Playing in “Sand Time”: Using Both Video Score and Printed Script in an Intercultural Production of Shōgo Ōta’s Elements

Lynette Hunter*, Peter Lichtenfels** and John Zibell***


The essay focuses on a 2017 intercultural production in California of the play Elements by Japanese playwright Shōgo Ōta and the use of a video of the writer’s own production of his play, and its contribution to what the Euro American director and actors do with a scripted text. The play breaks down the theatrical technologies of the objects, sounds, movement, characters and audiences involved in Western modern dramatic scripts and staging, and it remakes each through theatre technicity. As it does so, the video moves from being simply a record, to becoming a score, amplifying the script, and the genre moes into skillfully improvised textuality that opens up the unpredictable intercultural metatheatricality of Ōta’s production.

Keywords: Intercultural, intermedial, video score, technicity, directing

Japanese playwright Shōgo Ōta (1939–2007) once observed that his playtexts reflect that people on the whole speak for around a total duration of two hours a day. What then happens to the rest of the day? and night? silence for sure, but also listening to silence, attending to the words and movements that may emerge, waiting. Listening to Ōta’s texts is a complex task, in particular for this essay, because the writers and practitioners are not Japanese. The essay focuses on one particular aspect of a 2017 intercultural production of Ōta’s Elements (1994) in California (Lichtenfels), that also played in Bogotá (2018) in a production from which the illustrations in this essay are taken.

In addition to the printed script, the production used a video record of one of Ōta’s own productions of the play (2006) as a score for rehearsal and performance. We think here about the contribution of the video to what the Euro American directors and actors do with a published, translated text—how the visual score can foreground movement, gesture, sound, rhythm, breath and silence to inform the printed verbal script.

We use the term “intercultural” to underline that the theatre production being talked about is not trying to “be” a play in a Japanese tradition, nor more reductively “be like” the initial production. Instead, the highly diverse yet mainly Euro American members of the company collaborate with the play and with each other’s culturally different approaches in response to verbal and somatic resonances in and with Ōta’s metatheatrical modern drama.

The essay is co-written by the director (Peter Lichtenfels) a German Canadian with extensive experience in international directing, an actor and filmmaker (John Zibell) from the eastern United States and a British Canadian scholar of theatre and performance (Lynette Hunter).

For us, intercultural work is based on sustaining a position of not knowing, sensing for unbridgeable gaps in understanding. The work means being alert to the ways that the social and cultural background of each person in the production—theatre people and audience members—may be taking things for granted, silently possessing the cultures it is working with by habit, by assumption, and resting in those moments to feel what change is needed. This means that the people involved have to develop ways of remaining open to playing, to being changed, to engaging with materials that have a radically alternative way of being. In this kind of work, both the performers and the materials initiating the performance engage in a process of becoming, a collaboration that re-makes all the participants and forms the particular production. The process of becoming by co-laboring through play lies at the heart of performativity, and this essay will go on to suggest that intercultural theatre performance can open many doors to collaboration, not only through attending to a printed text but also to a visual record of production.

Each of the director, actor and critic writing this essay is interested in thinking about how the technology of theatre can sustain performativity. Performativity is an elusive thread running through performance studies. For us, performativity is about the quality of not-knowing that occurs in both rehearsal and performance, the moments at which something happens that leads to ungovernable change (Hunter, Politics of Practice 1) and a sense of “presence.” Here, we also use the word “technicity” to indicate the felt sense of pulling or luring (Manning 23-26) performance into process and conversation among the players and between players and audience. In this, we align with the definition of theatre technicity articulated in W. B. Worthen’s book Shakespeare, Technicity, Theatre, in which he says, “theatre does not merely use the technologies it absorbs—writing, acting, movement, dance, fashion, painting, projection, sound; it represents them as bearing intermedially, on one another in the working process of theatre-making” (12). This work is the “complex technicity of theatre” (Worthen, preliminary material) that generates the not-known of performativity. Productions that enable theatre technicity use those intermedial elements of theatre technology such as writing, acting and so on, to sustain performances that affect our corporeality and social relations.

Theatre technicity is what gives the technology of staged production presence. It is what turns a humdrum representation of a play into an energised re-presencing of an experience into which the audience can immerse itself. One of the key elements in the technology of modern dramatic theatre is the printed text, which the director and actors, the designers and all theatre technicians have to make present, not just replicate. Generating the performativity of a printed text renders it a script, with all the potential of that word to attend not just to social meaning but also alert us to what we do not know will happen when the words are inhabited—this gives energy to the performers and keeps each audience member on the edge of their seat. Intercultural modern drama, plays written in the genre of Western modern drama and produced by those from different cultures to the writer, often share a common ground in the technology of realist acting. Yet, they are inevitably inflected by different training approaches to that kind of acting and often mediated by translation from the written language into the language of the production.

In the case of Elements, the company used a text by Marie Boyd, who is recognized as a translator of exceptional sensitivity to Japanese-English intercultural significance. Although invited to participate in the production, Boyd did not do so, and the company worked mainly through the common ground of realist theatre and its strategies—or technologies—for the presentation of character, narrative and community.

