About Billaitchison

actor, director and performance artist.

Emotional Preparation in Performance Art

This is the part of the research I am doing on the use of Meisner Technique in performance art and I want to here look at a performance experiment I recently did in the Art Now Live Tour, Tianjin, China.

I was invited to participate in the Art Now Live Tour, a Chinese performance art festival that took place in Tianjin and Cangzhou. A feature of Chinese performance art festivals is that they often encourage the artists to create impromptu performances in non-art spaces.

I wanted to try using what Meisner describes as an emotional preparation to see how it might work in practice and what effect, if any, it would have upon my performance. To go about this I first spent a good while in the space sensing how it influenced my mood. I found that it induced claustrophobia and disquiet, it insinuated me into a world I wanted out of and offered no alternatives. I then came up with the basic line of a performance which was to follow a movement from incarceration and accusation to escape.  

Meisner describes emotional preparation as, “daydreaming which causes a transformation in your inner life, so that you are not what you actually were five minutes ago because your fantasy is working you.” (1987: 81)

I had heard from a friend of mine living in China, that he had been followed and threatened by a gang of four thugs hired by his estranged wife. I tried to imagine what sort of circumstances could lead to me into a similar situation. It required some creativity but, standing alone in the performance space, I came up with a plausible scenario that tapped into quite genuine fears and desires of mine. I went through the scenario in detail to the extent that I started to feel it was not merely an exercise but was something I should be seriously concerned about. 

The festival officially opened and, after the first show, I was next. I had around ten minutes to prepare and went directly to my performance space, which was unoccupied. Standing still and surveying the gloomy surroundings, I went through my story. I imagined receiving a phone call in the room itself. I could hear the threatening tone of vulgar, rapid-fire Chinese that I could barely understand. Now and then, I’d close my eyes to better picture the faces of the people involved. I pictured them surrounding me at night in a place near to where I live. One of the gang had a knife and I imagined myself stammering a reply in response to their threats. I went over this scenario slowly, dwelling on some moments in order to fully picture them and take them in. I prepared in this way for about five minutes then stepped outside. 

Waiting a minute or two for the audience to gather I continued in this train of thought until they started making their way over to me. I did not speak to them but simply beckoned the audience into the performance space then bolted the door shut behind us. The rusty bolt made a painful grating noise, it couldn’t have been used in years. 

I slowly made my way through the space looking at each and every audience member in the eye. I projected onto them the role of the imaginary thugs confronting me so that my stare back at them contained an unstable mix of fear and defiance. This gaze of mine was somewhat responsive to the reactions I received from each person so that if, for example, I received a cold stare I might meet it with greater bluster while a blank stare might elicit a more contemptuous response. I did not predetermine how I would respond, I simply let the emotional preparation and task of looking at each member of the audience carry me. I restricted my reactions to how I stared back and did not allow myself to let my responses become so free that I could start speaking or waving my fists, for example. In this way there was no anonymous audience space, they were all an integral part of this uncomfortable spectacle. I later heard that some of the audience were frightened of me, though later still, I also heard some saw dry humor in the work too. 

After I had made my way around the space and looked at everyone in the eye, I returned to the person who I thought had the most sympathetic response. This was a Singaporean woman who returned my nervously aggressive stare with a steady and compassionate gaze. I stopped in front of her and offered her one key after another from my pocket. This continued for a while, the gesture becoming more pathetic as the keys scattered into a small pile on the floor in front of her. I finally fell to my knees.

Crawling to the far end of the room I then took the ladder, which was far too tall to stand upright, and maneuvered it around the space. I rested it in a diagonal position and started to climb. All of a sudden, one of the wooden steps gave way and I fell a short distance to the floor. Trying again, I finally managed to stand upright with my head touching the ceiling. I was not consciously thinking about the emotional preparation anymore, it had played its part and set me off. I now had an objective and that was to rise above and away from this scene. 

Placing the ladder through the narrow window I squeezed my way out with great effort, swung the ladder out and climbed up it onto the roof. The roof turned out to be very fragile and I had to very carefully make my way across it, walking above the audience and dragging the ladder with me. Inside there was confusion and some panic: the audience wanted to escape too as it was unbearably hot and there was some danger of me crashing down upon them. The performance ended with me climbing down the ladder on the far side of the space and the audience managing to break out and meet me. 

Complete Performance Video (20 minutes)

This was quite definitely an intense and focussed performance in which the actions were invested with strong emotions yet remained focussed around physical tasks. The same actions, performed in a matter of fact way, would have been understood quite differently because it was clear that there was something at stake here. This made the performance much more liable to be seen and felt to be a metaphor and it coloured some actions, such as staring aggressively at the audience, with specific resonances. I did not attempt to narrow down the meaning of this metaphor in the sense of “I am doing this in order to mean that,” it remained somewhat open to interpretation. My sense then is that the use of Meisner technique, and also some corporeal mime, in which I am formally trained, did not only make the performance more present or alive, it colored the actions with meaning.

