On vulgar acting | Benny Claessens

In his book Tragedy, the Greeks and Us Simon Critchley writes about the overall differences between the ancient Greek philosophers and the sophists and how the latter ones were mostly neutralised by the establishment of philosophers at the time. This attempt to bring down the sophists was grossly based on a misogynist and xenophobe reaction, since most of the sophists were women and foreigners and therefore despised by the patriarchal thinking of Socrates and friends. Also the tragedy itself, in which women and slaves were not only given text, but were allowed to speak on an argumentative level, was a big problem for the patriarchy. One chapter in Simon Critchley’s book interested me the most. It was called Vulgar Acting. I thought ‘Oh yes, it’s about me’. But soon, disappointment took over. Apparently the chapter on vulgar acting was another confirmation of how dumb and vain every actor is. Although the arguments were very interesting this time. Vulgar acting is a term that was used in the ancient time for actors who improvised on the text written by the poet. What was expected is to serve the word and not to try and comment, nor think and contemplate. Does that ring a bell? In order to make clear why it interested me, I have to talk about how we, as performers, deal with old texts and also with projects we develop together with writers/directors.

Saying a text is a dialogue between the performer and the author, dead or alive. In a dialogue, inevitably thoughts come to mind and not saying these thoughts out loud turns the dialogue into a monologue by the author. Most of the time, when the author is still alive, he is absent. Still we, as performers, say the author’s words in rehearsal studios and on stages. When the author is dead, he isn’t there at all. So isn’t it weird that we believe theatre to be about aliveness and presence, when we cannot interfere with a monologue of the absent and the dead? If an actor is taking this space it is almost never seen as content in the first place. That an improvisation on stage is never seen as thinking. As content. It is not a joke. It is a thought. An idea. And fighting for content is part of our everyday work. Or rather fighting for our content to be seen as content, and not as an airplay. But I get ahead of myself, let’s clarify first what an idea actually is.

In a documentary about Jane Campion, Campion is asked how she gets an idea. In an instant, she answers she thinks she never had an idea. Ideas are not things you have. They just present themselves to you. An idea is nothing that exists within you trying to struggle its way out. An idea knows no production and also an idea is not there to serve your vanity or ambition of display. An idea creeps up and it asks you to serve it. So when I say I have an idea, it is not to show myself within this idea. An idea is a suggestion in the big space between us. It is a provocation of thought and a wish to connect and to open a forum between me and others who carry their ideas themselves. So when I hear a sentence like YES YOU CAN THINK AND HAVE IDEAS BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN THEY WILL MAKE IT TO THE PLAN, the person saying that to me is deliberately not connecting with me. Even worse, the person becomes an authority saying which thoughts are valuable. My question to all of you is: why are we cutting off each other’s wings, while shouting at each other FLY FLY FLY? Is an actor opening his mouth and making side notes not a chance instead of a crisis?

In order for that to be a chance, there needs to be a shift of perception in the job description. It is about connecting in the spaces in between. Not every function needs to be defended. Our not knowing can connect us more than our knowledge. What we know catapults us into the past with its own merits, but also into the imperial structures we reject. In challenging each other in all transparency, we might create a work that is bigger than ourselves, because then the work makes the work, not the name nor the fame. The idea that people only like things because they are like other things should be challenged. Capitalism doesn’t move us, it keeps us in place. And as artists and thinkers, with or without a monthly wage, we are there to give the people something they don’t want, in order to give those who don’t know they actually wanted something else for a change to begin with, something else. In order to create these possibilities we need to see them and say goodbye to the thought that this is the way we do things, because this is the way things used to work in a long lost past. You only see white men in a reconstruction of civil war battles. Driven by the good old days.

We just need to do things together, see where we end and where the other one begins and vice versa, instead of doing them for someone or something abstract. Let’s need each other more, instead of trying to be saviours of one another. We are our own means of transport and in that transport it is good to know shit about anything we thought we knew and understood in the first place. On a political level, in this privileged position, we can keep trying to pave the way as smooth as possible when there is the ambition or necessity of anyone moving towards us. And when people move in and live with us, we don’t have to explain where the knives and the forks go. No, we will decide anew where all the stuff that surrounds us will go and throw away some of the stuff together.

I hope none of us is the kind of person insisting on where the knives should go, I mean that would be too unsexy, right? Let’s try and accept the ideas and not subject them to a ridiculous process of auditioning. They are ideas, they don’t need to be good or bad in a reality of production. They need to be invited and are forever and can get picked up anytime, anyplace, over and over again. They pop up and they stay. But productions eventually disappear. Thank God they do.

Benny Claessens is a Belgian actor and director living in Berlin. He is a member of the ensemble at Volksbühne Berlin, and has worked with e.g. René Pollesch, Falk Richter, Jan Decorte, and Ersan Mondtag. At the 2018 Theatertreffen in Berlin, he was awarded the Alfred-Kerr-Darstellerpreis and named actor of the year by the journal Theater Heute.

This text was written for an internal Covid-19 meeting at the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin, where Claessens was part of the ensemble.