25 September 2013

Acting: Testimony & Role vs. Character

[When I was shadowing Leonardo Shapiro, the late innovative and experimental theater director, while he was directing and teaching, and interviewing him about his work, I learned that among his company’s most important acting techniques were what he called “testimony” and the distinction of what he designated “role” versus “character.”  Along with the actor-audience relationship and “real-time” performance, these were the hallmarks of the art of the Shaliko Company, the troupe he founded and ran in New York City’s East Village.  (I’ve drawn on my research on Leo Shapiro for a number of ROT posts since the blog’s inception; see, for example, “Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos),” 5 August 2009; “Cheerleaders of the Revolution,” 31 October 2009; “Brother, You’re Next,” 26 January 2010; “New York Free Theater,” 4 April 2010; “War Carnival,” 13 May 2010; “‘As It Is In Heaven,’” 25 March 2011; and “‘Two Thousand Years of Stony Sleep,’” an early piece of writing by Shapiro himself, 7 May 2011.  Many other blog articles were derived from reading, experiences, or discussions that came out of my work with Leo.)]

Avant-garde stage director Leonardo Shapiro, founder and director of the Shaliko Company from 1971 to 1993, developed an idiosyncratic acting technique of which he said: “I set out to synthesize what I'd learned from Brecht and Grotowski—to combine the personal, confessional will of the actor with Brecht's idea of telling the useful truth to the audience and . . . structure content in such a way that it is activating to an audience.”  In concert with the impact of Brecht’s Epic-theater acting, Shapiro applied his interpretation of one element of Grotowskian theory: “the prophetic, personal, confessional function of the artist.”  Shapiro sought a “strong, personal commitment of the actor and that full use of the actor with the emphasis on the audience—with Brecht’s emphasis on what you’re saying and how you’re saying it to the audience. . . . .  That’s what the company was absolutely about—finding that synthesis.”  This gave birth to “testimony” and the director’s emphasis on “role” over “character.”

Shapiro’s idea of testimony was very much embodied in the notions of the real-time event and the direct communication between actor and spectator.  If the actors present themselves as people like the spectators, doing actual things in real time, then, the director hoped, the audience would become part of the event by making connections between actions that previously appeared unrelated.  (Shapiro defined the “real-time event” as simply what actually happens at a performance while the audience is in the room.  It was the fourth leg of the Shapiro-Shaliko artistic platform; “the primacy of the audience/actor relationship” was the third.)  In The Yellow House (1986), Shapiro explained, testimony was “using Van Gogh’s words without pretending to be him; to talk directly one-to-one, actor to audience” not simply to present a play, a fictional story, but to use the text as a way to communicate with the spectators, to concentrate “on the interaction between actor and audience.”  One of Shapiro’s most important theater principles, he related it to Bertolt Brecht, explaining that it regularly interrupted the fiction “to make all the people equally real and present; to keep applying the present situation in the room to the story being acted out.”  It’s certainly connected, too, to one of the basic lessons Jerzy Grotowski inculcated in his students at the New York University workshop in which Shapiro participated in 1967.  (See “‘The Stone in the Soup’ – Excerpts” by Tom Crawley, on ROT 14 and 17 April 2011.)  “The first principle,” the Polish director explained to the young actors, “is the use of the person, the use of yourself.  The actor should concentrate on what he, the actor, is personally revealing or displaying.  The first consideration is the personal experience, the life and energies of the actor himself.”

The Yellow House, Shapiro’s consideration of Vincent van Gogh, was Shaliko’s first deliberate experiment with testimony, though it figured in previous works such as The Measures Taken (1974), Brecht’s 1930 Lehrstück in which the debate with the audience actually took verbal form; Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck (1976); and, especially, Andrea Dunbar’s The Arbor (1983).  While testimony started in The Yellow House mostly as direct address to the audience, it appeared afterwards in subtler forms.  In Strangers (1990), for instance, there was little direct address in the literal sense, but the whole piece, nearly all of whose text was first-person, was testimony. 

