At the centre of this third entry of my logbook lies the question of what is available to us in order to define the nature of Matt Mullican’s performances in regards to the broader context of performance history, theatre or, following Richard Schechner’s analysis, ritualistic actions within the social realm. In trying to analyze the performative or theatrical features of Mullican’s work under hypnosis, I intend to highlight key aspects of his performances, and begin to think about his relationship to a more traditional notion of theatre.
In the context of his research with if I Can’t Dance, Mullican will explore the possibility of using short scripts, which will continue to have a connection to his work under hypnosis, to be acted out by actors.
If on many levels Mullican’s performances are considered difficult to categorize within performance history, Schechner and Peter Brook’s trans-disciplinary perspectives allow to look at Mullican’s performances within a broader context that include the history of theatre and the history of rituals in different cultures and time periods. Mullican’s use of hypnosis particularly encourages us to consider how his particular choice of hypnosis as a modus operandi might echo or oppose other traditions of working with hypnosis (theatre, magic, psychotherapy, or other medical uses). Mullican describes his first experiences with hypnosis as intending to create what he calls “a super theatre”. He says in his interview with the hypnotherapist Vicente de Moura: “I had this idea of a super theatre; a theatre where the actor believed that they were this fiction and that they were acting this fiction out.”1 Mullican is then obsessed with validating the picture (the one acted out in the performance) as real. This ‘super theatre’ has for ambition to completely blur the limit between reality and fiction. Mullican had already experienced the potential disappearance of this limit through his experiences of projecting himself into the (two-dimensional) picture, or imagining a stick figure, which he had simply drawn on paper, going through all sorts of very complex emotional and physical situations. However the performance operates on a different level: it is no longer a two-dimensional image but a theatre stage that is the framework for the fiction the artist constructs, and it is no longer just the artist whose imagination is solicited, but other people such as actors and a much broader audience.
Mullican’s ‘super theatre’ had a very short existence: only one of his performances was done with actors. Following the shock an harsh criticism of this first experiment – people blamed him for manipulating the actors – Mullican used himself as the subject of hypnosis, leading to a series of different situations, which have evolved over years of practice.
The following two sections go through two different frameworks of analysis, borrowed from the writing of Peter Brook and Richard Schechner, in order to propose ideas that position Mullican’s performance in the historical and theoretical context of theatre. A final section will go back to hypnosis and how Roustang defines the very concept of action in that context.
Peter Brook’s Holy and Rough conceptions of theatre
In the late 1960s, Peter Brook, British theatre director, wrote a seminal essay introducing his thoughts on theatre. The three categories that he defines – holy, rough and immediate – provide an important framework to think the history of modern and contemporary theatre. Some of his remarks allow to question how we might position Mullican’s idea of a ‘super theatre’, as well as his performances under hypnosis, in relation to Brook’s typology.
Interestingly, Brook does not neglect the history of performance as he includes the notion of ‘happening’ as a central moment in the history he deals with. Like Schechner, his perspective is very relevant because he speaks from the artistic position of a theatre director, a role that Mullican might take on if he decides to work with actors in future performances.
I will begin with an interesting remark that Brook makes about the role of theatre director: “(…) the theatre director is always an impostor, a guide in the dark, who moves forward without knowing the ground, and yet he does not have a choice: he has to guide, while discovering his way through as he goes.”2 Mullican has often been accused to be an impostor by members of the audience that refused to believe that he was under hypnotic trance and would not see beyond that particular question of ‘fake or not fake’. Brook radically defines the theatre director as an impostor from the outset, immediately destabilizing the traditional opposition between sincerity and insincerity, illusion and reality. Theatrical reality has moved beyond this opposition, and so did Mullican’s performances, which have purposely ignored the public’s demand for transparency, sincerity and truth.
