Monday, 27 November 2006

Frank Grotowski Principles

The FRANK summation of Polish theatre director
Jerzy Grotowski’s approach and work:
by John Nobbs

Whilst teaching and performing in Mongolia in August 2006, I read and was inspired by Eugenio Barba's account of his time with Jerzy Grotowski. Grotowski in the period between 1959 and the late sixties was in the vanguard of the movement that revolutionised theatre practice within progressive elements in the West, taking it from the realm of historical re-enactment to a place much more meta-physical. Through his acutely perceptive religio-spirituality, Grotowski was able to articulate an approach for redefining theatre as a spiritual arena that could supplant contemporary Christian artistic expression that had been enfeebled by a century's erosion of Darwin's evolutionary science. I became intrigued by the notion of updating Grotowski's Statement of Principles and shunting it into the now by cross pollinating it with the Frank Suzuki Performance Aesthetics.

Picture of John Nobbs and Ira Seidenstein training in Switzerland 2006

I 'translated' sections of his manifesto into 'FrankSpeak' for several reasons. It must be taken into consideration that Grotowski's vision was digested in the west within the socio-political climate of the positive 'swinging sixties' when the 'transgressive' and 'sacrificial' aspects of his approach were most revelatory and appropriate. The early years of the 21st century find us in a more fearful situation where people, bombarded with information, are brought up to be NICE (No-one Inside Cares Enough) under a Post -Modern cosmology. People are encouraged to be more self-important and they find 'transgression' is not nice and 'sacrifice' is too demanding. Another consideration is that the 'sacrificial' content in Grotowski's process begot its fair share of psychological collateral damage. This can be put down to two main factors:
1) Any pioneering psychological quest is pushing into delicate psychic areas and there will always be mishaps for which there are no contingencies,
2) The exercises invented to promote the 'research' are more heavily weighted towards transgression and sacrifice rather than focussing on psychic sustainability.
The Suzuki Actor Training Method (SATM) and its more western variant , the Frank Suzuki Performance Aesthetics (FSPA), are specifically constructed to foster the psychic research, but corralled within a highly methodical process, that protects and sustains the entire corpus of the actor. So, confident of the aptitude of the FSPA, it is now time to reassess Mr Grotowski's Principles in the light of the greater knowledge that he must be admired for instigating. The most crucial difference between Mr G's process and Frank's is that we consider the purpose is TRANSFORMATIOM not Transgression, and the process is not sacrificial but sustainable.

In the following 'translation' or interpolation, the words and sentences in Capitals are Frankspeak and the lower case is Grotowski's original.

It demonstrates two things, I think:
1) The universality of the meta-physics of human performance, and
2) a possible pathway for transfiguring an aesthetic approach that was borne of a Polish ghetto (both Fascist and Communist) into the millennial comfort zone of urban Brisbane.


