ON THE SUZUKI METHOD OF ACTOR TRAINING.

Some personal observations after the final day of the 2021 Suzuki Elements Workshop, Melbourne

Matthew Crosby – co-facilitator The Thursday Group.

Why this training?

Toward the end of the 2021 Suzuki Elements Workshop at The Thursday Group, Rodrigo Calderón, who co-facilitated the workshop, asked me to write something for the participants regarding the question, ‘Suzuki Training… why?’. I supposed a corollary question is why not another acting method? and indeed, during this year’s workshop, for the first time I introduced comparisons to Stanislavsky and Grotowski as a way to provide context for the participants. Before the last day of the workshop, I journaled some thoughts on the question, but the examination led me deeper into my own association with Suzuki training and it has taken much longer than I expected to clarify my thoughts. This essay will seem like an advertisement because I’ve found the many years of training in the method enriching. I do not say it is the only method, I do not say it should be done in isolation from other influences though it might be, but I do oppose the notion that it is somehow a dangerous, culturally specific movement method applicable to a narrow range of performative styles. I don’t intend to argue those points here so much as present some of the detail of the training in the context of the other theatre method influences in my practice. I’ll start with a description of some of the exercises, consider some philosophical questions which the method raises and close with an idea of the benefit the training has offered me.

The Exercises

The best way to understand the exercises is to do them, and if that is not possible, to see them. Probably the worst way to understand them is to read them. However, Suzuki Tadashi’s seminal book ‘The Way of Acting’[1] explains the purpose and generally describes the physical exercises with some interesting black and white pictures. The training considers the actor’s physical centre-of-gravity (below the navel) in relation to the aite[2] which is a focal point the actor imagines beyond the audience. At all times the actor is content for the audience to watch this relationship. As for the centre, it is considered as the engine that drives expression. Suzuki speaks of the upper body’s vertical space, and the pelvis and undercarriage containing energy that emanates into the horizontal space (pp. 10-11). He continues that stamping on the ground is a gesture that confirms the ‘strength’ of the actor and may lead to the ‘creation of a fictional space, perhaps even a ritual space, in which the actor’s body can achieve a transformation from the personal to the universal’ (p. 12). These are ideas that a western actor may have encountered in Grotowski, Barba, Kantor, Artaud, Meyerhold… there is no shortage. For example, Grotowksi on Barba describing impulses as opposing forces says that ‘This interplay of contradictions, of contractions and relaxations, of the opposite directions of impulses, is carried to such an extreme that one can say that man [sic] is converted, physiologically, into a sign’[3]. There is much in common with Suzuki training here, and much that distinguishes Suzuki training from other psycho-physical methods in the family of Grotowski/Barba.  So, I’ll describe some of the Suzuki exercises generally to show how the method frames the stage as a ritual space and the actor as a sign. 

