By Dr Antje Diedrich and Dr Frances Barbe
The Nobbs-Suzuki Praxis (NSP) is an Australian variant of the Suzuki Method of Actor Training (SMAT).
This blogpost provides a brief introduction to NSP followed by:
- Some video examples of selected NSP training formats that are indicative of the NSP approach; and
- Some verbal exercise descriptions of NSP training formats.
The term ‘format’ is used somewhat interchangeably with ‘exercise’ here. The specific use of format tends to draw attention to the structure of an exercises or the set of parameters it entails. ‘Exercise’ is also used as it will be familiar to most in a training context.
Nobbs Suzuki Praxis: A brief introduction
Nobbs Suzuki Praxis was created by Australian practitioner John Nobbs in collaboration with Jacqui Carroll who are the founders of OzFrank Theatre, an Australian company based in Brisbane. John Nobbs and Jacqui Carroll encountered SMAT in Australia in 1991 when Nobbs was selected Banquo’s Ghost in The Chronicle of Macbeth directed by Tadashi Suzuki with Australian actors for Playbox. Theatre Company (now Malthouse Theatre) in Melbourne. Nobbs went on to train and perform with Suzuki including in Suzuki’s production of Dionysus in 1994 and 1995 touring to Athens, Vicenza (Italy) and Toronto. Nobbs and Carroll regularly visited Suzuki’s base in Toga and the Shizuoka Performing Arts Centre. Their company Frank Productions (later Ozfrank Theatre) joined them on some visits to perform in both Toga and Shizuoka international festivals.
Nobbs and Carroll’s background in dance gave them a particular lens through which to view SMAT. SMAT offered them the opportunity to reconfigure their kinaesthetic dance knowledge for the actor in the realm of theatre (Nobbs 2012, 52f; Carroll 1998, 6-8). Part of that was their dancer’s understanding of the importance of regular practice sustained over time. Nobbs and Carroll had a huge impact on the theatre landscape of 1990s Brisbane because a whole generation of theatre artists attended the bi-weekly training the set up in Brisbane in 1992 which they sustained over many years.
In the early 1990s, the training comprised largely of SMAT exercises but gradually over the years the Nobbs-Suzuki Praxis emerged and distinguished itself from SMAT. In its current form, NSP consists of some of Suzuki’s original exercises, (what he refers to as ‘disciplines’) as well as new exercises devised by Nobbs (often referred to by Nobbs as ‘formats’). SMAT and NSP both emphasise a heightened state of awareness and sensitivity in the actor both to the physical sensation of moving and speaking and to the imaginative, emotional responses that arise in the moment of moving, speaking and acting. NSP maintains the SMAT emphasis on the actor’s energy production, breath calibration and control of the centre of gravity as well as the importance of the feet for groundedness. Like SMAT, NSP formats typically integrate movement and voice and use fairly codified patterns of movement repeated in each training session with improvisatory elements built into some exercises.
John Nobbs and Jacqui Carroll evolved NSP from SMAT through a long-term process of practical interrogation, alongside sustained observation of and participation in SCOT’s training, rehearsals and performances. They adapted the training in response to Ozfrank’s practice context: the challenges performers faced in their initial introduction to the training and the unfolding, more subtle and nuanced challenges arising from long-term engagement with the training.
The NSP variations typically offer greater scope for open improvisation, albeit within the parameters of each format. There is both structure and freedom. Nobbs attributes the start of NSP to 1995 and the creation of a new exercise based on the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song ‘I Put a Spell on You’. NSP training formats were often created in response to specific pieces of music. They use everything from seminal classical works by Verdi and Handel to international pop hits and Australian surfing music. The training makes highly effective use of music by drawing on a piece of music’s structure, or the sound quality of the instruments, or the quality of the singer’s voice.
An example of the innovations NSP introduces into the training include the use of physical actions like ‘bouncing’ which is shown in video 1 below – ‘Peppermint Man’. The bouncing requires soft activation in the legs. It grounds the actor, but not in a rigid way, they are sensitizing the legs through bounding. Another example is the ‘shaking’ or trembling action illustrated in video 2 below – ‘Shakin all over’. The shaking action requires them to ground themselves while also allowing this intense trembling to take place. Again the activity heightens a sense of embodiment, as a result of these activities the actor is more aware of their whole body. The NSP formats sensitise and awaken the actor’s whole instrument. NSP is also distinctive in the way it integrates objects as tools in the training such as sticks, soft pieces of cloth and mirrors as well as the device of working with eyes closed which heightens the actor’s ability to feel what they are doing.
For an in-depth introduction to NSP see “Beyond the Stomp: The Nobbs Suzuki Praxis as an Australian variant of the Suzuki Method of Actor Training” by A Diedrich and F Barbe in the Routledge journal Theatre Dance and Performance Training (2023).
The NSP formats illustrated in video extracts below are
Video 1: ‘Peppermint Man’ and ‘Crimson & Clover’
Video 2: ‘Shaking All Over’ and ‘Minder Blinder’
The formats described verbally below are:
The videos are taken from archival footage of the symposium, Beyond the Stomp: The Nobbs Suzuki Praxis (April 2019) hosted at Charles Sturt University and curated by Robert Lewis, Jeremy Neideck and Frances Barbe.
