Toga August 2015
Here we are already almost four weeks into the Toga 50th anniversary summer. I’ve been hoping and wanting to journal this experience, but it is just so extreme, with so much new information to assimilate and a demanding and ever changing schedule, I just can’t get it together. I certainly cannot put into words my own experience inside this place. Ellen and I are here to celebrate with Mr. Suzuki and SCOT their 50th anniversary. Suzuki himself is mounting 6 productions. Ellen is recreating the role of Clytemnestra in his ELECTRA, and I am playing Cornwall in his legendary and almost 30 year old TALE OF LEAR. Our individual experiences could not be more different. Though the role of Clytemnestra is not new, Ellen is expected to make it new for her own performance. I on the other hand am leaping into a form that is tried and true and can withstand anything. LEAR is built like the proverbial ”brick *&%house”.
It did occur to me while watching Ellen in training the other day that she could be my access into making some kind of articulation. Over the days I’ve watched Ellen train along with the women (it is one of the formalities of SCOT that the men train as a group and the women train as a group). I watch her and she gives me notes. It’s what company members do for one another. I’ve watched her body over almost 30 years now negotiate so many kinds of terrain, through sickness and health, in every imaginable performance scenario, all over the world. Certainly Toga is the hottest crucible for so much of our own work.
In one moment during one of the exercises I noticed that Ellen had made an enormous adjustment – one that I’d seen in the SCOT women. What’s more since that second week I’ve watched Ellen’s shoulders drop, the lines in her arms and legs cut deeper, her face calm to the contours of a sensibility she needs for Clytemnestra, and once again I am so moved by this journey together.
All of Mr. Suzuki’s work over these 50 years has been an articulation of how the body is the expression of culture. His classic essay Culture is the Body is the obvious example of this thinking. His emphasis on the body and the breathing can be and is construed theoretically all over the world, but here it is a reality. The reality of the body is what the actors here are finding. And these bodies come from China and Korea and Italy and Lithuania and the US — with more to come as the festival kicks in to high gear. It is the bodies of these extraordinary artists I am watching day in and day out as they go through training and rehearsals and runs of all the shows. But I was speaking of Ellen and how she is my most familiar access to this conversation for the moment. As her body adjusts to new ways of doing old exercises, changes that have come to new vocabulary, and altogether new exercises, I can see her psychology begin to change as she goes deep into what kind of sensibility is required of her to make her role – or even just to sustain herself through the day which in itself is a massive effort. The psychological stress is as heavy or more so than the physical strain on bodies that aren’t in their 30’s any more (hell it’s even stressful on the 30 year old bodies).
But what I want to say more simply is that what was once theoretical I am seeing in the flesh as I watch my colleague go through her paces. The body is adjusting to create the culture we are collectively dreaming here. The body not only bears witness and carries the signs, but it is where the psychology begins. If gifted with an artists imagination, then it is possible something extraordinary will happen.
My own body is compromised in more than one way. But it is finding its own shape as the weeks progress. There is extraordinary pain; there is massive fatigue; there is constant uncertainty which is tiring; schedule changes, surprise run-throughs with audiences of dignitaries, but one wakes up next morning with the same body and goes to training to see it all happen again for another day – to see these bodies change, rise to the occasion (which can be painful or exhilirating to watch), and share the day through this extreme vocabulary even when we don’t share a common language.
Please take me literally. It is so easy for this to sound hyperbolic and / or theoretical. Mr. Suzuki says the same things to us in training as he does in rehearsal: set your hips, maintain your level, don’t shake your shoulders and head when you speak, send your voice in a straight line, when you contort your face and manipulate your voice you look ugly and become hysterical rather than the kind of madness that calm expression will give, etc. Use the training in your performance. Yes it is particular for his style of theater, but it is also true that what I see in Ellen and the SCOT performers is a kind of believability that an earnest attention to the body can create. This is a kind of reality that an audience can trust. (footnote: Suzuki writes about this beautifully in his new book. Check it out.) They are not leading with what they imagine is their psychology, but allowing the true psychology arising from the body to manifest – unencumbered and unadorned – with no spin – pure human energy.
Extraordinary to watch you Ellen after all these years – to watch you will and dream the body you want and need to get through this event. It’s a lesson in tenacity, in agility, in flexibility, and in our own history.
It’s commonly said here that if anyone in the world wants to learn the Suzuki training they must either go to Toga and study with SCOT or come to SITI. It is true even though our methods aren’t quite the same and the looks of the training are rather different these days. But that is another dialogue altogether. Perhaps more on that in a later post.
1. CULTURE is the BODY: The writings of Tadashi Suzuki trans. by Kameron Steele; Theatre Communications Group; New York; 2015