Building on the established Shaliko technique of inquiry, and inspired by van Gogh’s own “testimony,” as Shapiro saw it in the painter’s work and letters, the director intended Yellow House to consider courage and the artist’s struggle to find a role in society.  Describing one moment in the performance, Shapiro explained: “[T]he actors address the audience directly as themselves—using Vincent’s words (about his struggle to discover an honest, effective, creative role in society) but speaking for themselves as actors, artists and citizens . . . .”  The technique, in simplistic terms, is akin to Stanislavskian acting except that instead of finding elements of the characters in themselves, the actors make personal connections to aspects of the role.  This technique is combined with the Brechtian practice of commentary and criticism, as illustrated in Brecht’s description of Charles Laughton’s acting in Galileo. 
This principle—that the actor appears on the stage in a double role, as Laughton and as Galileo; that the showman Laughton does not disappear in the Galileo whom he is showing . . .—comes to mean simply that the tangible, matter-of-fact process is no longer hidden behind a veil; that Laughton is actually there, standing on the stage and showing us what he imagines Galileo to have been.  Of course the audience would not forget Laughton if he attempted the full change of personality, in that they would admire him for it; but they would in that case miss his own opinions and sensations . . . .

Of course, since Shapiro didn’t give them character notes, the actors had to fill the outer frames themselves.  In notes for a pep talk intended for the cast of Karen Malpede’s Blue Heaven (1992), Shapiro explained how he expected his actors to fill the shapes he created with them: “cross document our lives with [the] characters’ lives, our props with theirs, our gestures with theirs, our voices with theirs,” so the actors would speak of themselves through the dialogue.  (In my mind, this is a delicate, highly complex and selective application of what Uta Hagen called “substitution.”)  In this way, testimony was accomplished without direct address to the audience.

For Shapiro, testimony wasn’t just sharing information—which, he acknowledged could also be seen as testimony—but something more “important” and “personal,” in the vein of poets Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, and Robert Lowell.  Shapiro, in fact, compared it to the testimony people give in church or court, “but with all the possible heightening, concentration, and economy that the theater traditionally uses for . . . fictional ends.”   Testimony “has to do with concentrating on the present tense and the interaction between the actors and the audience, and not concentrating on fiction,” Shapiro asserted, defining the technique as “simply the actor speaking directly to the audience about what matters to them both in that moment, in a way that can change that moment, change the world they live in.”

For his last production, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull with the Riverside Repertory Theatre Company of Albuquerque (1996), Shapiro described the rehearsal process for arriving at this kind of performance:

The touchstone is when you’re talking to the audience or me standing in for the audience, that level of communication is direct testimony.  When Shenoah [Allen, the actor who played Medvedyenko] says, “Tonight their souls [will mingle in art true to both of them],” he’s talking to us, he’s establishing the basic relationship of performances, human-human relationship, not character . . . .

Applying this principle to a role like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Grotowski taught that the actor’s “own creative work is not to reproduce” the persona devised by Shakespeare, “but to use this mythic creation for expressing himself, the actor’s own deeply-rooted self.”  All this is to be accomplished through the playwright’s text, of course. 

Actor Charlie Chaplin epitomized the kind of performative duality that Shapiro and Brecht (who both admired the film great) sought and which Joseph Chaikin, whom Shapiro directed in Woyzeck, described in The Presence of the Actor:

When we as actors are performing, we as persons are also present and the performance is a testimony of ourselves.  Each role, each work, each performance changes us as persons.  The actor doesn’t start out with answers about living—but with wordless questions about experience.

James Naremore, author of Acting in the Cinema, pointed out that Chaplin actually appeared habitually as three personae.  Aside from “himself,” a carefully constructed Charlie Chaplin persona that’s no more real than the roles he played, and the fictional character Chaplin played in the film (say, The Lone Prospector in 1925’s The Gold Rush), there was usually also a diegetic persona the film character assumed (in The Gold Rush again: explorer, waiter, valet, millionaire, dancer, and lover, among others).  In other words, Charles Spencer Chaplin played Charlie Chaplin (i.e., the Little Tramp), who played The Lone Prospector, who in turn played various roles as circumstances dictated.  These last three are simultaneously visible to the viewer of The Gold Rush.  While he didn’t portray a character with whom audiences could identify directly—no one was really like that Little Tramp, after all, as Vsevolod Meyerhold succinctly pointed out—he drew audiences into his world on both an emotional and intellectual level.  Indeed, Brecht wrote that were Chaplin to play Napoleon, he wouldn’t try to look like the emperor, but “would show objectively and critically how Napoleon would behave.”  The result is that in his films, Chaplin was clearly acting while at the same time “revealing the essence of his soul.”  Some Brechtian critics have called this “schizoid” acting—actors presenting simultaneously as both performers and persons.  In addition, Chaplin was able to address the audience directly in a way that further removed him from the realm of Realistic and Stanislavskian performance.

