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Lisa Fay and Jeff Glassman Duo

Pivot-Montage and Counter-Intuitive Behavior For Theatre Composition

© 2009 by Lisa Fay and Jeff Glassman Duo


    Complementing the current abundance of electronically and digitally mediated performance, a new importance accrues to the composed live presence of actors who are unmediated and unassisted by technology on stage, yet who perform pattern and form more complex than what electronic processes have so far allowed to the live performer. As technology can alter forms of behavior in daily life, so too can live theatre make new forms of daily life behavior that alter the meaning of “technology.” On the strength of what is commonly called “intimacy” in theatre, an elaborate ephemeral artifice of multiple times and places, and near-impossible laminations of speech and gesture, can be sustained on stage using no more than live unassisted human movement and voice. Our interest is in laying new ground for form in theatre in a way that makes the term theatre composition meaningfully analogous to music composition. Two families of technique we generated for this project we name pivot-montage and counter-intuitive behavior; together they form the basis of a system for theatre composition.


The description that follows is partly a report on some of the progress in the research of our work, partly a description of pieces in our current repertory, and partly a projection of imagined theatre pieces we know can be made and hope to engage others in making along with us in this unfolding project. In the text there is a convergence and mixing of these three functions. This is where we’re at. The two themes are selected from among other ideas not written about here. The article is addressed to those who are making theatre and who are intent on generating new theatre in types of possible human behavior not yet seen as a resource, though eminently available to composition. This article is an attempt to describe and propose two components of a creative “technology” of acting, with the hope that this way of working can lead to theatrical creations engaging with our humanity through meaningful structural complexity and formal depth.


Theatre artists cannot avoid one simple requirement of their work. That is, a scene must begin and it must end. The maker of theatre produces a fictional time and place environment with actors as inhabitants. It is bounded.

There are many theatrical conventions practiced in order to meet this requirement. They include curtains rising and falling, lights coming up and down, actors entering and leaving the stage, audiences entering and leaving the theatre, bowing, clapping, new scenery, musical cues, the appearance of an announcer, and other practices involving projectors, loud-speakers, and computers. All of these ways are used to demarcate the boundaries of the beginning of the audience’s view into the time and place of a work, an act, an event or a scene, and the ending of that view. The scene might project the illusion of having a past and a future, but all the audience is privy to is what they can observe of what they are shown, and that view has a beginning and an ending. That view is bounded.

System of pivot-montage relations for "Quartet"

In our work over the past twenty years, we have taken this constraint as a challenge to invent a new premise, in the form of what we have named pivot-montage, and through the technique we have named pivoting. The premise of pivot-montage is that the necessary boundary markers for viewing a theatrical scene, the demarcations of the starting and stopping moments bounding each scene, be created on stage by the actor or actors who perform gestural-vocal non sequiturs. The technique for performing a non sequitur, the pivot, is a gesture of the actor’s body and voice as a whole. It is a gesture formed when the actor’s body and voice (performing a character) arrives at a moment and position in one scene’s fiction that is identical to a moment and position of the actor’s body and voice (performing a character) in another scene’s fiction as if two scenes happening simultaneously on stage suddenly crossed paths. Using this conjunction of two scenes, a switch can occur. The actor can proceed seamlessly without slowing down, to “jump track” from the moving body of the character of the one scene into the moving body of the character of the other scene, cutting mid-word and mid-action from the one into mid-word and mid-action of the other. In this convergence of two scenes, two possible worlds, the path taken and the abandoned alternative touch in the moment of the pivot.

This change is accomplished through a precise stop-start of every variable aspect of the actor’s body and voice simultaneously and without the use of any transition time, pose, external signal, or stage convention. The frame of the actor’s presence changes immediately from one fictional time and place to another without imputing to the theatrical content any cause, reason or explanation for the change. Rather than content, story, or character, it is the logic of the composed form that motivates the change. The more natural the acting, the more unnaturally jolting is the intervention of a pivot, and the more likely is the viewer to grasp a pivot as an abstraction, a gesture in form that is an element of a formal system.

A pivot is perceivable only in retrospect for it doesn’t “happen” until the pivotal moment is in the past, until the current scene is already juxtaposed against the memory of the previous scene, and the viewer discovers the frame of the action in the action. The moment the pivot “takes place” has no duration of its own. It is gone when it happens.

To the actor, the experience of moving through a pivot is that of performing a hybrid gesture, part in scene A and part in scene B. While maintaining the predictable momentum of the present action A to the audience, and even stressing that predictability, the actor’s mind is already actively fixed on the next scene B, and internally setting the body and voice to perform the torque of the pivot into the next scene without hesitation, without perceivable preparation, without any pause. What to the viewer appears as missing action lost suddenly between A and B, to the actor is the action AB itself. The actor is called upon to perform a non sequitur in movement and voice in the medium of the actor’s continuous presence.