‘Stamping’ is generally translated as ‘stomping’ these days and is a ritual or gestural action that is common to both Noh and Kabuki theatre, though not in the way Suzuki designs it for Suzuki training. In the Suzuki training, the leg is lifted with speed and ‘caught’ by the centre. That is the muscles of the leg rising compress upward into the obstructing force of the pelvis, so the leg may be held in stillness, or immediately released. It’s similar to the action of a coiled spring, which in compression contains potential energy, until a trigger is released. When the leg stomps, that potential changes to kinetic force. Paying attention to equal load descending through the leg and to stomping the foot onto the three points of the triangle of the foot, the actor stomps on the stage floorboards. The floorboards resonate and return the energy through the foot. It travels up the leg and once more is caught and isolated in the centre. If this set of actions is repeated, potential energy gathers in the centre. The attention to the form of the action and the appropriate amount of attack over time, offers stability and challenges the actor to keep the breathing and upper body calm. Stomping is done either on the spot or moving through the space. The movement is done while maintaining the aite relationship so that both the internal and external aspects of the actor’s work are articulatedThe exercise is a central part of the training but is by no means the only one. It is employed in three of the five Basic Centre-of-Gravity exercises too, which articulate lateral, sagittal, circular and spinning modes together with vocal expression. I guess 10-20% of the exercises employ stomping in a training session, so to call the training ‘stomping’, as I’ve heard often enough, is perhaps misleading. Other exercises use the experience of stomping in creating different ‘senses[4]‘ in the body. Exercises such as The Walks, a traverse exercise, facilitates expressive variation by articulating the contact of the feet to the earth, which creates a variety of senses in the centre. In walks with names like crocodile feet, onnagata[5] or scissor-stomp, the actor walks, for example, on the inner or outer blades of the soles of the feet or on the toes. The position of the feet refers up to the centre, and the variations there are felt internally and placed externally. The actor distinguishes one sense from another to develop a vocabulary of body gesture or attitude that may be applied in different ways in a variety of circumstances. Perhaps Laban’s gestural system is another way to achieve this itemisation of the body gesture. These distinguishable senses can be used in the more ‘freestyle’ or improvisational exercises such as Statues and their variations, Slow Ten, Moving Statues and more generally, when building and performing a role. The basic Statues exercise has the actor raising the centre from a low squat to a tiptoe stance with explosive speed. The position is held, and the action is repeated according to cues provided by a facilitator, who will vary the rhythm of the poses as they are repeated. At first the actor practices this basic exercise arriving in statue poses with the focal point front, left or right, as it were, facing north, south, west or east in high, low or in between positions. Then poses that express the inner sense of the body are struck. Hopefully, the potential energy generated by the fast movement and stationary pose, and the sense in the centre of each statue will create expression that reaches all parts of the body. The idea that all parts of an artist’s statue cohere with the seed of an inspiration is one of the foundations the actor aspires to. These inspirations might be conceived by an image, a thought, an impulse, a text, a physical attenuation inside the centre that has been developed in The Walks or in other ways. The internal sense of the statue is always performed in relation to the actor’s aite.

There are many more exercises, but perhaps this is sufficient to continue to the vocal aspects of the training and the method’s wider purpose. The default setting for Suzuki Training vocal technique is that the centre is the seat of the voice, and for this reason, at Thursday Group, we have come to use the now familiar term body/voice and recently ‘gesture/voice’. The energy, control and sense that is developed in the physical is utilised in the vocal aspect. By creating a strong platform of control and energy for the seat of the vocal column, below and at the diaphragm, while maintaining the breathing, resonance and articulation apparatus open and calm, a dense timbre is achieved. By this I mean, whether the volume of the sound is loud or soft, the resonance and focus of the voice is strong and remains expressive. In my view, it is here that the greatest misconceptions arise. In the first place, it is important that the actor doing voicework in Suzuki training understand that all their acting experience will be useful, including their prior vocal practice. Often enough I’ve seen examples, but nowhere does the training demand that the actor shout in a monotone–something is wrong if this is the case. Rather, my advice is to speak to the target of the communication, which is to say, to another actor or to the aite, and indirectly or directly, to the audience. The physical aspects of the training are always aerobically challenging and focus all work within the centre, which is also the seat of the voice. And the training stipulates that no matter the physical challenge, the actor must be prepared to speak. In this way, the voice gains a vital interaction with the expressive senses of the body, and thus we arrive at the term body/voice. It’s a tautology really, because of course the voice issues from the body… how could it not? Perhaps the emphasis is necessary in the contemporary theatre where acting is so influenced by film acting, which favours the face over the body as the tool of expression. The exercises demand that the actor speak with a vocal sense that is appropriate to the physical one, so if the body changes from one gesture to another, the voice will change. Long hours have we spent in our Thursday Group laboratory analysing this point, for example, is it possible for the meaning of the text to vary the vocal expression while the body remains still. How does the voice change the body? Scope here does not allow a real discourse on this, however notions of ‘thinking the thought’ that are common to the western tradition of text interpretation in theatre have parallels here and form interesting avenues of experimentation in our work with the training. My understanding of the Suzuki Training vocal exercises is clouded by my prior and subsequent experiences to working with the company. But Suzuki Tadashi is clear regarding the relation of energy to voice because he notes the relationship between an arc of movement that ends in holding the body still, and the arc of vocal energy that must meet the completion of the idea, which is usually at the end of a sentence. The co-relative in western vocal training might be the advice to carry the thought to the end of the line. So, in our work at The Thursday Group, we have found no contradiction in synthesising Clifford Turner[6] or Cecily Berry[7] et. al. with Suzuki Training.