(The use of the word “schizoid” above to imply a split personality, in the sense of someone behaving like two different people, is clearly a misuse in terms of today’s understanding of schizophrenia.  Nonetheless, it’s the word used by certain Brechtian analysts to describe the presence of the actor as both a performer enacting a role and a person with opinions and responses.  The misuse of the term notwithstanding, the concept still applies.)

Because no “fourth wall” separated the actors and the audience at a Shaliko performance, testimony encouraged the spectators to enter into a debate about the character, the situation, and the actors’ takes on either or both.  In the Shaliko production of The Measures Taken, the company practiced this principle, showing the audience what they deemed the “most important point” and expecting the spectators to form opinions and even discuss it with one another outside the theater.  Indeed, The Measures Taken is, itself, a paradigm for Epic acting.  In the diegetic demonstration, the characters, functioning as actor-demonstrators, enact the events to which they were all witnesses or participants themselves.  They comment on the characters they depict—themselves, the Young Comrade, and all the other figures in the event—and their audience, both the diegetic one (the Control Council) and the spectators at Shaliko’s Measures Taken, judges and criticizes them instead of empathizing with them.  (Since the Shaliko actors in the production were also demonstrating their observations, there were, in fact, two levels of commentary for the theater audience to judge.)

Chaikin explained the technique with respect to Brecht: “In addition to [the actor’s] presence on the stage as the character in the given circumstances he is sharing with the audience a response to the character’s predicament.”  That response changes from moment to moment, shaping “the [inter]play between actor and audience” who are partners in the experience.   Both Grotowski, as noted, and Ryszard Cieślak, Grotowski’s leading actor, spoke of this, too.  “The subject of the performance,” declared Grotowski, “is this confession of the actor which occurs in the here and now,” while Cieślak stated that the actor must be stimulated “to reveal himself, to expose to everyone his inner being.”  Chaikin described Cieślak as the paradigm of this type of performance: “[T]here is no evidence of character in the former definition of motives and information.  His work is an articulation of a common human condition.  In every moment he seems aware that his ‘confession’ is something which applies to him but not only to him.”

In fact, Shapiro essentially eschewed “character” in the sense to which Chaikin referred.  He delineated the Shaliko approach to acting by describing the lessons he learned back at NYU’s School of the Arts:

First, make sense of the words; then find what your objective is and learn how to pursue it; and then find out who the character is and how to portray that.  From the beginning of our work as a company, I was never interested in that last part, character.  We just threw that out and made everything based on the other two, making sense and pursuing the objective.

Reflecting on Shaliko’s work on the Greek tragedies in Children of the Gods (1973), the director affirmed that he didn’t see Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Menelaus, Orestes, or Electra as characters, “but was fascinated by them as hereditary 3,000 year-old roles as fresh today as when their garments were first produced by exploited children laboring in Athenian sweat shops.”  For him, they were “[t]he greedy King, the unforgiving Queen, the sacrificed Virgin on the altar, the stormy Uncle, the wounded, disillusioned Young Hero, the Sister who has been unhinged by the thirst for revenge.”  Shapiro called this form of “role-play” “psychodrama.”

“Part of the conception of the actors’ job is role playing as opposed to character,” explained Shapiro, “playing the definition of their relationship with the audience and the story that is being told.”  By way of illustration, Shapiro said after the 1992 run of Mark Rozovsky’s Kafka: Father and Son that neither Franz nor Hermann, the writer’s father, were interesting to him.  For the director, both actors in the cast represented the same “character”: “The father is a voice inside the son” in a clash of creativity (“the son”) and repression (“the father”).  In The Yellow House, in which four actors played different aspects of one character, Vincent van Gogh (Young Vincent, the Painter, the Mirror, the Self-Portrait), Shapiro said that they each played a different role (the “blank page,” the artist, the self-image, the public image).  We can see in this technique a demonstration of fragmentary character that Shapiro used previously in The Measures Taken, with the way the Four Agitators each portrayed the Young Comrade, and again later in Strangers, in which actors played several characters while embodying the same role.  Brecht’s view of character in general is also discernible in Measures, as it is in his Man Is Man, a play that was very important to Shapiro, where Galy Gay abandons one character and adopts another when it becomes advantageous for him to do so—the same adjustment Shapiro and his collaborators depicted in Brother, You’re Next, a 1967 pre-Shaliko performance based on Man Is Man (described in an ROT post on 26 January 2010).  For Brecht, and therefore to Shapiro, character, on or off the stage, is a mutable, impermanent, and manipulable thing, not, as Stanislavsky taught, an inevitable consequence of psychological stimuli.

