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Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Sunday Read: Witchcraft

Responding to Witchcraft
by Dr. Louis Patrick Leroux
Co-director of the Concordia Theatre Department’s Witchcraft and Principal Investigator/Artistic Director of “Hypertext and Performance: A Resonant Response to Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft” (2009-12). 
(Photos/video stills credit: Nika Khanjani, directed by Louis Patrick Leroux and Cristina Iovita.)

First, there was the call. The Invitation: “We’ve been told that you’re a dynamic research-creation fellow who gets things done.”
-Yes, I guess, but I’m really taken with other projects right now.
- Might you be interested in staging an obscure romantic play by a neglected Scottish playwright who was once considered her era’s Shakespeare. 
- No. 
- You could film the scenes and integrate them onto our hypertext website, for study. 
- No. Really. Filmed theatre never works. 
- You could figure out what works. We want to see it staged, we want to engage with it as a performance object. 
- Well, I don’t know, maybe. Is it any good?
- Closet drama. A bit difficult. Scottish dialect. Great parts for women actors. A bit of everything: it’s called a tragedy but it’s really a melodrama with funny parts…

I read it. I didn’t see why I should stage it to merely 
film selected scenes and attach them to an academic hypertext website. I wanted more. I wanted to engage with it, engage with that strange author whose style I frankly did not like, but whose drive, scope, and fundamental understanding of drama and stagecraft were fascinating. This was no closet drama. This was a Big Play with a bit of Everything. A neglected play with its sprawling, awkward structure. The improbable rebounding of the action, coup de théâtre after coup de théâtre and a final deus ex machina with the return of an ersatz witness saving the day. The play would need many cuts, some slight modifications (to remember some forgotten characters along the way), and other additions to help the contemporary spectator follow the narrative. Mostly, the play called for performance. I took up the challenge to engage with it, with scholarly colleagues and artists in the institution. Very soon, the project became much larger than I could have imagined.

We called our project a “resonant response” to Baillie’s Witchcraft. The project would span three years and be funded by the FQRSC. It was impossible not to think of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, even though Baillie’s play predated it by over a century. Might this be a case of what Pierre Bayard playfully calls “anticipatory plagiarism?” Works that “plagiarise” later works, in the sense that they are read as ur-texts for something else, something better known. Both plays draw upon witchcraft as a device, a theatrical and moral trope, exploring the effects of collective hysteria and of the private individual’s situation in relation to the social world and historical processes. This is not something far-removed. Witchcraft under Miller’s pen was an allegory for the Red Scare. We’ve gone through different hues of scares over the last few decades. Anything out of the ordinary, anything troubling can easily be pegged as suspicious. Not extra-ordinary, just plain suspicious. Bothersome. Alien. It’s worst, of course when the threat is from within. When it unsettles us in our very comfort, in our class, in our home. The pulsating Jessies of the play—young women overtaken by desire and utterly confused about it are not erotic—they are unsettling, they are bewitched. How can they lose control so completely? What have we done to deserve this upon our house?

In year one, we were supposed to simply explore. We did more, much more. Three playwrights, three directors, and nine actors created nine short pieces: three excerpts from Witchcraft and six resonant responses (theatre, film, dance) grew out of our explorations. We engaged with, we resisted; we spoke to, with, and about the play. We were curious about Witchcraft. Our pieces explored early twentieth century stigmata in young French Canadian Women, the contemporary South African albino organ trade feeding local witchcraft, as well as gruesome folk-tale used as a dubious pedagogical tool. We presented these as part of the Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences held that year (May 2009) at Concordia. We had done what we hoped to work towards over three years. And yet the first year was barely over. The second year, I asked my PhD student (and well-seasoned director) Cristina Iovita to direct a focused gestural workshop drawing upon nineteenth-century romantic gestural codes as a starting point for a more careful and systematic engagement with the elusive material. Working alongside with students and professional actors, Cristina found a convincing mode of actor training which allowed us to better engage with Baillie’s work and her own thoughts on theatre. These gestural codes of the early Romantic era, while initially seeming stiff and arcane to a modern actor and audience, were thought in the period as natural reactive or proactive movements. Yet, these gestures were codified for an era before naturalism, before “method,” before minimalism and mumbling. Cristina’s own experience with commedia dell’arte helped mediate this overt theatricality and take it for what it was: unfiltered emotional responses made into figurative archetypes.

For year three, we’re working on the much anticipated website charting our process, following three pathways to Witchcraft: the historical, the performative, and the resonant response. We hope that this will be of use to scholars, students, and artists interested in process.

Also, we were invited by the Department of Theatre at Concordia to direct a very large cast version of the original Baillie play with 23 actors. We, not the royal we, but two directors, Cristina Iovita and I, co-directing. And a head dramaturg, Joanna Donehower, another PhD student with professional theatre experience, who had been very much at the heart of the dramaturgical and historical project from the start. And many, many other student dramaturgs, designers, assistants, crew (too many to name here). It took us three years of circling around the play, of responding to it, poking at it, deconstructing it, reconstructing it, to finally stage it more or less as Baillie had written it (after much editing, but without fundamental changes to story or rewritten lines). Matralab and Hexagram-Concordia, two research-creation centers at Concordia with which I am associated allowed us to bring in contemporary stage-craft complements: multimedia/video elements hopefully well integrated into the nineteenth century work. I was fascinated by the elaborate stage-craft of much of the theatre of that era. Dazzling! Exciting! In a horses-on-a-treadmill kind of way. Must contemporary plays use video? No. Why this one? Because it was part of our engagement with the very idea of the “hypertext and performance” of the original work. A hypertext is a non-linear link bringing the reader along an alternate route, a simultaneous, yet divergent reading of the initial word or sentence. Every sentence has its double, its alternate reading. Video here allows us, through visual and intimate codes, to fill in many historical and narrative gaps in the play, in a hypertextual manner. But it also acts as a complementary fantasy/dreamscape. On stage, the actors are appropriating nineteenth century gestures and emotional play. Pedagogically, the multimedia aspect enables actors to do film/video work, something they don’t experience in their theatre training, while also engaging with explicitly theatrical gestural work. The result could be overshadowed by resistance and frustrated compromise. It could be torn between two media, two aesthetics, two sensibilities, two ways of approaching storytelling, but we’re anticipating that these two streams will complement each other through the mediation of theatrical production which is first and foremost a collaborative art. An art of happy compromise and fruitful accidents. (Not that there aren’t unhappy compromises and occasional recriminations; as long as these feed the process, we’re fine). Theatre is like a sponge. We feel that it doesn’t need to be bone dry. Quite the contrary.

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