Truth

Because my own foundational training was in a version of Stanislavsky’s method, like so many, I have judged acting according to whether I consider it is ‘truthful’. The term is obviously quite problematic, especially when speaking not on verifiable facts but on artistic expression. In The Thursday Group’s training, we have often considered the question of ‘truth’ when discussing an actor’s performance, for example when doing The Statues exercise. We shied away from the loaded term ‘truth’ favouring words like ‘rationale’ or ‘logic’, and this was measured on scales of appropriateness between the vocal and the physical expression or the inner life and the external presence. When a person sees a performance, they too may make micro-judgements concerning the ‘truth’ of the acting, which will contribute to an overall assessment of the success of the performance. In western theatre, this judgement is likely made according to the dominant theatrical style which will often be derived from the Strasberg or Adler versions of Stanislavsky. Jones[8] offers three criteria to understand Stanislavski’s central theme of ‘truth’: correspondence, which demands the actor provide a verisimilitude to real life; coherence, in which the actor performs within the stylistic and fictional boundaries of the play; and lastly, the spiritual meaning of life, concerning which Stanislavski said, ‘The fundamental aim of our art is the creation of this inner life of a human spirit, and its expression in an artistic form’.[9] Preceding this statement, Stanislavsky considers the terrible predicament of the actor who must create an inner life from their subconscious intuition, but the moment they apply conscious intent to the task, the subconscious ‘dies’. The first two of Dean’s tenets, correspondence and coherence, are not contradictory to the Suzuki training, and depend as much on the work of the director as the actor. Regarding the third aspect of spiritual life, I think the Suzuki training has much to offer because the life and death attempts the actor makes to meet the extremes of the training provide not fictional by real challenges. The energy that they accrue in their struggles is not imaginary, and often leads to a transcendent state that might equate with the term ‘inner life’. That is, the actor is in touch with an authentic expression of the spirit. An actor that works in psychophysical theatre training will experience this and The Suzuki Method is no exception. I have found that applying it in a wide range of theatre performances assists the creation of authentic performance.

Existence

In rehearsal, the first moment an actor crosses the line from off to onstage, sometimes with script in hand, sometimes with a faint improvisational map, they may feel awkward because they are unsure of the world into which they step and the identity of the person they play. Suzuki training provides the actor with an existence onstage that allows them to wait, act or react as the case demands. The foundational idea of the training is the relation of the actor to the aite as watched by the audience. Bringing the lessons of an attention to the centre to this relationship, the actor carries a resistance in the centre, that is the potential for action controlled by an opposing force to hold still. Suzuki uses the metaphor of a race car at the starting line with the engine on and revving hard but with the brakes applied. The car has much energy but is held still by an opposing force. The field of potential energy that infiltrates the actor-aite relation becomes a stable platform from which the events and expressions of a drama between actors may unfold. Many actors are concerned with their own craft and judge themselves too harshly. In providing the actor with the internal attention to initiate all expression from the centre outwards, with the unswerving demand to focus on the aite, and by inviting the audience to witness the communication between actor and aite, their judgement of self-worth becomes less important. At times, the actor’s anxiety concerning practice can be debilitating. Especially in younger actors, the lingering doubt of their ability in comparison to their mentors and idols has negative effects on confidence, and if left unchecked, may lead to their withdrawal from the craft. In Suzuki training this problem seems less pronounced. All the original exercises are immutable. The actor assesses the appropriate challenge for their age, their weight, how tired they are today and so on. Because they will never achieve the mostly impossible forms of the exercises, they can measure how near or far they are to the mark. This attention to themselves in the context of achieving what becomes a well-known set of problems normalises the ongoing process of self-assessment. Through experience, an actor will become more adept, the distance to the perfection of the form of an exercise will narrow and they must increase the challenge with which they attack. The attempt is the objective. In this way, from the moment the actor starts learning the training they are doing the training, and during the different stages of their career, they will notice new aspects, develop new problems, understand other actors’ approaches and apply the training in ever unfolding ways. In short, they will never stop deepening their understanding. So the search for understanding remains constant whether it is a novice or experienced actor searching and no actor, therefore, has greater value in light of another. The continual challenge to improve does not leave the actor in the performance circumstance, and in striving, the actor’s sense of self may transcend into a sense of the ensemble and into a sense of the play as viewed by the audience.

