Introducing Augusto Boal’s ideas about performance as a creative space for experiential learning
The act of reflection on my Solway Walk led me back to performance. Performance, like art, is a variable and often contested phenomenon. It can include theatre, dance, music, sports, business, ritual, play, performance arts and general social functioning. It can be a source of entertainment as actor or audience, but here it would be useful to connect with performance as a form of experiential learning. All art making could be understood as experiential learning as a source of knowledge, but performance has a particularly strong affinity with experiential learning as an active embodied process. My take on performance has to be influenced by my Dramatherapy training, in which a group or and individual can engage directly with performance to learn from experience.
One practitioner who works directly with performance as learning is dramatherapist and Social Activist Augusto Boal. He starts with theatre but develops it with the idea of the spect/actor, simultaneously spectator and actor. The spect/actor is performer and audience in one.
In Rainbow of Desire Boal describes theatre by quoting 16th century Spanish playwright Lope de Vega as ’two human beings, a passion and a platform’. This confirms the theatrical mode of performance as being a collective experience. In this case the ‘company’ is two, (and possibly more) persons interacting with one another. The passion is a reference to strong feelings and often suffering. Passion implies experiences beyond the mundane. Finally there is reference to the platform. In theatre this is usually the stage, as separated form the audience. Boal however moves beyond the actors and spectators as physically separated on auditorium and stage.
What is important to Boal is the act of separation rather than the form of two physically separate spaces. He says ‘The separation of spaces can occur without the ‘platform’ existing as as an actual object. All that is required is that, within the bounds of a certain space, spectators and actors designate a more restricted space as a ‘stage’,: an aesthetic space’.1 By this he says ‘In its greek root ‘aesthetic’ means ‘of or pertaining to things perceptible by the senses’’. Boal goes on ’So theatre does not exist in the objectivity of bricks and mortar, sets and costumes, but in the subjectivity of those who practice it’. He establishes theatre can take place anywhere you want it too. I chose a beach.
Boal continues ‘The ‘theatre (or ‘platform’, at it’s simplest, or ‘aesthetic’ space’, at it’s purest) serves as a means of separating actor from spectator; the one who acts from the one who observes. Actor and spectator can be two different people; they can also coincide in the same person.’ (Boal’s italicisation). The individual performer is witness to their own performance in real time and retrospectively.
Boal says ‘The aesthetic space possesses gnoseological properties, that is, properties which stimulate knowledge and discovery, cognition and recognition; properties which stimulate the process of learning by experience. Theatre is a form of knowledge.’ Here he describes theatre and performance as experiential learning. But away from the confines of theatre as a building with a stage, as a state of entering aesthetic space as a form ‘in the subjectivity of those who practice it.’ then theatre and performance as separation between actor and spectator, could be seen as having occured when I made the beach a stage, an aesthetic space, in which I was both spectator and actor. This is reflective practice.
My reflection, or my ‘review’ was live in the doing and the senses, direct in my direct recollection of the experience, reviewed by the witnessing of the camera and my seeing and editing the footage, in the production of the gps track, as a direct reflection of how I recreated an image of an idea, and how I deviated and moved form representation to improvisation. I witnessed myself in performance. Now you witness what came form my performance.
Boal offers one perspective, and there are other perspectives from other arts and performance theorists and practitioners, but in my reflection, reconnecting with Boal’s idea of aesthetic space resonated with my experience of going from walking an image of an idea to making the beach a place to improvise or perform a new image of an idea. He goes on to further develop the idea of the aesthetic space which offers some interesting insights.
He talks about how aesthetic space has a property of plasticity. It can can be anything we want it to be. ‘A battered old chair will be the kings thrown, the branch of a tree a forest…’ The Solway beach became a canvas to draw an image of an idea, then it became a stage on which to choreograph a dance with a piece of seaweed. Boal says ‘The aesthetic space liberates memory and imagination’.
He also says it offers an affective and oneiric dimension which ‘exist only in the mind of the subject… The affective dimension fills the aesthetic space with new significations and awakens in each observer, in divers forms and intensities, emotions, sensations and thoughts’. In the affective dimension the performer is in the moment and observing them self in the moment, they become spectator and actor. The affective dimension is ambiguous and dichotomatic. I think this is the bit that makes reflection on experience in situ available.