THE PACE OF MODERN LIFE IS SO CHAOTIC THAT WE LOSE OUR SENSE OF ‘SELF’AND REPLACE IT WITH masks and roles. WE LIKE TO BE CIVILISED, BUT WE ALSO DESIRE INDIVIDUATION. Therefore we play a double game of intellect and instinct, thought and emotion; we try to divide ourselves artificially into body and soul. WE THEN SUFFER FROM A LACK OF ‘COMPLETENESS’. When we try to liberate ourselves from it, we convulse to the rhythm of biological chaos.
Theatre provides an opportunity for what could be called THE RE-INTEGRATION OF BODY AND SOUL. Here we can see the theatre's therapeutic function for people in our present day civilization. NOT ONLY IS IT true that the actor accomplishes this act ON BEHALF OF THE SPECTATOR, but he can only do so through an encounter with the spectator. NOTHING SHOULD GET BETWEEN THE ACTOR AND HIS AUDIENCE, not a cameraman, wardrobe mistress, stage designer or make-up girl, BUT, INSTEAD, IN DIRECT ENGAGEMENT WITH HIM, and somehow, VICARIOUSLY, "instead of" him. THE ACTOR’S PERFORMANCE - discarding half measures, OPENING UP himself as opposed to closing up - is an invitation to the spectator. This act could be compared to A GENTLE SACRIFICE, paradoxical and borderline, in our opinion SUCH A PERFORMANCE epitomizes the actor's HIGHest calling.
We NEED SO MUCH PSYCHIC ENERGY TO ACHIEVE THIS STATE not in order to teach THE AUDIENCE but to learn with them what our UNIQUE MORTAL experience has to TEACH us; to learn to EXPLORE NEW METAPHYSICAL SPACES, TO FREE US FROM THE CONFINES OF QUOTIDIAN TIME AND DOMESTIC SPACE; in short: to fulfil ourselves. Art is MORE THAN AN EXRESSION, OR A MANIFESTATION OF THE state of man (in the sense of a profession or social function); art is a ripening, an evolution, an uplifting which enables us to emerge from darkness into a blaze of light.
We NEED TO DIG DEEPER to discover, to experience the truth about ourselves; to GO BEHIND the masks behind which we hide daily. We see theatre - especially in its palpable, VISCERAL aspect - as a place of TRANSFORMATION, a challenge the actor sets himself and also, LESS INTENSELY THE AUDIENCE. Theatre only has a meaning if it allows us to transcend our stereotyped VIEW OF OURSELVES, our conventional feelings and customs, our standards of judgment - not just for the sake of doing so, but so that we may experience what is real and, AFTER FINDING A SPACE THAT VOIDS all daily escapes and pretences, WE discover ourselves. In this way - through THE shock AND shudder which causes us to drop our daily masks and mannerisms - we are able, without hiding anything, to entrust ourselves to something we cannot name but in which live Eros and Charitas.
Art SHOULD NOT be bound by the laws of COMMERCIALITY OR POLITICAL catechism. The actor, at least in part, is creator, model and creation rolled into one- He must not be shameless as that leads to exhibitionism. He must have MORAL courage, but not merely the courage to exhibit himself - a passive courage, we might say: the courage of the defenceless, the MORAL courage to reveal himself. Neither that which touches the interior sphere, nor the profound stripping bare of the self should be regarded as evil so long as in the process of preparation or in the completed work they produce an act of creation. If they do not come easily and if they are not MERELY signs of IDIOSYNCRACY but of A PROFOUND SEARCH FOR ‘SELF’, then they are creative: they reveal and EXPRESS us AS we TRANSFORM ourselves.
For these reasons every aspect of an actor's TRAINING dealing with SELF DISCOVERY should AVOID SUPERFICIALITY AND be protected from NEGATIVE remarks, PERSONAL CRITICISMS and indiscrete comments and jokes. The personal realm - both spiritual and physical - must not be "swamped" by triviality, the sordidness of life and lack of tact towards oneself and others; at least not in the TRAINING SPACE. This postulate sounds like a WANKY moral order. It is not. It involves the very essence of the actor's calling. This calling is realized through VISCERALITY. The actor must not DECORATE but INTERROGATE an "act of the soul" by means of his own organism. Thus he is faced with two extreme alternatives: he can either sell, dishonour, his real "incarnate" self, making himself an object of artistic prostitution; or he can give himself, sanctify his real "incarnate" self.

An actor can only be guided and inspired by A DIRECTOR who is whole-heartedly CONCERNED WITH THE ACTOR’S creative activity. The DIRECTOR, while guiding and inspiring the actor, must at the same time allow himself to be guided and inspired by THE ACTOR’S EXPERIENCE- it is a question of freedom AND partnership, and this does not imply a lack of discipline but a respect for the autonomy of others. Respect for the actor's autonomy does not mean LACK OF STRUCTURE, lack of DIRECTION, never ending discussions and the replacement of action by continuous CUPS OF COFFEE AND CIGARETTES. On the contrary, respect for autonomy means enormous demands, the expectation of a maximum creative effort and the most RIGOROUS INTENT. Understood thus, the actor's PROGRESS can only be born from the KNOWLEDGE of the DIRECTOR and not from his lack of MORAL STRENGTH. Such a lack implies imposition, PREVARIFICATION, superficial dressage.

