Integrating Art Forms, or, How Anaïs Mitchell Changed How I Talk About Acting

Integrating Art Forms, or, How Anaïs Mitchell Changed How I Talk About Acting

At the beginning of December, I attended an Anaïs Mitchell concert. Mitchell, known among theatre fans as the creator and composer of Hadestown, is one of my favorite singer-songwriters. Getting to see her on a dark winter night was wonderful as she brought light and warmth though her music.

I loved hearing her express her excitement over the recent announcement that Hadestown is moving to Broadway, her anecdotes about her daughter, and her familiar singing voice spreading throughout the hall. I also loved seeing how she felt the music in her whole body, especially sometimes when she would bend her leg and curl her foot around the back of her other knee, looking like a flamingo.

I came out of the concert wanting to write about it for this site, but for a while I couldn't figure out from where the impulse emerged. She wrote Hadestown, yes, but there was nothing specifically theatrical about her concert. Right?

Well, the conclusion I came to is that any and everything can be inspiration and food for theatrical work. Especially other forms of art.

I've known this for a while - my freshman year directing class focused on learning about modern art, music, and dance movements and then putting these concepts into use through theatrical pieces. So, for instance, I used elements of Expressionist painting - distorted shapes and representations, the theme of nature versus industry, bright colors, angles - to create a seven-minute theatrical piece. These, of course, affected my class's pieces visually, but also thematically, and informed movement and events within the scenes.

Dance in particular could directly inform work, partially because so much dance is theatrical in many ways, not to mention the importance of movement within theatre. Our pieces then were primarily choreography pieces, but they have influenced all of our theatrical pieces since. We could take elements of Merce Cunningham's relationship to chance in live work, or Martha Graham's genius focus on the pelvis as the center of emotion through movement.

But I got to work on a piece inspired by Pina Bausch, arguably the most explicitly theatrical of the bunch. Her use of gesture (usually ordinary movements repeated until they transform into something entirely new) has become a foundation of how I look at directing. Then there is her exquisite use of costume and set, such as the red dress in Rite of Spring, or the water-filled set of Vollmond, or the field of carnations that makes up Nelken.

Bausch's work has irrevocably changed me as an artist. I thought my days of dance were long over, but she has shown me how it can be part of my work forevermore.

There's no doubt that literature can affect theatre - just think about how many shows are based off of or adapted from books! Same goes for film, with so many movies adapted into plays and musicals. Of course, music affects theatre too, not just through musical theatre or plays with music.

I essentially only listened to theatre cast recordings for a while, but with the occasional singer-songwriter thrown in there. Recently I have dedicated myself to finding more music that I love. There was a little guilt there: I'm a theatre major, shouldn't I be dedicating my life to discovering and understanding more theatre? But I think I have done just that through listening to new music.

One of the artists I have found in this period of discovery was Mitski. Her stunning a cappella rendition of "Nobody" exemplified something I have heard that actors should aim for: restraint. She barely moves, doesn’t break down into tears, yet she imparts such deep vulnerability and pain. She is mesmerizing to watch. And so, I have found what restraint in a performance should be.

Something similar goes for the Anaïs Mitchell concert. Yes, her music inspires me greatly, to the point that I desperately want to direct Hadestown someday. But I also saw in her absolute presence in her music, letting every part of the song guide her body. If that's not something that can be applied to acting, I don't know what is. Her absolute presence with her own text is something I can strive for if I'm acting in a piece, or to tell actors about if I am directing and looking for that full commitment.

All of this to say, I think there is immense value in every form of art and every experience when it comes to making and experiencing theatre. There are obvious applications for visual art, music, dance. There are theatrical pieces about the artists who make those forms of art. But it is in the unexpected details that the real gift to theatre-making comes through.  

(Photo: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performing Nelken at the Adelaide Festival. Photo by Tony Lewis.)