'Come all savage creatures': Becoming Bakkhai in the southwest of Western Australia
'COME ALL SAVAGE CREATURES'
Becoming Bakkhai in the southwest of Western Australia
Vahri McKenzie and Kathy Boxall
In 2018, the first author of this paper, Vahri McKenzie, directed a new version of Euripides’ Bakkhai, co-commissioned by Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre and Culture and the Arts (Western Australia). For both of these partners, the project had social and economic imperatives closely linked to the South West region of Western Australia, as well as creative and artistic goals. Bakkhai was designed to offer opportunities to partake in a collaborative theatrical endeavour which had high social and cultural impact for participants, funders, and the wider community; thus, the work aimed to ‘address something beyond the form itself (Ackroyd, 2000). Moreover, the project was motivated by research questions that included, among others, what a community group understands of their participation in collaborative theatre. To this end, the nine-month creative development was documented weekly and, after the performance season, a focus group discussion was held with members of the cast and creative team, who reflected upon and theorised their own experiences of participating in the Bakkhai project. This focus group discussion forms the basis of the present paper.
We begin with a section that sets the scene, addressing the Bakkhai project’s creative development and the theoretical foundations upon which it builds. This is followed by discussion of the affective methodologies informing both Bakkhai f, development, and the situated affective approach to data analysis we describe within this paper. We then outline our analysis of the focus group discussion (using both audio recording and written transcript), with particular attention given to affective traces and what they reveal about social and embodied understandings of performance and its affects. These affective traces—small indications of felt experience in the focus group discussion—take many forms; choices of wording, hesitation or silence, vocalics such as pitch and tone, and the use of verbal fillers are some of those we attend to in the theoretical background and methodology' sections that follow. The paper concludes by contending that attention to affective dimensions of communication within our analysis of the focus group discussion revealed ways in which the community group affectively theorised and made sense of their participation in collaborative theatre. This analysis highlighted three key insights: firstly, a recognition that Bakkhai's corporeal and sensual studio methods established affective relations between participants, the plav-world and the proximate more-than-human world; secondly, the project built an affective community specific to the social and geographic context of the south west region of Western Australia that offered a sense of belonging; and lastly, performance of the work produced palpable audience affect and powerful understandings of the potential of performance.
Creative and theoretical development of Bakkhai
The Bakkhai project brought together professional and emerging performers and artists with untrained community members. Composed by Euripides and originally performed in Athens, in 405 BCE, a new version of the play was specially commissioned, adapted for the local context with a focus on the landscape of the south west of Western Australia (Spradbury, 2018). Both Euripides’ original, and Spradbury’s adaptation, present the story of a Dionysos myth featuring ritual madness, religious ecstasy, dancing and crossdressing: a transformational event in a liminal space where a city collapses under the strain of its leader’s rigid rule and the god’s wild revenge. There is a particularly strong role for the chorus in the play, as they have the traditional role of commenting on the action, and also take part in that action. For these reasons, Euripides’ Bakkhai itself is an excellent vehicle for a work of applied theatre. We follow Judith Ackroyd in using the term ‘applied theatre’ in a broad sense that suggests it is signalled by intentionality and high levels of participation and transformation (Ackroyd, 2000). It is a notable feature of the creative development that everyone engaged in a shared studio process regardless of their role or status: strong performers took choral roles, and lead character casting did not occur until halfway through development. The ensemble as a whole was central to the creative process, and the diversity of the ensemble worked against reductive notions of participation and transformation. The ensemble was diverse in age, gender, and experience in performing arts; they shared a process that was both located within, and made explicit reference to, the ensemble’s regional home. The second author of this paper, Kathy Boxall, who had no prior experience in the performing arts, was a member of that ensemble.