Boal goes on to say ‘Oneiric space is not dichotomous because in dreaming, we loose our consciousness of the physical space in which we the dreamers, are dreaming, here she penetrates into her own projections, she passes through the looking glass; everything merges and mixes together, anything is possible’. Which is why at the end of the walk/dance/performance I knew something had happened, but only on reflection at home did this thing that happened decompress. The act of making images of the experience helped with this. I think this aspect is the bit that makes, in the words of Monet and Rothko, the art the experience. The art form becomes a form of knowledge. The art making is research with the art made is the process and product of research.
The dichotomy of the experience is a key element. Of dichotomy Boal says ‘ This property is born out of the fact that we are dealing within a space within a space; two spaces occupy the same space at the same time.. And all those who penetrate it become dichotomous there.’ As a member of the audience watching Macbeth, I am in the auditorium and also on a heath, there to meet Macbeth. As a walker on the beach, I was on the beach but also on a canvas to paint a picture, then on a stage to do a dance. On a ropes course I am safely moving over a step across, but I am also a person who fears that may fall to their death. I want to return to dichotomy in my next posting, but from the point of view of the art object in fine art.
As a therapist Boal also talks about the effect of the dichotomy on the protagonist actor in the aesthetic space. In theatrical mode, he says, ‘..the protagonist-actor produces thoughts and releases emotions and sentiments which.. Belong to the character, that is to say, someone else.’ In therapeutic mode ‘..the protagonist-patient (the patient-actor) reproduces her own thoughts and releases anew her own emotions and sentiments.’ In the case of my Solway walk, the beach was the aesthetic space and the work done was partly about my material I brought, ie the image of an idea, but also my experience of the place as an active participant as art form and process. In all of my work and ideas about art as a form of experiential leaning, the approach is much closer to the therapeutic mode. From experience I have found this sets the whole mode of working with art appart from ideas and practices found in ‘The Arts’ or ‘Fine Art’.
Finally Boal talks about the aesthetic space as being telemicroscopic. ‘In creating the stage-auditorium division, we transform the stage into a place where everything acquires new dimensions, becomes magnified, as under a powerful microscope, thus brought closer and made larger, human actions can be better observed.’
Boal as a therapist and social activist has a good deal to say about how theatre and performance can enable spect/actors to reflect on their own experience and ‘..help the spect/actor transform himself into a protagonist of the dramatic action and rehearse alternatives for his situation so that he may then be able to extrapolate into his real life the actions he has rehearsed in the practice of theatre’.
In moving from representation of an image of an idea to improvisation of a new image and thus a new idea I believe the Solway walk did this for me. The dichotomy or ambiguity in the experience invited me to ‘rehearse alternatives for the situation’. This is a creative act, it is experiential learning, it is adventure. Creativity is a state of uncertain outcome. The journey of uncertain outcome is built on ambiguity. Art is adventure, and whilst misadventure was absent here, it is present in some arts practices and, if I got my tide times wrong, the Solway is a dangerous place. My suggestion is that art making can be an inner adventure or an outer adventure. This is a thing I will discuss elsewhere.
The key themes in this are 1) that performance is an invention of experience not place 2) and as such, by being dichotomous and ambiguous, offers scope for new experiences, and 3) the performance or art made is not just a representation or symbol of experience, it is the experience, and 4) the performance or art made can be understood as research and knowledge of personal experience. This, alongside other modes of understanding experience, offers some unexpected dividends.
Performer, Iggy Pop on a beach talking to someone about curiosity.
In further posts the ideas of performance and art making as a transformational experiential process will be further developed. But a key theme is that this experiential process is dichotomous, subjective, situational, emergent and multi-dimensional, and no single account can describe it in complete and concrete terms and working through direct expression of my own and other peoples working practice is the best way to do this. What I present is art making as adventure, the journey and not the destination.
- ‘The Rainbow of Desire’ by Augusto Boal ↩︎