August 2023

Kandinsky Anew | Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine |

A Lot You've Wanted to Know
About Kandinsky and Theatre, cont.

 Kiril Bolotnikov and Lissa Tyler Renaud

Introductory Note, revisited
What follows are my responses to questions posed to me by Kiril Bolotnikov, the most faithful tracker of my involvement with Kandinsky's artistic life outside of painting. Bolotnikov had heard a brief lecture I gave in the important "Globus Arts Lectures" series hosted by Zarina Zabrisky: it included my overview of Kandinsky's multi-layered theatre work, and the first-ever known live reading of his body of poetry, including several poems in English for the first time. That recorded event appears in the Special Index for my "Kandinsky Anew" series, where you can see it—it follows the March 2021 entry—for context before or while reading below.


That event ended with a Question & Answer period, which Bolotnikov's engaged and cogent questions here extend. He posed five questions; I answered Questions 1&2 last month, so the one here is Question 3, and the others follow. Ground rules: I had to answer conversationally (not in academic-ese), without using any reference materials! I imagine many other readers will be glad that Bolotnikov came forward to draw out more on what they've wondered about Kandinsky, a theatre and poetry innovator.



Question 3.

Kiril Bolotnikov: As you say in your introduction to the topic, few people are familiar with Kandinsky's writings about the theatre. Are there theatre practitioners you know of, either contemporary with him or later on, who we do know to have been influenced by or familiar with his theater work and/or writings?  


Lissa Tyler Renaud : Well, we can easily see what a splash his theatre work made at the time by just two of the impressive people it attracted. For example, Hugo Ball was an important in the theatre in Munich when he planned to produce Yellow Sound. When the start of WWI smushed that idea, Ball went to Zurich and presently started his famous Cabaret Voltaire, which had a Kandinsky Room in it and where Ball lectured on Kandinsky's ideas and writings for the theatre. (He also read three of K's poems—a whole other delicious subject). I wish more people nowadays made that connection—that through Ball, Kandinsky 's experimental ideas for the theatre were a foundational influence on the larger Dada movement—which means all the artists who were part of it! That connection would give them a better sense of the original impulse behind Dada, which was of its time and place, and quite different from what it became in other times and countries. Ball's diary, Flight Out of Time, is fantastic—it tells the whole story and how Ball's thinking evolved and then shifted away from Dada. Clarifying and moving.


Another important figure who recognized Kandinsky's importance to the theatre was the dancer-choreographer-painter-sculptor, Oskar Schlemmer. Now people know him best for his unique "Triadic Ballet," and as the brilliant director of the Bauhaus Theatre Workshop. To repeat what I've recorded about this elsewhere: when Schlemmer was leaving the Bauhaus, it was Kandinsky he asked to take over the Theatre. Schlemmer wrote that Kandinsky had shaken his head sadly, probably put off by all the work the Theatre took—and had said that Schlemmer realized much of what Kandinsky had hoped to do. All this is told marvelously by Schlemmer himself, in The Letters and Diaries of Oskar Schlemmer. As you see, I'm a great believer in diaries! Too often "narratives" grow up around someone even when their own diaries say exactly the opposite—so true in Schlemmer's case!


Your full question—"or later on"—makes me think about where we can find evidence of Kandinsky's theatre work in actual practitioners today, directors, actors, dancers, and so on.


Hm. Anecdotally, I know of someone who uses Kandinsky's movement analyses to train choreographers: an excellent idea! And about twenty years ago, I was thrilled when he was included in a beautifully edited anthology called Theater of the Avant-Garde, 1890 to 1950 [added later: by Cardullo and Knopf]: it has a few concise introductory pages, the full text of Yellow Sound, and K's "On Stage Composition." He's even referred to there as "Wassily Kandinsky, painter, playwright, and theorist"! The book is so accessible that I hope it's easy to put on a theatre course's book list, and will entice a general readership interested in the theatre. We're lucky that art historians have kept the facts of his theatre work from disappearing over the decades (though sometimes they sound as if he was a painter dabbling in the theatre as a kind of hobby)—god knows the theatre historians weren't helping. But it's the "theatre people" who will benefit the most from knowing about K's theatre ideas and short plays—and, I argue, about the early avant-garde in general! In any case, it is such a coup that K is included as a prime mover, side-by-side there with acknowledged theatre pioneers such as Strindberg, Maeterlinck, Stein and Artaud, in a book squarely in the field of theatre.


At the same time, I've come across more than a few productions of "Kandinsky's Yellow Sound," which are anything but. I mean, I can't find anything in the photos or descriptions that correspond to the actual play text. The participants do something generically "abstract" on stage, or start from a few words in the text—such as "light" or "colored tights"—and take off in all directions. In these cases, Kandinsky's name serves as advertising for performances a) unrecognizable as his own play, and b) without an understanding of his ideas. I hope it's not too harsh to say I don't believe there's ever been a production of Yellow Sound that was true to Kandinsky's intentions. (I hope now I'll be flooded with documentation of countless accurate productions!)

There've also been conceptual artists, especially in Europe, who aren't pretending to "do" Kandinsky, but who are genuinely inspired by the spirit of his ideas, by some seed in them, by their essential elements, and who have created pieces that are intelligent and wonderful.

To tell the truth, I wish Kandinsky hadn't called his theatre pieces "stage compositions." Because "composition" was the private word he used for a certain body of his paintings—large in size and theme, dense, and especially planned or "composed" as opposed to "improvised." His Compositions were to him what a symphony is to a composer. Not that these don't describe Yellow Sound, or my favorite, Violet, or to any of the other shorter plays he wrote—but that it's not a very evocative word for someone in the theatre—say, a director looking for a play to do, or a theatre producer looking to shake up a season's program. I'm just thinking about it from a practical point of view; maybe it doesn't bother anyone else.


Well, there is certainly room for a lot to be done in the theatre with K's interesting plays— there seem to be more and more academic articles, and even books, about K and the theatre, so there must be lots of scholars interested in them all around the world. The question is how to get from there to here, from studying the materials as viable scripts for the theatre, to producing them in theatres.


To be continued…





Kiril Bolotnikov, Guest Writer, is a writer, editor, and translator who divides his time between Oakland and Shanghai, having graduated cum laude from New York University Shanghai. His writing has appeared in Neocha, Radii, SupChina, Scene4 Magazine, Shaving in the Dark, and A Shanghai Poetry Zine. He is a contributing editor with The Shanghai Literary Review. He translates for Vogue Business in China and the Wuzhen Theatre Festival. He has been a Brooklyn Poets Fellow, and received support from the Bread Loaf Translators' Conference. You can find him on Twitter @kbolotnik. 

Curator, writer and editor, Kandinsky Anew Series
Lissa Tyler Renaud MFA Directing, PhD Dramatic Art with Art History (thesis on Kandinsky's theatre), summa cum laude, UC Berkeley (1987). Lifelong actress, director. Founder, Oakland-based Actors' Training Project (1985- ) for training based on Kandinsky's teachings. Book publications: The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge); an invited chapter in the Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky, and ed. Selected Plays of Stan Lai (U. Michigan Press, 3 vols.). She has taught, lectured and published widely on Kandinsky, acting, dramatic theory and the early European avant-garde, throughout the U.S., and since 2004, at major theatre institutions of Asia, and in England, Mexico, Russia and Sweden.
She is a senior writer for Scene4
For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives.

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©2023 Lissa Tyler Renaud
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Kandinsky Anew
Index of the series by
Lissa Tyler Renaud


August 2023

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