To begin, we describe the creative development of the performance, with attention to its relational qualities; both those between the participants themselves, as well as those between participants and the more-than-human world, where these are connected through the play-world created. The work was developed using a creative methodology' adapted from Nancy Stark Smith’s ‘Underscore’, a collaborative creative model for practising and researching improvisation
(Koteen & Smith, 2008). The Underscore draws attention to ‘changing states’ through a sustained period of creative endeavour, and by naming the experience of every stage of a creative process, the Underscore can act as a map to guide progress through an immersive activity (p. 90). Since 2013, Vahri McKenzie has been exploring this methodology' (which is principally practised by performing artists in the contemporary dance form known as contact improvisation), investigating its potential for adaptation and application with communities of students, local artists working across a range of different art forms, and laypeople within a regional geographic area. Findings from McKenzie’s earlier work illustrate the significance of working with the ‘whole organism’ in community ensembles, which was found to support creative engagement regardless of the art form practiced (McKenzie, 2014a, 2014b). A whole organism approach considers people as fundamentally and primarily embodied, where effective communication is affective communication, and attends to ‘inward and internalised feeling, and the outward representation of emotion’ (Franks, 2014, p. 4), as well as people’s capacities for reflection and discursive speech. As a foundation for Bakkhai, this earlier work positions the present research within twenty-first century' applied performance paradigms ‘that challenge the dichotomies of self and other through a discourse of embodiment and affect where thinking and feeling are conjoined’ (Shaughnessy, 2012, p. 4).
The heart of Smith’s Underscore is a phase called the ‘open score’, a period of sustained and unstructured creative activity (Koteen & Smith, 2008, p. 95). In the creative development of our original version of Euripides’ play, we similarly incorporated an open score into every workshop, where participants were invited freely to respond to the space, the people in the space, and any of the ideas that had been introduced into the preceding phases. During the open score, all verbal instructions and social conversations were eliminated. As a consequence, ensemble members were free to move their bodies and use their voices in a wide range of openly experimental ways as a means of exploring affective responses to characters and themes. Objects that were at once familiar and relevant to the classical myth of the Bakkhai were introduced into the workshops to enable multi-dimensional expression. For example, individually crafted wooden poles cut from karri wattle, Acacia fientadenia, and other locally significant timbers, adapted the thyrsos, the traditional ritual wand of the Bakkhai, and aided performers in developing characters, costumes and movement that expressed their connection to their south west Western Australian homeland. The impacts of these experiences were enhanced, as participants also consented to the open score being video recorded. McKenzie participated in and reviewed audio-visual material from each open score, from which various composition activities were developed that in turn were fed back into later open scores. The work, then, was built via a process of call- and-response, with characterisation and scenic material generated from ensemble workshops. As director, McKenzie guided dramaturgical and aesthetic cohesion of the materials such that links were formed between images, musical language, and physical patterns in dance and ensemble work. At the same time, individual freedom was encouraged and harnessed for the personal investment in collaborative creative endeavour, as well as for the community bonding it can enable. Ensemble members describe participating in the open score as ‘being able’ or ‘allowed’ to express themselves freely, using words like ‘play’ and ‘joy’ (all unreferenced quotes within this paper are drawn from the focus group discussion). Play-based approaches are common in applied theatre and increasingly are linked to well-being (Shaughnessy, 2012, p. 39). Moreover, in Performance Affects, James Thompson (2009) argues that pleasure can support ethical engagement, in as much as our affections for each can be a stimulus for social change.
Our interpretation of Bakkhai embraced our regional cultural distinctiveness. One of the ways in which we worked to translate the play across time and space was via the metaphor ‘Thebes of the South West’ (McKenzie, 2019), a place of the imagination that reflected both our homeland and the deep philosophical and cultural history of western thought and art-making accessed via Euripides’ play. Although we came from places spread across the south west of Western Australia, and had different levels of experience in the creative arts, the potent metaphor of place became a touchstone around which the group cohered in creating a new version of the tragedy. Thus, in transposing ancient Thebes to the twenty-first century' South West, costume designer Sky River drew on iconographic flora and fauna of the region, importantly including species indigenous to the region and those introduced since colonisation. While Dionysos, god of fertility and ecstasy, is traditionally associated with floral motifs such as grapes, vines and reeds, in post- colonial Australia these correspondences are mingled with the sounds and images of the South West bioregion. For example, when Agaue, Pentheos’s mother, returns to Thebes bearing her son’s head on a stick, in the madness wrought on her by Dionysos she sees it as the head of an Angus bull (the iconic, and introduced, cattle breed of the region), rather than the traditional mountain lion; a choice made by the performer, Michelle Aslett, who played the role. In its aesthetic choices, expressive individualism was balanced against a sense of a modern south-western Australian tribe, a conscious act of forging connections between people and places, imbued with an ethos that positions creative activity as both a pleasure and a responsibility that can achieve real work in transforming the ways we relate to one another.