The ground

The actor’s sense of relation to the aite, the ability to create force and to resist it, the gaining of stability in the centre cannot be achieved without attention to the human relationship with the ground. Suzuki Tadashi’s discussion regarding the domestication of the human body comes to me. In using chairs, we have removed ourselves from the ground. It was the case that if we wished to consider the stars we could lie back on the ground, whereas now we sit in chairs craning our neck. The safe ground of the earth that was the foundation of all movement has been partially lost. Reclining on a chair, our legs dangle almost unused, which means the musculo-skeletal system withers and the body’s sense of itself is reconfigured. The reconfiguration is entrenched, so it has become unacceptable to sit on the floor in many societies. The signs of the human body, its internal personal identity as well as its social and environmental interaction loses an authenticity because it is by lifting and lowering the body that the body first comes to know itself. The artificiality that chairs bestow doesn’t suit the actor’s need to refer to existential questions which are the endpoint of all stage arguments. The sofa drama has become so prevalent that these days, if an actor squats, kneels on what Suzuki would like to be ‘sacred’ stage-boards or exhibits a facility in descending to or rising from the ground, they are congratulated on their abilities in ‘Asian theatre training’ as if there were something specifically cultural in such acts. In remembering the relation with the ground from which we come and to which we return, perhaps the actor makes a kind of subversive cry to the metropolis, a reminder that we are firstly animals and that all socio-cultural identities exist within the wider, undeniable ecology of the earth.

Energy

In his book[10], one tenet of Noh theatre that Suzuki cites is that this Japanese classical theatre tradition, derived from propitiatory folkdance, eschews non-human or ‘inert’ energy. He explains that in the 1960’s, Grotowski in ‘Towards a Poor Theatre[11]‘ and others in Europe led a movement of theatre that focused on the energy of the actor too. This human energetic approach allows the actor to explore the extremities of their instrument. In Suzuki’s theatre, he usually (always?) demands that actors provide as much energy as they can, and more. It’s well that the actor trains with as much potential or kinetic energy as possible because these extremities create the best measures of their performance of the exercises and offer the audience the view of an actor transcending. But perhaps in the application of the training, it is the actor’s choice how much of this energy is expressed. It is here that I diverge from Suzuki’s theatrical aesthetic, because while my own theatre uses these extremes, it also plays on a spectrum of expression. Put another way, I allow the energy to fall within the actor so that not just an in theory one-hundred energy might be seen, but also a ‘zero’. I would therefore say that epic or lyric theatre styles are also facilitated by the training. Actors that retreat from the forwardly pressing relation of the aite are just as vital and display just as much focus. Remembering Suzuki’s discussion in the masterclasses in Toga of 1991 concerning rearwards focal points that must be considered by the actor, I wonder whether there is actually any conflict here, that is, perhaps Suzuki creates this attenuation by means of the direction of energy rather than the quantity of the force?

