The contributors to Mysteria Maxima have been having a bit of a facebook chat about what books inspired us the most when it came to the art we make. The stuff I make myself crosses over a few different artforms – music, video, theatre, comedy and performance art for a start. But I trained in devised theatre at uni – we’re talking collaborative, physical, DIY performance. It was a great training as an artist and it made me a pretty good actor too, which isn’t always the case with folks who have done straight actor training who then try to create their own work.
Our chat ended up sending me on a Book Depository shopping spree, because I haven’t read a lot of these in a long time. But they are deep in my DNA in the same way that The Stooges’ Fun House or the feeling of the first time an audience member ever punched me in the head are. I don’t need to go back and experience them again to remember what they mean to me. But I probably will.
This feels like possibly the most pretentious article I have ever written. But these are really dynamite books – if you’re looking for a book to kickstart your brain when it comes to the hows, whys and ifs of performance, these are a good place to get started.
PETER BROOK: THE EMPTY SPACE
Fucking Peter Brook. Flick through ¾ of international arts festival lineups and there he is, smugly presenting another thousand-actor presentation re-imagining some half-remembered grand story for the rich audiences that can afford the tickets. I find his shit totally unbearable. Buuuuuut, this book is still mindblowing. It’s a dense read, but his ideas are transformative and had a huge impact on late 20th century theatre. My favourite bit of this is The Deadly Theatre, where he talks about relevance and connection with audiences – it put me off ever wanting to be the kind of actor who spends three years performing in a regionally touring production of Cats or spending my summers doing Shakespeare In The Park. The rest of the book is full of the kind of ideas that blow your mind wide open. Yeah, it’s weird that he seems to have forgotten all of them and now seems set on making dreary, pretentious goop for your baby boomer Dad, but this book is epic.
ANTONIN ARTAUD: THE THEATRE AND ITS’ DOUBLE
When theatre people see my stuff, they often compare it to Artaud. Weirdly, there wasn’t much new information in his work for me; when I read it, I was already out there playing alongside punk bands and creating trauma for folks. I can’t say I think he articulates his ideas very well – he was a terrible writer and it’s not improved in translation. I think it’s more that his ideas were so fresh when he talked about them in the first half of the last century. Artaud created the “theatre of cruelty,” basically a full-frontal sensual assault that aimed to break through the audiences’ defences. Which is basically what punk rock does. But a lot of people seem to get a lot out of this, and I agree with a lot of what he says. So if you’re looking for The Birthday Party of theatre books, this is it.
STANISLAVSKI: AN ACTOR PREPARES
There are a few competing theories of acting, but a lot of them are a pile of shit. Or worse – any time I’ve encountered Strasberg’s method acting (the kind of thing you hear about Jared Leto mailing used condoms to people as the Joker, or that ridiculous Jim Carrey Netflix thing where he talks about BEING Andy Kaufman), I roll my eyes right to the back of my skull. I mean, imagine having to work on a show with someone like that. If you want a solid approach to acting without having to resort to being a total fuckhead, you could do worse than getting super-familiar with this book. It’s an easy read and you’ll retain heaps of it. It comes across like a fiction novel that happens to show you how this stuff works. By the end of it, you’ll feel like you’ve been through a full-on acting workshop. Book Depository has it for $18.95, but it is worth more than most acting courses.
AUGSTO BOAL: THEATRE OF THE OPPRESSED
You might be cool, but you’ll probably never be as cool as Augusto Boal. The collaborative way this guy made theatre with disenfranchised, untrained Brazillian folks is so unusual that it’s like a whole other vocabulary. I rarely reference it, I don’t wanna make it, but how awesome that it exists. It’s like learning about Picasso if you’re a landscape painter – it still blows you away.
JERZY GROTOWSKI: TOWARD A POOR THEATRE
Reading Grotowski will give you reasons to hate EVERYTHING. I won’t lie, I haven’t had a copy of this since 2003, as it’s like $50 to buy, so I am running on memory here. There’s a lot of awesome ideas in this book, but I think the main takeaway for most people is a kind of grounding of everything you put on stage in intention and meaning. Anything decorative is the enemy. He’s all about the kinds of performance that are raw and brutal. It’s hard for me to articulate this one, but Mysteria Maxima readers will find a lot to like in this – he’s like the post-punk of theatre.
ARISTOTLE: THE POETICS
OK, so this is not easy reading, but it is mercifully short. I studied this both in my performance and creative writing classes. It’s the kind of thing that seems to have been designed for discussion; it’s broken up into small, paragraph-sized “parts.” Each one makes a point about writing that need to be dissected – if you’re gonna read it alone, print it off, go through it with a highlighter and pen; highlight the core of each criticism Aristotle makes and write down some shitty movies it applies to. It’s all a bit abstract otherwise. Without a frame of reference, it’s really hard to hold these concepts in your brain, but they’ve survived since ancient Greece for very good reason. Playwrights, songwriters, screenwriters and performance types could all benefit from a good read of this.
YOKO ONO: GRAPEFRUIT
When I ran into New York’s Fluxus movement and their concise scores for performance, I fell in love. Yoko has become the best-known artist from this movement; I first came across her (outside of Happy Xmas (War Is Over) through her Cut Piece. It utterly blew my mind. Even the video is transfixing and challenging. Her book Grapefruit is a series of performance instructions, written in the simple, concise style that she and her Fluxus buddies made up. A good example is “A Piece For Orchestra:
Count all the stars of the night by heart.
The piece ends when all the orchestra members finish counting the stars, or when it dawns.
This can be done with windows instead of stars.
In my work, I use these kinds of performance instructions on a song-by-song basis. Obviously, mine are much less tranquil, but the idea of these kinds of simple scores that leave a lot to chance and circumstance really hits a bullseye for me.
MARK FISHER: THE EDINBURGH FRINGE SURVIVAL GUIDE
Conveniently, this came out the first year I went to Edinburgh Fringe (2012). It’s an exhaustive description of how the festival works and how to DIY your way to success in it. I think it’s useful for anyone looking at getting into fringe arts though; Edinburgh might be the big daddy of all of these festivals but everything Fisher describes applies to smaller festivals too. It’s an easy read, too. I smashed it out in a night and my first festival was 1000% less terrifying for it.