The public showings of Boris Yukhananov’s “new processual” project is devoted to work interpreting Apuleius’ novel Metamorphosis or The Golden Ass.
The project is conducted in a manner that is completely new for Russian theatre: the genre of the open-circuited workspace. The project is so constructed that it will undergo constant change and development.
Each of the five days of The Golden Ass consists of daytime showings of modules (2 to 6 p.m.) and evening compositions (7 to 11 p.m.). Modules are independent scenes created by project participants and they may be shown in fragments or interrupted by Boris Yukhananov, who publicly discusses them on the spot. Compositions consist of two “Shaggy” and “White” segments, and one “City” segment. Compositions are fully-fledged performances consisting of episodic scenes in which the text of Apuleius’ novel intertwines with the commentary of those participating in the action.
The five-day project reflects its structure, which is constructed like the two wings of a butterfly (each consisting of two parts, the upper and lower – “Shaggy” and “White”) and its body (“City”). In this way a butterfly takes shape before the eyes of spectators in a logical, though non-linear fashion; first the left wing, then the caterpillar-body (“City”), and finally the right wing. As soon as the butterfly takes shape it figuratively takes wing – which is to say that the given composition assumes a new life as a full-fledged production in the repertoire of the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre. But the butterfly exists physically too – it flies over the stage, quite alive.
The text of each composition is an intertwining of fragments of Apuleius’ novel - including the story inserts, the so-called “Milesian fables” - and live speech (although the actors commit it to memory as if it were a role), wherein the actor reveals to us his or her own concerns and thoughts. As such, the tale of Psyche falling in love with Cupid emerges as a central motif of a “Shaggy” composition. Psyche, performed by Alla Kazakova in a “Shaggy” episode, furiously shoots at Cupid who seems to have stolen her story. She does this not as the character Psyche, but as the actress playing the role of Psyche. Two other incarnations of the goddess Isis come to life within the compositions – Klim (Klim Kozinsky) and Isis-Cicer (Andrei Yemelyanov), who interrupt performances with callous or sympathetic commentaries. They argue even as they take care the columns don’t fall over.
“Shaggy” and “White” compositions are designated by their appearance: shaggy columns grace the stage in the “Shaggy” segments, while white columns are featured in the “White” segments. The “City” compositions are so named for their content and they feature black columns (i.e., a black Parthenon).
One radical aspect of the project is that it embraces Apuleius’ text in its entirety. Insofar as the novel is impossible to separate from all the layers of meaning and contexts that have accrued to it over the centuries, one way of approaching it is to employ an artistic strategy by which the creative individuals (directors and actors creating the modules) are given free reign with the text.
This is organized theatrically so that the tribulations faced by Apuleius’ ass in a literary setting are transferred to the performers themselves. In plain view of the audience they suffer every requisite “whip lash” in order to earn the status of director. We simultaneously see demonstrations of various interpretations of the tale (in epic and dramatic form). This combination of the two gives rise to the grand idea of intertwining Apuleius’ fiction with actors’ and directors’ real-life experiences right before our eyes. Yukhananov wants “every individual actor, that is you yourself, to assimilate personally the tale or excerpt you are working on.” To that he adds unhindered imagination, thus opening up the space of theatre to the outer world, making it accessible to the spectator in the hall.
As for the journey of the ass, it is organized so that on Day One (“Shaggy”) he fears to enter the cathedral; does resolve to enter on Day Two (“White”); and, on Day Three, begins the descent through all the circles of hell so that ultimately, through initiation, he approaches Isis in the netherworld.
Thus does the tale of Apuleius’ novel become the creative life-support for an entire project. Psyche must be tested in order to attain prudence and courage. Lucius the ass is initiated as a servant to the goddess Isis in order to cast off the mask of the animal. Any project participant who wishes to try out his or her own individual style while working on one of the most important texts of European culture must first achieve the status of director. In the case of the Open-circuited workspace of modules Yukhananov himself takes on the function of Isis and in real time, before witnesses, delivers unto participants “the blows of life with the knowledge that the only way to experience reality is to go straight through it, not merely touch it.” Unlike rehearsals, which are kept hidden from stray witnesses (one can only participate in rehearsals), the Open-circuited workspace of modules is a process by which a performance takes shape before the eyes of spectators who are given the opportunity to have their say and even rebel. As such, the principal of induction emerges as the fundamental law of The Golden Ass – laws are made in the process of performance. They always exist, but they can be changed.