Yet, another key element in dramatic theatre, which has become more readily available over the last thirty years, is the use of a video record of an initial production—in this case, a production directed by Ōta himself and with his own company in Japan. Just as the printed text needs to be rendered into an inhabited script that makes the words present in performance, so the video record, to be generative, needs to be rendered into an inhabited score that presences rather than replicates the movements, gestures and silences of the play. While musicals and opera frequently work from video, most productions of modern drama have resisted it as a source for performativity. Here, we begin to think through the implications of using a video record in rehearsal to lead to performativity in an intercultural performance.

The essay takes tentative steps toward issues that include an analysis of the situatedness of the videographer, the strategic choices made in filming, the visual and acoustic limits and potential of the record, and some of the cultural inhibitions and releases in the responses of company members. Most important, we suggest that intercultural work can be greatly enhanced by considering not only verbally articulated cultures and societies, but also the somatically presenced situatedness of experience that often occurs through movement and gesture. It’s not just about what we know, but what we don’t know and how to be open to it. Words and gestures are not simply meanings and knowledge, but affective materials.

The unusual use of a video record for a production of modern drama foregrounds some of the processes by which theatre people may be closed toward cultural differences, as well as those through which they may open to cultural differences as a source of not-known material that, nevertheless, generates feelings and somatic change. Ōta’s plays are about how the happening, change and awareness that make up technicity occur in everyday life and are heightened into attention by the theatre. In this sense, while Ōta draws on ordinary experience for the topics of his plays, he simultaneously writes plays about how to make the intermediality of theatre affective. Possibly because Ōta’s scripts work interculturally with the technologies of Western modern drama, they can also be read as incorporating metatheatrical strategies into the action of that dramatic tradition so that the audience can become of aware of how the actors are generating the processes of affect.

Elements is a play filled with ways of breaking down into elements the technologies that make present the objects, sounds, movement, characters and audiences involved in modern dramatic scripts and staging, and remaking each through the repetitions, residues and resonances of a theatre technicity. This expands the familiar move of the printed script into a verbal resource for processual rehearsal. And through this breaking down and remaking, the video also moves from being simply a record to becoming a score. The characters move from stable representations to parts that presence anew with each performance. And the genre opens up to skillfully improvised textuality that, mirroring the intercultural metatheatricality of Ōta’s production, generates significance for the participants in the moments of a particular Euro American production. The way that Ōta guides or leads these elements of theatre technology into the processes and affects of technicity displaces cultural clichés and encourages the felt sense of one culture emerging into another. In other words, we would suggest that in his developments of western modern drama Ōta is inviting an intercultural engagement with the play.

The director Lichtenfels and actor Zibell came together with an interculturally diverse cast to produce Ōta’s Elements in California (2017) and Bogotá (2018).[1] Prior to the 2017 production, Lichtenfels had collaborated on two independently directed versions, by Lichtenfels and Ōta, of Ōta’s Plastic Rose, that were staged in tandem both in California and in Kyoto in 1994. Lichtenfels had also directed Plastic Rose again in 2014, with Zibell acting in the production. Despite this prior experience, Elements was elusive.

It is difficult to state what the play is about, but the action takes place on a stage that is built as a sand pit filled with eight to ten inches of sand. The first scene has a mother (Woman1), father (Man1) and daughter (Woman2) at breakfast. In the second scene, Man1 and Woman2, father and daughter, talk in a spring evening of the stars, of possibilities. The third scene is a man (Man2) who enters to break up the kitchen and bury it in sand, while various characters walk the perimeter of the sand pit as if passing on city streets. The fourth involves Man2 and Woman2 in an encounter about making meaning—or not—about daily items retrieved from the sand. The fifth scene presents a room with Man3 and Woman3 who are having an affair. The sixth brings together Woman1 and Woman4 meeting as if in a dream or memory or foretelling that elides into the daily with the arrival of the daughter (Woman2). The final scene presents all the characters in swinging nets above the sand, as if considering whether to enter the day-to-day life on the ground. In the end, only the family of Man1, Woman1 and Woman2 do so, as they rebuild their kitchen with what they can unearth from the wreckage buried in the sand.

Possibly because Elements begins with a “breakfast” scene familiar to modern drama, unlike the asylum of Plastic Rose, the wordless, silent script of the opening is particularly unsettling. As Elements proceeds, the scripted play goes on to break daily rhythms with brief absurd interruptions such as a dead dog falling from the sky or, in the final scene, the hanging nets to carry the actors. These dislocations were compounded in this particular production because neither the director nor the actors could fully understand the Japanese language and had to take on trust the translation.

For the 2017 production of Elements, Lichtenfels took the decision not to take the printed text as culturally recognizable scripted modern drama. Instead, to foreground intercultural unknowns in the English language translation, he invited Ōta’s vision for the staging of the play into the preparation and rehearsals for this 2017 production through a video of Ōta’s own 1994 production of Elements. This decision also fully informed the 2018 production in Bogotá. The presence of the video, taken as a score rather than simply a record, brings newly to the surface ways that intercultural theatre draws our attention to the awareness needed to exhaust and presence again the elements in our daily lives, and the ways that changes to the dimensions of everyday life can be generated by theatre technicity. This essay explores how these particular people, committed to intercultural theatre, learn how to do this through working with both video scores and printed scripts, and how critics can begin to articulate these somatic complexities into words.