For the cast of The Seagull, Shapiro differentiated between “character” and “role”: “Character is something that’s fixed”—once the actor has chosen and set it.  “Role is something that opens.”  He told his Seagull cast, “I was never interested in these imaginary characters; they never existed.  I don’t care about them.  What I was interested in was YOU in these roles.”   He tied “character,” a fictional construct, to the psychological analysis Stanislavsky-trained actors use to delve into their parts, fixing their behavior through techniques such as affective (emotional) memory and sense memory that result in actors giving the same performance every time, ideally eliciting the same response from the audience at every performance.  The director saw this as a “screen between the actor and the audience, or the actor and another actor.”

Actors performing “roles,” in contrast, are in the “present tense,” performing their actions on stage, “open to what’s happening now” and “exploiting” the differences among audiences.  In this instance, the “characters” are determined by their actions, and the audience may draw conclusions about them.  This contrasts with actors who develop a character first, then present their actions as the unavoidable effects of that psychology, thus obviating spectator criticism.  Brecht posited that actions which are presented as the inevitable consequences of the characters’ mental make-ups cannot be criticized by the audience because the characters had no choice but to behave the way they did, but when the actors suggest all possible choices, as Shapiro wanted, the audience can criticize the actions that are selected. 

The kind of “character” work Shapiro was here disparaging is often filled with adjectives and descriptive, as opposed to active, language: Hamlet is “indecisive,” “confused,” “weak,” “unsure”; Lady Macbeth is “domineering,” “ambitious,” “ruthless,” and so on.  (Actors often call this “playing adjectives.”)  The kinds of actions (also called “objectives”) to which Shapiro was referring are expressed as transitive verbs, sometimes with direct objects but with a minimum of adverbs and adjectives, as in “to control” or “to find the murderer.”  The distinction’s not inconsequential: the former actor will be static and unchanging, the latter responsive and reactive.

In “On Acting and Not-Acting,” performance scholar Michael Kirby established a continuum of performative behavior that ranges from “not-acting” at one end to “acting” at the other.  Kirby, who defined acting as “to feign, to simulate, to represent, to impersonate,” also asserted that much contemporary performance was shifting toward not-acting, which he defined as “where the performer does nothing to feign, simulate, impersonate, and so forth.”  Shaliko’s acting was representative of a position closer to the acting end of the scale but without all the elements Kirby ascribed to “complex acting,” which would include, among other styles, Stanislavskian Realism and Method acting, where “more and more elements are incorporated into the pretense.”

Richard Kostelanetz, an artist, author, and critic who’s a passionate defender of the avant-garde, noted in The Theatre of Mixed Means about the kind of performance that’s paradigmatic of Shapiro’s type of theater:

In mixed-means theatre, the performers usually do not enact roles but carry out prescribed tasks.  Since these gestures and movements are, to varying degrees, less precisely programed than actors’ activities in theatrical drama, mixed-means performers, unlike actors, do not assume other personalities, but merely display their own.