Mystery

The idea of Yugen[12][13] is used in all forms of Japanese art, and it could be argued Asian art, for example, it’s seen in the white space of Chinese scrolls where material objects fade into the whiteness of an immaterial world. And it is used in the ghost stories of Noh theatre, in which Johakyu[14][15] (for example here[16]) and other techniques help the actor not just to imagine altered states, but also to experience them physiologically by engaging in acts that create challenges of control and resistance in the centre and in maintaining control of the breath and vocal apparatus. This negative, yugen space is something we have experimented with extensively at The Thursday Group, and is one of the ways that variations might be developed. I hope that because concepts of negative space are common throughout the world, the knowing use of the Japanese instance in yugen might not be thought of as cultural appropriation, and its use may extend into the application of training to performance and indeed to theatre making. An excellent discussion of Yugne here[17].

In conclusion… Resilience

That’s already quite enough concerning my interpretations of the Suzuki Method of Actor Training. On a personal note, I will close with the beneficence a regular training regime has offered me. Actors are often left alone in their bedroom to consider what’s next. Theatre is an expensive and difficult craft to practice when so much of theatrical life is ‘freelance’. So even though collaboration is the air that actors breathe, it is often denied them. Aside from performance and leaving the deep philosophical and psychological concerns of surviving in theatre aside to focus on the simple physical presence of actors in the space is liberating, especially when it is done several times a week over many years. In Suzuki training with The Thursday Group therefore, I have found a tool that guards against the precarity of interactive opportunity and a resilience in the development of my craft. Our group maintains the basic forms of the exercises as I learned them all those years ago, and we create variations, or experiment using the first principles of the training as we define them. We also bring other methods such as Grotowski and the examination of ‘impulse’ to bear, and we incorporate vocal training from Clifford Turner. In this way, we create a stable platform on which to build actor practice within the group’s performance development. Sometimes I wonder if I would still be acting, writing and directing in theatre if not for the ability to show up for training, practice and performance development on a regular basis. For that, I thank the Suzuki Company of Toga and its director Suzuki Tadashi.

Bibliography

Barba, Eugenio, and Nicola Savarese. A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology : The Secret Art of the Performer. 2nd ed. Routledge, 2006. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=cat00006a&AN=melb.b3019013&site=eds-live&scope=site&custid=s2775460.

Grotowski, Jerzy, and Eugenio Barba. Towards a Poor Theatre. Methuen, 1969. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=cat00006a&AN=melb.b3356332&site=eds-live&scope=site&custid=s2775460.

J. Clifford Turner. Voice and Speech in the Theatre. London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd, 1966.

Jones, David Richard. ‘Konstantin Stanislavsky and The Seagull: The Paper Stage’. In Great Directors at Work : Stanislavsky, Brecht, Kazan, Brook, 15–77. ACLS Humanities E-Book Series. University of California Press, 1986. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=cat00006a&AN=melb.b6163679&site=eds-live&scope=site&custid=s2775460.

Masakazu, Yamazaki, Zeami, and J. Thomas Rimer. ‘The Aesthetics of Ambiguity:: The Artistic Theories of Zeami’. In On the Art of the No Drama, 158:xxix–xlv. The Major Treatises of Zeami. Princeton University Press, 1984. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvzsmfdp.7.

Motokiyo Zeami. On the Art of Nō Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami. Translated by Yamazaki Masakazu J Thomas Rimer. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Odin, Steve. ‘The Penumbral Shadow: A Whiteheadian Perspective on the Yūgen Style of Art and Literature in Japanese Aesthetics’. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 12, no. 1 (1 March 1985): 63–90.

Stanislavski, Constantin. An Actor Prepares. Florence, UNITED KINGDOM: Taylor & Francis Group, 1948. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unimelb/detail.action?docID=668654.

Suzuki, Tadashi, and Tadashi Suzuki. The Way of Acting : The Theatre Writings of Tadashi Suzuki. 1st ed. Theatre Communications Group, 1986.

‘Voice And The Actor by Cicely Berry’. Accessed 8 March 2021. https://www.penguin.com.au/books/voice-and-the-actor-9780753546925.


[1] Suzuki and Suzuki, The Way of Acting.