A Critical Account of Conversations from the 2017 Production: Residues, Repetitions and Resonances
Scene One: Breakfast

Lichtenfels bases his appreciation for Ōta’s work on the value the plays make from and in everyday life. Often, the plays are about people working on staying alive: life here is considered as “being aware.” Being aware is a felt sense of change in the self, not merely a shift. It is a change that happens because we are in process. Process becomes the horizon for an event and place for happening. One of the main strategies Ōta’s texts use as a way to become attentive to awareness is repetition. Repetition here is not replication, nor surrogation (Roach), but an attention to the necessary change through erogation and corrogation that happens between one iteration and the next (Noé). Listening to the director and actor working on this practice in a rehearsal of Elements, a key part of their dialogue is how the bodies trained in Euro American theatre—of the actor, the director, the audience member—attend to the processes of repetition foregrounded by Ōta’s video score.

In the first scene of the play, there are three actors, a Mother (Woman1), Father (Man1) and Daughter (Woman2) who play a scene around a kitchen table placed on a bed of sand, which is the central playing area.

Waiting for Time (2018 Bogotá production of Elements). Photo: Luis Equihua

The script tells us that they play out their actions three times, each a little slower than before. In the video, with each iteration, the rhythm of the movements elongates from 4.14 minutes, to 5.18 minutes, to 15.34 minutes—and as it does so, it teaches the audience about slowing down. At the same time, any coherence the actions have melts away with the elongated repetition. As the audience watches bodies that have learned how to negotiate walking on the sand, each iteration generates an electric tension about whether a movement will happen again, and then, how it will happen again.

In the rehearsal of the 2017 production, the technology of the script and of the video replicates the movements in the scene. But the actors inhabit the form of a repetition, luring it into technicity. They take on the residue of having used that form before in rehearsal, as well as from the video record, the residue of seeing another actor having previously inhabited the form in another production. The three precise repetitions of this opening scene in Elements heighten this effect of residue even further because the actor is not only repeating night after night but has inhabited the form only moments ago. Those residues insist on the impossibility of replication, and an actor trains to pay attention to the cracks where the light gets in with each repetition of the form. With every performance, they enact the changing dimensions of attention so the audience also attends to becoming aware.

Scene Three: “Night Streets”

The following scene, “A Spring Evening,” gives way to “Night Streets” when a second man (Man2) enters the area and a shovel falls out of the sky, breaking the table below. The man then destroys the objects in the kitchen and buries them in the sand with the shovel.

Breaking the Table (2018 Bogotá production of Elements). Photo: Luis Equihua

In this interlude, while Man 2 is breaking up the objects, the video score follows various characters walking around the edge of the sand-filled playing area, occasionally entering it and repeatedly pointing at arrows that appear above them—neither the arrows nor the gesture appear in the printed text. The gesture of pointing becomes the form to be inhabited in this interlude as each actor seems to indicate a direction for walking, yet the video score indicates that the direction of the pointing gesture is sometimes followed and sometimes not.[2] It is easy enough for a critic to attribute meaning to these failed/successful references, but the actor’s task is to exhaust the technology of a discursive meaning such as “an arrow points in the direction you should go.” “Exhaustion” occurs here as “disjunction,” the breaking down of language into particles, where enumeration replaces proposition. “The possible is exhausted with words,” leaving only the flows of language on the voice, leaving meaning aside (Deleuze, Smith and Greco 156). Instead, the actor’s skill is to move the gesture into the process of awareness, otherwise the audience sits simply with the satisfaction of understanding rather than engaging affectively in the process. To engage affectively is not to have a socially constituted emotional response, but instead to feel a somatic change. “Understanding” undoes the intercultural engagement with what the production is attempting to work on. Engaging is a felt sense (Gendlin), rather than a social meaning from a culture the people involved in this 2017 production could never claim to inhabit. Actors train not only to be an audience to each other, deepening and enriching the attention to awareness of each other, but also to be an audience to the audience. Whatever meaning the critic may find in the repeated gestures has no significance unless, as with any audience member, they are affected in their own cultural location.

Part of Scene Four: “Tender Meat”

In the scene that follows, Man2 finds the newspaper that he previously buried in the sand, pulling it slowly from the sand and revealing partial words that he begins to read. The predictable action of reading a newspaper is foregrounded by the video score as a task. Any actor would need to make that action “new” each time they played it. But in Ōta’s production of Elements, the visual/aural/oral score records the way the actor’s task becomes a metatheatrical element in play that asks the actor to materialize the reading of a newspaper, to pull it into awareness for himself and for the audience. In the English language script, Man2 speaks: “ten . . .” “ten . . .”—is this a word? or on the way to a word? can he see the whole word or only part of it? Meticulously, he extends the repeated sound into “tender” and then into “tender marbled meat,” and he continues into reading/speaking the words “Nietzsche” and the “Death of God.” A curious intercultural resonance emerged in rehearsal as the director and actor of this 2017 production recognized the familiarity of the actions in the video score and the resonances with classic Euro American acting exercises that first break down the word as a fixed object and then lure it into process.