What Kostelanetz, who used “role” in a sense closer to Shapiro’s “character” (as unfortunately many writers do), was describing fits roughly into Kirby’s performance continuum between “nonmatrixed representation” (“that condition in which the performer does not act and yet his costume [or other non-performance element] represents something or someone”) and “simple acting” (“in which only one element or dimension of acting is used”).  It most closely resembles a form of “received acting,” in which the performers behave as themselves while the performative aspects are projected by a very “strong, persistent” environment, especially masks, as Shapiro employed in Punch! (1987).  In the director’s application, however, there’s more manipulation on the parts of the actors.  This shouldn’t be confused, however, with what’s sometimes described as “transparent” acting, which may be seen as the ultimate Stanislavskian performance.  The transparent actor appears to be behaving naturally, as if in real life.  He or she is transparent because we don’t see the actor’s technique; we “see through” the actor to the character.  It’s the preferred type of acting of American film and found its culmination in the Method acting of Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio.  “Just being,” a description of transparent acting, wasn’t what Shapiro—or Brecht, for that matter—was aiming at.  Brecht named Charlie Chaplin as a paradigm of the Epic actor, but though Chaplin emulated everyday behavior on screen, he evinced a “theatrical eloquence, never using the transparent gestures of offstage communication.”  It’s this theatricality, or “ostensiveness,” that lets the audience know it’s watching a performance and generates the distance for it to observe and criticize the situation.  Ostensiveness, in James Naremore’s terms, “makes us more than usually aware that we are watching a performance.  . . . .  It is a deliberate ‘showing off’ rather than a transparent ‘being there’—a  toying with illusion that serves in part to heighten the viewer’s desire.”

“[A] lot of people are concerned with role as opposed to character in various ways,” Shapiro observed, though for him, the difference between playing a character and playing a role went further than merely pursuing actions on stage, whether transparently or ostensively.  “I think it’s . . . not making the fictional character of a plot the point of the theatrical event . . .,” he explained.  The director specified further: “Working my way, the basic elements of the scene might be the Boy, the Girl, the Moon, and the Audience, as opposed to another way of working which would be based on the specific characters Romeo and Juliet.”  In this, he wasn’t far from Aristotle, who relegated Character to a position inferior to Action.  Shapiro illustrated what he wanted by contrasting the 1986 British and 1988 American casts of Jim Cartwright’s Road, an environmental play set in the industrial north of England during the Thatcherite 1980s.  According to Shapiro, the American actors “very self-consciously had to work on the characters”—the fictive constructs—while their British counterparts “worked on the issues and the people”—their roles.  Shapiro felt of the British actors that “who they were shone through much larger, but without being self-conscious.”  He concluded that “all this work on self and character diminishes people, makes them smaller, makes them smaller than people are in extreme situations and moments.  People don’t make sense; people aren’t characters.”

In this oblique reference to Stanislavsky’s first acting text, An Actor Prepares, whose original Russian title translates as “The actor’s work on himself,” Shapiro was disparaging the technique by which actors develop characters by assembling aspects of themselves that fit, drawing on their pasts using remembered emotions and sensations—affective and sense memories—then ask themselves, ‘What would I do if I were in the character’s situation.’  (When I was taking acting classes from Stanislavsky-based teachers, I was admonished not to speak of the character as “he” and “him,” but always as “I” and “me” in order to reinforce the notion that I am the character.  Not only is this the opposite of the Brechtian actor’s approach, but as a playwright, Brecht often included the words “he said” or “she said” in his dialogue to reinforce this separation.)  This is known as the “Magic ‘If’” and Grotowski unequivocally instructed his 1967 workshop students not to employ it to identify with their characters, and Brecht insisted that this type of acting works by a kind of “hypnosis” whereby the actors “go into a trance and take the audience with them.”  This “bourgeois ‘psychologism,’” as Shapiro described it, does “more to stimulate illusions than to give experiences,” Brecht said, “more to intoxicate than to elevate, more to deceive than to illumine.”  The result is that “everybody feels” but “nobody learn[s] any lessons.”  “Brecht,” Shapiro maintained, “tried to depict everything with utmost clarity.  Every scene, every [bit of] dialogue comes out in sharp clearness.”

Playwright Mac Wellman, whose Whirligig Shapiro directed in 1989, insisted that the “meaningfulness” of a performance doesn’t depend on “a lot of antiquated rules” of Stanislavskian and Aristotelian drama and Shapiro wanted his actors to approach their work without such a psychological ruse.  Joseph Chaikin described this anti-Stanislavskian tactic: “I don’t start with myself saying ‘What would it be about for me?’ [but] ‘What is it about for this character?,’ which corresponds to something I can understand, which corresponds to something which is transmittable to the audience, which is part of the audience experience.”

