In working with the Suzuki Method, we are not encouraged to refer to mirrors for feedback, because the emphasis, although always about trying to precisely achieve the form, is on the visceral experience that comes from the endeavor. The exercises are designed to raise levels of energy, and the actor uses that heightened energy to transform – the intensity of the energy essentially puts a flame to qualities that already exist in the actor. Suzuki always describes the process as the actor becoming possessed by the text, and, rather than the actor so called ‘becoming’ the character, Suzuki sees it has the character becoming the actor.
In our current zoom training and rehearsals, working with the screen challenges this approach. Seeing oneself on screen and seeking feedback from the group who also relate to me from the screen, is drawing me out of the pure ‘visceral’ experience. There is a lack of faith, on my part, that the visceral experience alone can communicate, like I trust it can in the ‘live’ experience. On top of that, I am seduced by what the screen offers – plays with lighting and angles, plays with depth perception, a singular visual and auditory perception rather than the multiple that occurs in a ‘live’ space. It is like I am automatically drawn into the position of director, of lighting designer, and as Alana rightly asserts, there is curation that takes place. The questions that were posed this week can’t be ignored:
Where are we going with this?
Is the screen and its seductions something to fight against?
Are we discovering gems that we can incorporate into our established way of working, or will we eventually discard the work and strengthen resolve in other directions?
(And the grandest of them all) Will it change the way we work ‘forever’?
These are questions that arise about the actor, and their craft, and the tools and frameworks chosen to communicate with and within. Without a clearer sense of our collective response to these questions, the next question of how we relate to the fellow actors, which Rodrigo posed, feels impossible to address.
I feel extraordinarily privileged to have experienced playing the role of Josephine, or I should say, to have experienced Josephine playing the role of me in Silent Forest. One great ‘take away’ was learning a new way to relate to the fellow performer. Within the fiction of the ‘Silent Forest’, the other people on stage were framed as projections of the self – something so intimate as ‘the self’. With this framework, my relationship and response to the self/others came immediately, and instantly, and was so complex. I clearly needed to work with the other – to acknowledge, respect, and accept the self/other with compassion – in order to gain a sense of well-being and wholeness, but I couldn’t help wanting to resist and disown the projections and manifestations that were reveal.
I don’t know whether this way of working with the fellow performer can sustain itself outside the ‘Silent Forest’ fiction. I believe we have unresolved, possibly unresolvable, questions about how we relate to each other in performance. And this may not necessarily be a ‘bad’ position to be in. It may, indeed, drive our investigations.
In 1922, the Parisian newspaper L’Intransigeant asked Marcel Proust: ‘How would people behave if they were told that a meteorite would crash on earth tomorrow? What would we do in our final hour?’ Proust replied: ‘ Life would suddenly seem wonderful to us’ and then he argues that by being aware of our early mortality we would make the trip we have always dreamed of, we would not delay any more desires and we would act against the passivity that the certainty of a future offers.
The ‘Proust Meteorite’, which he seemed to be looking forward to, has reached our world in the form of a pandemic. If we have the privilege of analyzing our situation without worrying about our well-being, we have revalued our stay in this world, we have begun to enjoy the quotidian aspects of our lives, connected with forgotten people we love, we’ve reconsider the validity of toxic relationships, we look at the sky with desire, we reinvented our common spaces, we’ve reinvented the passage of time, routine is our ritual, and as art workers, we have adapted.
The blow of this pandemic in the performing arts sector is catastrophic, in addition to the economic blow, it is not permitted to join together. The center of our work: coexistence, community and encounter, have been transformed into uncertain desires, imposed fears, and unwanted moments. Due to these restrictions the theaters are temporarily closed, the desolate streets; and the gathering of people, who bring life to theater, are a risk.
The theatre (I include the performing arts with their common origin in Bacchic dances) has survived countless pandemics and will continue to exist as long as human beings exist. To speak about theater is to speak about life itself. Its eternal search concerns all of us, as it explores our origins, educates us emotionally, values our existence, and this is only possible through the theatrical event: the physical encounter between two or more human beings. An actor and a spectator, one who creates that parallel universe of latent reality and another who actively awaits. A meeting in the present body.