Zibell, who played Man2, related the actions to Stanislavsky’s training in picking up a cup: he asks the actor to go home and work on their technical skills—as if they are doing scales—to engage with a cup repeatedly, again and again, perhaps to take a little sip. And each time, the actor-in-training is looking for where the attention goes, for example to the tactility or the weight and what that does to the body, to temperature, so the actor is filling in the experience of dealing with this cup in ways they don’t in life. In life, we just drink. When the actor deals with this cup on stage, they do not replicate an action night after night but can use the practice to help pull the cup into repetition. The actor is working on technicity strategies so that when they pick up the cup on stage, their practice is a “living thing”—a formless form that only becomes a system when you try to find a fixed form for the kinds of encounters that come up in the theatre (Stanislavsky and Benedetti 687–90). An actor can forget all the training and attend to awareness. In this scene, Zibell as the actor is staging the “reading of a newspaper” as a living action that heightens the audience awareness. Just so, Zibell’s Grotowski training in Motions (Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre, 36–7) gave him strategies for working not only on objects but also on the body. The body is not static, its motion within each posture comes through the actor’s relation to changes in attention. The actor, working outside in a field, for example, would do stretches and go into the body’s areas of resistance in such a way that nothing was disturbed in the actor’s attention to the surroundings. No noise should be heard to disturb one’s own reception of the calls of the birds, for example, when the foot pivots on hard clay or slides across dry earth. This kind of work can encourage the heightened attention to awareness that we are calling a technicity and the changes that occur in that attention, with a focus always on the ways the transformation of the actor engages the audience (Grotowski “Art As Vehicle” 113–35).

Zibell was also trained extensively by Paul Sills, who is considered by some as a United States theatre practitioner with key acting practices for these processes. He would have the actor do a Stanislavsky exercise and then do it without the cup. This is not the heightened work of mime in which the body creates an illusion in space, but a “space work” of the body that also calls on Grotowski’s “motions.” Sills trained actors to repeat without replicating by developing practices through which the materials of the theatre, such as objects, gestures and characters, could affect the body, change it (Spolin and Sills liv-lv). The actor attends to the felt sense of that change and encourages it to happen again in moments with distinct ecologies that heighten attention to the different affects of each repetition.

With Elements, the video score encourages the actor to break down the physical shape of the paper and its sentences. The repetitions of sounds and words from the newspaper echo the physical breaking down of the kitchen and burying its parts—in both cases to see what then happens. Zibell does so with Euro American acting exercises, turning over just small parts of the newspaper and then breaking down the words it releases into syllables, to sound out what emerges. Learning from the temporality of the video score and the rhythms of the spoken Japanese words, the actor’s actions slow the pace to the point that the audience becomes attentive to an awareness of the materials as “in process.”

The Daughter, Woman2 from scene one, then comes on stage, and Man 2 shows her how he is playing with the newspaper, persuading her also to play with him. At first, she is resistant, but when he tries to get her to repeat the words “Death of God,” they get immersed in the action. The actors in the 2017 production were working from the printed script and also using the video to develop rhythms that stretched and contracted the experience of time. Listening to the timing of the video record of Ōta’s production, Zibell, as the actor, again used a Western theatre voice exercise to open up the script—an exercise that asks an actor to say half a line, then a bit more, then the line and part of the next, adding up eventually to the end of the line. The two actors in this scene begin with the text of an advertisement, and repeat and repeat, each time going a bit further.

With each repetition of the interaction with the newspaper, the video of the Japanese production presents Man2 directing Daughter not only into different vocal inflections but also into movements, especially into a particular gesture. As the Daughter grows into the process, Man2 begins to sit back.

God is Dead (2018 Bogotá production of Elements). Photo: Luis Equihua

He gives her the space to run it herself, to make it different from his repetitions. The primary movement gesture of lifting an arm is repeated and repeated in the video score until suddenly it just happens. Informed by this score, the actor playing the Daughter in 2017 felt for a moment transformed into an entirely different being that is huge and strong. And then, prompted by a change in the tempo of the video score, the two actors make fun of everything their characters have just done. It is as if the content is a secondary consideration. The repetition of the visual gesture becomes a performance score for luring the text into process.

Following both the video score and the script, the actors continue to take the words and movements in small bites. This begins to render those words and movements inconsequential in terms of reference, separate from social meanings. The actors attend to the different potentials in rhythm and movement so any meaning for the words and gestures happens by accident and materializes for the audience as an affect, something that audience members feel rather than understand. A few audience members found these opening scenes frustrating and left the theatre. But most stayed, saying afterwards that their initial resistance or incomprehension was “drawn into” the process of the play.