Brook moves between different conceptions of theatre through concrete examples of theatrical experiments by directors as different as Shakespeare, Genet, Grotowski, Artaud or Brecht. In all his examples, Brook intends to emphasize processes of research and experimentation in the field of theatre, as an essential means to keep theatre alive and thus relevant to the society it addresses – he opposes this liveness to an idea of ‘deadly theatre’. Through the examples Brook looks at, very different concerns and methods emerge. In Brook’s notion of a ‘Holy Theatre’, we might find common concerns with Schechner’s idea of the proximity of art and religion in relation to the phenomenon of ritual. This type of theatre, of which Antonin Artaud is a primary example, privileges ideas of invisibility and incommunicability. The stage is thus considered as the privileged space for the emergence of the invisible, of something that does not find a place in daily life, but rather belong to the realm of the sacred and the magical. This holy theatre offers “the idea of a groping research towards a more violent, less rational, more extreme, less verbal, more dangerous theatre.”3
Brook then moves towards another conception of theatre than he defines as “rough”. Through this concept of ‘Rough Theatre’ Brook puts forward the Brechtian idea of ‘distanciation’. Brook writes: “To distantiate, is to cut, to interrupt, to bring something to light and make us see it anew. Distanciation is above all a call thrown to the spectator for him to carry out his own research and become more and more responsible, for him not to accept what he sees unless he is convinced by it.”4
This idea of distance also suggests that in order to portray a character or a situation, the actor does not need resemblance or exactitude. Theatrical reality never denies its relationship to illusion and make-believe. Brook stresses that an almost empty stage, bare of furniture and traditional décor, can be a strength for it might provide more freedom of expression and invention.
Mullican’s performances moves between a profound interest in the invisibility of the human psyche, somehow revealed through the process of the hypnotic trance and the portraying, at a distance, of the earthly aspects of human daily life. Mullican’s almost bare stage – only filled with a bed, a table and some paper on the walls – might appear in contrast with the symbolic dimension of hypnosis, which many consider as an intensely enigmatic procedure. The traditional oppositions between rational and irrational, form and formlessness, immersion and distance are constantly rendered instable in Mullican’s performances. Mullican himself acknowledges a constant transformation of his performances, and confronts the spiritual interest that led his research in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the more archaeological interest, which he describes as a desire to uncover patterns of thought and understand the overall nature of thought, in the performances from the 1990s until now. This transformation seems to position the early performances in the category of a more Holy Theatre, whereas the ‘distanciation’ at work in the idea of ‘learning from that person’s work’ moves Mullican’s research into a mode of operation closer to Brook’s Rough Theatre.
Richard Schechner’s ‘Restored Behavior’
“Restored behavior offers to both individuals and groups the chance to rebecome what they once were—or even, and most often, to rebecome what they never were but wish to have been or wish to become.”5
Schechner’s text offers a perspective that takes into account different parameters in order to define the nature of the relations between author, text, actors and audience within the framework of the performance. By taking the notion of performance outside of the strict theatre or stage context, he anchors the idea of performance within much older and broader traditions of social rituals that take into account both individuals and collectives. It provides thereof an interesting framework of analysis in regards to Mullican’s performances, in which the rituals of daily life simultaneously meet the public context of theatre and the enigmatic interior state induced by hypnosis.