An act of creation IS IMPEDED BY either TOO MUCH comfort or conventional human civility; that is to say working conditions in which everybody is UNFOCUSSED AND NICE. It demands a maximum of silence and a minimum of words. In this kind of creativity we PROCEED through proposals, actions and THE FEELING INSIDE THE BODY, not through SELF-REFERENTIAL CHITCHAT. When we finally find ourselves on the track of something COMPLEX, SUBTLE and often DIFFICULT TO DEFINE, we have no right to lose it through frivolity and carelessness. Therefore, even during breaks after which we will be continuing with the creative process, we are obliged to observe certain natural reticences in our behaviour and even in our private affairs. This applies just as much to our own work as to the work of our partners. We must not interrupt and disorganize the work because we are hurrying to our own affairs; we must not peep, comment or make jokes about it privately. In any case, private Ideas of fun have no place in the actors calling. In our approach to creative tasks, even if the theme is IMPROVISATION, we must be in a state of readiness - one might even say “SINCERITY". THIS working ETIQUETTE which serves as a PROCESS, NEED not be TAKEN OUTSIDE THE WORK INTO a private context.
A creative act of this HIGH quality NEEDS TO BE performed in a COMMUNAL LANDSCAPE I.E.WITHIN A TEAM, and THIS limits EGOCENTRICITY. AN ACTOR’S INDIVIDUATION MUST PRESUPPOSE THE ACCEPTANCE OF HIS FELLOW PERFORMERS OWN INDIVIDUATION. NO ACTOR has the right to correct his partner. THIS IS THE SOLE FUNCTION OF THE DIRECTOR. Intimate or drastic elements in the work of others are untouchable and should not be commented upon even in their absence. Private conflicts, quarrels, sentiments, animosities are unavoidable in any human group. It is our duty towards creation to keep them in check in so far as they might deform and wreck the work process. We are obliged to open ourselves up even towards an enemy.
It has been mentioned several times already but we can never stress and explain too often the fact that we must never exploit privately anything connected with the creative act: i.e. location, costume, props, an element from the acting score a melodic theme or lines from the text. This rule applies to the smallest detail and there can be no exceptions. We did not make this rule simply to pay tribute to a special artistic devotion. We are not interested in grandeur and noble words, but our awareness and experience tell us that lack of strict adherence to such rules causes the actors score to become deprived of its psychic motives and "radiance."

A SENSE OF INTENT IN THE CHARACTER OF THE ACTOR ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT REQUIREMENT without which a creative act cannot take place. We SEE it IN the actors who come to theatre to ENGAGE themselves in extreme SITUATIONS, a TYPE OF MORAL challenge REQUIRING a DEEP response from every one of us. They come to test themselves in something very PROFOUND that reaches beyond the USUAL meaning of "theatre" and is more like an act of TRANSFORMATION. This outline possibly sounds A BIT WANKY however, if we try to explain it theoretically, we might say that the theatre and acting are for us a kind of vehicle allowing us to emerge from our OLD SELF, to DISCOVER A NEW SELF. We could TALK ABOUT THIS FOREVER. However, anyone who STICKS AT THE TRAINING OVER THE LONG TERM BECOMES perfectly aware that what we are talking about can be grasped less through grandiose words than through details, demands and the rigours of work in all its elements. FORTUNATELY the individual who disturbs the basic elements, who does not for example respect his own and the others’ acting score, destroying its structure by shamming or automatic reproduction, BECOMES DISSATISFIED WITH THE TRAINING AND LEAVES. IN THIS WAY THE TRAINING WEEDS OUT THOSE WHO ARE NOT SUITED TO THE DEMANDS OF THIS TYPE OF THEATRE.