This technique can be appreciated by anyone who wishes that an actor could indicate not only the time and place of a character’s environment or even a change from one character to another, but also a sequence of times and places and a pattern of times and places as inventively as a music composer can employ enharmonic change in modulating from one key to another or a film editor can fabricate a montage of many shots. In the play of alternatives made available by the pivot technique, the creator of theatrical events is able to compose sequences and patterns of time-place framed events in a system of juxtaposition. The pivot technique allows the actor and the maker of theatre not only to put the frame into the picture, but also to insert as many frames in any sequence and pattern desired, as serves the artists’ idea.

Frames can be juxtaposed in patterns limited only by parameters of performability, and the composer’s imagination for scenic geometry. Scenes can be made that last only a few seconds or a fraction of a second: just long enough for the audience to establish in their minds that such a scene is happening before it is gone. Or scenes can be as long as a whole act of a typical play. An entire composition might be only several minutes long or a whole evening, composed of a few scenes or hundreds. A scene cut off at a certain moment can be picked up again later at that “same” moment, and carried forward as if the original scene continues, much like a scene made by a film editor can include a shot that returns to action seen earlier, picking it up at the moment the action left off.

Any actor or group of actors on stage, at any prepared moment, can be made to pivot out of the frame of one scene and into the frame of another regardless of what any additional actors might be doing. Once it has been seen that at least one actor has pivoted independently of the others, that they have parted ways, actors on stage together can play characters in different time-place environments; while the actors might come physically close to one another on stage, the fictional distance between their characters is sustained by the demonstrated mutual exclusivity of their time-place environments. Two actors, performing characters in different fictional environments, perform the characters’ mutual non-existence. Unless one joins the environment of the other, or both pivot into a third environment together, they register no interaction.

An environment, in the sense used here, is established by an actor who, in character, generates the fiction of a time and place other than that of the audience, in which the character dwells. The composer can work at one time with up to as many environments on stage as there are actors, and no more, since each character inhabits only one environment at a time, and no environment exists unless it is populated.

Other ways have been used to sustain the fiction of actors occupying multiple and simultaneous times and places on stage. These have been conventions correctly understood by audiences to apply externally to the acting. They have not been incorporated as structural features of the acting itself. The theatre maker uses pivot-montage to establish the time-place frames of acting in the acting, as a formally constructed non sequitur of movement and voice. For the audience, the frame of the action is understood in the action.

Score excerpt from Three Pink Men

Working in this way, the maker of theatre must consider what are to be
the scenes, their sequences, how many characters in each scene, and the nuance determining at which exact movement and syllable will one scene cut off and catch the first movement and syllable of the following scene for each actor. With the ability to compose complex sequences and juxtapositions of time-place bounded environments — the viewer guided by pivots — the artist can create effects comparable to effects created technologically, yet do so within a technology of human behavior specific to the irreducible medium of performed live presence.

Making notations and scores for theatre works, as music composers do for music compositions, the theatre artist can work between idea and performance in a way that is vastly different from writing dialogue, making sketches, documenting with video, improvising in the studio, working with computer, or “devising” as generally practiced. Terms like scale, key, meter, rhythm, harmony, dissonance, chord, melody, tone, orchestration and other musical terms — including some from composing with computer — serve in the working vocabulary of composers of theatre. A composition in theatre with many actors showing characters in many times and places simultaneously, alternating, and interwoven, can approach the complexity of a composition for a musical quartet, for a chamber orchestra, or for computer.

The orchestration that is possible with an ensemble of actors pivoting into and out of one another’s framed time-place environments, or crossing together from one environment to another, gives form in art to the fantastic complexity of an ordinary day in the life of an individual, into whose time-place environment numerous others arrive from “nowhere” and share a mutually bounded present for a short time (a minute, a day, a lifetime) before disappearing out of bounds. Through the montage of multiple appearances in one’s environment, the presences of other people take on pattern and form in one’s life, surrounding one with the immediate experience of a social system.

Complementary to the current abundance of electronically and digitally mediated interaction, a new importance accrues to the composed live presence of actors who are unmediated, yet who perform complex pattern and form different from what electronic and digital processes encompass. As technology can alter forms of behavior in daily life, so too can live theatre make new forms of daily life behavior that alter the meaning of “technology.”

