Interview with Carlo Altomare - PART I "Why Theatre?"
Why are you in the theatre?
One could answer that question in so many ways. For example, why do I choose to do theatre? Because I think it’s an important art and I believe theatre is the art par excellence of our time. Specifically the art of acting. It fits into our epic in a very urgent way as a reflection of our experience and our consciousness. Like everyone else trying to be in the world, entering the world through the theatre is the way for me. It is a bit mysterious.
I also consider theatre to be the public assembly par excellence for our time. Therein exists an opportunity to actually discover the meaning of public assembly. When you think about it, real deliberate public assembly is confined to very few types of events. And yet we as a society feel that we’re part of a collective commonality- and that our individual lives are inextricably bound to the individual lives of other people. How we interact with each other is crucial to the experience of the self.
Consciousness itself is the experience of the self and the other. The objective measure that we take of ourselves creates who we are in the world and who we are to ourselves. The theatre is about that relationship. It’s about the one and the many. The one and the other. The quality of it, the meaning of it, which is that.
By looking at what we want from one another we can examine the essential fabric of the social structure. And through the theatre, we can understand it better- not just through the stories that it tells, but especially through that critical enigma of the question of character and actor. The relationship between the actor and the character epitomizes our relationship to ourselves. And we have a chance to reveal that publicly, which is a very important aspect of it- that it’s a public event, a public assembly. Through the theatre, we have a chance to examine that essential relationship.
Are you suggesting the the role of character in the theatre is similar to the role of character in our lives?
You have to answer to your public appearance (not in the surface sense of the word). The Greeks were very aware of this concept of “the care of the self” being a public ritual: that you present yourself under the scrutiny of the collective expectation. We often credit the idea of democracy to the Greeks and the Golden Age- that they invented this idea somehow. But democracy isn’t really about voting, representation, and governmental structures. To the Greeks, the very notion of the invention of civilization or “being civilized” answers to a sense of morality and the needs of the commonwealth. Individuals identify themselves in relationship to their role in the “drama” of the agora and in the social spectacle.
A certain dignity is drawn from the idea of presenting oneself as an upstanding citizen, and from being someone who outwardly expresses their conscience- not only that they have consciousness like others, but that they have a conscience which is facing outward, to the others. And they take responsibility for the consequences of their actions and how they affect people outside of them. That complex interaction of people is what creates the city, what creates the citizenry, and what creates the idea- the idea that is manifest in the relationship of surrendering to public scrutiny and the answer to it.
What about religion?
In religious societies, societies in which their civility is guided by religious principles, it’s expected that you’re always answering to the higher question and to the higher power. “God is watching you.” One must come forward in the presence of. In the Bible for example, Abraham had a direct relationship with God. This was revolutionary. And the relationship was based on hearing, not seeing. Hearing and responding: “I am here. I hear you.” Through that act of recognition one could argue that one creates the God, but we’ll leave that alone for the moment.
In strict Orthodox Jewish communities, everything is done according to Halakha . It’s religious. It’s what God expects. To live a good life you follow a prescription, every moment of the day. Even when you’re alone, you live as though you’re being watched. The Muslims are the same way; devout Muslims constantly make reference to God. Arabs greet one another by saying something which translates to “I bow to the God within you.” “Allah willing,” “God willing.” So even the question of will is deferred to the higher power. “God’s will be done.” You get the picture.
The Egyptians had a more subtle recognition of something we would think of as philosophical. They were less religious in the modern sense; but instead it was in the language. The hieroglyphs for breathing translate to “Coming forward in the presence of.” That’s what breathing was! Think of how sublimely bound the surrender was to the Other’s recognition, to life itself, and to consciousness.
What is the connection between revolutionary change and the theatre?
When we talk about revolution and changing the world, what’s always on the tip of Judith (Malina of The Living Theatre)’s tongue is: “Of course the first thing is to effect the beautiful nonviolent anarchist revolution.” And one can scoff at that and say “Okay, I get it... you’re a revolutionary.” But the connection between theatre and revolution is a sublime truth. What became very apparent to me when I joined The Living Theatre, which isn’t always very clear when Judith starts speaking her polemic, was that The Living Theatre wasn’t primarily interested in doing plays that had political content; that’s not the point. Of course there’s Brecht’s point that it’s a crime for poets to talk about the trees when people still don’t have enough to eat and are being killed; so let’s talk about that first. And there’s truth to that.
But further, the connection between revolution and the theatre is not confined to making plays which are lehrstücke about political ideas, or lending one’s support as artists to a political cause, or forming demonstrations in the street. In its very essence, it is asking you to examine the most fundamental issues we have to face if we have any hope of making a better society. If we’re going to make a better society we have to overcome a lot of really negative influences in our own lives, in the way we think, the way we act, and the way we think it’s okay to be violent. We even justify to ourselves doing something that we know is wrong because there is an end which justifies the means. Even that, is wrong.