Creativity, especially where acting is concerned, is boundless sincerity, yet GIVEN SHAPE BY TRAINING AND REHEARSING. The creative ACTOR should not therefore find his material a barrier in this respect. And as the actor's MOST IMPORTANT material is his own body, it should be trained to obey, to be pliable, to respond IMAGINATively to psychic impulses as if THE EGO did not exist during the moment of creation - by which we mean THE ACTOR does not offer any resistance. IMAGINATION and SELF-DEFINITION are the basic aspects of an actor's work and they require a methodical SYSTEM.
Before AN ACTOR CAN PERFORM COMPELLINGLY he must first EXPERIENCE SOMETHING REAL and then REFLECT, accordingly ON THAT EXPERIENCE. THIS ‘EXPERIENCE’ BECOMES PART OF HIS ‘HISTORY’, ALONGSIDE HIS natural convictions, prior observations and experiences in life. The basic foundations of OUR TRAINING method constitute GAINING THIS LIFE EXPERIENCE IN THE FORM OF BODY HISTORY. Our PHILOSOPHY is geared to CREATING A SAFE ENVIRONMENT FOR DISCOVERING THIS BODY HISTORY. Therefore anybody who comes and TRAINS here VERY QUICKLY can claim a knowledge of the FRANK THEATRE’S methodOLOGY. Anyone who comes and works here and then wants to keep his distance (as regards creative consciousness) shows the wrong kind of care for his own individuality. The etymological meaning of "individuality" is "indivisibility" which means complete existence in something: individuality is the very opposite of half-heartedness. We maintain, therefore, that those who come and TRAIN IN THE FSPA discover something deeper INSIDE THEMSELVES, preparing THEM FOR PERFORMANCE. Since they accept this consciously, we presume that each of the participants feels obliged to train TO THEIR UTMOST creatively IN THE TRAINING and try to ACHIEVE HIS OWN UNIQUE INDIVIDUATION, WHILE STILL BEING open to risks and search. For what we here call "the TRAINING" is the very opposite of any sort of prescription.
The main point then is that an actor should not try to acquire any kind of recipe or build up a "box of tricks." THE THEATRE is no place for exhibiting all sorts of meaningless expressions. The gravitas in our work pushes the actor towards an interior ripening which expresses itself through a willingness to break through barriers, to search for a "summit", for totality.
The actor's first duty is to grasp the fact that nobody here wants to TAKE AWAY anything; instead WE plan to ADD a lot TO him, to GO BEYOND that to which he is usually very attached: his resistance, reticence, his inclination to hide behind masks, his half-heartedness, the obstacles his body places in the way of his creative act, his habits and even his usual "good manners".

Before an actor is able to achieve TRANSFORMATIVE PRESENCE he has to fulfil a number of requirements, some of which are so subtle, so intangible, as to be practically undefinable through words. They only become plain through practical application. It is easier, however, to define conditions under which TRANSFORMATIVE PRESENCE cannot be achieved and which of the actor's actions make it impossible. This act cannot exist if the actor is more concerned with charm, personal success, applause and salary than with creation as understood in its highest form. It cannot exist if the actor conditions it according to the size of his part, his place in the performance, the day or kind of audience. There can be no TRANSFORMATIVE PRESENCE if the actor dissipates his creative impulse by the premeditated use of the creative act as a means to further own career.

Friday, 17 November 2006

Teaching machines

The Teaching Machine:

A few years ago whilst watching our company train, I realized how much I had learnt from the training. For the first few years of our existence the training had primarily been directed towards skill acquisition-exercises designed to strengthen the actor’s voice and body giving them the ability to generate the most power they possibly could.

I was satisfied with this approach for the first 4 or 5 years, because working on myself, I was pushing the finite possibilities of my own structure. As I reached my fullest physical and vocal potential, I found that I had hit a type of wall - I had reached a point where my voice and body was not getting stronger or bigger. After weathering a period of frustration, I began looking at the more creative prospects that lay inside the body’s potential. This led me to expand the training range by developing exercises that encouraged more imaginative shifts and levels- first of all in movement patterns and textures, and by extension into vocalizing. I think the first such exploration was ‘I Put a Spell on You’ by Screaming Jay Hawkins.