If we talk about human needs we need to eat, drink and sleep; but the artist has chosen another basic necessity in his subsistence: to make art. This artistic experience is not transmitted through a screen. The emotional transmission of the actor’s present body cannot be recreated by technological means. I remember a discussion I had with a friend of mine a couple of years ago, he was recording the play in which I performed, basically we were discussing the difference between cinema and theater. In a scene from that play I smoked a cigarette, my friend said that that was the only thing that envied from theater, the smell of that lit cigarette, he commented that he couldn’t create the smell of the cigarette burning through the camera, he could recreate an idea through sound and image, but couldn’t affect the smell of the viewer. It seemed like an interesting idea, the moment alive. Being the theater an experience in the present body, the spectator’s observation is three-dimensional, it decides where to focus its gaze, the visual and emotional perception is different from that proposed by the cinema, it is an event that happens in real time, and understanding that factor is important. Faced with the current adversities, the necessity of gathering has grown stronger, since it has been limited, therefore an adaptation has emerged in our artistic need. The theater has become friendly with technology to keep this active energy alive. The tech theater or online theater has emerged as a need for connection against the disconnection of the pandemic.
In times before the pandemic going to the theater was a ritual, we planned in advance the disruption of our routine, we prepared ourselves. Today you can ‘see’ countless plays at any time from the comfort of your bed, but unfortunately you cannot ‘experience’ it. The online theater that is enjoyed from home differs from the central idea that the theater proposes: ‘the encounter of two wounded, lonely, rebellious individuals. The embrace of an active energy and a receptive energy.’ (‘Carta a Gregorio’ Eugenio Barba, 2020) I don’t think online theater is bad, it seems appropriate for our times, but it seems reasonable to point out its difference with the seminal idea of theater, so we do not forget the roots of the encounter.
The artists are crumbs in time that contribute in the fertile compost of the theater of our time. Perhaps it will not be the last pandemic that we will have to survive (they will come in different forms), perhaps the ambiguity of these times reaffirms the tenacity that characterizes us so much, clarifies the continuous sacrifice of our social / family life for the theater, since we value immensely the social importance of our disruptive practice. Although this plague has generated an uncertain climate, of something I am sure, that when we get out of this pandemic we will face crowded theatres with spectators needing the human encounter, the living encounter, the theater.
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]
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.
Suzuki training develops one’s awareness of stillness, of the impulse to move from a stillness, of the density of movement once it begins, of an arc of energy in that movement and in the suspense created in arriving at stillness. This examination is focused in the centre of the body where expression originates and which is the seat of vocal production. And so the two, vocal and physical expression are innately tied.
From such a basic idea as analysing the way the centre absorbs the effort and reverberation of stomping the floor, using the method we have developed refined means of expression. In our laboratory we work with variations in focal length and direction, situational, internal or otherwise, as a way to remain alive to the changing experience of time over space. With focal changes, experience changes, moment by moment. We are never the same person, same character from one moment to the next and it is this continual transformation that has been so enriching to study.
This articulation is by no means limited to the body for when the gaze and the attitude of the body is focused, the voice naturally agrees. In addition, because of the elevated energy the training instills, the voice responds, gaining density and resonance in the timbre, attack and surprise in starting and finishing the idea of a text. Resonance not volume is key. The energy expressed when speaking under physical duress is an idea common to many if not all forms of theatre. It involves the same kind of training that elite athletes do daily to centre the breath under extreme exertion. Performing Shakespeare in the park, delivering text up high on The Tissue or maintaining clarity in emotional extremes are challenges the performer will always face. What has been so interesting to us is the possibility of maintaining great energy in the voice not only in the large arena where audibility becomes an issue, but also when the focus is quite close, say in a chamber experience like La Mama theatre (Melbourne). Anyone who has performed there knows it is an anathema to shout. In our work we are creating ways to hold the voice back while still expressing energy. I think of it as a capacitance, the ability to store energy creates a sense of potential, of danger in all aspects of performance.
Another line of research develops the choral vocabulary. With each training session, each exercise, each performance, members of The Thursday Group strive to work together. At times the focus on technique or concepts can channel attention onto the individual. This is as it should be because the process of reflection helps the performer to improve. Sometimes though, this may lead the performer to forget the innate links that exist between performers in the space. The audience does not pay to see individuals performing tricks of virtuosity, rather they wish to see interaction, shared dynamic, stories that involve the social weave of which we are all a part. So we continually remind ourselves to practice the training and extrapolations with a priority not on the individual but on the group.
The training and laboratory work develops from week to week and we all rejoice in each other’s development and the knowledge that long-term we are creating a unique space for experimentation in the theatre. We are always open for theatre professionals and students to observe, so if you would like to attend one of our sessions, just drop us a line.
At the beginning of 2017 I wrote of a new Melbourne-based theatre company, that has morphed into The Thursday Group, comprising Elise Britton, Rodrigo Calderón, Kathleen Doyle, Lorna McLeod and myself, and we have completed five public showings of the Suzuki training and excerpts of my play, The Intriguing Case of the Silent Forest. The play was written as a vehicle to apply our training explorations to performance and the initial inspiration came from an improvisation several years ago between Yoka Jones and Kathleen Doyle. Looking ahead to 2018, we will continue with the performance laboratory, showings of training and excerpts from Silent Forest and we will contemplate our first season.
