Scenic Imagination — the actor/performer’s body as a scenic element Mikko Bredenberg

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Mikko Bredenberg

The title of my lecture-demonstration-workshop is “Scenic Imagination – the actor/performer’s body as a scenic element.”

My session is divided into three parts:
– First I will give a talk about my research subject: from what kind of problems did my research emerge? I also demonstrate how my own acting embodies my phenomenologically inspired research.
– Following my 20-minute lecture-demonstration, in the next 20 minutes we will try together to see if our bodies can be present for us as elements of a scene. Throughout this collaborative experimentation we try to face some of the possible challenges of the actor as researcher. After our experimentation I will suggest on the basis of my own experience, what kind of a body I receive when it exists as a scenic element.
– The last 20 minutes are reserved for sharing thoughts.

* * *


In my artistic doctoral research, I have explored and tried to define a phenomenon I call scenic imagination. What goes on in my consciousness when I enter into a psycho-physical mode of scenic imagining?

There are two concepts that will keep recurring in my speech, namely the concepts of psycho-physical and scene. I will have to ask for your patience when it comes to defining these concepts – because my ongoing artistic research is through and through an attempt to describe and analyse these challenging concepts. So for now I will only try to provide a starting point regarding the notion of psycho-physical:

David Shaner writes in his study The Bodymind Experience in Japanese Buddhism:
“Phenomenologically speaking, one can never experience an independent mind or body [–] Although there may be mind-aspects and body-aspects within all lived experience, the presence of either one includes experientially the presence of the other. This relationship may be described as being ‘polar’ rather than ‘dual’. The relationship is symbiotic.” (Shaner 1985, 42–43)

So when I soon start to imagine scenically – and later also invite you to try the same with me – I want to draw our attention to this intertwined nature of the psycho-physical imagining body.

My professional background is in text-based drama acting. I graduated in 2002 from the Theatre Academy, here in Helsinki. I would say that my education as an actor was mostly based on Stanislavskian suppositions about the nature of character acting. After graduating I worked as an actor in Finnish municipal theatre organizations. I quite soon realized that the way the creative process was understood in those institutional theatres I worked in was for me quite problematic. Very simply: I had some ideas of performances I wanted to do, but because those ideas were not based on drama texts it was impossible to proceed with them in institutional theatres.

In 2006 I founded a group theatre with three of my former classmates from the Theatre Academy and we started to create performances. I soon found out that the way we worked together was called devised theatre – in my own textual-based drama acting education, however, we hadn’t had this kind of approach in our curricula. So I was very interested when my colleague, who had studied in Lancaster, told me that the way we were creating theatre performances in my theatre group reminded her of those processes she had been involved in during her studies.

My aim in this lecture is to give a brief description of my background as a theatre actor, because my artistic research arises very much from my own inability to articulate the kind of shift in my own artistic work as an actor that I was going through soon after my graduation. One starting point for my artistic research was my observation that, as an actor, I felt a radical change in relation to my own way of imagining in those creative processes which were not possible in institutional theatres and were defined as devised theatre. One of the first observations which led me towards my artistic research was that my starting point for creation of performance was usually a mental picture in which I imagined things on stage from the point of view of a spectator. This kind of mental picture, in which I imagined the stage setting, lighting and my own body as seen through the eyes of a potential spectator, was a very common starting point for my artistic creation. I very often also imagined kinds of compositions which were not imagined on a specific stage or performance space. The kind of undefined space that seemed to be present in those mental pictures could still be in some ways described as scenic. In these mental pictures there were also some kind of “bodies” present – but they seemed quite often to be kind of “blurry”. Somehow these bodies I imagined were present as human figures, but they were not human in the sense of having, for example, a past. I will soon return to this issue. In all these cases, though, the most striking thing for me as an actor was, that I imagined these scenic “settings” as if they were seen through the eyes of a “spectator” or “director”.

Quite soon I also realized that when I tried to start working with these kinds of mental pictures, my Stanislavskian acting technique seemed to be quite incompatible with the task at hand. For example: I soon realized that when I imagined this kind of “blurry human body” I could easily go to the rehearsal room and start working by first imaginatively presenting that imaginative body before me, and then trying to fit my real body to that imagined body. (This may be reminiscent of the approach that Stanislavsky’s student Michael Chekhov describes in his writings, but at that time I knew nothing about him.) But when I used this kind of an approach my colleagues asked, “Who is this character you are embodying? What does he want? Where does he come from?”

