When I was writing ‘Encountering Ensemble’ (1), I came across an obituary of Joe Chaikin, written by his collaborator Jean-Claude Van Itallie. Van Itallie writes of his first meeting with Chaikin at a rehearsal of The Open Theatre:
‘I go to an old industrial building near Eighth Avenue on 24th Street. … I enter the big dilapidated loft. Unbidden, I sit in a detached row of empty falling-apart theatre seats. Some 10 people drift in – mostly young, mostly from downtown.’ (2)
Some scrappy kids in a dilapidated room. Doing things they did not understand. Making it up as they went along.
I read of Stanislavsky feeling that he should contribute to the growth of ensemble in his new company by helping clean the floor. He had no idea how to do it. I read of Copeau, a conservative Catholic, bewildered by the permissive energy of his youthful cohort of collaborators. Both of them, quite lost.
Odin Teatret emerged from a coming-together of Drama School rejects. Their training began with an assortment of acquired exercises.
Some of this might be apocryphal. Some exaggerated. Yet there is a truth here. Scrappy kids in dilapidated rooms.
Often when I run longer workshops – especially residential workshops, or when training at The DUENDE School – I pause the work and mention this lineage to participants. For it is also a lineage – the lineage of scrappy kids in dilapidated rooms. This will be a moment when, for some participants, a really important revelation appears: the heroes, the masters, the trailblazers, were people like us, coming together, as we do, in dilapidated rooms, without really knowing what they were doing. A second revelation follows – for every Open Theatre, Odin Teatret, Moscow Art Theatre, there have been, continue to be, myriad unknown groups where people like us, explorers, gather to look for a trail to blaze. Very few have changed the world, but perhaps most, through their commitment to work, have changed themselves and enriched their culture.
Anne Bogart writes: ‘Cultural and political revolutions begin in small rooms.’ (3)
I belong to the lineage of scrappy kids in dilapidated rooms. I want to celebrate it as I celebrate my other lineages – whatever the divergences, the cultural and aesthetic separations, whatever the particular needs of particular groups – I want to celebrate the lineage of optimistic enthusiasm and open-ended exploration.
The experience of work. The unglamorous fact of work.
I love that behind me – perhaps through centuries – people like (and unlike) me have got together with others, without much of an idea of what they are doing, and have initiated processes of passionate enquiry. Some, as they began to know what they were doing, maintained that passion and enthusiasm. Some maintained their sense of not-knowing.
Whatever we teach, however rigorous and well-structured, we also hold space for not-knowing, for being lost, for dead-ends. We recreate the experience of uprootedness, that links us back through the centuries and across cultures – to acrobats on a beach trying to find a new balance, to musicians meeting others on the road, to performers having to reinvent the wheel because they know that nobody else’s wheel works for them…..
My recent encounters with diverse groups in diverse countries, and the deep-level work at The DUENDE School, has allowed me to take my pedagogical work to increasingly complex and detailed levels. However it has also reminded me, wonderfully and life-enhancingly – that I am part of perhaps the deepest and most important training lineage of all: the lineage of scrappy kids (of all ages) in (often unsuitable) dilapidated rooms, facing the reality of not knowing. To give another generation a chance to join and evolve that lineage is one of the best things I can offer.
This video evokes the lineage of ‘small rooms’ at The DUENDE School in Athens last year – it is not about pedagogy or process (those are explored here: www.ensemblephysicaltheatre.wordpress.com), but about the experience, the environment, the community of shared learning.
(1) ed. Britton, J, Encountering Ensemble. London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2013
(2) van Itallie, Jean-Claude, Joseph Chaikin: 1935-2003. American Theatre 20:7 p.18
(3) Bogart in Richards, Thomas, Heart of Practice : Within the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards. London; New York: Routledge, 2008. Front Page.