September 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, re-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 two months ago (July), Question 3 last month (August), and devote this month's entry (September) to his Question 4 . 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 4.


Kiril Bolotnikov: Are you aware of people who came up with theatre ideas similar to Kandinsky's, perhaps stemming from similar sources of influence?  

Lissa Tyler Renaud:
Well, to answer that fully would mean telling you the whole story of the early avant-garde in Europe, and also globally, and probably even about the crazy things done to keep audiences surprised going back to the 1600s. And… to the 600 BC/BCEs. Because the essential nature of the theatre has always been to respond to (absorb; oppose) similar ideas and influences. And Kandinsky's plays, poetry, and writings about and applicable to the theatre were no exception. Without just giving a lot of names, we can say that Kandinsky knew the classical Western theatre, and the playwrights of his own time (Chekhov, Ibsen,
ad infinitum), as well as who was doing what cutting edge, stage-related work (Isadora, Dalcroze, Diaghilev, ad infinitum). He knew that Stanislavsky, his fellow Russian, was jumpstarting the theatre reform movement that made possible everything else we're talking about. He knew personally some of the mover-shakers in the theatre world. He was also unusually alert to what was happening in other parts of the world—Africa, Asia, ad infinitum. Kandinsky actively sought out people with similar ideas and who shared his exceptional reach in terms of influences.


For the rest, I'll answer you in "free associations": About ideas; context. At the end of the 1800s, and at the beginning of and into the 1900s, there were definitely currents in the air, flowing into and out of Europe, to and from all over the world—currents that were capturing—and challenging!—the hearts (passions) and minds (thinking) of creative people. Everyone in the arts seemed to agree (recognize?) that they were in a new era, and that the new times needed a different kind of theatre (I read an article today that said exactly the same thing about our theatre now). In a sense, each of those -isms or movements we hear about stood for a different angle on what a new theatre could be like. Kandinsky was an active contributor to that new-theatre effort.


During those years, in the face of multiple political revolutions, wars, famines, exile and other fragmenting disruptions, there was a counter-impulse in the arts to gather, an idea that people working in the different arts could work together—that there was no reason the theatre had to be separate from, say, painting or music. That in fact, you could make something pretty outstanding, or more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts, if you put all the arts together—this came to be called a "total work of art." Kandinsky aspired to a version of this.


Stages and other spaces filled up with people who had all kinds of skills not associated with the theatre before: sculptors, musicians, dancers, poets—from circus performers to philosophers, on and on. Refugee artists and intellectuals mixed with citizens and refugees of other countries, and they didn't always speak the same languages. So "language-theatre" or "literary theatre"—in other words, theatre that was based on or influenced by literature—in innovative circles took a back seat to daring theatrical experiments with visuals, non-verbal sounds (including sound poetry and nonsense), even ritual and the occult, and much of it related to what we would call today anti-art, performance art, object theatre, conceptual theatre—every kind of theatrical hybrid grew out of contact between the peoples of the diasporas. As a Russian living in Germany before the catastrophe that was the First World War, Kandinsky's points of reference were different from others', but still, his painter-dancer-music theatre was part of this milieu.


I'd like to interject: I think the point is not made nearly enough that so many in the arts of the time were completely traumatized. Many people whose work we now celebrate with books, lectures, conferences, stagings and museum shows—in short, people the arts industries benefit from—were mentally unstable; uprooted and grieving for family members; living with chronic illness, addiction, injuries or missing limbs; lived in debilitating poverty and fear; died abandoned or by suicide. I've talked elsewhere about what Kandinsky endured; here it's enough to say: the ways he is packaged and marketed don't even hint at what it took for Kandinsky to work, to write for and about the new theatre.


Back to your questions. This might give you a sense of how many others shared his ideas and influences. In the 1980s, I thought I'd write on painters of the early avant-garde who had written plays. I started with six: Kandinsky (Russia), Henri Rousseau (France), Picasso (Spain), Gertrude Stein (the U.S.), Boccioni (Italy), and Kokoschka (Austria). But in the end, there were too many of them; it was so common for painters to be interested in the stage at the time. And the list kept morphing! There were the countless painter-poets, who are also important to the topic; then the other artists who worked in two or more art forms: playwright Strindberg was a serious painter, and playwright Shaw was a serious photographer, on and on. And what about Paul Klee (Swiss), known worldwide as a painter, but who started out as a theatre critic! And: more women? Luckily, it was the painter-playwright-poet Kandinsky who was first on my list: Kandinsky's multidisciplinary, multicultural work is an excellent lens for "viewing" the ideas and influences swirling around him.


But I have to point out: yes, there were all those painters writing for the stage or putting on performances in unconventional spaces or whatnot, expanding our sense of what "theatre" can be. There were even a few who wrote plays that looked or felt superficially like Kandinsky's. At the same time, Kandinsky was the only one who stuck with his stage-project hopes for decades, through thick and thin, up until he died. He was known in experimental theatre circles. He developed and published a practical dramatic theory. The closest to these is probably Gertrude Stein, who wrote plays, developed her theories and lectured on them, too—not a painter but who lived in the world of painting. But still, Kandinsky was the only one who thought so inclusively—went so far as to create several actual programs for training artists from different disciplines to work together, initiated collaborative performance and publishing projects, and tried to open communication with artists internationally. As a teacher, Kandinsky taught the importance of a scaffolding for a work of art—any kind of art, including the theatre—lines of force, accents, spatial values, contrast, the energy of the creative gesture, freedom and stricture, and so much more. For someone like me who—as actor, director, and teacher—had no affinity for the American "psychological" school of acting, I inhaled Kandinsky's teachings as they applied to the practical theatre. And about his deep theatre ideas and his persistence in pursuing them, I don't know anyone comparable . Kandinsky was an utter original.


Food for thought, yes?


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


September 2023

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