This blog post is based on a presentation for the Asian book launch of Performer Training Reconfigured, organised by the School of Dance and Theatre at LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore, 28 August 2019.
When I, Maiya, a performer-trainer-researcher focused on movement- and body-based approaches to theatre, started reading Frank Camilleri’s book, Performer Training Reconfigured: Post-Psychophysical Perspectives for the Twenty-First Century, I felt thrilled: ‘what comes next in this world of performer training?’ This is the first thing that the ‘post’ in the title suggested for me.
But then as I continued reading, I began to shift uncomfortably in my seat, ‘am I being asked to give up my commitment to embodiment as a primary point of departure both creatively and theoretically?’ The chair suddenly felt too hard, the back rest at the wrong angle, the air conditioning too low, my breath shallow.
Camilleri assured me, the Lecoq-based creator, trainer, and writer, that his work is indeed a development of the psychophysical commitment in performer training. And then, instead of just being uncomfortable in my seat, I took up Camilleri’s challenge and thought ‘well, if I am uncomfortable here it is only because there is a chair to shift in, there is a floor for my chair to stand on, and there is an air conditioning unit to control the temperature which is high because I live near the equator’. Quickly I started understanding myself not as confined within the border of Maiya’s embodiment but as one of Camilleri’s assemblages, which he takes up from Deleuze, Guattari, and DeLanda. An assemblage is a network of dynamic relations and connections which encompasses physical embodiment but extend outwards. Where this network ends, I can’t quite see… And it keeps changing …
Camilleri’s post-psychophysical approach moves forward and outward theoretically speaking, using a variety of disciplines and voices to point toward an ever-expanding notion of what exactly is being trained in 21st century performer training. Indeed as Camilleri notes, for a long time performer trainers have expressed how training tools and environments are essential to the training process. Masks, sticks, suitable studios are all important details for the training process. Any trainer or trainee has also experienced it. When you have to ‘make do’ with non-optimal spaces or tools you know the line between when you can make a plastic Friday-the-Thirteenth-Horror-Movie Mask work in actor training, and when it just simply won’t do what a Sartori leather neutral mask can do. Camilleri addresses this, but he is even more bold and goes beyond what other trainers have articulated: he looks to broader training conditions and the factors that make those conditions possible, he takes note of the affectivity in the process that is constantly moving through, from, and around objects, people, spaces, and relations, and he anchors this web of relations in a recognition that nothing, absolutely nothing, exists in psycho- physical- affective or social- isolation. This is how he argues for a necessary turn to assemblage theory.
I find a deep kinship between this book and my own interests in intersections of body-based actor training and cognitive scientific approaches. Camilleri engages some of these, including the enactive approach, which I use to consider the cognitive dimensions of the Jacques Lecoq’s pedagogy in my book Enacting Lecoq (2019). Through enaction, I argue how Lecoq pedagogy – and by extension, many performer training practices – are processes that transform our bodymindworlds to fundamentally cognitive ends. In this instance, I also see ‘cognition’ as a capacious category in line with enaction.
In my own journey to take seriously Lecoq’s commitment to movement, along with the enactive approach’s commitment to cognition as fully embodied, extended, embedded and affective, I had to drill down into many discourses and theories of embodiment. While the enactive view takes embodiment as a core tenet, scholars disagree over whether it should be a ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ embodiment. Matthew Bower and Shaun Gallagher[i] (whom Camilleri references) argue that a weak embodiment sees the body in an outdated conception of cognition, where corporeal software of the ‘body’, however important and active, fundamentally responds to the mental hardware of the ‘brain’. In this sense, even an active interest in foregrounding embodiment can bear the ghosts of Cartesian dualist bodies and minds. When they advocate for a strong embodiment, the body is the mind – the entire psychophysical unity makes cognition and makes mind. As someone who generally argues for a strong embodiment, I’ve realized that taking such a strong approach to embodiment opens up unexpected avenues.
If cognition is fully embodied, and knowing, doing, understanding, imagining, and learning are deeply related activities in an expansive holistic psychophysical process, then I would have to agree with scholars who suggest that reading is also an embodied practice, just as is training in so-called physical theatre practices. Indeed, if you follow the strong conception as far as it goes, humans can never escape embodiment. It is the only way of existing. If a strong embodiment is the human way of being in the world, then it cannot be limited to large physical movements, it must also include the fine-grained ways that we are bodies in the world – when we are still, when we are sitting at our uncomfortable chairs, when we are sleeping, when we are watching, when we are reading Deleuze and Guattari, when we are pondering even the most theoretical of theoretical physics. Or, most importantly to Camilleri’s discussion, when, like Fritz, we are writing in complement to studio work. The character of Fritz is Camilleri’s nod to Clark and Chalmers’s explanation of extended cognition.[ii] This explanation recounts a story about a man named Otto in comparison to a woman named Inga who both want to go to the museum. Inga simply remembers the way, where Otto must write down directions on a notepad because he has Alzheimer’s. According to the extended cognition hypothesis, the effect is the same because Otto has simply extended his cognition into the notepad. Camilleri playfully introduces this character named Fritz who is a practitioner and regularly writes journal-style about his practice. (Now, I don’t know about those of you others who have read this book, but I think Fritz and Frank have quite a lot in common…) He uses Fritz to argue that the studio work is extended into Fritz’s writing practice and should be understood as such. While Fritz purposefully handwrites with a fountain pen for a specific manual engagement with paper, even if he wrote on a keyboard, or like Stephen Hawking, used cheek movements to designate every letter, he is involved in an embodied activity. I’m not sure that we have found any living examples of escaping a strongly embodied condition, even if we are in some sort of fully technologically sustained state of extended cognition.