I think all these questions presented to me are based on Stanislavskian premises – they presuppose a character who has a “history” and “needs”. But on the basis of my mental picture I couldn’t answer those questions, because those aspects were not present in those mental pictures I imagined. The bodies I imagined didn’t have that kind of “history” and “needs” – they were not characters in a Stanislavskian sense. Here we can find a connection to the phenomenological observation that French playwright-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre has described already in his book L’Imaginaire (first published 1940). You can learn nothing from your mental pictures! In this case, for example, by contemplating my mental pictures the “past” of the bodies can’t be revealed, because the bodies I imagined didn’t have a history – that aspect was not present.

So this was my attempt to briefly describe my position as a researcher in the beginning of my artistic doctoral research. I started to realize that I could really try to explore the nature of these kinds of scenic mental pictures through my acting – that I could transform my own acting into a medium of my research. I started to develop a research method in order to be able to explore the nature of scenic mental pictures.

I will now demonstrate what I mean by a phenomenologically inspired artistic research approach. The basic idea in my approach is that I first recall a mental picture I have imagined before. In this case, in the beginning of my exploration my imaginative act presents this mental picture as if it were in front of me. In my research I call this mode of imagining projecting. At the same time as I’m projecting, I start to verbalize how this specific mental picture is present for me. In this demonstration I will use a scenic mental picture that I first imagined in 2010. This mental picture was also a starting point for the creation of a performance called Secrets are left to us.


– I’m imagining now that I see a room. The room I’m imagining seems to have very unclear boundaries. There are walls, but they do not appear clearly in this mental picture… The walls are grey… a little bit blueish…

– In the middle of this room I’m imagining is a black cube. The sides of the cube are approximately 3 meters long.

– While I’m now projecting this room before me, I’m still kind of “outside” the room… I notice that in this room I’m imagining, there is something in the air. It seems like the air has kind of a quality of “waiting”. It is the atmosphere of the room, which is starting to be also present for me as a bodily felt sensation. This atmosphere – which I now also feel as a bodily felt sensation – seems to be one aspect of this scenic mental picture. Without this sensation, this mental picture wouldn’t be as it is now. So this sensation has to be one of the elements of this scenic mental picture. In this mental picture there are now four different types of elements present for me: 1) visual elements (like the black cube, which appears mainly as visual); 2) atmosphere (like the quality of the air); 3) bodily felt sensation, which seems to be in a very close relation to the atmosphere; and 4) and the element of knowledge (like my knowledge, that there are walls in this room, even though they are not exactly visible in this mental picture).

– All this I can now grasp by contemplating my mental picture as it is. I want to underline especially that so far I have tried to explore this mental picture without changing it. If I notice that my imagining starts to proceed to new things I kind of “step back”. I think that already this kind of an attitude, in which I deliberately try to create a delay, departs from the natural attitude. I’ve noticed that in many cases we are not aware when our imagination proceeds to new things. We don’t notice that we are already imagining new things. So I think this kind of ability to suspend changes in imagined scenes is very important for my quest to explore the elements of scenic mental pictures. And this kind of an ability to suspend can also be created through the kind of approach I’m now trying to demonstrate.

– I will now proceed in this demonstration:
As I said above, when I’m in the imaginative mode I call projecting, I’m kind of “outside” this imaginative space I’m imagining. I can now kind of “step into” this room I’m imagining. Now I think it’s very important to notice that at the moment I do so I’m already creating a new mental picture on the basis of my previous mental picture. We must remember that objects as imagined are not like perceived objects. If I perceive an object, I can, for example, look at it from different angles and the object I’m observing is the same object. But when I’m imagining this black cube in this grey room I’ve now stepped into, I have to realize that this cube I’m now imagining is a “new cube” created by my imagination on the basis of my previous imagining.

– One further observation about the nature of imagination, which Sartre also points out in L’Imaginaire. You can never be mistaken in your imagination (Sartre 2007, 9). This imaginative cube I’m now facing is a good example: If this cube were a perceived one, I would have to go around it to be sure that it really is a cube… but in my imagination I know straight away that the object I’m imagining is a cube. If I’m not sure if the “thing” I’m imagining is a cube – if something seems to be uncertain in my imagination, it only tells that the way that specific mental picture appears is uncertain. So if something is uncertain in my imagination, I do not try to make it clearer – but I try to contemplate how this specific uncertainty is present in the specific mental picture I’m dealing with.

– When I now imagine that I have stepped into this room, I also notice that the atmosphere of “waiting” permeates everything in this mental picture. I can now even describe how this atmosphere is present for me as a bodily felt sensation:
It seems that there are two centers in my body. One is behind my chest and the other is behind my lower abdomen. Between these two centers there is a tension; this tension itself can be described as a feeling that “something is going to happen soon”.

– Now there is a little sound. It comes from the black cube. The left corner of the cube opens. From inside the cube some stuff comes out. Then I also see a blurry human figure stepping out of the black cube. I immediately know that the body I now imagine before me is also permeated by the atmosphere of “waiting”.

