From Experiments to Traditions

Among the self-proclaimed experimental practitioners, especially of modern Philippine Theater, I have observed that most of them would seemingly exercise their innovation without any regard for the use of dramaturgy. There is this presumptuous attitude among the naïves that the idea of “experimenting” or of introducing the “new” and “provocative” is always an act of rebellion against what is traditionally practiced. Perhaps this concept romanticizes them; it gives them a spirit of utter liberty and satisfaction (superiority even?) because they take part in playing as The Rebel of the theater form, and thus giving them the license (or so they perceive) to annihilate anything that is referred to as convention. Moreover, it offers them a justification to be absurdly avant-garde, to avoid study or mere understanding for The Old, but in truth, they find excuses for sloppiness. To be identified as the first of something, after all, respects the ego, but does it respect the craft itself?


And so, while these practitioners are very eager to be titled “experimental”  and “forward-thinking,” the element of research and history in the performance piece, however, becomes ignored outrageously. And what’s worse, they believe that this is the fundament of experimentation. What they have failed to acknowledge is that even with the most influential mothers and fathers of 20th century Experimental Theater would conduct their radical theatrical creations with strong references to traditional and classical forms. Bertolt Brecht, known for his principle of  Verfremdungseffekt (defamiliarization effect) and his creation of the Epic Theater,  asserted that he found inspiration and influence from Chinese Opera because of the alienating result of its acting style. Jerzy Grotowski, together with his philosophy and method of The Poor Theatre, trotted the globe and studied every technique, every ideology, every culture of world performances and traditional acts.  Tadashi Suzuki, a recognized modern teacher of acting in Japan, integrates classical practices of Noh and Kabuki in the training of his actors.


To be clear, I am not against the Experimental Genre. In fact, I identify myself as a practitioner of the branch, and I am completely enamored with the idea of pushing, twisting, reconstructing and morphing boundaries and structures of performance. However, I make certain that not only do I use the identification conscientiously, but also that I embody and represent the nature responsibly. Often I remind my own students that if they are to decide into creating experiments, one should not solely divorce their attention from the research of The Old. Instead of interpreting experimentation as an act of violent rebellion, one should perhaps approach it as an act of re-exploration and re-evolution. Young practitioners should particularly realize that traditions are significant for they offer a vast library of techniques that have been well-tested and considered over centuries of practice. Traditional techniques and methods have an uncorrupted timelessness to them, and they can still be re-used for the benefit of creating the new. After all, at the end of it all, theater is theater, and it should be observed with discipline still.


As a performer (though the repertoire I’ve worked with are mostly contemporary and forward) I still find deep reverence for ancient methodology. It offers us strict awareness and concentration upon the body’s foundation, in which, sadly, most modern performers have fallen ignorant when in comes to the discussion of their own biological landscape. And since modern performers are untrained even to the knowledge of their own bodies, they eventually lack a sense of control, of rootedness, of agility, and of truth– truth that is so earthly and complex, truth that has been known and perfected from ancestor to parent to descendant, master to performer to apprentice. With the absence of this magnificent truth, modern performers naively proceed to expressing so many extraordinary ideas, yet with insufficient strategies to communicate these ideas concretely through the bodily instrument, their audience receives nothing but conceptual air.


To be fair, admittedly, I’ve come to learn this insight rather late. That in the beginning, when I was still young and too enthusiastic of (only) the future, I did not see the significance and need of acknowledging our dramatic ancestry. When I proceeded with age and further experience, however,  I started to wonder about origins, beginnings, birth. Until finally, during a recent occasion, when I was given a partial scholarship to go to Kyoto, Japan in order to embark on a 3-week study on the art of Noh Theater, my sensitivity changed meaningfully. Those 3 weeks, under the tutelage of renowned Noh Masters, I was submerged into a vast language of history, culture, standards and technicalities of Noh: the correct positioning and movement of the feet, the rightful bending of the knees to encourage flexibility, the forward (yet sturdy) lean of the torso in order to gain momentum and control. I remember that during those weeks, my muscles and bones were awakened with pain, but they were at their strongest, most alive state. Apart from studying all of these particular technicalities, what those 3 weeks had taught, directed and incited in me was a newfound marvel and hunger for the classical arts. Not only in Noh, but also in Kabuki, Chinese Opera, European Opera, Kathakali, Kohn Mask Theater, Mime, Ballet,  etc.— they all share the same values: astute attention to detail,  deep regard for the performer as the athlete of the arts, profound respect for the intelligence of the body, complexity in simplicity, and simplicity in complexity.

complexity in simplicity, simplicity in complexity


They remind us that the primary, original theater is the natural body itself, as long as it is subjected to extensive and intensive study towards the mastery (and mystery) of performance. Although they may be deemed as old-fashioned in style and perhaps, elitist in culture, to their credit, traditional theaters do not belittle the possibilities and dimensions of the person, and thus, the performer. Their techniques are of the greatest legacy, and are the very reasons why we continue to experiment into newer, bolder forms.  What modern and so-called experimental performers should grasp is that though there is no harm in restricting our identity or marking our personal fashion in the craft, the sense of history and study in the craft, however, should be indiscriminate, open, versatile, and incessant in learning. For me, this is the true meaning of experiment– that our wisdom aims to grow and progress, and refuses to remain idle and fixed.


complexity in simplicity, simplicity in complexity