I had adopted a given understanding about acting, and my thoughts about the nature of my own ideas were influenced by this understanding. I felt that my ideas were definitely not typical actor’s ideas. After all, they were scenic images, “visions”, moods, which did not actually include a goal-oriented character. Nor did I hear my ideas “speak dialogue” – they were largely mute acts. The nature of my ideas made me feel like I was in the wrong profession. In my mind, such ideas were those of a director or an author, perhaps a visual artist, but not an actor.

[—] I felt that the challenge with my ideas was indeed that I was an actor. I felt that had I been a director by profession, there would have been no significant problems or at least most of the problems would have been elsewhere. Simply put: as a director, I could have gathered a team around me and built a scenic construction of the performers and staging which corresponded to my idea adjusting it until it corresponded to the mood stemming from my own experiences. My “vision” as a director would serve as a kind of map or blueprint.

How would I then, as an actor, use these stage sketches? How, as an actor, by what means, could I approach such a “blueprint”?

Working diary entry from 2008.
Kaislat vartioivat minua (2017) [Reads are protecting me]. Visual theatre performance. Manuscript, set design and actor Mikko Bredenberg. Direction together with puppet theatre artist Mira Taussi

My article opens with a photo of my visual theatre performance in 2017, Kaislat vartioivat minua. The photo shows a scene where a pale, gauzy being approaches a shell that looks like a chrysalis lying on the ground. In the previous scene, the audience saw how something hatched from the chrysalis in the dusk – it seems that in this photo the same being is now returning to its birth place in the scene.

When I did my performance, the written part of my artistic dissertation was in preliminary examination, and I was waiting for the process to progress towards final examination. With regard to my doctoral research, the process was coming to an end.[1] When working with my performance, I noticed that many things in my work had changed, because of my doctoral studies and artistic research that took nine years for me to complete. [2] In my performance Kaislat vartioivat minua, considering my artistic work by that time, I took furthest the creative process that I had set out to search and develop in my artistic research.

My working diary entry preceding the performance photo above is written quite at the beginning of my doctoral studies and doctoral research process. The excerpt crystallises well something about the artistic transformation that I already went through in 20042006, quite soon after I graduated as an actor (2002). The excerpt highlights some of the ignorance, helplessness and perhaps also a sort of struggle, regarding the perceptions of acting that I had grown into through my actor studies at the Theatre Academy in 19982002.[3]

The excerpt might also reveal how I was still trying to find the words to express something I did not at that time quite get a grip on, yet. Images for scenic settings surface in my imagining, but something in them seems to suggest uncertainty. Looking back, it is already easier to see that this is one way that a scenic mental image manifests itself to me. Like the performance photo at the beginning of the article, the scenic “ideas” I refer to in the excerpt can also be understood from the perspective of an audience member or a director. My scenic mental images also include information about several aspects of scenic composition: set design, light, sound, and the actor’s corporeality as a constituent part of the composition. In the working diary excerpt, my preliminary questions seem to insist on a new kind of agency: an actor who creates scenic compositions as well as performs in them.[4] For artistic practise, this is a search for working methods through which one could as a creator-performer in a scene composition perceive it both from inside and out from the scene and the audience. How can an actor be the “stager” of their own scenic imagination and, in this sense, also the director?

The purpose of this article is not to provide a detailed explanation of how I developed the working methods in my artistic doctoral research, based on the starting points discussed above, to better meet the needs set by my mental scenic images. What I intended to do was to begin my article by sketching, using myself as an example, how the artistic “problem”, confusion and even lack of knowledge when facing the not-known can in fact be very fruitful starting points for research. In my case, my research was ultimately supported by a strong motivation to find out how I could work in relation to the performance ideas portrayed by very specific types of images. The fact that I could not find suitable strategies within my drama-oriented acting studies also made it worthwhile to examine the matter further. As my doctoral research progressed, the questions about artistic work that had driven the process were extended to include new ones about the essence of imagining, images and stage. When I now assess from some distance – the contribution of my own doctoral research to theatre makers, the focus, based on my own experience, is on that part of my research that reflects on the materiality of imagining, images and stage.

