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Homo Ludens
Pelin Uran, together with Sebahattin Mutluer

Translated by: Ezgi Yurteri & Sarp Özer

 

“[War orphans] had a roof over their heads, but they looked at you like old people, with sad, tired eyes. Nothing interested them. Children without a childhood.”

Asja Lācis

Curated by Andris Brinkmanis, the exhibition Signals from Another World: Asja Lācis and Children’s Theater took place at AVTO in 2019. It was about the Latvian children’s theater director and pedagogue Asja Lācis (1891–1979). Witnessing the October Revolution, Lācis started her education in psychology and continued with theater, becoming known as a director of proletarian children’s theater in Latvia and Soviet Russia in the 1920s. She met theater directors Bertolt Brecht, Erwin Piscator and Bernhard Reich in Germany, where she went to work in 1922, and later, the philosopher Walter Benjamin (with whom she had a romantic relationship) in Capri in 1924. As a consequence, an intellectual influence going both ways occurred through these acquaintances of different nature. Although she published books in Latvia, Russia, and Germany and wrote over a hundred articles on children’s aesthetic education, theater and cinema, she was often framed as Walter Benjamin’s source of inspiration. In light of the revolutionary spirit of 1968, as well as her contribution to women’s studies, it is acknowledged to be worth studying her own professional and private life –rather than being referred to as the person behind Benjamin’s communist sympathy– either as an artistic or scientific case or because of her historical significance.

I was introduced to her multicultural and layered life following AVTO’s invitation to write an essay on Lācis. There were many points in Lācis’s life, all of which could be a subject for another article. The problematic fact is that even though Walter Benjamin –who in 1928 collaborated with Lācis to outline the theory of Proletarian Children’s Theater which was sourced from Lācis’s practice– came to be known as the only author of that work, the huge impact of the Soviet experience, which Lācis was part of, within the field of contemporary theater and pedagogical practices, the rediscovery of Lācis along with the 1968 generation, and the way she situated herself around the concept of “New Woman”[1] in her texts. Although all these subjects intrigued me, the most valuable one seemed to be her body of work with war orphans and homeless children in Orel for more than a year as a theater director and pedagogue, and the theater experience which aimed, in Lācis’s words, to overcome their traumas and regain their childhood through her practice. This was especially relevant to me because of a personal connection that I will elaborate on.

During the period that I felt alienated from curating as my professional formation, and dedicated my life rather to confront my losses, perhaps the only thing that connected me to the exterior world was the childhood experience. At the time that I chose not to do anything about social issues, the only involvement I had was to volunteer at the Hasan Tan Child Support House –thanks to the social security expert (actually he means a lot more than that) Mansur Seyitoğlu (children living under the roof of the Child Protection Agency were divided into groups by age, and the place allocated for 4–12 year-olds came to be called the Child Support House). We agreed with Seyitoğlu that my work with children would be process-based regardless of its content, and that’s how it occurred. A year passed by, gravitating to wherever I could hold their focus of interest. At the end of that year, I had bitter thoughts that the time spent had no effect on those children. The following year, I started commuting to Zeytinburnu Orphanage which shelters 12 to 18-year-old boys. The same bitterness always lingered. That feeling also had to do with the fact that I had moved away from art. I couldn’t make a contribution informed by my formation. I hope this essay would give me the opportunity to account for that period through the agency of Asja Lācis, and propel me to realize a work, which remained a potentiality that I couldn’t get onto at the time.

Lācis’s children’s theater was inspired by innovative theater directors who were her contemporaries (Erwin Piscator’s political theater, Bertolt Brecht’s early experiences, and Vsevolod Meyerhold’s biomechanical technique). Another significant influence comes from the method that Nikolai Evreinov describes as the “theatricalization/dramatization of society”. This idea that Evreinov persistently developed –departing from the fact that a child has the will to play without any pressure and requires no instruction to figure out how to play– posits that there is a desire for theater inside all of us.[2] Lācis also adopts this thought that the only aesthetic form that would bring back a child’s childhood experience is theater. It is considered as a tool to raise children with a certain political/aesthetic consciousness, to emancipate them through the discovery of their own creativity, and thus form a society of individuals with free will.

