My journey into theatre traditions started early. An intriguing new drama teacher arrived at my school at the age of eleven. She brought with her a dynamic and challenging way of creating theatre and I began to pay attention. I was subsequently a founder and for eight years a member of a most peculiar youth theatre. Our teacher turned director, Carran Waterfield, had been trained by Roberta Carreri of Odin Teatret and in the years that followed, I began to research the history and methodology of this now almost mythical theatre troupe and became fascinated by the writings of its director and founder, Eugenio Barba and by default, his mentor, Jerzy Grotowski. This early exposure to such an intense tradition created many difficulties and exhilarations for me in my youth. When other children were watching ‘Neighbours’ on TV in the 1990s, I was trying to do ‘training’ on a concrete floor in a cold church hall in Coventry.
Wroclaw has always been synonymous with the name of Grotowski. His Teatr Laboratorium 13 Rzędów (13 Row Laboratory Theatre) relocated here from Opole in 1965. The last time I visited Wroclaw was in October 2001 as an actor in the Polish premiere of Millennium Mysteries, a co-production by Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre and Poznan’s Teatr Biuro Podrozy, directed by Pawel Szkotak. It was also the year that I left life in the UK behind and joined Teatr Biuro Podrozy where I remained as an actor for three years.
So I found myself in Wroclaw (now the European City of Culture 2016) again, 15 years later and the location for the third session of the International Platform for Performer Training (IPPT). The IPPT was launched in Helsinki in 2014, its aim being to develop performer training on an international platform. It is a forum for theatre makers, pedagogues and academics involved in performer training within institutions offering higher education in the fields of performing arts. In Zurich last year the forum focused on the themes of Curriculum, Voice and Speech. This year, the subject of the session was Practicing Tradition in Performer Training. I have been out of theatre and academic circles for several years due to maternity leave, so the anticipation of witnessing presentations by and conversing with such an esteemed group of professionals from within my field, was immense.
Unfortunately I was unable to arrive for registration and the majority of the first day’s session, so sadly missed the surely excellent presentations by Philip Zarrilli (The Llanarth Group), Rebecca Loukes (University of Exeter), Ben Spatz (University of Huddersfield), Shane Shambu (Altered Skin Theatre Company) & Mark James Hamilton (Regent’s University London) and Margaret Coldiron (East 15 Acting School, University of Essex).
I arrived as the presentation entitled ‘Two Paths Studio: Training and Transmitting Martial Arts Traditions’ by Jakub Gontarski, Przemyslaw Blaszczak (Two Paths Studio, The Grotowski Institute) and Anna Duda (University of Silesia) was well under way. Gontarski’s body filled the space with his interpretations of the traditions of Candomble and Capoeira. He was full of passion for and admiration of these traditions and the Brazilian culture in general. It was a presentation, which later led Brazilian, Ramiro Silveira of East 15 Acting School, UK to comment to Gontarski that ‘a tradition from my country is more part of you than of me’. It was to be one of many of the observations noting the ability of embodied traditions to cross borders and transform lives.
The performances staged in the evenings, TAZM Silence of Light by Studio Rosa and Caesarean Section: Essays on Suicide by Teatr Zar left us in no doubt – Polish theatre continues to create work that is steeped in the traditions of Grotowski. The actors were visceral, lithe and awe-inspiring and the sets and lights, sparse and clever (there is never a nasty fire exit sign to ruin a blackout in Polish poor theatre productions). The performance themes of imprisonment and suicide were hardly lightweight and the dramaturgy and direction, brutal. I resonated strongly with the aesthetics and training ethos embedded in the performances. However, it was precisely these aesthetics and training ethos that had led me to seek out lightness in other training traditions. I also struggled with the ‘poor theatre’ actors’ lack of confidence with the potential of text. As I understood it:
Sing – yes.
Explore the fullest potential of the voice – absolutely.
Speak a dialogue with another actor – much more difficult and potentially unnecessary.
It was Mark Evans and Simon Murray’s presentation ‘The Political Legacies of Jacque Lecoq in Twenty Movements’ which brought back memories of other trainings in the traditions of Lecoq, notably with Philippe Gaulier, Marcello Magni and Kathryn Hunter (and yes Mark, I have now successfully joined the Facebook page ‘Philippe Gaulier hit me with a stick’). The presentation was dynamic and the scope of the research enlightening. These two charismatic academics invited us to consider the complicité (togetherness) and disponibilité (openness) of Lecoq’s legacy. They presented effortlessly with an inherent lightness. I celebrated the internationalism of Lecoq’s theatre school. I reflected on how a lot more complicité and disponibilité could possibly solve much of the world’s current darkest problems. Maybe Philippe Gaulier needs to travel more widely and do a lot more hitting with a much bigger stick.