The Opening of Scene Six: “Howling at the Moonlight”

In a later scene with two women, the video score radically opened up the script for Lichtenfels as director. One of the women is the mother from scene one, Woman1. She enters the area and suddenly a soccer ball falls out of the sky onto the sand. Both script and score ask the actor to take off her coat and lay it down, placing the ball on it at the opening of the neck, and to lie down on the sand beside it. The video score then prompts the actor to hold the cuff of the coat as if it is a hand. The moment this action occurs, the coat and the soccer ball suddenly “happen” into presencing another form of her body—as if the woman’s body and the coat body are somehow versions of each other. Then, the other woman, Woman4, enters and lies down on the coat, and it is as if it is a body that she is inhabiting. It is suddenly not the same coat inhabited by the other actor. When Woman4 gets up, the video score again prompts Woman1 to get up and lie down on the coat, inhabiting it differently again. The inhabitations of the form are a strategy which imbues the actor with a residue that enables a change that is felt by other actors and the audience. Alerting us again to the technicity of theatre, Ōta is staging the way that when actors interact with theatre objects such as costumes, they “become” someone or something else. The residues of the coat that make up this form bring the two women into resonance. They then transform through the vibrations of repeated sound as each woman gets onto all fours, and they begin to howl like dogs, separately and together.

In this later scene, Ōta repeats from a scene in his earlier play Plastic Rose, with which both Lichtenfels and Zibell were familiar. For these participants, the residue from the earlier productions of Plastic Rose opens spaces in this one of Elements, and Lichtenfels used this to unsettle the ground for the actors playing Woman1 and Woman4. For example, the two characters in this scene are younger in Elements than in the earlier play. In Plastic Rose, the two older versions of these women talk about howling but do not do it. Through storytelling, they remember being dogs and howling in a past that took place before the play began. That scene is one about telling a story and making the memory real, but the howl is not enacted or transformed into the present. Elements gives us the scene of the memory in a present time, and the two women do howl. Lichtenfels read the somatics of the video score and encouraged the actors to undulate the pelvis and roll the sound up the spine to come out like a dog’s howl at the moon.

Howling at the Moon (2018 Bogotá production of Elements). Photo: Luis Equihua

In the 2017 production, the actors take the animal howl as a lure into the processes of attention. The howl is not a discursively recognized human sound but something that takes over these women’s bodies, as if it is fulfilling a promise. At the same time, the bodies of the actors playing the younger women characters in Elements are roughly as old as the bodies of the characters in Plastic Rose—literally, even older for one of the women actors in 2017 who had acted in the 2014 production of the latter play. Yet the howling transforms them into younger bodies.

For Lichtenfels, the video score underlines a constant slippage in the script between the the actor and the part, as the sounds from one play go underground to emerge later, carrying the resonances of previous playings. It is not a restoration of behaviour that simultaneously restages the past while it enacts the present (Turner), because these parts have no past or future. The term “part” is used here to underline the way that a “character” in a scripted play is not simply constructed by an individual actor and replicable, but that each actor makes their part available to becoming present as a character in the processual medium of theatre performance. In this scene, it is as if the technology of the character—what it means—is lured by technicity into affective processes of the actor and the part. The slippage is a mode of attention directing us toward awareness of something happening right now, in the moment, that eludes specific meaning but generates somatic responses for all participants in the performance. The performativity generated is helpful for an intercultural production because it opens the actor’s body to unpredictable ways that words and sounds and gestures from another culture move through their body in this particular performance.

As the two women howl, the Daughter enters the playing area, and it doesn’t seem important that this character of “daughter” has a past or a set of relationships. As the Daughter actor brings in a full-on person who has come in from the outside, the two Women actors transform into someone/something with a particular need—their “character” just shows up in the moment generated by the presence of Daughter. Again, what is important is not what the characters mean, but how the scripted and scored parts come to affect us because of what is needed in the moment. In this occurrence, the Daughter brings in an energy that pulls the two Women as characters back to the presence of their younger parts. Lichtenfels feels the resonances of the script of one play in the other, echoing the difference in the moments and guiding the actors. In Plastic Rose, one (older) woman character says, “may I touch your breast?” as if her body needs to do it, needs to contact another person, and is asking permission. In Elements, the woman character (younger) says, “you can touch my breast,” inviting touch toward her and giving permission. In Elements, the actors as characters have no history, no identifiable sociocultural context, until these moments of need emerge in the immediacy of a theatre present. Their interactions are more about attending to the energy of awareness that just occasionally calls on the technology of character to pull the script into a process that inhabits the actor’s part.[3]

Scene Seven: “A Low Universe”

The final scene of Elements is staged with all seven actors in baskets hung from the ceiling. The actors physically raise the baskets up with pulleys, enacting the physicality of the stage to make us attend to the effect that comes about.

Flying Nets (2018 Bogotá production of Elements). Photo : Luis Equihua

This, in itself, is not necessarily going to pull the technology of the stage into technicity, but it can hold more potential for doing so than hiding or erasing that technology—especially in the context of Western modern drama where staging often attempts realist illusion. The hanging baskets break that illusion. The three actors playing the “family” come down from these baskets into the sand of the playing area and into a different kind of everyday. Names, addresses, age are all gone. The person is there—in other words, here and not gone—but without origins or labels or specific culture. Character as identity is exhausted. A lot of work is required to make these lines acquire the energy of technicity; they have to be inhabited in a different way. Once again, the video score prompts rhythm, sound, gesture and movement.