Lācis and her colleagues set off their theater practice in Orel with a process in which war orphans observe objects, object/human relations, and the variability of such relations. Thereafter, the children encounter homeless children upon the invitation of Lācis in an area where they are encouraged to free their subjectivity through play, body movements, gestures, and improvisation. This coincides with the very moment of a spontaneous exercise on the act of thievery. Homeless children take over the setting, as they are already adept and equipped with the experience of thievery. The improvisation of such an act that those children experience in person blurs the distinction between the staged and the real world, rendering the pain experienced on stage corresponding with real sufferings, which enables the actor and the audience to share the same point of view. In further exercises, the aim was to develop children’s ethical and aesthetic potentials through a process and production-oriented praxis, in which they are all open to chance and encounter and able to cope with tension within the collective experience. The children take part in the entire process of creation rather than being subjects of a hierarchical direction, and the show is merely a by-product rather than a definitive goal. Orel was an example of how the theater of life derives from practice, not theory, and pedagogy is embedded into practice.[3] This experience was also important in delineating the framework of the aesthetic pedagogical education model/methodology of Lācis’s latter studies on children’s theater.

What made me think the most in this manifold practice was the power of improvisation performed by street children with unknowingly gained knowledge and experience from their own lives. Why did Lācis think that theater was the most effective aesthetic form to restore vitality and childhood experience to children? What made Lācis think that she would resolve the trauma of war orphans and homeless children through theater in the case of Orel? What distinguishes the experience of Asja Lācis from all the radical educational models for raising children, critical pedagogical methodologies, and contemporary dramaturgical approaches embodied in the self-questioning and regeneration of theater? After I started reflecting on the idea of empowering children through their own means such as the acts of production and creation, I decided to talk to my friend Sebahattin Mutluer (Sabo), who is a children’s theater director himself and whose opinions on Soviet Russia and Socialism have always inspired me. What affected us both, for different personal reasons, was Lācis’s statement that she took the aim of restoring their childhood as the impetus of her practice. Our conversation set off with an idea outlined by the historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens.[4] According to his theory, everything related to humans consists of voluntary, free, gamified, and fictive actions that occur outside the course of daily life. The player is immersed in the reality set through the game, which transforms both participants and the game itself. For Sabo, this idea was lying at the core of Lācis and her colleagues’ praxis. The homeless children didn’t find the performance of war orphans too convincing in their craft because of the contrast between the staged and their own reality. They believed that the act of thievery could and would be exclusively re-enacted by those who had access to such real-life experience, like themselves. This reaction which at first occurred only as self-defense later turned into a game. Finding a safe ground to express themselves was crucial to perform thievery without being accused or excluded. They even received appreciation and validation. Improvising on stage consists of an act only too familiar as their role on stage was to play whom they were in real life. This granted them the ability to examine, question, comprehend and contemplate incidents, and thus to look at themselves from an external perspective. Moreover, they had the opportunity to build new narratives by reflecting on the scenario thanks to the language acquired through improvisation. The fact that they had to use their imagination to play and put effort to fictionalize would grant them the faculty and ability to determine the fate of the characters. Children with the capacity to determine the fate of the characters they played/built would realize that they could also determine their own destiny.

The practical use of theater within the Orel experience, the desire to play, which Evreniov calls theatricality (our ability to play different theatrical roles that we borrow from our actions, and the capacity of theatrical act to stimulate change both in oneself and in others, if we master it) is the motivation for transformation/mutation, emerging through the channeling of one’s creative will against instincts. The most competent example of Lācis’s use of theater as a pedagogical methodology in the following years is the Theatre of the Oppressed, elaborated by Augusto Boal in Brazil in the 1980s. Inspired by the pedagogical methodologies of Paulo Freire, The Theatre of the Oppressed is a method for discussing and expressing the notions of citizenship, culture, and forms of oppression through the use of theatrical language. It aspires to discover/create possibilities of emancipation while encouraging people to think about the past and the present and to configure their future.

A contemporary method that uses theater techniques for therapeutic ends is drama studies. It emerged from psychodrama, which was proposed by Jacob L. Moreno in the 1920s, and later evolved into a therapeutic and pedagogical methodology. It is a practice that utilizes spontaneous dramatization, group dynamics, and role-playing techniques within a safe environment as a tool to gain insight into one’s life and individual development, with the intention of expanding emotional, cognitive, and behavioral perspectives as well as creativity. The aim is to enable people to gain a more comprehensive perspective on their role in life and their relationships with others.

