The Blank Page

Jan 06, 2012

SITI Company has just completed a two-week “creative lab” period in which we laid down the initial strokes on the canvas for a new project entitled Café Variations.  Committing those first strokes is absolutely terrifying. At least that is my experience.  In the weeks and days leading up to our collective launch, I was nervous and jittery.  As much as I prepared, nevertheless I felt the real lack of firm ground.  Armed with the theme of the alchemy that occurs when one human being makes the heroic effort to reach out to another, we began with no set script, rather a collection of short scenes from many of Chuck Mee’s plays, songs from the American songbook, a few ideas and notions, trust in my colleagues and the years behind us and our general respect for one another.  From this, we presume.  From this, we proceed. 

The week before the first day of the Creative Lab, I set aside a Sunday at home to complete the final steps of preparation for the launch of Café Variations.  I had planned for no disturbances on that day; I scheduled no meetings and expected a full day of concentrated work on the project.  But when the Sunday arrived, well, I simply pissed it away.  I did everything imaginable except for the important preparation I had been planning to do.  I watched You Tube videos, I read magazine articles, I wrote emails, and I took a nap.  That was it.  The next morning, I awoke furious with myself.  Am I lazy? Undisciplined? How could this happen, that I would waste a very specially assigned day?   And then after a helpful telephone conversation about the issue with my beloved Rena from London who proposed that I think in depth about the problem, I realized that my inaction was simply due to terror.  I am terrified of beginning a new project. I am frightened of the blank page. Because I am able to compartmentalize, I can avoid direct experience of the terror that lurks underneath my procrastination.  I sleep, I read, and I can keep the necessary action at bay by simply not thinking about the problem.

I find great comfort in Picasso’s suggestion that the first stroke on the canvas is ALWAYS a mistake and that the remainder of the work on the canvas is the attempt to fix that mistake.  His notion gives me the courage for the violent act of the initial stroke on the blank canvas. Actually, it is the actors who ultimately bear the burden of those first strokes on the canvas, or in our case, the stage, and for them I have intense empathy and appreciation. 

How do we begin?  How do we presume to begin?  Where to start and why, in light of what Virginia Woof calls “the world’s notorious indifference.”  Different artists have varying approaches to beginning a process. 

Peter Brook wrote that the entire reason for the first day of rehearsal is simply to get to the second day of rehearsal.  I understand this sentiment although for me the initial day of rehearsal is key because I believe that the day contains a compressed version of the entire journey of the upcoming rehearsal process.  In that first day is born the DNA of the production.  No pressure, right?

Several years ago sound designer Darron West traveled to London to work with the Improbable Theater Company on a new project that became The Hanging Man.  Fresh off the plane from New York, Darron made his way with his backpack and heavy sound gear directly to the Improbable’s studio and walked in to find the directors and the entire company lying on their backs on the studio floor with eyes closed.  The walls were covered with scrawled upon post-it notes and drawings.  Phelim McDermott, one of the co-directors, picked up his head and opened his eyes just enough to see that Darron was in the room, patted the floor and said, “Join us.”  Darron put down his gear and joined the Company on the floor.  “So Darron, based on what little you know right now and letting your imagination run wild, how does The Hanging Man begin?” Darron proposed a few ideas and others joined in, thinking laterally.  After a couple of hours, Phelim propped up onto his elbows and said, “OK, right, well then, how about a spot of tea and some lunch?”   So they all stood up and trotted off to a local pub.  After lunch they returned to the studio to lie back down again on their backs and continue to brainstorm the new project into existence.  At the end of the day new post-its with show ideas were added to the already crowded walls of the rehearsal room.

In many ways I envy Darron’s experience in London, the days of lying on one’s back, dreaming a project into being. But my process with SITI Company is quite different than the ways of the Improbable Theater Company.  I arrive at the first rehearsal jittery, nervous and buzzing with ideas, notions, associations, metaphors, images and whatever the project has ignited in me. I am bursting to share them. I usually spend the first few hours uploading every thought in my head to the assembled, speaking the world of the play into shared consciousness.  After that, we begin to brainstorm together, free associate and to question every notion. And after that, we start the process of generating stage moments that either “land” within the world of the play that we are imagining, or not. 

Once I have uploaded all of my thoughts, ideas and notions on the initial day of rehearsal, I am able to move on to the second day, certainly with a plan but also blank, available to where the process needs to move, and without the expectation or assumption that any of my initial ideas will actually come into being.   Full of hope, I listen and respond to what happens next.  Collectively we throw ideas, moments, and shapes up against the wall, onto the stage, to see what sticks.  I feel, ultimately, that all of the planning simply gives me the right to walk into the rehearsal studio on that first day.  The rest is listening and responding.  

For me, beginning is simultaneously exciting and harrowing. My blood churns rapidly; my body is full of energy and a certain tension. I feel awkward, ill equipped and uncomfortable but also grateful for the engagement.  The effort is real.  Perhaps beginnings should be attempted with regularity.  How can the act of beginning be consciously repeated for the sake of the artistic process?  Can the final week of rehearsal be approached with what the Buddhist’s call “beginner’s mind?”

I have learned that in the deepest panic around beginning a process, it is best to start with something small and do-able and build upon that.  Write a sentence, make one choice or reach out to someone to discuss an issue.  And then, as the process unfolds, and as long as you keep at it and stay attentive and resolute, everything else will eventually fall into place.

Now we begin a brand new year, 2012.  How do we approach this marker?  How do we begin, how do we presume and how do we proceed?  In the spirit of making New Year’s resolutions, I, for one, want to approach situations and relationships with as few preconceptions and assumptions as I can muster.  I know that this must be a consciously imposed beginner’s mind.  I also know that, given how the brain tends to race to conclusions in order to survive, the task will be challenging.  But still, I want to live in the present, a perpetual beginner, uncertain and uncomfortable while enjoying the currents, the emotions and the flow of moment-to-moment unfolding.