April 2000

Lissa Tyler Renaud
Notes from Acting Training
Kandinsky: Dramatist, Dramaturg and Demiurge of the Theatre

Most people know Vasily Kandinsky as the painter who painted the earliest entirely abstract painting (art historians do argue about whose was *really* the first, but we won't). In fact Kandinsky, independently of his revolutionary contributions to painting,  also wrote on and for the theatre from 1908 until his death in 1944.  In his day, his theories of dramatic art, as well as his own plays, were hailed by great  theatrical innovators  such as Hugo Ball and Oskar  Schlemmer.  He   also  came into contact  with important  theatrical figures such as Stanislavski, Massine, Diaghilev  and Andre  Breton. Today, although his writings offer an important link between traditional and experimental values in the theatre, they have been almost entirely neglected.

So not much has been written about Kandinsky's theatre-related work--and what little there is has represented him as a precursor of Happenings and performance art.  But when we compare his writings with those of major dramatic thinkers from Plato to today, we can see that 1) Kandinsky's vision of the theatre was essentially classically informed, and 2) that the innovations he suggested had a profoundly spiritual emphasis. These mean that in fact his considerations were altogether different from those of our own fragmented contemporary experimental theatre. In any case,  when we want to know Kandinsky's work, we start out by examining his theatre criticism and plays in relation to pivotal figures from classical  to contemporary drama.

At the  foundation  of  Kandinsky's theories was  the concept of synthesis. He believed that the theatre  of  the future would fully synthesize the arts of architecture, painting, sculpture, music, dance and poetry.  This synthesis  could not be realized, however, without some basis for mutual  understanding between artists of these disciplines.   To this end,  Kandinsky  mapped  out a conceptual and  practical vocabulary that would reflect the inter-relatedness of their  arts. So to know Kandinsky further, we would explore his principles of theatrical collaboration, and the two extraordinary programs that Kandinsky outlined for the training  of the collaborative theatre artist:  the first program was designed for professional artists, the  second  for students just beginningtheir training.

My doctoral thesis on this subject (1987, UCB) talked about these things and also included an  Appendix of pictures, with commentary: 1) Kandinsky's designs for furniture, clothing, dishes  and rooms,

2) instances of theatrical images in his  paintings, and 3) the texts of his plays along with his stage and costume designs for them. What I couldn't include there was his striking poetry, most of which is published now in a separate volume entitled SOUNDS.

I was very much struck over twenty years ago when I came across a remark made by Chaliapin (d. 1938), the great Russian basso. He said that he had learned more about acting from his friends who were painters than he ever did from stage actors.

Around the same time I also stumbled on an anecdote that seemed to me to be related: when a young Martha Graham saw a non-figurative painting of Kandinsky's in 1922 she is said to have said, "I will dance like that."

Comments such as these seem to me to be fruitful areas of inquiry here; clearly the fine arts have something to say to the performing arts. Here in the early 21st century I am still hoping to understand fully what Chaliapin and Graham meant by these when they said them early in the 20th century. And Kandinsky's work has gotten me closer to that than anyone else's work has. And that piece of information--more than anything else I can think of--serves as an authentic way of introducing myself to you.

Lissa Tyler Renaud is an award-winning actress,
a PhD scholar, and the Program Director of The
Actors' Training Project

© 2000 Lissa Tyler Renaud ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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