On Monday morning, the first morning of the workshop, I woke up at 5.30am, and used some of that to revise my propositions, then we were driven to the space to start work at 10am. We were welcomed and then pretty much immediately divided into two groups of something like 18-20 people in each group. I was assigned to the downstairs team, which is led by Mario Biagini. The upstairs team is led by Thomas Richards. Mario and Thomas were both students of Grotowski and have worked together for at least 25 years. They were both ‘bequeathed’ the work, the practice, by Grotowski, but each of them works separately and quite independently with their respective teams.
The downstairs team is known as the Open Program. In the group of ten performers in Mario’s team there were five woman and five men, and they came from Brazil, France, Argentina, Poland, North America and Italy. Amongst the participants there were people from Italy, Great Britain, North America, Poland, Australia, Columbia, Canada, France, Belgium, Russia, and Brazil.
The upstairs team is known as the focused Research Team in Art as Vehicle.
We didn’t have all that much to do with the other team, just a couple of group singing sessions and they gave a performance in the second week of the intensive, but from what I saw I was definitely in the right group.
(I had a joke with one of the other participants that Thomas and his upstairs team and their work seemed to me to be a little more Apollonian: more cerebral, pure, aesthetic, refined. Whereas Mario, his team and their work appeared to me to be more Dionysian: more grounded, more earthy, more relaxed, more in the body, more connected somehow to the real world...not entirely so, but there's something in it...)
The work over the two weeks was:
~ presenting our individual propositions and then working on them at home and with members of our team.
~ group singing
~ physical work: motions and other exercises
What did I find out?
(I have to apologise and give a bit of context here which is that I am doing the Solo Artists residency at VU so in the first six months of this year, which is twenty years since I graduated from the Drama Centre, has been a time where I have taken time out and the over-riding quest of my residency has been an investigation into what it is that I do: that is questions like what I have been doing over the past twenty years of professional practice, what my strengths and weaknesses are as a performer, how to attain mastery, what it is to have mastery, why do I want mastery, and where it is that I want to go in the next five, ten and twenty years of my practice?)
So, some of the things I found out or was focussing on finding out, have been very personal and practice-based rather than skills based.
a) Song ~ I have discovered a new pathway through song. I have discovered that I can sing, and that the fact that my voice hasn’t been shaped too much by any given style and that is a good thing. That a new line of enquiry in general in relation to song has been opened up in my work
b) a new line of enquiry into the forbidden
c) 'How to do?' This is a great question.
d) that I know how to work, and that I do work . And that I am a performer, that this time is not about starting a new direction. I actually didn’t think it was, but it was good to really know that it really is not.
e) That my instincts are good and that I can trust them (early strands of things coming in ie formalism)
f) That the tradition in which I trained is still alive and well and it was a great pleasure meeting people who are working in that way.
g) A re-embracing of detail
After we were divided into the two groups (upstairs and downstairs) they told us we would start with singing and that we should put on our clothes for singing, which are a nice skirt and top or dress for the women and nice pants and shirt for the men. I mention this because this was a specific thing, simple on the one hand and yet quite complex. I think it had to do with wanting a certain formality, a certain gravitas, in the approach to the group singing practice; to do with an embracing and perhaps even codification of gender roles; and to do with training the actor to have an awareness of the way in which different clothes affect the way the body physically works in space, and also how it works imaginatively and emotionally. Similarly for the physical practice we work in black bathers. More about that later.
So then we started with group singing. Mario did not really explain all that much, he just said to place ourselves in the space and to listen to the music and to the singing and to move and sing in relation to what was going on. For the group singing Mario’s group predominantly use African American spirituals.
The group singing was great for me. I found it easy enough to pick up the songs, which are mostly call and response, and for me the working in the space physically with each other and the music, listening, responding, working in that total way felt very like working with the impulse work we do with Leisa but with the added element of music, of song. Another layer. Yes, a huge layer, but really for me the process was not so very different. I also loved the songs, and at times found them extremely moving, and I also found it a useful and interesting way to encounter the other members of the group, to understand a little more about them. Most days we started the day with group singing and ended the day with group singing. It kind of opened and closed the days, which I loved.
So, for my first proposition, the text from Caryl Churchill, being more familiar territory for me, I was reasonably clear about what I wanted to work on and why. I did not work on it hard enough before the workshop, according to my own judgement, but nevertheless I was satisfied that I had a path to follow, and was very interested to see what would happen to this piece during the course of the workshop. The second proposition, that regarding the song, was much less familiar territory for me, and as a consequence, was much less clear. I understood the exercise intellectually to a certain extent, but myself in the exercise, not really at all.
For the text I chose to work on one part of ‘Seven Jewish Children’ by Caryl Churchill. I chose this text because it is beautifully written; because I love and trust Caryl Churchill as a writer; because this play is overtly political and I have been exploring what it is to be political in the theatre this year; because I have a fascination with the wall that is still under construction in Jerusalem; because the Australian government has erected a virtual wall around our country through ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ and in their current policies and behaviour toward refugees and asylum seekers and because the text deals with these ideas.