It is essential to note that, in research on artistic practices, the artist’s own experience and the examination of experiences related to artistic work play a special role. In my case, the research was driven by the need to clarify the nature of images and their place in my own artistic work. In the beginning, I started by clarifying my experiences of imagining: How are these images present to me meaning, how do they become real to me?

My attempt to answer questions about the ways in which my images manifest themselves called for answers describing my own experience. That which was immediately present in one’s own experientiality now required to be described in some way. At the beginning of my research process, I often wrote texts describing my images and experiences of imagining. It was also good to realise that it was not always easy to put experiences into words. Through reflecting on my images and writing out my thinking, I also began to realise that in examining experiences, a certain kind of yielding was important: if the experience itself was, for example, somehow or in some part unclear, it should not be changed to something else after all, the experience being examined in its own right would then already have been lost! Examining one’s own experience also gradually engendered a certain kind of mental pliancy. As thinking began to reflect on how its own activity was constructed, wondering replaced knowing wondering about the construction of experience.

A few thoughts on the phenomenological examination of experience and the significance of phenomenology for my artistic research

The human mind is characterised by the intentionality of mental states.[5] When the mind chooses an object, this object always manifests itself in some form. You might say that, as a corporeal and sentient being in the world, I am constantly receiving impressions or you can also say: experiences. So, experience is something in which a conscious mind is always in relation to something. There is the conscious mind, the object it encounters and the way that the conscious mind and the object relate to each other. It is important to note that something seems to be to a certain extent (perhaps always) overflowing in the experience. Often there seems to be much more present in the experience than we can in any possible way consciously grasp and describe in words. Even if the experience is vague in terms of its fullness, it is still a real experience in itself.

The German philosopher and founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), was interested in how things and states of affairs present themselves to us as precisely what they are – how reality is realised.[6] Husserl understood that in order to grasp living reality, in which things and states of affairs are present to us as they are, we should be capable of a certain change of attitude. The natural attitude rendered by theories and beliefs should be put aside. It is indeed wondering that plays a central role in implementing the phenomenological method. Husserl proposes the following as a sort of first step towards wondering and initiating a phenomenological examination:

I (…) must not make nor go on accepting any judgment as scientific in force something that I have not derived from evidence, from “experiences”, in which the affairs and affair-complexes in question are present to me as “they themselves”.

(Husserl 1963, 54, see von Herrmann 1998)

What does this mean? Let us use the experience of imagining as an example. Perhaps we have a deep-seated idea that imagining takes place in our brains. At least we might use the linguistic expression that our images are “inside our heads”.

Now, when I summon the image of a sunflower blossoming in front of me as I write this, this image does not, in precise terms, actually manifest itself “inside my head”. The sunflower I am imagining is there more like as if it was in front of me. This “as if it was in front of me” is now a characteristic way for (my) experience of imagining to manifest itself, i.e. to be present. That is why we must also try to find suitable words for describing the experience of imagining, because otherwise I am no more talking (or writing) about this specific experience. Examining my experience of imagining even further, I actually cannot find my brain anywhere at all in this specific experience. Entirely something else is experientially present to me. Because the brain is not experientially present to me when I am imagining, I cannot, according to Husserl’s instructions, retain the perceptions (theories) of “inside the head” and/or my brain that I have acquired from outside my experience. I therefore have to bracket, or ignore my conception of the brain as the locus of imagining. As a phenomenologist, I do not intrinsically dispute the fact that my brain has something to do with my imagining, but I do not confirm that, either. What is more important is that I try to grasp how the thing itself in this case, the sunflower I imagine – manifests itself to me, i.e. how it is present to me, i.e. how the image appears to me. Having examined my experience, I am also convinced that, based on the apparency provided by my experience, this “sunflower case” is one of the fundamental ways in which I as an actor truly live the relationship with my image. Because I do not dare assume that I am a completely unique case in this respect, I assume that this is also how it manifests itself to others – or at least could manifest, if we so wish.