The tide of this paper, ‘Come all savage creatures’, is taken from a line in Spradbury’s (2018) script that appears in the opening choral ode, presented as a song sung and danced by the Bakkhai chorus, and composed by Rachelle Rechichi (2018) in original music commissioned for the project. (The ensemble also selected this phrase as a tagline used in promotional material.) ‘Bakkhai Song’ joy fully describes the pleasures of dancing and singing outdoors, and the importance of rites to honour Dionysos. It also dramatises the Bakkhai’s first meeting with the women of Thebes who ultimately join them, won over with a combination of beguilement and coercion that the song presents. The alignment of the Bakkhai with the natural world is suggested by their costumes, choreography, and language. This reflects traditional themes—Dionysos is said to charm wild animals—but also establishes a deliberate connection to the ‘more-than- human world’ felt to be significant to ensemble members. David Abram’s well- known phrase, appearing as the subheading of his 1996 work The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-human World, describes this as the ‘sensuous world’, in reference to the links between perception and the material world revealed through our senses, including other species, and natural and manufactured objects. This is a philosophical perspective grounded in the insights of phenomenology, showing ‘the hidden centrality of the earth in all human experience’ (Abram, 1996, p. xi). Abram extends phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s understandings of the reciprocity of perception, which itself builds on linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s work on the interrelated nature of language systems, to an understanding of ecological interdependence: it is not ‘the human body alone but rather the whole of the sensuous world that provides the deep structure of language’ (p. 8.6). Abram’s work offers a method that resonates with methods used in our project:
When we begin to consciously frequent the wordless dimension of our sensory participations, certain phenomena that have habitually commanded our focus begin to lose their distinctive fascination and to slip towards the background, while hitherto unnoticed or overlooked presences begin to stand forth from the periphery and to engage our awareness.
(Abram, 1996, p. 63)
We compare this description of becoming alert to the natural world with the studio methodology described above, which works with creative constraints, such as restriction on the use of speech in the open score, as a way of training attention on subde aspects of inward feeling. Moving in experimental ways produces literal changes in perspective (from the door, for example), encouraging participants to engage differently with their environments, and to return to ‘modes of being associated with the pre-verbal and play-based aspects of child development’ (Shaughnessy, 2012, p. 35). While the studio is a manufactured rather than natural environment, it is largely free of distractions, with the placement of objects and other stimuli in the space carefully curated. The combination of playful exploration and links to the more-than-human world established affective relations between the play’s corporeal and sensual dynamics and the South West bioregion, with ensemble members describing the play-world as ‘familiar’, offering ‘solace’, and ‘a lot more real than if it was set in some Greek palace with white togas’.
In this section, we discuss McKenzie’s methodological approach to the creative development of the performance itself before going on to outline, in the following section, the research methodology' we employed to explore how a community group theorises and makes sense of their participation in collaborative works. Both of these methodological approaches have an affective focus, as we explain below. In addition to defining affect via its outward signs and felt experience, affect is reflected in theoretical understandings of our approach to practice. We view the process of creation that grounds participants’ understandings of the Bakkhai project as ‘affective practice’, which concerns ‘ethics and aesthetics in participator)' modes of practice, the affect of the work on performers and audience, the importance of process and the relations between making and performance’ (Shaughnessy, 2012, p. 6). In keeping with the paradigm of applied theatre, we have above provided a sense of the importance of process in Bakkhai, and go on below to explore ethics and aesthetics in participatory modes of practice, as well as the relations between making and performance for participants and audience. Complementing Abram’s phenomenological understandings described above, theories of affective practice draw on perspectives pertaining to developmental learning from cognitive studies, which show the significance for learning of the physical environment and the movement of bodies within it (Shaughnessy, 2012, p. 11).
