The five basic elements in creating of an Anthropo-Sufi Drama performance («Savitri. The Daughter of Fire» as a model)
The current article focuses on the results of the theatrical experiment represented by the production of a theatrical show “Savitri. The Daughter of Fire”. It has become the result of the North African traditional Sufi Hadra ceremony transformation onto the Western stage. The article represents the five basic elements necessary to create an Anthropo-Sufi Drama performance, that is the sensory scenography, visual technical script, actor-performer, director-coordinator, and carnival audience.
During the second half of the 20th century, the North African theatrical practitioners have been trying to involve authentic anthropological rituals into the theatrical sphere. Among those experiences the most profound were the productions of Algerian stage director Abdelkader Aloula, Tunisian director Ezzedine Al Madani, as well as Tayeb Al Seddiqi’s in Morocco and Youssef Aidabi’s in Sudan. Having studied the theatrical experiences of the past from the North African theatrical archive, specifically the productions based on the Sufi ritual background, we can say that the majority of the religious and Sufi celebrations and rituals of the North African region conceals a dramatic spirit in their details and theatrical atmosphere. According to the anthropological research of A.P. Royce, all human societies have traditions rich with special knowledge and features that can be expressed in rituals and ceremonies, as well as in dance styles and human expressive behavior [9, p. 9].
Accordingly, it is possible that these rituals and celebrations can contain different and distinct theatrical aspects. Thus, the celebrations of childbirth, circumcision, or marriage that involve specific dance and religious rites can have connection to the theatrical atmosphere [1, p. 104]. These types of celebrations occur in specific spaces, and they have some special technological procedures to follow, and, in many cases, they involve audience to participate in the ceremonies. All these elements add some theatricality to the ceremonial rituals, and they demonstrate sufficient conditions for building a performance. These conditions are based on interconnected acts, according to Peter Brook's interpretation: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” [3, p. 23].
The point here is that there are few necessary conditions for creating a theatrical act: 1. a stage or place for the performance; 2. a performer within the boundaries of the stage; 3. an observer watching from the outer limits of the stage. These conditions are available in Sufi Hadra ceremonies, in general. This raises a question: is the rebuilding of the Sufi Hadra ceremony on a Western stage sufficient to call it a theatrical act? As the complementary part of the previous words, Peter Brook added: “Yet when we talk about theatre this is not quite what we mean. Red curtains, spotlights, blank verse, laughter, darkness, these are all confusedly superimposed in a messy image covered by one all-purpose word.” [3, p. 23].
Accordingly, the answer to the question is clear, which is that theater requires some additional conditions: the prestige of the theatrical place, director’s unique style, objective of the performance, and the expected audience’s reactions. This article strives to summarize the abovementioned points in the stylization of the Sufi Hadra celebration. Therefore, with a more in-depth analysis of the stages and objectives of the Sufi Hadra ceremony, especially during the interaction between the audience and performers, we can conclude that it is a unique dramatic event. It is based on the five basic dramatic elements: the actors or performers, the dramatic rules or the script, the director, the artistic and scenographic side, and the audience.
The concept of the Anthropo-Sufi Drama performance is based on what is known as the stylization of theatrical image of the Sufi Hadra ceremony. It consists of bringing forth a new vision of the five basic dramatic elements in creating a show in an interactive way and connecting them with the five basic elements of the Sufi Hadra ceremony creation. The purpose of this interaction is the achievement of an effect close to the “unity of existence” between the performer and the receiving party “the audience” in the Sufi Hadra ceremony, in order to break the Western Aristotelian domination of theatrical performances in the North Africa.
Thus, the new form of theater resulting from the Anthropo-Sufi Drama will depend on the following five composed dramatic elements.
1. The sensory scenography: it is a type of scenography that depends on technical and artistic aspects that work to activate a sense of dazzle in the audience from the very first moments of the show. This is necessary in order to enhance the sensory perception of the audience by attracting their attention and imposing their attraction towards the external sensory stimuli. The purpose of arousing the external sensory stimuli and creating those feelings of fascination can be demonstrated in the following process: 1. sensory stimuli that create certain sensations and feelings, 2. capture the audience’s attention, 3. prolong the sensory perception of the audience [7, p. 142-144].
