Chaos and Control
by Nigel Hunt
Hillar Liitoja's theatre work, whether it is his settings of Ezra Pound's poetry, his staging of other people's texts, or the creation of his own, is at once a reaction against, and a celebration of the fundamental incomprehensibility of the world. From his musical background and theatrical influences to his current techniques of creating his pieces (in which the traditionally separate tasks of writing and directing are usually blended together), Liitoja's challenging relationship between performance and audience can be seen as an effort to refocus the way we interact with the world.
Born in Toronto in 1954, Liitoja originally pursued a career as a concert pianist, studying with Anton Kuerti in Toronto and Pierre Sancan in Paris. In 1979, after losing faith in his own talent and future in music, he discovered two new interests: theatre and the poetry of Ezra Pound. Already in the early 1970s, while commuting to New York City for piano lessons, he had been impressed by such productions as Richard Schechner's staging of Sam Shepard's The Tooth of Crime and André Gregory's Alice in Wonderland, as well as the work of Polish experimentalist Tadeusz Kantor. Remembering the power of these experiences, Liitoja travelled to New York again in 1982 to see the final three performances of Richard Foreman's production of German playwright Botho Strauss's Three Acts of Recognition. In Liitoja's words, he was "blown away" by Foreman's innovative staging. Later, Liitoja worked as an apprentice/observer to Foreman for his European production of Kathy Acker's controversial opera Birth of a Poet. Impressed by Foreman's severe discipline, he learned "not to intellectualize but to absolutely trust my impulses and instincts and to go with them" without worrying about meaning.
Another production that influenced Liitoja's decision to dedicate himself to theatre as his means of expression was Belgian director Jan Fabre's The Power of Theatrical Madness, which he saw several times in Europe. Liitoja comments on his reaction to Fabre's work: "I was bowled over. I could't function like I normally functioned. I walked the streets without knowing where I was going. I was stunned, bereft of normal perspectives and defences. ... I didn't know how to cope, how to react, or what to think anymore." Most of Liitoja's subsequent work has attempted to recapture and share the way these theatrical experiences forced him to re-evaluate his perception of the world.
At the same time as Liitoja was discovering the power that theatre could hold over an audience, he came upon the poetry of Ezra Pound in a series of coincidences: after a recital, a diplomat's wife read him one of Pound's poems; he heard a tape on the radio of Pound reading his poetry and was impressed by the musicality of the poet's voice; while bored at a party he found a copy of one of Pound's books. He also was impressed by Pound's insight as an editor in his notes to T.S. Eliot on the facsimile of "The Wasteland." Liitoja decided to celebrate the powerful clarity of Pound's poetic images by setting them amidst his own theatrical events, believing that the vitality of Pound's writing could not be captured by traditional poetry readings but, instead, should be communicated in a context in which people are engaged in different activities. The literary qualities of Pound's poetry would neither be "acted out" nor just recited. Rather, the poems themselves would become events in a vital, sensual universe teeming with fragments of sight, sound, smell and touch.
