The Metaphysical Voice & The Boots of Innocence

The Metaphysical Voice & The Boots of Innocence

Nate Speare – a Brooklyn-based actor, director, playwright and astrologer, with serious knowledge of James Hillman’s work and ideas – sends news that “his Reagan is being revived per invitation of Dixon Place, lower east side in Manhattan, on November 4th (2017)”. I directed the piece some years ago as part of a training and study residence Nate did with Pantheatre. He took over the Pantheatre library and worked on a great archival catalogue. He also wore, performing Reagan, a pair of old black cowboy boots I lent him for the occasion. The piece contains docu-fictional revelations on Reagan’s Alzheimer’s fantasies – and on the fact that Nate when a kid was a fan of Ronald Reagan, if only to annoy, be contrary and imp-pertinent with his liberal East-Coast father. Nate is revising his Reagan to integrate the new presidential delirium: a ‘trumped up’ version of a tragic-comically ‘trumped-down’ piece: Reagan’s Alzheimer’s was actually, and in spite of being very funny, a terrible descent into hell.

Probably at exactly the same time when Nate sent me his email, I was directing an actor and theatre teacher in our Paris professional laboratory. We were going to tackle his working text for the first time. I asked him to lie down on his back, close in front of the audience and, before starting, to sigh deeply and calmly, for quite a while, relaxed and relieved. I had no idea what text he had chosen.

The following paragraphs comment and analyze a directorial session, weaving in psychological and philosophical threads. The integration of text into both choreographic theatre and voice performance is the “cherry on the cake” of my work, the core and cutting-edge of what I actually mean by voice work. It is also where I have taken, amongst other sources, Roy Hart’s voice philosophy, and it is in line with a post-modern (Derrida-like) definition I particularly like, by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben: “Listening to the voice in speech is what thinking is all about”.


The actor’s choice of text turned out to be the Wesley monologue from Curse of the Starving Class by Sam  Shepard – a cult speech I worked on years ago. It starts:
– Wesley: (as he throws wood into the wheelbarrow) I was lying there on my back. I could smell the avocado blossoms. I could hear the coyotes. I could hear stock cars squealing down the street. I could feel myself in my bed in my room in this house in this town in this state in this country.

Nice coincidence with my prior request and a great choice for this particular actor. I describe the choice of a working text as the “moral contract”: i.e. the personal-personality challenge an actor gives her or himself – the measure and style of her/his ambition. Every text brings along with it, of course, its author, as cultural authority, and with it comes the authority / authorial voice. In most academic circles, the author knows best. In our case, we have Sam Shepard, along with Wesley and his family – and a whole retinue of cultural ghosts – all potential literary dictators: dictated dictions and dictating voices. How to find and work from a pertinent and personal place in such a cultural landscape? How to find a pertinent and personal voice in such a context? I often say the question is metaphysical, and I will hint at some of the implications here.

Asking the actor to lie down on his back, to sigh and relax, was my directorial instinctual and instant response to his presence and manner of entry; in this case it gave relaxation counsel. It happened to be in perfect synchronicity with Wesley’s first words – and part of a temporary lull during which Wesley sinks into place, from bed to country, before the father’s violent arrival. To settle into a deep sighing stance lifts the pressure, or sinks it: instead of pressure to act and ex-press, we have sighs of relief. It signifies that there is an arrival, a grounding: the actor has made it, has finally found his place. Maybe even his final place… For a moment at least he can sink into an underworld[1].

Then he started to speak the text, calmly, in a settled, mellow, deep voice, sharing with us the information… I advised keeping the sighs going, interrupting the text with them, and adding lots of unpressurized ad lib “Hey Guys…” to draw the audience into story and especially to draw them into place. A story “takes place”… The insistence on “finding your place” comes from a favorite motto: “if you find your place, you will find your voice” – you will ‘place’ your voice. The question becomes: where are you, where are we? What reality are we in? The voice becomes the sensual intelligence of place: a well-placed voice.