It opens up a difficult discourse about human nature. Through my coming of age doing political theatre, it became very clear to me that the main argument we have to overcome is this assumption that the civilizing consequences of living in a civilized society (whether it’s religious law or a jurisprudence which keeps everybody in line) sidestep the question of human nature. Or worse yet, it answers the question.
Say more about human nature.
It basically makes the dichotomy. It says that even if it’s against our desire and our lust for the individual power of what we want to do and justifying it in some way- if we don’t put on the mask of being civilized, it’s going to be chaos. And that we’re like wild animals! In fact, it’s a bad rap that the conventional wisdom now, in post-modern times, says that animals for the most part are very peaceful creatures. Yes there’s the food chain; but they’re not malicious. They’re not greedy or violent for the thrill of violence. They don’t kill other animals to get their rocks off. And they certainly don’t lie.
What we’re really looking at is morality. Goodness. What is that? Is it true? Is there such a thing??
So society puts on the mask of civilization. As Julian says, “Put on the mask and the mask becomes your face.” We live in a theatrical society. Through a very complex arrangement, we assure one another all the time of our civilized nature. We assure each other of our goodness, our goodwill, and our concern for the commonwealth. In some people, it doesn’t go any further than understanding that if we can’t hold our shit together, we’re all going to go down the tubes and will starve to death and die. So we have to be civilized. Some people feel that way.
Other people feel that being civilized is a good in itself, that it’s connected to good and the only way to keep people good. And the same goes for religion too: “Stay with Christ,” “Be a good person,” “Don’t be a sinner or you’re not going to be redeemed.” It’s the idea that we live in a corrupt society and we need Jesus to keep us peaceful. So much blood has been spilt in the name of Jesus and Allah; so we already know all the contradictions. But nonetheless, the essential truth is there.
I personally don’t believe that human nature is corrupt and needs to be controlled. I’m going to be 61 years old next week; and I’ve consciously held that belief since my early 20’s. Even after all the experiences and shit I’ve been through in my life, I still believe that it’s true, in spite of all that. I don’t think that people are bad; I think that it’s a mistake. And it is very essential and problematic. But we’re not going to have a revolution until we see that and we’re unafraid to show that to each other. We must be determined to find our true nature. Then the world turns. Then you have a revolution. The sun comes up. The dawn happens.
Do you think that the majority of people agree with your belief that humans are intrinsically good?
I think that they know it in their hearts. And I think that’s why people suffer so much. Because the spectacle that we’re all part of wielding at one another and at ourselves, sometimes seems to contradict the notion of goodness. And it hurts us; because we know that there is a more sublime truth to existence. And that we are it. And if we don’t embrace it, we’re doomed. The planet will be fine. George Carlin was right when he said “Save the planet? The planet’s going to be okay. We’re going to extinct ourselves, that’s the problem.” Collective suicide. However much we destroy the earth and its ecosystems, once we exit, there’ll be a sigh of relief, and everything will come back. I think that’s true. Nature is tremendous.
Getting back to why you are in the theatre.
I’m interested in the theatre that is self-reflexive, which addresses, in part the issue about the playwright. When you ask why I am in the theatre, I have to ask myself the question of what the theatre serves. And I’m part of that. As a theatre artist, using all of my skills and creative ability, I can help the theatre achieve its raison d’être in our time. And that is my goal. I want that.
To find what the raison d’être of the theatre is, I look at the world, and not at the theatre; because I look at the theatre through the world and the world through the theatre. I see what’s theatrical about our lives and the very essential idea of civilization. The theatre is a necessary construct in our lives and therefore merits our close examination.
What we call “the theatre”... Is it the building? The place where theatre happens? Or allowing for empty space- wherever a deliberate action takes place with people watching? The lines start to blur. But what is true is that we regard as a deliberate act of theatre is a reflection of the theatre already existing in the world. It’s not just a reflection as art, like a painting, is. Instead it’s main function is to examine that very question. What is “the theatre”? What is that?? And how is it possible that we’re able to do that? And that final question is connected to consciousness itself, to what consciousness is and how it functions.
In the theatre proper, we have a chance to examine, with a deffered consequence, the same things that we do and examine theatrically in daily life- which have other consequences. Both have consequences in "the world". But the theatre proper has its own set of consequences as a public assembly. So the idea is to discover just how moving and inspiring the consequences of the theatre’s public assembly have to be in order to resonate out into the world. How do you inspire people to consider how they’re living their lives on such an essential alchemical level, so as to affect a threshold of change? Even experimentally. You can do this through projecting onto the stage, so to speak, terms or a grammatology of behavior, and summoning a sense of relationship to self as other. Finally the theatre is a process through which we can possibly experience a better relationshhip to ourselves and others. The relationship between the actor and the character is essential. The discourse of that relationship is the fragile heart of the theatrical art for both actor and audience. As Hamlet says to the ghost: "Go on, I will follow thee".
June 11th 2012
Interview with Carlo Altomare - PART I "Why Theatre?"
Director, Composer, Actor, Teacher
Artistic Director of The Alchemical Theatre (1981- ) and Alchemical Theatre Laboratory, NYC