Niveau de Jeu

Jacques Lecoq’s expression "niveau de jeu" (in literal English: “level of play”) is key to his promotion of the actor as the source of theatrical style. It is through play that the actor transforms reality. Style is not to be an imposed strategy, as in "genre," but rather something to be found in the playfulness of the actor's body. There is then a correspondence between the qualities of the actor's play and the resultant style. One confronts this issue immediately when working with masks. A particular mask of a particular style will demand a particular level of play. To the extent that the mask is a transformation of the human face, so should the actor's body be transformed through movement.

Of course the expression "niveau de jeu" does not imply an ordered hierarchy of styles, as if they could be tidily stacked according to their distance from reality, with naturalism at the bottom, and some kind of Artaudian hyper-dance-opera at the top! One style is not “more “ than another, any more than one could say that the sound of a saxophone is “more" than the sound of a trumpet. However, it is possible to agree that Commedia dell' Arte lies further from Naturalism than does a Neil Simon farce, or even a Restoration Comedy. (To continue the above analogy, one could agree that the sound of a saxophone lies further from a pure sine wave than does the sound of a flute!)

One might better use the word “expansion.” Instead of rising to a "level of play," the actor expands into it. Which suggests:

The expansion of reality through various forms of play produces corresponding styles of theatre.

Still, the good thing about “niveau” is that it implies a need for stylistic consistency. One visualizes a given style operating on a level plane that maintains a constant distance from the quotidian, and so is faithful to its initial contract with the audience.

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Jonathan Paul Cook © 2010