[2] 相手:companion, contestant, opponent, focal point

[3] Barba and Savarese, A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology, 236.

[4] ‘Sense’ has a long listing in the OED. Here I mean the rationale or logic of the body, but also the earlier meaning of the word that connects to memory, imagination and soul. Sense relates to a physical communication that is intelligible. Suzuki uses ‘sensibility’ or ‘aesthetic’ in the same context.

[5] onnagata: 女形:is a female impersonation dancer in Kabuki

[6] J. Clifford Turner, Voice and Speech in the Theatre.

[7] ‘Voice And The Actor by Cicely Berry’.

[8] Jones, ‘Konstantin Stanislavsky and The Seagull: The Paper Stage’, 32.

[9] Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, 15.

[10] Suzuki and Suzuki, The Way of Acting, 29.

[11] Grotowski and Barba, Towards a Poor Theatre.

[12] yugen:幽玄用ゆうげん–mysterious profundity, penumbra.

[13] Odin, ‘The Penumbral Shadow’.

[14] Johakyu: 序破急 ‘a modulating style’. ‘Jo: begin in an easy manner; Ha: develop dramatically, Kyu: finish’ rapidly.

[15] Motokiyo Zeami, On the Art of Nō Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami.

[16] Masakazu, Zeami, and Rimer, ‘The Aesthetics of Ambiguity’ p. xliii.

[17] Odin, ‘The Penumbral Shadow’.

Co-Devising Orpheo Machine

Matthew Crosby

After reading my sketch for the play, The Thursday Group has used a co-creative model in developing the psycho-physical performance modes of Orpheo Machine. The development of the performance is firstly a means of practice development and secondly adds to our repertoire of performance-making. The work might be thought of as modules, such as texts, scene-work, choreographic vocabulary; then body-gesture, body-voice, intonation; then mis-en-scene, design, lights, costume; then themes and modes of presentation.

Research including Annette Iggulden’s article ‘Silent Speech’ in which the writer uses ‘spatial script’ to communicate silently, in Orpheo Machine, becomes visual art embedded in the live act of performance – female characters paint glyphs to communicate in the oppressive underworld of ‘The Editor’ (Hades). Iggulden led us to Armando Maggi’s MIT press article (1988), ‘Annihilating the Word, Body as Erasure in the Visions of a Florentine Mystic’ gave us the physical imagery of an aristocratic family’s daughter (who probably suffered schizophrenia), hidden in a monastery, censored, and her trances recorded and interpreted by nuns. Ventriloquising ‘The Word’ of a male divinity became her only voice. This tied with ideas Alana first raised concerning the muse and the poet, between Yuri (Eurydice) and Orpheo. This has become a power dynamic that resonates throughout the whole performance. In the second half of last year we did online improvisations, discussed, researched and showed work to invited audiences. This ‘Orphic’ practice and performance development continues…

Here are some iterations of design sketches

  • Musing the poet: Vygotskian inner thought becomes the improvisational metaphor building the muse’s inspiration for the poet’s poem. Alana’s ideas on an equal voice for both muse and poet have become a central theme. In the blueprint script we use two scenes, first where the muse is disempowered, second where the muse gains power. Examples online Here, in studio Here, and Initial choreographic idea from Rodrigo ‘Octopus’; 2-minute example Here.
  • The Furies ‘Wringing Hands’ dance. 2-minute example Here.
  • Intonation experiments synthesised with Lorna’s ‘Venice’ experiment may become important choreographic vocabulary for The Furies who express the life experience of the dead souls (audience). 2-minute example Here.
  • Use of glyphs: Joshinder led the way with her use of Hindi alphabetical signs and mudras (hand gestures). Tessa and Lorna’s abstract signs remind Yuri (Eurydice) of her former self. 3-minute example from online Here.