Liitoja's combination of theatre and Pound has produced nine pieces so far: Pound for Pound, Pound II (Pound!), Quarter-Pound, Half-Pound (all in 1982), Triptych (1982 and 1983), A Draft of XXX Cantos (1984; for radio), The Last Pound, Pound-O-Rama (both 1985) and Expound (1986). The texts for all these shows are poems by Ezra Pound: The Last Pound, for example, uses all of "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," and Pound-O-Rama has poems from "Moeurs con- temporaines." Liitoja constructs these pieces by first working one-on-one with individual performers; often he will ask them to pick their favourite Pound poems and prepare some sort of action inspired by the text, such as a scream, a dance, or an activity like cutting through wood with a saw. (Andrew Scorer, long active in Toronto's alternate theatre scene and a veteran of four of Liitoja's works, prepared a piece where he delivered the lines of a poem to a dummy and then stabbed it with a knife when he was finished. This action became part of The Last Pound.) Liitoja then will select the individual scenes that he likes and work on them intensively with the individual performer. Sometimes the scene arises from a combination of the performer's ideas and Liitoja's own conception. In The Last Pound Scorer also wanted to recite a poem while doing karate-style movements; Liitoja added to this his own image of chunks of raw liver being thrown at an actor: in the final show Scorer did both simultaneously. In these Pound pieces, as in all of his works, Liitoja ultimately decides what is or is not included but, according to Scorer, "there's actually more creative input from the actors than is usual in a play." After many weeks of individual rehearsals, Liitoja takes time out to "write the show" (as he calls it), creating a score on a long sheet of paper which determines when things occur. When read from left to right, the score, which lists cues for lighting, music, sound effects, and the various routines which the actors will perform, is really an elaborate time chart that keeps everything in sync with Liitoja's intentions but often out of sync with the audience's expectations. The final 10 days of rehearsal allow Liitoja to repeat the events which comprise the play so that he can adjust cues, volumes, and tempo. Although the final result may appear complex, with events happening in many different time cycles, the work for each individual is relatively simple. In this process, the director becomes an editor or conductor who arranges the raw material into an often musical structure. The Last Pound, for example, was based on the classical sonata form (presentation of two themes, transmutation, and final recapitulation).
In Pound-O-Rama, Liitoja's latest Pound piece to be seen in Toronto (Expound was created for Theatre Algoma in Sault Ste. Marie), the events included a woman hanging athletically from a ladder, a man in the audience reading quietly from a biography of Pound, a girl dressing and undressing (the repetition erasing the erotic possibilities of her nudity), a man sweeping the floor with a broom falling over and remaining still for several minutes, and a member of the audience who appeared to be mentally handicapped having a fit during a burst of loud symphonic music, subsequently being carried out of the theatre by two ushers (he was, in fact, part of the show). In this, as in all Liitoja's work, music, sounds, and action are repeated. The effect, which initially seems completely chaotic, eventually achieves a type of order or, at least, provides an indication that it is all very carefully choreographed. In Pound-O-Rama, for example, a woman blow-drying her hair went unnoticed as simply part of the general confusion until all other sounds gradually ceased, leaving only the noise of her activity alone on stage for a moment; then, just as slowly, the layers of events remounted, and her solo disappeared back into place. In fact, the whole show continually wound up and down in this manner, alternating between silence and slowness on the one hand, and noise and chaos on the other. The audience was interspersed throughout the performance space so that some were aware of things which others were not; all were aware that they were unaware of the complete activity, however; in such a situation, the audience is faced with the constant responsibility of choosing what to look at and listen to, and what to ignore. The piece demands that they continually refocus their attention and, in doing so, makes them aware of the active role of the perceiver in both live performance situations and in life.
Although the Pound pieces form the majority of Liitoja's work to date, he also has directed productions using other people's texts. In 1983, for example, under the banner of his newly-formed DNA Theatre, Liitoja directed Richard Foreman's 1974 play Pain(t) at the aka Festival in Toronto. Liitoja's rehearsal process for this piece was fairly traditional inasmuch as all actors were present for all rehearsals, and most of the time was spent working on lines and scenes. Nevertheless, the company still found time under Liitoja's direction to develop their own vocabulary (based on musical terminology) to describe the different types of voices they would use within a line and their accompanying gestures. Scorer remembers his participation in the project as "a fantastic experience" with a "good sharing of input" among the cast.
Liitoja also directed My Plants Came Alive and We Fell in Love, "based" on a short story by Phillip Cairns, at the 1985 Rhubarb Festival. This piece featured Cairns reading a homo-erotic text while peeling a mango and smearing it over his T-shirt; the beginning of a song by the Talking Heads was played repeatedly only to be cut off by a piercing scream; a woman talked nonstop to her hairdryer; a large punk rocker chased an actor out of the audience and around the theatre, claiming that she was really Kim Novak; a saxophone player, stripped to the waist and tied by a long rope to a gypsy fortune-teller, moved through the scene at the end. As with the Pound poems, the written text here became the inspiration or pretext for Liitoja's frightening and bizarre theatrical images. The audience was pushed to the limits (and in some cases beyond) by harsh, random and seemingly unconnected events occuring around the space in a wide mixture of styles. The punk appeared real and his violence did not look" acted," the text was a first-person description of a sexual encounter. But much of the rest of the action seemed crazy or absurd. The only unifying principle in this mad world of bizarre events was the audience - stranded as witnesses to something that cannot be understood, challenged to find a way to react to chaos.
