by Matthew Crosby
photos by Oscar Socias
As the next year starts, I look back at the last, drawing threads together from my logs and my memory of training, experimentation, discussion and open-rehearsal. This is a documentation, a news bulletin and a way to form strategy for the coming year. Perhaps it is useful for other theatre practitioners.
In January 2018 we were joined by Eidann Glover who has been writing and performing in cabaret and theatre in Melbourne, Alana Hoggart, who has diverse performance experience in Australia and abroad and Caitlin Lavery, who arrived fresh from a residency with SITI in New York. And in April Tokyo actor Keisuke Tanabe started his residency with us, swelling the ranks to eight. Our questions were framed in the vehicle of my play The Mysterious Case of the Silent Forest; experiments in vocal tone, changing focus and impulse were tested before audiences. The problems we experienced in 2018 made us stronger–the loss of the beautiful Batman Street studio to realtors, the departure of members beyond our borders on sabbatical, skateboard broken elbow, and the cancellation of the July open-rehearsal due to illness. August on we wandered; Lorna McLeod offered us shelter at her school–three months among the dumb-bells of the St Monica’s College gymnasium–I was grateful yet coming to grips–Rodrigo Calderón consoled me, ‘It’s us that creates, not the space.’
New exercises, new questions
During the year we developed new exercises. Playing with the production of raw vocal tone in Suzuki’s statues exercise has created surprising results. In the exercise, a shinai(bamboo sword) is used by a caller to cue performers, who jump quickly from down to up and hold still in attitude facing a focal point. On a subsequent cue, text is spoken. The idea is that the physical attitude produces vocal aesthetic, such as, head/chest, forward and back of the hard/soft-palates, breath or full-voice, pitch, pause, articulation, legato, staccato, volume and so on–all of the vocal tools of the actor are brought in the aid of a vocal variation that matches the physical. Another aspect is that the voice should speak from the physical attitude, and so ideas of the ‘rationale’ of the statue’s voice are discussed. In an attempt to identify this rationale, we removed the spoken word from the equation as the meaning of the text of course has its own fiction. A few things appeared immediately. Firstly, performers were able to contact their instrument, the breath, the diaphragm, the resonators and articulators, more readily and understand any impedance. The marriage of voice, body and spirit was palpable. Maintaining the rationale of the statue across breath points, variation to tone during changing statues and changes that occur from solo to group-work were considered. Right at the end of the year, in concert with working with inward/outward focus, instead of trying to maintain the rationale or truth of the statue, we worked with the tone growing from the statue. Another way to think of this is to say that the statue might contain a sense of movement, for example inward or outward, so the tonal aesthetic will also contain this movement. On the first occasion, with no prompt other than to focus outward using tone, Kathleen Doyle produced an operatic growth in the tone that stunned us. We noticed the co-relative that though the statues exercise demands stillness from the performer, it should maintain life; given energy is required to achieve this, the actor must inject more over time, and the vocal growth is really just a continuation of the same idea. Keeping the discoveries of these pre-speech tones, we returns to speech. The examination continues.
Performance to training
In performance of Silent Forest, we try not to copy the physical shapes and choreography of Tadashi Suzuki’s training as it feels like appropriation. Instead we isolated parts of the play, analysed the physical shapes, rhythm, variation in dynamic, and used them as objects for training. In this way we strengthened the sinew of the performance with Suzuki training first-principles and developed some new techniques. Two examples come to mind.
In Silent Forest, the chorus ‘Murder’ dance, which combines slow and fast turns, stops and slides, which open to or close from the audience, is done while speaking. One first-principle we call resistance;Suzuki analogises this as actor-throttle full, brakes equally full, the resulting stasis creates energy, focus and stability in the centre of the body. Using this resistance in the dance with variations in outward focus, the group traverse intermittently, like leap-frogging–we call it cascade. And we were matching the cascade with spoken chorus canon. But in the marriage of the voice and the body a predictable doggerel rhythm arose. Duly noted, we worked to acknowledge the suspension of time along the ‘from to’ arc, which could be describe thus. Think of the picture of a pole-vaulter, flat-back above the bar at the apex of flight. Without seeing the whole event, the frozen image infers the run-approach and the vault, the ascent and the swivel; the movement-in-stillness of the picture shows the vaulter’s sense of success in clearing the bar and plan for the path descending. Kitaro Nishida speaks of discontinuous time in continuous time. That a person who is ‘in the moment’ is simultaneously the product of their past and of what’s to come. So in our cascade and canon, the experience of the last nesting in the next brought vitality. In the resistance in the centre and attention to points within a continuum, a density to expression appeared, which gravity seems to attract the eye of the viewer.