In the meantime, there was an ideological motivation that distinguished the Orel experience from these subsequent practices. Taking into account that the emerging vanguard tendencies in every field of art had merged with the ideology of rebuilding the society, and the political/pedagogical/aesthetic intentions of any activity with children came to life in parallel to that political axis during the October Revolution and its immediate aftermath. Thus, the trauma of war-victimized or homeless children could be considered the epitome of the trauma experienced by the people of Russia following the revolution. In this context, the work of Lācis and her colleagues in Orel proposed a new understanding of art and education for a new regime, and a new utopia. It also bared the potential of being instrumentalized as a transformative tool for those concerned about their security and future upon the establishment of the socialist regime through the employment of Orel’s collectivist and pedagogical means. These included free thought, spontaneity, and experimentation in such a way that nothing was taken for granted, the rules were not set by the regime, and a process-oriented approach was embraced instead of striving towards concrete results. The theatrical tools at hand were to be deployed in pursuit of the transformation of society.

The theatrical innovations in Soviet Russia paved the way for a new future for modern theater practices. In light of the legacy left by the directors of the 20th-century Soviet Russian avant-garde theater that caused a change in the world, and even changed the canon, the focal reason behind such an impact was the privileged position of theater within the socialist-communist thought stemming from collective creativity. The attempt to close the gap between the spectator and the actor –considered as the main obstacle to collective creativity, which was conceived as the most perfect form of social organization in Soviet Russia– was among the fundamental motivations of Asja Lācis. This (alongside the foundation of an understanding that probes other horizons rather than targeting a “professional audience” towards a commercial agenda in Soviet Russia) also constitutes the main axis of the relevant contemporary theater movements that were formed sequentially throughout the 20th century. The intention to employ the participation and input of the audience to be incorporated within the theatrical context was to transform the energy generated by all parties into a holistic power. Inspired by this, Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre in Poland was developed as an inherent encounter between the actor and spectator, a living form of exchange. In line with this thought, Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty in France was built on the relationship between the spectator and the actor, formed on an instinctive level through senses and neural impulses rather than words. Peter Brook’s theater of life in England is also based on human interactions, and put into motion only by the cooperation between the actor and the audience.

On the occasion of this text, I thought once and again about the pedagogical methodology of Asja Lācis and the re-use value of the other referred historical methods and techniques developed in Soviet Russia, by taking into account that many of the questions and issues that affect our lives stem from childhood. Considering that the use of theater as a pedagogical methodology today lacks the ideological component and the drive towards social emancipation as it had in Soviet Russia, perhaps the biggest wound in childhood is not being able to dream, being entrapped in the reality itself. Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa describes this as being stuck in a tedious state of mind, unable to think anything other than reality, to imagine only the possible. Whether it is the practical and pedagogical use of the theater as in the Orel experience or the modern theater practices those who need the healing impact of activated imagination most are those living in the Child Support Houses who encounter reality and get overwhelmed by its burden at a very early age according to my experience. This thought suggests the exact opposite of the custom which deems any artistic activity a luxury in such institutions. Because “the world is divided between those who can and those who cannot afford the luxury of playing with words and images.”[5] As emphasized in the essay Program for a Proletarian Children’s Theater, assuming that the task is nothing but to treat children with love and compassion would lead them to undergo an unnecessary debt. Instead, to ultimately raise emancipated subjects, it is crucial to provide and devise tools that would enable them to discover their capacities, observation skills, and therefore, own freedom. Asja Lācis is still considered contemporary precisely because her work reminds us to encourage those children to overcome reality and to play, aspiring to empower them as independent individuals by means of their own production and creativity.

 

 


[1] Natalia Managarova, The New Woman Revisited: Asja Lācis between Germany and Russia (Master’s Thesis), University of Canterbury, New Zealand, 2019.

[2] Inga Romantsova, Evreinov and Questions of Theatricality (Master’s Thesis), New Castle University, United Kingdom, 2017, p. 42.

[3] Negin Djavaherian, Not Nothingness: Peter Brook’s “Empty Space” and its Architecture (Master’s Thesis), McGill University, Canada, 2012.

[4] Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. London: Maurice Temple Smith Ltd, 1970.

[5] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, London: Continuum, 2004, p. 47. Translation of the quote is taken from: Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey, “Art Of The Possible: An Interview with Jacques Rancière”, Artforum, 45(7), March 2007. https://www.artforum.com/print/200703/fulvia-carnevale-and-john-kelsey-12843