TEDx talk august 2012

August 28, 2012

TEDx Rhodes 12th August 2012

africa inspired


Theatre or Extinction. Choose!

It seems abundantly clear from all the available evidence that at the core, the essential nature of existence, even, and especially in fact, at the subatomic level, consists of a dynamic interaction between conflicting, and potentially opposing, forces. Electromagnetic and gravitational energy attracting and repelling particles which are colliding in the beautiful chaotic dance through which energy materialises and is manifested as matter in the physical realm. (speaker finds imaginary rope and begins to pull against a growing pull from other end through the following text) And similarly, at a societal level we are constantly in the grip of the forces that pull things together and those that pull things apart. So it is not surprising that in theatre, which could be said to represent life, we encounter the same conflict of opposing forces. In the West this is most commonly experienced through the spoken dialogue of characters with contrary points of view. Macbeth vs Macduff, or these two;

My lord, I have remembrances of yours,

That I have longed long to redeliver.

I pray you now receive them.

No, not I, I never gave you aught

My honoured lord you know right well you did.

No. Get thee to a nunnery, go and quickly too!

Hamlet and Ophelia’s conflict represented. However, (rope again) I am a big fan of physical theatre and I am inspired by African performance traditions because they illustrate so graphically how it is possible for this core conflictive dynamic of theatre to be, not represented, but embodied. To be manifest in the body of the performer.

Another illustration; observe the difference between this; “Once there was a man who ran into a wall.” And this; (runs into wall).

This, I hope, so that I don’t need to do it again, speaks for itself. But the salient element of the first illustration is that despite what you might think, there was no rope. And, even more importantly, there was nobody pulling at the other end of the no-rope that we didn’t see. But each one of us, I am willing to bet, saw someone there. And more importantly, each one of us saw a different nobody there. Each one, stimulated by an embodied conflict, actively imagined and visualised what…, in fact who… was patently not there. Exercising our communal imagination, in play. Childsplay? I would argue not.

In fact I would argue that in a world of 30 second tv ads, 20 minute sitcoms, and 16 minute recorded TED talks on the internet, and increasingly mind-blowing digital animation, it is nothing less than a matter of life and death, of the survival of the species that we re-learn to exercise our imaginations and play. To utilise our ability to ask the question ‘what if ?’ Because this facility to use the imagination, to project ourselves through time and space in order to consider varying circumstances and varying points of view, I would argue, is the prime defining technique, mechanism, talent, ability, muscle which distinguishes homo sapiens. It is central to the functioning of the key evolutionary advantage of adaptability and empathy which has allowed us to survive this long.

To illustrate, imagine, if you will, two early humans discussing the plans for the buffalo hunt;

I’m hungry

Me too. So what yer think? Buffalo?

Buffalo?! My wife loves a bit of buffalo

Good, you can score some points then, because there’s a whole herd of them coming into the valley.

Good. So what’s the plan?

Well I have been consulting the bones…

You don’t know how to read bones.

No, I’m doing a course.

A course?

On being a shaman. Reader of bones. Traveller to the underworld. Spirit man.

Oh no.

So the bones tell me that we will have success in the hunt if we dress up in the clothes of our forefathers and, approaching the herd from the South, we run in slow motion toward the buffalo screaming horribly, they will marvel at our amazingness as humans and be possessed by the beauty of the movement and so will stand there until we are within range to loosen the wrath of our spears into their dumbfounded heads.


So what are you going to wear? What did your father wear?

I don’t know he was eaten before I was born.

Sabre Tooth?

No my brother and my uncle. Long story. It was a bad season. Anyway…

What do you think of the plan?

I think it is one of at least two we should consider. The second being this one. My mother always told me that the best way to catch buffalo is to think like buffalo.

How do we do that?

She also said the best way to think like buffalo is to look and move like buffalo.


So put on this buffalo skin and this buffalo mask with the buffalo horns and be buffalo.

I feel like a bit of a doos.

No stick with it, go on. Act buffalo.

Act like buffalo…

No, ACT buffalo. Perform the essence of buffalo.

(chewing) So?

Yes. Sort of thing. Go on. ‘Be’ buffalo.

Right. Moo. (chews)

Good. And what is buffalo thinking about?

Moo. Grass.

Good. Nice, staying in character, I like that. Okay so. There you are. Buffalo. In the herd. Now I’ll be you, dressed like your dad and approaching from the South, which also happens to be upwind, running, in slow motion, screaming horribly, toward you. Eeeeuuuaaargh!!


So what does buffalo think? Are you marvelling at the amazingness of humans and possessed by the beauty of the movements?

Not really.

So tell me, what does buffalo think now?

(chewing) ‘What’s up with the stupid humans? What a crap plan.’

Precisely, but, if you and me, have put on buffalo skins and headdresses and covered ourselves with buffalo dung and urine.


Yes, for the scent, and have by now already infiltrated the herd and are amongst them, being buffalo like this and grazing like the rest of them, then what is buffalo thinking?

Moo… Still just grass.