Two examples illustrate the project’s links between affective practice and Bakkhai % corporeal and sensual dynamics, which for participants was strongly connected to the more-than-human world of the South West bioregion. One of the creative development workshops focussed on the middle of the narrative, in which Dionysos’s power waxes, Pentheos’s control wanes, and the Bakkhai grow increasingly wild and frenzied. We looked to the animal world for cues of sexual potency and power, noting expansive displays of feathers and inflated pockets of skin, suggesting physical ideas of revealing and expanding. A series of tasks developed these ideas; for example, a variation on Ruth Zaporah’s exercise ‘Body parts lead’ (Zaporah, 1995, p. 116): moving freely to a beat and with the constraint to always lead with a body part as instructed: head, right arm, left, sternum, hips, legs. Next, lines from Spradbury’s script were recited with favourite movements, where these were enhanced by finding hidden and compressed positions from which to expand and reveal. Meanwhile, a presentation of animal images in their resting and displaying states was projected onto the wall and shown on a loop. This material fed into the open score, and was used to generate the choreography for the Third Choral Ode, which we called ‘Heedless and Bestial’.
Once we entered a rehearsal phase with weekly six-hour workshops, we devoted a couple of hours to shooting a one-minute promotional video for our social media site. This provided our third opportunity to dress in costume (the first was to develop marketing imagery for the presenting venue’s brochure and the second was a promotional event at a local festival), and all of these opportunities provided strong links to our region. Moreover, like the photoshoot for the marketing imagery, the promotional video was shot in a Tuart forest, one in which the dominant tree species is Eucalyptus gomphocephala, a form of vegetation that only occurs in the South West bioregion. Although there was some discussion about the wisdom of spending limited time in this way, the pleasure and excitement generated by taking our now-familiar movements and sounds into the forest environment made the choice more than worthwhile. The video has been viewed almost 6000 times, and inspired a shot-for-shot remake by a group of children connected to members of our ensemble (Theatre of the South West, 2018).
The various aspects of affect traced through the project’s creative development and its theoretical foundations reflect the ‘turn to affect’, which has seen increased interest in understandings of bodies as socially and contextually situated, rather than as discrete and fixed entities (Manning, 2010), and of the ‘importance of the milieu in analyses of affective relations’ (Blackman & Venn, 2010, p. 12). These understandings suggest that we may need to rethink ways in which we research bodies and their affects, particularly the ‘reliance of many of our qualitative methodologies on language or sight’ or the ‘speaking subject’ (Blackman & Venn, 2010, p. 9). To this end, some researchers, for example Walkerdine (2010), have focused attention on researchers’ affective responses within the research interview itself. In this paper, we also consider affective approaches to data analysis—that is, our affective responses, as researchers, to the audio-recorded and transcribed focus group data we analyse, which is addressed in the section that follows.
Situated affective methodology
Methodologically, we position ourselves (in the roles of director and cast member) within the milieu of that which we research. We are an integral part of the performative theatre we seek to explore; we are also members of the ensemble (director, cast and creative team) with whom we conduct our research. Since that research is concerned with affect, ‘both inward and internalised feeling, and the outward representation of emotion through face, gesture, posture, position and so forth’ (Franks, 2014, p. 4), we seek also to use affective methods as a means of researching the affective traces of participants’ felt experience in the focus group discussion. In other words, we make no claim for our research to be distanced, objective, neutral or value free (Stanley & Wise, 2002), but instead situate ourselves as affective participants in our own research. Whereas feminist methodologists have pointed to the narrow androcentric nature of traditional ‘objective’ social scientific research and have advocated more situated approaches, our engagement with the affective takes this a step further. Like feminist methodologists, we eschew the ‘science’ of traditional approaches to research: not for us the desire to achieve a ‘view from nowhere’ or ‘God’s eye view’ (Griffiths, 1995). Our methods seek instead to engage with the messiness of performative inquiry and our situated affective approach informs our research questions, the focus group questions we ask our research participants (including ourselves), and the ways in which we collect and make sense of our data. Other qualitative approaches—for example, narrative analysis or conversation analysis—may also attend to affect (Silver- man, 2016). However, our research differs from these approaches in that the primary focus of our analysis is affective data. In addition, rather than aiming to set aside our emotional responses to that data, we seek instead to engage our affective selves as tools for data analysis in order to attain an embodied interpretation or fuller understanding. Thus, we use affective methods to research affective data.
