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  • Acting “at the nerve ends”: Beckett, Blau, and the Necessary
  • Phillip B. Zarrilli and Jenny Kaminer (bio)

Thought of everything? . . .Forgotten nothing?. . .

—Samuel Beckett, Eh Joe

As we well know, it’s the simple that complicates.

—Herbert Blau, Take Up the Bodies

As Herbert Blau describes them, both the process of acting and the works of Samuel Beckett “stink most of mortality” (Take Up 83). The “stink of mortality” in performing Beckett’s plays derives both from their contrapuntal turns of thought, and in the excruciatingly difficult process of embodiment required of the actor. One way of describing these demands is that the actor’s bodymind is precariously counterpoised and counterbalanced “on the edge of a breath” (Blau, Take Up 86). Acting Beckett highlights those moments of necessary “suspension” always present in acting, as the actor rides the breath/thought/action—that moment where the possibility of failure is palpable. It is in that moment of possible failure that perceiving consciousness (or “action”) bodies forth because it “must.” Beckett and Blau require of the actor an unremitting attention to engaging “the necessary”—the “consciousness that it must be seen, what would make the word come even if there were no breath” (Blau, Take Up 86).

This essay focuses on the “stink of mortality” required of actors performing the plays of Beckett, and why and how I require graduate and undergraduate student actors to work on the plays of Beckett in order to encounter this “necessary.” As Director of the Asian/Experimental Theatre Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, each year I take a group of graduate MFA and undergraduate BA acting students through a year-long process of psychophysiological training. As I have explained in detail elsewhere (Acting (Re)Considered; Asian Martial Arts), the students undergo intensive daily training in martial and related arts which (ideally) attune their bodyminds to an intuitive ability to “stand still while not standing still.” They apply this awareness to improvisatory movement and sensory exercises, and eventually to Beckett’s Act Without Words I. Each year’s work culminates in a full production project performed for the public. [End Page 103]

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Figure 1.

Act Without Words I performed as a group choreography with four protagonists. From left to right: Jason Bohan, Peder Melhuse, Jeff Morrison, and Dan Crozier. Using black umbrellas held by onstage attendants, each casts “a circle of shadow.” The protagonist “continues to reflect” when there is a “Whistle from above.” Here, each protagonist “turns, sees tree . . .” Photo: Phillip B. Zarrilli.

In 1994–95, the year-long project began with our daily psychophysiological training focusing on the breath and “internal action,” which laid the foundation for a month-long residency by noted actress Billie Whitelaw, who took students through her “journey with Samuel Beckett.” 1 Whitelaw’s workshop reinforced an approach to Beckett based on formulating metaphors of action that give the actor a map of the psychophysiological territory they enter when performing certain Beckett plays. The project culminated in a five-week intensive period of rehearsals and performances of eight shorter Beckett plays, performed in two separate programs in four locations within the same building (the Hemsley Theatre—Act Without Words I (see fig. 1), Rough for Radio I, Footfalls, and What Where; a fully-equipped television studio—Eh Joe; the theatre scene shop—Play; and a classroom transformed into a white, cloth environment—Ohio Impromptu and Come and Go). The project involved thirteen graduate and undergraduate actors, four student designers, and four MA/PhD students, each of whom directed one play, while I directed three (Act Without Words I as an ensemble choreography, Eh Joe, and Ohio Impromptu). Comments by actors on the process of working on Beckett included in this essay were written as part of their culminating reflections on their acting process through the martial/meditation arts and Beckett. [End Page 104]

Foundations for “the Necessary”

Discovering what is “necessary” in the performative moment is not a decision of the mind, but one of learning how to embody a sedimented decisiveness in space, through time. One path toward that process is working with a discovery of the bodymind’s relationship to...