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Working on Viewpoints with SITI company

I’m in Saratoga Springs, New York for a month’s training with Anne Bogart and her SITI company.  At the core of SITI’s work are two approaches: Viewpoints (an approach first developed by choreographer Mary Overlie and then adapted by Anne Bogart for theatre) and Suzuki (a method of actor training developed by Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki).

Viewpoints was the thing that brought me here and I had little knowledge of Suzuki, which meant that the first Suzuki class at 9.30 on Monday morning came as something of a shock.  We had been told to wear shorts or tight leggings (“So we can see the bend of your knee”) which might have served as a warning.  Suzuki, it turns out, is very different to Viewpoints.  It is a form (in the way that tai chi or ballet are forms), which makes it very different to any western style of actor training.  There is a series of movements to be learnt, and the whole approach is designed to create a sense of control over the body, built from the centre.  It is physically demanding and highly disciplined, not unlike a martial art.  Viewpoints is much more freeform, and what is fascinating is starting to understand how these two quite different approaches to performing work together.  The schedule is this: in the morning we do two 90 minute classes, one in Suzuki, one in Viewpoints, alternating daily which is first.  In the afternoon we do related classes – dramaturgy, speaking, movement and composition.  For the last two days of each week we do two Suzuki and two Viewpoints classes each day.  Today is the end of the first week and its fair to say there’s quite a mix of physical exhaustion and physical exhilaration at play.  The exhaustion comes from the sheer effort of learning a new discipline, the exhilaration from the accumulation of this effort over a week.

In the first week we have learnt the first two parts of the Suzuki form – Basic no. 1 and Basic no. 2.  No 1 is a sideways movement, no 2 is a forward movement.  In both of them there is a sequence that involves weight shifts and controlling the body so that you don’t fall over.  Different members of the SITI company have taught each day and it’s been fascinating hearing their slightly different takes on the form.  Yesterday, Leon (a big bear of a man with an imposing presence and a beautiful lightness) said that the point of learning Suzuki was not to be the best at Suzuki but to develop an understanding and control of your body in order to be able to perform to the best of your ability.  Today, Bondo focused on the separation of the elements – in one exercise we were pausing the sequence to recite a speech from The Cherry Orchard (Ranyevskaya’s “Oh my childhood, my innocent childhood” from Act I) and he emphasised the need to separate the elements: first finish the movement (which also involves taking the breath for the line), then making the gestural action (in this case a movement of the arm) before speaking – each element separated cleanly so there is no bleed from one to the other.

In the morning class on Friday, Stephen made a really helpful analogy for working with the Viewpoints.  He suggested thinking of them as a horizontal plane, with all of the elements at play at any one time, but that at different times we could turn the volume up on one of them to examine its effect.  In Bogart’s version there are nine Viewpoints, divided into two groups – Time and Space.  The viewpoints of time are duration, speed, kinaesthetic response and repetition; the viewpoints of space are shape, gesture, spatial relationship, architecture and topography.  As is frequently pointed out, the viewpoints have always been there and have always been used, this system is merely a way of codifying them in order to use them more effectively.  What is important is that Viewpoints is post-modern in structure so there is no hierarchy – all the viewpoints are of equal importance (hence Stephen’s image of the horizontal plane).

Over the weekend we are all busy with our first composition assignment.  In groups of 4 we are creating 10 minute site-specific compositions using texts from a number of plays by Charles Mee (a regular collaborator with SITI) and a number of given elements that must be included (a slap, a kiss, 3 movement sequences).  For me this means an unusual discipline – learning lines, something I have not needed to do since I was a student.  I’m enjoying the structure this imposes and it emphasises to me the muscular nature of the brain – the act of learning makes further learning easier, much like lifting weights (or practising Suzuki some to that). 
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SITI week 2

The train ride from New York city to Saratoga Springs is a beautiful journey up the Hudson valley towards the Adirondack mountains.  The place names are evocative: Yonkers - birthplace of Ella Fitzgerald,  Schenectady - where Edison founded the General Electric Company, and Poughkeepsie, which is probably also famous for something but just has a great name as far as I’m concerned.  Saratoga is in the middle of a wide plain and I can see trees for miles from my room.  The other day I had a Walden moment when I saw a beautiful light brown hawk circling over a clearing in the trees.  It floated about while I watched it, not quite with the joy of just being there that Thoreau observed, but a beautiful sight none the less.  There were obviously no pickings for it so it flapped elegantly away after a while making me feel very earthbound (even on the 7th floor).