Prior to undertaking this affective data analysis, our focus group discussion was audio-recorded and transcribed. Affective analysis then commenced with an audio analysis—for auditor)’ affect—of the audio-recording itself. A voice-only recording is a rich and varied source of affective traces. Our affective audio analysis focused on these affective traces, small indications of felt experience captured in the audio recording, which included emotive intonation, volume, urgency, emphasis and choice of wording, as well as verbal fillers (utterances which are not words—um and ahh are common). We did not seek to identify or name particular emotional or affective responses, but rather to attend to those aspects of the audio recording which evoked in us an ‘inward and internalised feeling’ (Franks, 2014, p. 4). Listening and attending carefully to anything in the audio recording that evoked such a response, we recorded this by highlighting sections of the transcript previously prepared by a professional transcribing service. Our affective analysis was, of course, also influenced by our own situated positions within the research and the performance, thus when the audio recording evoked an ‘inward and internalised feeling’, this was sometimes a reminder of our own earlier affective responses, during the performance and rehearsals, as well as when participating in the focus group discussion itself.
In a second stage of affective analysis, we searched the transcript for linguistic markers that convey affective dimensions buried within our spoken communication. In this we were guided by cultural phenomenologist Thomas Csordas’s (1999, p. 148) research illustrating how embodied understandings of the world might be revealed in spoken utterances: ‘There is no special kind of data or a special method for eliciting such data, but a methodological attitude that demands attention to bodiliness even in purely verbal data such as written text or oral interview’. Csordas’s approach is informed by what he calls ‘somatic modes of attention’: culturally elaborated ways of attending to and with one’s body in one’s environment (p. 151). Thus, we analysed the focus group transcript for the key words emotion, feeling, like and way. Emotion and feeling are drawn from Franks’s description of affect as ‘encompassing both inward and internalised feeling, and the outward representation of emotion’ (p. 4); moreover, these key words signal participants’ reflections upon, and efforts to theorise, their own affective experiences of participating in the Bakkhai project. Less obvious, perhaps, are the linguistic markers like and way, but they too signal affective dimensions of spoken communication. As well as being a verbal filler, according to philosophers of affect Erin Manning and Brian Massumi, use of the word like ‘marks an affective overflow in speech’ (Manning & Massumi, 2014). We eliminated usages that ‘designate an identity or resemblance’, instead using like to ‘linguistically gesture to the feeling tone of the moment’ (p. 34). (Although this usage is not addressed by Manning and Massumi, we also noted, but eliminated from our analysis of the focus group transcript, many examples of using like as a way of signaling a performative voice, the participant’s own or someone else’s.) We understood way as signalling participants’ embodied understandings of the performance process, in line with theorist of embodied practice Ben Spatz’s (2015, p. 47) observation that ‘[m]ore often than not, this common and inconspicuous noun is used to describe the how of an action’, revealing users’ embodied knowledge. We eliminated from our analysis usages that referred to figurative idiomatic usages (‘by the way’, ‘we’ve come a long way’).
Thematic analysis and discussion
This section presents quotes from the focus group discussion transcript, interpreted in line with the theoretical concerns we foreground above. The selection of quotes illustrates the application of the two stages of analysis described in our methodology section, where affective audio analysis captured affective traces, which were then highlighted in the transcript (amounting to 43% of the total words in the transcript). This was followed by key word searches that identified significant passages (16% of the total words). We found alignment of findings in two respects. First, there is remarkable alignment between the two stages of affective analysis, in that all of the passages revealed through die key word searches were also identified in die audio analysis, reinforcing bodi analytical approaches. Second, die four key word searches regularly identified the same or overlapping significant passages, so that many passages contain more dian one key word. Our examples, dien, present powerful evidence supporting our contention dial, in the context of the focus group, die cast and creative team reflected upon and dieorised dieir own experiences to produce social and embodied understandings of performance and its affects. These understandings fall into three key diemes:
The passages presented in this section relate to studio methods that can be described as establishing embodied affect by engaging the whole organism and all the senses (McKenzie, 2014a, 2014b). Much of the focus group discussion drew attention to the value of the project’s ‘organic development’, as this passage indicates:
I particularly liked the way that we worked on the movement and the choreography in that it wasn’t the choreographer going, ‘Do this, do this.’ It was very much an organic development of our own ideas and then working on those and developing them into our final piece.
