Toussaint Performs World Premier of The Alchemical Theatre

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The Alchemical Theater began with French actor Jean-René Toussaint standing with his back to the audience as he made one of the strangest sounds I’ve heard produced by a human being. Part screeching, part overtone singing reminiscent of Tuvan throat singing, with many additional aspects in its dense structure, the sound had both a primal and highly refined quality to it similar in impact to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This was the product of Toussaint’s Stemwerk technique, his own style of vocal training heavily influenced by his work with the deaf.

Throughout the rest of the 45 minute piece (written and directed by Toussaint) Toussaint used his voice in many other strange and original ways while delivering disjointed dialogue and moving the three props (a chair, a table, and a pink mattress) noisily around the stage. The plot, such as there was, seemed to be autobiographical and dealt with his relationship to his parents and other authority figures. He was constantly interested in the connection between sound and words or language.

Many times during the piece Toussaint would use his voice and body together, the sounds organically and seamlessly translating into body movements, such as a gibberish dialogue between his two hands. At these points The Alchemical Theater was very enjoyable as a piece of abstract art. It could be enjoyed for the pure aesthetic quality of the sound and movement and the meeting of the two without needing any other meaning in order to make sense. However, for the majority of the play, when Toussaint was either speaking or moving around the stage and props, I was alternately flabbergasted and bored. It is clear that Toussaint had some sense of meaning, whether literal or abstract, that he attached to the performance, but I could not discern it.

Perhaps I am hindered by my greater familiarity with music, specifically avant-garde music, than with avant-garde theater. One of the list of collaborators that was listed in Toussaint’s biography was director Robert Wilson, and I kept thinking that The Alchemical Theater would work better as an avant-garde opera, akin to Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach or Meredith Monk’s Atlas. It is clear that Toussaint is interested in sound and this could be utilized to give the piece a place in music-theater where it could be more comprehensible. Whenever I became confused and bored I thought that if there was some music, or at least other interesting sounds which made up the best parts of the performance, it would provide something to focus on while one tried (and perhaps failed) to tease out meaning to his action and dialogue on stage. As is, The Alchemical Theater had some truly stunning moments but they were fleeting, and I left the performance much less excited than I usually am upon seeing a new piece of art.


  1. according to the program, the work was a character study of antonin artaud, a french actor, not an autobiographical piece. I think perhaps you watched too much with your head. to sit openly and be in the moment with Toussaint was lovely and invirogating. how awful to be bored when someone is baring his soul and his life’s work for you. particularly when you haven’t bothered to read the text accompanying the piece.

    i found the prop use a model of ingenuity and the acting quite impressive.

  2. Artaud’s work is centers on the “theater of cruelty”: not cruelty in terms of mean-ness, rather cruelty in terms of ruthless honesty: surprising the senses and reconnecting with the self. As a piece of Artaudian theater that was in the “purest” form I’ve ever seen, I found The Alchemical Theater astonishing and captivating. Many people who I spoke to about it after the fact told me they found it extremely “weird”, a reaction that is unsurprising, but disappointing if it is the only reaction. Yes, it was weird – (Artaud was weird!), but being a good audience member means being willing to abandon the ridiculously oppressive “societal norms” that we’re enslaved to the other 23 hours a day. Or at least attempt to abandon them! It’s impossible not to have an initial “WTF” knee-jerk reaction when you watch the piece: any piece that is fearless enough to challenge you to totally reconstruct the way you think about theater for 45 minutes is bound to have to go to some extreme lengths. I would hope that audience members, on the whole, were able to get over that “WTF”-ness, because doing so revealed an absolutely incredible experience, and it would be terrible to miss that because of something as silly as bland judgment.

  3. Although the program notes did mention Artaud and his work, when watching the piece I was constantly confused as to whether it was about Artaud or Toussaint, but given that he kept referring to himself as “Jean” throughout the piece I assumed that it must be autobiographical. In talking with people after the show everyone that I talked to also thought it was autobiographical in nature. If I am wrong then that is the case, but it’s certainly not for lack of trying to understand the piece. I certainly did go into the performance being open to reevaluating my conceptions of theater and performance art; most of my favorite performance art requires that sort of reevaluation. I found his technical ability, especially his melding of voice and movement quite impressive, but in the end didn’t enjoy the piece as a whole (I tend to view a good piece of art as more than the sum of its technical parts, although of course there can be disagreement with that statement). I am glad that some people enjoyed the performance and that it’s expressed here in the comments, but that doesn’t change my overall (necessarily subjective) opinion of the piece expressed in the review. I was a very open audience member, but I was also not convinced. Being critical, or unconvinced by the piece artistically does not mean you aren’t a good audience member.

  4. Being critical definitely doesn’t make you a bad audience member – it makes you a good one. Likewise, being unconvinced is a totally valid response to theater. I wouldn’t argue that your experience was insignificant, nor would I argue that your review didn’t contain a valid response. It’s impossible to say that the piece necessitated a previous knowledge of stemwork or Artaud: that fully deconstructs the idea of universally accessible theater. Open-mindedness, on the other hand, is the most critical value to have as an audience member – in the case of a piece that is so specifically focused on Artaudian performance, open-mindedness is even more necessary. My objection would never be against the audience member who ultimately decided they were unconvinced, it would be against the audience member who never gave the piece a chance in the first place. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, this distinction can become very murky to figure out. In the case of this review, I would say it was well-thought out, however.

  5. according to members of the theater dept, it was a work in progress and had been translated to english only a few hours before…

  6. I never saw the show… But I’ve come to know Jean-René Toussaint…in ways .. most people probably never will.. I’m not surprised you didn’t understand.. I’m not surprised people would.. consider anything.. by the nature of that man.. weired… Truth is.. he .. does have a depth.. of soul.. of knowledge.. of being.. far deeper.. and far greater.. then Mark.. I’m sure could imagine.. that.. Anna begins to sense… that Jessie.. seems to appreciate…..he defines the difference.. between a performance.. for the sake of your entertainment.. and a performance..for the sake.. of expression.. his was not a failure in entertaining you.. but you are the failure.. for the inability to recognize when you are seeing something.. beyond the boundaries of your comprehension…. Every one just wants to be understood.. by which ever means possible… I know i say this.. Months later.. but i feel i must say something.. as some one who knows and condifidently claims to understand him on a very deep and personal level..
    However.. Thank you for your Insight.. tho with a less comprehensible viewpoint then i might have taken.. it was nice to read about one of his performances.

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