The most basic performative mode that Schechner describes, involves the movement of a performer becoming someone else. He writes: “I become someone else, or myself in another state of being, or mood, so ‘unlike me’ that I appear to be ‘beside myself’ or ‘possessed by another.’ There is little rehearsal for this kind of performance, sometimes none. From birth, people are immersed in the kind of social performative actions that are sufficient preparations for entering trance. Watching children, infants even, at a black church or in Bali reveals a continuous training by osmosis. The displacement of 1—> 2 may be slight, as in some mood changes, or very strong, as in some trances. But in either case there is little appeal to either an actual or a subjunctive past. ‘Something happens’ and the person (performer) is no longer himself. This kind of performance, because it is so close to ‘natural behavior’ (maybe extraordinary from the outside but expected from within the culture)—either by surrender to strong outside forces, as in possession, or by giving in to moods within oneself— can be very powerful. It can happen to anyone, suddenly, and such instant performative behavior is regarded as evidence of the strength of the force possessing the subject. The performer does not seem to be ‘acting.’ A genuine if temporary transformation (a transportation) takes place.”6
Further in his essay, Schechner looks at another type of performance, which intends to re-construct a previous event. He writes: “the event to be restored either has been forgotten, never was, or is overlaid with so much secondary stuff that its actuality-in-history is lost. History so-called is not ‘what happened’ but what has been constructed out of events, memories, records: all shaped by the world view of whoever—individually or collectively—is encoding (and performing) history. To ‘make history’ is not to do something but to do something with what has been done. History is not what happened but what is encoded and transmitted. Performance is not merely a selection from data arranged and interpreted; it is behavior itself and carries in itself kernels of originality, making it the subject for further interpretation, the source of further study.”
Mullican’s performances entertain a complex relationship to actuality and history. Although each new performance ‘happens’ in the present, Mullican acknowledges that his work is constantly informed by what he is learning in retrospect about the character that emerges during the hypnotic trance. He says: “And I’m interested in what comes up that I cannot catalogue, that I cannot put into a file.” And “Only in retrospect do I start to see things.”7
Thus despite the absence of script and rehearsal process, and the existence of a movement of immersion into a trance through hypnosis, we can see that Mullican’s performances do not easily belong to one model or the other. His mode of operation borrows his methodology to different traditions of performance, which is something we will continue to analyze further.
Mullican does not consider himself strictly as an ‘actor’. His relationship to acting is ambiguous for the reasons stated above: his performance under hypnosis involves an actual immersion that takes place in the present in the absence of script or rehearsal; and yet he acknowledges the existence of a working process over time that makes use of retrospection, of a process of studying the ‘character’ that emerges under hypnosis.
Schechner uses the double negative term ‘not not actors’ to discuss what he defines as “a liminal realm of double negativity that precisely locates the process of theatrical characterization.”8 “While performing, he no longer has a ‘me’ but has a ‘not not me,’ and this double negative relationship also shows how restored behavior is simultaneously private and social.”9
In Mullican’s performances emerge neither a strict representation of the real, nor a scripted fictional reality. His term ‘super’ tries to qualify the very particular quality of the action that unfolds on stage. Schechner’s double negativity echoes Mullican’s ‘neither the real nor fiction’. Schechner writes: “The hierarchies that usually set off actuality as ‘real’ and fantasy as ‘not real’ are dissolved for the ‘time being,’ the play time.”10 We can draw a parallel between what Schechner calls ‘play time’ and what Mullican would designate as the space of art.
Schechner continues: “During performance, if everything goes right, the experience is of synchronicity as the flow of ordinary time and the flow of performance time meet and eclipse each other. This eclipse is the ‘present moment,’ the synchronic ecstasy, the autotelic flow, of liminal stasis. Those who are masters at attaining and prolonging this balance are artists, shamans, conmen, acrobats. No one can keep it long. (…) The antistructure that is performance swells until it threatens to burst. The trick is to extend it to the bursting point but no further. It is the ambition of all performances to expand this field until it includes all beings, things, and relations. This can’t happen. The field is precarious because it is subjunctive, liminal, transitional: it rests not on how things are but on how things are not; its existence depends on agreements kept among all participants, including the audience. The field is the embodiment of potential, of the virtual, the imaginative, the fictive, the negative, the not not.”11
These remarks about the liminal and transitional space produced by the performance are very interesting while moving between the idea of the space of the stage and the space produced through hypnosis –how similar are they? Schechner borrows the concept of ‘transitional’ from the writing of Winnicott, whose work belongs to the field of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. The emotional and relational nature of performance in Schechner’s terms, as well as the question of embodiment in regards to fiction and imagination, finds a striking echo in François Roustang’s account of the space produced through hypnosis and the nature of the act that originates in that space.