In another illustration, Shapiro described the work Vanessa Redgrave did for her 1989 Broadway presentation of Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending.  He’d taken some students to a performance and they met with Redgrave.  She explained to the students that because her character’s father was an immigrant from Sicily, she researched Sicilian peasants.  Shapiro recounted that “she took them through an hour and a half of class analysis.”  Spotlighting Redgrave’s ostensiveness, he declared, “[I]t’s why she was so good”: 

She was playing all Sicilian peasants, a whole lost nation, you know?  That’s how she blew every American actor off that stage.  Because they were all playing what they had for breakfast, that Stanislavsky thing where the actor’s reality is all internal.  Her method isn’t less personal.  It isn’t less real, it isn’t less honest.  It’s just bigger.

Shapiro attributed the bigness he admired in Redgrave’s performance to a combination of a Grotowskian/testimonial “nakedness” and bravery.  The actress, Shapiro reported, stood on stage “totally exposed” because she did “[a]ll the things that you are not allowed to do, that are stupid” (namely, turning away from the audience and using a “thick,” “preposterous” Italian accent).  He concluded: “[I]t’s an incredible performance.  I wish that more experimental theater artists were willing to take the kind of risk” Redgrave took.

One important difference between Grotowskian acting and the more Brechtian style for which Shapiro aimed lies in precisely what the actors reveal.  Grotowski prohibited his actors not only from identifying with their characters—that is, pretending that the actor and the character are the same person—but also from demonstrating or showing anything that doesn’t spring from immediate and organic impulses.  Shapiro and Brecht both wanted their actors to find intellectual connections and, as Brecht put it quite literally, demonstrate the actions of the character.  What Shapiro expected his actors to reveal, therefore, was less an aspect of their inner selves than a commentary, a personal take, on the situation of the play and, by extension, the actual world beyond the theater.  This precisely echoes Bertolt Brecht’s own description of Epic acting:  “The actor doesn’t have to be the man he portrays.  He has to describe his character just as it would be described in a book” and Chaikin explained : “I must depict Woyzeck, tell about him, not be him.”  

It must be noted, therefore, that a focal aspect of Grotowskian acting which Shapiro didn’t espouse is one for which Cieślak was most renowned: “secular holiness.”  Grotowskian actors are to become instruments for revealing “the innermost core of our personality—in order to sacrifice it, expose it.”  It’s a nearly mystical experience for both the actor and the spectator.  While the Stanislavskian actor’s goal is to merge with the character, to understand his or her motivations and goals, the Grotowskian actor’s goal is to reveal what’s “most personal and closely guarded” within him- or herself.  The relation among the three types of actor has its counterpart in the way the theoreticians approached their audiences.  While Stanislavsky wanted his audience to feel and respond to the emotional experience communicated by the actor and Grotowski saw the shared experience as “shamanistic,” Shapiro rejected both approaches in favor of the Brechtian dialectic.  

Shapiro’s early training was Stanislavskian Realism as interpreted in Strasberg’s Method: the actor was expected to examine the character’s circumstances and personalize the emotional experience.  Shapiro, however, became more interested in the technique of demonstrating or showing, an essential aspect of Brechtian theater.  “Acting,” Shapiro noted, “becomes actually demonstrating the most important point about a situation that is presented to an audience.”  Brecht’s actors, too, were to refrain from “going over wholly” into the characters they were demonstrating; they were to remain “detached,” imitating behavior but still commenting on their characters, inviting criticism from the spectators.  This approach is illustrated, as I mentioned earlier, in Brecht’s characterization of Charles Laughton’s 1947 performance in Galileo (in which we note, too, Brecht’s implied disparagement of transparency).  We wouldn’t learn much from this “schizoid” performance about Laughton’s “innermost core” in Grotowskian terms, but we’d learn something about what Laughton thought of the character and his circumstances. 

It’s significant, both to Shapiro and to Brecht, that the actor’s opinions regarding the character need not be in sympathy with the character.  The actor must take sides, but it may be either with or against the character, or it may vary depending on what the character says or does.  It may even change from performance to performance, as illustrated in comments by actor Christopher McCann about The Measures Taken.  “Our attitude towards the thesis of the play changes from night to night . . .,” McCann recalled.  “Thus, some nights we think the young comrade should not die.  Other nights, we think he is a fool and should have been killed much earlier.” 

