Reflections on Toga 2015 – Reentry

Oct 04, 2015

As the SCOT company clears away the debris of what was probably their most ambitious festival ever, they nurse injuries, sweep through guest rooms to clear out flip flops, broken umbrellas, half empty bags of coffee, “gifted” packages of nuts and cookies, and little surprises left by those of us who had to return to our own country. Simultaneously the SCOT company launches plans for new rehearsals and tours as they settle in for a long winter. I see Facebook uploads of so many resonant pictures: post show gatherings, backstage photos in costumes, actors in knee high rubber boots floating on the pond dismantling firework rigging, coiling cable. I see photos of new friends made and old friends embracing. I am tempted to put down some thoughts about my own two month experience in Toga. 

They are a particular breed these SCOT actors, a breed one does not often see in the theater. They are tireless and generous. They are tenacious, suddenly whimsical and always outrageous. 

I went to Toga to celebrate those who over these past 50 years have had and are having an enormous impact on global theater. These artists have changed the course of so many lives of foreign artists by extension of their own hard work. These people are why I am part of SITI company.  They are the reason why SITI company exists at all.  And SITI’s impact or voice in the theater during its 25 year existence, is due to these extraordinary SCOT actors who went there and tried it out first.

Anne* often uses a funny example when speaking to actors and directors in workshops.  She likens the actor to an astronaut doing a space walk – adrift with only a tether to hold them to the ship. The actor is floating with arms and legs instinctively extended and swinging for balance in an atmosphere where balance doesn’t exist.  At the other end of the tether is the director with both feet safely on the ground at mission control. The director is waving directions, “more this way!” and “no, more that way!” It’s a strange and thrilling and uncertain relationship built on the sturdy foundations of the technology that has been tirelessly built over so many years. The technology of the artist in the trenches. The technology of the body. It is this body that contains the technology, the cellular memory, the muscular memory, the stamina and the breath, and the imagination to keep going.

In SITI we often make reference to these intrepid SCOT explorers who’ve paved the way for us to continue to train and to speak about it at all. We often ask those who are beginning the training to imagine these bodies out in space over so many years and trust that what we are asking of them has already been explored by actors before them. In my own experience this summer I can conjure another metaphor.  I can speak about finally putting on the costume of Cornwall in SCOT company’s LEAR. I know the actors who’ve worn this costume before me.  I’ve seen them in it. It takes a couple of other people to help me put it on. I feel like I’m climbing into the experience of another actor – and I have to honor that and remember it.  In fact, (and here comes another metaphor), climbing into the production of LEAR is like climbing into the driver seat of a very elegant and fast car and working out the gears and the breaks so that I can really drive it – not only safely but with expertise and fun.  I know I am not the first to have this experience. It’s not new. It is the legacy an artist understands. It is more akin to artisans who’ve learned their trade as apprentices, knowledge passed on from body to body, one on one, often without words or language, just doing, imitating, failing, and finally learning to wield the hammer just so, or make just the right cut, or how long to leave the steel in the fire, or, as in our cases, when to breathe, and how to negotiate silence and stillness – and time. And on and on ….  

As I write, the leaves are turning in Toga just as they are here in upstate NY. And as we all turn our attention to the work at hand I want to find a way to share these Toga experiences with you.  Isn’t that our duty, to share our experiences? 

Let’s begin with psychology. For our purposes here, let us understand psychology as a nervous expression of an energetic state. By nervous I don’t mean fear, or hysteria, or anxiety over ones daily life experiences. I mean an experience in the body that is real and felt as a thrilling sensation that can be harnessed through expert breathing and the imaginative depth of the artist and her reason for being on the stage. This latter could be what Stanislavsky called the “actor’s imagination”, or what Suzuki might call a “spiritual disposition”. It begins as an undifferentiated energy in the body, and with training can be directed in such a way to seduce an audience into the “given circumstances” of the fiction in which the actor is working. The psychological “story” is the result, but first comes the energetic quickening of the nervous system.

