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.

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