In the work with SITI, we’ve been moved up a gear this week.  Further parts of the Suzuki form have been taught to us – Kelly, one of the core SITI members, made a very important point to us on Friday afternoon when she reminded us that the purpose of the Suzuki method is not to master the form, because you never can.  The important thing is the discipline you derive from the effort  to master it, as well as the skills with which it equips you, such as a clarity of focus on stage. 

On Wednesday evening Leon and Ellen gave a talk on the origins of both Suzuki and Viewpoints and how the SITI company came to work with the two approaches.  Suzuki had begin training his actors during the 1960s, developing the form from a variety of sources, including Kendo, Katakali, Flamenco and Sumoh as well as the Japanese theatre styles of Noh, Kabuki and Butoh.  During the late ‘70s he began training other actors in the method, including a group from America that would form the ore of the SITI company in the early 1990s.  During the 80s Anne Bogart happened to work with some of these actors and couldn’t help noticing how much less they moved their feet than other actors.  Intrigued by this, she asked them why and was introduced to Suzuki.  At the same time, Anne had been developing her own version of Mary Overlie’s Six Viewpoints as a means of quickly building an ensemble when she was working on productions at theatres around the States.  As she worked with the Suzuki actors she began to realise that these two seemingly opposite approaches were very complimentary.

This week in Viewpoints we’ve been doing quite a lot of open viewpoints, which is an improvisation in the space using all the viewpoints.  This is quite heady stuff as you get to know the group you’re working with and start to discover the risks you can take moving about a space – sometimes at high speed – while maintaining a connection with everyone else in the space.  One of the viewpoints is Kinesthetic Response – which is about how you decide “when” (when to move, for instance, or be still, turn, look, or when to speak etc) – like all the viewpoints it can only operate in conjunction with the others (such as duration – how long you might move for  - or tempo – how fast you might move).  Kinesthetic Response is quite a “back brain” action – you allow yourself to move almost instinctively in response to an external stimulus, rather than with a thought-through motivation.  The purest, or maybe most minimal, exercise is Flow.  In Flow you have only 5 pieces of vocabulary: stopping, moving through gaps, turning, following, changing tempo.  When it works, it is an incredible feeling – as if you are connected to everyone else who’s up there with you.

This morning, while researching some things for our composition assignment (each week we make a short performance piece in small groups) I found a clip of Pina Bausch dancing to the aria “When I am Dead and Laid in Earth” from Dido and Aeneas in her piece Café Muller (you can watch it here).  I’d seen this a couple of months ago in Wim Wenders’ film Pina and had been affected by the story she told about it.  When she came to revive the piece for the first time she couldn’t work out why it didn’t feel right, and then she realised that, even though her eyes were closed throughout, where she looked was essential to how she performed it.  The first time she did it, she always looked down but the second time she’d been doing it without paying attention to where she looked.  At the time I remember thinking that the lesson here is “no detail is too small to ignore”.

Now I have to go and learn some lines.
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The sound of silence

Most people will have heard by now about the campaign to get John Cage’s 4’33” to be the Christmas no.1 single ahead of the X Factor winner.  Last year a similar campaign managed to unsettle Simon Cowell’s plans by getting an old track by Rage Against the Machine to the Christmas top spot and this year’s campaign has honoured this by calling itself Cage Against the Machine.  As a friend of mine tweeted yesterday “we have to make this happen, it’ll be the best thing ever!” and I share his enthusiasm for a number of reasons. First of all, what on earth will they do on the chart countdown?  Radio silence is anathema to broadcasters as it means that anyone who turns on during it will re-tune on the assumption that the station is down.  Secondly, I share a dislike for Simon Cowell’s apparent mechanisation of the music process – popular music has of course always been susceptible to a purely business-led approach (and the results have sometimes been great) - but I get the feeling that he does music because that’s where he sees the greatest financial returns are possible rather than because he feels any great need to produce great music.   It seems that it could just as well be films, widgets or software if any of those thing had the same potential for cross-market selling.

