Extracting Enthusiasm

A Kindly Boot
It has been an illusive quest. Once again my child transforms: the new title for Professor Uncle Herre Doctor Bwana Forget Zis Extracting Entusiasm Guerilla Lecture Party Piece Experiment has become “A Kindly Boot”. Please indulge me.

Extracting Enthusiasm in the Age of Crisis has by now been performed in Bergen, Toronto, Bergen, Llangollan (Wales), Sydney, Brussels, Cloughjordan (Eire), Maastricht. A pleasant version from it’s second Bergen edition is to be found on the YouTube: “Extracting Enthusiasm at Galleriet 3.14”

Sixth edition of Extracting Enthusiasm Rattles the Room in Sydney

Yes, I write my own press clippings department:
Bembo Davies has been at this business for several years, his acting style is unpolished and foolhardy.  Dramaturgically, the closest genre to his ‘guerilla lecture party piece’ might be stand-up — save that his turf is the loosest of rocks on an avalanche prone mountainside.

Active Verb Lecture Series: #1
Extracting Enthusiasm in The Age of Crisis
a dissertation in denial

And Lo, there came before them a man, an empty-handed man with grave delusion that he had something inside.  And that, if the Gathering of the People could push him to the edge of his sub-conscious, something ‘necessary’ might happen…”

To exist unrockably in this day and age is to ally oneself with the dinosaurs.  To be overly flexible is to let the winds decide. In times of change, a capacity to abandon rigid positions – and open for fresh (or ancient) fields of thought, is essential.  Balance is to be sought  – but not before facing the realms of chaos. Our guest speaker challenges the outer limits of self-doubt and courage/ambition.  He insists upon safety, but is inherently reckless. Through his struggle to retain balance  – our capacity to address our political paralysis gets a gentle nudge.

Canadian-Norwegian actor/playwright, Bembo Davies, gently returns to the shamanist roots of the public meeting with collected notes from the wee, small hours of our deepest angst.  Weaving his way through the host’s desire for a jovial tone, and a crushing sense of impending unpleasantness, he seeks to approach the ‘Human Gathering’ as the source of all redemption.      (The lecture is held in English.  45 minutes )


The character in this piece is liberally based on a family legend, my granny’s Uncle Julius  – his Excellency Herr Überpresident of Pomerania from 1920-33.

The form is adapted from Andrzej Sadowski’s A Maudlin Tale.

The Active Verb Lecture Series of the Institute for Non-toxic Propaganda deals with constructive doubt management.  Everyone has legitimate grounds to fear the future. Still, to survive from day to day, we rely upon an ingrained culture of denial.  
Davies demonstrates a way forward, and proposes that we embrace our fears within the warm frame of the human gathering.  
The participants should emerge lighter and brighter.


Issi Aaron has done his research.  A citizen of the world with background from at least four lands, he held the banner high as the only attendant male at my recent Sydney performance (the best so far) of the sixth edition of Extracting Enthusiasm in the Age of Crisis.  New this time was, beyond the highly indicative tag line: a guerilla lecture party piece, at least one almost solemn moment of collective meditation around the abyss.

Brother Issi embraced me warmly afterwards.  He may have noted this rather slim program note revealing the piece’s genesis…
Summer 2005, on an expedition to Szczecin, Poland, I confirmed
a family legend:  Granny’s Uncle Julius had indeed been
a considerable personage:  His Excellency Herr Überpresident
(equivalent to Lieutenant Governor) of the East-Prussian province
of Pomerania from 1920-33.  Not long after my return, scribbled
messages began to appear upon my bedside table…

Or, perhaps he had merely deciphered the silly accent and vestiges of the Germanic that I have adopted to clothe my deepest concerns, as something familiar to both our childhoods.  Whatever his pathway, Issi became the first person to absorb my entire play through the idiom of Jewishness.
He waxed eloquently on the legacy of absorbing disproportionate social concern, of embracing an inescapable guilt for somehow being responsible for the problems of the world   I found all this deeply moving.  Partially, I suspect, due to its truth, but also due to the fact that my residual Jewishness has always been excluded by the North American Jewish hegemony of unwashed schtetel dwellers.  My people, the big-city, secular trouble-makers, weren’t allowed our share of the weltschmertz.  I, snuggled in behind an Anglo surname, and with my foreskin intact, wasn’t really granted tribal privileges;  even the trump card of my maternal Granddad going up the pipes in Oswiecim, remained an elaborate negotiated entry fee only worth dragging out when debating the fate of the Palestinian peoples.  My legacy, if any, was best summed up by my delightful mother:  “Bem, the only bit of Jewish heritage that you’ll get from me is jiddische angst.”  

