In What a Body Can Do (Routledge 2015), I asked why there aren’t more functioning laboratories dedicated to exploring the intersection between martial arts and performer training. This interdisciplinary connection has been hugely productive in Europe throughout the twentieth century, not to mention the much longer-standing relationships between martial and performing arts found throughout Asia. But it is hard to think of even one institution in Europe or North America that aims explicitly to innovate theatre, dance and performance training practice by placing it in dialogue with martial arts and physical culture more generally. While many individual practitioners and scholars do excellent work in this area, institutions tend to be oriented towards one domain or the other. And we still tend to see martial arts as cultural entities rather than fields of knowledge.
What would a laboratory of martial and performing arts look like? In order to create substantive interdisciplinary interactions, care would have to be taken to create the kind of ‘third space’ described by Pil Hansen and Bruce Barton in their article on ‘Research-Based Practice’ (TDR 53.4, 2009): a space in which specific flows of martial and performing arts would collide without either one being subordinated to the other. BodyConstitution, a project developed by the Grotowski Institute in Poland and funded by major grants from EEA/Norway, is the closest I have seen to such a laboratory. The project is ‘programme of research in practice at the Grotowski Institute,’ which has involved numerous formats of exchange, including four annual seminars (2013-2016), each about a week long, drawing together a wide range of international performers, teachers, and participants. I was recently a guest at the final BodyConstitution seminar and want to use that experience as a starting point to highlight the value of the project as a whole. (For more details and reflections on the 2016 seminar, see Jen Parkin’s post below.)
As his book on Nikolai Demidov is on the brink of publication, director-scholar Andrei Malaev-Babel visited the UK to share his revelatory practical and historical investigations into the long suppressed Russian master pedagogue. I don’t use the term revelatory lightly. Nikolai Demidov’s work radically challenges our conceptions of Stanislavsky and the creation of his System. A collaborator and provocateur of Stanislavsky’s, Demidov approached acting from within the rich milieu of spirituality, philosophy and science that was the Russian Silver Age.
As Malaev-Babel explained in a seminar at the University of Exeter, Demidov was a practitioner of yoga and his approach to acting is permeated with a sense of breath, of clearing the mind-body receptacle for inspiration, and what he termed a ‘culture of calm’. Despite all the hoopla about Sulerzhitsky and his time with the Doukhobors – a schismatic group of Christians that were purported to have taught Suler yoga – Demidov is clearly the person who introduced yoga to Stanislavsky. And not just the books by Ramacharaka (William Atkinson), but through first-hand experience.
Demidov was also a trained psychologist, and therefore the only acting teacher of the early twentieth century to have a certified medical insight into the psychophysical processes at work. In fact it was due to the efforts of medical specialists that Demidov’s book on acting was first published in Russia. As Malaev-Babel mentioned, this was because the scientific community believed Demidov was a man ahead of his time. What Demidov was researching with the many actors he worked with was a new understanding of the creative process, the foundations of a new creative psychology.
(photo of Nikolai Demidov with Konstantin Stanislavsky courtesy of Andrei Malaev-Babel)
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. Continue reading →
For the first edition of TDPT I wrote an article called ‘The Pursuit of Pleasure’ (1:1). It focussed on the rationale for locating pleasure at the core of a performer’s training practice. Put simply, I suggested we structure our work so that it fills us with delight. We should, I suggested, seek intrinsic delight in all our work, however challenging, rather than ‘suffering’ in the expectation of an anticipated outcome. Learning, I suggested, is an intrinsically pleasurable experience. It is useful to acknowledge that.
When I wrote the article in 2010, the training I run, ‘Self-With-Others’ (www.ensemblephysicaltheatre.wordpress.com), was well-established and formed the basis of an MA course in Huddersfield. Since then, three major developments have taken place that have caused me progressively to reconsider – and ultimately recommit myself to – the centrality of pleasure in my work.
The first of these is that I left the academy to return to a freelance life as a trainer, director and performer.
The second is that I developed a significant international practice directing, teaching and running residencies in diverse and complex contexts – urban and rural, professional and non-professional, culturally traditional and progressive. This has offered me a rich opportunity to explore my understanding of training with a range of participants from very diverse backgrounds and with hugely differing ambitions and expectations.
