Letter to SITI Conservatory

Sep 18, 2013

This week marks an exciting new adventure for SITI company.  Artists from all over the world have committed to spending almost an entire year of their lives to participate in the first year of our SITI conservatory.  The company has hosted training sessions lasting from 5 weeks to 1 week all over the planet, but now we get to spend real time with the artists and together create a program dedicated to Listening, Speaking, Moving, Writing, and Creating.  Somehow I want to reach out to them and celebrate.  Next month, October, the Routledge Press is putting out a new book entitled, The Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky.  I am lucky enough to have been able to contribute a chapter that is supposed to be maybe an introduction to my relationship to Stanislavsky over the years of my career.  Many exciting artists have contributed their own chapters.  But, given the number of pages I was allowed, some of what I had to say was necessarily left out.  As a way of reaching out to the company and to the artists joining SITI for the year I thought I’d post this one short story that expresses not only the theme of the book, but my relationship to SITI, and now to my extended family in our new conservatory.

The first question I was asked was when a career in the theater became a serious idea for me.

The real answer to this question is that my first year as a graduate student was also the first year for the actress and founding SITI company member Kelly Maurer as a full-time faculty member in the department.  One of the classes she taught included the Suzuki Training.  She had been among the first Americans to go to Toga Mura, Japan and work and study with Suzuki Tadashi. (You can see her young picture in Suzuki’s The Way of Acting.) Toward the end of our first year Kelly pulled me aside and suggested that I seriously considered going to Japan to study.  At that time one could apply to the Japan America Friendship Foundation for funds to attend the training.  I applied and was accepted. At the end of the grueling nine-week summer training, Mr. Suzuki asked me to return the following year.  And the rest, as they say, is history. 

Now, I have to tell you a story. I was in no way prepared for such a trip — neither the actual physical journey, nor what I would encounter in the remote mountains of Japan.  But I made the five or more hour’s flight to Seattle, then the twelve-hour flight to Tokyo.  From Tokyo I took the flight across the island to Toyama where I got on a bus and made the slow, winding journey up the mountain to Toga Mura.  I arrived on the opening night of the Toga International Arts Festival, dropped my bags in the dormitory, and was whisked immediately to the open-air theater for the performance of Suzuki Company’s TROJAN WOMEN.  I didn’t know anything about this production before this moment, and later learned that this is the show that really put the Suzuki Company on the map globally.  The theater was already full to overflowing and I had to stand in the back at the very top of the theater.  From my vantage point I could see in the seats in front of me that gradually descended to the rocks that apron the glossy black stage many hundreds of spectators — most speaking Japanese, but there were French, and Greek, and Polish, and any number of other nationalities there.  (The theater can hold, I think, every member of Toga village and a few hundred more.)  I’d been transported to another planet it seemed, and was suffering from severe jet lag on top of it.  I had no preparation for this, no compass, no touchstone, no friend to hold my hand, and no language skills to ask for help.  I stood and watched.  And waited.  Finally the lights dumped and the music began and I saw a solitary figure dressed in white flowing robes (Fueda-san as the god Giso), carrying a long staff, begin a formal “dance” entrance, majestically taking his time, moving quickly one moment to another, slowing suddenly to change the time and his structure, until he arrived upstage center and set himself to face the audience and NOT MOVE again until the end of the performance. Then, one after another the 7 or 9 actors of the chorus, dressed in rags, carrying all their worldly belongings in little rag sacs, “scuttled” on to the stage and dropped rhythmically into a perfect line facing the audience.  I don’t think I had yet taken a breath from the moments the lights changed to start the performance.  And now I felt tears running down my cheeks.  I think I was frozen and sobbing the entire performance.  At least that’s how it feels to me now.  I had just been tesseracted from my small town, provincial, drama club world to the global stage.  Just like that.  The reflection of the surrounding mountains in the quiet pond extending from the stage behind the actors, the prehistoricly large insects dashing through the white lights, the fragrant mid-summer mountain air, the rustling and calling of animals in the hills around us, and finally the pure, still, human (Mr. Suzuki might say “animal”) energy of the actors, combined to heighten the senses.  And nothing has ever been the same.  This is the beginning of my understanding of what the theater is, could, and would be for the rest of my life. 

Almost 20 years later, in the winter of 2003, Anne Bogart, Ellen Lauren, and I traveled to Shizuoka, Japan at the invitation of Suzuki Tadashi to teach a workshop to his younger company.  During our time there I had the most extraordinary experience.  Mr. Suzuki’s friend Yuri Lyubimov was there with some of his company and family.  On one particular night Mr. Suzuki invited us to one of the smaller theaters in the Shizuoka complex.  We entered an intimate, circular space around the perimeter of which stood several clothing forms displaying the actual costumes of Stanislavsky, Olga Knipper, and others for their original Chekov productions.  We were celebrating the 70th birthday of Yuri Lyubimov the legendary founder and director of the Taganka Theater in Moscow.  I remember a moment alone, standing with a glass of really good red wine, looking across the theater and seeing Ellen standing next to Mr. Suzuki who is standing in conversation with Mr. Lyubimov, and there over their shoulders are the costumes of Konstantin Stanislavsky and Olga Knipper, and I feel my knees weaken a little as I realize where I am — where I’ve been all this time and didn’t know it.  I’m seeing a legacy – 3 or 4 generations direct from Stanislavsky through the Russian legend Lyubimov to the Japanese auteur Tadashi Suzuki to post-modern doyenne Anne Bogart to my friend and actress Ellen Lauren … and this is the “air I’m breathing” at the moment.  What is the language we are sharing in our three different cultures?   Where does it come from? What are the stories we are telling? And HOW are we telling them?

“Are there other actors with whom you share ideas?”

My life in the theater has been entirely about this notion of sharing ideas.  Through my years in Japan I have met my present family of colleagues including Kelly Maurer, Ellen Lauren, Leon Ingulsrud, Akiko Aizawa, and later Anne Bogart, Darron West, Tom Nelis, Brian Scott, Barney O’Hanlon, Stephen Webber, J. Ed Araiza, Gian Murray Gianino, Chuck Mee Jr., Megan Wanlass, Elizabeth Moreau, KJ Sanchez, Jefferson Mays, and the entire SITI company family.  SITI is based on the collective sharing of ideas about the theater, about performance, and about cultural.  From our interests and discussions come works like SMALL LIVES/BIG DREAMS, GOING GOING GONE, CULTURE OF DESIRE, BOB, bobrauschenbergamerica, or our several studies/works on Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater On the Air.  From our interests and discussions come other, new young companies now taking the world by storm.  We’re particularly interested in how the theater works in a culture, how smaller cultures form in the making of a work, and how we can all get better and keep going.  It isn’t easy, it isn’t normal, maybe it isn’t even possible, but as Mr. Suzuki has said, “therefore we must try.”

I thank this company for such a ride; and I wish it deeply for you who’ve followed your nose to this conservatory.


Will Bond  aka Bondo