Thursday, 20 December 2007

Meyerhold, Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde

Meyerhold's task was to combine the three dimensionality of the actors body with the flat two dimensionality of the set design. In order to solve this problem he turned to the developments in the graphic experiments of the Russian avant-garde, people like Popova, Rodchenko etc. He also wanted to move away from a theatre based on words or text for expressing emotions and ideas, to a theatre based on gesture and movement in order to create and widen the possibilities for creating an emotional atmosphere in any given play. For instance Chekov wrote(roughly speaking) for one type of theatre which was actor/text based.

Meyerhold's productions included influences from Kabuki theatre which is based on mime and dance, the action developing around a series of gestures and poses as much as a result of the text of the play. With both of the above in mind, Meyerhold developed a specific training technique for his actors called biomechanics.

It consisted of a series of exercises and movements in which an actor could collectively, either with a partner or a group of actors, develop non textual or non verbal ways of expressing inner emotions. Through the movement of the actors body, emotions which could not easily be represented by words i.e. crowd scenes or group or mass action revealed themselves on the stage. One of the first plays in which all these elements were synthesised was "The Magnanimous Cuckold". Popova designed the set as a moving dynamic
construction almost like a machine in motion. The actors deprived of any make up or costumes struggled to find their feet in this unusual set construction. Here however Meyerhold's training of biomechanics helped and both actors and set were synthesised into one grand machine moving in unison to the rhythm of Meyerhold's direction. In order to show how Meyerhold achieved this in a documentary film it was decided to use actors to "recreate" Meyerhold's techniques. A simple solution was devised of filming the actors performances as shadows. We shot the shadows with an English actor in Moscow who had previously studied at the Moscow Arts theatre. We weren't quite sure how to go about filming biomechanics so we improvised using the knowledge that we had. The idea of the shadows was to make the presentation more abstract and less concrete so that the emphasis would be on the movement itself rather than the person. This, as far as I understand was echoing some of Meyerhold's ideas. Once again I asked Slava Sachkov to film the sequences of shadows.

Watch an extract from the film.