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Contemporary Theatre Review, Vol. 17(1), 2007, 28 – 40 Towards a Platonic Paradigm of Performer Training: Michael Chekhov and Anatoly Vasiliev Jonathan Pitches In an interview in 1992, Michael Haerdter, the founding director of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, asked Anatoly Vasiliev to reflect on the paradigm shift heralded by the new millennium. Vasiliev made the following response: To judge by what is happening in Russia [. . .] art will go to the aristocracy, will become more philosophical; it will become estranged from the people, will produce images which don’t aim at establishing contacts. In other words, new ideas and thoughts will be formed and a new aesthetic situation created. And I think that Russia will be the starting point of this 1. Anatoly Vasiliev, process because there is a strong renaissance of the past.1 ‘Theatre as Monastic Community: An Interview with Anatolij Vasiliev’s comments are typically ambiguous. His predictions appear to Vassiliev Conducted be negative – the theatre art of the twenty-first century will be élitist, by Michael Haerdter’, Theaterschrif, 1 he tells us, it will appeal to a minority of aristocrats and will produce (1992), 46–78 (p. 72). work which is markedly removed from its audiences. Yet this osten- sibly pessimistic vision reflects closely the development of his own practice, a body of work and an approach to training which, over a decade later, is only just beginning to have critical attention paid to it beyond Russia. 2. Ibid., p. 46. As a self-declared ‘student of the student of Stanislavsky’,2 trained by Maria Knebel and Andrei Popov at GITIS (the State Institute of Dramatic Art) in the late 1960s, Vasiliev’s place in the Russian tradition of actor training is significant, for whilst he predicts that the renaissance of the Russian theatre lies in discovering the past, he is, along with Lev Dodin, Contemporary Theatre Review ISSN 1048-6801 print/ISSN 1477-2264 online Ó 2007 Taylor & Francis http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/10486800601096006 29 consistently credited with holding the keys to the Russian theatre’s future, not least for his establishment of a new, post-Stanislavskian system of actor training – the ludo technique. For this, he is accorded a place in Mitter and Shevtsova’s Fifty Key Directors (2005) and described by Birgit Beumers as ‘the founder of a new theatre which may be called verbal, conceptual, 3. ‘Anatoly Vasiliev’ in metaphysical or ritual’.3 Shomit Mitter and Of course, the Russian theatre has a long history of re-claiming the Maria Shevtsova (eds), Fifty Key Directors past in compiling a vision of the future, arguably more than most (London: Routledge, theatrical traditions. Meyerhold was notable for doing this when he 2005), pp. 190–195 (p. 193). creatively combined popular theatre forms with contemporary theories of industry in his system of biomechanics, and Stanislavsky’s own System drew on Aristotle as much as it did on Ribot and the nascent, twentieth- century science of psychology. In his interview, Vasiliev’s reference to the past is to a philosophy more ancient even than Aristotle’s, the clues to which lie in his prediction of an elite band of aristocrats and philosophers surveying the theatrical landscape – they might be called the governors of a Republic. He is consciously provoking us, it seems, to examine an anti-Aristotelian history of theatre, compelling us, through the starkness of his vision, to assess instead the validity of a Platonic theatre as a ‘new’ paradigm in performance. To examine this contention further, I want to juxtapose Vasiliev’s ludo theatre with the Michael Chekhov Technique. Beyond even Stanislavsky, 4. From an unpublished whose work, Vasiliev claims, he is actively ‘reconstructing’,4 Chekhov’s transcript of Vasiliev’s ideas are central to an understanding of Vasiliev’s theatre – as Martin International Workshop Festival Dewhirst, Vasiliev’s interpreter in Britain, quipped: ‘V [. . .] really digs Masterclass at the M. Chekhov’!5 Historically, this affinity is explained by the common Royal Scottish Academy of Music and figure of Maria Knebel (1898–1985), Vasiliev’s teacher. Knebel, of Drama (RSAMD), course, was a student herself before she taught at GITIS, studying with Glasgow, UK, 23–27 September 1996, Stanislavsky and, earlier, with Michael Chekhov in the very first laboratory translated by Martin that he led just after the Revolution in Moscow. Her teaching thus Dewhirst. constitutes a vital conduit, linking Chekhov’s creativity with Vasiliev’s. Philosophically, the two men’s connection is more complex and will 5. From an email