Rather than the presence of actors linked with electronic media, the pivot technique requires the unlinked live presence of actors for its implementation. Audiences viewing compositions using pivot-montage fare best in small theatre spaces that bring actors within proximity that could support conversation between actors and audience. On the strength of what is commonly called intimacy, an elaborate ephemeral artifice of multiple times and places, and near-impossible laminations of speech and gesture, can be sustained on stage using no more than live unassisted human movement and voice.

Pivot-montage in live performance is akin to the montage of cinema in that every pivot seems to hold fast the two actions it cuts together in sequential juxtaposition. Missing events are implied: the action that could have followed from the scene cut off, were it not cut off, and the action that could have preceded the scene that is suddenly now in progress, were we able to share its history, are irresistibly imagined by the viewer. These action “shadows” are inherent to the illusion of the pivot; they are the illusion of missing action in missing time and space, and seem “as if” to have happened.

Watching actors employ pivot-montage on stage, the sensation might arise in the viewer that the actors are exhibiting not only the shifting times and places in the work, but also a peculiar mode of behavior. It might seem to be the behavior of people who have the benefit of a second time dimension implied by the way they move, act and speak — a dimension beyond the sensed time in which the viewer is socially practiced. These characters would appear to be unbounded by the continuity in time and space usually attributed to the presence of a person. If there were people living in a social system preferable to all the ones we know, and if their behavior in this social system could be observed by us, we might see enviable evidence of such a dimensional freedom of time and timing. This behavior can be composed in theatre.

Counter-Intuitive Behavior

    If it can be expected that new social organization, new culture and new political and economic structures will be accompanied by new behavior on even so minute a scale as the way one person moves in relation to another person during conversation, then a kind of reverse archeology of behavior can be practiced. In this excavation game of reverse archaeology, we can imagine an artifact of behavior found in a future society, extract it, and bring it home to the present. We can even put it on a stage and let it show us something we haven’t seen before. It may entice us to infer the context from which it emerged and that context might be a society in which all forms of violence are relics of an abandoned past. Or it may convey to us a brief image of human society in which the meeting of basic needs has been continuously and unconditionally fulfilled, a time and place in which people are intent upon problems of ever finer living. Such behavioral artifacts can be a source of techniques for theatre artists at present. The techniques might result in performance that is as strange to contemporary sensibilities as would be the society from whose behavioral
artifacts they were derived.

"Bunraku" notation model

We can simulate such artifacts by answering questions like “What have people never been seen to do in daily-life interaction?” or “What is considered impossible in human behavior?” or “What is the human nervous system organized specifically not to do?” Answers can be attempted by analyzing everyday observable behavior into a number of distinguishable components, studying the possible and performable relations between components, and synthesizing them into a newly invented whole. The components drawn from everyday behavior would be immediately performable, but the invented reorganization of those components would require the actor to master counter-intuitive behavior. Behavior is counter-intuitive that is never performed by a person in present day society unless they become aware of, learn, and perfect that performance, against the grain of their nervous system as it functions in daily life. When performed, counter-intuitive behavior looks suspiciously wrong as we might hope a glimpse of a future would look when viewed in the present context.

         If the components are familiar – familiar timing patterns of gesture, familiar vocal sound phrasings, the situating of movement in a familiar social interaction – while the new organization of these components involves seemingly impossible juxtapositions of gesture patterns, vocal phrasings, and movements culled and laminated together from various scenes that appear dispersed in time and space and might seem to have nothing to do with one another, then in this game of reverse archeology we can imagine we have an ‘artifact of behavior’ not from the present but from a future.  In performance, each actor would perform a stream of such ongoing “impossible” juxtaposition with fluidity, as if it were normal behavior in an unknown society. In an imaginative sense, a performance would offer an audience a look at what could be created of individual presence in society, were people to act outside the margins of currently “real” human behavior, not so much in content but in form.  The rehearsal of a play could be a rehearsal of a novel form of social existence.

To take one example, counter-intuitive behavior might require the actor to develop the ability to maintain two distinct speech channels at the same time: one through the actor’s visible action (including all the tiny body rhythms of speech including the visible gestures of the face, head, and to the greatest extent possible, the mouth and breath) and another through the same actor’s audible voice (the actor’s live audible voice speaking lines in a scene we can thus hear but do not see happening.) It would be as if the actor is engaged in dialogue with two partners in two different realities at exactly the same time, one engagement through their visible ‘speech’ and the other through their audible voice. The acting would be split down the center between visible and audible and the two could very well contradict one another.  The speaking seen and the speech heard would run concurrently, yet maintain a continuous dissociation from one another, like a pivot maintained over time.