I suspect that it was this chronic angst that had rung Issi’s bell.  He referenced Woody Allen: naked, neurotic, kvetching and if at all lovable, only in his insistence on eschewing cosmetic surgery; the rabid self-editing endlessly qualifying each statement to smithereens, perpetually side-tracked by atom-splitting minutiae; documenting one’s visionary precision via a parade of uncertainty.
I insist upon taking upon myself the responsibility, guilt and weight of the vision, checking and re-checking the audience’s security within their comfort zone, before committing yet another unavoidable faux pas; standing forth as an authority who is paralysed by fears of over-stepping politeness, wincing at his own profundity, retracting each monumental rhetorical breakthrough while deftly circumventing the mother of all pressing issues.

The Lecture Series project has now had five different editions.  Prior to the second edition, then called “Forget Zis experiment II” at Toronto’s SummerWorks Festival,
I was adroitly e-interviewed by director Alistair Newton….

1.  You were creating work in a very exciting period in the history of independent theatre in Toronto; one still hears murmurs about the excitement of the late 70s/early 80s in the right circles.  What are your memories of that time and how did that milieu influence your development as a theatre artist?
Alistair, are you suggesting that the excitement has dropped off of late?  Actually, I’m even older; in 1969-71, as a local teenager without any imprinted desire to do theatre, I was dragged into 9, or so, very divergent productions. ( Nowadays, I suspect the list would be longer, as all the impromptu/happening events would have become CV-fodder as conceptualised, hyper-documented performance installations.)  Major blood-transfusions included FUT ’70 (Festival of Underground Theatre), THOG’s tribal rants, and the open stage all-nighters at Global Village, where I had my start as floorwasher. Entering Number 11 (old Passe Muraille) or Theatre 2nd Floor, the space was as evocative as the performances.  Cutting my teeth working with some very innovative souls, the legacy must hopefully be an adherence to the raw energy of creation with a minimalist, found-art scrap nature.  I don’ t know if the city still houses dirt-floor basements on which to rehearse.

2.  You have lived and created theatre in some of the most exciting centres for alternative theatre practice in the world.  How has that artistic/theatrical/cultural experience shaped you as an artist?  Have any of the great Eastern European masters (Jerzy Grotowski, Tadeusz Kantor etc) influenced you as a theatre practitioner?
I beg to differ on a central placing, but provincial Norway is perhaps closer to the loop than provincial Upper Canada.  I wouldn’ t have survived but for Sven Åge Birkeland’s programming for Bergen International Theatre which has regularly brought unique theatrical voices such as: Societas Rafael Sanzios, Theatre de la Radeau, TG Stan and the Houkka Brothers.
The greatest cultural difference to my Canadian upbringing, is that these are freelance ensembles, rather than a rotating pool of freelance actors.  As a result each troop develops their own expressive language coloured by the need to exist beyond linguistic borders; story is often subservient to the actor’s physical task.  These pieces are survival tools, life rafts; uncomfortable artists who spread their web as gestures of resistance.
The Forget Zis piece had its genesis the day after witnessing Devero Theatre Society‘s toughest of the tough, butoh street theatre parable The Execution of Pierrot/Arkan in Szczecin, Poland.  For some of us, it was the eve of the tenth anniversary of massacre at Sczrebrenice, and these Russians in exile, based in Dresden were waving their sausages for Polacks in the courtyard of my Prussian Jewish ancestor the Überpresident of Pomerania (The Derevo piece is described above under ‘my writings’ ).  Negotiating such resonance may be less accessible in, let us say — a Toronto bistro.
Forget Zis [ Extracting Enthusiasm] takes as its psycho-dramaturgical model Andrzej Sadowski’s A Maudlin Tale, so it was natural to get him aboard as director.  I deliberately set rehearsals in Krakow in order to absorb vestigial elements of Granny’s Uncle Julius. The best part of Polish theatre is the acute chauvinism: since Poles believe that theatre has preserved their culturally identity; everyone seems duty-bound to go to the theatre twice a week.

3.  You’ve billed your upcoming piece as an “experiment”.  What is the role/importance of experimentation in your process as a theatre artist?
I didn’t have a method on this one: a pile of notes is a pile of notes.  Working with anyone else, I’d build a safe thematic grid to fill in and stretch them over.  This time, I was adamantly circumventing the director/ dramaturg role.  After 25 years, I felt the push to force myself back on stage as an extreme sport.  The ‘experiment‘ is if I can weave a palatable understanding with the audience people with my bare words.
In a European context, I’d describe this as archetypal Canadian theatre.  The willingness to perform the equivalent of a sod hut: it needn’t be pretty, you can throw it up in an afternoon, and one needn’t be sentimental about abandoning things, it can only get cumulatively better. This became an essential element of my acting experience after partaking a re-education program as a Christmas Mummer in Newfoundland.  It was the perfect antidote after two years potentially damaging exposure at the world’s driest theatre training institution.  Playing the Mummers’ Play’s medieval name-calling ritual at parties, in the prison, on buses and foreign fishing vessels, one had no choice but to augment the raw text with palpably, spontaneous invention.  This theatre of the moment has followed my work: yesterday’s brilliant discover can always be sacrificed in favour of more pressing engagement.
During the first edition of the FZ experiment, I felt the need to jettison my first two pages of considered introduction, in favour of a naked, truthful start.  Nakedness is a major tenet of my work: that the actor/writer can most genuinely assemble the elements of a performance under the added ingredient of the audience’s glare.  At times one is desperate, but as far as I have ascertained the ‘super sub-text’ of all theatre is: “Am I saying this correctly?”.  When the actor is so intransigent as to ignore all but the certified gems of the writer in favour of some curiously scented, loose thread of a possibility, who knows what may transpire… That I begin the evening trying to claw my way out from the depths of a black hole, isn’t actually very smart.  So far the score is just about even: 2 hard-fought wins, 2 tortuous losses, 11 honorable draws and 1 no-show.