This method of phenomenological examination is not necessarily easy to digest. This is probably partly due to the fact that our natural attitude is so self-evident to us. When we repeat a thought pattern often enough, we will eventually no longer realise that we are actually doing something very peculiar. The decisive impact of our attitudes has started to become concealed from ourselves. We might end up taking the ideas we have adopted about certain things for granted. This is where phenomenology comes in as an exercise – wondering needs to be practised. A wondering attitude cannot be maintained constantly, either – nor is it meant to.

Because I have used a phenomenological approach in my own artistic research to clarify my imaginative and acting experiences,[7] I have also had to reflect on the relationship between phenomenology and artistic research. Firstly, I think that there is no one method in artistic research, and therefore each artistic research project must justify its own method, its own approach to research. I have described my own approach as an artistic research method that is informed by phenomenology. The artistic research method I developed is also one of the key research results of my doctoral research.

I have ended up thinking that, also due to the exercising of bodily artistic techniques related to acting, acting as corporeal activity changes the nature of corporeal experiences. A trained body may be, for example, sensitive to the surrounding world in a different way than an untrained body.[8] The experiences of related to acting are thus emerge through artistic practices. It is also important to note that it is possible to get near these particular phenomena through acting only. This does not mean that, in principle, everybody would not be able to approach experience. It must, however, be possible to approach experience – and it is meaningful to refer to this approaching experience in itself as acting. In addition to the verbal analysis of experiences, I have in my own research found it possible to build some kinds of steps to be taken through acting. By following these steps, virtually anyone can start acting in a way that make it possible for the corporeal experiences I refer to manifest themselves. This way acting in itself can also be inherently understood as the medium of research. In order to make this more understandable, I would now like to propose an experiment.

Imaginary body from the object body

Next, you can try the acting technique I developed to achieve a kind of duplication in the corporeal experience. This will become easier to understand by reading and imagining the steps proposed. However, the experience can be deepened if you are also able to follow the instructions spatially, embodying them by acting:

