July 2023

Kandinsky Anew | Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

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

 Kiril Bolotnikov and Lissa Tyler Renaud

Introductory Note
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've answered two for this month, 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.





You note that Kandinsky seems uncertain whether his play worked as a vessel for his ideas about synthesis and counterpoint, but asked readers to ascribe that to his ability as a playwright, not to the principles themselves – do we know what he thinks didn't work? If not, care to speculate?


Right. Before the play text of Yellow Sound, Kandinsky included a kind of explanatory preface called "On Stage Composition"—it ended with what you just said, about his concern.


[For readers wanting a feel for the play, Clay Gold talks you through it here.]


Well, "didn't work" or…. didn't create a world they were interested to enter? Certainly he couldn't go wrong imagining his readers would need some extra preparation for what they were about to see. Avant-garde colleagues aside, audiences would have been used to something more naturalistic or realistic—maybe Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov—these three also experimented with what was "real" on the stage, but at least their plays had recognizably human characters, furniture, costumes, some kind of "story." You could more or less connect what you saw to the world you lived in.


Kandinsky's Yellow Sound doesn't have any of those: it doesn't even pretend to have anything to do with your world as you see it. The character list, for example, starts with Five Giants, Indistinct Beings, a Tenor offstage, some human figures in long gowns and others in tights. There's a hill, colored light, strange music, strange singing, flowers and…


The play starts without people or a set—just a pale blue light that gets darker as a beam of light gets brighter. Some music, some chanting. Actually, the light, color, sound and space are characters in the play; they even respond to one another. The audience might be waiting for "action," but this empty, chanting, primordial space is a character, too. The figures here communicate with everything around them—not with each other, but with their environment! Everything around them is alive and full of sound.


From this play, we might think of Kandinsky as the first "environmental" playwright. The world of the play is the world as a living organism—changing, growing larger and smaller, louder and softer, brighter and darker, even less or more threatening or hopeful. Alive!



Does Kandinsky intend his theories to be applicable to the staging of any play, or would a play have to be written specifically with his principles in mind for them to be applicable?


First, some context . The conventional stage of the day was called the "picture stage." The proscenium arch, made up of the border along the top and on the sides, along with the floor of the stage, made a frame around the stage opening where you saw the play. Then the play would look something like a conventional painting—maybe a room, a garden, a battlefield.


Kandinsky wasn't so interested in things we can see; as we just said, he was interested in what was between them, or in and around them, their forces and emanations, the intuitions that foretold them, or lingered after them. There is a reality to these in our own lives: if we have an interesting dinner with someone in a restaurant, we might not be aware of the dishes on the table, or the light fixtures in the room, or even what we are eating—the "things"—but there is a… something there at the time, and which lingers, too. I'm always struck that if we change places at the table, there is something else that changes, too. There's a well-known small painting Kandinsky did after talking to his future wife on the phone for the first time, before ever seeing her. The image is of a disembodied voice, a moment, something both imploding and exploding, a whole complex of responses. How to express essences like that?


That's what "abstraction" did for Kandinsky. Or he sometimes called it "concrete art," as if he were making the unseen concrete, tangible, actual. (Translators try to capture this idea with various terms, such as "non-objective." Or "non-material.") On a canvas, he put an abstracted image—and now we come to it: on a picture stage, he put an abstracted reality or event or even some kind of dynamic. We might think of all his plays, including Yellow Sound—note that all his plays are for a picture stage—as theatrical or stage abstractions. 


Directly to the second parts of your question: Is all this the way every play has to be written, or staged? Well, does every painting everywhere, for all time, have to be abstract? Nah. And Kandinsky himself emphasized the notion of "inner necessity," his injunction for an artist to paint only what he feels he has to paint (or a writer-playwright to write, or a composer to compose, and so on)—not to follow trends, or what will sell, or the expectations of other people. Kandinsky himself felt he had to express his—what?—life, experiences, premonitions, ideas, and so on, through plays, paintings, and poems without depending on "the real world" to do it. But other people will do what they do another way. For example, I love lots of paintings of all kinds, and as inspiring and original as I find Yellow Sound and Kandinsky's other plays, and even his poetry, I wouldn't want to live without Shakespeare or Chekhov! Or so many others!


Kandinsky was creating his own kind of stage event, and didn't think every play was going to be like this. At the same time, wouldn't it be fun, just once, to see a conventional play done this way?


The first part of your question is about whether Kandinsky's innovations can serve any play. I love this, and it gets to the heart of my thinking, the crux of my approach to teaching actors. I find such a deep commonality between the realistic and the abstract, the conventional and experimental, the dramatic and the poetic, the classical and the avant-garde. Just for starters, they all contain the same basic elements, or foundations: differing degrees of balance, contrast, texture, duration, and so on and on. We can add: connection or relatedness, and form… the list is a long one. Think of Kandinsky's book, Point and Line to Plane. Even by itself the title says so much that any work of art is—whether it's a book or a play, poem, piece of music, painting, dance, sculpture, building—it starts somewhere (point); it goes somewhere else, takes a path, takes on intention (line); it proceeds, develops a dimension (plane). Or you can think about all this any way that excites you—that gets you started, moving, doing!


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


July 2023

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