The third is that I decided to set up my own School: The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre. The School offers a ten-week intensive training. It is unattached to any institution and unfunded by any cultural, educational or government organisation. We run the School in low-cost economies (last year and this year it is in Greece) and we keep administrative costs to the minimum. This means fees are as low as we can make them. Still some are excluded on the basis of cost, inevitably, but there is perhaps a greater diversity – culturally and economically – than would be the case if costs were higher. I’ve written elsewhere about my rationale for setting up The DUENDE School, and the pedagogical and ideological lineage I see it as being connected to: http://bit.ly/trainingthenextgeneration.
As I now reflect on last year and prepare for the next iteration of the School, and as I recover from an intense visit to India, I wonder again about pleasure.
A few thoughts:
1. Almost everywhere I work, people tell me that the devaluing of pleasure (and passion, playfulness, laughter) is a problem they see as being especially critical in their own culture and education system. Repeatedly performers and teachers suggest: ‘We really need this work in Singapore/India/Australia/Greece…’. Perhaps there is always a sense that people elsewhere are having more fun and working in more enlightened ways.
2. Almost everywhere (this thought is not unconnected to the thought above), people have learned to distrust – even to despise – the value of their own pleasure. People fret about ‘self-indulgence’ and continually, sometimes obsessively, seek extrinsic rather than intrinsic validation of their choices. Frequently they seek to validate artistic choices by judging them against non-artistic criteria. I wonder how much this is a reflection of an international/ideological devaluing of the status of art as something of intrinsic worth, and its replacement with an ideology of art-as-instrument, and artist as primarily a servant of extrinsic social objective.
3. The deeper we dig into pleasure as an intrinsically valuable objective in our work, the harder the search becomes. In the end – as the intensive experience at the School lays bare – if we acknowledge that we are pursuing a particular path because we want to (because it yields us pleasure), then we have to take unconditional responsibility for our own actions and choices. We are not training because we have to, we are training because we want to. In exploring, unapologetically, who we could be, guided by open acknowledgement of our desire, we discover our genius, our contribution, our ‘social’ role. This demand for absolute self-responsibility leads almost everyone to a place of personal crisis. Almost everyone breaks sometime during a training. Pursing pleasure is not always enjoyable. The centrality of pleasure in my pedagogy allows the person who is breaking both to smile inside her crisis and to chart a sustainable route beyond the encounter with despair that seems inevitable during a journey of growth.
4. Almost everyone (including me) gets sick of the word ‘pleasure’. It ends up feeling twee and reductive. The two core questions of my training ‘What did you like?’ and ‘Why did you like it?” become a little annoying. People start to ask instead: ‘What did I notice/enjoy?’ or ‘What excited me?’ This movement beyond the core word of ‘pleasure’ is personal to each performer and I welcome it. I also – when things get tough – encourage them to return to the basic formula for personal and interpersonal reflection: ‘What did you like?’
5. The centralising of the details of pleasure within reflection and feedback shifts the paradigm within which we work. We are not working, we are laughing and playing. I encourage unconditional acceptance of oneself and of others. This is not about complacency or arrogance, it is about reality. Unconditional acceptance of self and others in a reflective process, requires us to discuss what actually happened within and between us, not what we think ought to have happened. It leads to analysis of real (inter)actions rather than discussion of how one wishes things had been different.
6. The ‘permissive’ environment of training is, I suspect, the single most important thing I offer. I have a rigorous pedagogy and I know the conceptual and theoretical context of my work. That’s important. Nonetheless, perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to have the confidence to get out of the way, to encourage performers to laugh and enjoy themselves and to learn rigour and discipline for themselves. If they do that, they will mostly learn what they need to learn. I need to intervene only when occasionally it seems necessary.
The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre in Athens last year saw 19 women from 8 countries collaborate for 10 weeks with great joy, enormous discipline and significant results. The first principle of the work, which became increasingly complex and challenging as each student dug ever deeper into her work, was ‘Pursue Pleasure’. Not ‘Have Fun’, but ‘PURSUE Pleasure’. It is an active hunt for intrinsic enjoyment. As I reflect on the process and recruit a new cohort of students (there will be some men this year!), I wonder about my own pleasure. I sit quietly and wonder if I want to run the School again. After all, I’ve done it once, and there are always other things to do…
The answer is an instant and unequivocal ‘yes’. That’s important. Without my passion, based in my own joy, the work will be form without energy. The School offers me (and my colleagues) a place of growth and research. The curriculum will evolve for its second iteration based on a simple sense I (and my core collaborator) have about what worked – what yielded pleasure to us and to the participants – and what felt a little soulless…
In 2010 when I published in TDPT I was well aware of the problematic nature of pleasure. Since then my perspectives have both become more and less complex. The more one commits oneself to pleasure, the harder it becomes, because that commitment strips away all excuses and all self-pity. Yet, paradoxically, things also seem simpler. The more simply I pursue genuine personal pleasure – in an exercise, a production, a training programme, a career-choice – the better my work will be. The difficulties of surviving outside The Academy notwithstanding, nothing since 2010 has really challenged that core principle.