Other examples of studio practices that were found to be valuable (also signalled, as in the passage above, by the key word way, Spat/. 2015, p. 47), relate to musical development. Before the production’s musical score was composed, we engaged in group singing of traditional songs in minor keys, which ‘implanted in a really subtle way this minor key in my head’. In learning music, having lyrics on the wall was ‘a different way’ that members of the ensemble contrasted positively with holding a script, ‘an unproductive way’ experienced in other production processes:
Your shoulders are hunched and you’re holding your script and you’re reading instead of engaging and looking, it’s such an unproductive way to rehearse and perform.
The process of ‘organic development’ is also seen across the project as a whole, particularly in relation to the open score described above (Koteen & Smith, 2008), which was valued by many as a way of preparing for performance:
in some way the open score allowed that performance to happen at the end ... the depth of exploration that could happen in the open score ... having the opportunity to go in that space and explore feeling, emotion, movement, interaction ...
The participant goes on: ‘It’s like open, it’s like it was opening it up’. Coupling open with the key word like, marking ‘an affective overflow in speech’ (Manning & Massumi, 2014, p. 34), provides an affective trace of his engagement with the process, which is expanded upon with additional details relating to the relational and affective qualities of the studio experience: that it took place ‘over quite a long period of time’, that it offered an opportunity to ‘take in and get to know people energetically and feel what things feel like’. He returned to this topic later on in the focus group discussion, using the phrase ‘in a different way’ to distinguish our creative activities from ‘intellectual channels’:
that sense of emotion and feeling that goes into the voices and being able to let some of the sound out and that feeling out through sound. ... that taps into those different channels. It’s like, it’s not intellectual, it’s actually going in a different way, and I think some of that was able to come out again in a production ...
By using studio methods that engaged the whole organism and all the senses, relational qualities were enhanced between the participants themselves; this participant reflects an understanding of bodies as socially and contextually situated, rather than as discrete and fixed entities (Manning, 2010). His further insight is to link these affective practices to powerful outcomes in performance. The four key words emotion, feeling, like and way display remarkable alignment in the passage above, and three of them are present in the passage presented in the block above. Identification of these passages further aligns with our affective audio analysis that identified aspects of the audio recording which evoked in us an ‘inward and internalised feeling’ (Franks, 2014, p. 4). These excerpts offer powerful evidence of participants’ understandings of Bakkhai’s corporeal and sensual studio methods that paved the way for a powerful performance.
Affective community building is situated community building; it occurs within a specific regional and cultural geography. Passages presented in this section show that life in the South West entails aspects of regionality such as doubts about fitting in and travelling vast distances. While the South West offers many of those who live here a strong sense of connection to the more-than-human world, those new to the region can find it hard to find their ‘tribe’:
I’ve been here six years and I still haven’t found my tribe. I was really feeling ... that there weren’t many opportunities to explore creatively in a space that was deep enough for me ... So engaging in this reassures me that good stuff can come out of the region.
For those new to the region the project achieved a sense of belonging to a place that was not previously considered ‘home’. Other aspects of the creative community that were widely celebrated in the focus group discussion include a sense that all were welcome, even those joining the group later in the process, and that support was available within, and beyond, the ensemble.
Passages analysed in this section reveal participants grappling with and theorising their affective experiences, revisiting and refining these throughout the focus group discussion. For example, one participant begins by saying the project offered her ‘a way of having creativity as a sense of belonging’. This feeling was so powerful that it overcame the large geographic distances that are a feature of life in the South West: ‘there was no hesitation for me wanting to jump in the car every weekend and drive a three-hour round trip to come and play’. When die discussion turned to how people processed the uagic story presented in Bakkhai, this participant said she did not emotionally engage with it. However, later in die discussion dils comment is revised in recognition of what occurred in playing the role of a Bakkliante:
they were raw emotion, they embodied all of those emotional aspects ... it was a very' emotive physical experience that I probably did process ... it was me feeling and verbalising ... an embodied response rather than an intellectual response.