The use of Meisner technique in this context was not so typical as I did not conceive of my role as a character separate from myself. I was present as myself, performing actions that I had myself chosen and the disciplinary frame for this was performance art. The scenario I used for the emotional preparation was one that was drawn from my life and its purpose was to put me in an appropriate mood for this performance. It is the case that, just because you make and perform a piece yourself, it does not necessarily follow that however you feel when you start the performance is equally fitting. The self is broad and one’s emotions are constantly changing. For the performance, I wanted to return to the feeling I had when I conceived the piece and so made this experiment with emotional preparation to do so. While this would probably not be appropriate to every sort of piece, some works depend upon a more flat delivery, it was entirely fitting here.

I am very encouraged to see that emotional preparation, a side of Meisner technique which I thought might be a more problematic one to integrate with performance art, can also be useful, at least in this particular instance. One of the potential pitfalls of using it, as far as I see it, is for the performer to appear to be in a separate here and now to that of the audience. This is often very necessary in theatre in order to bring a fictive setting to life but performance art, which typically stresses a shared here and now, has little room for this. I was able to deal with this tension by situating much of the initial action upon my interaction with the audience and using this emotional preparation in my efforts to connect with them. This brought us into a shared sense of here and now that was arrived at mutually through a reciprocal gaze. 

I will next turn my attention in a more systematic way to dealing with objects and making a direct to camera performance video. I am interested in the intimacy that the camera can provide and in making a document of this research with considerably better lighting than that of the dingy room in an abandoned Tianjin steelwork. 

Meisner, S. (1987). On Acting. New York: Vintage Books. 

Video: Jin Gang

Photos: Yi Ti

Meisner Training in Performance Art

What do you think about when you are performing? 

(Why the hell am I putting myself through this, again.)

This was one of several responses I got from performance artists when asking them about the psychological side to giving performances. I specifically wanted to ask people making performance art, as opposed to actors, about this topic because visual artists do not typically train in the psychological aspects of performance. I wanted to know how they prepared themselves and what they focused upon while giving performances. I wanted to know because I am a performance artist myself and this is something we rarely talk about amongst ourselves. When this topic does come up, the most standard reply is that the body is an object and the performance is conceived of as a physical task. Psychological approaches to performance are more often seen as belonging to acting and so little space is given for discussion of performer psychology. Yet, when pressed, it emerges that performance artists do have individual strategies and predilections. These cover quite a range and some are, quite definitely, psychological in nature. 

Among the artists who replied, a key theme was the valorisation of authenticity. Neither rehearsing nor repeating performances was one common strategy and performing physically demanding actions that resulted in tiredness was another. At the same time, having witnessed a great many performances, in my role as both an artist and curator of performance, it is clear that even in the most ‘authentic’ of performers there are patterns and repetitions, familiar sorts of behavior and recurring motifs. I also see that amongst theatre actors there are techniques for bringing freshness and authenticity to a role which might be repeated night after night. When I put the two of these side by side I see both shared concerns and points of contact as well as divergent traditions and dissimilar artistic results. 

Kirby’s Acting and Not-Acting (1995) continuum is a useful model in that, while it acknowledges that there is a difference between acting and not acting – and it is with the latter that performance art typically identifies – it also pays attention to the gray areas between the two. However, by basing his sliding scale upon the performer’s activity, the frame in which this takes place as well as the spectator’s reception of it, there are too many variables at play for Kirby’s categorization to be quite as clear and linear as the model implies. It is my hunch that what actually takes place in this gray zone is a lot more messy with techniques and aesthetics swirling about and coming together in looser combinations. I would suggest that not acting, for example, can also be understood as a form of acting. To suppress the self-consciousness that often comes from being viewed by an audience and to concentrate upon completing a task naturally, is precisely the sort of challenge that acting training equips the performer for.

This short series of blog post will be dedicated then to a practical artistic experiment. I want to look at the question of performer psychology in performance art and see if there are some ways acting has something useful to contribute. It is my feeling that acting training will, at the very least, be able to offer some clues as to how to avoid bad acting, since this is one of its primary purposes. Acting is, however, not a single homogenous activity; approaches and techniques abound. Indeed I should come off the fence here and admit I am not such a stranger to it: I trained in corporeal mime and have busied myself within several experimental theatre productions in the past. As a result of this flirtation with acting, I have noticed that one approach in particular appears promising: Meisner technique. 

