I recently saw a Polish production of King Lear at the Venice Biennale directed by Jan Klata. But Lear was missing. Literally. At first the character of Lear was represented by an empty chair and a recorded voice and later by various visual projections. What the audience did not know and what I learned later, is that the actor who had originated the role had died a few months earlier. Rather than finding another actor to take over the part, Klata decided to deal with the actor’s physical absence within the context of the production. But this choice failed. Little by little, the actor’s looming absence sucked the life out of the play itself. As an audience member, I felt a gaping hole at the center of the production. The audience was offered no vitality or no muscle to push up against or to rally around. In the end there was, in the words of Gertrude Stein, no there there.
Audiences naturally crave the force of human heat at the center of a theater production. An actor embodying a leading role requires the courage and audacity to bring us all into the present moment together and what we probably remember most about any performance is our in-the-moment resonance with an actor, our connection to that actor. S/he is our guide and our orientation to the world of the play and to the trajectory and nuances of the fiction. Perhaps we go to the theater in order to experience the real event of an actor going through something intense. We revel in being a witness to the phenomenon of the actual cost of that performance on that individual.
In 1987 Tadashi Suzuki created an English language version of The Tale of Lear, an adaption of Shakespeare’s Lear. In collaboration with Milwaukee Repertory, Stage West, Berkeley Repertory and the Arena stage, Suzuki cast twelve male American ensemble actors from those theaters to rehearse and subsequently tour in Japan and the United States. The Tale of Lear was my first experience of Suzuki’s work and it proved personally galvanizing and significant in my own trajectory. Deeply affected by the production, the integrity and the experience, this production exists in the top ten theater experiences of my life.
In the role of Lear, Suzuki chose the magnificent American actor Tom Hewitt. Rehearsals took place at Suzuki’s theater compound in Toga Village in the mountainous region in north central Japan known as “the Japanese Alps.” Tom remembers the first part of the rehearsal process fondly; hanging out with his fellow actors outside of rehearsals, drinking together, talking easily about the play, making comments and generally, as he described it, “being distracted, exhausted and terrified in general.” But one day in the midst of rehearsal as the first public performance approached, Suzuki publicly and severely rebuked Tom for his behavior outside of rehearsal. Suzuki was adamant that as the lead in the play Tom should take responsibility for his actions in social situations outside of the work environment. He wanted Tom to act as the leader both inside and outside of rehearsal, off and on the stage. When I recently asked Tom via email about his memories of the incident, he wrote, “My sense of the event was, although I was the focus of Mr. Suzuki’s wrath, really a wake up call for the whole company. It worked. We were a tighter ship after that day.”
Suzuki is known for his championship of “animal energy” as the basic vocabulary of the stage. He believes that in an increasingly digital and technological global society we must value the products that are “created by human beings, over time, using their innate animal energy while being mindful of each other’s differences.” He feels that the job of the theater artist is to honor and magnify what is human and to turn up the volume on human heat in the theater. I agree. The theater communicates energy as well as words.
Can we equate the lead actor in a play to the role of a quarterback in football? I do not know much about football but I recently learned that in American football the quarterback is the most glorified and scrutinized position in team sports and is usually considered to be the leader of the offensive team, responsible for telling his team which play will be run. He touches the ball on almost every offensive play and his successes and failures can have a significant impact on the fortunes of his team. What I found most relevant to the theater is how a quarterback can act as a levitating force or an anchor for the rest of the team. Sports philosopher Joe Bussell wrote, “Every team needs and wants a quarterback who can support the team through tough stretches or piles of injuries and ultimately get the team to the Super Bowl … There are some quarterbacks that are elevated by the talent around them and there are others who are so good that they elevate the entire team with their exceptional skills and leadership.”
The leading actor in a play functions in a similar way to the quarterback. S/he must be hypersensitive to the atmospheric vicissitudes of the stage and at the same time stand as a model for the others, orienting both the ensemble and the audience. The actor acts as a levitating force for everyone present and personally takes the heat from the highest hurdles of the play.
Ancient Greek theater was born from rituals of sacrificial slaughter. The word “tragedy” arises from the Greek tragoidia, composed of two words, tragos, or goat, and oidos, or song. Bulls and then later goats were stoned or killed in early rituals as a symbolic act of sacrifice. According to some theories, the lead character in a fictional story, embodied by a real actor in a play, replaced the animal and the sacrifice. The martyrdom of the character, and thereby the actor, became increasingly symbolized. The audience witnesses the actor enacting the journey of martyrdom, both through the story being told and in the actual trial of being onstage, in public, exposed. The actor acts and enacts for the benefit of, and in the place of, the audience.
And yet, perhaps each and every actor should approach the stage as the leader, as if playing the lead role. In rehearsal Suzuki expects an actor playing a minor role in a play to be able to go onto the stage at any moment and perform the entire play alone. The actor in this situation is required to take full responsibility for the audience’s experience of the play.
The United States is currently facing a critical political crossroad. Millions of citizens are campaigning in support of a hyper authoritative command-and-control style of leadership in which a single person is supposed to know all of the answers and keeps everyone in the dark about what those answers are. On the other hand a very different model of leadership has been emerging in recent years in which the social relationships, the intellectual and cognitive development as well as the emotional capacities of individuals who work together in teams are regularly taken into consideration. This change is reflected not only in political movements and across many fields of art but also in the development of Internet technology and in new insights about how the brain works. This newer model of hierarchy favors networks and co-creation over an overarching top-down approach. In scientific and artistic arenas the changes are both procedural and organizational. The methods of orchestra conductors around the world, for example, have transformed from the model of the controlling, ego-centric, governance of an authoritarian conductor to the kind of leadership that allows co-creative teams of strong individuals to function successfully together under one baton. Rather than forcing the musicians into one rigid solution, one mindset, the conductor listens to the individuals in the orchestra and organizes the work around their particular talents.
What distinguishes the theater from other art forms is that the subject of the theater, the question that it always addresses, is about how human beings might co-exist better. The theater proposes different ways that people can get along with one another, both by the fiction found in the dramatic action of the play and by the way that the actors inhabit the stage together. Every production shows people functioning or not functioning together, sharing heat or not sharing heat. Theater companies enjoy the unique opportunity to demonstrate examples of the possibilities that new scientific advances and technologies offer to human behavior, communication and interaction. The new paradigm of less top-down leadership, of interacting webs of communication, can be made visible, comprehendible and even do-able. Through living example of shared heat we can show how and why an interactive lateral social system with attentive, adaptable leaders may be preferable to an inflexible top-down hegemony.