The Father descends first and starts digging in the sand. The Father shows the Mother and Daughter the broken kitchen objects, and they follow him down. The three of them then repeat the activity of scene one but with the broken parts of the kitchen that emerge from the sand, as if they are dealing with a new set of objects and as if this were the way that they could be put into process, so that a different awareness emerges from these daily actions.

Emerging from Sand (2018 Bogotá production of Elements). Photo: Luis Equihua

The four actors still in the hanging baskets watch them, like an alternative audience, but in effect, it is the three actors in the sand, repeating the activity from the start of the play, who embody the non-acting audience members. Those audience members are people who will remember the verbal script and the visual score of this production, re-enact these daily actions but not exactly, carry the residues and resonances of the forms in their own bodies. This repetition of form lures the audience also into a continued process which carries on outside the theatre and into their everyday lives.

The Director and Actor in Conversation: Learning about Intercultural Technicity
The Director

Lichtenfels is a director with extensive experience of reading new plays by new writers, but when he first read the script of Plastic Rose in 1994, it was anathema. Although he had experience with the work of Kantor and Beckett, with Ōta’s scripts there is no apparent causality in the text, no character responds directly to another. In rehearsal, after several days of exercises, he finally got the courage to do one scene literally and wait for something to happen. This literality began to teach him exactly what was being asked. It taught him to breathe with the text and to find the story in that breathing. Bypassing “meaning” and letting the script speak through the actors’ bodies not only prompted the energy of performativity but also opened those bodies to cultural differences that, again, literally made sense.

Usually, when he works with playscripts, Lichtenfels develops a somatic relationship with the writing/reading, one that partly depends on whether the script captures your attention, but mostly he works on how to pull the script into attention. His earlier experience as artistic director at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, which has a remit to produce new plays by new writers, was a place for learning how to recognize the potential for technicity in playscripts. He recalls one playwright, Robert Holman,[4] capturing attention by slowing down the usual time/space relations through the words of the script. The characters were taking a different kind of time to speak, so that something could happen for the audience. This change in dimension occurred through the quality of the chosen words, the care the writer had taken in placing them so that superficially ordinary words were charged with a felt sense that opened up what could happen for the actor. Lichtenfels’s reading body was affected by the change in dimension, the effect it had on him, and his corporeal response led him to think that that change would translate to the stage. In effect, his ability to pull the technology of words on a page into the technicity of sensory response, into the process of changing dimensions that open up possibilities for something happening “for the first time,” was an activity of recognizing the potential for the script to be pulled by a production into a process of heightened attention and audience awareness.

Lichtenfels was asked how this recognition of potential for awareness came about. He suggested that it was learned through a theatre apprenticeship that developed a practice in sensing the way the dialogue opened an imagination for breath. He always imagines how the story is being told through breath, feeling for the different rhythms, words and areas of concern that distinguish the parts from one another. Even with plays that use choruses, it is the necessary distinction in rhythm and verbal weighting of each choral member that opens up the accident of the chorus, distinctly different people wishing to say something at the same time. After breath, Lichtenfels turns to orality to find strategies for technicity. He asks himself whether the script “talks” to him, how the words work out loud rather than silently on the page, and what do they do when sounded? Can a word resonate in a body? He puts word-based scripts into process by starting with each word and breaking it down to find the places where its elements resonate in the body when spoken out loud. Ιt’s a process that asks whether all the writer’s words will do this or only some, and whether the breath of the actor can make friends with the words, because the words change the actor’s body as much as the somatic response of an actor’s breath changes the words. Even with scripts that focus on ideas rather than words, he is reading for how the expression of ideas comes through the resonances of sound.

The video score of Elements imbued the words of the English translation with unexpected timbre, sonority, tonal shifts that emerged through the actors’ spoken words in unpredictable and unsettling ways, alerting the audience to the experience of not-knowing.

When Lichtenfels directs, he is attending to what the actor needs so they can see or feel the potential for technicity and help it along. Rather than pinning down meaning, he is continually foregrounding the attention to somatic and corporeal awareness of breath, words and movements. He is also listening to what is happening in his own body when the actor does something to pull the script into process. For example, he is attending to the moment when the character and actor are simultaneously presencing—not that the actor is representing a process analogous to the process of the character, but when the actor’s part is engaging with everything in the present of the rehearsal moment. Whether the actor is using objects or animals or other people to pull character into the presence of attention, each of which occurs in Elements, Lichtenfels is opening his somatic responses toward something happening that will change the ecology in which he is engaging and change him. The actors are never in street time, never just “doing” something, but always attending to how the doing opens their awareness. Actors are not elements on their own but always part of an ecology that is changing the dimensions of how we usually know in everyday life and insisting that we attend to how we become aware of the ways of knowing in that lived experience.