  1. Select a place, such as a spot in the room you are in.[9] Then, place your object body[10] on the spot you chose. Assume a position that you will be able to hold for a while. It is important for the continuation of the exercise that at least one of your hands is free in the position you chose.
  2. Now, hold this position for a moment. Think through the following to prepare for the next step: which areas of your object body would you be able to keep as still as possible if you wanted to run through as much of the surface of your object body as possible with your hands (or only with one hand) by pressing lightly? Once you think you have perceived these areas on the surface of your object body, you can proceed to the next step of the exercise.
  3. Next, start going through the surface of your object body by pressing it gently with your hands. Start with the areas that you can hold still in the assumed position. Press gently with your hands so that you can feel the surface of your skin through your clothes. In this exercise, it is essential that you try to sensitise the skin by pressing with your hands, thus becoming aware of the shape of the object body through the feelings of the skin.[11] You will probably be able to easily go through some areas of the body’s surface – some areas you will not be able to reach, at least if you are trying to hold as still as possible. In my experience, you do not need to be very particular in sensitising the skin by manipulating it with your hands. The areas of skin surface on your object body that you cannot easily reach are probably activated by other areas of the skin. What is essential is that attention is drawn to the surface of the skin by pressing it lightly with the hands, which may cause a slightly tingling sensation on the skin surface. The performer of the exercise can think that, when the tingling starts in the areas of the skin that have been touched, the activated sensation is allowed to progress to the areas on the surface of the object body that cannot be reached with the hands. When the tingling sensation is activated, you can stop pressing your hands and try to sense the skin surface all over your object body where the tingling sensation is now progressing.
  4. Now, an image of an imaginary body is created with the help of the sensitised skin surface. In this situation, the imaginary body and the object body occupy exactly the same space, as if overlapping. You can now imagine that, using the skin surface of the object body, the surface of the imaginary body can be distinguished from the tingling skin and begins to harden. When the image of the imaginary body surface hardening is just taking shape, move your object body away from your imaginary body. It is like stepping out of or leaving the imaginary body behind. This way, the object body and the imaginary body now occupy different spots in the room you are in.
  5. You can now turn as if to look at the imaginary body left in its still position. Based on the previous step, you have moved on to project the imaginary body outside the object body. It is now possible to perceive the position and place of the imaginary body in room you are in. The following question can also be posed: if this space as a whole were a stage, what would the place of the imaginary body express in this stage composition? You can, for example, try to perceive what the positioning of the body in the space, based on its place only, might possibly manifest. Also, you can try to perceive the meanings opened by the position of the imaginary body. The imaginary body can also be “kind-of-looked-at” from different directions. And then again, you can perceive the place of the body, through the previous perceptions, as part of the stage composition, but this time from these new perspectives.
  6. Next, choose a new spot in the space where you would like to see the imaginary body. First decide on the place, and then the position the imaginary body will assume there. Now start to move by imagining the imaginary body move from its original place to a new predetermined place. After performing this movement with the imaginary body, return it to its original position.
  7. Next, move your object body back to the same place with your imaginary body – I call this going-in-to the imaginary body. Try to align the position of your object body as faithfully as possible to the imaginary body surface. Then let the imaginary body start moving your object body. The imaginary body now performs the change of place and position that you planned in the previous step and, using your imaginary body as precisely as possible, you attempt to use your object body to express this change of place and position.
  8. You can also leave this new position of the imaginary body as suggested in step 4, and you have moved back to projecting the imaginary body. You can continue alternating between going-in-to and projection for as long as you want.
  9. When exercising, during the going-in-to your imaginary body, it can happen that you experience capturing an experiential quality of which you feel like perceiving your object body in the space looking from outside of it. This experiential quality I refer to as imaginary spectator body. In my own observations, the experiential quality remains in effect for a very short time only. I encounter this kind of duplication in many of my own experiences of acting.
  10. When you want to stop exercising, you can gently pat yourself all over the surface of your object body. Sometimes during the exercise, indentation of the imaginary body causes mild muscle tension in the object body that cannot be released by patting alone. You can also end the exercise by gently shaking your object body.

The above instructions highlight two characteristics of my artistic research in relation to acting:

  1. On the one hand, the activity I present in the instructions is itself an artistic technique, and can be applied when performing.
  2. On the other, acting done with following the instructions is a channel for exploring corporeal experiences. From a research point of view, what is of course also needed is reflection on the experience emerged in the artistic activity.

Imaginary body from the object body -technique is one example of the way in which I have tried to share the experientiality manifesting itself in my own experience and incorporated in my research subject. Juha Himanka has pointed out that the word phenomenology is a combination of the phenomenon and its manifestation (fainómenon) and a state under shared discussion (lógos). And it is just what phenomenology is about: subjecting phenomena to shared elucidation upon their manifestation. (Himanka 2002, 11) Because experiences related to acting and techniques of imagining are complex and, in my own experience, also often beyond the scope of verbalisation, it has seemed justifiable to share experiences by giving instructions for getting close to the experiences. My experiences of acting and the conclusions I have arrived at through reflecting them are now also being subjected to research-based criticism: in principle, anyone following the steps I have given should be able to reach at least something about the experience I refer to.

In my view, this also opens up the possibility of exploring experiences collectively. My hypothesis is that the phenomena I have studied are so complex that their examination only becomes deeper and richer through the research approaches by several different people. Following Husserl’s phenomenological slogan “To the things themselves!” (“Zu den Sachen selbst!”), everyone is obligated to remain faithful to their own experience, and present their conclusions based on the manifestation of their own experience. In the light of the experiments I have conducted, it is clearly possible that the methods implemented by acting can be used to seek the same phenomena, after which they can also be reflected on. This way, the knowledge gained through artistic practices can also serve pedagogical goals.

