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Reclaiming Confusion in the Name of Process

Confused or in process? BU School of Theatre students at work.

Ladies and gentlemen, Eugenio Barba illuminates the beauty of word etymology:

During the rehearsal stage, when the actors only follow a personal and coherent thread in their scores, the dramaturgy as a whole may remain confused, even chaotic, for a long time.

Confusion, when it is sought after and practiced as an end in itself, is the art of deception. This does not necessarily mean that it is a negative state, one to be avoided. When used as a means, confusion constitutes one of the components of an organic creative process. It is the moment in which material, prospects, contiguous stories, and diverse intentions become con-fused, i.e., fuse together, mixing with one another, each becoming the other face of the other.

‘Con-fusion’ is one of the major touchstones of Barba’s fascinating 2000 Drama Review essay The Deep Order Called Turbulence: The Three Faces of Dramaturgy, in which he attempts to de-mystify the craft of dramaturgy with a series of concepts and vocabulary terms all his own.

When I first encountered this definition, I was dumbstruck and, well, confused. There’s the thing. As a young theatre artist, I know confusion well. Confusion is a brainstorm that won’t let up and I’m without an umbrella. I get wet and cold and sad and sick, and I suffer for an extended period of time. That’s the confusion I know and hate. “I’ve met ‘confusion,’ before, Mr. Barba,” I scoffed, “and it makes me feel bad, so you can keep it. I don’t want it.” However, Barba was insistent on confusion’s inherence to the creative process and broke things down for me with the above passage.

Barba is saying that confusion is essentially trial and error. For example, I’m going to apply his definition to a trial I endeavored this morning. When dressing, I confused my pink oxford with an orange and blue t-shirt beneath. The results? Error! Another trial followed: my pink oxford with a dark red t-shirt beneath. The results? Success. I kept it on, and enjoyed many compliments on my facility for layering all day long. Thank you, Eugenio!

More relevant, perhaps, is confusion’s applicability to my creative process as a theatre artist. When in rehearsals for a play I am acting in, I must simply confuse a given moment with a specific choice. If it doesn’t work, the confusion is proven not useful and I begin again. I’d like to think I’ve been doing this for some time, but I found Barba’s vocabulary for the process revelatory and frankly, thankfully de-stressing. Trial and error is experimentation, a process that yields results rather than the dreaded ‘final product.’

Furthermore, Barba has led me to understand the role of the dramaturg as a sort of master-confuser. The largest umbrella carried by the dramaturg as master-confuser is the confusion of the world of the play with our own. Beyond and within that come the myriad other confusions that ultimately lead collaborators to results to be presented to a captive audience—the dramaturg must confuse the play with the producing company, with relevant history, with its actors, etc. Each confusion, thankfully, does not occur independently of the next, so we can learn from our experiments and guide our process to opening and beyond.

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