    The skill necessary to perform such behavior puts a counter-intuitive twist into the problems of acting. The actor’s body projects two different states of mind, and thus two emotional settings. The actor performs emotional conflict: not emotional conflict within a single character’s psyche or between one character and another character, but emotional conflict between two characters in one actor. The actor performs a relation between characters, the character the audience can watch and the character the audience can hear. The dialogical performance becomes embodied dialectic.

In order to profile this ‘twoness’ of character, the actor must demonstrate incompatibility between their visible movement rhythm and their audible vocal rhythm, both drawn from material of ordinary speech behavior.  Since acting, visual and audible, involves controlled display of emotional states, the actor would have to craft a state of physically evident emotional conflict and learn to control, style, and perform it with virtuoso affect – two distinquishable emotional states in one body and one voice – somewhat analogously to polyphony.  What can eventually become familiar to an actor as self-induced emotional conflict and cognitive dissonance — crafted through technique — can appear to the audience as contradiction and paradox.

    Another domain of experimentation that opens up, uncanny coordination, stems from the fact that in the ordinary daily life of moving about and doing things, a person chooses how to move not only consciously but unconsciously.  For practical purposes, many variations on a way of doing something are functionally equivalent in our thinking.  It usually doesn’t matter to what extent the wrist moves before the elbow or whether the few steps to the counter begin on the left leg or the right leg.  And on a micro-level, it hardly ever makes a difference (consciously that is) what all the little timings are, or the rhythmic relations between parts of the body.  However, on a stage, particularly on our stage of counter-intuitive behavior, we can pick and choose to any degree of precision among all the ways of accomplishing "the same thing."  And so, if we become assiduous about our choosing, we can choose for an actor, from the palette of available ways of doing, just that one way that happens to share the exact timing pattern of attack and decay, of start and stop of movement, (and of direction, distance, duration, intensity, speed, acceleration, pathway, etc.) as another actor’s movement.  But either actor is still portraying ‘natural’ action, and either character is oblivious to the coordination they participate in.  It ‘just so happens’ that the rhythm of two or more characters seems locked together (or syncopated, or in counterpoint, or in elaborate design) and so seems to exhibit a strange and compelling choreography hidden within the still natural-seeming scene, an uncanny coordination.  The clash of reality value between the choreographic scaffolding and the naturalistic acting would be the shocking effect of uncanny anti-naturalism implanted into the natural.

        We can imagine a theatre in which a pool of natural everyday occurrences – going to work, coming home, making dinner, and all the minute movements of daily life – is covered by a surface membrane on which ripples (of pivot-montage, dualistic speaking, uncanny coordinations, etc.) make patterns that indicate disturbances from distant events which we can perceive through understanding the ripples.  It would be as if the mundane reality were a medium in which to decifer interference patterns, like a radar station bouncing its continuous beams off world events.

    When the full set of these and other counter-intuitive techniques is combined with pivot-montage, a systematic whole takes form.  Applied by an ensemble, the actors would be able to perform densely orchestrated works in which actors, characters, voices, texts, movement, gesture, action, interaction, emotional expression, dialogue, and all the familiar components of theatre are redistributed and recombined in complex and unfamiliar patterns. Distributions can be made in which components of a single character are spread over several actors, and in which components of multiple characters are compacted into one actor.

    A character in a theatre so configured might appear as a system of characteristics rather than as a character in the usual sense. A character could be the expression of the logic of a composed pattern rather than the illusion of a whole biological human being modeled by an actor. Such theatre might engage by analogy with the distant existences of the billions of human beings one will never see nor meet, and whose kaleidoscopic time-place environments one can share only through a leap of intellect, art, and ethical sensibility. Characters might appear to the viewer’s imagination like strangely comported visitors from an excavated possible society, who act in a way we might want to study and know more about. At least, the artifacts of their behavior would provide us with provocative material for practical research on the stage.

        The task envisioned is posed in the question “Now that people are prone to cognize events in time and space through their perceptual experiences with electronically and digitally mediated realities, what can happen, now conceivable for the first time, if we invent techniques for movement, speech, gesture, and the construction of events in fictional time and space for the live, unassisted, unmediated human actor — techniques that are meaningful to those ‘literate’ in the sensing of electronic media — and build new live performance forms to challenge the abilities of media-cultured audiences?”

     What is envisioned is that we discover and invent newly performable techniques through the use of all types of electronic and digital manipulations prior to the creation of a performance, learn from these manipulations, practice with them, but then compose the unassisted live acting of performers, using the formal design of human behavior only now possible, because now conceivable, with the knowledge garnered through the most advanced means – transformed into a technology of human social presence on stage.