I am forming plans for the year ahead on the unsettled theatrical ground of 2023. So, this blog is an open letter to my collaborators and to web-eavesdroppers that reflects and initiates. In outline, I will remember my February-onwards continuation of actions that removed our work from the presentational forms of Suzuki training to actors inter-facing and co-tactile floor-work. Following came categorisations of ‘impulse’, my development of call-and-response études, and our use of touch improvisations bridging to co-devising our current performance-project, Falling Heads. Crucial were Tessa Marie Luminati's pursuit of image-work, our canon chorus intonations and the rich dialogue that brought personal experience to research and floor-work. So, the purpose here is to lay out my thoughts on the next steps as they arise from the last. The reflections and plans here are in response to my deeper question as to how I may develop my skills in facilitating the collective creation of practice and performance-making in The Thursday Group.
Defining boundaries for Suzuki Training is a risky business because the caveats might overwhelm the pronouncements. However, in teaching and directing I have come to desire a use of the first principles of the training within what I see as the usual presentational form of address that leaves actors rarely seeing or touching each other. So, at the beginning of 2023, I established improvisations where actors turned inwards and where touching was an objective. We brought the energies produced by the attention and resistance work in Suzuki Training to improvisations of tactile push and pull. Initially with two performers, I asked ‘Orange’ to make an offer, and ‘Lemon’ to respond. The offer: Orange rises from the floor on an impulse extending a hand for Lemon. The response: Lemon recognises the aesthetic of Orange’s offer and responds by touching Orange's hand. There are other possibilities—broadly, the quality of the exchange could be described as an offer of affection or offence, the response one of attraction or repulsion.
In building the tools to achieve the act of ‘offering’, it was Damon Branecki’s question of ‘impulse’ that led us to consider the possible categories of the term. They were firstly, the seed of an idea that is breathed in and its expression through word or gesture. This category followed a two-year theoretical and practical examination of Lev Vygotsky’s idea that the formation of a thought is completed in its social expression. Another way to consider impulse is as arising from some visual picture that an actor summons, either from affect, memory or from some research process, for example, of responding to visual art. We had done experiments with this in our Michael Chekhov explorations of his notion of ‘atmosphere’ when I asked actors if their painting conveyed warm or cold colours, was set indoors or out, whether windy or still, whether night or day and so on. Yet another impulse category was that which was received from external stimuli, either from the circumstance of the space, such as a noise or change in light, or from the action of another performer.
I suppose the Orange and Lemon touch sets I defined arose from practice and dialogue on our individual impulse work and the categories we defined. Rather than individualised impulse actions that spoke to some imagined frontal interlocuter, I wanted actors to respond to each other’s impulses—I hoped our improvisations would enact actual events that sequenced. We formalised Orange and Lemon’s offer and response in the touch exercises with the labels: offer | recognise | respond | experience | separate. At first, we tried to isolate these touch sets, Then, as we grew familiar with the process, one touch set built on another. For example, in joining one set with the next, we reversed the roles. This required Orange and Lemon to translate the experience of the last set as an impulse for the next. This series of improvisations continued throughout the year and has become the basis for the nuanced violence expressed in the action of one soldier harming another in our co-devising performance project, Falling Heads, discussed below.
One parallel exploration that has changed the direction of our practice has been Tessa’s persistent use of image in achieving the form and attack in Suzuki études and bringing those techniques to performance creation. Her provocations have led us to articulate the essential images such as the embodiment of denser-than-air mediums such as Tessa’s use of honey, or mud in contrast with complex images such as Angelique Zhou’s planks laid across frozen ice. Another was the use of multiple shadows that moved in sync with the actor's body. These examples seem to create context or atmosphere, whereas images that require actors to impersonate, such as Damon Branecki offering that we be a polar bear swimming through icy water presented a different set of problems and manifestations. In Suzuki Training, an actor attends to precise physical form, breath, extreme attack with calm expression and the maintenance of a stable relation between inner life and external expression. A simultaneous attention to all these necessary points in Suzuki Training is difficult—even once they are so familiar that an embodied ‘unconscious’ execution can be done. It seems that image-work allows the attention a freer synthesis.
After a great deal of work on impulse, call-and-response, touch and image-work, the practice became embedded in Falling Heads. We riffed dialogue from Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s 1917, ‘The Story of a Head that Fell Off’ in which a soldier gets a second chance after his head is cut off in battle and cries “I’m cut I’m cut”. Our ‘I’m cut’ improvisations built on Orange and Lemon’s touch sets by making the offer an act of war and the response an injury. Towards our December open rehearsals, Taka Takiguchi cautioned my attempt to direct a dynamic arc for the battle scene. He preferred the organic rhythms built over months of work on our touch sets. Rather than serving an external direction that aimed for an imagined aesthetic, our offer-and-response seemed to spark real communication of information and vital exchanges of energy between actors. Returning to the touchstone of our interactive practice seemed to create more vital and surprising dynamic arcs. For example, Damon noticed that at times, Lemon seemed to invite an injury, even control Orange’s arm as it enacted harm. These inversions perhaps followed some difficult discussion explained in the following.
Dramaturgically and personally, given the current belligerent actions seen around the world, it has at times been difficult to respond to Akutagawa’s 1917 story set during the first Sino-Japanese war of 1895. The notion of a head being cut off has been seen as following the debate between mind-body dualities per René Descartes often seen in contrast to Merleau-Ponty’s embodied perceptual phenomenology, that for example, Sara Heinämaa has discussed. A series of discussions arising from this explored notions of addiction seen as body defying the intellect, as divided self, as self-harm, or as house against house. We experimented with two actors portraying the divided self, we researched, and told stories from first or second-hand experience.