How should we warm up at the start of a workshop or rehearsal?
What is it that we need to warm up?
It’s obvious that performers need to prepare for the physical challenges of a workshop or rehearsal. If a session is likely to involve lots of movement, it is useful to start by increasing blood flow to the muscles and getting the joints working. But what about those times when the class or material doesn’t involve much physical exertion?
The movement teacher Monika Pagneux makes a distinction between warming up and waking up. It’s a distinction that I’ve found really helpful when structuring workshops, classes and rehearsals, because rather than thinking about increasing blood flow, flexibility and stamina, Pagneux’s term places emphasis on attention and awareness. Instead of oiling the cogs of a machine, Pagneux entreats us to open our eyes, take a breath and see what’s going on.
For me the best way of waking up in preparation for a class or rehearsal is to set myself (or my students) a task that coordinates mind and movement. At the beginning of each session I like to set a movement pattern that acts as a kind of heuristic puzzle, forcing brain and body to work together.
Complex, whole-body tasks like the one demonstrated in the video can’t be done automatically or mechanically. As such, they prompt students to become sensitive to the timing, shape and quality of their actions.
I guess one of the most important things to think about at the start of a session is where you would like to be at the end of it. A good warm up should lead us to the state of being that feels right for the task we have set ourselves. More often than not, the answer to the question of where I want to be relates to a feeling of embodied attention. While it’s true that any action can be practised mindfully, in my experience, it’s the more complicated patterns that force us to slow down, take stock and actively locate our experiences in our bodies. Copying a pattern like the one shown above demands an active process of investigation – a kind of kinaesthetically engaged thinking that I find helpful as a baseline for a wide range of performance work.
Where do you like to start? I’d love to see some ideas and exercises in the replies.
As I write this blog, my predominant emotion is curiosity: I am wondering how you feel as you read it. Specifically, I’m curious how you feel about Grotowski. He has always been a divisive figure in the world of theatre and performance, from his first days in the international spotlight in the early 1960’s. He seems to invoke either adulation, or outright rejection. Richard Shechner famously called him “shape-shifter, shaman, trickster, artist, adept, director, leader”. If you are willing to satisfy my curiosity, and tell me how you feel about Grotowski, then read on.
In the process of my own research and writing on this subject, I have been inviting participation and personal testimony from anyone who feels that some aspect of Grotowski’s work has had an impact on their own practice. If you would like to make contact and contribute, you can do that by emailing me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you a page of “prompt” questions. Alternatively, you can visit my Facebook page: Grotowski/Kumiega: Re-Writehttps://www.facebook.com/Grotowski.Kumiega/
My article “Contact Improvisation to Scene Study: Authenticity in Word and Deed” (2012) explored the use of C.I. (contact improvisation) in actor training. The following one minute video shows an example of a CI session between actors Jacob Dresch and Claire Edmunds during a training session concentrating on the use of counter balance.
Drawing on mime, modern dance and dance/theater explorations and expanding through 30 years of studio work with actors, this use of C.I. in actor training releases the physical/emotional honesty of actors. This is a training of energy and weight exchange in which the ultimate goal is kinetic and intimate responsiveness to a partner. The playful, dynamic and exhilarating shifts of counter-balance that characterize this work are reached through the practice of contact improvisation. Basic tumbling, energy exchange exercises and partnering dance lifts are its fundamental building blocks. Text may also be used in a contact session and this allows the spontaneous physical language of the actors’ bodies to parallel the spoken dialogue. Without consciously imposing objectives actors inter-relate spontaneously, dynamically and elegantly; and the outcome is an imprinted ability to deliver emotional and physical honesty in a scene. Counter-balance Theater (my physical theater company) uses this technique to train performers within the company, in classes at UCI, and in workshops for the wider public. The physical techniques in leveraging, complicit interchange and trajectory of motion, are used to create the imagery scored in the Counter-Balance scripts.