Please Note: Music is deliberately not included in the videos due to copyright and so the videos are in silence. Because the training uses music in a very specific way music titles are provided so viewers can research the music themselves. Despite the obvious drawbacks, we decided to share the videos without music, proposing the viewer watch the bodies in silence to consider: What qualities from the music remain detectable in the body as they improvise?
Video 1: ‘Peppermint Man’ and ‘Crimson & Clover’
Video 2: ‘Shaking All Over’ and ‘Minder Blinder’
FORMATS DESCRIBED VERBALLY: ‘Spell’; ‘Bang Bang’; ‘Hangin’ Five’; ‘Rose Marie’
To music ‘I Put a Spell on You’ by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
The NSP exercise known as ‘Spell’ is named after the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song ‘I Put a Spell on You’. As mentioned in the above introduction, Nobbs attributes the start of NSP to his conception of this exercise, ‘Spell’ in 1995. Like many of the formats in NSP, ‘Spell’ can be considered as a variation of the slow motion walk in the original SMAT training, but with greater scope for open improvisation as the performers are encouraged to draw on or emulate the quality of the music as a source improvisation.
To prepare, performers stand in two lines on either side of the room with an imagined audience on the downstage or front side. The two lines will cross the space horizontally, so they should arrange themselves in the gaps so they can pass by without colliding.
As soon as the music starts, they begin to improvise, drawing on the quality of the instruments that start this song and the rhythm it offers. They can use all parts of the body, there are no limits of what body parts to use, and they can use different levels and speeds as well as stillness. They can go with or work in contrast to the music.
The performers must stay in their lane as they cross the space but they can move forwards and backwards within that lane. When they get to the other side of the room, they change direction and return to the other side of the space.
There is an instrumental break in the music during which they are often asked to ‘dance’. Since they have been moving up until now, this is a provocation to contemplate (through action) what the difference is between ‘dance’ and ‘movement’.
Vocally they ‘riff’ on the lyrics of the song, improvising freely with their voice alongside their physical improvisation. They select single words or phrases or whole lines to copy and then explore in their own voice. They use repetition to let something develop and evolve. They play with different pitches use different resonators in their bodies.
Overall there is a crazy, chaos quality to the singer’s voice and the song. There are vocalisations like giggling , laughter and other utterances. Performers are encouraged to emulate those sounds, take them into their voice and body to play with them and see what evolves. This can help them to access something new, messy, chaotic, but still grounded within the parameters of the format.
NSP often contrasts the idea of ‘movement’ with ‘dance’ as it does here in the instrumental section. This also happens in ‘Shaking all over’ (see video 2). It’s typically linked to a particular instrumental break in the music when performers are asked to ‘dance’. In some cases, they are asked to ‘dance the stick’ – so the body is still and they are asked to ‘dance the stick’. There is rarely any theoretical discussion as to what the objective difference between moving and dancing might be. The value is in the question posed to each individual to interrogate for themselves.
The training formats that follow here have varying degrees of limits to frame the freedom of open improvisation. In many ways, ‘Spell’ can be seen as one of the more open formats offering performers the challenge of an open improvisation with a very strong stimulus in the music and the vice of Screaming Jay Hawkins. The wild quality of the music can help some performers loosen the proverbial reins a little and find something new from themselves.
To the song Bang Bang (He Shot Me Down) in the version performed by Cher
This format is significant for the way it utilises song lyrics as text, providing an exploration of storytelling and connection to text within strict time/duration parameters as they speak the lyric in the same duration as the singer sings it.
The performers being standing in a row at the back of the space ready. They typically have one long or two short sticks in hand. On the introduction, they begin to improvise in the upper body and arms only. They should not move their legs or feet or start to walk until the singer starts to sing. They are exploring how to find freedom and new idea within highly limited parameters.
When the singers starts to sing the verse, they progress forward or backwards as they like. They can use levels, move fast or slow, go forwards or backwards, so long as they stay in their lane. The use of lanes is practical but also serves to cultivate freedom within structure. They work sculpturally with the sticks as an extension of the body. Musically, they use of the accents in the music to respond to with movement, or they are reinterpreting the quality of the music, the sounds of the instruments, or the quality of the singer’s voice in their movement.
They speak (not sing) the lyrics of the songs. They must say each line in the same duration it takes the singer to sing it. This encourages a play with speed and dynamics vocally. Within that parameter, they are free to play with pitch and resonance etc. There is a strong sense of storytelling in this song which helps them to use the lyrics as text. They play the words, ideas and story through their improvisation.
Every time the singer says ‘bang bang’ they must tap the floor or their own body with the stick, and say the words as she sings them. They are in both free improvisation and able to respond to specific instructions.
There is a cue in the music where they are asked to wiggle and shake, the quality of the Tamborine is taken into their body, and allowed to affect their voices as they continue to speak the lines “music played and people sang…” while wiggling.