correspondence with need elucidating here; Chekhov never makes his debt to Plato explicit Martin Dewhirst, 15 and his introduction to the ideas contained within the Socratic dia- June 2001. logues is oblique – through his mentor Rudolf Steiner. Nevertheless, by comparing Vasiliev and Chekhov, it should become evident in this article that both acting methodologies are rooted in a fundamen- tally different philosophical tradition from Stanislavsky’s System, one which reassembles the hierarchy of theatrical elements propounded by Aristotle. THE ACADEMY VERSUS THE LYCEUM Imagine for a moment that the two famous seats of learning founded by Plato (427–347 BC) and Aristotle (384–322 BC) – the Academy and the Lyceum respectively – were the ancient equivalents of an acting conservatoire today. What kind of actors would they have produced? Of course, the reflex response, at least in Plato’s case, may well be ‘stupid 30 question’! Plato is, after all, notorious for his condemnation of the mimetic arts in the Republic and for his banishment of the dramatic poet from his ideal state. ‘We can fairly take the poet and set him beside the painter’, Plato argues in Book 10 of the Republic, the Theory of Art: He resembles him both because his works have a low degree of truth and also because he deals with a low element in the mind. We are therefore 6. Plato, The Republic, quite right to refuse to admit him to a properly run state.6 trans. Desmond Lee (London: Penguin, 1987), p. 435. But Plato’s outright rejection of the dramatic arts (‘low’ because they stimulate the baser, emotional side of our character) should not exclude us from asking, in principle, what an actor might learn from Plato, particularly given the prominence for the next two millennia of Aristotle’s Poetics (c.330 BC) – the first extant piece of dramatic criticism. To help stimulate our imaginations, let’s assume that each proto- conservatoire was emblazoned with a metonymic image carved into the stone of the building’s portico. For Plato, this might have been his model 7. See, for example, the of the soul or psyche:7 a charioteer controlling two contrasting steeds, medallion-wearing bronze bust, described in Phaedrus.8 Here, the driver represents reason and the two attributed to animals – one cooperative, the other straining at the leash – signify spirit Donatello from 1440– and desire respectively. This model of the psyche is also reflected in the 50, depicting a winged chariot rider and two philosophy of the Republic: it is the higher faculty of reason which horses. controls the animal instinct of desire and which steers (not stirs) the spirit. 8. Plato, The Collected In his introduction to the Poetics, Kenneth McLeish offers us an Dialogues, Edith Hamilton and equally rich image of Aristotelian thinking, one which might have Huntington Cairns adorned the philosopher’s newly founded Lyceum: (eds) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 493. Universal order is like an embroidered cloth in which each stitch has its place; if one stitch is dropped or the cloth is torn, the whole is damaged 9. Aristotle, Poetics, trans. and must be repaired.9 Kenneth McLeish (London: Nick Hern Books, 1999), p. xi. This dropping of the stitch or tearing of the cloth is the Aristotelian notion of hamartia: a ‘falling short’ or ‘lapse from the ideal state 10. Ibid. of things’.10 By extension, tragic drama is underpinned by a fundamental tension, between logic and order, on the one hand, and the collapse or rupturing of that order, on the other. In the Poetics, Aristotle draws on his teacher, Plato’s, love of rational thinking. But he is far less suspi- cious of the results of this logic. In fact, he actively praises the results of a well-organised muthos in one of the most cited passages from Chapter 13: The best kinds of muthos for tragedy are not simple but complex, and are 11. Ibid., p. 17. devised to represent incidents which arouse pity and terror.11 These heightened emotions are not, for Aristotle, a dangerous manifestation of the ‘lowest’ kind of thinking, as Plato might claim, but simply a measure of a well-made play. 31 So, how might this translate into a contrasting model of classical actor training? The following schema may be illustrative: Plato Aristotle Academy Lyceum Forms Catharsis Intelligence (nous) Plot and Action Hidden and mystical truths Truth based on the senses Dreamer Realist As with all schematic representations of thought, much is lost here. The Platonic notion of Forms, for example, hails from the middle period of Plato’s writing and is questioned and problematised in later works, and the polarising of Aristotle and Plato (or more accurately of Aristotelian- ism