Our affective analysis is useful for drawing attention to the ways in which participants, as seen in the quotes above, understand that engaging with the play- world’s tragic material with their ‘whole organism’ (McKenzie, 2014a, 2014b) combines ‘intellectual’ reflection with ‘emotional’ and ‘embodied responses’. In response to the difficult scene in which Pentheos’s remains are carried onto the stage, another Bakkhante reported that:
one night I was literally dribbling when the bones came out, because I just loved being that Bakkhai. Where else can you express those emotions? It’s not socially acceptable anywhere else ... I’d go back home from the rehearsals and the performances just feeling really good because I’d done this little emotional run-through ...
Another participant agreed that the tragedy did not affect her once she was off stage, but noted further that the ‘whole feeling’ was linked to ‘the connectedness of all of us, that we’re all in this together, it wasn’t just me going through this’. This participant, in other words, links the wholeness of experience in herself with social connectedness, much as we saw in the studio methods discussion above: relational qualities between participants are enhanced when participants reflect upon bodies as socially and contextually situated (Manning, 2010). One participant said that she ‘took the tragedy home’, which served for her as a reminder that ‘in addition to the community we had with us, all of us had our own community of people helping us’ beyond the Bakkhai ensemble.
Key word searches for emotion and feeling (Franks, 2014, p. 4) identified numerous passages showing the ways in which participants considered participation in the Bakkhai project as constituting or supporting affective community building. Other key word searches reinforced these sentiments, showing that ‘open’ and ‘organic’ studio methods produce a creative culture that is ‘democratic’, offering a ‘total even playing field’. Many participants in the focus group discussion use like to signal a performative voice, a self-conscious use of their own or someone else’s voice, suggesting a strong reaction that has been internalised, which is then rehearsed in the context of the group discussion. These are so numerous that they have been excluded from material discussed here, but it is worth mentioning that these usages always align with striking passages in the audio recording analysis, and of these, most relate to community building and the culture of inclusivity.
While more experienced performers in the group expressed some reservations about the ending of the creative development and the beginning of a new responsibility to the audience upon moving into rehearsals in the theatre, others experienced a sense of everything coming together upon moving into the theatre. We understand that this relates not to the physical theatre space per se, but rather a growing sense of relationship with the audience. Many performers—both experienced and novice—witnessed audience affect so powerful that it produced a deep understanding of the potential of performance. Especially strong evidence of this is expressed by the two performers who played Agaue’s sisters, Autonoe and Ino. One sister, who had no prior performing arts experience, recalls the way (Spatz, 2015, p. 47) in which her embodied understanding clicked into place on stage:
I realised that I didn’t have to play Autonoe, I could be Autonoe ... My sister was wailing and screaming and I was so emotional. I was being your sister on the stage and that was just really amazing and I didn’t even know that that could happen ...
The striking passage from which these lines are drawn aligns with our affective analysis of the focus group audio recording; additionally, three of the four key words (emotion, feeling and way) appear in it.
Together, the sisters form the group of Theban women whom we see in ‘Bak- kliai Song’ resist and then succumb to the Bakkhai chorus, departing in the direction of the woods. After the Herdsman has related the tale of Pentheos’s death and dishonour at Again" and her sisters’ hands, they return and stand downstage, with a good view of the audience. Multiple usages of the key word like, ‘affective overflow in speech’ (Manning & Massumi, 2014, p. 34), show the performer who played the other sister, Ino, in the act of recreating a powerful experience from memory in the moment of sharing:
why are they all looking so horrified, why aren’t they smiling? ... We’re doing a performance here and they’re like sadly, and oh that’s right, it’s a tragedy.
She theorises her shock of recognition, within the performance, at the audience’s shock of recognition of the tragedy they are witnessing, as bearing witness to catharsis: ‘you read about it on paper but to actually see the audience go through [it] was an absolutely amazing experience for me’. From an affective perspective, we might also consider this participant’s experience as a significant instance of Bakkhai’s affective practice, arising in the context of the project’s ‘ethics and aesthetics’ as reflected in the ‘affect of the work on performers and audience’ (Shaughnessy, 2012, p. 6). Studio methods that engage the whole organism and all the senses enhance relational qualities between participants, who connect the wholeness of experience with social connectedness, including audiences. The process of making, and the relations between making and performance in Bakkhai, produced palpable audience affect and a powerful understanding of the potential of performance.