But the main reason is that it’ll bring an iconic and very important work of art into the mainstream.  Conceptually, 4’33” is as important as Duchamp’s Fountain, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in its gamechanging importance.  Like all of those works of art, Cage’s piece changed the way people thought about art; similarly it attracted criticism along the lines of “I could have done that”.  To which the obvious response is “well maybe you could have done, but you didn’t”.  4’33” can initially appear rather crass, but like all great art, the strength of both the idea that underpins it and its execution shine through.  Before Cage wrote “Tacet” and nothing more on a piece of manuscript paper, silence had been a punctuation – the thing around which music was formed – but Cage’s brilliant idea was to show us that there is actually no such thing as silence, only less noise.  If you sit for 4’33” and listen you discover that the world is full of sound, but we rarely give ourselves the opportunity to really listen to it.

In a sense, 4’33” has finally come of age – we are now so surrounded by activity that the opportunity to just stop and take time (even if it is less than 5 minutes) to just be is a gift in itself.  For that alone, Cage deserves this unusual accolade.

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How far is too far?

I went to see Tim Crouch’s The Author today at the Traverse.  I had already read the play so was aware of what the play was about (and I shall do my best not to give anything away for anyone who hasn’t seen it), but I was still surprised at the sheer discomfort of watching it.  To say that the performance unsettles the audience is an understatement – one person left after 5 minutes and there was a steady flow throughout, with a mass emigration in the last five minutes (including one man who left singing “Some day my prince will come”) – but this is clearly a calculated risk and something that is, paradoxically, important to the production.  I talked briefly with Tim afterwards and he said that this was the largest number of walk-outs they’d had, but that there were always some and that during one performance in London he was threatened with physical violence. 

So what is it that has this effect?  I was certainly discomfited by the performance, but I knew I was in a theatre watching a show and I knew that the character Tim Crouch was playing – who is also called Tim Crouch – was not the same as the ‘real’ Tim Crouch.  To some extent, I think it is the identification of the audience as a character and the complicity that this carries.  Some people want to sit in the dark and have the actors behave as if they’re not being watched.  This is, of course, a relatively recent phenomenon dating back no further than the 19th century when Richard Wagner decided to turn the houselights out at Bayreuth.  Before this the audience were very much part of the show (literally in some cases as seats would sometimes be on the stage itself).  Tim Crouch takes this a stage further and actively seeks out the audience’s approval throughout the performance - “Is this OK?”, “Shall I carry on?” he and the other actors ask of us regularly.  As I mentioned before, he blurs the lines further by playing a character called Tim Crouch, an award-winning playwright with a play on at the Royal Court (where this production originated), all the actors play characters with the same names and the character Tim’s fictional wife has the same name as the real Tim’s.  So far so Paul Auster, but Crouch not only makes his character morally dubious, he also avoids the common actor’s trick of trying to make his character likeable.  His character makes no attempt to defend what he has done, he presents it to us in order that we might form our own opinion.  In doing this, he makes the audience in some way complicit and I think this is an incredibly brave thing to do.  In many ways, the performance needs at least some people to walk out because this acknowledges the way it empowers the audience.  Yet this act of empowerment is easily mistaken – one critic from a smart Sunday paper gloriously misunderstood the central motif of Tim’s earlier play An Oak Tree as narcissism rather than recognising that it was the very opposite.  (In An Oak Tree the second actor is played by someone new every night, they knew nothing about the play in advance and only met Tim shortly before the performance starts – during the performance they are given lines to read, or fed them through an ear piece.  The critic in question mistook this for narcissistic control rather than recognising the surrender to chance.)