– Now I will try to embody this blurry human figure. In this mental picture the human figure is present as a shape, as a kind of a silhouette or gesture. I now put my real body in the place of this imagined body. When I do this, I try to embody the shape of the figure.

– Then… there is also an aspect of knowledge: I immediately know that in this mental picture, this human figure knows that he has been in this room before, but he doesn’t quite remember why and when…

– Now when this imaginative body starts to move in my mental picture, I let the imaginative body move my real body. So at the moment two aspects of this mental picture are present for me:

  1. I imagine seeing this scene from “outside of this imagined room”; this aspect is present for me in short glimpses;
  2. and at the same time I’m trying to embody this imagined body.

– I would say that I follow this blurry human figure from both outside and inside this mental picture. And at least momentarily these two aspects can be present for my consciousness at the same time.


Now I want to suggest that we try this approach to exploring mental pictures together. If in the middle of our collaborative experimentation you start to feel that you would prefer to watch, you may step out and do so at any time.

We will use this brown paper as a material basis for our imagination.

Experimentation with brown paper:
– So, first I ask you to tear off a piece of paper for yourself.

– Now, I suggest that we combine these pieces of paper. There is only one rule: every piece must touch at least one other piece of paper.

– Now we will use this paper collage as a material basis for our imagining. In L’Imaginaire, Sartre describes the concept of analogon; for him there is always a material basis for imagination. For example, when we look at a painting, we use the canvas and the layers of paint as a material basis to apprehend “the aesthetic object itself”. (Sartre 2007, 190–191) So now: what kind of an aesthetic object could we apprehend through this material analogon? We can also go around and look at these pieces of paper from different angles.

– Now remember the place of your own paper in this composition. Take your own paper. Now fold your paper four times. Please remember how you folded your paper; remember the order.

– Now this, what you did to your paper, is a physical score for you. Try to embody these folds with your body. Usually it is impossible to achieve this fully; try to solve things so that you don’t hurt yourself, and it would be nice if you could even have a bit of fun with your choices.

– Remember this physical score you are now performing with your body. So now we will make a kind of a loop. After the fourth motion you will go back to the first and start the four-movement-score again.

– Arrange your own body in the position of your piece of paper. So now we will have a composition of bodies, and the previous paper collage serves as a guide to how our bodies are arranged in this composition.

– Now we’ll start to move together. We will simultaneously perform our individual physical score loops. It is possible that we will have to adjust our scores somehow in order to be able to move together. Feel free to experiment with the tempo of your score. I also recommend that you at some point step out of this composition and look at it for a while. You can also use the title (“Steamscene”) we gave to this composition as a guide for your scenic imagining. How do the composition and the title relate; what kind of scene is potentially created through this kind of material analogon?

We will now move for around 4 minutes, so please: let’s try!

* * *

On the basis of the analysis of my own imaginative act, I will now try to describe the phenomenon I call “scenic appearing” from the root level:
(Then I perform a “pencil-rocket scene” with a pencil.)

It seems that when my imaginative act transforms this pencil into a pencil-rocket, the pencil-rocket also starts to radiate a space around itself. The space my imagination starts to create around this pencil-rocket definitely has some kind of boundaries, but I wouldn’t describe these boundaries as a frame. I think that the word frame gives too rigid an impression to describe my experience of the boundaries of scenic appearing. When the phenomenon of a scene seems to be present for me, in every experience of scenic appearing – no matter if the scene seems to be something before me or something which surrounds me – in every scenic experience I find this same quality: the kind of expanding and contracting fluid boundary which surrounds the scene. It is this special kind of intentionality I can myself direct towards the world.

So if we suppose there is such a fluid boundary surrounding a scene, what does it protect the scene from? What is left outside of the boundaries of a scene? I would say: our bodies as supporting elements of the scene. When this pencil-rocket rises and my imagination starts to create a space around it, when I start to see stars in my imagination… I momentarily willingly abandon my intentionalities towards everything outside this scene. I would even dare to state, that even I am – at least partly – left outside this scene. When this pencil-rocket rises, what am I then? I would say – on the basis of my own experience – that I am a pure possibility for this rising movement. And as such I am reduced momentarily to a supporting element; I am kind of a platform for this scene.


Sartre, Jean-Paul [1940] 2007. The Imaginary (L’imaginaire). London and New York: Routledge.

Shaner, David Edward 1985. The Bodymind Experience in Japanese Buddhism. Albany: State University of New York Press.


Carpa4 Proceedings

The Non-human and the Inhuman in Performing Arts — Bodies, Organisms and Objects in Conflict