Another example of bringing parts of the play into training was the analysis and practice of a super-slow sideways walk, which the chorus performs during the central-character Josephine’s waterfall speech. We worked with the image that the chorus moves as fluid. Feet parallel facing front, the centre moves same-speed sideways. Because the weight transfers across the narrow of the foot, there is a moment in such a walk when the upper-body falls as the feet reposition. Once more resistancewas essential to maintain control, but so too the attenuation of the feet. We experimented with different approaches: slow-centre/fast-feet; smaller strides; turn-out, lower centre, and we reminded ourselves of the importance of outward foci to the front and in the direction of travel. Such slow movement matched with the Josephine waterfall speech created a strong impression on our audience–as the chorus closed on her, the sediment of our experimentation and the focus required just to walk, created the threat the story demanded.
Watching both the Murder and Waterfall sequences, our guests noticed both sequences, singled them out as thrilling and providing flag-posts in the story of the play. It is one proof that first-principle practice applied to passages of performance is valuable.
The gymnasium at St Monica’s was in Epping and our member numbers depleted. It was a geographical bridge too far for south-easterners, while others were overseas. Keisuke Tanabe had joined us and his questions regarding the training were refreshing. For example, regarding focal point, he asked us if there was a ‘world’ we inhabit; it reminded us to be specific in the fiction we create when facing off. And we worked on extended-duration and choreographed statues, continued our analysis and practice of sideways walking, variations to the ten traverse walks, especially spins, where Alana Hoggart’s note that the force of the spin must be matched with the resistance, saved us from injury. It was also Epping that took the Suzuki music from us. In 1993 when Mr Suzuki granted me permission to teach, I was given the training music with the strict proviso that it never be passed on. With the poor sound-system there, we preferred a simple metronome and enjoyed the way it emphasised the actor as central to the performance. From my experience with Suzuki, to Renato Cuacolo’s Grotowski-training in Melbourne, to Lech Mackiewicz’s plays influenced by Tadeusz Kantor, the idea that it’s the actor that produces energy has recurred throughout my practice and has become a central tenet of The Thursday Group practice.
Late September saw us working between the glass walls of the Edinburgh Gardens Oval Community Centre with cricketers and joggers peering in on strange twilight manifestations. We have often used variations of the statues exercise as the basis for improvisation, and I grew increasingly displeased with the habits–locked rhythm and dynamic produced by actors grown accustomed to a format. When I look at an actor working, the physical shape and gesture are meaningful, whether they are square or oblique to their focal point, to their partner, whether they crouch or stretch, whether their hand is clenched or reaching, but it’s usually the eyes that I return to because it’s there I see the birth of an idea, such as the retreat, the attack or the defence. One of the traps that I’ve noticed is actors locking out their surroundings–where they face, who they work with, even the changeability of their own internal processes. Often enough I heard Suzuki speak of repetitive rhythms, so perhaps he noticed this too as much of the SCOT training is aimed at creating variation. Jerzy Grotowski noticed a gap between the actor’s impulse and its outer manifestation. It seems his training was in part aimed at freedom from what he calls ‘time-lapse’. “Impulse and action are concurrent: the body vanishes, burns, and the spectator sees only a series of visible impulses.” (Grotowski 1965). So we experimented with actor-impulse in the context of the first-principles of Suzuki training. Rather than the strike of the caller’s shinai, the actor starts by their own impulse. The sole rule was that the caller may clap a restart if locking is noticed. Of course ‘impulse-work’ is well-known, it is probably a part of the actor DNA. The only thing that is ever unique is the practitioner and the marriage of two unlikely cousins (synectics). Freeing the actor from the statues-shinai-cue and encouraging them to attend to their own spark, moment by moment, created an important shift. It excites me because it is an intermediary step between training and performance. I have already seen a difference both in achieving text in statues training, but also in performance with audience. In omitting an outside cue, the performer takes control, and I noticed an expanding confidence and facility, something more responsive and agile, in the space, with fellow performers and to the ideas of the text.