But this is what happens when people operate on the borders, they leave themselves open to misinterpretation, but thank goodness for Tim Crouch – we need people like him to ask questions and make us feel uncomfortable.  Did I enjoy The Author?  I don’t think I could say that, but would I recommend it to others?  Absolutely.

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Come on in, the water’s lovely

I’ve just spent a few days at Informal European Theatre Meeting (IETM) in Glasgow and it was a good opportunity to see work and chat with other theatre people from Europe and further afield.


From the work on show (which was all from Scotland) it was clear that so-called “immersive” theatre has become a big part of theatre making.  Immersive theatre, like many names coined for particular performance styles, is a rather misleading title – like “physical theatre”, which seems to imply that nobody moves around in other plays – isn’t all good theatre immersive in the sense that it draws you right into its world?  Anyway, whether you like the name or not, immersive theatre has become very big news in the last few years as companies like Grid Iron in Scotland and Punch Drunk in England have created work in non-theatre spaces that brings the audience into very close proximity with the performance, often blurring the lines between the two.  “But haven’t people been doing that for years? Isn’t that audience interaction and site-specific theatre with a new name?” you may say, and you’d be pretty much correct.  There is, of course, rarely anything genuinely new – someone, somewhere has always done it before and there is a very interesting new book about this which I shall write about at a later date.


The point is, though, that recent immersive theatre has tended to take this to more extreme ends than perhaps people had done previously (though read Charlotte Higgins’s article here about how quickly the shock of the new can fade).  I went to several performances at IETM and only one of them took place in a theatre, and even that wasn’t originally built as a theatre but as a railway arch under Central Station. 


Because immersive theatre has become rather voguish it means there is a variation in the skill with which it is executed (again, see Charlotte Higgins), but I saw (or rather took part in) a beautiful, moving and thought-provoking performance in a flat in Sauchiehall Street that exemplified the best of immersive theatre.  The small audience (about 12 or 14) knocked on the door and were ushered into a living room in which enough sofas and armchairs had been crammed around the walls to seat us all.  Our host, Adrienne, welcomed us warmly, asked our names and sat us down, offering teas and coffees.  Adrienne is the alter-ego of Adrian Howells, a pioneer of “confessional theatre” and she chatted to us about what was going to happen over the next two hours (and I have never felt two hours pass so quickly).  The structure of “An Audience with Adrienne” is deceptively simple and cleverly hides a good deal of thought about how the performance works – the audience is given a laminated café menu with the name of dishes substituted by alluring story titles like “Charles Bronson’s Weeping Wounds” and “Sad Songs”.  All of the stories are episodes from Adrian’s life, and he invites the audience to share their own stories as well, though with no pressure to do so.  At three points, Adrienne plays short films of interviews with Adrian’s parents and friends while she changes into new clothes.  In the middle we all do some creative group work when we decorate paper plates in small groups.


Apart from the subtle skill with which the evening is constructed (subtle in the sense that the audience is not really aware of the structure), there is a wonderful sense of community created within the audience and a number of surprising and touching moments.  After telling the Sad Songs story, Adrienne asks permission to sing a song for us, and with a can of hairspray as a microphone sings Seasons in the Sun.  Now, this is one of the worst, most sentimental songs I can remember from my childhood, with its tawdry story and sing-along chorus, and it has never previously made me feel anything but the boke.  Here, though, it suddenly became quite moving – not that the song was any better, but delivered with genuine feeling and a sense that this song was important, it created a moment of connection between everyone in the room.   


So, is immersive theatre the thing that’s going to revitalise theatre?  Not as whole, because like any form, there are good and bad examples of it around.  What will keep theatre alive is a sense of adventure among theatre-makers and audiences and an understanding that finding the right medium for the story is the essential – Adrian Howells understand this, and the intimate setting he chose for An Audience was perfect, but there are other examples where a play has been shoehorned into an immersive setting because it is the current big thing rather than a necessity for the show.  Plays in theatres and plays in unusual locations will continue alongside each other because theatre succeeds or fails by the quality of the performances and the ideas contained within rather than where it takes place.

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