In February I introduced a body-gestural prompt using the paintings of Egon Shiele… it’s never too soon to look at Schiele! I think the period around World War 1 in which Europe was engulfed in trauma provoked some extraordinary artistic genres such as Schiele’s that might be useful in creating the mis-en-scene for the Hades of Orpheo Machine. His use of the attitude of the body is often grotesque, sometimes sketched in charcoal, sometimes in colour which suits the desaturation and colour used to express oppression and freedom in Orpheo Machine.

Dear students and teachers, if you would like to open a conversation about devising theatre work, we’re waiting for your call! Just email us. We can set up a visit or something on Zoom, or share some resources for you to play with. As part of The Thursday Group’s Education arm, we are interested in making direct ongoing relationships, so drop us a line 😀

Matthew Crosby, 2021.02.26

Suzuki Training Elements Workshop 2021… Statues

January 2021. Some thoughts on Suzuki Tadashi’s Statues exercise; Matthew Crosby

Alana Hoggart, Eidann Glover, Lorna Mcleod, Kathleen Doyle, Rodrigo Calderón, Matthew Crosby; Photo: Oscar Socias.

The Statues exercise is, as the name suggests, an exercise that explores expression in stillness. If you could imagine running the four-hundred metres just like Kathy Freeman at the Sydney Olympics, arriving at the finish line, standing still speaking classical text, then you may understand something of the sense of the exercise. For the statue must speak from the energy the journey creates. Suzuki Tadashi describes the artist who removes chips from a stone block to reveal the statue’s form and says that for the artist to achieve this, they must envisage the statue before they commence. That is to say that each statue is based on the seed of an idea. In the exercise, the actor moves from squat to statue so quickly that the audience might not see the movement. The actor ‘catches’ their aite[1] in complete stillness. They stand on their toes. The pose renders the seed of their thought which emanates from the centre to all extremities of the body. Like any good sculpture, the overall idea of the artwork can be understood by looking at just one small part (synecdoche). It’s what viewers do; the eye of the beholder wanders between sections of an artwork. They might take steps forward or back, peer at one part or another, squint, raise glasses, read a programme note. If the artwork is successful, with each viewed section, the viewer will understand a cohesion in the parts.

Frederick Leighton, 1888-91, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, NSW Art Gallery, Photo: Matthew Crosby

The description of the choreography of the Statues exercise is simple. Squat with your feet around shoulder width apart; on the cue, the actor rises quickly to a position standing on their toes. As they arrive, the actor catches a relation with the aite, their focal point. The pose expresses the centre’s idea. The actor stands completely still until they receive the cue to return down. Staying still on the toes is work that produces energy. The longer the duration, the more energy accrues, and the more control of body and breath is required. They must isolate the work from the expression. The effect for the audience should be that they see a still actor who appears to be moving.

Suzuki often used the example of Rodin’s sculpture of hands or his The Thinker. In them Suzuki finds the signals of humanity. He demands that actors be not concerned with the small dramas of individuals, the soap opera of this boy meets this girl, but with the weighty concerns of the meaning of existence, the nature and cause of madness, the root of evil, the transcendence in exaltation, the corruption of humanity. Recently, in Eugenio Barba’s collection ‘A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology’[2], I read Grotowski’s ideas concerning force and resistance in impulse, in which he explains that if an impulse moves in one direction it will have an opposite force. The conspiration of these two forces changes the actor’s body into a signal. He goes on to say that this ‘amplification’ of daily life creates energy of space and of time. Energy of space concerns movement, time concerns the compression of that movement beneath the skin: ‘the body is alive, it is doing something which is extremely precise, but the river is flowing in the realm of time’ (p. 237). This seems very close to Zeami and Komparu’s ideas on Jo Ha Kyu[3]that is, an arc of dynamic that ends in a suspended animation (ma[4]). Indeed, given Grotowski starts the examination of Barba with analysis of Noh, I wonder how much of their discussion on energy, movement and time is derived from Noh paradigms? The point is, that in the statues exercise, Suzuki has given us a very easy way to practice this concept of movement within stillness that displays immense energy or ‘amplification’ of the daily life of humanity into what Suzuki often describes not as character but as archetype. This discussion might lead down the track of applications because the moment one speaks of archetype, ideas of protagonist, antagonist, chorus, Greek tragedy, and Shakespeare’s kings and queens arises. We might consider therefore that the training is a method aimed at producing only that kind of theatre.  I’ve heard it said that Suzuki’s training suits Suzuki’s theatre, which uses their home base open-air amphitheatre and employs styles that are at once epic, satirical, subversive and formal. That is obviously true.