and Platonism) clouds any common ground between student and tutor. But the table above does give us a starting point from which to construct a working idea of how a classical conservatoire might have operated and prepares the ground for an assessment of Vasiliev and Chekhov’s philosophical leanings, in contrast to Stanislavsky’s. THE ARISTOTELIAN ACTOR Although Aristotle does make observations on performance skills (for poets, actors and orators) in the Rhetoric, the key text for any would-be Lyceum-trained actor must be the Poetics. Granted, it is not an actor training manual and focuses instead on the origins and characteristics of tragic drama, but this has not stopped it being applied to the craft of acting, nor has it hindered the mainly formal analyses elucidated within its pages being interpreted from a performer’s perspective. Given Aristotle’s wider empiricist project, and his early scientific work in classification, his training system for actors would be rooted in the real world, a world based on observation and sense-perception. His overarching application and celebration of logic – expressed in the Poetics in his plot analyses – would be a central part of an actor’s work with (and without) text. Aristotle’s hierarchical classification of Tragedy – Plot (muthos), Character (ethos), Thought (dianoia), Diction (lexis), Song (melos) and Spectacle (opsis) – places a clear emphasis on the organisation of the dramatic material above all else. Coupled with his desire for order and logic, it follows that his actors would be trained in detailed textual analysis and given the tools to ‘make sense’ of the plot in logical terms, to establish some kind of closure: a resolution of the conflict caused by the protagonist’s hamartia or error. If there were improvisation-based techniques taught at his conservatoire, they too would be seen in the same context. As we have seen, Aristotle’s ideal theatre does not eschew emotion – even if it is looking to balance pity and terror in a cathartic reaction – and thus his actors, in realising the ideal muthos, must transfer the emotional charge of the play to their audience. On this point, Aristotle is clear: emotion should not arise from mere spectacle or rhetorical virtuosity but from the terror-inducing incidents themselves. 32 An actor’s task, then, working within such a form, would be to play through the organised series of actions without embellishment or deviation. In itself, there is nothing particularly surprising in this analysis but fantasising about the Lyceum as a conservatoire does point up spectacularly the affinity between Aristotelian thinking (as it is expressed in the Poetics) and the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Realist 12. This is not to say that school, specifically the training System of Stanislavsky:12 causal plotting, Stanislavsky was only mimesis based on the representation of reality, the primacy of action- to be associated with the Realist school. His based work derived from a close reading of text. Little wonder, then, that work in opera, Stanislavsky acknowledges this link in An Actor’s Work on Himself. symbolism, melodrama and Sharon Carnicke explains: seventeenth-century comedy is clear evidence of the scope Stanislavsky believes that action distinguishes drama from all the other arts, of his System. citing as proof Aristotle’s definition of tragedy as an ‘imitation of action’. Stanislavsky also invokes the etymology of drama from the Greek root, 13. Sharon Carnicke, dran, ‘to do’.13 ‘Stanislavsky’s System: Pathways for the Actor’, in Alison Although both Michael Chekhov and Anatoly Vasiliev publicly Hodge (ed.), recognise their debt to Stanislavsky, it is not a philosophical affinity they Twentieth Century Actor Training are acknowledging. In very different ways, their acting systems take us (London: Routledge, back to Plato’s Academy not Aristotle’s Lyceum. 2000), pp. 11–36 (p. 24). THE PLATONIC ACTOR Whilst Reason, Will and Feeling occupy an equal status as Inner Motive Forces in Stanislavsky’s System – ‘our art recognises all three types and in 14. Constantin their creative work all three forces play leading parts’14 – in the Platonic Stanislavsky, An Actor conservatoire Reason is the main driver, as the charioteer image tells us. Prepares, trans. Elizabeth Hapgood This is because of Plato’s deep-seated suspicion of emotion, fuelled in (London: Methuen, part by the death of his mentor Socrates, and his belief that the material 1980), p. 251. world is one of illusion and ignorance. He illustrates this belief in the Republic with his strikingly theatrical Simile of the Cave (Book 7), which constitutes an extension of his antipathetic opinion