Go back to article: Threading through history: the vertical transmission of Davy, Faraday and Tyndall’s lecture demonstration practices

Vertical transmission: Watson and Schechner

The notion of vertical transmission as it is applied to performer training practices and performance transmission has been variously discussed (Pitches, 2015 & 2011; Evans, 2009; Watson, 2001; Schechner, 1985) with one critical issue of commonality being a focus on aspects of physical skill and embodied knowledge. It is useful in this context for the ways in which it helps explain the construction of what has been termed a ‘physical storyline’ (Pitches, 2011, p 141) depicting, in this case, how nineteenth-century lecture demonstration practices have been transmitted through the twentieth and on to the twenty-first centuries.

In Performer Training: Developments Across Cultures Ian Watson elaborates on his adoption of the term ‘vertical transmission’ (Watson, 2001, p 3), describing the practice of performance skill and embodied knowledge being handed down from one generation to the next as being part of a broader tradition that he classifies as ‘direct training’ (Watson, 2001, p 2).[2] Watson’s examples include traditional East Asian forms such as Japanese Noh theatre, the Indian dance-drama Kathakali, and Balinese dance, where the focus is on specific skills being taught by masters to apprentices, the aim being to transmit a precise codified language relating to an established repertoire, with little deviation from the master’s performance. He offers perhaps the most fundamental example of vertical transmission in Japanese Kabuki theatre, where on retirement a great actor passes on to one specially chosen pupil not only his skills and embodied knowledge, but also his actual name (Watson, 2001, p 3). Richard Schechner (1985) also turns to early East Asian forms in his discussion of the embodied ways in which performance traditions are first embedded and then passed on in different cultures. He goes significantly further in historical terms to suggest that such practices are likely to have been established in ‘what might have been the world’s earliest theater, the events occurring within the paleolithic caves of southwest Europe’ (Schechner, 1985, p 22) some twenty-five thousand years ago. Schechner notes a similar pattern in theatre training: ‘Theater people know about training; it is expected that teachers of theater be able also to practice it’ (Schechner, 1985, p 25). In these models the passing on of skills is deliberately structured around the notion of ‘imitation’, critical to theories of vertical transmission, and there is usually an explicit sense of a ‘master-disciple’ relationship (Schechner, 1985, p 23).

In the ‘V’ section of A Lexicon of Training Terms, Brayshaw et al also define the term:

Verticality is the embodied transmission of training knowledge and skill from one generation to the next, usually in a specific training context which allows for a deep and long-lived relationship between the trainer and trainee. Because of its association with generational transmission, verticality is often referred to as occurring within a training ‘family’ – from surrogate father to son but much less often from surrogate mother to daughter.

(Brayshaw et al, 2012, p 397)

As with Watson’s and Schechner’s interpretations verticality in this definition is primarily concerned with the notion of repetition and replication, rather than a practice that reinterprets and rediscovers. But noteworthy, here, is the suggestion that the vertical relationship privileges the passing on of embodied skills from ‘surrogate father to son’. This is in contrast to the etymological root of vertical transmission from medical science, which denotes a mother-child descent:

Vertical transmission: Passage of a disease-causing agent (pathogen) from mother to baby during the period immediately before and after birth.

(WebMD, 2015)

The western adoption and re-positioning of the term in a performer-training context to describe a male-oriented hierarchical relationship reveals much about the patriarchal domination of the field and it is only in the latter part of the twentieth century that women have been seen to play a credible role in western performer training practices.[3] In the parallel domain of the RI, practitioners during the nineteenth century were exclusively male. Indeed, with only a minority of exceptions, this prevalence has persisted, and similarly, it was not until the 1990s that women began to be regular practitioners of lecture-demonstration practices.[4]

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160604/002