My view is that the training can be applied in a variety of ways, and personally, I’ve experimented with it in naturalistic settings (a problematic term given how far we’ve come from Ibsen), such as plays with other actors, who do not employ the training or in television work. In our experiments in The Thursday Group, I think we are yet to find exactly what ‘style’ we use in our theatre. Performing the statues exercise influenced by Grotowski’s impulse work, or as a a platform from which to investigate Lev Vygotky’s concept of the thought completed by the conveyance of the word, perhaps the term psycho-kinetic might be an appropriate descriptor of The Thursday Group’s house-style and their approach to statues. 

The above discussion veers into esoteric considerations that may or may not be relevant at this stage of our workshop. At base, the Statues exercise is a gift for the actor because it provides a vigorous and energetic means to practice internal and external variations of gestural vocabulary. Internally, the actor might simply play with physical (muscular) compression or expansion of the centre from one statue to the next, and upon arrival, discover a fiction that makes sense of their internal feeling and its relationship with the outside world. Conversely, the external position, geometry of foci, relationship with other actors or orientation to the audience might inform the internal sense. Or perhaps the actor  might accelerate into the statue’s still position with some image or Stanislavskian ‘doing word’ in mind, and that would change the sense of the statue’s gesture. Yet again, the actor might employ some vocal tone or pitch as the inspiration for the pose. As part of the progress of the exercise, the actor will notice that their body favours certain positions, familiar gestures, comfortable sensibilities, which is the result of their DNA and their historical socio-cultural identity. In their attention to the vocabulary of their statues, they will recognise habits. In this way, the exercise becomes a tool of self-analysis. In adding the variation to the exercise called ‘Small Changes’ they will develop sequences of fast, sharp movements into stillness, which may be used to generate the beats and choreography of body/voice expression in a speech. As the actor advances in the method, other variations such as one-legged statues, statues with poles, statues eyes-closed, turning statues or moving statues add to the process of experimentation. Ultimately, the exercise becomes a tool for the actor to develop practice, and hopefully to do this in the company of other actors so that impulses for expression can be found not just within the self of the actor but in play with others too.

Matthew Crosby, Rodrigo Calderón, Kathleen Doyle; Photo: Oscar Socias.

In this workshop, we will be able to explore the basic statues exercise and perhaps look at some of the variations. It is also our intention to use it as a springboard for some very brief applications in performance–a kind of show without the tell. Perhaps while you are working on statues, you will start to develop an idea for a performance? The Suzuki training is not a (Japanese) cultural artefact to be mimicked, it is a method that an actor may use to generate their own performance.


[1] aite; 相手; opponent, companion, partner

[2] Barba and Savarese, A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology, 236.

[3] JoHaKyu;序破急 According to Jim Breen’s excellent dictionary: ‘Artistic modulations in traditional Japanese performances; opening, middle and climax (end)’. There are many ways to interpret the idea and it is applied across art-forms in Japan.

[4] Ma; 間 time, pause, space (between), room, gap (and so on!)

some thoughts

by Kathleen Doyle

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.

Just some thoughts…  

The theater of the pandemic or the pandemic of the theater

by Rodrigo Calderón

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.

photo by Oscar Socias

Reflections from focal points

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.’

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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.

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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.

Murder

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.

Waterfall

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.

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Epping

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.

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Impulse

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.

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Open-rehearsal

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.

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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.

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References

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&gt;.

11/02/2017

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.

The Actor´s Practice

by Matthew Crosby

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.

2017

by Matthew Crosby

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.