Space, action and hypnosis
In his essay related to That Person’s Work, Ulrich Wilmes stresses that one of the most important question for Mullican is ‘Where am I?’. Locating that space, defining its physical and mental limits has also been a concern of theatre practitioners. Schechner writes: “The meaning of individual rituals is secondary to this primary function, which is a kind of collective memory-in/of-action The first phase breaks down the performer’s resistance, makes him a tabula rasa. To do this most effectively the performer has to be removed from familiar surroundings. Thus the need for separation, for ‘sacred’ or special space, and for a use of time different than that prevailing in the ordinary. The second phase is of initiation or transition: developing new or restoring old behavior. But so-called new behavior is really the rearrangement of old behavior or the enactment of old behavior in new settings.”12
Theatre practitioners seem concerned by the conditions under which this separation from the ordinary, this emptying out – tabula rasa – of normal patterns of behaviour can take place. The production of a separate theatrical reality, which should have aliveness and immediacy as essential qualities, does not follow strict models, as Peter Brook kept insisting on. The complex processes – involving acting writing, exercises, workshops, rehearsals – that may lead to a theatrical performance develop heterogeneous modes of operations, specific to each director, or artist. However the creation of a fictional/theatrical reality and the process of characterization (getting into, becoming a character, constructing a character) are key leitmotivs in the practice of theatre. Does hypnosis share similar concerns?
Francois Roustang affirms that hypnosis offers a new space to the patient, a space of which the patient did not imagine the existence; an empty space. Thus Mullican’s question would seem very appropriate, as through his hypnotic trance he would have experience a different kind of space. Roustang explains that in this space we make the experience of an absence of thoughts, of feelings and of action. Through this loss, we make the experience of a form of inaction or non-action that will be the point of departure of new possibilities for action. Roustang defines this space as follows: “Empty space, it is already a potential opening, but real in its potentiality. The emptiness, in that sense, is thus situated at the principle of action, given that it differentiates and organises, by anticipation, all its elements, and become their source and origin.”13
Roustang further writes “The practice of hypnosis, therapy in a state of wakefulness, would not be of much interest if it limited itself to recuperate in its own way the procedures and orientations privileged by our culture. It is different if it is one of very rare means to open up the access to what tradition defines as cosmology, that is a way of appropriating again our way of being in the world, alone able to calm our anxiety and undo the knots that make us suffocate.”
Hypnosis and Theatre are both concerned with producing new spaces for people to re-invent (narrative process) and reshape (physical form) their relationship to the world. Both believe in the potential of imagination to be the ground from which to act in the world. In Mullican’s work, hypnosis appears as a privileged mode of operating in the production of a theatrical reality. Yet the very relationship between hypnosis and theatricality remain enigmatic and of a complexity that will need to be analyzed further.
Sources of reference:
- Richard Schechner, ‘Restoration of behavior’, Between theater and anthropology, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989
- Peter Brook, The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate 1968
- Matt Mullican, That Person’s Workbook, Paper Kunsthalle and Ridinghouse, 2007 (interview between Matt Mullican and Vicente L de Moura; essay by Ulrich Wilmes)
- Francois Roustang, ‘l’action’, Qu’est ce que l’hypnose?, les éditions de Minuit, 1994/2003
2 Peter Brook, L’espace vide. Ecrits sur le théâtre, Points essais, éditions du Seuil (my translation).
3 Ibid. p. 78.
4 Ibid. p. 99.
5 Richard Schechner, ‘Restoration of behavior’, Between theater and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989. p 38.
6 Ibid. p. 41.
8 Richard Schechner, ‘Restoration of behavior’, Between theater and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989. p. 97.
9 Ibid. p. 112.
10 Ibid. p. 110.
11 Ibid. p. 112-123.
12 Richard Schechner, ‘Restoration of behavior’, Between theater and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989. p. 113-114.