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Theatre Anthropology

THEATRE ANTHROPOLOGY
Eugenio Barba

 

Theatre Anthropology is the study of the performer's pre-expressive scenic behaviour which constitutes the basis of different genres, roles and personal or collective traditions.

 

In an organised performance situation the performer's physical and mental presence is modelled according to principles which are different from those applied in daily life. This extra-daily use of the body-mind is what is called technique.

 

The performer's different techniques can be conscious and codified or else unconscious but implicit in the use and repetition of a scenic practice. Transcultural analysis shows that it is possible to distinguish recurring principles in these techniques. The recurring principles, when applied to certain physiological factors - weight, balance, the position of the spinal column, the direction of the eyes in space - produce physical, pre-expressive tensions. These new tensions generate a different quality of energy, they render the body theatrically "decided", "alive", "believable" and manifest the performer's "presence", or scenic bios, attracting the spectator's attention "before" any form of message is transmitted. This "before" is of course logical and not chronological.

 

The pre-expressive layer constitutes the elementary level of organisation in theatre. The various levels of organisation are for the spectator and in the performance, inseparable and indistinguishable. They can only be separated by means of abstraction, in a situation of analytical research or during the technical work of composition done by the performer. The capacity to focus on the pre-expressive level makes possible the expansion of knowledge with immediate consequences both in the practical, professional, as well as in the historical and critical fields of work. Knowledge of the pre-expressive principles which govern the scenic bios can make it possible for one to learn to learn.

 

Theatre Anthropology is not concerned with the application of the paradigms of cultural anthropology to theatre and dance. It is not the study of the performative phenomena in those cultures which are traditionally studied by anthropologists, nor should Theatre Anthropology be confused with the anthropology of performance.

 

The performer's work fuses, in a single profile, three different aspects that relate to three distinct levels of organisation. The first aspect is individual, the second is common to all those who belong to the same performance genre and the third concerns all performers from every era and culture.

 

These three aspects are:

1) The performer's personality, her/his sensitivity, artistic intelligence, social persona: those characteristics which render the individual performer unique.
2) The particularity of the scenic tradition and the historical-cultural context through which the performer's unique personality manifests itself.
3) The uses of the body-mind according to extra-daily techniques in which transcultural recurring principles can be found. These recurring principles are defined by Theatre Anthropology as the field of pre-expressivity.

 

The first two aspects determine the transition from pre-expressivity to performing. The third is that which does not vary, underlying the various personal, stylistic and cultural differences. It is the scenic bios, the "biological" level of theatre, upon which different techniques and personal uses of the performer's presence and dynamism are founded.

 

Performance study has tended to prioritise theories and utopian ideas, neglecting the empirical approach. Theatre Anthropology directs its attention to this empirical territory in order to trace a path between the different techniques, aesthetics, genres and specialisations that deal with stage practice. It does not seek to fuse, accumulate or catalogue acting techniques. It seeks the elementary: the technique of techniques. On the one hand this is utopia. On the other, it is another way of saying learning to learn.

 

The first two aspects determine the transition from pre-expressivity to performance. The third is that which does not vary, underlying the various personal, stylistic and cultural differences. It is the scenic bios, the "biological" level of theatre, upon which different techniques and personal uses of the performer's presence and dynamism are founded.

 

Performance study has tended to prioritise theories and utopian ideas, neglecting the empirical approach. Theatre Anthropology directs its attention to this empirical territory in order to trace a path between the different techniques, aesthetics, genres and specialisations that deal with stage practice. It does not seek to fuse, accumulate or catalogue acting techniques. It seeks the elementary: the technique of techniques. On the one hand this is utopia. On the other, it is another way of saying "learning to learn".

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