The introduction of voice after particular physical experiences like wiggling at the end of ‘Bang Banh’ sensitises the actor to how the body can inform the voice, or how they can have a very different quality in the body and the voice. There is another example in the following exercise, ‘Hangin Five’ but this time with bouncing.
To the song ‘Hangin Five’ by the Delltones.
This exercise is significant as an example of NSP playfully using Australian surfing music and cultural references in the training. It is often done with an object in hand such as a stick or a soft cloth. The strict parameters around space and time are also typical of NSP formats. The strict parameters help actor’s to find something new as a result of limitations. For example in ‘Hanging Five’ they start the improvisation in the upper body only. Not being allowed to move their feet encourages them to find more possibilities in the upper body.
The performer begins at the back of the space facing an imagined audience. When the music begins they improvise in the upper body and arms only for the introduction, not moving feet or walking until the singing begins.
At a certain point in the music they can start moving forward, continuing their improvisation, but now with locomotion forward or backward as they like. They can use levels, move fast or slow. They can use the accents and rhythms in the music to support their improvisation.
By the very first word of the chorus, they must have their toes hanging over the edge of the stage or over a line at the front of the training space. They should not be early. They must not be late either. If one person doesn’t make it, often the whole group will start again. This repetition is done in a good-humoured way, not as punitive discipline, but to reiterate that sometimes in performance, that level of mindful attention to detail is required, even when improvising. Around that space-time structure, the performer can improvise creatively with the idea of surfing, ocean, water, waves, sharks and so on. They should avoid literally miming things. Instead, they should allow their response to the stimulus of ocean and surfing to be somewhat stylised or abstracted rather than literal representations. For example, they might imagine being dumped by a wave, but perform that in slow motion to see what arises in body and imagination. They might imagine themselves bobbing in the water like seaweed or balancing on a surfboard. Perhaps the stick they are carrying becomes the seaweed.
There is a ‘bobbing’ quality to the end of the song. As the song fades out, they are asked to take that bobbing quality into their bodies, whatever that means to them. Typically, they are then asked to speak one of the training speeches, while keeping up the bobbing quality in the body as they add voice.
The introduction of voice after particular physical experiences sensitise the actor to how the body can inform the voice, or how they can have a very different quality in the body and the voice. These kinds of improvisations also present trainees with imaginative challenges to which they respond physically through the body. Flexibility of the imagination is emphasised in NSP. If Nobbs and Carroll see someone being stuck or limited by literal fixation on the stimulus, they will offer suggestions to help get them out of that. Those suggestions might be to use of slow motion or super-fast motion, or they might be more imagistic, to call out ‘shark attack’ just to free them being stuck in a pattern and to get the performer responding instinctively to a suggestion in the moment and integrating that suggestion into their improvisation in whatever way they like. These will be directed either to the whole group or to one individual who might need to help to avoid getting stuck. The focus of improvisation in NSP is not so much the generation of material for a creative process. Rather it is to develop the quality of the performer’s attention, their capacity for imaginative flexibility in improvisation and their ability to integrate structure or instruction within improvisation.
To the song Rose Marie by Slim Whitman (1954). The exercise is also called Teddy Bears sometimes, because of the toy object it incorporates. It is a good example of how NSP formats draw on specific musical qualities to inform the actor’s work physically, vocally and imaginative. There is a somewhat fragile shaky quality to everything in this song, from the old vinyl recording still evident in the digitised version, to the simple piano accompaniment and certainly Slim’s voice in this love song. Again, there are strict parameters of time and space to adhere to that provides a structure for an otherwise very open improvisation.
The performer starts facing a wall, with their back facing the direction of the audience. Each performer has situated a teddy bear or soft toy of some kind downstage in line with their position. They will move towards ‘teddy’ during the first part of the exercise. During the instrumental introduction they must start to turn when the music starts, while keeping their feet planted and one hand connected to the wall. They must sustain this one simple action – turning – for much longer than might feel comfortable. The intent is the limitations might help them to discover more possibilities.
When Slim starts to sing the first lyrics, they should step off, moving forward towards the audience at first sustaining the position they had on the wall as they move off. Gradually that position can dissolve and evolve as the improvisation progresses. They move towards the teddy bear or object who becomes a kind of witness or scene partner in their work.
On a very precise agreed music cue they must pick up teddy, integrating the object into their work. Sometimes this is with a sudden jump and spin throwing the teddy and catching it again.
As they retreat backwards away from the audience to the back wall where they began, they improvise, with the object, mindful of their own gaze, teddy’s focus and the gaze of the imagined audience. The teddy should not be a dead object, it should be carried in such a way that the object is activated and connected to the actor and their work.
They must arrive at the back wall with teddy touching the wall at a very specific moment in the music. Teddy should be facing the audience and the performer should be facing teddy with their back to the imagined audience. In a sense, they are looking through teddy to the audience.
The exercise ends with the invitation to speak text, using the experience of the exercise to inform their voice. This includes drawing on the quality of the music and the singer’s voice to affect the quality of the voice when speaking. The performer is invited to speak: first in their own voice (whatever that means to them); then in ‘teddy’s voice’ (whatever that means to them); and finally to mix teddy’s voice and their own voice.