By this stage many of the other Frank performers had achieved similar levels of proficiency in accessing their latent power, so a shift in creative priorities as pertinent to their growth as well. This shift could not have occurred until after the actors had achieved their fullest possible visceral potential. A comparison can be made with the training of a sports team, where all the players, through a series of simple, demanding and repetitive exercises achieve a level of expertise which they can instinctively draw upon during the heat of play. More of this in another chapter….

Some of the exercises then evolved to such a level that whilst the actors were doing certain vocal and or physical activities, I would be able to throw in a command with a generational shift. For example, if they were doing a ‘spastic’ dance sequence to the Sax solo in ‘I put a spell on you’, I could say: ’Dance with one hand stuck to the floor!’. This shift in demand would create an extra frisson of energy in the entire room for a couple of reasons:-
1) It would be expected of the actors that they would somehow maintain whatever they were doing, whilst adding the extra elliptical element.
2) They would often not fully understand what I had said (because I was in a new ‘space’ myself and very much thinking on my feet) and this provided an even greater frisson of energy amongst the actors as they went about their business, trying to do something new, whilst asking themselves:-“ What did he say? What did he mean? What did he want?’ This frisson is caused by that question that now hovers in the space………but we’ll return to that point a little later.

I had a precedent for moving in this direction for during my times in training with Suzuki, I had seen him on any number of occasions give complicated instructions half way through an exercise. I sensed that the actors had often not quite understood his request, but nevertheless had maintained deportment and endeavoured to implement what he had said whist staying inside the activity.

As I did this more and more with our actors I became more elliptical and less prescriptive with the requests/demands. This was partially because they had developed the requisite ‘talent’ to be compelling no matter what they did and my being more vague meant there was more plurality about the whole atmosphere. As well, it meant the trainer, myself, by not making explicit demands was imposing lees of himself on the group. The group had to be more self-generative and invent their own ‘instructions’ because they couldn’t fully understand or hear mine. It also meant that the actors owned the experience more, that they had made their own experience.

As I noticed the shift in temperature of the room, either when Suzuki was taking rehearsals/training or when I was training Frank, I began to feel the effect of the frisson on myself. Because the actors were on such a level of sophistication, I felt that the combination of their talent and my suggestions had taken the ‘organism’ of the training to a higher pitch, a newer more exciting plane. I then felt that I had learnt something from the experience- that the experience had taught me something. This frisson was most often something intangible- a feeling if you like, which would take time to homologate into something more concrete.. Because I had learnt from working with the actors I was rejuvenated- I was not only in the position of just giving out information, I had achieved a situation where the actors were ‘teaching’ me. The word ’teaching’ is a simplified code for what is a complicated transaction, where the environmental combination of the actor’s skills and my suggestions had created an atmosphere that I could ‘read’. One could describe that ‘atmosphere’ as a type of organism or learning machine.

The more elliptical my demands, the more compelling the atmosphere became, which I suppose meant that the more elliptical I became, the less I was imposing myself on the situation and therefore the more I could learn from the experience. In any learning situation, the less one prescribes, imposes or proffers, the more one is likely to learn. Witness the old adage: Shut up and Listen!

In our long term observations of Suzuki’s process, one of the things that intrigued us was exactly how did he gain his exceptional choreographic and scenic skills? In our limited reading of his history, he was studying political science at his university and gradually became attached to the undergraduate drama society. At one stage he found himself caretaking the situation when the extreme elements manned the barricades at Narita in 1968. He must have seemed at that point to be an unlikely candidate for future theatrical greatness, having had no training in any aspects of a director’s craft.
As he progressed along his artistic path he must have picked up the necessary skills, because, now, in any estimation, he has considerable facility as a lighting designer, director, choreographer, vocal coach, costumier, scenic designer and dramaturg.
So, where did he get it??