Now, compare the description of Laughton’s acting—in terms Brecht also used to praise Charlie Chaplin—with the way Shapiro spoke of the work of Robbie McCauley in Strangers, the Shaliko performance based on the story of a massive nuclear contamination in Goiania, Brazil, Shapiro used to investigate child abuse, societal alienation, homelessness, the technological subordination of more traditional cultures, and other similar issues.  McCauley portrayed, among other figures, Hedda Nussbaum, the battered wife of Joel Steinberg who beat their illegally adopted daughter, Lisa, to death, but, the director explained:

I don’t want Robbie to think about Hedda at all.  I want her to talk about her own life, about her life in New York as a black woman, about her relationship to the audience as she’s talking to them.

Shapiro’s theater, which he labeled environmental because he conceived his productions with the whole space in which they were to take place in mind, was supported by the four pillars I’ve mentioned, including the two performing techniques I’ve been discussing, plus the idea of the real-time event and the audience-actor relationship.  The director explained that

the point of environmental theater is simply its concentration on the reality of the actual transactions going on during the theatrical event—the complicated three-way meeting between audience, actors, and text which happens, each time uniquely, during the performance: those two or three hours when they are locked together in spiritual combat in a dark room. . . . .  The play itself—in its text, thematic content, etc.—is the key element of the equation: it provides the purpose of the transaction, and therefor[e] determines its form.

Those transactions with the audience are, of course, the consequence of the real-time event and testimony, both of which can only transpire when the actors perform their roles as Shapiro conceived the process.

[The sources for the quotations in this article are varied, ranging from published articles and books, interviews, videotapes, private conversations, and just about every other possible resource you can imagine.  For figures like Joseph Chaikin, Jerzy Grotowski, and Bertolt Brecht, I drew on their well-known works (i.e., The Presence of the Actor, Towards a Poor Theatre, and Brecht on Theatre) as well as others less familiar (e.g.: Brecht’s The Messingkauf Dialogues) and sources such as Margaret Croyden’s 1969 interview “Jerzy Grotowski” on CBS-TV’s Camera Three and “The Stone in the Soup” Thomas F. Crawley’s contemporaneous journal of Jerzy Grotowski’s first American workshop in 1967.  As for Shapiro, I interviewed him nine times, once in 1986 and the rest between 1991 and 1993; I have almost every article he published (including drafts), scores of letters (published and unpublished—and sometimes both), several videotapes, pages of notes of observations, including rehearsals and classes, and conversations, typescripts of plays and poems he’d written, and dozens of pages of his unfinished memoirs.  In any case, I can document all the quotations and paraphrases above—although some of the documentation leads back to sources that are unavailable publicly (or just so obscure that finding them outside my files would be difficult).  The same might be true of sources for even the well-known figures like Brecht and Grotowski.  If any reader, however, wants to know the source of a quotation, I’ll gladly supply it on request.

[In the interest of brevity, I didn’t describe each of the Shaliko productions I mentioned above, but almost all of Shapiro’s shows were reviewed in the mainstream press, including the New York Times and the Village Voice, as well as papers in other cities where the company performed (e.g.: Baltimore, St. Louis, Albuquerque—even Moscow and Edinburgh).  A few, like Strangers, which was a workshop, weren’t reviewed but were covered in other publications, both popular and academic.  I probably have the largest collection of Shapiro/Shaliko clippings anywhere except possibly Shapiro’s own records, deposited now in the archives of the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts—and I may still have documents he didn’t—but I almost certainly have the most complete collection of reviews and production coverage in existence, including many I know Shapiro either never knew about or had long forgotten!

[I knew Leonardo Shapiro for 11 years, having met him in Baltimore when I covered the International Theatre Institute’s 1986 Theatre of Nations, where the Shaliko Company brought The Yellow House.  I started writing about him and the Shaliko Company when Richard Schechner, editor of The Drama Review, asked me to profile the director and his company for the journal.  That article, “Shapiro and Shaliko: Techniques of Testimony,” appeared in TDR in the winter of 1993.  I also worked with Shapiro briefly on his 1991 anti-Gulf war performance collage, Collateral Damage: The Private Life of the New World Order (Meditations on the Wars), and on a potential staging of Strangers (which never happened).  Shapiro retired from New York theater in 1993 and moved to New Mexico, pursuing a dream he’d had since he first lived near Taos between 1969 and 1971, but was diagnosed with inoperable bladder cancer and died in 1997, two weeks after his 51st birthday.  At the 1 April memorial service held that year at the LaMaMa Annex (now named the Ellen Stewart Theatre), I spoke about his career and professional accomplishments.]

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