These reflections on place are built on perceptive imagination, on imagination as perception – and even: imagination as figurative listening, listening that “figures out”. James Joyce, in Finnegans Wake, puts it even more sensually: “And you’ll nose it, O you’ll nose it, without warnward from we.” The voice, and in particular the tone of voice reflects and constructs soul, soul as anima loci, soul as placed voice and voice of place. The soul-voice relation becomes a crystallization in the particular of the more cosmic notion of anima mundi. If “the voice is the muscle of the soul” (as often quoted, after H. W. Longfellow), this would be my way of applying that saying to the reality that performance affords us, and of making use of ‘muscled’, soulful sensitivity to comment reality. To comment and to ‘speak’ it. Some would say to give it consciousness: fitting text and context, in the broadest ‘metaphysical’ sense. To comment: cum mens – meeting the mind of the real. Technically it is my way to metaphorize soul ‘muscle’ beyond only-emotion, or only-feelingfulness as soul is often, and sometimes exclusively defined today. Lead it to artistic wisdom. Joyce makes of it ‘nose knowledge’, i.e. in-breath as inspiration, perfume as insight, oxygen as poetical awakening. The first sign of Wesley’s settling into place is the fact that he “could smell the avocado blossoms”.

Yes, but with our actor, in the laboratory and in its circumstances (the particular surroundings, the figures that ‘are around’), where were we? What was the location into which the actor had ‘landed’. In  Shepard’s play, on paper, it is a locations that belong mostly to literary or cinematic social realism. Presumably southern mid-western red-necks. But in choreographic theatre this is only a surface allusion and illusion. If we talk underworld, where are we? Underneath which social-realistic landscape are we? This is Nekyia talk: descent into the underworld, a particular form of imaginative listening and imaginal under-standing [2].

It was from this perspective that I offered my feedback to the actor after the session. I said clearly: “You are too innocent.” Meaning that in his acting style and choices the underworld perspective and echo was not open or only incipient, and that in the discursive grain of his voice, in what his voice said and expressed, there was not enough complexity, not enough ‘deep’ resonance, not enough echo of the mythical reality and context he was in, i.e. the place. And this, even though he had a rich mellow baritone and a good speaking style. He stayed in accordance with “the book” i.e. with the rendering and style academically attributed to Shepard – probably far from Shepard’s actual shadow and ironical purpose. The deconstructive moves – or call them mytho-poetic, that I describe below here are, to repeat myself, at the core of what I practice and understand today as voice teaching.

Here is my take on the scene: we were in coyote-land, and, from the muted parody howls of the gloating chorus sitting around, it was a rather nasty underworld. An impressive one too, given the way the dark undertones of Shepard’s text colluded with and echoed the stage atmosphere. The resonances and ‘magical’ synchronicities, or sympathies, between the setting (actors loitering around, the traffic outside, the passers-by, etc.), and the text were potentially of an extraordinary wealth[3]. The artist-actor’s craft and art, in our case, is to figure them out and realize (give reality to) their dimensions. To figure out and to realize: the two underpinnings of performance. To realize (and this was is the vision I would foster in this case) that we were actually surrounded by coyote-like figures, of which some might be stinky old transmuted Navajo shaman-ghosts. For me we were all being ‘set-up’ (with  Shepard’s complicity and genius) into a Nekyia – a descent into the underworld, into an underworldly intelligence[4].

I finished my reflections with a mythological ramble on the figure of coyote, probably the most dangerous of all mythological tricksters. And I say this against Pantheatre’s mythological backdrop: Pan is a child of Hermes, Greek mythology’s principal trickster (though not the only one), and its great messenger and underworld traveller, psychopompos: guide and mentor of souls (not to be followed naively, nor arrogantly, thinking one knows his hermetic intentions.) Coyote is an evil character, possibly even a figure of “radical evil”[5], and this is to do largely with his being a scavenger – feeding off the dead. He might be cute, seductive, funny, clever (or the old moronic figure of those terrible Bip Bip cartoons – Roadrunner?), but one thing he is not is innocent. In fact he is an initiator into non-innocence, and therefore imparts a very dangerous education: the teacher as dreadful transgressor, especially with our most sacred innocent icons: babies (he steals them from cribs in suburban gardens nowadays), or the ten year old daughter of the tribe’s chief (talk of pedophilia!). Tribal elders find all this very funny, and roar with laughter as they share coyote stories – a rare amoral but thoroughly mature mythological stance that probably came to America with the Siberian shamanic traditions.

