Ecstasy Research Theatre


California Institute of the Arts
Interschool Project Proposal



The twentieth century, in the footsteps of the nineteenth, has difficulty with the notion of art as ecstasy. Yet that is the traditional notion and I believe it is the right one. It is quite easy to live at a low level of sensibility; it is the way of the world. There is no need to ask art to show us how to be less than we are. Art shows us how to be more than we are.
--Jeanette Winterson
The best of the romantic theatre, the civilized pleasures of the opera and the ballet were in any event gross reductions of an art sacred in its origins. Over the centuries the Orphic Rites turned to the Gala PerformanceÑslowly and imperceptibly the wine was adulterated drop by drop.
--Peter Brook

        I find it difficult to express exactly what Ecstasy Research Theatre is about. Below you will find detailed descriptions of what we plan to do, but a description of a performance is not a performance, and the description seems somehow to miss the point. What is the point? That is difficult, because Ecstasy Research Theatre, at bottom, is not about ideas, but about experience. Perhaps I should begin by describing an experience that happened to me many years ago, one which planted the seeds for this project.
        I went to see a production of Oedipus with some friends. Afterwards, we decided to go to a party.The host of the party had laid out finger paint and butcher paper. We painted, but not on the paper. We painted on each other. We stripped to the waist, men and women both, and made shapes and signs on each other's bodies. We danced. We shared wine as sacrament from each other's mouths. Looking back, it seems to me that, without our knowing it, the play stirred up something ancient and powerful within us. We went to the party, but the party became, for us, not a party, but a rite, a sacrament. It was probably the most holy experience I have ever had. I don't think it could have happened without having seen Oedipus. Somehow, the play had communicated something magical, something that went deeper than the craft of the play, something that went back to the sacred origins of Greek theatre in the festivals of Dionysus, and perhaps further back than that, to a time when theatre was not separate from magic and holiness, a time when humanity had not yet imposed a distinction between the power of its gods and the power of art. This is, for me, the life blood of theatre. This is why, over 2000 years later, we are still drawn to Greek theatre. We still crave that Dionysian power that first inspired human beings to view the universe with awe.
        Ecstasy Research Theatre is about taking theatre back to its roots in magic, ritual, and sacrament. We will perform out in the desert, as far from "civilization" as is practical. By taking people out of a familiar theatre setting we hope to communicate with something deeper inside of them, that quirk in the ancient mind that first made art on cave walls, that first painted the human body, that first dreamed. Ecstasy Research Theatre is about finding the giants on whose shoulders our contemporary imagination stands.


        The audience will arrive by car or van in the late afternoon. Once they have arrived, we will lead the audience on foot farther into the desert, maybe as much as half a mile. This journey will be a ritual, a crossing over into a sacred realm. Masked guardians will stand watch over the entrance to the performance space. The audience will be made to feel that they are entering a holy of holies.
        Once the audience is seated, and has had time to absorb the feel of the location, that particular power that the desert has, the performance will begin.
        A solitary flute sounds in the distance. Dancers emerge slowly, one by one, from the yucca and creosote bushes. The unseen flute player comes closer, until she emerges from around a bend in the arroyo. As the musician comes into view, she is joined by percussion, and then by other instruments. The musicians emerge from all around, and converge on a spot near the audience, while the dancers' movements escalate. The dance will coincide with sunset, ending as twilight begins to fall.
        After this opening dance, we will light a fire and torches, while the musicians play a musical interlude. As sunset turns to twilight, we will begin the theatrical performance. The script for this performance is still under construction, but I will attempt to give an idea of it below. What follows is not exactly a synopsis. The play does have a narrative structure, a plot; but, even more so than for most plays, a plot synopsis entirely misses the point. This is a play about ideas more than drama. A play normally hides within it a few philosophical ideas, of which we catch furtive glimpses from behind a profusion of characters and plot and drama. I wanted to see what would happen if I reversed that formula: if I allowed the plot to unfold half-hidden behind a profusion of ideas and images. What follows is not a synopsis so much as an attempt to evoke, in miniature, the world which the play hopes to create.
Dramatis Personae:
      (Except where indicated, these characters can be played by either men or women. Thus, I have used non-gender specific pronouns wherever appropriate.)
The Traveler:
this is a guru figure who arrives bearing some sort of message or wisdom to share, and around whom the play revolves. His central message is essentially Hindu: that each of us is actually god dreaming that zie is human. But this philosophy is problematized in various ways, most importantly by the Traveler's also professing to worship an apparently transcendental Goddess.
The Ruler:
this ruler is desperately seeking some form of peace or enlightenment. Zie has a history of seeking out guru figures like the Traveler, from whom zie hopes to find this enlightenment. In the past, however, each guru's teachings have invariably failed to provide the enlightenment that the Ruler craves. In disillusionment, the Ruler has the gurus put to death. But in the past, the gurus have always come to the Ruler. The Traveler is too smart for this, and stays out in the desert, outside of the Ruler's jurisdiction. The Ruler eventually seeks out the Traveler.
The Court Astronomer:
The Astronomer is loosely based on the physicist Stephen Hawking. Much of hir ideas will come from Hawking's writings. Like Hawking, the Astronomer is confined to a wheelchair, and is mute. Zie communicates through a laptop computer equipped with a voice synthesizer. The Astronomer is an exploration into the life of a mind almost completely divorced from the body.
The Court Philosopher:
A close friend to the Astronomer. Much of the ideas explored in this play will be explored through philosophical discussions between the Philosopher and the Astronomer. The Philosopher acts in some ways as an intellectual bridge between the scientific philosophy of the Astronomer and the spirituality of the Traveler. The Philosopher perhaps wants to be a guru figure, but, having seen what happens to the Ruler's gurus, limits hirself, at least publicly, to a frivolous sort of philosophy, to "juggling ideas for hir highness's amusement."
"Maenads" (anywhere from 2-10, gender should be mixed):
these are people who have joined the Traveler in the desert. They are not exactly the Traveler's disciples: they are too independent for that. They are the Traveler's friends and lovers. In some ways, they form an opposite pole from the Astronomer: where the Astronomer explores truth through the mind, the Maenads explore truth through the skin. This is not to say that the Maenads are mindless: when they speak, they have some of the clearest ideas of any of the characters. But of all the characters, they are the ones most aware that the world of the intellect is only a small slice of the world which we as humans can experience.
these will be giant puppets, dark shapes half-seen just beyond the edge of the firelight. The Monsters are portents of the coming of the Goddess. The Monsters are the horror of existence, out of which grows the only real joy.
The Goddess (female):
her arrival is alluded to throughout the play, but she does not actually appear until the end. She is the wild card, the divine excess of the real, whom none of the characters' neat philosophical systems can entirely contain.