of Tragedy. Here, three levels of understanding are exemplified: the lowest, characterised by illusory imitations or shadows, the second level or the sensible realm, where objects are perceived by measurement, and the third, the realm of the Forms – where ‘real’ objects are perceived by only a few, 15. Viewed in conjunction philosophically enlightened individuals in abstraction.15 Plato uses a with Plato’s Divided symbolic language to illustrate these levels with the lowest one (eikasia) Line, there are in fact four levels to this represented by chained cave dwellers, forced to observe a shadow-play on taxonomy: A: the wall of the cave; the second level, (pistis) associated with direct Knowledge, B: Reason, C: Belief and D: Illusion perception, has one of the prisoners turn towards the fire and finally go (Plato, Republic, outside into the blinding light, and the third (connected to intelligence p. 461). Here, for simplicity’s sake, and or nous) is illustrated by the liberated prisoner gazing at the planets and following Nicholas P. ultimately the sun – the symbol of Good as well as of philosophical White, A Companion to enlightenment. Those able to do so, the elite thinkers of this utopia, are Plato’s Republic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, the ‘philosopher kings’ of Plato’s Republic. Importantly, they are charged 1979), p. 185, B þ C later with the responsibility of applying their knowledge and returning to are conflated. rule the ignorant cave population. 33 Applying this complex nexus of ideas and images to the craft of acting isn’t easy but just suppose Plato did not cast out the first cohort of actors from his conservatoire, before, at least, he had a chance to influence them in some way! The make up of his graduates would be significantly different from those emerging from the Lyceum. Firstly, with Reason or dianoia elevated to first place (from Aristotle’s third), the Platonic actor’s position is radically changed. This may manifest itself in the actor taking a demonstrably critical perspective on the text, its characters or him/ 16. Tony Gash has herself, in a conventionally Brechtian sense,16 or it might lead to a clear suggested that Brecht, shift in relationship to the audience: a dialogic rather than a cathartic Craig and Artaud are all working in the engagement. Second, Plato’s actors would develop a necessary suspicion tradition of Plato, if in of illusory emotions, perhaps even of the material world itself, and be very different ways. See Tony Gash, looking for a higher level of abstraction in their models of acting – not ‘Plato’s Theatre of the the shadow-like, first level of sense perception but a mystical quest for the Mind’, in Anthony Frost (ed.), Theatre underlying Form of things. Third (and given this Platonic demand for Theories from Plato to abstraction), the kind of work created by his graduates may reflect a Virtual Reality particular paring back of the conventions of the theatre: the creation, (Norwich: Pen and Inc, 2000), pp. 1–24 perhaps, of a richly metaphorical and minimalist stage picture, in keeping (p. 3). with the stark theatricality of the Cave and with the idea that the Platonist is more Dreamer than Realist. THE KNEBEL CONNECTION Before extending this analysis to Vasiliev and Chekhov’s own con- servatoires, or (more accurately) laboratories, it will be helpful to outline in brief one of the most significant biographical connections linking the two men. During Maria Knebel’s remarkable career, she experienced first hand some notable beginnings and some equally significant endings. Knebel was one of the first students to work in Chekhov’s acting studio, where the young Moscow Arts Theatre actor began to develop his pedagogy from 1918–21. Here, Chekhov taught his pupils the System of Stanislavsky, including an extended period of work on improvised études and, later, a series of evening presentations to an invited public. At all times, Stanislavsky’s teachings were filtered through Chekhov’s own specific individuality. As he notes in The Path of the Actor: I taught what I myself learned from working with Stanislavsky, what I learnt from Sulerzhitsky and Vakhtangov . . . Everything was refracted through my individual perception and was coloured by my personal 17. Michael Chekhov, The relationship to what I had perceived.17 Path of the Actor, trans. Simon Blaxland- Delange (London: Having tasted the beginnings of the Chekhov Technique, before it was Routledge, 2005), formalised into a curriculum in exile in Europe, Knebel then worked with p. 78. Stanislavsky directly and became known as one of his key interpreters in the last period of his life (1935–38). This was the period of Active Analysis, where, in Elena Polyakova’s words, the work developed beyond the ‘rather tedious ‘‘segment’’ approach’, and instead proposed: ‘a synoptic study of the play’s plot and characters followed by études . . . 