Exactly. And that is when we throw off the skins and we…

… loosen the wrath of our spears into their dumbfounded heads.

Exactly. Then buffalo is thinking ‘Where did the humans come from?’

Or they are thinking; ‘Why is my brother buffalo sticking a spear into me?’

Or they are not thinking at all because they are already lunch.

That was fun. Buggar the hunt. Let’s play buffalo again.

Okay, tomorrow. But today we must hunt. You don’t want to see my wife when she’s hungry.


Arguably, a version of one of the myriad possible origins of theatre; play as a key tool for survival, as a significant evolutionary advantage.

But this advantage requires practice otherwise like any muscle, it will atrophy. The more we practice using our imagination the better we get at it. The more imaginative technique we develop, the better the choices we are likely to make as individuals and as a species. And the better chance we have of surviving. Of avoiding extinction.

So theatre and live performance can be legitimately viewed as a core human activity, rather than a diversion or distraction. Which is often how it is perceived. Especially in the West. And the bulk of popular culture and media output, in it’s design, does not call on the imagination; digital media games and movies fill in all the imaginative gaps for us. Consequently we have forgotten, especially in the so-called global culture, how to witness, participate in, be present in, view, be with, watch… live performance.


So to counter this I wish to conclude this talk by presenting;



The actor is positioned on his upper back and shoulders with his arms and legs raised above him.

What’s going on?


What’s he doing? What is that?

Oh it’s …er… physical theatre, bru.


Physical theatre. It’s a… like a dance vibe… abstract.

Oh… like intellectual?

Well no, in fact, exactly the opposite. You’re not really expected or supposed to understand it.

Oh ja?

Ja. You just watch it and don’t try to understand… just… you feel it.

Okay… I am not feeling that oke, hey.

No man, stay with it, just watch and listen. Don’t look to try and see anything. Just see what you see.

What are you seeing? Cos I’m just looking at an oke with his arse in the air. What is that supposed to mean?

That’s what I am saying; it isn’t necessarily ‘supposed to mean’ anything.

Then why must he do it and why must I watch it?

No look, try to think more holistically. For instance, so okay there he is with his arse in the air, but you must try not to be distracted by that. Instead of looking at him, at where his arse is, imagine what does it suggest when you look at…  the movement.

The movement?


China he’s not moving, he’s just standing there on his back.

No I think if you look carefully you’ll see that there are subtle shifts and shadow movements. There, you see that…? When I look at that it suggests… it makes me feel like… perhaps… like he could be… under water.

Under water?

Ja. It makes me think of a dead body floating, suspended upside down in the water. Strangely peaceful.

Kak man. He’s breathing. I can see his lips moving – he’s talking. You can’t do that under water, dude I don’t care how abstract you are. And especially if you are dead.

No dude, I’m just using my imagination… for instance look there now, it’s changing and you know what I’m seeing? It could be a baby.

A dead baby under water? You’re sick.

No! An unborn baby. Floating there in the amniotic fluid. Safe in his mother’s womb.

Isn’t he a bit old to play a baby?

No man I told you; it’s art. You’ve got to use your imagination.

I’m sorry, I’m not seeing a baby there guy.

Fine what are you seeing? It doesn’t have to be what I’m seeing. It’s about working out your own… y’know… Each person is gonna see something totally different.

So it doesn’t matter what he does? Anyone could just get on stage and do anything?

Well as long as it stimulates my imagination and my feelings.


The actor dismounts, stands and begins to mime-walk toward the audience.


Oh no wait, hang on man, now what’s he doing?

What? Oh okay, that’s mime bru.



What do you mean it’s yours?

No MiMe; Marcel Marceau. White face, stuck in a box. Pulling a rope…

Oooh. Right… I remember them… weird little dudes with irritating braces and stupid smiles on their stupid white faces. Whatever happened to those chops?

Well actually that specific school of mime had a relatively short lifespan.


Ja. Interestingly enough in the nineteen sixties I think, in Paris, a man called Jacques Lecoq held a mock funeral to mark the death of Mime as an art form.

Are you serious, dude? That’s his name. Jack the Cock?

No Jacques Lecoq… French dude. Famous oke. He’s dead now, but famous… Ag never mind.

Okay so wait… you rate this guy quite highly?

Ja. His technique is pretty good.


Yes definitely.

Well now we are talking. Cos even if I don’t know what’s going on or who is supposed to be who and what’s the story, even if I have no idea what its about I can still appreciate the technique. I don’t have to understand if I can SEE the technique.

Except that this is mime technique.


So the basic premise of mime is not that you are supposed to see the wall that isn’t there, what you see is the not-wall, you watch the absence of wall manifest. Its very zen. The same with the technique. If it’s there you won’t be able to see it.

So how do I know it’s there?

Well if there’s no technique, then you will definitely see that.

So wait I must watch this theatre and if I don’t understand what’s going on I must look for something which if it’s there, I won’t be able to see it. And if it isn’t there then, I will be able to see that it isn’t there.


So I’m not going to see anything am I?

Well that’s what I’ve trying to tell you. Don’t try and understand or see anything. Just feel it…

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