So, I did my presentation on the first day of the workshop. For this first round of propositions, Mario gave feedback straight away. This was good, because even though I was early in the order (third!) I had already had a chance to see two other propositions AND to hear Mario’s feedback about them. I was immediately impressed, and continued to be very impressed, with the sharpness and clarity of his eye; with the detail in his feedback; with his kindness and yet absolute honesty; and with his suggestions for what, how and where to keep working on the pieces. So I first presented my text, and then I presented my song.
For the text, Mario said that the work was good, but that it needed much more detail. He said, ‘You are a professional actress, yes?’ And then he proceeded to talk about tragedy, about how tragedy means that as an audience you see both sides of the situation, two sides that cannot be reconciled, although both are right in their own ways. He brought up the situation of Creon and Antigone in ‘Antigone,’ and said that the play only works as a tragedy if we see clearly that Antigone has to act in the way she is acting for her own survival, and Creon has to oppose her and act in the way he does for the survival of the city. We see that they can both be right, but that these two right things cannot be reconciled. In the same way, he said, we need to see both sides of this Jewish/Palestinian predicament, and in my first performance of the piece, the two sides were not evident, it was one sided and so it was not tragic.
He seemed a little perplexed as to why I had chosen this material, and made a few disparaging comments in passing, and indeed throughout the two weeks about this choice. He seemed to feel that I had chosen to present a text that had ‘nothing to do with me,’ that ‘ I knew nothing about,’ and he referred to ‘crocodile tears.’ I spoke a little, on that first day, about the situation here in Australia. I meant the situation with refugees, thinking that he would be aware of what I was talking about, but in fact he thought I was talking about the Aboriginal situation. I wasn’t, because although that is a tragedy, I don’t think it is a comparable situation, but the refugee situation is, I think, pretty relevant.
During the two weeks I reflected upon these disparaging comments a lot. I came to no conclusion, but some interesting thoughts came up. I actually feel that these comments indicate a common European lack of understanding and experience of Australia. They still seem to be amazed that we travel, that we understand and appreciate culture, that we even have a culture, that many of us can speak another language, that we know anything about the world, that we have a political sensibility, that our understanding and experience of the world would be anything like theirs.
But, in any case, Mario’s comments about tragedy were extremely helpful, as were his comments about the detail in the work. I had, partly as a result of the poetic form of the piece, but also partly I think due to a predisposition or habit, experimented with a formal physical overlay on the piece, walking in straight lines around the borders of the room. He hated this and talked a lot about it in my feedback, but also through a lot of other people’s feedback, about the artificiality of straight lines, about the fact that straight lines are not found in nature, as also that they tend to kill stage dynamism. This was good. It was a good provocation in fact and then to keep seeing it in others work was also very instructive. It is not only the angle of presentation, but also indeed the physical form, which is not released and therefore can became very fixed and rigid and dead in the space.
So the task was clear, to go away and work I did.
Just towards the end of the second week he suggested about the Brecht.
He asked me what I had learned.
Performing the group singing
Another things which was very interesting about the group singing sessions was that at some point, I guess it was either a the end of the first week, but it was probably more likely to be at the start of the second, it began to be clear that there was a quite specific choreography and feel for each of the songs, and that as time went on the team stuck to that choreography more deliberately and that our task was to try and understand that form and to somehow situate ourselves within it. Which, as we were quite a big group, was not all that easy. Then we began to understand that there was a specific order of songs, and that what they were wanting us to do was to actually learn this. Not just the songs, but our place in space and what we were doing. So it sort of morphed from a free exploration into a more formalized situation, and we were expected to more with it into that and learn it and then to be able to do it, and then go be able to perform it to the other group. I actually found it extremely exhilarating and exciting. I loved the way it had just shifted, and I had the sense that they hadn’t necessarily known that that was what they were going to do…that just because of the nature of our group and the particular explorations that they were doing as a group that they had decided to do that and I really loved it. Because people kind of came on board with it slowly.
And there was kind of a thing here and underlying this whole narrative I guess about the desire in me to place myself in this situation as a way of gaining some more information about what it is that I do and how do I do it. And so what I was discovering and delighting in was my experience, was my capacity, which I guess I take for granted most of the time, to actually have enough space and calm within me to accept and to assess and to think and then also to ask for what I need, not in a demanding way but from a place of knowledge. Because at some point early on in the second week I asked one of the team members to help me. I wanted to write down the songs and the order of the songs so that I could then remember the choreography. I actively sought out the knowledge. I needed to know the order because I had these stretches in my head and then we would start at another point and someone else is doing something different and I'd think fuck where was I and what was I doing and I just don’t know and not any emotional overlay of I should know or must know or I am failing because I don’t know, but more like I need to know because I know what I don’t know and I know that at a certain point I need to have a solid structure from which I can work.
And so I did that and then yes, it transpired that we would actually all as a group be performing this piece to the rest of the people the upstairs group and the upstairs team and what was that going to be. And for me it was a very rich and fulfilling experience and it took my understanding of the work to another level because I was actually DOING it rather than just having it demonstrated to me, which was what the other group did when they performed a piece for us. Yes, it was an interactive piece and it was interesting, but actually making the piece was far more valuable for me, and I was so grateful for the experience.
There is no ending. I think that's because it ended, very quickly, too quickly, and then I went back to Rome for a day and then back to Australia and IMMEDIATELY into the rehearsal room for Waking Up Dead.
There is no question that the work during the SIP had an influence on my work. I'm sure there will be more writing and thinking about this in the months and years to come.