34 18. Elena Polyakova, closely and concretely based on episodes in the play’.18 Unwittingly, Stanislavsky, trans. Liv Knebel had witnessed Chekhov’s first and Stanislavsky’s last contribu- Tudge (Moscow: Progress), p. 353. tions to the history of modern actor training. Thirty years later, in 1968, Knebel was witness to another beginning, as she and her colleague, Alexei Popov, taught Vasiliev the same method of Active Analysis, as part of the director’s programme at GITIS. She, later, was instrumental in launching Vasiliev’s postgraduate career, introducing him to Oleg Yefremov at the Moscow Arts Theatre (MAT) and ensuring that his work was supported. Exactly fifty years, then, separate Chekhov and Knebel’s playful experiments with the improvised étude form, and Vasiliev’s first Active Analysis class with Chekhov’s pupil. CHEKHOV AND VASILIEV But it is not just the figure of Knebel that allies the contemporary Muscovite director with Michael Chekhov. Both men ask profound questions of Stanislavsky, driven, in part by a common desire to challenge the linear determinism of his System, exemplified in the overarching principle of the supertask (zverkhzadacha). Vasiliev encourages his actors to reconstruct the supertask or superobjective of the play, re-directing it vertically (not horizontally) in order to establish a spiritual or ludo reading of the text; Chekhov asks his actors physically to embody the character’s main drive in archetypal form – what he calls the Psychological Gesture (PG). Driven by a common suspicion of emotion memory (one which Stanislavsky of course acquired too), Chekhov and Vasiliev have developed very different performance strategies to establish distance between the role and the actor and these will need examining in the current context. Furthermore, whilst Chekhov and Vasiliev have very different religious backgrounds (the former, an anthroposophist, the latter, a Russian Orthodox Christian), their spirituality is manifest in a desire to find another (higher) level of engagement with the text. For Vasiliev this means inculcating the spirit of Platonic enquiry in his actors; for Chekhov, it means the constant pursuit of the ‘ideal’ in theatre. CHEKHOV AND PLATO Once Chekhov had resigned as director of his acting laboratory in October 1921 and following Vakhtangov’s untimely death, he went on to take the lead role of Artistic Director at the Second Moscow Arts Theatre in 1923. MAT2 emerged from the famous First Studio – the ideas incubator for the System – where Chekhov, Boleslavsky, Vakhtangov and Sulerzhitsky developed the System in practice. But whilst Chekhov had spent many of his formative years with Boleslavsky and his colleagues at the First Studio, his internalising of the System brought about a sharply different set of principles. Much of this split – between what I have called the mechanistic and the Romantic branches of System-based training – is dealt with in detail in Science and the Stanislavsky Tradition of Acting (2005). But here it is enough to note 35 that the very different cultural and political context within which Chekhov was operating, coupled with his own personal mental crisis and his subsequent espousal of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, led him to a palpably different philosophy of actor training. For the sake of this article, Chekhov’s alternative basis for training the actor is best illustrated with reference to the following: the Higher Ego, Archetypes and the Psychological Gesture (PG). THE HIGHER EGO In On the Technique of Acting (1991), Chekhov opens his chapter on the Higher Ego with the following words: Our artistic nature has two aspects: one that is merely sufficient for our ordinary existence and another of a higher order that marshals the creative powers in us. By accepting the objective world of the imagination . . . [w]e 19. Michael Chekhov, On confront the Higher Ego.19 the Technique of Acting (London: Harper Perennial, Here, Chekhov is drawing directly on Rudolf Steiner’s teachings (from 1991), p. 15. Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment, specifically) and applying the notion of a divided personality to the actor’s work. He highlights four advantages of harnessing the Higher Ego: i) creative individuality, ii) separating Good from Evil, iii) recognising contempor- 20. Ibid., pp. 15–25. ary life, and iv) finding humour through objectivity.20 However, his embracing of the Higher Ego is first and foremost motivated by a personal need. Steiner offered him a way out of his own desperation, recorded so poignantly in The Path of the Actor, by encouraging him to develop an objective perspective on his personal predicament – his alcoholism, his fits of uncontrolled hilarity and the profound sense of malaise he felt as a result of dissatisfaction with the theatre. But although Chekhov’s primary source is Steiner, these ideas also chime, obliquely at least, with our imaginary Academy run by Plato. Chekhov’s distinction between the material world and the higher order, the sense that the objectivity of this perspective can help steer our potentially riotous creative powers, echo in some way Plato’s charioteer. Given the weight Steiner placed on Plato as a leading Mystic, and his clearly articulated belief that the philosopher, ‘had penetrated the 21. Rudolf Steiner, supersensible world’21 with his theories, this is perhaps not too surprising. Foundations of Importantly, though, Chekhov’s second-hand reading of Plato, through Human Experience (New York: Steiner, does not lead to a dispassionate application of Reason to the event Anthroposophic Press, but an unleashing of the ‘imagination’, Chekhov’s defining term. 1996), p. 66. ARCHETYPES AND THE PSYCHOLOGICAL GESTURE Such a reading of Chekhov is given greater weight when his notion of the PG is taken into account. Chekhov unconsciously borrows on a number of sources in assembling his definition of the PG: in part, it is an 36 adaptation of Steiner’s eurythmic mantra of ‘bringing the gesture into the word’, in part it owes a debt to Goethe’s Romantic Science and his 22. See my recent article: theory of Urphenomena, as I have argued elsewhere,22 and in the main, of ‘Is it all Going soft? course, it derives from his endless work with students in acting schools The Turning Point in Russian Actor across Europe and the States. But Goethe and Steiner’s influence on the Training’, New development of the PG indicates Chekhov’s ultimate philosophical Theatre Quarterly, 21:2 (May 2005), parentage, for both men are indebted to Plato’s theory of Forms, and to 108–117. the Classical philosopher’s view that at a higher level of abstraction there are universal archetypes which are the source of all material things. Chekhov first expresses this idea of the archetype in unpublished class 23. Interestingly, earlier notes from the Dartington Trust archive.23 Working with an actress than this, in 1925, playing Alina in Slowacki’s Balladina in October 1937, he makes the Chekhov himself is referred to by Andrei following point: Bely as lending an archetypal quality to the character of the If you have [the] archetype, you will find in it all possible original means of Senator in St expression. As long as we are in connection with the archetype, we are able Petersburg: as he sat, ‘aside everything to find original means of expression because the archetype always suggests somewhere in the the original and never clichés.24 realm of the archetype, like some cosmic figure’. See Chekhov, Later, in 1941, when Chekhov had moved to the States, he expanded Path, p. 215. on this idea in a class he was leading on the PG, this time appealing to an abstract form to make his point: 24. Dartington Trust Archive, 29 October 1937, Catalogue Ref Let us take the example of the triangle. How many kinds of triangle are No. MC/S4/10/C there in the world? But when we speak of a triangle, we understand that it is not a square. We have the archetype of the triangle in our mind. One exercise is to try to imagine all kinds of triangle at once – all the 25. Michael Chekhov, geometrical things at once. You will have become a triangle inside.25 Lessons to the Professional Actor (New York: Chekhov then extends his analysis to look at the archetype of the King Performing Arts and of the Father, stating that the archetype, rather like the PG, ‘does not Journal Publications, 1985), p. 112. take part visibly in my action – it is my own secret’.26 Chekhov’s PG operates in a similar way, as a mental morphology of the 26. Ibid., p. 113. character one is playing – either for the whole of the play or for specific moments. It is an image, or a Form in the Platonic sense, developed through physical improvisation work in the studio and then internalised and stored in the body memory of the performer. Once internalised, it can be drawn on and individualised constantly through the power of imagination, by working on Qualities of Action or Atmospheres, for example. But as such, the PG itself is operating at a higher level of abstraction than the individualised interpretations we see on stage – not quite the triangle of all triangles but the Treplev of all Treplevs