Being Stuck and Getting Unstuck

Feb 01, 2012

In early January, during the APAP (Arts Presenters) Conference in New York City, I enjoyed a few quality moments with my friend Mike Ross, Director of the Krannert Center in Champaign-Urbana. We sat together on stools at the corner of a bar in a shady midtown pub. Over the years, Mike has been a great supporter of SITI Company, hosting us many times at his beautiful performing arts complex in the flatlands of Illinois. He is a tall, handsome, intelligent glass of water, always insightful and philosophical about the world we live in. I mentioned to him that touring and commissions were finally looking up for SITI Company after several years of struggle and lack in a difficult economic climate. I asked Mike if he thought that this positive change is due to general expectations for a better economy. “No,” he said, “the economy is not improving much, but people are simply adjusting, becoming more optimistic, going on with their lives and making plans again.” 

We have been stuck and perhaps now there is new movement. The human species is built for movement. Bodies are engineered to move. Our bodies were made to anticipate change and to adjust naturally. Initially, the economic downturn brought us to our knees. We were forced to face, with great discomfort, our unwarranted blindness to the destructive machinations of the private sector. We had to sit in our own complicity for looking in the other direction while greed and reckless gambling wrecked the economy. Getting stuck brought us into a new awareness of the tensile global connections and our unmistakable interconnectedness with others. We were undeniably stuck for a while and now perhaps there is renewed movement and action.

In the course of events it is natural to become overwhelmed and incapable of taking action. Getting stuck is natural. It happens.  And from time to time getting stuck can be exceedingly productive. Wallowing in the mud of necessary confusion is part of the creative and innovative process.  Sometimes standing still is the only way to move forwards.  The discomfort of being stuck is a necessary step towards change/movement. Taking the pause to experience the state of being stuck creates the necessary space for new thought, images and action. But there is also the kind of stuck-ness that is not helpful at all.

My friend Morgan Jenness, the dramaturg and an agent for playwrights, reads more plays per day than anyone I know. For the many years that I have known Morgan I invariably find her carrying a hefty stack of scripts wherever she goes. Personally I find reading scripts, reading plays, very difficult. For me, plays are the most challenging literature to decipher because they demand an unparalleled investment of undivided attention and imagination. I admire Morgan’s ability to read plays so prolifically and I asked her once how she managed to ingest so many different scripts every single day.  She told me that when she first opens a script, she reads it very quickly. Whenever she senses a stop in the flow of the writing she turns over the top corner of the page and then continues on.  Subsequently, when she meets with the playwright, she opens to the pages with the turned over corners and questions why the flow of the play stops in that spot.

When Morgan told me about her process with plays and playwrights, I recognized the usefulness of her method and I wanted to apply the “turning down the corner of the page” technique to the process of a rehearsal.  Getting stuck in rehearsal can be devastating and even embarrassing. How often are rehearsals bogged down in too much talk or theory?  The flow stops, and the process is hijacked. To “turn down the page,” it is necessary that every member of a collaborative team develop sensitivity to the moments when the flow stops that lead inevitably to stuck-ness.  Develop the fine tensile fiber awareness of when the flow stops. This sensitivity alerts you to when things come to a stop in the collaborative process. As a director, when I sense that there is too much talk, I use Bertolt Brecht’s “Show Me” technique. I ask the actors to show, to do, to demonstrate, to point to rather than talk.

The most effective way to get unstuck is simply to move.  Move anywhere, anyhow and in any direction. Moving will change your position, and attitude and point of view. From this new perspective one begins to identify the obstacles to progress, and recognize the patterns that bring about the stuck-ness. Next, try breaking the problems into small manageable segments. Take manageable steps in segments that can be accomplished.  But first, move, just move. 

Yoshiko Chuma, the Japanese-American choreographer and director of the School for Hard Knocks, a dance company in New York City, invited me to drop by her rehearsal in a town hall in Belfast, Maine one summer when I happened to be visiting the state.  I walked into the spacious daylight-filled hall to find the dancers and actors of the School for Hard Knocks gathered onstage looking a bit confused. Yoshiko, who speaks English with a heavy Japanese accent despite her many years living in New York, had suddenly shouted in their direction:  “1, 2, 3 Go! 1, 2, 3 Go!” The performers looked at her and asked:  “What do you mean, Yoshiko? 1,2,3 Go what? Go what?” Again Yoshiko simply shouted, “1,2,3 Go!” And then without too much more discussion the actors and dancers did indeed start to move across the wooden floor and their moves were rather inspired and exciting. And so the rehearsal continued and lots of new material was generated.  I was impressed and inwardly I decided to try out Yoshiko’s “1, 2, 3 Go!” technique in my own rehearsals.

About a year later I ran into Yoshiko back in New York City and I said, “Yoshiko, I use your ‘1, 2, 3 Go!’ technique and it works very well.” “Oh,” responded Yoshiko impishly. “I don’t say 1, 2, 3 anymore. I just say ‘Go.’”