Regarding my own question as to how I may develop my skills as a co-devising facilitator, I see a separation of roles as necessary. Without mentioning time spent by others of which I was unaware, at times, my reading of Descartes and Merleau-Ponty, the research of the Sino-Japanese war, the drafting of possible études for practice so that I could direct plans of action were time-consuming and intricate. Reflecting now, I think the best facilitation occurred not in offering research holus bolus, rather when I was able partly to divorce my dramaturgical processes from my directorial. That is, conveying ideas and plans succinctly allowed those who would need to take the floor the room to verbalise, argue and formulate the conceptual basis of their improvisation by themselves. For example, Alexandra Moon conceived of a personified duality around the notion of addiction. This duality was based on the body’s desire and the mind’s control. It was a duality that was seen as overlapping because either pole of body/mind might desire or control. This provided rich content for touch sets. Discussions on inner wars, self-harm, Thomas Mann’s Indian-mythology-inspired Severed Heads that questions whether head or body rules identity all followed. With the frameworks of impulse, touch-sets, these research-initiated discussions seemed to invoke self-authoring easily; I felt the group was co-devising with a particular identity—more than the sum of its parts.
Around mid-year Angelique Zhou asked a question regarding focal points when performing in-the-round that led me to arrange the performance of Falling Heads in a ‘thrust’ format. In Suzuki Training we always imagine a focal point that forms a line of attention between inner life and external expression—this focal point, called the aite (opponent, partner) is positioned at a point beyond the audience. Angelique's question considered this relationship in different audience-actor geographic relationships. So, I positioned twenty chairs on three sides with the wall completing a rectangle. This allowed for both presentation upstage and audience-surround configurations downstage. Angelique’s question and the change to the physical arrangement of our space has radically changed our practice and performance-making because it is a confirmation of the move from purely presentational modes to a combination of presentation and interfacing relation.
Working backwards from performance-making to practice training, we designed some army marching études. Parts of Suzuki Training, such as the Moving Statues exercise, are derived from choreography in the Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT) performances. Understanding this, the group has created chorus set pieces that are incorporated as processional training, in the form of walks or marches. They are often combined with a chorus text or intonation. Because Falling Heads concerns the invasion and colonisation of the land of the Wild Boars by the army of the Sunflowers, it became necessary for us to create army regiments forming up and moving. I asked all members to create a march, and Tessa selected and eventually choregraphed unique chorus marches that used Suzuki resistance techniques to create energy. I have seen this energy used to portray the controlled yet violent madness of a murderer by Suzuki and wanted the same in our portrayal of war.
One other extraordinary line of exploration has been our chorus intonation work. For some years we have experimented with what we have called ‘pre-language’ expression, for example in Statues work. That developed into intonational canon chorus explorations that were used in our 2019 production of my play, The Intriguing Case of the Silent Forest. Towards the end of 2023, the group started to develop these vocal improvisations, and it was Alexandra who introduced us to the operatic improvisations of Meredith Monk. Explicit development of this process occurred when we included percussive rhythms such as by clapping, by Tessa’s creation of vocal dynamic that explicitly leaned away from the musical to the impulsive, and by my encouragement of all members to initiate modal changes.
With the January workshop and rehearsals for Falling Heads approaching, I am therefore attempting to consider what the next steps might be for our group and for my processes of facilitation. While I see it as important to convey the exercises of Suzuki Training with a precise attention to their form and in relation to the first principles, increasingly I acknowledge the development of this practice by my collaborators. Therefore, Tessa co-designs and co-facilitates the workshop. Therefore, in making Falling Heads, though I sequence and read work from the outside, all members write their own text and suggest extensions and variations.
However, considering the notion of ‘leadership’, I must also acknowledge that it is I that writes this analysis. It is one sign that for now, I should continue to make decisions as to the general direction of our group’s practice and to the construction of our performance-making. Therefore, I wish to confirm the nexus between our foundational Suzuki Training études, our synthesis of that with image and touch improvisation and our dramaturgical exploration of the notion of war and the divided self as it pertains to Akutagawa’s short story. I do so because I want more of the energetic sculptural forms that Suzuki Training can provide. Secondly, where in the past our canon chorus intonations have been done as a separate étude, I wish to synthesise them with other parts of our training as a means for them to be interpolated in our performance-making. Finally, I see the friction that Grotowski discusses between artificial and organic actions appeared in the exchange between my external demand for dynamic arc and Taka’s argument for organic connection. It presents an opportunity for the group to develop an attention to composition side-by-side with their organic actions.
The ongoing exploration, dialogue, research and experiment with practice as a means of building technique and performance is so very enriching for me as an artist. The last year offers momentum for the coming play.
 Ryunosuke Akutagawa, ‘The Story of a Head That Fell Off’, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, Japan Focus, 5, no. 8 (1 August 2007), https://apjjf.org/-Akutagawa-Ryunosuke/2489/article.html.
 Sara Heinämaa, ‘Merleau-Ponty’s Dialogue with Descartes: The Living Body and Its Position in Metaphysics’, n.d.
 Thomas` Mann, The Transposed Heads, accessed 8 January 2024, https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/107313/the-transposed-heads-by-thomas-mann/.
 ‘Meredith Monk’, accessed 8 January 2024, https://www.meredithmonk.org/about/biography/.
 James Slowiak and Jairo Cuesta, ‘2 Grotowski’s Key Writings’, in Jerzy Grotowski (Florence, UNITED STATES: Routledge, 2007), 57, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unimelb/detail.action?docID=292746.