Theatrical Reality: Space, Embodiment and Empathy in Performance by Campbell Edinborough
Campbell Edinborough’s book takes seriously the embodied spectator, embedded in space, and the role she plays in constructing the theatrical experience. Theatre is a medium that has both material and imagined realities and Edinborough argues that it is the “interrelationship between different forms of space that enables the creative possibilities associated with theatrical performance” (10). Theatrical Reality integrates the work and theory of theatre artists Adolphe Appia, Constantin Stanislavsky, Bertolt Brecht, and Jerzy Grotowski into his analysis of contemporary performances that he has seen, such as Pep Bou’s Clar de Llunes (2008), Steve Paxton’s Magnesium, Marlon Brando’s performance in On the Waterfront (1954), Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof (1978), his own The History of Water (2013), Mammalian Diving Reflex’s Haircuts by Children (2006), and Michael Winterbottom’s film A Cock and Bull Story (2005), starring Steven Coogan. This strategy brings theory and practice together in some strong and weak ways, though Edinborough does, as he sets out to in the introduction, provoke me “into reconsidering how performers, spectators and spaces come together to establish theatrical realities” (5).
In chapter 2 and 3 he highlights the role Adolphe Appia played in the “cultural emergence of subjectivity” and how bodies generate empathy onstage. Appia’s work staged the relationship between the performer and space, requiring the spectator to co-construct the theatrical reality:
I contend that the foregrounding of the performer’s subjectivity, made possible in a particular historical moment, shaped new ways of understanding scenic space. The end of the nineteenth century witnessed an increasing theatrical focus on the interiority of the characters that peopled dramatic worlds, which in turn highlighted the importance of the performer’s embodied experience during rehearsal and performance.(27) [End Page 140]
His argument about interiority borrows from psychology as well as novels and rightly, I think, places Appia in this important historical moment where spectators were invited to perceive depth on the surface of characters. Although he mentions work done by Stanton Garner and Bert States, he sets them aside too quickly, arguing that their work is not sufficiently focused on performance. It would be helpful to know how he sees his work in conversation with phenomenology or others in theatre and performance scholarship integrating psychology, phenomenology, cognitive science, or affect theory into similar questions about reception and spectatorship.
Chapter 4, “Authentic Fictions: Truthful Behavior in Given Circumstances,” places the spectator front and center in his assessment of naturalistic acting, because of “the audience’s role as a co-constitutor of theatrical space” (61). Edinborough sees Stanislavski’s adage that there are no small parts, only small players as a requirement that each actor bring his “three-dimensional truth to his character” which will create a “cumulative empathetic potential for the spectator” (63). I do not question the power of a strong group of naturalistic actors living truthfully onstage, as Stanislavski demanded, but I do not know what exactly three-dimensional truth is or whether or not there is such a thing as cumulative empathy. Despite its inclusion in the subtitle and a brief mention of mirror neurons and work by Susan Leigh Foster, I remain unclear how Edinborough can be so sure how truthful behavior leads to greater empathy than fiction (or even what that means). “Authentic fictions” refers to his claim that “within Stanislavski’s method, the actor’s body becomes a site for the shared experience of authentic feeling” (64), and thus “authentic fictions” are when real bodies feel “authentically” onstage, creating an “empathetic bridge” between spectator and performer which allows the spectator to “reach towards the boundaries of the human imagination” (72). I am seduced and sympathetic to this claim and yet the book makes me hungry for a clearer explanation of exactly how this happens and how we know. Why do we think we empathize more with that which is “real” or “authentic” than the fictional or phony? I hesitate to reference text, but Hamlet’s emotional reaction to the player’s phony playing suggests a similar query. This question then is beautifully complicated by his argument at the end that the fourth wall helps the spectator feel with the character: it’s not a barrier but a kind of jointly-created veil of empathy.