The sensory scenography is used within the limits of the requirements of the performance without exaggeration. It includes the light design, sound design, music and special effects (balance between electronic and live music), body design including body painting and make-up techniques, as well as tangible and intangible decorations (visual effects, videography, reflections and light projections, holograms and mapping techniques). The aforementioned elements can be referred as an important part of the Anthropo-Sufi Drama performance.
In general, this type of scenography creates a holistic effect that aims at stimulating the main sensory reactions of the human body. This is to ensure that the audience are completely immersed in the general atmosphere of the show, as if they were on a journey to other worlds completely separated from their personal lives. The external senses are treated as follows:
The sight sense: it interacts with all the different and alternating colors, whether colors of light or the colors on the costumes of fantastic characters, as well as the colors of the make-up and painting on the performers’ bodies.
The smell sense: it interacts with natural aromas and perfumes diluted and adjusted according to the temporal and spatial changes during the performance, as well as the psychological states of the show’s characters.
The touch sense: the physical contact between the audience and performers in certain cases, or the use of intermediate accessories, especially the soft and flexible ones, such as cloth or other materials.
The hearing sense: all the sounds involved in the show, including music, rhythm, vocal and harmonious reactions, even in cases of silence and sensitization of the respiratory process.
The taste sense: the drinks and foods that are allowed to be brought by the audience or that are distributed to them before the starting of the show.
It is known that the space for the Sufi Hadra ceremony differs greatly from the standards of the Western theatrical stage, in particular, the Hadra Al-Hamdoushia and Hadra Al-Issawiya are noteworthy because both of them are held in public squares in close proximity to the spectator, and they have no special theatrical prestige that would separate the performance from the audience [4, p. XI]. In the Anthropo-Sufi Drama performance “Savitri. The Daughter of Fire” a contemporary theatrical stage was at the level of the audience, we have transformed it to the space resembling a public square, and the performers were acting close to the audience.
The scenography of the show was characterized by modernization and digitalization, by using sophisticated lighting of different colors: moving lighting, DMX effect and portable lighting which changed according to the scenes, the appearance of the characters in the show, or certain psychological states. The phosphorescent colors were also adopted on the clothes and bare parts of the actors’ bodies. The application of the body design was in order to show the fantastic features of the characters and the dimensions of the mythical story. As for the decoration, it depended on the actors’ bodies and their connection in the formation of some scenographic elements in some situations. In this aspect, the symbolism dominated. The light reflections were used on the bodies of the performers and on the empty spaces of the stage. There were also many musical instruments accompanying the actions of some of the characters (led by the Chinese traditional music instrument: Guzheng and Mauritian traditional tambourine: Ravana-Daf). The sensory scenography also relied on the application of actors’ voices in the form of phonetic sounds, lyrical vocal parts, as well as the sounds created by the actors’ body parts like foot stomping, body friction etc. These elements were adopted as harmonies in support of creating the general atmosphere of the show.
2. The visual technical script: it is a new form of a dramatic text which besides telling the main story also aims at describing the general atmosphere of the show (including its visual and audio aspects). It involves instructions for leading of the whole participants of the show (both performing and receiving parts) to achieve the main objective of the performance. In some cases, it can include various verbal elements of diverse cultures as unique sound patterns. In general, the visual dramaturgy can be determined as a visual image of the show in a written form. It is a non-narrative text, as Florence Dupont stated about the Roman comedy that reveals a textual logic other than narration [5, p. 3]. In this case, not all the attention should be given to the text and its representation, but it rather should be adopted only as one of the components of the performance.
The concept of the visual technical script can be observed on the example of transforming the legend of Savitri and Satyavan into the visual technical script of “Savitri. The Daughter of Fire”. The oldest known version of the legend of Savitri and Satyavan can be found in "Vana Parva" or "Book of Jungle" from the “Mahabharata”. The story begins with a narration by the sage Markandeya, after Yudhishthira asked him if there was a woman with the devotion of Draupadi? Markandeya replied to the question by narrating the story of Princess Savitri, who had searched for her beloved Satyavan for a long time, and she had proven her loyalty by challenging Yama, the God of Death [10, p. 329].
By creating interconnected scenes, the myth was transformed into a visual technical script. The Savitri's story was depicted from her birth to her first decision of starting a journey for love at the age 20. The next stage was represented in the form of visual and verbal dialogues with many fantastic characters in different places during the journey. It ends with the meeting of the beloved Satyavan and the appearance of the God of Death Yama at the of the second stage. The final part was the confrontation and change of fate by challenging the God of Death.
