Tom Scholte’s Paper Proposal

“Black Box” Theatre: The Director as “Cybernetic Engineer”

In his 1978 book, Acting Power, Robert Cohen identified the essentially cybernetic nature of the actors work as codified in the principles established by Russian theatrical pioneer Konstantin Stanislavsky. Stanislavsky’s System is grounded in the idea that, for any given scene, each actor must choose an objective or intention demanding a specific response from another character (i.e. soliciting a declaration of love) which the actor pursues; all the while receiving feedback from the other character indicating whether or not he/she is getting closer to, or farther away from, achieving the intention in question and impacting his/her subsequent behaviour creating a process of circular causality. In the decades since Acting Power’s publication, the application of its insights has proven invaluable to me in my role as a trainer of actors and has engendered countless spontaneous performances of astonishing naturalness and believability in my classroom. At the same time, however, I have found myself frustrated by the ways in which the dominant modes of directing practice, with their emphasis on the clarification and ultimate “fixing” of a “performance score”, mitigate against the freshness and lifelike spark of truly cybernetic performance and deaden the actor’s work on its way from the classroom to the stage. To borrow the language of Deleuze and Guattari, the traditional director of Realist drama functions largely as a “territorializing” force par excellence whose raison d’etre is the cutting off of the “lines of flight” of improvisational openness and the reduction of the rhizomatic horizon of immanent freedom to the arborescent structure of transcendent authority. Or, to put it in Andrew Pickering’s terms, forsaking a rich “ontology of becoming” for one of “enframing.” In this paper, I will outline a radically alternative, and still-evolving, directing methodology which has, at its centre, the genuine engagement of the actor’s organism in the imaginary circumstances of the play which Stanislavsky called the “Third Being” and which the observer is meant to conceptualize as “character”, as a kind of living “Black Box” engaged in a collaborative series of experiments in second order cybernetics. The proposed rehearsal process seeks to establish a somewhat paradoxical equilibrium in which circular procedures (improvisations, followed by feedback, followed by further improvisations, etc.) are employed in the linear pursuit of an artistic goal (an engaging and coherent rendering of the play’s action/narrative) for which the precise details of manifestation are continually emergent and remain open to the fluctuations resulting from the cybernetic engagement of the actor/characters in performance. In the feedback/ discussion component of the process, the play is analyzed as a self-organizing system in a quest to accurately determine which “rules of interaction between its elements” (as Stuart Umpleby puts it, summarizing Ashby) would be necessary in order to generate the behaviour depicted and its eventual resolution in the stasis that is the plays conclusion. On their feet, the actors then test this analysis by exploring the text within these constraints employing the various “technologies of the self” developed within the Stanislavskian tradition in the manipulation of “inputs” and engaging in an improvisation in which each Third Being’s ultimate super-objective is the maintenance of homeostasis, all movements and gestures take place in the “state space” dictated by the play’s setting and ground plan and are subject to the “attractors” defined by the given circumstances and action of the play, and in which the timing and inflection of the play’s text when spoken are manifestations of Batesonian “transforms of difference” circulating through the assemblage; all resulting in an emergent “dance of agency”, co-created by the entire ensemble, that is the performance. The entire ensemble’s observations of this performance are then fed back into the next iteration in a repeating cycle up to, and including, the public run of the production. It is my hope that the development of this method will be of equal interest to theatrical practioners and cyberneticians. In my mind, there is considerable overlap between the two given that, through its incarnate modelling of living human systems, theatre, at its best, can indeed “hold as t’were the mirror up to nature” pointing to the kind of cybernetic interventions on the social level that might lead to a more just and healthy world.

Cybernetic traditions:

  • 7) Art; design; music; literature
  • 8) Neurobiology; consciousness studies

2 thoughts on “Tom Scholte’s Paper Proposal

  1. Ben Sweeting

    Looking forward to hearing more about this. Will you be able to show any videos of rehearsals/ performances? I think there may be some interesting overlaps with ideas in architecture.

    Also I would be interested to know what you thought of Gordon Pask’s work on the “Cybernetic Theatre” for Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood’s unbuilt Fun Palace. I only know a little about it but it always seems disappointing to me, whereas Pask’s installations, the Fun Palace itself and Price’s later Generator project are each much more theatrical and cybernetic…

  2. Tom Scholte

    Thanks for your comments, Ben. Pask’s experiments in “Cybernetic Theatre” are certainly interesting and informative however I am kind of pushing back at the notion that a theatre grounded in cybernetics needs to be completely novel art form. In some sense, this is part of a growing movement in Theatre Studies to rehabilitate the naturalist/realistic drama after the beating it has taken through the era of hard postmodernism. I believe that if we can transcend disputes about “truth and representation”, and simply view a play-text as a “description” (in the spirit of Maturana’s Biology of Cognition) of a world that is, indeed, out there, and which “perturbs” our sensory capacities, but that none of us have objective access to, we can each explore it for whatever epistemic value it might have for us; just as we would any description. What I hope to describe in this paper is a distinctly cybernetic approach to rehearsal and performance that can aid us in this exploration in a way that is not the usual act of “aesthetic seduction” on the part of the director but rather generates greater hermeneutic agency for the audience than is usual in the commercial theatre without abandoning “traditional” models of narrative coherence and continuity of “character.”


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