MARINA DAVYDOVA ON “NEW-PROCESSUALITY”AND HOW TO WATCH THE GOLDEN ASS
By Marina Davydova
A new issue of Theatre magazine is going to press now. On the occasion of its publication COLTA.RU publishes Marina Davydova’s article about one of the key projects of the current season that is now coming to an end – The Golden Ass. The Open-Circuited Workspace at the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre.
In the beginning was the word. And the word was from Yukhananov. The demiurge transforms into a performer and descends to the sinful stage. Text, context and hypertext merge into one. Here they are – all before us. Allow me to admire you! We, the inhabitants of the profane world, finally saw the entire elephant. Incidentally, "Buy an elephant!" is a key phrase in The Golden Ass. This is an accident, of course. In the "open-circuited workspace" (as the program defines the project’s genre) everything happens by accident. At the same time everything happens naturally.
This space holds purely technological difficulties for the critic, because the usual critical tools will have to be put aside. Here it is impossible to say: the author, apparently wanted to tell us thus and such but failed because the author often contradicted himself in the course of the work. It is useless to reflect on the production itself (for the sake of convenience we still use this familiar, though clearly outdated term). More likely it makes sense to reflect on someone else's reflection.
But first I must describe exactly how The Golden Ass is structured; otherwise my reflection on reflection will be so abstruse that the reader will angrily stop reading this text. Let's hope he has not done that yet.
The Golden Ass runs five days in a row and consists of modules and compositions. Modules run from 2 to 6 p.m. all five days. These are mini-performances that various of Yukhananov’s pupils and his company’s actors themselves have created on the basis of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. Each time the fragments are mounted in different ways and outside of plot logic. The public may come and go freely, but the hall is always full of spectators. Yukhananov, sitting in the hall, may interrupt any of the modules at any time and begin deconstructing it before our very eyes.
The compositions begin at 7 p.m. There are three kinds of compositions - "Shaggy," "White" and "City." Compositions were once modules, too, but then Yukhananov chose to unite them into something integral and, as it were, completed. As you have probably guessed, the words "as it were" are the key. There are possible improvisation zones in the compositions, as well. The unpredictable may happen in them, too. Or it may not. It’s the luck of the draw. They run five hours each. Simply put, The Golden Ass is an opus magnum, an encyclopedia of our life. It touches upon all the burning topics and employs all the genres of spectacle: pastoral, clownery, circus and ballet. The action in it is stylized as a party in the 1930s or a disco in the 1980s. At the same time, the overall tonality of the project varies from composition to composition. The scenery also changes somewhat.
In the "Shaggy" segments shaggy columns stand on stage.
The relations between performers and spectators here are most mobile, while the boundary between the stage and hall is as permeable as the boundary between the stage and life.
In the course of one story here performers may quote Artaud and Grotowski. They may exclaim: "In the name of Guy Debord I urge you to action!" A “Man leaving the hall” is listed in the program among the characters, and people do leave. Exuberant jesters remove a participant of the performance, and he shouts at the audience: "If there are children in the room, representatives of the Ministry of Culture or the commission on morality, beware, there will be many obscenities to come!" An actress speaking her character’s monologue suddenly and tearfully begins to remember how she, speaking three languages, enrolled in GITIS and found herself in the actor's community... and then goes back to the monologue of her “role.”
We see not characters before us, but actors performing characters.
Psyche, as played by Alla Kazakova, comes on stage and tells us her story. But Cupid (Pavel Kravets) also appears on stage. He's a clown in something like a clown suit. He begins narrating the same story as Kazakova’s Psyche. And now she begins acting as a commentator. One who ironically evaluates someone else's performance. She yells: he stole my story!
