to pierce through the exterior and see this, so that we can have it today.


I am directing for our Scene Study class on Tuesday, and have worked with 3 actors to prepare a scene from the balcony. I really wanted to bring out the changeable nature of each character's "self" in the scene, and selected a scene that gave some very juicy opportunities for this. Genet's plays always centre around a game of some kind, of taking on roles of dominance or submission in varying manifestations, and The Balcony is no different; the premise of the play is a house of illusions, where men can go have their fantasies played out. The scene I selected was not one showing us the fantasies, but instead one that might on the surface appear normal; Irma, Carmen, and Arthur, all of whom work at The Grand Balcony, are in a room discussing the workings of the business. But this scene too has its games and roles played; it is a power game, a struggle to assert leadership, ownership. We worked on the layers of roles going on - where is the character "real", where do they want others to think they are being "real", where are they taking on a role for someone else's benefit.

The other aspect I wanted to highlight came from Genet's notes to directors of the balcony - that there should be a rivalry between Irma and Carmen, that it should be questionable who really runs the brothel. Using some physical theatre techniques, I have the two actresses taking on one another's gestures and positioning, giving the implication that either of them could really be in charge. The illusion, the reflection, going back and forth as if they are mirrors facing one another; no matter how deep you get, it always seems to go deeper.

Our LABAN work fed into this as well; my group are working on physicalizing the qualities of the planets Mercury and Mars. Mars is a bit more straightforward - war, power, strength, etc. Mercury on the other hand seems to have a changeability about it; the idea of quicksilver has really struck us as an integral part of understanding Mercury. We've developed a staging of a piece of The Lady In The Moon that I think helps communicate this changeability and the impact it has on those around us.

Where is the Truth?

Spent more time on Genet this weekend and early this week, performing in another scene from The Blacks for classmates, and analyzing scenes put together from The Blacks and The Balcony. The layers present in Genet's work are fascinating - every time you think you have gotten through to a new plateau, it cracks to reveal something further underneath, begging to be uncovered. In his plays, it seems there is a constant layering of lies; the characters are bottomless pits of identities, each new one to serve the purpose of their current situation. For directors this poses the challenge of helping your actors understanding what each identity is, where the shifts are, so that from the audience these cracks can be seen. The nuance between each must be subtle yet noticeable. Andrew suggested that perhaps some of Genet's "Truth" lies not in his plays, but perhaps in his novels. Or maybe it doesn't - in Prisoner of Love, which seems to sit in a middle-ground between fiction and documentary, just as the reader begins to feel they know his position on a subject, he'll pull that mat out from underneath you. No comfort, nothing is reliable, constantly undermining expectation. I wonder if this is his truth...the truth of the unreliability of the world, of expectation, of categorization.

Elsewhere, reading Edward Braun's "The Director And the Stage" as supplemental, given that I'm not in Sue's directing group for approaches. What I found really interesting was the sense of overlap this book gave; it is really easy to think that Stanislavsky did his thing, then Meyerhold, then Brecht, etc...but in fact there were little pockets of development happening everywhere, simultaneously, with achievements cropping up all over the place. What is also interesting is the afterword, the reminder that although they appear monumental now, at the time the events, the riots, the scandals, were relatively uneventful for the community as a whole, and it wasn't until viewed from the distance of the future that we can see the sigificance and assign value.

Some passages I found particularly useful....

On Jarry and the Surrealists (P58) - "Perceiving the universe and society as irrational and contradictory, they felt impelled to create works that were correspondingly irrational and contradictory in their forms, that stood the accepted conventions of theatre on their heads - and to achieve this they sought to exercise the closest possible control over the play in production, lest the theatre be tempted to impose its habitual symmetry on their calcuated disorder."

On Stanislavsky (P76) - "He seldon considers the peroduction as a total synthesis with a unified objective. What is more, he takes little account of the psychology of the audience, assuming that if the individual performancecs are truthful the spectator will necessarily respond to their truthfulness through a process of empathy"

On Meyerhold (P126) - "It was precisely because the spectator was shown so little that he saw so much, superimposing his own imagined or remembered experiences on the events enacted before him. In this way the dialogue and characters assumed a significance and a profundity which overcame their intrinsic banality."

On Artaud (P188) - "Artaud based his entire approach to the production [of The Cenci] on the principle of engulfing the audience with a massive accumulation of effects, so that its response would be sensual and involuntary rather than detached and intellectual."

On Grotowski and the production of Apocalypsis (P197) - "But when the lights came on and the room was discovered empty, it did not necessarily mean that he had gone - or even that he had been. The room had simply been returned to the state it was in when the first pectator entered. So what had been witnessed? A group of ordinary people, in everyday clothes. Roles were assigned, amidst mirth, and assumed, rejected, fought against. But each role, once assumed, posessed that person who was trapped within it, drained by the excesses with which he fulfilled or denied it."

Luigi Pirandello - Henry IV

I am beginning to feel like Pirandello really could see the future. The more of his plays I read, the more I feel like he took the naturalism of Ibsen and Chekov, diced it up, added some spice, and made it into something completely new, but still containing the same parts.

Henry IV focuses on a man who is believed to be insane, and has lived the last 20 years thinking he is Henry IV of France, forcing those around him to live in such a way as well. The web of truths, half truths, and questioning what truth really is winds so seamlessly in this play. It would be enormously fun to produce. I really like the smaller side-characters who act as accomplices to the madness, and also to his subjugation by those that keep the fantasy going.

My Little Girl Wants To Be a Platypus

Went to see the installation FeMUSEum presented as part of Trashing Performance by the group Split Britches. They are well known theatre artists here in London, for their gender-bending questions and performances. Like a good mom, I brought my 7 year old with me; it is never too early to learn to question feminine identity as society presents it to us. The installation had several stations related to women. The one she was most fascinated with was a table with many items for "putting oneself together" - false eyelashes, powder, deoderant, jewelry, etc. Sarah said to me "it feels like we are in the bathroom". A keen observation from the young mind.

We left shortly after, and as we walked talked about why those things were in the room, why the women were wearing what they were, etc.

Later on in the day's adventures, we were trying to sort out a last minute halloween costume for her. She really wants to be Perry the Platypus from the TV show Phineas and Ferb; Perry is a crime fighting Platypus who fights the evil bad guy. After an hour or so of unsuccessful searching for a teal sweat suit, I asked if she just wanted to wear her fancy dress and some wings and be a fairy. She looked me right in the eye and said "Mom, No Way. Platypuses are way cooler." So i've been told. And I guess we're doing a pretty good job with balancing gender identity in her young life.