Interview Adel/Scheidl

Point of Balance and Live Overhead-Projector Drawing

M. Adel:
Live overhead-projector drawing: what a funny expression, although it is a fairly obvious choice in the context of simultaneous drawing to dance performance. Of course, all drawing is live drawing. Ever since you picked up the ink brush and acquired that speed and ease of stroke, you have basically made every drawing with that fast-paced routine which you learnt the technique for in the first place. So what’s the new quality about drawing to dance performance? Is it something being illustrated? Not quite, because you were making live drawings just as well, and at great speed to boot, when you were travelling to Paris, Zurich or other places and were sitting in a café jotting down on paper a quick sketch or picture of some people who struck your eye or some idea that crossed your mind. Earlier, we were speaking about Leporellos, which really include the concept of a movie. Now, one might say there’s nothing new about live drawing to theatre or dance performance. Only, the disadvantage is that the rolls of film you fill in the process constitute waste rather than a lasting product. (Note: He uses transparent film that he advances across the overhead projector’s surface, operating the crank with one hand while drawing on the film with the other.) It’s waste because the film is wound up at such a rate that the paint sticks to it for lack of time to dry off.

R. Scheidl:
This is your question, isn’t it? I think there are two fundamental things I need to address at this point. Before I picked up the whole thing, I didn’t have a clue as to what dance performance was about. I had never seen any dance performance and didn’t know how to relate to it. It was only when I met my Swiss friend Bettina Nisoli that I got to know and understand dance performance. For some time, I engineered the lights for dance performance, i.e. I participated in performances as a light engineer and absorbed all the light effects. It’s a very complicated business. The artists rely on you. You have to observe well and provide input. I think this is how the world of dance opened up to me. I was very much attracted by the light, the movement on stage, the space, and the figures moving in it. The second thing was that, as a result of my friendship with Bettina, the choreographer and dancer, we started to consider combining painting and dance one way or the other. Of course, there were such things as painted stage sets and painted costumes, and famous people had done that before. However, our idea was to create a simple stage set that would be free of storage cost and cheap in general as well as easy to transport and take on tour. We were thinking of working with an overhead projector straight away. We didn’t know whether it was possible to project a stage set with it or, indeed, to do live drawing on it every night. Basically, it was a technical issue. At first, it was difficult to find the appropriate paint and to learn to start at eight and go on drawing till nine, to get rid of the excitement and to get organised with my programme so as to make everything reproducible on stage at the same level of quality.
So, I had to take many technical measures such as retrofitting the projector to make it work, or cutting templates that performed an optical function, too. It took many steps to build up towards the first production in 1988, which was “Suite for Six”, until it was ready for the stage. But it worked out fine the first time around, both from a theoretical and a practical point of view. Of course, my drawing was very rough and very clumsy with hindsight. I simply wasn’t up to my usual standard for all the excitement on the first night. But basically, and from a visual point of view, it already was what it was going to be in a more finely tuned and very culinary fashion later on. It made such an impact that we were thinking of second, third and fourth productions right away and went on to develop it further. We brought it to full bloom within four to five years. The same goes for the basic approach: for example, we had a twin stage, with the curtain I was drawing on in the middle, something funny being played on the one side, and something sad on the other. The audience would be divided, with those watching the sad scene hearing laughter from the other side, and myself drawing in the middle. It was all based on highly complicated, skilful concepts, and we tried to push them further all the time.
For example, I would draw onto the dancers’ bodies, or the technology we were using made it possible to quickly make a stage set eight metres high. We were also performing on large stages, and I would follow the performance from a monitor to make my drawings. Or we would be performing in tiny little basement theatres, where I was sitting right in front of the dancers for lack of space, with the audience seeing how I was drawing and the stage set was being generated.
Somehow, we tried and tested everything, from theatre performance in the street to work on sophisticated stages with all sorts of equipment. Combined with the other work I was involved in, such as the Leporellos, drawings, travelling and so on, I got a lot of input, themes and motifs for use in dance performance. In other words, we were working on certain themes, such as “point of balance”, and turned them into major pieces including text, just like the very “Point of Balance”. It was a wonderful poem with a standard drawing to go with it up to this day. We’ve generated independent little pieces that worked on their own. It was possible to replace the dancers performing those pieces. Over time, many different dancers performed them. You can still see today what was done in the 50s because some companies retained the original concepts. Or take Merce Cunningham and you will still see what he did 20 years ago because his companies have retained his pieces. That’s the way we approached it, too. And that’s why I had to draw scores. For very complex and complicated pieces, I worked out scores, which I would draw at just the right moment, and I still do this today. So, it became possible to repeat performances and make them look just the same. As a result of live drawing, a certain figure or passage may have been more elegant and another one less elegant or more neglected on a certain night. But it would always be the same drawing. What it meant for me was to practise the same drawings one hundred or two hundred times using the stopwatch or rehearsing with the dancers. I learnt my scores like a musician and I played them like a musician. By the time we went on stage, I had to know them by heart, every stroke of them! I had to learn the rhythm and how to play it – or to write it, would probably be a more appropriate expression. This is what resulted in a highly complex system of stage drawing. It was only in the course of time that I managed to relax doing it and make it something beautiful, also for me. Today, I simply enjoy drawing all these things that used to be so nerve-racking.