The third type of work that Liitoja has done involves writing his own text. So far, the only example of this is his latest piece, This Is What Happens in Orangeville, which premiered at Toronto's Poor Alex Theatre in January 1987, was remounted at the Backspace of Theatre Passe Muraille last May, and toured to Le Festival de Théâtre des Amériques in Montreal in June. Where it was cited by the festival jury for "experimentation in theatrical writing" and played to full houses. For this piece, inspired by the 1984 murder of two Orangeville children by a 14-year old boy (Paul) and his subsequent confinement for insanity, Liitoja wrote dialogue for the psychiatrist and the boy prior to rehearsals, but only gave it to them bit by bit during the process. Stylistically naturalistic, this series of conversations forms the visual and structural core of the play. The psychiatrist, Dr. Saunders (Andrew Scorer), tries to determine Paul's (Peter Lynch) reasons for killing the two children only to discover that he has none. Paul explains that he wanted only to know what it would feel like to kill, and that he has no regrets over what he has done. The rest of the play, which surrounds these characters and the audience, features fragments from the people of Orangeville engaged in various activities. The boy's sister Malina (Shannonbrooke Murphy) bounces rubber balls and performs various movement exercises, explaining how she accidently avoided being murdered by leaving school early on the day of the murders. San (Ed Fielding), Paul's father, mows the lawn, worries about his wife's dinner invitation to the neighbours, and bemoans the fact that his brain is "underenlarged." Milda (Sara Clenyg-Jones), Paul's mother, cooks omelettes and either drops them on the floor or serves them to any audience member quick enough to grab them; later she plays checkers with her husband. A sadistic piano teacher (Brian Shaw) forces his student (Kirsten Johnson) to write lines throughout the play such as "I will make better use of my time, and yours" and "I will improve my attitude towards playing the piano." (Throughout the run of the production, these pages of lines become a lobby display). Two so-called Automatons (Akascha Kerekes and Rosalia Martini) describe their quiet life in Orangeville and the horror of the murders. A man posing as an audience member (Rich Malouin) suddenly starts talking to a real audience member during the show, explaining that he is from Orangeville and rambling on about the strange statistical parallels which he has noticed lately between his town and Jupiter. A young girl (Liisa Repo-Martell) enters a few times throughout the play and freezes in tableau before, at the end, walking very slowly and completely naked through the playing space, holding a bunch of helium-filled baloons on a string. Two young "ladderboys" (Daniel Deller and Corin McFadden) first usher the audience into the theatre, shouting at them to sit where they like, to move as often as they wish, but not to sit in the armchair (reserved, as it turns out, for the psychiatrist); stripped to the waist, they spend the duration of the show screwing and unscrewing lightbulbs, timing the absence of the psychiatrist between his scenes, sharing this information with individual members of the audience, and taking flash photos of the audience. An Ominous Presence (B Bob) also orders the audience around on occasion. Even Liitoja himself becomes part of the show, collecting stray rubber balls, trying out various places to sit, or enjoying an omelette. Throughout, oppressive symphonic music (Bruckner, etc) builds to repeated crescendos as if mocking the lack of linear progression on stage. The play ends its two hours with the balloon girl's slow parade, a message on Liitoja's answering machine from someone in Orangeville declining to talk about the incident repeating over and over, and a tape of a psychiatrist talking to Liitoja about the effect of child murders on society. Light from the string of bare lightbulbs on stage, the house lights and the cameras' flashes alternate on and off. Gradually all of the performers exit and the audience is left in the dark, then thrown into the light. The effect of this carefully choreographed chaos is a blurring of the normal distinction between Paul's plausibly insane behaviour and the stylized, disassociated actions of everyone else. Of course, Liitoja stacks the deck towards the creation of such relativity by showing us Paul's cool explanation for his deeds, not the grisly murders themselves. But the impression persists, as the play informs us, that "people are freaks and bizarre miracles." Quebec theatre citic Paul Lefebvre found himself "deeply touched by this play and the theatricality of it." In his programme notes for the Festival of the America's production, he suggests that the play "is not an attempt to elucidate what really happened in November, 1984. Instead it offers the audience a random presentation of fragments of various levels of speech and images, indisputable, real fragments, that destroy the very idea of realism, replacing it magnificently with that of reality." Amongst Liitoja's choices of reality some fragments are more interesting than others: for example, the hostile manner of the ladderboys' demands and commands to the audience seem amateurish and overdone; and the nudity of the young girl is more exploitive of women than suggestive of innocence, forcing the audience into complicity with the director if they remain, making us wonder if he really is asking us to leave. Such portions detract from the powerful juxtaposition of Liitoja's clearer images by muddying the sensual experience with concerns about production technique and ethics.
