How To Embody Time

Jun 06, 2016

As a midyear transfer student at Bard College, I stood on a long line to sign up for a popular theater class taught by Bill Driver, the chair of the theater department who would soon become my first directing teacher. Sitting quietly at a small desk, Driver seemed to ignore the frantic atmosphere of impatient students vying for places in his classes. After what felt like an interminable wait, I finally stood before him, surprised to find him relaxed and present with me, interested in who I was and where I came from. Despite the surrounding chaos, he seemed neither rushed nor harried. He paid no attention to the roiling line of irritated students behind me.  This demonstration of patience and his attitude of one-thing-at-a-time became my first lesson in directing from Bill Driver. 

Human life spans a relatively short and unpredictable arc of time and the nagging question of how to handle the day-to-day encounters and trials can be challenging.  We are born worriers and I am no exception. Without tempering my natural proclivity to hurry, I tend to rush around in order to make things happen.  I try to fill the gaps with activity and distraction. I agonize constantly about how well I am doing in comparison to others and I fret about what I am missing out on.  But with vigilance and restraint in my relation to time, I can temper these tendencies. 

My perception of time is generally subjective and alters in relation to my inner state, emotions and moods. For example, I make everyday decisions such as whether to take the elevator or the stairs based on an anticipation of duration linked to my current feeling about time passing. I notice that time seems to speed up when I am enjoying myself and then it slows down again during periods of what might be considered boredom. But the notion of boredom may be misleading. By being in the moment, attentive to the surroundings and to the people, I can allow the opportunity for a deeper penetration of time. Intervals of time feel longer when I pay close attention to the present moment and allow for the array of differentiated perceptions that are within my grasp. 

In order not to be overwhelmed by the limitations of time, I endeavor to deliberately develop a constructive inner posture in relation to the present moment. I try to remember to consciously choose an attitude appropriate to the particular pressures inherent in any given situation. I try to be sensitive to the difference between horizontal and vertical time. 

When busy, when trying to get from where I am to where I want to be, I am generally living in horizontal time. Horizontal time is linear and has a past that is remembered and a future that is imagined.  Horizontal time can make me feel under pressure and slight and insignificant. Vertical time, in contrast may contain horizontal time but it also intersects and disrupts the experience of linear time. Vertical time arrives in small doses and has no past and no future outside of the present moment.  In vertical time nowness is absolutely real and non-divisible. Experiencing vertical time, I am more awake.  I feel more and see more.  I notice the mist rising off of a meadow. I taste each sip in a cup of fragrant afternoon tea. I can fully enjoy an aimless walk at sunset.  It is in vertical time that the conditions are ripe to experience epiphany. 

Art creates the experience of vertical time for the perceiver by plunging a stake or dropping an anchor into the endless flow of time, thereby creating a sense of eternity in the human body.  A Van Gogh landscape painting offers a taste of eternity by allowing us, in its proximity, to experience vertical time. Music theorist Jonathan Kramer describes vertical time in music as,  “A single present stretched out into enormous duration, a potentially infinite ‘now’ that nonetheless feels like an instant.”  In the experience of a musical performance, it is possible to reach a place where there is no differentiation between past, present and future. The experience of vertical time resets and refreshes us.

The theater too has the capacity to generate moments of eternity by creating the conditions for an audience’s experience of vertical time. The theater shares with music the languages of time via tempo, duration, rhythm etc. but also traffics in the semantics of space, encompassing architecture, shape, spatial relationship etc. While speaking in both the languages of time and of space, how do we create the conditions for eternity?  How do we develop the ability to embody vertical time, to stop, to put on the brakes and bring the audience with us into the present moment?

Largely due to the fact that the day-to-day speed of our contemporary culture is accelerating at an alarming rate, the theater in particular has the urgent task to provide audiences with alternate time signatures. It is possible and also necessary for theater makers to embody vertical time in order to be able to generate moments of that transcend the rush of time.  A theater maker’s most consistent obstacle is time. We are all generally under the pressure of deadlines and financial restraints as well as doubts and fears about our own capabilities. In order for the theater to set up the circumstances for an audience to experience vertical time, theater-makers themselves must consistently undergo training in embodied time.

One of the basic tools that an actor must develop is the ability to relax. Because it is most difficult to relax under stress, effective theater training purposefully creates stressful circumstances in order for the actor to seek ways to relax under pressure. Paradoxically, the actor must train aggressively in order to learn how to relax under stressful conditions.  Sensitivity to time increases when anxiety decreases.

Training also should also offer tools that animate an actor’s receptivity to what is happening in the present moment and the ability to differentiate one moment, one sensation and one time signature, from the next.  Peter Brook pointed out that it is easy to be sensitive in the fingers and the face but an actor needs to become sensitive throughout the body. Sensitivity requires flexibility and openness to stimuli and this in turn begets precision in stage movement as well as definition and clarity.

To embody time one must practice being rooted in the middle, in the moment, rather than striving blindly and nervously towards a goal.  Being in the middle requires one to consciously shift mindset from winning to an interest in exploring one’s own stuckness and experimenting with where one is rather than what one wants to attain. Training should develop strategic patience.  In the moment when one’s ancient flight or fight impulses arise, it is possible, through practice, to apply the brakes, resist rushing, think fast and slow down at the same time.

My friend, the Dutch actress Saskia Noordhoek Hegt, described a theater workshop led by a Buddhist monk. At the start of each session, the participants were required to get onto their hands and knees and scrub the floor of the studio with cold water until told that they could stop and proceed with the day’s work. Quite irritated by the necessity to clean an already spotless floor, Saskia’s impatience intensified over time.  One day towards the end of the course, the participants were left cleaning the floor for what felt like an inordinate amount of time.  Saskia’s impatience and frustration with what felt like a futile task escalated until suddenly, in the midst of brushing the floor on her hands and knees, her anxiety fell away and she found herself smack dab in the present moment.  She finally understood that this practice was the point of the workshop.  She had learned how to cultivate vertical time.

I cherish the moments in art where, after a dramatic build and a period of what feels like roiling, searching and struggle, the whole thing stops and I am, as spectator, listener or viewer, suspended midair in what feels like eternity. In these precious moments, I feel as though I am falling. Vertical time offers a sense of vastness from the inside and can indeed feel like falling – falling into the arms of emptiness. In that moment I remember that between the past and the future there exists lots of space. Vertical time peels back the layers to reveal the essence of life in the present moment.

Next year SITI Company will turn 25 years old.  Why have we lasted so long? Perhaps it is because together, via training and experience, we continue to study the art of embodied time.  We have learned to be patient with one another and relax under stress. In creating work we continue to learn strategic patience, to purposefully wait for the solution to reveal itself.  Where patience may have once felt like lack of control, we have learned that it is a form of control over the tempo of an ongoing flow of life that otherwise controls us. Patience is power. Restraint is a tool.  We continue to learn and study how to increase receptivity to what is happening in the present moment and how to differentiate one moment, one sensation and one time signature, from the next.  Together we practice being in the middle of a moment, exploring our stuckness with great interest, rather than racing towards the endpoint.

On tour with SITI Company to Minneapolis several years ago, I searched for and found a Saturday morning yoga class. Upon arriving at the yoga studio, I noticed a crowd of people waiting to get into the class. Not only had the receptionist not shown up, but also the computer was broken and the teacher for the scheduled class was obliged to check people in as well as teach the class, which by then was meant to have begun. The line of people trying to get into the weekend class was long and everyone was growing impatient. I stood in the line and when I arrived at the desk where the yoga teacher sat at the broken computer, I said to her, “You are practicing your yoga right now, aren’t you.” She nodded slowly in assent.