M. Adel:
That’s easy to understand if you imagine how it is for a musician who…

R. Scheidl:
… it’s just perfection.

M. Adel:
… takes such a long time until he commands his instruments to such an extent that he would be able to play any piece in any orchestra. But there is a rather significant difference: when drawing, you would usually determine your rhythm yourself because you are a soloist or even some sort of free-jazz musician playing by intuition; however, you can’t do this when drawing to dance performance because you have to accompany the dancers with your drawing, and the dancing takes priority. You would always be lagging one step behind the stream of things. After all, the piece exists even before you sit down and start to draw to it.

R. Scheidl:
Well, it depends. I can be illustrative, for example, which is easiest. So, I can accompany the piece with illustrations, which means I would simply draw what’s going on rather than to complement the piece. It’s as if I was illustrating some text. Another possibility I have is to get away from the piece altogether and indulge in my own ideas about what’s happening on stage. This divides the audience. It’s very nice.

M. Adel:
Is that something like a counterpoint?

R. Scheidl:
What the audience see in my drawings gives them totally different ideas from what dancers or actors do on stage.

M. Adel:
Let’s dwell on that for a second: is it like a counterpoint? Like listening to complicated fugues by Bach? If you play them several times over, you’ll be able to distinguish between the different voices and, for example, follow a softer voice for some time and then try and listen to a louder one, that commands attention, as accompanying the softer voices. Is that comparable?

R. Scheidl:
I think it is, somehow. I believe that dance performed on stage without a drawn stage set does not speak to the same part of the viewer’s brain as my black-and-white drawings do. My drawing helps viewers to keep pace with the dance, which is relatively difficult to follow. You have to stay focused all the time. You can’t allow your mind to go astray because, otherwise, you will become bored. The only way of keeping up the tension is to follow the dancers continuously. It’s the same old story about dance. But staying focused for a long time is a rather tiring thing. With my technique, I’ve found a means of keeping viewers alert by making their minds switch to something completely different and, thus, forget about the dance altogether. In many pieces, I had my three, four or five minutes of solo drawing while the dancers were getting changed. My drawing was also meant to fill space in between as I wasn’t drawing only when the dancers were performing. Often, I would make a drawing and leave it up as a backdrop in front of the viewers’ eyes for some time. Between the pieces, I would often keep drawing to give the viewers an opportunity to focus on something completely different and to get ready again to follow the dance. So there was always some interaction between the lively physical performance on stage and the pictures on the viewers’ minds. And the drawings kept moving and were very much like oracles. I would start with some stroke, of course knowing what it was going to be, while the viewers would have to stay focused to find out whether it was going to be a figure, a plant, a forest or whatever else I would be drawing. The viewers always had to stay focused to find out. There’s always an aha experience for them when they do. That’s what the suspense was all about.
I often tried to draw such that viewers would find out very late, only with the last five strokes. So, while the viewers would see elegant brush strokes flashing across the screen, they would take very long to recognise what it was going to be, and suddenly it would be there. We were toying with visual impression a lot while the illustrative aspect was of subordinate significance. It was a matter of designing the space for the dancers to perform in. But there always was a powerful interplay between music and drawing, text and drawing, dance and drawing. The idea was for all these media to leave enough space to each other. Choreographer Bettina Nisoli, who was heading the dance company, would always determine the theme but then leave it up to me to decide what to draw to it. She would give the same freedom to the dancers, just picking the fundamental theme. When we failed to make things match, we had to change them. So, basically, I had a lot of influence on what the scene would be like. I wasn’t working in a straitjacket. I was free to choose how to do my work. It was very nice and interesting. After all, my contribution accounted for a third of the stage performance.