4.  I can hear you wrestling with the nature of the relationship between the writer and the performer in the creation of this piece.  Can you speak to some of the ways in which you navigate what can be a challenging endeavour: performing your own writing?
It is horrible, it is childish, it is humiliating.  The playwright impulsively throws an unfinished work at the feet of the actor; aware that his gems will be sabotaged, he counts upon the neural St. Vitus dance of the actor to supply some kind of infectious, satisfactory resolution.  The actor doubts the wisdom of this proposition – but gamely twists and turns every wee scrap and clue in hope of distilling a navigable emotional through-line; gems may fall by the wayside, but if the attendant Gods of Theatre are willing, tonight’s solution will delve new depths.  The director, knowing all too well that the actor will only dismiss his helpful hints as those of a pedantic busybody, concerns himself with having faith in the process.  The producer lifts his head from his hands to put on a brave front.  The PR department can only bluff.

5.  What is your view of the social function of the theatre?  I get the sense that you believe in Aristotelian catharsis and theatre-as-ritual.  Do you believe that Theatre can serve as a kind of secular church service?
It gave me an enormous confirmation reading Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines.  He traces how theatre-like song and dance, predate speech in the evolution of human interrelations (circa 50,000 years ago).  Yes, we are shamans, yes we negotiate with the Gods on behalf of the audience, yes it hurts. Raised playing theatre in Curling Rinks and Union Halls, the post-performance debate and church tea has always provided the moments of social healing.

6.  You write about your ideas with a passion that is absolutely palpable; even though we are conducting this “interview” by intercontinental email, I can almost feel your fire. What daemons are you hoping to exercise, and what do you want your audiences to walk away with from your experiment?
You Bastard! I operate subconsciously hoping against hope that each performance will spawn a flock of raving lunatics that can’t wait to occupy each his/her own street corner, and rant their way forth to community consensus for decisive, visionary political action. This much is obvious: the first step towards breaking the the straight-jacket culture of passive consumerism is an exorcism through active self-purging.

7.  How do you view the role of the artist in society?  Does the artist exist to instruct and demonstrate to an audience or is his/her role simply to probe and investigate?  To your mind, is there a place for answers in a theatre of questions?
You’ve now asked me four questions about being a ‘theatre artist’.  I’ve skirted them until now, but I shouldn’t deny this…  I probably still believe in the theatre’s capacity to distill truths.  The discussion of instructive theatre has been done to death.  For a while, I concerned myself with being ‘poetically correct‘.  This included placing oneself as subject of each piece, and as such the one least likely (and most badly placed) to draw political conclusions.  Of course, this was a construct, but the only viable rhetoric with which to shape a participatory process.  The question is built into the pitch of the production; answers are found through the performance of it –  the audience is asked to verify the findings.  Be prepared to re-write.

8.  I hope you find these questions interesting, I’ve stayed away from probing you to reveal too much of the actual content of the argument you will be presenting with the piece but I’m interested in hearing you discuss it if you’d care to.
I suspect I should, but in the tabla rasa modus described above, it is difficult to retain the over-all plan.  I wanted to make a humanly human ritual that would address our chronic post-traumatic stress dysfunction.  In my dreams, it would break the taboo of naming our collective denial mechanism, and result in a uniquely liberating agent with which to spur many a constructive discussion.  We have known about ecological breakdown since when? – The Limits to Growth, 1972?  I’m a parent; my thoroughly bribed generation hasn’t really lifted a finger.  Every international congress of concerned citizens that I attend, strands upon the same issue.  We know the problems, we can’t envisage anything more than discussing minutiae.  At this moment, the results of the experiment are at best inconclusive, but I am distinctly looking forward to bringing it all back home.

This project has been enriched through the contributions of  Synnøve Lundevold, Steven Bush, Andrzej Sadowski, Mgunga Mwa Mnyenyelwa, Wraphuset, Smarani Huxtable, Linda Griffiths, Guro Ekeland, Gertrude Deutschmann, Arild Vestre, Ingvild Hellesøy, Vinay Gupta, Bergen Kommune Kulturavdeling & Stiftelsen 3,14, Rolf Vårdal.  Thanks.


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