internalised by the actor. VASILIEV AND PLATO Vasiliev’s debt to Plato is far more explicit than Michael Chekhov’s. Across the range of his practice, in his teaching, his laboratory work and his directing, Plato is a consistent reference point. He has staged Platonic 37 dialogues, including The Republic, drawn on Plato in his reformulation of the System, the ludo technique and, most importantly, integrated Platonic philosophy directly into the training of his actors. His School of Dramatic Art, founded in Moscow in 1987, is in a very real way, the twenty-first century manifestation of the Academy conservatoire. Describing his approach at a Masterclass in Glasgow in 1996, Vasiliev explained his motivation: In order for actors to act on a different level they have to go through a long schooling in philosophical texts. On Plato. And after a year or two they formulate their consciousness in a new way. They teach themselves to exist 27. Vasiliev, workshop on a new plane of feelings, on a new plane of experiences.27 transcript. Part of Vasiliev’s mission when his (generally more mature) actors begin to work with him, is to break down their received opinions about training and slowly to reconstruct their understanding of Stanislavsky. Vasiliev is adamant that the new recruits to his School of Dramatic Art must already be fully trained in the System but this foundation is consciously broken up, using Plato as the tool of demolition. THE MENO AS A TRAINING TOOL One of Vasiliev’s key sources for his work with actors is Plato’s Meno, dating from the same middle period as the Republic. In the Meno, Plato casts his beloved Socrates in a dialogue with a wealthy young aristocrat (Meno), pursuing amongst other things the question of whether know- ledge is acquired or a recollection from a previous incarnation. As a consequence, the immortality of the soul is debated and Socrates ‘proves’ the pre-existence of knowledge by questioning one of Meno’s slaves on the subject of geometry. It is this famous exchange between Socrates, Meno and the Slave which Vasiliev asks his actors to study in detail, in order to ‘formulate their consciousness in a new way’, as he puts it. The Meno is ideal for this, as one of its central themes is the challenging of blunt acceptance (or ignorance) and the inculcation in the Slave of a belief in the pursuit of individual understanding. Socrates does this by 28. Plato, Protagoras and ‘perplexing him and numbing him like the sting-ray’28 before continuing Meno, trans. W. K. C. his questioning in such a way as to encourage the slave to grasp the Guthrie (London: Penguin, 1956), abstract proof himself. p. 135. Vasiliev clearly sees himself as a modern day Socrates, developing his students’ capacity to see things at higher level of abstraction. In his masterclasses on text (almost always on Dostoyevskian text), this is evident in his highly theorised explication of what he calls the ludo system – his riposte to Stanislavsky. During a week-long workshop I attended on Dostoyevsky’s The Meek One (Krotkaya), Vasiliev explained how he distinguished between the two systems, effortlessly conflating the director’s and the audience’s perspective in the process: Let’s take The Seagull. If you choose the psychological system as a member of the audience I will experience the story of these people. If I direct The 38 Seagull and I use the ludo system I will observe the story but I will experience a story about these ideas – I will be an observer; I will 29. Vasiliev, workshop experience the story of the life of these ideas.29 transcript. Clearly, Vasiliev’s reading of Chekhov’s play is director-oriented but it does position Stanislavsky’s ‘psychological’ System as essentially empathic and character-centred. Vasiliev’s ludic approach, by contrast, is idea- centred: we are asked to engage with the ‘bigger’ questions (the function and role of art in society, for example) rather than with the domestic narrative of Treplev’s love-induced suicide. Image 1 details one page from Tony Graham’s working notebook of the masterclass and includes diagrams copied from Vasiliev’s flipchart which illustrate further the distinction between the psycho- logical and the ludo systems. As we can see from the top of the page, the ludo approach displaces the centre of the actor and re-sites the focus outside of the body – in the ‘universe’ of ideas not the psyche. Here, the parallel with Chekhov is very clear and indeed Vasiliev acknowledges it in Graham’s notes. There are similarities with Chekhov’s idea of the Imaginary Centre – which may, through the imagination of the actor, be moved all around the body and, indeed, Image 1 Notes from a working notebook of Anatoly