For Lichtenfels, key to the felt sense of the video score of Ōta’s own production of Elements was the way that the staging was continually moving on, with no attempt to tie neat ribbons at the end of moments. In addition, Lichtenfels observed that the actors in Ōta’s video continually come into presence and then leave from presence. Their characters are simply present or not present depending on the processes of the particular performer. The actor turns away from the stage as if the character has an ongoing life, but we never see it—they have no history. And they return and re-open their parts for characterization differently. Ōta leaves it open for an actor to become somebody completely distinct within the same part. Perhaps heightened precisely by not understanding the Japanese language, the video score presences the actor alone with their part. And then they are with others on the stage, speaking with each other, playing, laughing, whiling away the time as they nurture and enrich each other and change. And then they leave, and the character disappears. Lichtenfels reads Ōta’s production on video as never worrying about what the play means but constantly working on what the moment is doing, how it is affecting the audience. A production does not “do” a play but have a conversation with the audience. None of writer, director or actor can have finished thoughts. They have to strive for each word as if it is happenstance, and they do not know what road they will have to travel to make this work. A production that pulls the technology of the script into technicity makes the audience attend to the way it is happening for the first time because it can never be as it was the last time.

The Actor/Filmmaker

Zibell is a professional actor and filmmaker. He has worked and trained extensively in theatre in the United States and has directed films and created theatre productions intermedial with stage, projection and the digital. Before working on Elements, he had never used a video record of a production as well as a script in preparation for stage acting. Yet, his unique set of skills meant that he was reading the video not only for the record of a potential technicity in Ōta’s stage production but also for the technicity of the video itself. This ability to read for the technicity of the video renders the medium doubly a source for repetition rather than replication and turns a visual record into a score much as a character may become a part. Zibell’s ability to seize the potential for change to happen with each repetition is a profound acting skill for actors who speak a text again and again as part of their work. He commented that many actors are afraid of watching a video of another production, just as there is a fear that an actor giving another actor a “note” will close down their imaginative response, or the fear a director giving a line reading will impose a meaning on the script. But a skilled director, like a skilled actor, welcomes these events because they know that nothing is replicable. Every repetition is a new happening, and the task of the actor is to bring attention to this awareness. Just so, a skilled filmmaker watches the video and sees anew with each watching.

Zibell also brings a particular perspective to filmmaking that recalls Lichtenfels’s stress on needing to hear a script “talk” to him. He says he makes films because he needs to “hear” the synaesthesia of an event. He needs to listen as a way of seeing that is not purely visual as he “tries to bring in the day,” to attend to the present affect of the video score. Watching a video is like sitting back to shoot a film, he has to listen for the day. It is a practice that he has slowly accumulated over time into a full-bodied listening.

Zibell uses the example of a young person who does not know how to make a sandwich without repeated practice. At first, this is an engrossing, painstaking activity that with repetition becomes an inhabited form embodied with more ease, a skill, a strategy. While Zibell watches a video, elements in his day suddenly come into resonance, and with them comes a relaxation, so he is no longer holding but letting everything open. This activity of watching generates possibilities within the constraints of the material. He notes that, with a camera, what you can film is limited. You cannot be in full control; and when you have to improvise, choices are made for you by the technology. He learned to read the video score as he learned to make it, hearing/seeing the lines as they would be in the finished film and making room for the cuts. He became absorbed in the limitations and potentials of the form that emerges when the filmmaker and the camera encounter each other in the material process. He developed ways not of using the technology but of pulling the technology into technicity by welcoming the unpredictable collaboration between the camera and the human.

The video of Ōta’s production of Elements, Zibell observes, does not use the camera to try to stay wide to re-create the proscenium, but makes the choice to zoom in and pan or reframe. The choices are “elegant,” and whoever was shooting it must have seen it many times before. The editing that often pulls a video into technicity happens in front of you while you watch, so that you attend to what it is aware of just as Ōta asks us to attend not only to the everyday on stage, but the strategies for theatre technicity that generate attention to that everyday in our lives. There is never a cut through the video of the whole performance of the play as the shooter dances with the actors. Yet, Zibell, even though he had earlier acted in Lichtenfels’s production of Plastic Rose, when he watched the video of Elements before reading the script, could not find a way in. It was only once he started working in rehearsal that the practices learned as an actor merged into watching the actors on the video and opened possibilities for the stage production. The story of the repetitions worked on the bodies of the player and surfaced as narrative with each performance. The video score enabled this intercultural work, not through understanding but through an attention to the felt sense of somatic change.

There are always multiple technologies and multiple technicities at work. Just as Lichtenfels brings his work with the technologies of words, breath and sound into the technicity of directing, so in this production Zibell is bringing his work with the technologies of video, film, editing and directing to the the technicity of acting. He notes that when a practice gets into you, you cannot get rid of it: he has to watch the video through the apparatus of his somatic responses which usually separate practices for filmmaking and for acting. What he developed in this production was a practice of interweaving the two. For example, because he feels the effects of not being able to make a camera do things it will not do, when the camera of Ōta’s production goes off the actor whose part he is acting in Lichtenfels’s production, Zibell makes that character for himself. Zibell is seeing and listening not only what the video does, and what it shows, but what is not there as well. He describes the effect of the video on his actor’s body as giving a sense of a rehearsal that he fills in, in the present. He fills in the moments that are not there with the moments he makes as an actor so that every repetition of the video score is necessarily as distinct as his repetition of the script, each informing the other.