The technical and visual aspects of the script were represented by special code words and signs, the changing of technical parts in different scenes, the positions of actors according to the audience’s location, the phonetic dialogues, the moments of communication between the performers and audience. As for the audience, the active part of it got a set of text instructions before the beginning of the show, so that it could participate in the moments of interaction with the characters of the show led by the director-coordinator and the muallem of the actors who performed the character of Yama.
3. The actor-performer: it is a specific type of actors in the Anthropo-Sufi Drama that besides mastering the basic dramatic skills should own a wide range of performing arts’ skills, such as dancing, acro-bio-mechanics, singing and playing musical instruments etc.
The German theatrical director Bertolt Brecht had a very distinctive style in his theatrical works, where he focused all his interest on creating the techniques that could make the audience think during every moment of the performance. He also used a set of stimuli to always remind the audience that they were watching a theatrical performance and not a part of real life. This was accomplished by activating two basic techniques: the “Spass” and the “Gestus” [2, p. 145-150].
The “Spass” is a German term literally translated as “fun”. Bertolt Brecht through his performances intended to make his audience connected to what they were watching by activating the constant thinking process. He believed that when the audience laughed and enjoyed the performance, that meant that they definitely were following and thinking during the show. As for the “Gestus”, its meaning is “gesture”. It was the Brecht's second technique to attract the audience, it was an attention-grabbing movement or an apparent movement that an actor used in a specific moment or situation as an alternative to expressing the emotion.
In the Anthropo-Sufi Drama performance the performer also has different methods to attract the audience’s attention. However, it is done with more direct techniques that can guarantee greater effectiveness in attracting the audience, thus, they can react to the invitation to participate in the performance in a specific timing and join the show.
The actors-performers in the Anthropo-Sufi Drama show also use the movements that have references in anthropological rituals. They may explain a lot about the nature of the characters, their affiliation and their positions in the general appearance of the show.
The actors-performers in the Anthropo-Sufi Drama are supposed to carry out different functions in the show’s process, for instance, to be able to:
1. Become a part of a technical aspect of the show (a part of the space, sound, or the general rhythm etc.);
2. Lead the entire audience to the main objective of the show, and be flexible and adaptable to any unpredictable reaction coming from the audience or other sources;
3. Act the characters in the story. The actors’ characters that are performed in the Anthropo-Sufi Drama are different from the characters found in the classic dramaturgy. They usually obtain extraordinary and\or supernatural skills and talents that make them close to the characters described in the ancient legends and myths. To reach such a level of acting, and to be able to become an Anthropo-Sufi Drama’s actor-performer a person should pass a specific acting-performing training which is called the Sufi Technique in Performing Arts.
4. The director-coordinator: it is an artistic position whose functions and obligations are close to the concept of chorodidaskalos in the Greek theater. For instance, Aeschylus was known as the tragic chorodidaskalos who guided the performers, followed the chorus, composed the vocal rhythms and set the scenography of the show through the art of writing [8, p. 428]. In addition to that the director in the Anthropo-Sufi Drama performance acts as a general coordinator of the whole show because he is the leader of muallems (the guide) and what is meant by muallems are: the muallem of performers, the muallem of rhythm, the muallem of the general harmony of the show. The director-coordinator is also the one who adopts the status of owner of the project and the general observer of the show from the beginning of its preparation until the end of its presentation.
Generally, the role of a director in the classic theater ends in the day of the show’s release. In the Anthropo-Sufi Drama a director’s most important part is done in the day of the show because he has to be present (to play an active role) and take the leading position over the actors-performers when they are guiding the audience to control the general rhythm and image of the entire show. For this reason, the director-coordinator can use specific codes in forms of voices, created language, sound and light effects etc.
In the show “Savitri. The Daughter of Fire”, the director's role was activated on the day of the show by employing the lighting and audio signs, as well as the vocal performance of the character “Wisdom”. The director-coordinator had a direct communication with the muallem of performers, the muallem of rhythm, and the muallem of harmony. On the basis of this, the general rhythm of the show was controlled, and the events were unrolling into a flexible process consistent with the audiences’ interactions, on the one hand, and coordination with the performance of the actors-performers, on the other hand.