M. Adel:
So it was like a conversation between various media?

R. Scheidl:
Our product was the aggregate impression we were making. The viewers were the only ones to get that aggregate impression. We had to watch the video-taping to get it. In rehearsals or on stage, it was impossible for us to see the full picture. For example, I would never really be aware at what point I was with my drawing and what impression the full picture was making. When drawing I had to keep my eyes on my monitor, i.e. my drawing, rather than watching the stage. The only time for me to watch the stage was when I was brought in. That’s when I would be checking where I was at and upon what movement I had to come in again. But when I was back in, I had to focus on my drawing again, which was to be smooth. There was no correcting or improving, with everybody looking on live. A stroke that was actually a centimetre in length would come out perhaps two metres long on the screen, exposing the slightest error, uncertainty or jitters! Obviously, I had to concentrate, which actually was very thrilling. And we would get the full picture only when watching the video-taping, if any had been made.
Often, there would be ingenious overlaps, albeit coincidental and unplanned ones. And of course, we would follow up on those overlaps, which I prefer to call experiments. The following time, we would, for example, decide not to do an additional thing since it had been solved automatically. For example, the would be a highly complex interplay between the dancers’ shadows and my projected drawings. It was baffling to see how it worked, and viewers of any age would be fascinated with it, in particular its spontaneous freshness.
Sometimes, if the audience could not see me drawing live, they thought a movie was being shown. Showing a movie wouldn’t have worked, though. A movie wouldn’t wait for the dancers. Dancers would always lag behind a movie. I was able to wait. When the dancers were taking a little longer, it wasn’t a problem for me. I would simply wait a little longer to come in. Or, I would accelerate and the dancers would catch up with me.
Remember, you said I was lagging behind the stream of things. Well, there was a piece when, at its halfway point, I was drawing everything I should have been drawing from start to halfway point, going through it at ten times the speed of the piece. Everybody in the audience saw, aha, that went before and that went before and that went before. Meanwhile, the dancers were proceeding with their piece, and I continued to draw the further development of the piece. So, it was possible to see how the piece was going to progress.
Naturally, I also tried to introduce new ideas. For example, we had some props to draw on, such as folding screens or costumes. I drew on very wide skirts that would open up like umbrellas upon a pirouette. When the dancers were spinning, their skirts would reveal a continuous drawing, as if you were watching through the peepholes of a Zeotrope to see moving images... And when the dancers stopped moving, the skirts would fold back up and it was over.
We tried and tested everything you possibly can. It was only later, when under the influence of Asian concepts, that we started to make ever scarcer use of those things. We decided that it was more powerful to use one single thing, and adopted an approach of reduction. After all, we had crammed in too much at the beginning. So much so that everybody would complain it was impossible to cope with all of it, that it was tearing them apart. First, we responded by saying that real life was no different, that all you were able to perceive in life were details while everything else was going on at the same time. We said everybody had to decide for himself what to perceive. But the audience said they were not able to cope with dance and drawing all at the same time. We always said they simply had to let it flow. They simply had to stare and they would see everything. No use to be intent on seeing something specific. Gradually, it started to work. It was a very thrilling process.

M. Adel:
I’m trying to think of a comparison. In simplified terms, or confined to one particular medium, one might compare it to witnessing a play with your eyes closed. Provided you’re not familiar with the play in question, you wouldn’t know what the dialogues are going to be. Sometimes, the different characters will overlap in what they say or talk at the same time. They may be talking about entirely different things, not really communicating to each other, and yet you’ll gain an overall impression listening to them. In other words, the audience’s minds will start to tie up the loose ends the spoken words produce in immediate perception. What I mean is that, through the medium of spoken words, there is a possibility of identifying counterpoints and toying with a lot of things.