While Liitoja's text for the boy and the psychiatrist and the lines for Malina were all written ahead of time, like the Pound pieces, the rest of the play evolved with one-on-one rehearsals (one-on-two in the case of Paul and Dr. Saunders), then with the creation of a score and, finally, intensive repetitions and adjustments with the entire cast. For some segments Liitoja knew exactly what he wanted and insisted that the performers produce "photocopies" of their actions. In other cases, he let the performers decide what to do within certain parameters. Scorer explains that his scenes with Lynch were unblocked; he was free to do as he wished, even in performance, as long as the scene where he binds Paul's hand was done exactly as Liitoja decreed. At other times Liitoja's work concentrates on the exact position of the performer's body movements and delivery of lines. Always, the work is oriented towards how things look, how they coordinate with other activities, and how they develop the overall relation to the audience. There is no attention to psychological motivation or character exploration. According to Scorer, Liitoja "works best with actors who work more with intuition and less with method." Liitoja finds his actors by going to our theatres where he recruits from both the cast and audience. His Orangeville group is young: the average age is about 25, with six of them under 20.
The juxtaposition of freedom and discipline in the rehearsal process is reflected in the contrast of chaos and control in the shows. Sky Gilbert, artistic director of Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times theatre, and one of Liitoja's first and most persistent supporters, sees in Liitoja's work a parallel to sadomasochism: "It's highly sexual," he explains, "it's based on the rules and the code of conduct of S&M. Dominance, submission and power. It's what makes his work offensive to some people. ... It's so dangerously close, it opens up our impulses ... it makes us horny because we all really want to dominate or be dominated in our lives... people are always in the closet about their need for dominance and power." Gilbert sees this S&M relationship as highly theatrical and healthy since it allows such impulses to be satisfied vicariously. Gilbert concludes: "There is something sick about his work, but that's a compliment." For Gilbert, the often abrasive aesthetics of Liitoja's pieces is necessary to achieve his frontal assault on our society's way of thinking in which reason is valued over instinct, and narrative over rhythm.
Whatever the individual reaction to Liitoja's work, it clearly provides an audience with an unusual theatrical opportunity to balance their decisions about where to sit, what to watch, and how to interpret the performance, with the compelling anti-logic of a world which defies the importance of these choices. Liitoja, who has confessed that "it's the arts councils that are forcing me to articulate my work," primarily intends his pieces to occasion stupefaction: "I love to see the audience figuring things out - in vain! I love these people being stimulated, their minds trying to figure out what is going on with their senses. ... We're stuck in outmoded ways of perception; it's nice to have things jolted and revaluated." Whether Pound's poetry or the Orangeville child murder case, the "subject" is primarily a pretext for Liitoja's presentation of the mad and maddening world which surrounds us. While his work requires that the mind actively try to order and understand the array of events with which it is presented, ultimately the work remains non-intellectual since the mind is subverted to the senses. Finally it adheres only to Liitoja's fundamental motivation, his basic belief that "there's got to be an absolute beauty in what is unknowable, incomprehensible."
CANADIAN THEATRE REVIEW | fall 1987