Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
When the year 2020 began, nobody could have prophesied that just three to four months in, the whole world will be forced to lock themselves in because of fear of a contagion: the novel coronavirus. For theatre practitioners, this was a curveball which took them some time to navigate. The first response was of shock, followed by a migration to the virtual world. What seemed like a stop-gap measure earlier seems to be accepted as the norm now, with performances on Zoom and other platforms being looked at as the future.
What astonishes Giovanni Fusetti, artist, natural scientist and theatre pedagogue is the extraordinary speed with which the collective moved online. “At first it was like an emergency and a measure to just hold on. Then, it turned into adaptation to the new medium. By the third week of the lockdown, it turned into a sort of evolution, where there was progress. Now we look at it as the future,” exclaimed the founding director of the Helikos International School of Theatre Creation in Florence, Italy at a recent Unrehearsed Futures webinar.
As a Gestalt therapist, the first Gestalt or pattern that Fusetti sees in this process is the behavior that theatre-makers feel they can replace a lot of what they had before with what they can create on these “wonderful machines” such as the one you’re reading this from. “And this, for me, is pretty shocking. Soon they will tell us, ‘Remember in 2020, when we all moved online and then we never got out?’ Whoa, that was quick,” he expresses, calling it a retrospective prophecy or retrophecy, as Amy Russell terms it, about the present moment.
Abandoning the Natural Space
This detachment from the physical world has been a slow and gradual process, according to Fusetti, and has its roots in the earliest philosophies of Parmenides and Plato. As someone who loves diving into etymology, Fusetti points out that the word physics and physical come from the Greek work physis which means ‘nature’. “So this story of the progressive abandonment of the physis, of nature is very, very long,” he begins.
Parmenides, a Greek philosopher, is also thought to be one of the earliest founders of metaphysics, a branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things and includes abstract concepts such as identity, being, knowing, time etc. In 5th century BC, Parmenides came to the conclusion “…for thinking and being are the same thing” in his only written work, entitled On Nature.
Following this, Plato, one of the greatest classical Greek philosophers, in his theory of Forms, said that the visible world is not reality but that the real reality is ideas and exists in the mind, which he called idealism. “And those people created something called metaphysics, ‘beyond physics, beyond nature. And the problem that I have is that there is a rank and value system in this,” says Fusetti. To explain this, he discusses the binary of virtual reality as opposed to “real” reality, saying that in the current use of these terms the virtual has a rank over the real. The word virtual comes from virtuous which has its origins in the Latin word virtus, meaning ‘virtue’ or ‘of value’, and actually contains the word vir, man, so it specifically refers to manly qualities. So, Fusetti believes, one begins to hear the virtual versus real debate where these terms are not neutral and the virtual world is seen with awe and wonder and “considered to be better than the real world which has physical constraints such as eating, breathing and pooping.”
He also dives into his Christian upbringing in Italy where he was taught that “In the beginning was the word” (John 1:1). “We come to life wailing, ‘Waaawaa’. Is that the word?” he asks. Fusetti disagrees with the Christian doctrine and further says that the Renaissance in Italy was a series of models which postulates the superiority of the intellect over nature. “So the Italian garden is an expression of complete control of nature and wilderness, where wilderness is considered to be regressive, primordial and fundamentally evil. What I see happening is that the virtual is becoming a world of fantasy and delusion and that is coming from the idea that we can be in charge of the world through our mind, through the digital medium, and not through the body,” explains Fusetti, who is also a Lecoq practitioner.
He goes on to quote French philosopher René Descartes’ famous Latin statement Cogito, ergo sum, which translates to “I think, therefore I am.” Recalling a high school joke where Fusetti and his classmates twisted it to Coitus, ergo sum and says that it is coitus that brought him to physical theatre and therefore, for him, in the beginning was a gesture. “And the word will appear from the body, and not vice versa,” he says.
What disturbs him most is how much humans want to control everything. “It is intense and makes me quite angry when I talk about it, because behind this virtual world, there is an epidemic of control, which I find more complicated and more dangerous than the COVID pandemic,” he says, giving an example of a movement called transhumanism, where people are waiting to upload their brains onto a hard disk and live immortally or chop their heads off after their death to preserve it frozen in a hangar in Arizona, US.
Being a Mammal in a Digital Zoo
Fusetti terribly misses being in a live physical space interacting with others in his natural eco-system. His body is his home, his oikos (the Greek origin of the word ‘ecology’) which is an intrinsic part of nature because he is in contact with the eco-system around him. “I need social contact. I need physical contact with other humans. And I am a mammal. I’m amazed of how little we are talking about our needs as mammals in this time of lockdown,” he says.
“As a mammal, I spend the first part of my existence inside another mammal, which is my mom. And then I come out of it and for a very long and incredibly significant time, I am completely physically intertwined with another human being. And then my body includes her and my family, my house, my toys, my pet. We all remember that. The life of a child is an ecosystem of physical interactions,” he explains, adding that due to this abandonment of the natural needs of one’s body and ecology while theatre practitioners migrate online is resulting in abandoning the natural space.