R. Scheidl:
Actually, theatre went through all of this. The new thing in our case was live drawing. I’ve tried to find out whether other artists have done similar things, and I’ve actually heard of some, but I’ve never seen anybody else doing it. Of course, there are a lot of movie-like features, videos clips and all these new media that have been used in theatre over the past ten to fifteen years. But I wouldn’t know of anybody else drawing live on stage. There’s a magic directness about a stroke one centimetre long on my film and growing to a metre’s length or more on the screen. It’s very startling although it’s never really more than a relatively small drawing for me. It’s like the Leporellos. On German standard paper size, I draw particularly fast. It’s a manner of drawing with which I can do almost anything because I’ve practised it thousands of times.

M. Adel:
How about differences in size? Some drawings look fantastic in one particular format but you can’t blow them up at will. So actually, what happens as a result of this enormous magnification?

R. Scheidl:
You cannot do complicated drawings. You have to keep them simple.

M. Adel:
And yet, the effect will be totally different.

R. Scheidl:
I believe that, as a result of magnification, mistakes go much more unnoticed. Sometimes, you go wrong while drawing, or your drawing would be much more elegant on paper, but it will vanish from the screen in continuous movement. With your mistakes up on the screen so briefly, you won’t remember them but pay attention to the change of scene.

M. Adel:
Actually, I wasn’t referring to the artist’s mistakes. There is a certain idea we have about the size of pictures. Granted, you may easily be mistaken about true size. You may know some reproduction of a painting and then, on seeing the original, you think: that’s all it is in size? I really imagined it to be much larger. Or the other way around, of course. But, by and large, you do get a fairly good idea of size when seeing a reproduction. But, in overhead-projection drawing, the format will almost always be the same because those film rolls…

R. Scheidl:
… about standard German paper size…

M. Adel:
… indeed, they do have a certain standard size. But the theatre setting would allow for blowing size up to eight or maybe only three metres. That’s pretty much of a difference already.

R. Scheidl:
That’s true. There’s no question about it.

M. Adel:
Do you have to adjust to those sizes, or are you surprised yourself to see the effect created by this kind of magnification? Do you draw as usual, as you would do on the formats you’re used to, and then think: well, it’s created a totally different effect? Obviously, you wouldn’t see it that well working with the monitor or, indeed, with video-taped recordings. At least, you wouldn’t see it like the real thing. But, actually, a surface eight metres high is very difficult to grasp when you are watching dancers and actors at the same time. Also, a drawing of such size develops much more momentum. How do you handle that? What was your experience in this respect?

R. Scheidl:
You just don’t think about it. You simply adapt to the venue and don’t pay attention to it.

M. Adel:
So, let me rephrase the question: didn’t it have a repercussion on your brush drawing? Didn’t you start doing smaller things because you were aware that they were going to be blown up to eight metres in size anyway?
R. Scheidl:
This is a matter to be viewed in relation to the venue. If the stage is large and its floor rather elevated, the hall would probably have a capacity of one thousand people. This means you have to draw large enough for a person sitting in the last row to see. It’s as practical as that.

M. Adel:
Let’s dwell on a more fundamental question. Having said all of the above about ink-brush drawing, one might get the impression that this kind of stage performance is the climax in your drawing-work. After all, it basically includes everything you experimented with in ink-brush drawing, only under more demanding conditions as far as speed, synchronisation and improvisation are concerned, despite the fact that what you draw has been defined previously. The score gives you a basic routine of symbolic patterns, and yet, it will be a question of appropriate timing to make it work. In other words, everything is put to the test under more stringent, more varied and, thus, more difficult conditions than in your individual disciplines such as blind drawing, studies on dance movements, cycles, symbols or Leporellos. In a nutshell, live drawing is the acid test you apply to everything you experimented with in gaining experience with your brush for a period of six or seven years.