Camilleri is clear that the ‘post’ in ‘post-psychophysical’ refers to moving through and beyond the psychophysical tradition and discourse, rather than rejecting it. I do sense, however, that in the need to define and distinguish the ‘post’ part of the term, more attention is paid to how and why, ‘post-psychophysicality’ is different than ‘psychophysicality’. This is logical. What I wonder about in Camilleri’s turn, however, which I would be curious to hear more about, is just how the post-psychophysical exists because of and builds upon the psychophysical: how the ‘post’ comes into being through the ‘psychophysical’. Perhaps I am making Camilleri’s point about folks who are so committed to the psychophysical that we cannot see outside of it (me?). But as a person who has been trained, trains others, and continues to train myself, so far, I have experienced how we must address the complexity of performing by first circumscribing small tasks and issues, and then gradually collaging them together. This takes time. Activities to match breath and simple movement are not the whole picture, but it gives the performer a point of departure from which to develop. Of course there are countless other points of departure. To face the vast complexities of our interconnectedness may be overwhelming in practice – and there may be constraints on the human bodymind that keep us anchored in a kind of first-person perspective when initiating action. What if our profound interconnectedness and extension into the environment can only be experienced and made use of in bite-bite sized pieces? In other words, the psychophysical as a point of departure for action and for deploying agency has been extremely useful. In some philosophy of cognitive science, the question remains: is the human psychophysical body somehow the only agential point of departure for humans?[iii]
I see one possible aspect of the post-psychophysical as a development of the mere psychophysical in this idea of taking a strong embodiment seriously, at least through an enactive perspective, with its grounding in embodied biological and cognitive processes. If you take a strong embodied cognition toward its limit, it actually goes beyond the limits of the flesh – it has to – the enactive holisitic bodymind’s cognitive apparatus emerges only from and through the entity’s interaction in the world – the extended space marked by Camilleri’s term ‘bodyworld’. Some enactivists like to quote philosopher Hans Jonas who suggests that life is in a constant state of ‘needful freedom’ where the entity only exists (it is free as a distinct entity) through taking what it needs to exist from its externality (the environment that sustains it).[iv] In a sense, I might suggest that finding yourself plop in the middle of assemblage theory is an inevitable consequence of the strongest commitment to embodiment there is – embodiment in inextricable entwinement with the environment. I’d like to know more about how Camilleri might trace this path.
This book is one of those rare animals that simultaneously engages with highly theoretical material – or ‘Theory with a capital “T”’ as I like to call it – while still retaining the in-the-trenches gravity that comes from an author steeped in lifelong practice. This is important to our fields of theatre and performance as many of us still fight to resist binaries of thinker and doer, scholar and maker, objective analyzer and subjective practitioner. One of the ways Camilleri accomplishes this is by providing a recurring feature: ‘tips for practice analysis’, or small practical exercises that engage a participant in the issues addressed in that chapter. It’s a way to remind the reader – you also have to ‘do’ to understand. This points to another aspect of the book that makes me hungry for more. On the one hand, Camilleri shows how training-as-assemblage may be considered to have always existed. On that view, we have just been slow to theorize it. On the other hand, it also feels like Camilleri is positing his post-psychophysical as a clarion call ‘Assemble!’ In other words, it feels like he is suggesting that by overtly acknowledging training as an assemblage that moves from, through, and beyond the psychophysical, we can envision and make something new together in the realm of performer training. Camilleri’s discussion on ethical approaches to performer training points in this direction. While this book is sweeping and attentive to the practical dimension, I want to know more – what is it like, or what has it been like for Camilleri to overtly develop a training system as assemblage? Does it look like anything beyond acknowledging what is already there and giving value to it? Or does that act of acknowledgment then transform the practice, transform the way practitioners think/move/act and train? In other words, at this moment, is the post-psychophysical descriptive or activist? I suspect both, and I am curious to know more about those details and their consequences. So if moving from bodyminds to bodyworlds, how, on the ground, in the studio, do we find purchase in an expansive new network way beyond the borders of our bodyminds? What does it create? Are practitioners overwhelmed by the new, expansive vista? How do we, in the act of performer training, take action in this new web of relations?
But I leave
you with a short hand-written letter that
I wrote I found from a fellow
practitioner-researcher who makes theatre, trains performers, and writes about
the process. I found it on 28 August 2019 when I was presenting this response to
Camilleri’s book at LASALLE College of the Arts:
Thank you for showing me how to assemble. I am enjoying it very much.
Now I have a new question: my training bodyworld is so vast that I feel paralyzed. What do I do?
Your friend in post-psychophysical futures,
PS: Here is a map from LASALLE College of the Arts to
the National Gallery Singapore. I have the path memorized since I live here. You
might need a map since you are new to the city. I’ll meet you there?
[i] Bower, Matthew, and Shaun Gallagher. 2013. ‘Bodily affects as prenoetic elements in enactive perception’, Phenomenology and Mind 4, no. 1:108–131.
[ii] Clark, Andy and David Chalmers. 1998. ‘The extended mind’, analysis 58, no.1: 7-19.
[iii] See Varela, F.J., Thompson, E. and Rosch, E., 2017. The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. MIT Press and Stewart, J., Stewart, J.R., Gapenne, O. and Di Paolo, E.A. eds., 2010. Enaction: Toward a new paradigm for cognitive science. MIT Press.
[iv] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The phenomenon of life: Toward a philosophical biology. Evanston: Northwestern UP.