5. The carnival audience. The active state of catharsis in religious and ritual celebrations, especially those that acquire a cheerful and spectacular image, is similar to the concept of Psychodrama presented by Jacob Levy Moreno as an alternative means to the sense of theatrical catharsis used as a psychotherapy in the Western societies [6, p. 79].
The Anthropo-Sufi Drama as a new form of theater is trying to find the connection between the performers and audience, and intends to involve the audience as an active part of the show (by using the energy exchange between the organizing and visiting parts), as it is usually done in the carnival part of the Sufi Hadra ceremony. The audience here can be divided into two categories: the first category has the direct involvement in the show and the second type becomes a part of the general atmosphere of the show (by using their voices, movements or silent reactions). This type of show does not only destroy “the fourth wall”, but it creates different dimensions of the space and involves audience as volunteers inside of the theatrical act.
The director who coordinated the show “Savitri. The Daughter of Fire” gave complete freedom to the representatives of the audience from diverse Asian and Western countries. Although, accustomed to discipline in watching the theatrical shows, some of them chose to sit on the separate seats on either side of the stage, others also enjoyed direct follow-up from the high places. Some of them took advantage of the freedom of movement from one side of the stage to the another following the lead of the muallem of performers.
The purpose of creating a show similar to the Sufi Hadra ceremony is to achieve the same unity between the performers and audience – “the unity of existence” by reaching a level of concentration similar to the degree of Fana (the highest level of trance achieved by the practitioners of the Sufi Hadra ceremony), and use it for obtaining the same feeling of euphoria that is known as the artistic catharsis at the end of the show. Considering the abovementioned and comparing it with the theatrical industry in our days, it becomes clear that, the latter usually lacks the connection between the performance and audience, so that makes the spectators refuse the existence of theater as a necessity, or, in case the spectators attend the performance, they might find themselves in a cognitive disconnection with it. In this way, it brings us to the following problematic, in the age of globalization does this theatrical industry as a practice have the socio-cultural necessity, as it is supposed to have? What is the reality of theater as a practice, and does it have the solid future in the era of fast growing digital and technological revolution? Can, nowadays, a theater practitioner create a new performative form that will involve the audience and provide it with the results similar to those that the Sufi Hadra’s audience receive?
All the concerns and questions about the features and details of the theater of the third millennium (its components, principles, laws, schools) oblige each theater researcher and practitioner to find the solutions for the mentioned problematic. They, in turn, impose the need to fix their experience in an academic way, develop their own theories, create different references and views. Thus, these theories, experiences and different views will allow to standardize the theatrical movement in our times. In this case, it is necessary to create the sources and reference tools that can protect the whole theatrical practice from the demise, or moral or physical elimination.
The Anthropo-Sufi Drama experiment does not only try to establish the North African theatrical form with an authentic identity, but also to present to the theatrical world a form of performance which objective is to attract the audience and involve it into the participation in the show and give them a part of responsibility for the support of the contemporary theatrical practice.
- Al-Yousifi H. Theater and its Paradoxes. – Morocco: Sidi Meknes Press, 1996.
- Brecht B. Brecht On Theater. – London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018.
- Brook P. The Empty Space. / trans. and ed. F. A. Qader. – Cairo: National Center for Translation. Dar Al-Tanani Publishing, 2011.
- Crapanzano V. The Hamadsha: A Study in Moroccan Ethnopsychiatry. – Berkley: University of California Press, 1981.
- Dupont F. Not Easy to Be an Aristotelian // Special Issue: How Dramatists Deal with the Theater Vampire Aristotle. – Sharjah: Arab Theater Authority, 2020.
- Hamid R. A. Psychodrama: Its Philosophy and Practice. – Cairo: The Anglo Egyptian Bookshop, 2019.
- Moreno J. L. The Psychodrama. / trans. and ed. M. A. M. Al-Khattab. – Cairo: The Anglo-Egyptian Library, 2018.
- Roberts E. S., Gardner E. A. The inscriptions of Attica. – Cambridge: University Press, 1905.
- Royce A.P. The Anthropology of Dance. – Bloomington: Indiana University press, 1977.
- Sarma B. Vyasa's Mahabharatam. – Kolkata: Academic Publishers, 2008.