Academic journal article About Performance

Feudal Positions and the Pathology of Contentment: Sites of Disconnection for Australian Theatre Actors

Academic journal article About Performance

Feudal Positions and the Pathology of Contentment: Sites of Disconnection for Australian Theatre Actors

Article excerpt


This article surveys symbolic sites of disconnection and disenfranchisement of actors, while holding connection and enfranchisement as crucial to wellbeing, and so suggests potential threats to wellbeing across the breadth of the acting challenge. The research leans upon both general and specific proximities: the first is my more than thirty years of experience as a professional actor, acting teacher, and writer in the field; the second, a period of observation of actors in rehearsal for four diverse though mainstream theatre productions in Adelaide, South Australia, in 2012, and interviews with those actors.1

It is important to stress that the critical lens I bring to the work, and the theatre practice to which I apply it, are limited. They constitute what Clifford Geertz insists is "local knowledge" (1983, 67). I am mindful of what Philip Zarrilli calls the "historically diverse and often contradictory views of acting" (2008, 1), and of the narrow tranche of time, place and culture in which I work, and from which I report. Ethnography's purpose is seeded in its locality, its limits, and its depth. When the article appears to generalise, to make claims for 'actors' or 'the actor', it does so only across the mainstream Australian profession. Broader generalisation may be achieved as the article is received through the sensitivities and subjectivities of those who read it.

The analysis assumes the identification of coordinates, the "cluster of symbols and their meanings [constituting a] total cultural system" (Schneider 1976, 214) as necessary in the development of habitus, and assumes notions of social connectivity and purpose, "how we may come into our own with others," as ethnographer Michael Jackson puts it (2011, 93), as foundations for wellbeing.

To expand a little on that rubric: Pierre Bourdieu's habitus is the generative incorporation of the logics of a given field, which affords the agent the thoughtless navigation of that field, a 'feel for the game' (see Bourdieu 1990, 9, 61, 80; 1999, 27; 2000, 11, 151; Jenkins 1992, 76). Habitus will be developed, by both the master and the slave, but through myriad definitions it is also described in a more 'advanced' form, as that which must "change constantly in response to new experiences" (Bourdieu, 2000, 161), even while simultaneously shaping the ground of those experiences.2 This suggests that habitus is defined and delimited by agency, and that where there is a lack of clarity in the identification of the range of coordinates of a field, there is a lack of agency upon those coordinates, and a limited habitus. The article identifies disconnections, disruptions, and depletions in the industrial, social and artistic fields within which actors pursue fiction toward performance, and, utilising Jackson's notions of connectivity and "intersubjectivity" (2013, 193), suggests these as phenomena that challenge wellbeing.

The article employs a metaphor of feudalism to describe an industrial field that isolates actors from their colleagues, and infantilises them. It targets an emblematic practice of this orthodoxy: the common mainstream set and costume design process. It then surveys some peculiar social structures and practices that provide actors with a sense of togetherness that is often a destabilising illusion. Within the artistic discourse of rehearsal, an epistemological framework is found to be one in which actors may be offered only the barest threads of connection. Next, an element of acting pedagogy in the Stanislavskian traditional pursuit of fiction is problematised as socially disruptive.

The significance of this progression from the industrial to the social to the artistic to the fictive is that my recently completed doctoral research finds these co-existent phenomena in peculiar relation to each other. The pursuit of fiction is a challenge that lies wholly within the pursuit of the aesthetic codes and logics of the broader theatrical artwork, and this artistic pursuit lies wholly within the context of a social site, which in turn lies within a broad industrial field. …

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