Footnotes

1 The performance of Kaislat vartioivat minua was no longer part of the reviewed work included in my artistic dissertation. The subject of my artistic research is ‘scenic imagination’. See Bredenberg 2017.

2 My doctoral dissertation and doctoral studies were largely done part time while employed, which is why my research process was expanded in terms of the time it required.

3 I am not criticising my training in drama-oriented acting studies as such. No art education hardly meets every imaginable artistic requirement. In my case, it was a question of exploring in relation to stage motifs that require (for me) new techniques and methods of acting, for which my education did not provide sufficient competences, approaches and answers.

4 Process-based working methods in which a (theatre) performance can also be constructed regardless of strict professional roles (“remits”) did not appear in Finnish theatre until the beginning of the 2000s. My artistic research can also be seen as part of the discussion and development related to process-based work methods.

5 Intentionality is a key concept in the phenomenological special sciences. (see e.g. Perttula 2008, 116).

6 See Himanka 2002, 11–14 on how reality presents itself to us?

7 Sometimes it is precisely the revelation and emergence of the strangeness in the experience that I refer to by ‘clarification’.

8 Phenomenological analyses of the trained body have been conducted in Finland before, for example, in the context of physical activity. (see e.g. Klemola 1998.)

9 By real I mean that given in the temporal-spatial, in perception. (see Bredenberg 2017, 69)

10 Within the scope of this article, it is not possible to discuss all concepts. I would like readers to learn more about my reflection on corporeality in chapter 3 of my doctoral research. (Bredenberg 2017, 5164)

11 Pressing with your hands is an aid. If you feel that you are able to focus on the surface of your skin without pressing with your hands, focus your attention as you see fit.

Sources

Bredenberg, Mikko. 2017. Näyttämöllinen kuvittelu. Acta Scenica 49. Helsinki: Taideyliopiston Teatterikorkeakoulu, esittävien taiteiden tutkimuskeskus. urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-7218-05-1.

Himanka, Juha. 2002. Se ei sittenkään pyöri. Johdatus mannermaiseen filosofiaan. Helsinki: Tammi.

Husserl, Edmund. 1963. Cartesianische Meditationen und Pariser Vorträge, edited by Stephan Strasser. Haag: Martinus Nijhoff.

Klemola, Timo. 1998. Ruumis liikkuu – liikkuuko henki? Fenomenologinen tutkimus liikunnan projekteista. Filosofisia tutkimuksia Tampereen yliopistosta VOL 66. Tampere: Tampereen yliopiston jäljennepalvelu.

Perttula, Juha. 2008. “Kokemus ja kokemuksen tutkimus: fenomenologisen erityistieteen tieteenteoria.” In Kokemuksen tutkimus: merkitys – tulkinta – ymmärtäminen, edited by Juha Perttula and Timo Latomaa, 115–162. Rovaniemi: Lapin yliopistokustannus.

von Herrmann, Friedrich-Wilhelm. 1998. “Fenomenologian käsite Heideggerilla ja Husserlilla.” transl. Miika Luoto. In Heidegger – ristiriitojen filosofi, edited by Arto Haapala, 105–135. Helsinki: Gaudeamus.

Contributor

Mikko Bredenberg

Mikko Bredenberg is an artist-researcher, theatre director, actor and theatre pedagogue. He has worked as theatre director, actor and theatre manager in institutional theatres and in free theatre and performance art groups. As an actor, he has also worked in radio plays, and film and television productions. Teaching theatre art, Bredenberg has worked at the Theatre Academy of Uniarts Helsinki, and the Degree Programme in Theatre Arts, NÄTY, at Tampere University. He has graduated from the Theatre Academy with a Doctoral Degree in theatre and drama, focusing on scenic imagination as his research topic.