Terence Smith
Mike Miller
Teaching Skills for Actors
September 2002

"The purpose of drama is not to define thought
but to provoke it"

My first instinct was to respond to this statement as though it addressed the purpose of theatre and to recall the myriad of theatrical projects that have attempted to impact on more than an audience’s thought processes — the labour-enhancing biomechanics of the Soviets, the problem-solving forums of Boal, the community-enhancing dynamics of 7:84 or Welfare State, theatre for development in Asia and Africa, the theatre-as-organ-of-mass-communication in the living newspapers of the Blue Blouse agit-prop performances, or the nation-building celebrations of all kinds of mass spectacles. This, though, would be to evade the object of a response, which I understood to be to consider how theatre impacts on our thought-processes. So I recalled Artaud’s similar-sounding musings in "Oriental and Occidental Theater," in which he wonders whether the visual, aural and somatogenetic "language" of the mise en scène "can claim the same intellectual efficacy as the spoken language . . . whether it has the power not to define thoughts but to cause thinking." Following this train of thought through, I wanted to argue that the "definition" of thought that occurs within a work of art is fundamentally different from that which conceptual thinking achieves. The philosopher Theodore Adorno suggests that "[a]esthetic identity . . . assist[s] the non-identical in its struggle against the repressive identification compulsion that rules the outside world." This means that the "thought" contained within a work of art is of a different kind to the conceptualisations that our reflection on that work may provoke. In defining one kind of thought, theatre may provoke another. Though this is all well and good, it fails to contact my own needs at present, which are not so much concerned with thinking through how theatre works and of what its value might consist, but more to do with how I understand the purpose of teaching others about theatre. Within a critical context, the distinction between drama and theatre is delineated along the lines of the written text on the one hand and performance on the other. Within a pedagogical context, however, "drama" has come to mean the kind of self-expressive and inter-personal, explorative processes of which British compulsory education of the subject largely consists, while "theatre" refers to the study of plays and theatrical technique. It is in this latter sense of the term "drama" that I would like to respond to the statement.

Is it possible to provoke thought without defining it? Such an enterprise would seem to assume that students’ experience of drama and of cultural activity at large prior to undertaking a course of study provides a sufficient framework within which they may contextualise discoveries made during a class. I hear in this an implied desire to avoid imposing limitations--formed through an exposure to definitions that provide a vocabulary for understanding drama, theatre and performance--on the students’ spontaneous, lateral creativity. Perhaps we might detect here the legacy of the attitudes of certain twentieth-century experimental artistic endeavours, in which innovation ‘from scratch’ was valorised over a dialogue with traditional forms of dramatic activity and critical conceptualisation. Of course, in our present context, these attitudes and endeavours themselves are part of the latter. The framework of understanding with which a student begins a course of study, however, is likely to be derived largely from their experience of the mass-media and the predominance of forms of drama utilised by Hollywood cinema and, to a lesser extent, the commercial theatre. I’d suggest that such a framework is likely, therefore, to be stereotypically conventional and packed full of unexamined artistic, cultural and ideological assumptions. While we would undoubtedly wish to provoke students’ thought into considering areas of aesthetic experience outside of this kind of conventional framework, in the absence of a shared, defined vocabulary for contextualising such discoveries, they may have difficulty relating their new-found experience within the workshop to that which they will encounter outside of its walls. I believe that this is particularly true for those students who intend to work within the theatre professionally. It can be difficult to see the relevance of the vast majority of the most interesting and unconventional work encountered within a drama school or university department on leaving it and finding oneself participating in commercial theatre and television. As in the pictures of Gestalt psychology, the figure of an innovative artistic form or process requires the ground of a defined field from which it may emerge (and this is true for the less-than-innovative ones as well). Without this, there is a danger that the discoveries remain isolated dots in a chaotic swirl of unconnected and irrelevant experience.

One way of describing my response, then, would be to say that I would want to insist on a more dialectical understanding of the relationship between defining thought and provoking it — that is, that the terms of the statement’s opposition are implicated within one another without being identical. Marx says somewhere in his Grundrisse (though I can’t find the quote off-hand) something to the effect that one has to draw a line in order to cross it. Providing students with definitions of thought about drama may be a means to the end of provoking it and, conversely, provoking student’s thought should be a means to the end of their arriving at their own definitions and understanding of drama. Edward de Bono, whose work is paradigmatic of a creative approach to thinking, insists that in order to generate thought, we need to direct it in certain ways; one way of doing this, he suggests, is through the adoption of strictly-defined "thinking hats" in a spirit of role-playing. I do not mean to suggest that the purpose of teaching drama should be the communication of a pre-established datum of critical terms. It’s more like that which Brecht describes as the "not … but" element in the actor’s work, where one establishes what something is in relation to and by means of establishing what it is not; or better perhaps is thinking about what is known more generally in actor training as "decidedness": defining an action does not preclude creative, lateral choices — rather, it is their essential foundation. Without decidedness, an actor’s performance remains disparate and vague.

The resolution of such a dialectic turns on the issue of empowerment within our pedagogical approach. It is entirely possible that defining a field of possibility might limit students’ responses to remaining within the confines of that field — it all depends on the attitude towards the field with which a student is invited to approach it. Again, I think of the dramaturgical technique of Brecht: presenting an action in such a way that one invites the audience to compare it with their own experience outside of the theatre, rather than remaining within the confines of the dramatic reality. A defined dramatic vocabulary may be presented in a manner that is either liturgical ("this is what I think, you must too") or dialogical ("this is what I think, how about you?") — it all depends on the how. Perhaps, though, an invitation is not enough — one must discover the tools that will enable students to accept it.