As noted above, for many actors who do not know about film there is a fear that looking at a video will end up in de-coding the action when they want to enact it. However, Zibell has strategies for, as he says, “exhausting the code” by combining different practices. For example, in scene two, as the actor of Man2 in the Lichtenfels’s production, Zibell watches the actor of Man2 in the video of Ōta’s production pulling out the newspaper. He watches Man2 doing this and watches the Daughter watching Man2. The movements of Man2 acquire a kinaesthetic or somatic form, so that even though Zibell knows he is not doing what that actor is doing—for one, Zibell is speaking in English not Japanese—he feels the form while watching it emerge. Embodying the felt sense of the form pulls the technologies of video and stage into technicity. Rather than replicating, this reading of the video into a process, opens up possibilities for his actor’s body.

Playing in “Sand Time”

Throughout the play, things get broken, just as throughout the production rehearsal and conversation, things get broken down. They get broken down into elements we may choose to remake into an ecology of their contingent momentary happening—that may extend depending on the appropriateness of the ecology. Ōta himself is breaking down elements in Western modern drama, working interculturally to find out what happens. This production, also working interculturally, breaks down the elements of Ōta’s printed text and video record, into a script and score that make present the performativity, the energy flowing through this particular set of performances. The sand in the central acting area covers up the elements of the kitchen, but the elements are still there, informing the sand from which things emerge into lives as their forms are inhabited. The play is full of burying elements and unburying them, just as in our everyday life we are aware, but we only occasionally attend to the elements of our awareness that inform that life. All theatre has ways of materializing that emergence, by repeating objects, sounds and movements into existence, including the characters and the audience.

Elements works as a metatheatrical study of the elements of modern drama that interculturally displaces familiar approaches. Every scene reminds us that we do not know what is happening. The 2017 production studied here attempted to respect those displacements, to unbury rather than bury them to generate a process that heightens our attention to the awareness of ongoing change in everyday life.

In front of their fellow actors as an audience-object, the Father, Mother and Daughter cannot play the final scene the same way at the end as at the beginning of the play – but what is changed? the objects, sounds, and movements? the actors or the audience? The technology has changed, but more important, the strategies for technicity must change. Repetition itself cannot be replicated. If technicity is to emerge, repetition has to repeat itself. It is as if the play is breathing: the breath in at the opening scene is smaller than the expansive breath of the main part of the play, which is a breath out before the final, smaller, breath in. Just as our bodies change with every breath, so also are we changed if we can open to the felt sense that pulls theatre technology into the processes of technicity in directing, acting and audiencing through the breath of the production.


[1] The cast of these productions: Regina Gutiérrez and Alvaro Hernández (Colombia), Caro Novella (Spain), John Zibell and Heather Nolan (New York), Melissa Cunha (California), Kevin O’Connor (Ontario), Peter Lichtenfels (German Canadian).

[2] Ōta’s interest in arrows as indicating direction “with an unknown purpose” has been remarked upon, see “There is no happier moment than when coming out of an unpleasant dream. In other words, I am happy now,” in New National Theatre Tokyo, 2006.

[3] The technicity of character has elsewhere been discussed as “character part” (Hunter and Lichtenfels, chapter 20), a part being what a Shakespearean actor would receive before rehearsal, only experiencing the full text when working together with the other actors in their scenes.

[4] Robert Holman was a British playwright who started making plays in the 1970s that focus on “ordinary” lives. He writes with an exceptional ear for rhythm and sound as attentional strategies.


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*Lynette Hunter is Emerita Distinguished Professor of the History of Rhetoric and Performance, University of California Davis. She has written, co-written or edited over 25 books in performance studies, feminist philosophy, the politics of decolonial and alterior aesthetics. Her research work has been related to the various ways communities deal with diversity and create processes of valuing through embodied performance. These areas led to Disunified Aesthetics (2014), combining written, graphic and video text, and research into training, practice, rehearsal and performance in Politics of Practice (Palgrave, 2019), and her current exploration of performing as training in affect. (, 

**Peter Lichtenfels, German-Canadian theatre director and dramaturge, has committed his artistic career to intercultural theatre and performance, both as artistic director at the Traverse Theater in Edinburgh (1980s), and as executive and artistic director of the Leicester Haymarket (1980s–90s). From the 1990s to today he has worked professionally directing transcultural productions, and as Professor of Dramatic Arts, University of California Davis. Lichtenfels’ recent publications include Sentient Performativities (2016) and Shakespeare and Realism (2018). His recent productions include Plastic Rose (2014, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Assembly Rooms), and Elements (2016, Arena Theatre, Davis, California; 2018, Teatro Vreve, Bogotá, Colombia). ( 

***John Zibell, a faculty scholar practitioner at University of Salford, School of Arts and Media, has over 25 years of professional performance practice and training in New York in Stanislavsky systems, to “bodied story telling” (Grotowski), to non-narrative performance and body art. An award-winning filmmaker, he has acted in theatre and film with collaborators including Mike Nichols, Diane Paulus, Paul Sills, Andre Gregory, and Guillermo Gomez-Peña. Directing stage productions he has developed intermedial theatre using projection mapping, google glasses, and immersive virtual reality environments. His scholarly works focus on image and montage as models of consciousness in twentieth century performance and training practices. (

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