R. Scheidl:
Of course, it is, but it simply wasn’t possible to use more complicated, beautiful drawing for dance performance, as I have tried to say before. To do this, you would have to be more relaxed. Your drawings to dance performance always have to be relatively simple as they are limited by the surface area and the time available. A good drawing takes between five and ten minutes to make it perfect on paper. In live drawing, I simply don’t get that much time. So, I had to just forget about it. I wouldn’t have the time to do more than sketch out a beautiful face, for example. It was definitely a very limited thing.

M. Adel:
Which isn’t necessarily a disadvantage, is it?
R. Scheidl:
No, it’s not. Certainly not for stage work.

M. Adel:
And for drawing?

R. Scheidl:
Many drawings simply weren’t possible. I could have made them on paper only. So, I had to choose from some symbols and simple drawings. It had to be a selection of drawings, somehow.

M. Adel:
But it isn’t an issue of quality, is it?

R, Scheidl:
Certainly not. Through this kind of work, I’ve perfected my script. Through repetition, I’ve been able to achieve automation.

M. Adel:
Which you had done through other things before.

R. Scheidl:
Yes, but it had always been the product of my intention before because I would have the feeling of absolutely having to do a certain thing. It was different with live drawing though. I would sit down for an hour a day and draw a certain thing such as decks of cards. What I did was running down a programme of drawing. It was just normal. It was my work. It was as if I was reading something to somebody. No need for me to invent anything. It was all there. All I had to do was go through it. Which was excellent training for my hand though. I would never have done that on paper. It would have been far too boring. But to draw in front of the stage was very exciting. To observe the dancers, to listen to the music and to draw. And it continues to be exciting. Such an evening simply is thrilling. It’s the situation. It’s live performance. It’s difficult to describe but that’s what makes the difference! There’s nothing like it. I don’t get the same feeling when I draw normally. That would be quite a different atmosphere.

M. Adel:
Let’s come back to the fundamental question and turn it around 180 degrees. In terms of creativity, isn’t live drawing to dance performance the poorest bit in your drawing-work? Previously, I asked about it as being the climax, now I’m wondering whether it is the weakest link because it gave you the least amount of freedom to develop something new in drawing. You were a hired draughtsman, as it were.

R. Scheidl:
It was teamwork! We always agreed that it was something extraordinary when all the parts came together and everybody involved contributed as best they could. Everybody’s contribution was equal. The light engineer made sure the lights worked, the sound engineer took care of the sound, and the dancers, the actors, the musicians and myself did their own bits. It’s a team. It’s the same as with a band, and it’s very much like one, actually. That’s the beauty of it. It’s the product of teamwork. If one guy fails, everybody can feel the impact. That’s the nice thing about this kind of work.
Creatively speaking, it is more beautiful to develop something. Art in progress, as it so often is. It’s almost a discipline of art in its own right. That’s why you tend to think that it is much more exciting to develop a piece than to actually perform it. Performing it is perceived as less interesting because the producer normally leaves the group of actors and maybe doesn’t even want to see the piece performed. Or he chooses to see the first two shows only to make sure the piece is complete and ready to go on tour.
The exciting thing is everything that goes before that, all the creative work. I view half a scene and I do something to accompany it. Maybe I don’t even know how it will go on. I check with the video-recording for comparison. That’s what makes it exciting.
But there’s another thing we haven’t talked about yet. There’s a difference between drawing to dance performance and drawing to text-based stage performance, which I did only later. Drawing to dance performance taught me to draw intuitively, running parallel to the action as it were, often running counter to it, or taking the liberty of developing something abstract while always supporting the action. But there is no text. And it is up to the viewers to look for meaning and content in the dance performance, and read from it. The viewers need to accept dance as a medium in its own right. And this particular medium does not speak, nor does it have a verbal message. All it is about is movement, gestures and facial expression.
But everything came to an abrupt halt upon the death of choreographer Bettina Nisoli.
I continued to run her dance company for some time but some change was in the offing. With new members joining the company, a new performance series was created. With Katharina Puschnig, a performance artist and beetle painter, stage work suddenly opened up to writers and actors. This was a completely new field to me. First, there was an accompanying programme with Turi Werkner’s exhibition in the national library (1999). Then, Katharina contacted writers Wolfgang Hermann and Bernhard Wallner to develop a number of new programmes and to practise them with the TA MA MU company with me drawing for them. It wasn’t any better or worse, it was just different. Suddenly, there were words to my drawings. Furthermore, two musicians joined us, Dieter Strehly playing the Japanese flute and Ingrid Costan on the Korean drum.
Then, Katharina started to speak text to some of my solo performances, which is something that had been impossible to imagine before. It had always been music, with the viewers being free to associate whatever occurred to them. Suddenly, in 1997, there was text to the “particle”, which had been sort of a classic of mine since I first drew the “dream of the particle” in our first performance in 1988! It was sensational to me because I had always had a text on my mind. But, actually, I owe it to text-based performance and Katharina. She once said, “Go ahead and tell us what’s on your mind!” So, in a performance in “atrium et arte” [note: Vienna gallery], I drew the “particle” on paper and, for the first time, explained what it all meant. Somehow, a text was written as a result of that, and now there is a version of the “particle” accompanied by text. This added a new dimension to me. Suddenly, there was some firm ground to my drawing, something clearly defined in terms of text and content. Against that background, we created new programmes, again with music and again with experimental theatre but totally different from dance performance.