Now a pseudo-director, identified in the program as Isis-Tsitser, gives the actors what-for: the costumes were all right, the props were okay, the perspective was epic, but you should have affected the spectators dramatically. I’m retelling this from memory; Isis-Tsitser in his blue hipster cap (Andrei Yemelyanov), tells it in a far more twisted manner than I.
These aren’t tales of ancient gods and mere mortals, but a struggle for the spectator’s attention. This struggle or competition (literally agon in Greek) is the main plot of "Shaggy."
In the "White" segments the columns are white.
Everything is more refined here than in the previous composition. On stage stand chairs in the form of shells, unambiguously referring to Botticelli’s "Birth of Venus." Kazakova again plays Venus. She’s has it out with Amur (Anton Kapanin). The action moves to Olympus, where the local gods quarrel, compare their virtues and compete for the attention of the audience, well, rather like people. Or more precisely, as actors.
Also in the "White" segments there are real butterflies on stage. Alongside the ass and the elephant, a butterfly - the symbol of beauty, but also the symbol of the ephemeral (death) - is the production’s main symbol. We will return to it.
In the "City" segments the columns are black.
From Olympus, the action is transferred to sinful earth, and a tart smell of the swashbuckling ’90s is mixed into it. There’s everything under the sun here. Men in the market with a Georgian accent. Cocaine dens where cocaine is chased with pickled cucumbers. The pop-group Affectionate May and their immortal song, "Pink Roses for Svetka Sokolova." Something Chinese-like alongside gentle maidens with long fair-haired braids. Skulls. A black angel of death with horns. A dead ass lies in the middle of the stage. Characters confuse the concepts of "fatherly" and "featherly." A languid masculine Venus (Lera Gorin) sings "Dark Night" and orders green trumpets to be played. In general, everything is very reminiscent of a crematorium.
"Shaggy," "White" and "City." What is this triad? A world of actors - a world of gods - a world of people? Paradise? Purgatory? The underworld? Caterpillar? Butterfly? A Butterfly's Ashes? The Dionysian principle? The Apollonian principle? Some other principle (I have no idea what)?
Then we come back to the key question. A finished work is good because you can interpret it, you can debunk it, you can point out mistakes based on laws that the author himself established. But how do you record for posterity elusive theatrical matter that makes sense of itself only in the process of coming into being, and - what is absolutely incomprehensible - in the process of escaping our grasp? How do you evaluate and decipher the "open-circuited workspace"? Like this I suspect: a well-structured "open space" provokes the viewer to reflect, whereas a poorly arranged one does not. Where the structure is weak, you sit and grind your teeth trying to understand what does this all mean? When the structure is well-organized, I can fly away in thought to some distance space, which the creators of the performance probably did not have in mind at all. I begin to see meanings in it that it probably doesn’t have. So what?! The open-circuited structure is not an object for interpretation. It is a trigger for thought. If the trigger works, I start to love the performance.
What did I think about while I was watching The Golden Ass? Primarily about theatre itself, because good modern theatre is, first of all, theatre that studies the nature of theatre, and this free composition from the Electrotheatre based on Apuleius is, above all, playacting about playacting.
In addition to Isis-Tsitser, there is also Isis-Klim (Klim Kozinsky). But the main Isis is, of course, Yukhananov himself. He also sometimes interjects himself into the process of the compositions criticizing others’ criticism. He directs the direction. He speaks as one who has the right to do so. If you think about it, Yukhananov cannot and should not have any deputies, as Tadeusz Kantor could not. On stage he, too, personally offered up his own brilliant invocations. But they [deputies] are present here. And this is not accidental.
Comprehending the nature of theatre in The Golden Ass we simultaneously begin comprehending the nature of power, and therefore the nature of society itself. Everyone seeks to dominate - protestant preachers who brought the "good news" in the form of Apuleius's text, rock singers, politicians, gods, even boxers who duke it out right on the theatre’s stage. Theatre, as we said previously, is agon, a duel, and in it you can always expect unexpected blows from your partner. The actor performs and reigns on stage, then another actor appears and out-performs his colleague. Then the director comes in and tells the out-played actor what he did wrong before another director arrives and contradicts what the first one said. Then clowns enter and repudiate the second director, establishing their own rules of the game.
