Complex systems

The notion of the ‘circuit of energy’ offers a way of thinking about the interactions between members of the audience, the actors, and (in the case of my project) the lighting operator. The circuit of energy implies a mutual awareness, sensitivity and responsiveness amongst all those linked by the circuit. Of course, the performers – including the lighting artist – have had the opportunity to develop this responsivity through the rehearsal period without the audience present, and the audience is different for each performance and can only develop their behaviour in the context of the particular performance during the performance itself (audience members will generally have learnt how to be audience members through previous experience). Equally, each performer has her or his defined role in the performance ‘system’. Thus the nodes of the circuit are not undifferentiated.

These characteristics begin to suggest that the audience and performers (including the lighting artist) connected by the ‘circuit of energy’ form a complex system (Cilliers 1998): the system comprises numerous elements, richly interacting in ways that are non-linear and informed by the history of the system. There are loops in the system, with positive and negative feedback variously reinforcing or damping down changes. No one element contains the complexity of the system – the whole is (far) greater than the sum of the parts. Complex systems are not chaotic, but their behaviours are emergent, arising primarily out of the complex interactions in the system rather than the characteristics of individual elements.

In such a model, the emergent behaviour of the system is (both deliberately and through chance) shaped by the devising and rehearsal process. Such behaviour is perhaps what the Director Chris Goode described as ‘a shared understanding of tone’, which gave all the performers a sense of the affective qualities we were trying to achieve at any given moment in the performance. In a conventional process, that understanding of tone is shared by the actors, who develop it in the rehearsal room; with Passages, the understanding was also shared by the lighting artist, also present – and performing – in the rehearsal room.

In the ‘complex system’ model of performance, none of the elements in the system can determine the affective behaviour of the system, but they can nudge it in one direction or another. If other members of the system do the same, the behaviour is likely to shift. This mutual sensitivity is (as one of the actors pointed out) that developed by the mirror exercise, in which two people face each other and copy each other’s movements as if they are the other person’s reflection in a mirror. After a time, both participants lose a sense of who is leading and who is following.

As lighting artist, when I detected a slight change to the timing or other quality of what another performer was doing, I could choose to compensate (and so damp the effect of the change) or to reinforce (and so amplify the effect of the change). In either case, the judgement required is informed by the ‘shared understanding of tone’, but it was also, for me at least, informed by a sense of where in the rehearsal process we were – whether it seemed helpful and appropriate at that moment to offer or pick up on a perceived opportunity to introduce something new, or whether it was better (in terms of my understanding of what was needed at that point) to try to damp down the turbulence caused by a change (accidental or deliberate) made by another performer.

Change here is not defined as an erroneous departure from the reference point of a pre-agreed, defined action, but as a variation away from what has become normalised – but not fixed – during the process of repetition that is rehearsal. In this sense there is no clear definition of what constitutes a ‘mistake’ (a question raised by an audience member during the discussion following one performance); the binary of correct/incorrect, as measured by compliance with pre-agreed actions, is an inappropriate model, and must be replaced by a spectrum of better/worse, judged against a complex and possibly contradictory set of values. As well as the obvious (but still difficult to define) aesthetic or dramatic measures, the value set might include – as another audience member noted – the value of an action as a contribution to the creative process. ‘Worse’ might mean doing something that fails to pick up on what another performer has offered, or failing to offer valuable possibilities to the other performers and so contribute to the unfolding creative work.

During Passages, for the most part the performers (including myself as lighting artist) did not follow pre-defined cues, but rather developed a consensus as to the order and timing of actions through largely tacit means, including a particular awareness of each other, linked by the ‘circuit of energy’ and guided by a ‘shared understanding of tone’. Such a self-organising, complex system is different to the hierarchical model that tends to operate (for lighting and other scenographic elements, if not for actors) in conventional theatre practice. In the hierarchical model, absolute instructions are sent out from a centralised control (the director, the lighting designer, and so on) via intermediate levels (the stage manager) to operators. The self-organising system, on the other hand, exhibits ‘dispersed intelligence’ (Miller 2006, 230) – the behaviour of the flock. Members of the system do not have complete knowledge of the system, for they are inside the system and do not have a panoptic view of it, but they share behaviours.

A particular benefit of complex systems that are ‘centreless’ and do not rely on absolute instructions is that they are robust against disturbance: as one actor in Passages noted, when she had difficulty with a complex bit of stage action (wrapping thread around furniture and props in a defined order), she felt I was able to accommodate her with the timing of the lighting without any explicit instruction or pre-arranged plan for that eventuality.