Ideas & Images
The Philosopher always keeps by his bed an easy means of suicide. "I refuse to live each day simply by force of habit. Every time I wake up in the morning, I do so because I have chosen not to die."

One night, the Astronomer sneaks into the Philosopher's room, takes the suicide kit, and uses it. The Astronomer takes the sleeping pills, puts the plastic bag over hir head. We watch as the bag inflates and deflates with the Astronomer's breath, and then stops. An Angel appears, removes the bag, kisses the dead Astronomer. The Astronomer rises from hir wheelchair, and dances with the Angel. The Astronomer finally experiences, in death, the knowledge of the body.

The next morning the Ruler and the Philosopher discover the Astronomer's body. The Astronomer has left hir suicide message on hir laptop. Hir final words are read by the same synthetic voice that communicated hir words while living. Throughout the rest of the play, the computer continues to communicate the Astronomer's mind, in the absence of hir body. The Astronomer has used the computer to create hir own ghost.

There is a mysterious place, just beyond the reach of the firelight, a place of awe and nightmares. "What is there?" the Ruler asks the Traveler. "Only yourself," the Traveler replies. The Ruler journeys to the mysterious place in the darkness. Monsters rise up from the shadows, and descend upon the Ruler. We hear the Ruler's screams, and then silence.

At the end of the play, as the portents of the coming of the Goddess are reaching a climax, the Traveler finally explains, with a clarity which had been lacking, hir message: that we are all God dreaming that we are finite and human. "Then why all this?" the Philosopher asks. "Why this audience? Why these performers? Why this pretending?" "No reason. Which is every reason. Why? Because of the stars. Because of skin. Because the Goddess is near, and this is how we have chosen to worship."

The Goddess arrives. She is naked. The Traveler takes off hir clothes, and kneels before the Goddess. The Goddess accepts this worship, and then raises the Traveler. The Goddess then kneels before the Traveler, returning the worship. For in truth, we are all gods and goddesses.

The performance ends with a ritual feast, drumming, dancing about the fire. Those who wish can spend the night with us out in the desert: dancing, watching the stars, telling stories around the fire. All good performances should end with a party.

Ecstasy Research Theatre is based largely on a small theatre group that I worked with several years ago, called Psyche & Eros Productions. In justification of the process below, I can only say that I have seen this process used before, and it works. Psyche & Eros Productions was able, using casts of mostly amateurs, to create magic.

Play is an essential part of the creative process. Through games, improv exercises, movement explorations, we as performers build the connections with each other that can take a performance beyond mere craft, to a place where wonder is possible. For the first two weeks, we won't even look at a script; and we will continue our explorations throughout the process. Right up to the performance, even as we polish and fine-tune, we will continue to go back to the source of art, in play.

Ecstasy Research Theatre is non-hierarchical. All decisions are made through consensus. The performers cast themselves, after having explored the script from different angles and through different characters. This can be time-consuming, but it is necessary, and it works. What we are trying to create cannot be assembled mechanically, from the outside. It must grow, organically, from within, and this can only happen if everyone is given a voice in the creative process.

As you can see, a number of people have already agreed to participate in this project, but we still need more. At the very beginning of spring semester, we will post flyers around the institute advertising our first rehearsal, open to everyone. At this meeting, we will attempt to communicate what Ecstasy Research Theatre is about, but more importantly, we will show what we are about, by jumping right into the creative process with games, movement explorations, improv exercises. Those who choose to commit to the project will do so because they want to be part of this thing which they have seen, not because someone "talked them into it."