Vasiliev’s 1996 Masterclass: the psychological system versus the ludo system. I am indebted to Tony Graham for his permission to reproduce this extract from his notebook here 39 outside, for a cerebral, airy character. More important, though, is the connection between Vasiliev’s ludo technique and Chekhov’s notion of the Higher Ego, already discussed above: both practitioners are looking for a mechanism to distance the actor from the personal, the material and the emotional. PASSIVE ANALYSIS What is also evident from Graham’s notes is that Vasiliev still maintains a line of analysis inspired by his teacher, Maria Knebel. Knebel, we recall, was credited with taking Stanislavsky’s last thoughts on Active Analysis and developing them with generations of actors and directors at GITIS. In essence, Active Analysis proposes a simple method: identifying two key moments in the dramatic text – the Initial or Inciting Event or IE (iskhodnoe sobytie) and the Main or Climactic Event or ME (osnovnoe sobytie). The IE is the action in the play that initiates the rest of the plot – the overall cause, if you will, of the play’s events. The ME is the culminating event, ‘one which resolves the through action’, as Carnicke, 30. Carnicke, quoting Knebel, puts it.30 This Active Analysis leads to an identification ‘Stanislavsky’s of the conflicting anatomy of the play, its points and counter-points, and System’, p. 28. through the use of improvised études, allows the actors to flesh out the play both corporeally and imaginatively. 31. For an illustration of But in his reconstruction of the System, Vasiliev subverts this structure this idea, taken from in his efforts to break up what he considers to be its linear determinism. Vasiliev’s workshop, see my Science and the His reading of Dostoyevsky’s Meek One, in the 1996 masterclass, posited Stanislavsky Tradition a reversal of the ME and IE, such that the actors involved would play the (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 183. text with a conscious prospective awareness of the ME.31 Suspicious of the emotional stimulus Active Analysis can have on a performer – the ignition of the ‘emotion’s logic’, as Bella Merlin 32. Bella Merlin, observes32 – Vasiliev proposes what might be called a Passive Analysis, in Konstantin his pursuit of distanced abstraction. Such an approach takes us back to his Stanislavsky (London: Routledge, 2003), interview with Haerdter in 1992, made before his programme for a ludo p. 143. theatre was formed. For it is precisely this kind of philosophical enquiry into Drama, drawing on Platonic ideals, which Vasiliev is now committed to, pursuing ‘a new aesthetic’ in Russian theatre, and, perhaps consciously, estranging those audiences, who are content to remain in 33. Vasiliev, ‘Theatre as the darkened cave of ignorance.33 Monastic Community’, p. 72. CONCLUSION Chekhov recorded his own vision of the future of theatre some sixty years earlier in The Path of the Actor, and it has much in common with Vasiliev’s. The ubiquitous style of Naturalism, he argued, is on a one-way course towards ever-gratuitous and sensational imagery. ‘A naturalism- dominated future in the theatre is a dismal prospect’, he argues: [It] will be compelled to seek out ever more fiery combinations of facts, combinations that are capable of having a greater effect on the nerves of an 40 audience . . . It will reach a point where it has to give a series of powerful sensations capable of arousing shock [. . .]. Scenes will appear on the stage of terrible forms of death, physical torments, bloody murders, soul shattering catastrophes, pathological and psychological disorders [. . .]. The legacy that Naturalism will leave behind will be a coarsened and nervously disordered audience that has lost its artistic taste and much time 34. Chekhov, Path, will be needed to restore it to health.34 pp. 42–43. This nightmare vision, so easily identifiable in much of our contemporary media, is one which Vasiliev wants to avoid through his search for a Platonic theatre and the dignified abstraction of the philo- sopher’s Theory of Forms. Fittingly, Plato’s term (Form, from the Greek: paradeigma) is the root of the word ‘paradigm’, the term often used to capture a new zeitgeist or way of seeing the world. But if postmodernism tells us anything, it is that nothing is new and that we must constantly re- contextualise and revitalise sometimes ancient ideas in response to the threat of increasing desensitisation. That, I believe, is the subtext of Vasiliev’s 1992 prophecy. We need to review what we mean by ‘contact’ in the twenty-first century, and continue to strive for the most exacting and challenging theatrical responses.