2017 saw us welcome visitors to the studio, from all around–two who have worked at the SITI company in Saratoga, north of New York where my mentor Ellen Lauren trains, teaches and performs. And I am reminded that it is approaching thirty years ago that we performed together in Suzuki’s Macbeth at Playbox (now Malthouse) in Melbourne, Adelaide and Tokyo festivals, a project that spanned two years and in which I learnt the Suzuki training–from Ellen, from other Suzuki Company of Toga actors and from Mr. Suzuki himself. And I reflect on what a change in direction the training made to me and how much it influences the work we produce on Wednesday and Thursday evenings here in Melbourne. Very shortly The Thursday Group will run another elements workshop and once more I will see performers approach the training bringing their diverse life and professional experience. This year we will open the training to casual Wednesday classes for performers who know the Suzuki vocabulary, and I hope that some of those performers might join us in our slow-burn explorations in form and theatrical application. Here are some reflections on last year’s work.
2017 finishes with a kind of bewilderment. So far have we come in explorations arising from training, and rehearsal, that in trying to order my thoughts, I am beset with a rush of sparks, transient moments of brilliance shining from the lights in performer’s eyes–new unique things, challenges laid, discoveries made, plans and schedules mapped–my impression of our work together this year is as much a thrill as a list of achievements; but the latter is probably more meaningful.
This year we have investigated a variety of modes. An exercise we call Tone–intonation arising from physical attitudes, tones that emanate from a physical shape, which appear to fit–astounding the discoveries each performer has made with their own vocal range and connection to text. Looking at the choral aspects that Silent Forest demands, it is exciting to think what we may achieve bringing this aspect of the laboratory into performance.
And within the Swords exercise we have considered ideas of opposition, shared breathing, 間 (Ma–either temporal or spatial, variously translated as ‘space’, ‘gap’ ‘interval’) and thanks to Rodrigo’s study, Yoshio Oida’s notion of the invisible performer. This year we have fallen into a pattern of doing Suzuki’s physically and aerobically challenging Fast-Walks exercise, forwards and backwards, which usually runs for around twenty minutes, followed immediately by the demanding Swords exercise speaking from The Cherry Orchard while facing each other. Challenging the performer to achieve expression while under such aerobic duress has been, shall we say, character-building. But important discoveries have been made in those moments of extreme stress.–concerning the nature of the breath, resonance, the priority of performer-to-performer relationship over self, and the intimate relation between movement and stillness.
With the canon-chorus work that Silent Forest requires, we have learnt a lot about listening. In a group of five that works so regularly, and which uses exercises that have unshifting foundations, it is very easy to measure when a performer is closing themselves away from the rest, and when they are tuning in. It’s a skill that is easily forgotten and in our pursuits, is such a necessity that it is often discussed and acutely practiced.
This year we examined the meaning of ritual in contemporary theatre. The experiments were intriguing and audiences reacted in different ways, it must be said, not always positively. Perhaps theatre is naturally a ritual which doesn’t need emphasis. Études such as the Tone exercise and canon-chorus work from Silent Forest have lead us to incantation–a form of speaking that transcends the usual psychological realist interpretation of texts without necessarily precluding it, and through resonance, repetitions and rising intonations, reminds of priests singing to parishioner-spectators. This is a kind of ritual that we will continue to examine.
Another exercise that has appeared on the horizon of our work and been incorporated into the movement vocabulary of the play is what has embarrassingly come to be known as Crosby Falls. It is simply the continued falling, stopping, rising and stopping of the performer. A significant challenge is created with the speed and precision of the stops while speaking. What emerges is an act of survival, a near achievement of the impossible, a pattern that is based in movement yet celebrates stillness, a segment that only really makes sense upon completion when the spectator sees the journey travelled and the cost incurred in the performer’s eye. Year beginning and end, even just the comparison of the physical and aerobic abilities is a proof of our hunger for, and readiness to climb onto the theatre stage.
Perhaps the most certain direction I have taken in the interpretation of The Intriguing Case of the Silent Forest is that the complete performance characteristic–text, choreography, song, underscore, light and design–must be generated by the onstage performer. This rule has created vitality to all our experiments, and has reminded me of Suzuki’s oft-quoted maxim that the actor must not forget to perform with physical energy. It’s not a unique concept, in fact it is probably a definition of performance; but in holding the line on it, I see real application of our training and laboratory, and am excited to witness the power we are creating in the space. 2018 will continue a process that feels like it is accelerating–I am strapping myself in.