The July open-rehearsals were cancelled due to illness leaving May and December as our 2018 publishing events. This year brought a new format. In the past we chose which section of Silent Forest, which exercises and in which order to show, aware that forty minutes for training and the same for rehearsal is about right for one night. Running a sequence of the play week by week as preparation is effective because we move from laboratory to performance practice, where dynamics are jointly confirmed–unforeseen synergies appear. But concretising our training into which exercise, when and for what duration became tiresome. The exclusion of interstitial discussion on the training seemed unnatural; the denial that what precedes determines what follows seemed stubborn. So rather than a welcome speech on the history of Suzuki training and The Thursday Group, we invited the audience with a real dialogue on our current concern, decided there and then which exercises were best to try and for how long, and between exercises we gave notes or discussed impressions. At first it was strange, a little forced bringing the watcher into the laboratory experience, but ultimately it provided a ramp into more meaningful exchange. Cold and extremely hot nights with resilient watchers, who noted energy, focus, the crumbs of the Silent Forest detective story-clues; preferences either for training or for performance or relation between the two; they spoke of the power of movement and of stillness and the richness of vocal tone, of the originality of our style–one told me they could see my aura! And as usual we all noticed the added energy of a real not imagined audience, which demands a logic that we of the theatre laboratory may sometimes forget. Because people, known or unknown, peers, students, teachers, punters–those booked or walk-ups, enter with their experience, their unique way of watching, and suddenly the issue of theatre presents. If the performer doesn’t understand the reason they inhabit the stage, the watcher’s eye dulls. With apologies for the simplistic reductions, for Kantor the purpose was the moment of death, for Grotowski the poor theatre or actor’s theatre, for Genet the beauty of degradation, for Suzuki the futility of civilisation… and for me, drawing great inspiration frosm these, the consequence of trauma; I think our group’s practice gives us the power to relax in being watched, to allow the scrutiny of our purpose. Ultimately all theatre practitioners use metaphor to examine the human condition, which is expressed in the actor. If their instrument is tuned and strong, they will be confident in exposing themselves.
Looking back to forward
Last year in various ways the questions of our research made their way into performance not by the accoutrement of studio or music, but by the perseverance of the performer; by using the play as training object; by the development of vocal tone exercises, and by the elision of impulse with basic-training. And we were reminded of the benefits of our rolling publishing–that the training and laboratory enables the performance and that the protection of first-principles of Suzuki training as we see them, the pursuit of artist-to-artist exchange and the development of performance creates authentic and original work.
2019 will be a busy year. In January we have Suzuki actor-training workshops, in March open-rehearsal an d in May the season of Silent Forest. We have commenced work on Thursday Group member Eidann Glover’s play Shallow. So our work continues. Welcoming Alana, Caitlin and Keisuke this year added new impetus and different insights. The struggles we experienced remind us the road may be bumpy, but it may be the questions of our practice are the sharper for the bumps. This year excites me because I feel the group has defined an identity and clarified its purpose.
Kopf, G 2002, ‘Temporality and personal identity in the thought of Nishida Kitarō’ University of Hawai Press, vol. 52, no. 2, pp. 224-245.
Thank you to Naree Vachananda for introducing Nishida!
Grotowski, J 1965, ‘Towards a poor theatre’, Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Odra no. 9. [Originally published in Odra nº9, Wroclaw, 1965]
Valentini, V n.d. ‘Tadeusz Kantor’s object-actor, emballages, happenings, poverty’, viewed 7 January 2019, < https://www.academia.edu/10521731/Tadeusz_Kantor_s_Object-Actor._Emballages_Happenings_Poverty.doc>.