by Matthew Crosby
The annual workshop approaches and as usual I start to reflect on the experimentation and discoveries we are making on the floor and in discussion with the regular crew at Melbourne Suzuki and the associated theatre company, THE THURSDAY GROUP. Currently we are all contemplating opening our small hothouse of research to a semi-public viewing, assembling the materials of my play Silent Forest, considering how things read. And the basic principles of Suzuki training in relation to subtle and extreme experimentation arise in my contemplations–focus, the journey from and to, stillness, breathing, negotiating the physical and spiritual challenges (as the body ages!) and sharing the lonely artistic road with others are some of the things for consideration.
Similar to Grotowski, Suzuki training demands that the performer examine inner aesthetics in a continual dialogue with external foci. Recently we have been discovering just how specific and personal a focal point might be. Not some abstract concept nor concrete geographic point outside of oneself, a focal point can be defined as memory, the alter-ego, the external world, an antagonist, a friend and whichever definition the performer chooses creates a unique world for a spectator to watch. In our group, usually seven performers, the unique quality of our focal points is always evident, they change from one moment to the next but they seem to ride within parameters that over time are recognisable and which become a kind of performer’s oeuvre. The times when we forget the external focus are the times when performance seems less successful and it’s a reminder that the act of performance, almost by definition is a sharing between performer and audience.
Another concept we have been tossing around relates to the journey of ‘from and to’. The training always deals with the nature of movement coming to stillness and then starting out from stillness again. We created an exercise called Falling in which the performer falls fast to stillness on the ground and then rises to sitting or standing either quickly or over time. First of all we discovered that if the body only sprang up from the ground that the movement seemed light, somehow inconsequential, so we remembered to keep a resistance in the movement. This changed the quality of the stopping and this, er, heavier stillness promoted the notion that when a body comes to rest it retains some sense of the journey up to an arrival. Then that movement from stillness is affected by the experience of the journey from the past. It creates a rationale to ever more subtle moments along the timeline of the performance, gives strength to the performer’s position in the real and metaphysical landscape, provides context in speaking and enriches relation with other performers.
There is no question that the training presents extreme challenges to the performer’s existence on stage–not metaphorically but really, there are times in training when we think we might die! Thinking of interviews with athletes after a hundred metres in the pool, the attempt to centre the breath, to ease it over vocal chords to form the vibration of speech is always fraught… it’s that kind of challenge. I think this year I’ve discovered fresh approaches to breathing in vocal production. We do an extended exercise with swords: move, speak text, strike, speak, move, speak text, strike. In the exercise, there are no other points that allow breath other than when moving and being a choral exercise, the group has found unity in breathing and therefore in expression. Not a unity that evens out individual expression, rather celebrates it. As though one person were speaking with seven tongues. There is no opportunity to take breath merely for survival, no ounce of breath is expended other than to speak, as though the oxygenation of the body is an afterthought.
As another year starts, and we start in on a new phase of applying the explorations to a new play, I rejoice that beside the vagaries of theatre life, I can share a protracted process of development and artistic renewal, each week, twice a week with dedicated artists. So I look forward to welcoming other performers to experience the training. Of course it is my duty, a promise that I made to Mr. Suzuki to pass on the vocabulary of exercises faithfully and that is an opportunity to get back to basics, to reexamine the central principles: centre of gravity, stability, energy, challenge, focus, variation and other concepts. But it is also an opportunity for me to see actors approach the training for the first time, always an inspiring prospect.
The next open workshop will be held Frebruary 2018.