This same scene is reflected upon by an emerging artist who did not perform but witnessed Bakkhai as a member of the audience, noting the ‘good vibe’ achieved; he attempts to describe the quality of the moment when Agaue recognises what she has done, the vibe, but words prove inadequate. First author and focus group facilitator, McKenzie, asks the participant what this experience felt like, and the participant responds in fragmented language but with fluid movement that McKenzie voices for the benefit of the recording:
you’re making a motion with your head that copies the motion Michelle made on stage as Agaue, where we all move with her, looking from her father back to the head of her son, which she’s just coming to realise is the head of her son ...
He agrees and adds: ‘particularly because of the silence, like it’s just the complete Silence is the important word here, with the verbal filler like standing in where words fail, ‘linguistically gesturing] to the feeling tone of the moment’ (Manning & Massumi, 2014, p. 34). What strikes the participant so powerfully is the stunned silence of the audience, immediately recognisable to all of us—director, cast and creative team—who witnessed it.
As a work of applied theatre that addresses ‘something beyond the form itself (Ackroyd, 2000), Bakkhai succeeded as a project that provided high social and cultural impact for funders and the wider community. It was a key project to help presenting venue and co-producer Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre (BREC) meet its mission to remain a leading performing arts and conference venue, cultural developer, educator and public meeting place. An audience of more than 650 over three performances ensured it was a commercial success for the venue, with tickets sales doubling break-even. Strong evidence of social impact is seen in BREC’s audience survey, quoted in their annual report: ‘Fierce and gripping. Incredible what community performers can achieve with a professional creative team leading it’ (Bunbury Regional Theatre, 2018). For funding partner Culture and the Arts (WA), projects were to reflect their regions; the Bakkhai project was both located within and made explicit reference to the ensemble’s regional home. Furthermore, it provided professional work for six emerging artists in art, design, music, writing, and performance, whose practices cohered around the potent metaphor of place, ‘Thebes of the South West’ (McKenzie, 2019). Participants had the opportunity to partake in a collaborative theatrical endeavour within which their creative voices were valued and given prominence in musical language and physical patterns in dance and ensemble work. The focus group discussion makes clear that participants found the experience a joyful and transformative one.
As participants and researchers, we have further enjoyed the satisfaction of observing the ways in which our situated affective methodology' engages with performative inquiry and informs ways in which we collect and make sense of our data, recruiting our affective selves as tools for data analysis. We argue that our methodology achieves a more authentic and full account of the ways in which a community group theorises and makes sense of their participation in collaborative theatre than methodologies claiming scientific objectivity. In much the same way that affect connects internal feeling and outward representation of emotion (Franks, 2014), and that embodied experience connects wholeness of one’s own experience with social connectedness (Manning, 2010), our insights as researchers are enhanced through our connection to the milieu of that which we research (Blackman & Venn, 2010). By tracking the impacts of affect throughout this project, from studio methods, to affective traces in data, to data analysis, we become attuned to the sophisticated ways in which Bakkkats participants reflected upon and theorised their own experiences to inform their social and embodied understandings of performance and its affects.
Thus, our situated affective methodology' reveals three key insights: firstly, Bakkhai's corporeal and sensual studio methods established affective relations between participants, the play-world, and the more-than-human world of the South West bioregion, and these relational qualities are enhanced when participants engage their whole organism. Secondly, Bakkhai built an affective community and a sense of belonging that is specific to the social and geographic context of the South West, where this is enhanced in active participation in sense-making, as in the focus group discussion. Thirdly, performance of Bakkhai produced palpable audience affect and a powerful understanding of the potential of performance, which participants readily theorised in relation to the studio methodology of the open score, and traditional notions of transformation through catharsis. And finally, our situated affective methodology offers a way of researching affect that attends to the ‘inward and internalised feeling’ (Franks, 2014, p. 4) of those undertaking the research. We hope that readers will also note their affective responses to this paper, and perhaps be inspired to include situated affective analysis in their own research.
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