So it is in society that no director is ever endowed with authority forever, but the one who is currently in power (whether on a horse, an elephant or a donkey) is the one who directs his own play, and does not play a role in someone else's.
At the very beginning of “Shaggy,” the wizard Psyche (Alla Kazakova) comes out with a suitcase and is immediately followed in by a chorus. This chorus is not, however, of the ancient type, it is, rather, more of a “bothersome” type. Making geometric gestures with their hands, the choristers begin pestering Psyche: “Buy an elephant! Buy an elephant!” “Do not you have an ass?” Everyone says: "Don’t you have an ass? Why don’t you buy an elephant!” The one who first says, "Buy an elephant!" is immediately at an advantage. Whatever you may say, he will beat you. He set the rules of the game and you are stuck in his game whether you like it or not.
Setting the rules of the game and guessing the rules of the game - this is the main object in the "open-circuited workspace." The rules change continuously, as do the optics through which we peruse the stage (and the world). A tale about thus and such events is conducted in the first person and we sympathize with the hero, but when the same story is narrated in the third person, the hero now seems comical to us. At a certain point Yukhananov brings up the parable about Chinese poets writing their poems - suddenly they are told that the imperial family is watching them. This changes the rules of the game too. That's why the viewer is so important in The Golden Ass ("The spectator exists!" Yukhananov suddenly shouted toward the hall). Because the person taking this all in directs the performance no less than the most charismatic director.
Everyone is constantly directing in The Golden Ass, everyone is constantly watching each other, and every now and then they change places. As in quantum physics, every object and every subject has a shimmer of existence. Everything is unreal —pseudo-directors, pseudo-actors, even pseudo spectators, whom we initially think are real. And at the same time, everything is genuine. Before us is an endless chain of transformations. A vicious circle. An eternal theatrical samsara.
The "open-circuited workspace" does not simply insist on the variability and uncertainty of a world teeming with paradoxes - in a sense it sings their praises.
"The play is under way, but the play has not been written yet," Yukhananov said. Life is already happening, but there is no life scenario. Life is also an "open-circuited workspace.”
Who is Yukhananov in all these compositions? Before each one begins, one of his deputy-Isises brays like an ass: his face makes the most idiotic expression and he opens his mouth wide. This braying replaces the bell calling in the spectators. Sometimes Yukhananov too howls like a donkey. At the production I saw ("production" again!) he suddenly announced to the audience as he pointed to his actors: "These are all fake asses, I alone am the real ass!" That is, he is both Isis and the ass. Okay. Who else? Joker? Trickster? Illusionist? Imitator Dei? The last, perhaps, is the truest of all. There is nothing sacred for the "imitator of God." That goes for Yukhananov as well.
For example, I witnessed how, in the process of deconstructing a certain "module," one of Anatoly Vasilyev’s most famous disciples began to criticize "all these f***ing Vasilyevians," debunking his former classmates, then his pupils, then his teachers, then his own apostles, then his own ideas. He laughed at himself, then he laughed at how clumsily he had just laughed at himself. "We are deprived of words (that is, concepts - MD), but nobody forbids us to laugh." That’s another quote from Yukhananov.
To laugh means to expose.
The theater not only can create an illusion, but it can dispel an illusion (a session of theatrical magic that exposes itself fully). And then create an illusion again before our very eyes! The theater is the eternal construction and destruction of a mandala. And The Golden Ass is the ideal text for theater. Not because Apuleius’ novel is full of juicy passions, has a twisted plot and the devil-only-knows what else. This is all fine for an "open-circuited space," but it's not the main thing. The main thing is that the second title of The Golden Ass is Metamorphoses (!) and there is a sacred meta-story in these metamorphoses.
