Accidental Art is an experiment in theatre-making whose outcome was performed at this year’s Accidental Festival at the Roundhouse Theatre in May 2009. The experiment saw a director, a psychologist and a group of actors devise a short performance based on the myth of Oedipus over a twelve-hour period. Accidental Art uses methodologies from dramatherapy to access the imagination and the unconscious, fuelling the devising of character and content. It is an experiment that aims to uncover different methods for making theatre inspired, in this case, by psychology.
The experiment is a result of the collaboration between psychologist and theatre practitioner Tania Batzoglou, director Anouke Brook, and project leader Nessah Muthy. I invited Tania, Anouke, Nessah and one of the performers, Lea McKenna-Garcia, to discuss the project in more detail.
Diana Damian: Nessah, where did the idea of Accidental Art come from?
Nessah Muthy: I attended a workshop given by Ruth Little, the literary manager at the Royal Court, in which she was discussing alternate ways of making theatre. She is currently collaborating with scientists to develop what she has called ‘Metabolic Dramaturgy’ – the dramaturgy of non-linear living systems, I wanted to do something similar with psychology, to look at alternative methodologies that could translate into structures and exercises for a new process of making theatre.
Diana Damian: And how did the collaboration emerge between the three of you?
Tania Batzoglou: I have similar interests as my practice based PhD looks exactly at how we can use methods from psychology, particularly from dramatherapy, to allow actors to free up their imagination and access their unconscious, incarnating a character that is not far from who we are. The drama and movement method I have been trained in, Sesame, facilitates this process where the unconscious reveals itself. So we decided to implement this method that works through symbol, metaphor and the use of myths to aid the actor in finding honesty and embodiment in the work.
Anouke Brook: I am also interested, in my directing work, in alternate ways of making theatre, and in the universality of mythology. We chose a Greek myth and looked at the parameters of the project, what structures to build in and how we could implement Tania’s dramatherapy techniques to devise a performance based on Oedipus.
Diana Damian: Nessah, how did the project develop into the twelve hour experiment at the Roundhouse?
Nessah Muthy: The twelve-hour day with Tania and Anouke was influenced by the most successful elements of two previous experiments. The first experiment lasted three hours, and brought together a psychologist, a director and three actors to make a piece of work. Although loose, some interesting ideas came out of it related to how psychology can create a particular relationship between two actors, as well as creating or stimulating empathy rather than sympathy in the audience. There was a very delicate balance that had to be achieved between creating a safe environment for the actors, whose reactions were unscripted, spontaneous and sometimes surprisingly emotional, and stimulating the imagination. The second experiment was a lot more safe and structured, as we chose to look specifically at the unconscious.
Diana Damian: Lea, you were in the first two experiments and one of the first collaborators. As an actor, how did your process of working develop?
Lea McKenna-Garcia: What carried through was a personal awareness of how to work this way, being available to your first instinct as a performer. It made it much easier to be fresh with a character because of the sense of play and spontaneity. In terms of dealing with the unconscious, you delve into a lot of aspects of yourself that you are not aware of. You act very instinctually, which helps find moments of honesty with the character.
Diana Damian: How did the twelve hours at the Roundhouse unfold?
Tania Batzoglou: We followed the structure of the dramatherapy method Sesame, which focuses a lot on the body as key to accessing the unconscious. We adapted it to the needs of the day, working towards a specific artistic outcome. We were not very strict on following the myth of Oedipus, it just happened that we covered most of the story. The actor was the main attention on stage, and we used few books, torches and even drums that played different roles in the process and the final product. Both what you are attracted to and what you are avoiding belong to you, and we tried to open that to the actors, not let them indulge in one character or moment. Thanks to the build up, it was a smooth process when we reached the free improvisation..
Nessah Muthy: It was important to filter through the exercise, which is why we brought Anouke in, to serve the audience, not to become self-indulgent but to work with limitation and structure.
Anouke Brook: We did not want to invite the audience into a rehearsal, but we wanted to create a finished piece, with a narrative of sorts with drama, pace, variety. We took that on as a challenge in the twelve hours. We played with chronology and created scenes that were not necessarily from the myth. We wanted to give the actors the safe environment and permission to play and explore. As a director you feel a strong responsibility throughout and register empathy, but you have to keep an eye on the overall, you are analytical rather than sympathetic.
Lea McKenna-Garcia: You watched the performers transform themselves, everyone played Oedipus more than once. The audience was seeing that all these people exist amongst these performers, so they can exist in themselves. There was a rule of performance where we accepted that anyone at any point could change. This was a result of the process, where we worked with instructions, playing emotions, characters and situations in various ways. Anouke, Tania and Nessah made sure we never stuck to one character but took the twelve hours to delve into our own selves as well as the myth. This was so valuable.
Diana Damian: How did you negotiate your presence within that character, how did you stop yourself from looking in on yourself?
Lea McKenna-Garcia: In one exercise I ended up playing Oedipus for a very long time, from the discovery of his identity through the blinding. I was blindfolded and the other performers were taunting and pushing me, and this really disorientated me. It got quite scary and uncomfortable, to a point where I wanted to say stop, but was aware that was my reaction. I think you really have to negotiate what kind of personal agony you are willing to get yourself through to find the real experience of a character, and what becomes too much. You don’t have to go kill someone to understand how it feels.
Diana Damian: How do you feel about the audience observing the whole process, not a final performance?
Nessah Muthy: We were considering streaming and filming, but confidentiality was a problem from the beginning. One of the main reasons that stopped us was the lack of power you have in such a situation. This kind of work needs to happen in a safe environment, and any outside presence becomes problematic.
Anouke Brook: I would love it if the audience would just watch the process, since I think there is a real niche for that.
Tania Batzoglou: It would be great if people could watch the twelve hours, but, indeed, audience would affect the intimacy.
Diana Damian: What have you discovered about the relationship between psychology and actor training?
Anouke Brook: I am interested in seeing how methods from these experimental processes can directly influence the training of an actor, giving way to more authentic performances. Theatre is always going to involve parameters and limitation, and I want to see how we can use this method to free up, authenticate something that is still traditional.
Tania Batzoglou: I think it could work perfectly. If in a classical training drama school you had the ability to experience this for several hours every week, you create a connection with yourself, your material comes from you unconscious, imagination, your own body.
Anouke Brook: I think it should be part of drama training. As someone who works in drama school education, I think there should be a special period a week where actors can access these parts of themselves, give up the useless hours of fencing and allow these explorations to be part of the curriculum.
Nessah Muthy: I would like to be involved in the process as a playwright, takeing my inspiration from what happens into the rehearsal room, so the script can emerge from these psychological explorations. I want to be able to write from what I see.
Anouke Brook: We see this as the first phase of development, and funding would be a blessing, since it would allow us to develop the project, delve further into the experimentation.