“Spirit” at the Vortex Theatre

Notes on a production I observed recently in Austin, TX at an experimental theatre.

I learned about Spirit and the Vortex Theatre through the Chronicle’s recommended events page for the evening of Sunday, September 7th.  It was purely born out of a spontaneous restlessness that I decided to attend the theatre, without any expectations of what I might find.

 I knew the production claimed to be experimental, and I knew that it was the culmination of a four year exploration into the aristotelian elements – water, fire, air, and spirit, but beyond these things I knew practically nothing.

 What I found was deeply engaging.  Director Bonnie Cullum categorizes much of her work as “ritual theatre.”  The form Cullum’s ritual theatre takes in Spirit, the performance that I witnessed, pares the theatre down to its most basic form.  Archetypal rituals are elevated to the holiness of the stage as performers work to illustrate spiritual episodes and proverbs from many religions and traditions.

 The effect was surprisingly powerful.  I had sought after a theatre modeling itself in the tradition of Jerzy Grotowski for some time, and have no doubt that consciously or unconsciously this is the closest thing I have witnessed to his thinking of what the theatre should be in its ideal state.  Like in the theatre of Grotowski, Vortex Theatre placed an enormous emphasis on the embodied state of the performer.

 The body is expressed as sacred or holy through co-ordinated movements, both complex and simple, but always reverent in the affectation appropriated by the performers.

 The story of a man who has passed away, revisiting the nature of his life and its expression, are the pretense for the structure of the dramatic episodes.  This pretense is only a thin facade for the real exploration of the vitality of the present, and of the shared moment between spectator and performer, an awareness that the dramatists are keenly aware they are working around.

 The mission of the performance seemed oriented around exploring what it is to feel spiritually fulfilled and what it is to feel spiritually diminished, working toward a feeling of spiritual healing in the audience members themselves as they bear witness to rituals and proverbs in the theatre.

 An extremely delightful participatory mechanism of this action was established from the outset, as audience members purchase their admission and receive three items.  One item denotes their entry to the theatre at a specific time with the other groups.  The entry-items are archetypal in nature and intended to illustrate elements – a feather, a match, precious stones representing the earth.

 The other two items given to audience members are a piece of thick paper and a piece of thin paper.  Audience members are instructed to write on the thin piece of paper an example of that which diminishes spirit and on the thick paper that which strengthens the spirit.

 Upon entering the theatre we are instructed we are entering the temple of spirit and should deposit our two slips of paper in two separate baskets.  As the dramatic action begins a fire is lit on the stage in a gold chalice and the diminishing elements are read aloud and deposited into the bucket where the flash-paper ignites vividly on the stage.

 This dramatic action was deeply effecting, and perhaps best represents what I am supposing we would categorize as ritual theatre.  Sitting here now, in the hour after witnessing the dramatic action, I am still deeply moved by this ritual most of all.  I found it fulfilling in a way that I would not have expected had it been described to me.  Its simplicity is deceiving.  In raw psychological simplicity, this action had great archetypal power and presence, effecting me personally in a significant way.

 Dance, song, and live music played on a variety of instruments, constitute the bulk of the dramatic episodes.  Each is well performed with a variety of themes and styles.

 There is a solid effort throughout to involve the audience members in a variety of ways.  Unfortunately, the theatre and the staging rely upon a very traditional infrastructure – pitched rows of seats facing the stage – this, for me, undermined the effectiveness of the overall performance by placing us as spectators in a dimension removed from the action unfolding in front of us.

 We were permitted to slip into alienation and abstraction, observers in the dark, witnessing rituals with an almost anthropological intrigue unfold.  These rituals always remained somewhat separate from us, each one deeply alive and personal, but not necessarily able to penetrate the darkness and separateness that surrounded it.

 Had the dramatic action been staged in a more tribal fashion, audience member still observing the action but the spatial-grammar of the traditional theatrical experience deconstructed and rebuilt in a more ritual-oriented manner, I feel that as an audience member it would be near impossible to have been alienated from the action witnessed.  For material aspiring toward a sacredness, spectators should be on the same plane as the performers, only a breath or a stretch away from grasping them.

 The climax of the performance, and a deeply moving moment that achieved exactly what I am describing, occurred when the performers invited interested audience members in receiving a blessing to join the performers on stage.

 Audience members volunteered themselves willingly, and were positioned in the center of the stage, where the performers encircled them and sang a beautiful hymn of strength before releasing them back to their seats.  One cannot escape the comparison to catholic communion or baptism in the church.  The power of this climactic ritual, no doubt, taps into the same archetypal wellspring from which our religions draw their seismic psychological strengths from.

 Ultimately, the performance grasped toward an ambitious vision of what the theatre ought to be.

 It grasped toward the essentially theatrical, the relationship between the spectator and the performer, the immediacy of our very existence made aware to us by the immediacy of our living experiences in the theatre.  The performance grasped toward, like Grotowski himself, return theatre to its ritualistic roots and bring back to post-modern man that which is ancient, immortal, and restorative in his past.

 I believe, in great moments of clarity, the performance achieved just that.

 Such a task is enormously difficult to achieve and sustain for longer than a few minutes, and the achievement of just that by this group of heroic and courageous spiritual explorers deserves the highest praise.

 I hope they continue down these avenues and dig even deeper into the ways that ritual and art can unify toward the end of restoration of the alienated individual in community, back toward wholeness of spirit.

 This is one of the great battles of our cultural moment, and The Vortex is making great progress on the front from which they’ve chosen to fight.