The presence of the other is a phrase Suzuki kept using as we worked our way through training as well as during the master class at the end of the summer.  I love this expression. It is not a new idea, but it is open enough and provocative enough to give the actor room to maneuver. It is akin to Peter Brook’s making the unseen seen. And yet there is a practical element to the expression. Noting the presence again thrills the physical sensation of the actor and encourages her to fire in a different way – to quicken the attention of the body. It begins with energetic attention in the body. The actor becomes aware of the body and it’s energy. The actor acknowledges that this is always in relationship to something outside her. You might think for a moment of Declan Donnellan’s target about which he writes so beautifully in The Actor And The Target. In standard western realism we tend to turn and face the other. But in Suzuki’s work (and here we get into stylistic issues) the actor rarely faces the other actors. Rather, the actor faces toward the audience and places the other actor at a specific point in the audience and speaks to that point. The other actor locates the same point so that a triangle of attention is formed. Yes, they are speaking to one another, but Suzuki doesn’t forget about the involvement of the audience. In this energetic relationship the audience, by proximity, becomes directly involved in the performance. The actors aren’t just facing out or speaking at the audience, nor even to the audience for that matter, rather they are including them in the energetic performance of the relationship. In this kind of relationship the actor becomes hyper aware of any nuance that arrives in their partner and can respond. The actor is equally aware of any nuance in the audience and can adjust accordingly. Also, since the actor may not be facing her partner on stage, the image must be inside her body. The amount of energy required to play a simple scene rises exponentially and requires a very strong, stable, and accurate body. In this way the actors are creating a fictional state, a seductive energy. The reality of the body is necessary to sustain this focus. “The audience must sense the presence of the other. This is read in your body. Put her in your body.” This is the reality in realism. It might not be the same in television or film, but this is the theater.

With regard to language Suzuki quoted Levi Strauss (French philosopher, anthropologist, and ethnologist) who wrote about how culture shapes the way we think, and the fundamental relationships that are universally shared including patterns in mythology, art, religion, and ritual: “The existence of words or language implies an existence of a community behind them that shares it.” Actors use words to stimulate the other – in this case the other is the audience. “The audience must be stimulated”, Suzuki kept saying. I like this word, stimulated, because it doesn’t stop at entertainment, or even enlightenment as education. It seems to have more to do with the energetic quickening I noted earlier. Working in this way means that what is shared is more than simply the linguistic meaning of the story being offered. Something else is going on.  (And this something else might explain why 7000 people made the arduous journey to the remote Japanese village of Toga to watch Suzuki’sproductions that are now 20 and 30 and 40 years old. In fact, LEAR was sold out and a performance added before I even arrived in Japan.) This something else has to do with the unique energy of the human body and how it communicates to an audience.

What is culture? I’m thinking of Suzuki’s now well known essay and new book CULTURE IS THE BODY**. Anne often defines culture as shared experience. The shared experience of the body by extension creates art, religion, ritual, and ways of cooking. These are the forms we use to bind us, to find identity, to be better, to care for the weak, to preserve shared knowledge and history, to honor our similarities, to respect our differences, and not to kill or marry our parents. Yes, as Suzuki writes, “all the world’s a hospital, and the doctors and nurses might be the worst patients.” He is referring to his production of LEAR in which I performed this summer. It is one of several of his productions full of wheelchairs, degenerate doctors, attendants, and nurses. This is, according to Suzuki, a microcosm of what the world looks like right now. As Marshall McLuhan famously declared about technology, “It is an extension of our own bodies!” And yet the hope too is the body, the way of working through it, beginning with its unique ability to quicken to the situation, to the presence of the other, and articulate in the most extreme of circumstances.

*Anne Bogart, Co-Artistic Dir. of SITI company, author of CONVERSATIONS WITH ANNE, TCG 2012

 **CULTURE IS THE BODY: the theater writings of Tadashi Suzuki, trans. Kameron Steele, TCG 2015