M. Adel:
So, would it be appropriate to say that you have come full circle? You started out with narrative drawing, and now you’re going back to it in an entirely new and much freer way. Narration now directly emanating from ink-brush drawing, no longer being illustrative or symbolic of something but a symbol in its own right, an independent discipline of drawing. Is that an appropriate analysis?

R. Scheidl:
Yes, it is, except when I draw to an author’s text. In that case, I would be illustrative again, free in association. But I would be subject to the same rules as with dance performance. We would have to make sure not to enter into competition but to choreograph things in a way to give room to drawing and acting at the same time so that they don’t get in each other’s way. The viewing rules remain unchanged. Viewers need to decide whether to watch, or listen to, the actors or follow the drawing.
At the outset, in the dance-performance period, we sometimes found that I had unintentionally commanded the viewers’ attention because they would be more fascinated with my drawing than with the choreography. That’s why we started to avoid that kind of competition early on. It was a learning-process and it took some productions until we had a firm grip on it and understood how much freedom we had to give every medium to make them interact harmoniously.
In other words, we’re back to a similar situation today. Only, my drawings look different now. That means I draw differently in accompanying text. For example, I drew the visions of death of a character called “Everybody”, the main part in a piece by Claus Fischer. It was very interesting. I drew everything this character saw before his mental eye only. Not even the actor who played the part was seeing what I was drawing. It was for the audience only. Neither did I see the actor performing since I had to draw. All I did was to draw everything that was on his mind, all of his visions of death, everything that haunted him all the time. It worked perfectly. It was fascinating. I was free to digress from the text and to project to the screen pictures that were not included in the text, and yet everybody would know that it was something “Everybody” had on his mind.
You can do the same in other joint theatre productions, adding my drawn associations, or inner or mental pictures, to the text. They will trigger something in the viewers, who will understand them easily even if there is no spoken or written text to explain them. And they will be gone soon because I keep drawing. Perhaps, you might do a similar thing with video productions although it may be less exciting for us, visually speaking. We’re familiar with video recordings from television. While we may be interested in the story the video pictures tell us, the pictures themselves are no longer exciting. However, somebody drawing live is such an unusual thing that people continue to be fascinated with it. I draw five numbers and two crosses, and people get excited already. That’s the beauty of it. You can even draw dirty things on the wall. When drawing to “Everybody”, I did a series of pricks. It was wonderful. The audience was helpless. That’s great. The young guys would burst out with laughter while the older ones were hiding below the tables. They’re helpless. It simply happens to them. They wouldn’t know whether it’s happening inside their heads or outside.
My feeling is that I generate mental pictures. I cannot view them, I merely draw them. The actors and musicians don’t view them either. They have no time. The only ones to see them are the viewers, and they’ve actually got the pictures on their minds because my drawings pass very rapidly. Once a piece is over, the audience may remember the odd picture but certainly not all of them. After all, I draw hundreds of them a night.
I also believe that some of the pictures will cross your mind at some later stage. Reading a book, you may come across one of Katharina’s texts, and suddenly you’ll recall the picture I was drawing to it. Why not?



Point of balance

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