I told a myth in which Coyote is married to Mole (of all animals!) They lead a calm, settled couple-life underground. But on Saturday nights he needs to get out and make enemies; he does the rounds and provokes absolutely everyone. His favorite enemy though is Puma whom he drives beyond the limits of all patience, and who ends up

Beuys & coyote

tearing Coyote to pieces. Coyote manages to put his bits and bones back together again and returns happily home for another week. Those following the Pantheatre lectures by Anna Griève will have picked up the parallel I am making with the figure of Melusine, also a Saturday night maverick, but female this time. Or, for that matter, the parallel with the arrival of Wesley’s drunken father – though this was a daily occurrence. They will also remember how important Joseph Bueys’ one and only performance-appearance in the United States was, certainly for an art student like me at the time, when he asked to be locked in a New York gallery with… a coyote. It was his ‘shamanic’ way of dealing with Wesley’s country and history.

I finished with some coyote-like salty banter. I said to the actor that he needed to pour salt on his presence and performance – alchemical salt, the one that dries innocent moisture, innocent creams and dreams. I said Sam Shepard was a salty, thin, tanned cowboy. Tanning is another alchemical operation: tanning leather, working on its patina and coloring (so important in alchemy), and aging it. This is why I liked so much the actor’s text choice, his moral contract, the challenge he chose and brought to his work. I also made a commercial pitch for my line of Pantheatre salty alchemical cosmetics, which make for deep wrinkles. As an example I mentioned super-salty Samuel (Sam) Beckett, an older and seriously wrinkled version of Sam Shepard. The spirits of alcohol play a big part in this rather masculine territory (though coyote females are said to be even more cunning and nasty than males.) I also said, hesitantly, that Shepard had passed away. The actor denied it, so I added that in that case he had resurrected; I asked if he knew how he had done it: “Because he managed to eat his salty cowboy boots before dying”. That allowed him, like a good shaman, to came back from the dead. Later he checked and confirmed that Sam Shepard had in fact passed away last July 2017.

A final synchronicity:  Shepard’s play includes the famous slaughter of the (innocent) lamb – as part of Wesley’s disintegrating behavior. As Prof. Andy Crank puts it: “Later, at the end of the play, Wesley does indeed take the lamb out and slaughter it. Coming back into the house with its blood on his hands, Weston (the father) confronts him with his ironic action in a house full of food; “WHAT’D YA BUTCHER THE DUMB THING FOR! … THE ICE BOX IS CRAMMED FULL A’ FOOD” …Shepard’s stage directions show that Wesley had turned to an almost bestial state, like a coyote (also a persistent trope throughout many of Shepard’s plays)”.[6]

Enrique Pardo, Paris, Oct. 27, 2017


[1] There is an English word that brings text and place together: the word plot, both a piece of land (grave?) and a narrative intrigue.

[2] Peter Kingsley has written a book titled Reality. It starts with the translation and philological notes on the beginning of Parmenides’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) – also called simply The Poem. It is a mytho-poetic, and to me amazing, descent to the Underworld, not so much linked with death and dying but with a sort of glorious initiation, from which he returns with something like the key to reality – to the nature of things. Academia mostly frowns at Kingsley’s apparently mystical tone and claims – calls him an alternative reality guru, though his scholarly references are impressive. But then theatre is an alternative reality, a descent into fiction; hence my huge interest in the nature of fiction (De Ficta Natura ?), and in Kingsley’s proposals. Parmenides himself is more complex to locate, his voice (his ‘Reality’) is more difficult to place, especially given the way Plato and Proclus used and blurred his fragmentary tracks.

[3] The Underworld is also called Hades, the House of Hades, after the God and Lord of the Dead and of the Deep. Both Hades, and more so Pluto, his Roman name, are in essence and attributes millionaires – inherently wealthy. Wealth and depth are here conjoined. A Nekyia is therefore a visit to wealthy ‘deep’ palaces. What does it all imply? We will discuss answers at the next Myth and Theatre Festival – on Nekyia.

[4] I was recently invited to watch a film, a docu-fiction, on a Mexican tribe whose Peyote desert fields were being taken over and destroyed by an industrial development project. I was reminded once again to what degree the myths and stories of hallucinogenic plants are an integral part of over and under-world journeys and of the necessary blurring of the boundaries of consciousness, of the ‘places’ we live in and by and, in the film, of the boundaries of healing.

[5] The expression “radical evil” is from Anna Griève’s book Les Trois Corbeaux: pour une science du mal dans les comptes merveilleux. (The Three Crows : towards a science of evil in marvelous (fairy) tales.) Read more…

[6] From, Understanding Sam Shepard, by James Andy Crank. Univ of South Carolina Press, 2012.


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