In the context of this project, of course, the final transformation of the ass into a human (Apuleius has it happen in a temple!) is the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly, the transformation of nonsense into poetry, the transformation of life into art. And it leaves hope for each of us that we will someday transform from what we are: people.
I don’t know if Yukhananov had this in mind when he came up with his opus magnum. But were it not for him, I would never have thought about all this and would never have formulated for myself this ontological justification for theatre. If it were not for his "open-circuited workspace," I probably would never have seen the golden ass in its entirely - from time to time I would have just felt his ears, his hooves and his tail.
November 18, 2016
"Only after seeing the whole thing in its entirety does the spectator of The Golden Ass realize the power of this new format, the essence of which is incompleteness and openness. Segments from Apuleius' novel, staged as 'modules' and in a non-linear fashion by various of Yukhananov's student directors, are subjected immediately upon having been performed to commentary offered up by Yukhananov himself in the presence of the public. His comments (sometimes expressed gently, sometimes brutally, but always with a keen eye to the general cultural context) are a great gift for the audience, whether a neophyte or a professional..."
November 16, 2016
"You can expect anything - everybody is involved in this parade. Not only is the workspace for Apuleius' novel opened up to spectators, it actually swallows them... only to spit them out again, fully alive, at the end. At this point, however, they have the incredible experience of this mystery-performance behind their backs.
"The impudent author-consumer continues gaining momentum, taking over bit-by-bit the inviolable territory of playful performance. Someone let asses into the nursery. Or, rather, the garden. The Garden was not only the title of a multi-year project conducted throughout many incarnations in the '90s by Yukhananov and his early disciples in the Studio of Individual Directing, but it is also an entire philosophy. It is a sanctuary where there is no format, no framework or deadlines, and the rules are constantly being rewritten and changed. The Golden Ass comes from that very same Garden, and for a while audiences were generously allowed to come in and watch. Keep author-izing and consuming."
“Who are these strange people living here?” Thus begins “Composition I (Shaggy)” on evening one of Boris Yukhananov’s five-day theatrical journey through Apuleius’ novel The Golden Ass at the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, which in just a few seasons has become one of Moscow’s primary experimental stages. It consists not only of evening “compositions” (of which there are three - “Shaggy,” “White” and “City”) that run five or six hours, but also of so-called “modules” that run during the day - these are separate episodes that the public may attend for free. They are akin to open rehearsals, although Yukhananov specifically states in a booklet that they are not rehearsals and that the goal of the modules is to determine the line that separates performance art from theatre. He calls the whole project an “open-circuited workspace,” and the method he uses is described as “new processualism.” In other words, to translate it into the language of metaphors, it’s a caterpillar, a cocoon and a butterfly (the modules being cocoons).
“All levels of theatrical introspection are imbedded in the structure of The Golden Ass, just as all manners of interaction among directors, performers and spectators are parodied.”
“No, this isn’t even an open-circuited workspace, as the program has it, it is that long desired-for theatrical plenitude, it is a claim to a monopoly, the total consumption of all and everything... Why run back and forth between little shops when the doors of a spectacular supermarket are thrown wide open, where the offerings will assault your eyes, where there is everything your heart could desire, all in the finest quality...”
“The Open-circuited workspace is the preeminent achievement of Russian theatrical thought and practice because these are not merely open rehearsals conducted by the raging emcee Master Yukhananov. The Modules are the most intricately imaginable consideration of all kinds of twists and turns that Apuleius expresses in his novel in a deeply esoteric, that is, intuitive, way. As it turns out, Apuleius’ novel is highly theatrical.”
“Nothing like this mystery play at the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre has ever existed before and probably never will again. Rebellion is a rare kind of gold, it is always unique. The actors generated such heat in the process of creating their roles, that is, their episodes, which are called modules, that they obviously were breaking all the common rules. The dual structure of the basic action consisting of three compositions plus innumerable modules, cocoons and caterpillars that are ready to transform into compositions – makes the process endless. And extremely attractive for actors. For a module that mutates into a composition is a most powerful psychoanalytic (call it shamanistic) exercise in memory, metamorphosis and creation.”