I have taught theatre for over 20 years and Paul Allain’s (University of Kent) presentation ‘Physical Actor Training – an A-Z’ brought into question the modernity of my teaching methods. Paul began with a beautifully simple illustration of how insufficient words can be when attempting to describe action. He performed a short physical action from the Suzuki tradition and we were all given 30 seconds to write it down without illustrations of any kind and then teach it to our partner. Before long, the room was full of weird manifestations of the Nazi salute and Paul had proved a point. It really was impossible to only use words to describe and teach physical action, which is why he was in the process of developing a revolutionary digital A to Z of Physical Actor Training. Students will be able to download the application onto their phones and watch 2 minutes, 30 seconds of video related to each letter of the alphabet. I reflected what a powerful resource this could be within teaching and how I would most certainly utilize it. Students always yearn to see action and not only read words. But would they learn as much from swiping and clicking in this way as they would from being forced to watch the entirety of ‘The Constant Prince’ in a darkened room with me policing the fact that they are actually watching it? It would seem that perhaps my teaching methods really do need bringing into the 21st century.
So far the conference had become a journey of personal reflection. In talks and discussions, I was recognizing traditions I had encountered and to a large extent internalized into my own practice. Matej Matejka’s presentation, ‘Searching for Tradition within you’ featured an exercise, which he termed ‘from nothing into something’ – which essentially could also be a very terse definition of the birth of every tradition everywhere. Everything comes from nothing and then starts to incur meaning.
The rest is history.
In coffee breaks and over lunches, questions about the nature and semantics of tradition abounded among the participants. What is tradition? Who does it belong to? Am I traditional? Are traditions dead by nature? Where do all the forgotten traditions go? How long do we need to train in order to ‘own’ a tradition? Is it acceptable to ‘learn’ a tradition from a video recording? Who intervenes when a tradition becomes abusive? The theme of the session was in full swing and opinions were flowing thick and fast.
But the elephant in the room for me had become the question of gender and tradition. In the session leaflet the question had been posed:
‘What is the meaning of tradition or invented tradition in the field of performer training and what is the reason to deploy it? Is it an element of prestige, or actual knowledge? And then – whose tradition (if there are grandparents and brothers, what happened to grandmothers and sisters)?
What indeed of these grandmothers and sisters?
It was then that Anna Zubrzycki formerly of Gardzienice Teatr and Piesn Kozla (Song of the Goat) presented her talk: ‘Voicing Practice: Listening Deeply.’ I had seen Anna perform in the seminal performance, Chronicles – a lamentation many years ago at the Barbican in London. To hear her speak here was an equal joy. Her sensuality, humility and experience shone. We were also very much in the zone of the feminine. Theatre traditions here in Poland and indeed globally are generally fiercely male. More often than not, women who build or help build traditions, disseminate or refine them are sidelined or overlooked entirely. I reflected on my position in my world of theatre and how that had changed and grown, and was forced to admit that yes, perhaps much was determined as a result of my gender.
I had essentially stepped away from theatre for over six years in order to become a mother and a parent. I have now acquired these labels and their accompanying traditions. IPPT 2016 gave me the space to recall the traditions I have explored so far in my career but left me wondering how I may incorporate the beautifully new but possibly quite inconvenient tradition and responsibility of motherhood into the rest of it.
The third session of IPPT culminated in questions and suggestions for the next session in 2017 in Utrecht. The organization and moderation of this session had been seamless, thorough and passionate. But only so many voices can be heard in a formal discussion and there were many traditions, experiences and silent voices in the room. How could we possibly make sure they were heard in the session planned for 2017 in Utrecht? How could we escape monologues and broker dialogues instead, as Mark Evans observed. This and other challenges I am sure a group as dedicated to debate and as passionate about research as the members of the IPPT are, will address and surmount.
To conclude then, in her presentation, Anna Zubrzycki referenced a 90-year-old female Greek bearer of the tradition of lamentation from the Mani region of Greece who defined a performer as someone simply with:
‘a fearless heart and a peaceful mind’
Perhaps this was the best delineation of how performers might practice tradition within theatre training, which was essentially the theme of this intensely stimulating and illuminating IPPT session.
Onwards to Utrecht. Fearlessly and peacefully.