“And this can have terrible consequences because we are not engaging with the actual caring of the physical space around us. I’m disturbed by this because I see that this migration to the digital medium as a very bizarre decision that doesn’t respond to my needs as a mammal.”
Every time he wears the words ‘pandemic’ and “social distancing”, Fusetti says his mammal brain screams hysterically and misses his embodiment as a physical theatre practitioner tremendously. “I miss it physically,” he says, “I study myself lduring these times and I notice that when there is a gesture emerging in me, a class, a project, an act, I realize that I can’t do that. I could do something else but then I realize I can’t do that either. It feels like a wave of excitation that cannot manifest in the embodied interactive world.” He adds that this ‘can’t happen’ realization becomes a sort of a low-key depressive state for him.
“I love that we can have an interaction through these machines. But this is a surrogate to something that I am terribly starving for. And I’m cultivating that craving because that craving makes me feel that I’m still alive. The moment I stop craving and accept junk food, I’m in trouble,” he states.
With all the Zoom interactions, Fusetti believes that he is a part of something but can’t find the words to describe it. “Because I constantly connect with how I feel when I’m sitting here in front of the machine and there is a mix of excitement of being in contact. There is joy in seeing faces of people I know and love and there is the distress of not being able to reach out. So, there is a mixture of joy and of animal terror,” he explains, adding that when a Zoom call gets over, he feels excited that he was with a collective but finds it bizarre when his body notices the absence of that collective at the same time.
The Collective Poetic Body
Staying true to the sanctity of the natural and physical space, Fusetti made the conscious decision to suspend any sort of physical theatre training of new students online with through his Helikos International School of Theatre Creation. Not taking the position of a naysayer, but in defense of the pedagogy of the poetic body, he wrote in an article in May (http://www.helikos.com/pages/workshops-details.php?post=121&lang=en) that there is no such thing as a virtual physical theatre, just as there isn’t virtual gardening or virtual hiking. Stating that the virtual cannot replace the authentic, he wrote, “We can practice a live embodied art online as long as we are aware that it is a surrogate of the real experience. As long as we frame it as such.”
While he believes that one can do online training in online performing, he feels poetic space and time cannot be taught to new students of theatre through the virtual medium. “In years of my practice of the Lecoq’s approach, one of the biggest realizations I had was that the poetic body is collective. It is not individual. That’s why all the experience of chorus, of band, of flocking, of buffon or just the whole ensemble concept is so powerful. It includes not just my body, but the bodies of my fellow performers, the body of the audience, the props, the space, the stage. So, the body is like quantum physics. It is like a wave, not a particle. That, for me, needs to be preserved. That is the part of the theatrical process that gets filtered out in digital media, because we cannot hold that,” he asserts, while adding that one can hold some space but it is not possible to co-regulate one’s emotions between the performers and audience.
Fusetti also believes that the universal comfort in disembodiment is the result of the global trauma that lives in the physical body. “One of the consequences of trauma is the abandonment of the body, of the numbness of the body. So I think that it is evident that we are collectively living with a lot of collective trauma of all kinds. We need to bring back to the people the tools of healing and therapy on a large scale,” he says.
One of the ways in which theatre practitioners can work on healing is to work locally with the people around while being aware of the physical and emotional wounds present. “And they appear in the form of gestures,” he says, “I wish there was more collective political and educational awareness of this particular question, because I don’t see any at all. And this is disturbing. I think it comes back to what I was saying in the beginning that this process of disembodiment is certainly helped by the fact that we might feel safer online because the intensity of the contact and the potential conflict is less. Any encounter with ‘the ‘other’ brings and transformation of the self, and this can be scary, especially if, due to my emotional wounds, I have become protective and somehow conservative of my identity ”
Ecstasy through Theatre
There have been pandemics much worse than this and theatre has always survived and come back stronger. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fusetti feels that when things do open up more, there could be a decreased demand for live entertainment. While this need for entertainment has been fulfilled by Netflix and other platforms, theatre as a form will have to become even more theatrical to make it clear it cannot be replaced with anything else. He also notes that historically, at the end of pandemics, there have been records of great celebrations, parties and festivals in cities and even orgies.
“So they were looking for ecstasy: physical ecstasy. This is a fact. They’re not going to come to see Hamlet after the pandemic is over unless Hamlet is done in a very wild, ecstatic way. So, what I’m saying here is that we need to think in terms of what kind of ecstatic physical experience we can provide to people who have experienced extended physical and emotional deprivation and the fear of death, and need to celebrate the euphoria of not being dead and being together again. As a practitioner, you have to come out with something pretty cool. Otherwise, people are not going to come to see a show,” he says, before signing off.