Once I’d trained Frank to a level where they could, in their improvisations ‘teach’ me, I began to conjecture that Suzuki may well have done the same thing. As I recalled my experiences of working with him as well as observing, I remembered the ‘climate’ of the room when he was making suggestions. Although this must have happened in the rehearsals it was harder to tell because I don’t understand Japanese, so couldn’t read the complexities. In the training the ‘climate’ was more apparent because I was aware of the structures and formats and I could more easily read the shifts.

A good example of this was Suzuki’s conducting of a training session for myself and a group of his actors who were performing in the Shizuoka Theatre Olympics in 1999. We were doing an exercise called Agiteketen, where we stand rooted to the spot, legs and bodies still whilst our arms as straight as rods wave around chaotically as fast as possible.
This exercise is demanding and compelling as it stands, but one day Suzuki said:
”STOP! I want you to do it again , but this time just move as fast as you can, jumping , hopping what ever –just don’t stop and make every movement as crazy as possible”
I don’t understands Japanese , but it must have been words to that effect as they all began hopping and jumping around like Colonel Parker’s chickens at an Elvis concert. The look on their faces was something to behold, as their expressions said:” I’ve got no idea what I’m doing or why I’m doing it, but I’d better keep going and try and work out what it is while I’m doing it!” Pretty impressive! Luckily I was in the next group so I had a bit of warning, but I bet I looked as confused as the others.
On reflecting upon such experiences and transposing them to my training of the Frankies it gradually dawned on me that this may have been the process he employed, however intuitively, to gain the immense and varied skills he has today.
This means that he is using the training to train himself as much as the actors under his charge- much more than just telling the actors what to do- he was using the training as a teaching machine!
The more I applied this dictum to our own work, I began to see the deeper implications. I began to surmise that one’s actual cultural aesthetic, as it were, could emanate from this machine, and by extension the political and philosophical actions could likewise be given shape and focus from the ‘organism’. Of course as they ripple out further, they become more abstract and eliptical.
I don’t see why this 'teaching machine‘ conceit should not be applied to any other field of endeavour, the more ‘creative’ the field the more directly applicable.
In 2004 Frank Theatre was asked to take part in the Financing Innovative Growth (FIG) program. This is a Queensland Government sponsored series of seminars for young ‘turk’ businesses, predominantly in the IT sector, to gain the necessary smarts to go from the garage to the factory floor.
We were invited because we were seen as the hippest theatre company in the state and we were surrounded by highly motivated, forward thinking people on the cusp of success and it was highly instructive to be in this milieu, even though their core businesses were very different from ours. In the course of the seminars I could see that though there were many things separating our’ businesses’, there were also things we held in common. At the end of the day all businesses are essentially about coordinating and training people.
As I chatted and observed these people who were enterprisingly searching for ways to configure their aspirations, I could see that my ‘learning machine’ principle could apply to any other culture. I then cast back through all the biographies I had read over the years and realised that all of the so-called ‘successful’ people had devised or discovered some device, organism, mechanism, zone, diagram, mental attitude, image, sound, that they could sit back and read.
With all of these people the ability to ‘read’ was a crucial requirement. This ‘reading’ ability was the ability to think out of the square so to speak, to not think head-on, linearly, but from an angle, in an oblique fashion, to think laterally( in the words of Edward de Bono). Another way of putting it is to say they could think beyond rationality- they could think poetically. This put them in the position of being more receptive than projective.
So, discoverers from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs would invent something and see the invention not so much as an achievement but as a springboard for generating future creative shifts. (Incidently, Jobs apparently will only hire people who can draw-people who can illustrate their thinking process and present their imaginations in hard copy).
I think that when creative, successful people such as Bill Gates invent a device, then they don’t have to initiate the next stage. If they turn their invention into a ‘listening machine’ it will show them the next way top go.