Orpheo Machine

A co-creative development process at The Thursday Group

The Cast

Orpheo: Rodrigo Calderón, Ru (Psyche): Joshinder Kaur Chagger, Ed (The Editor): Matthew Crosby, Death (Thanatos): Kathleen Doyle, Yuri (Euridice): Alana Hoggart, Shea (Charon): Tessa-Marie Luminati and Perse (Persephone): Lorna McLeod.

Considering Orpheo Machine

2020.08.26 improvisation

Link to 5-min cut

Link to 20-min complete

After The Thursday Group production of my play The Intriguing Case of the Silent Forest in 2019, I wanted to change the way Thursday Group worked. Silent Forest followed the traditional format where a writer-director authored. Of course, in the context of a theatre group, an iterative process of training, improvisation, scene-work ‘combed’ through script-drafting is common. Though I was the writer, Silent Forest could not have evolved without group interactions. But ultimately, Thursday Group actors learned and interpreted dialogue I wrote, they performed within a mis-en-scene that predominantly I created. So after the season, late 2019, I proposed a co-creative model that led us to this moment, and to Orpheo Machine. It was actually Alana Hoggart’s solo film for Exercise 3 in which we played with thesaurus encoding for performance-making that inspired the Orpheo and Yuri (Eurydice) idea. It set me thinking on the story of that poet, who tries to recover his love from the underworld. At first, I considered an outdoor performance that used the key moments in the story as generative choreographic ideas. Like ‘descent’, ‘passage’, ‘meeting’, ‘approval’, ‘return’ ‘turning back’. Then the New Corona Virus hit us, and The Thursday Group practice moved indoors and online. 

As a part of practice development, other disciplines and other research is brought to our foundational Suzuki Method Actor Training. One way to think of it is that we form organic nodes between the base training and other forms. For Silent Forest we brought Theatre of 13 Rows (Jerzy Grotowski) ideas of impulse. Our experiments with intonation became an important vocabulary in the performance. Currently we are developing Clifford Turner vocal practice. Since the start of this year, my central study has concerned the work of early twentieth century Russian developmental researcher Lev Vygotsky. In his book ‘Thought and Language’, he analyses the relationship between a thought and a word. It is his thesis that a thought is completed by communicating it. The idea seemed to suit what actors do, and I was confirmed in this when I discovered that Vygotsky was a theatre critic and aficionado of the ‘new’ theatre techniques developed by Moscow Art Theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski. In fact, in the final chapter of Vygotsky’s book, he demonstrates how the meaning and intent, or the ‘sense’ of a word is changed by subtextual meanings, the intent behind the words. Vygotsky’s demonstration uses the actor-director notes from one of Stanislavski’s play-scripts. In our online sessions, Exercises 3 – 6, my prompts attempt to trace this communication of thought by word or gesture, and in Exercise 7, for the first time, we bring those practice-development exercises into the service of developing performative material for the online ‘Virtual Theatre’ open-rehearsal of Orpheo Machine.

What you see here, either in the 5-minute cut-down, or in the ‘complete’ cut, is the second improvisation the group did following my prompt set within the framework of the online Orpheo Machine. That is, Orpheo is imprisoned in an online cell and must deliver a poem to the Editor. As our blurb states: ” Imprisoned within a digital dystopia, Orpheo and Yuri must both find a equal voiced poetry.” That is to say, the truth of a balanced expression between Orpheo and Yuri smashes the mirrored screens of their oppressor. The conception of Orpheo as the heroic poet and Yuri as the muse was mediated by Hoggart’s provocation that Yuri must be given a voice.

So, in these films of improvisation, there were just some simple prompts for the actors that are probably interpreted differently between male and female characters because of the different status that seems to be emerging within the online ‘cells’. That is, the women communicate (in speech, tone or gesture) to Orpheo; Orpheo speaks and receives his ‘muse’. The Editor (me) listens and communicates via chat. I asked the actors to enter mumbling, as Vygotsky describes a 3-6-year old child who speaks ‘egocentrically’, mouthing words that are not communicated, words that omit sentence subjects because these are obvious to the speaker. To explain, Vygotsky supposed that it is this ‘egocentric’ speech that becomes what we know as ‘internal speech’… the voice inside our head. My intention is to make our online world a place where internal speech is shared, as if we are reading each other’s thoughts. When a desire becomes so painful its thought must be expressed, the actor rushes to the camera, switches on and speaks in a ‘predicate’ language of internal speech. That is to say, drop ‘I’ ‘you’ and so on, because it’s understood. This basic setting was varied by the position of each (female) character in relation to Orpheo and to the Editor. In improvising, I have noticed that functional positions are developing between the four women, Yuri, Pers (Persephone), Shea (Charon) and Ru (Psyche). To me it is interesting that everyone is able to interpret the research prompt, discover the Orpheo Machine world and build functional character position as the improvisation unfolds. Further, that each actor is very clearly attending to the compositional requirements of performance, such as rhythm and dynamic created not just with the usual actorly tools, but also with our inclusion of the digital technology within the fiction.

Drop me a line with any observations you might have.

Matthew Crosby 2020.09.01.

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