While I very rarely try to portray a character other than myself in my performances, I have found that as a performer, I have some range and can be selective about what I show of myself and how I frame this display. In this way it is likely that the audience goes away with a different impression of who I am from one performance to the next. From my initial reading of Meisner’s On Acting (1987) and Moseley’s (2012) guide to the technique in practice, I get the impression that a lot of the training exercises aim to get a truthful performance from the actor by making them more emotionally open and responsive in the moment. What’s more, Meisner takes as the starting point and basis of the actor’s work “the reality of doing.” Kirby defines the verb to act as, “to feign, to simulate, to represent, to impersonate.” (1995: 40) In terms of the performer’s process, however, it can be productive to think of the broader meaning of the verb to act as also encompassing to take action, to do something. When an actor’s work is broken down into performing actions rather than displaying emotions, which this wider definition allows us to do, we arrive at a space where the work of the performance artist and that of the actor are not necessarily at odds with one another. They both have their basis in the reality of doing.

The two areas of Meisner technique that I want to focus upon are the various repetition exercises that he describes and emotional preparation. The repetition exercises appear to encourage a living connection between actors by training spontaneity, truth and sensitivity. These are qualities I value too but my performances are often solos so I do not have a partner to bounce off. What I do have, however, is an audience, a performance environment and objects that I sometimes use.  I want to see if it is possible to substitute some of these for a co-performer and focus upon this interaction. Working off the energy and responses of members of the audience should be somewhat straightforward but whether I can build a living rapport with an inanimate object is another question altogether. Working with an object it may well be a case of treating it as if it were a co-performer that is able to influence me. 

The second area of emotional preparation is one that is liable to raise some heckles from performance art purists. When interviewing artists for this research project there was a general consensus that emotions were a consequence of the performance and not something that should be deliberately manipulated immediately before or during the course of the show. This is a legitimate concern and it reflects one way to ensure an honesty to the performance. On the other hand, there are performance artists who do direct their emotions such as Marina Abramovic who uses meditation techniques both before and during performances. 

I myself have experimented with a number of ways to prepare for performances and while it is tempting to separate these out into physical and psychological preparations, in practice they all combine something of both. Stretching and breathing deeply has an effect on the mind as does quickly trying to complete two or three actions at the same time. I have also tried going to a quiet place before starting a show and dedicating the performance to a specific person. I focus on the person and on the qualities of theirs that connect to the performance I am about to do. I never use the same person twice so this does not produce an identical effect but it does focus me and it does bring memories and emotions to the fore, memories that may play a role in the performance. It seems a small step to go from here into Meisner style emotional preparation in which an imaginary but plausible situation is used to summon up an emotional state.

I want to share this process, hence this blog, and I want to use more than just words alone as images and video can capture some aspects of the work better. Photography and video are of course art forms in their own right and representing the research with them is by no means an automatic process. What’s more, because I am both performer and researcher, video plays a dual role of not only representing the work on the blog but also giving me a chance to study the performances and experiments from an external point of view. 

Even though I consider myself an engaged viewer, I find much performance documentation well-nigh unwatchable. This is because the language of video is different to that of the stage and a lot of documentation, because it wants to remain truthful to the original event, is caught in an unhappy marriage of mediums. On the other hand, I have attended live performances which, in attempting to rectify this problem, documented the work to death. I ended up feeling I was at a film shoot in which I was playing the role of an extra who fills the background. A balance needs to be struck and the way I intend to do this is to produce different sorts of videos. I will make one performance directly for the camera; Meisner technique is, after all, particularly popular with screen actors. I will also make another performance with a live audience in which the interaction between us is visible. I will here take advantage of the fact that my audience already has cameras on their phones and can take video. From their video footage which they will themselves film freely, I will piece together the performance and edit it in two ways. It will first be turned into short clips that focus upon the points I concentrate upon in my text. It will also be available as a more complete performance document which, while being another unwatchable video, will allow the viewer to get a broader view of the context.

There is an extra dimension to this enquiry that will probably have some bearing on the shape it takes. I am based in Nanjing, China. The performances will inevitably be shaped by this and audience reactions, or lack of them, will likewise be particular. I won’t second guess what this will be, it is enough for now to expect some influence. While it is true that wherever one works context matters, it might matter more here because what I am doing is in no way typical in China. I, in no way, want to imply that the UK represents the norm, deviance from which needs accounting for. Working in a country with a population over twenty times that of the UK and being based in a city a similar size to London, it is easy to view China as the norm. When it comes to performance art and Meisner technique, however, they are far less familiar here and simply being a British artist lends anything I do an exotic connotation for many Chinese spectators. 

Meisner, S. (1987). On Acting. New York: Vintage Books.

Moseley, N. (2012) Meisner in Practice: A guide for actors, directors and teachers. London: Nick Hern Books. 

Kirby M. (2002). ‘On Acting and Not-Acting’, in Zarilli P. B.  Acting Reconsidered. London: Routledge, p. 40-52