Alienation, on the other hand, can also work to generate connection. In chapter 5, “Alienated Realities,” Edinborough explores the relationship between Brecht’s theory of alienation and Pina Bausch’s dance/theatre. He analyzes the physical extremes Bausch puts her dancers through and argues that watching, we feel the dancer’s distress, even if performed in the “relative safety of the theatrical artifice” (82). This then calls attention to our role as spectator and not [End Page 141] a participant who might have the option to stop such distress. In other words, “Alienation becomes a means of drawing attention to the lines that connect and separate human experience within the shared space of the theatre” (87). Spectators become aware of feeling with the dancer—being groped or shoved or falling—and also not being the dancer or even having the ability to intervene. The spectator’s role in the performance, Edinborough shows, is central to making sense of the power of its artistry.
In chapters 6 and 7, Edinborough leaves the space of the theatre and discusses immersive work and performance as a “mode of phenomenal engagement” (118). In alternate spaces, such as a museum or a pool, a performer, Edinborough avers, can be “both real and symbolic” and the spectator questions the interpretive protocols with which he is making sense of the performer. Chapter 6 starts with a rich discussion of “Grotowski’s theatre of encounter” and how this generates a kind of spectacular intimacy that can balance or compete with the kind of capitalistic spectacle articulated by Guy Debord. Grotowski’s paratheatre “demonstrates that a willing participant can train his perceptions to establish a theatrical or metaphorical sense of reality outside of the instrumentalizing of bodies and spaces associated with the world of appearances and spectacle” (111). This kind of perceptual “training” brings the spectator to the dramaturgic role she must play in the experience of immersive work such as Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man (2013). This kind of performance puts the spectator into the scenic reality and strains and stretches the conventions of performer, author, spectator. Edinborough smartly analyzes his own experience at The Drowned Man, wherein a character reached out to hold his hand and he suddenly felt himself both in and out of the drama: “As the actress held my hand, I wondered who I was supposed to be, which made me wonder who her character thought I was” (127). This “corporeal alienation” made it difficult for him to distinguish between theatrical reality and his own reality. These moments of contact across the theatrical spectacle, allows Punchdrunk to blur “the boundaries between the real and the represented in such a way that neither can be fully trusted. The intimacy of physical contact is placed in direct competition with the cognitive distance of spectatorial empathy” (128).
What he’s finding in the work of Punchdrunk is exciting and reaches toward a strong claim about the work being done in these encounters. Yet, I find myself questioning what that last sentence means. Are these moments “intimate” for all spectators? How can intimacy be in competition with empathy? What is the “cognitive distance of spectatorial empathy”? While I am open to the possibility that I am not smart enough to understand, I nonetheless long for a kind of explanation that can reach beyond those of us who have spent our lives in performance (and studying philosophy and cognitive science) and help all to make sense of the radical importance of these kinds of performances. How [End Page 142] does he know, for example, that Adrian Howells’s Footwashing for the Sole (2010) operates as a kind of “self-sacrifice”? Or that this “unnecessary act of intimacy can invoke a kind of transcendence in which both the performer and the spectator/participant are able to engage imaginatively with the broader transformative potential of their actions” (134)? These are the kinds of claims for theatre and performance that I love and share, but a book—particularly one that makes claims about embodiment and empathy and reality—should cleave a bit more closely to that which is supportable.
Nonetheless, there are smart discussions of really interesting performances— the pool, the “Haircuts by Children”—and I’m grateful for this exploration of where “theatrical reality” is right now. I was particularly persuaded by his discussion in chapter 8 of how “meta-reality in autobiographical theatre” leads to the possibility of “networked subjectivities” (151). He rightly attends to differing paradigms of reception in the experience of theatrical reality and gives important attention to ways in which contemporary performance is challenging and re-staging spectators.
Amy Cook is the author of Building Character: The Art and Science of Casting (University of Michigan Press 2018), Shakespearean Neuroplay: Reinvigorating the Study of Dramatic Texts and Performance through Cognitive Science (Palgrave Macmillan 2010), and co-editor (with Rhonda Blair) of Theatre, Performance and Cognition (Methuen 2016). Her next book, “Shakespearean Futures: Casting the Bodies of Tomorrow on Shakespeare’s Stages Today,” is under contract with the Elements Series of Cambridge Press. She is the Associate Dean for Research and Innovation and a Professor of English at Stony Brook University.