Friday, 30 March 2007

Interview from Canada

Kai Raisbeck, Student of the University of Tasmania writing as an
exchange student at the University of Ottawa, Canada, 2007

INTERVIEW WITH JOHN NOBBS co-director Frank Theatre
for a Research Paper on Frank Theatre

1. What are the fundamental differences between the Suzuki Actor Training Method (SATM) and the Frank Suzuki Performance Aesthetic (FSPA)?

The FSPA is a translation and decoding of the SATM. Jacqui and I contend that the SATM is universal and applicable to any theatre situation anywhere, but it is often pigeonholed as ‘oriental’ and even ‘a samurai acting style’. The exercises I have invented are there to make this universality more apparent by utilising modern western songs and formats that are more accessible.
EXAMPLE: within an improvisation, instead of using the ‘shakuhachi’ Japanese flute that symbolises natural forces, I often use a surfing instrumental song of the 60’s such as ‘Pipeline’ that equivalently symbolises nature in a way that is wholly modern and western. Exercises such as this de-emphasise the ‘eastern mystique’ the training can engender.

2. Reading information on your website it states that one of yourmissions is to join Australian and Japanese theatre styles together. Iknow that you base a lot of your actor training on the work of TadashiSuzuki but are there Australian elements you are including in yourtechniques and training?A:
Following on from the first question, stomping is one of the signature elements of the SATM and can be misconstrued as a form of purgatorial catharsis if not taught properly. I realised one day that here in Australia, we had a ‘stomping’ culture in the 60’s in the form of the social dances that ‘surfies ‘used to do (witness songs such as: “He’s my blonde headed stompy wompy real live surfer boy, yeah, yeah, yeah ,yeah”- I kid you not!) This ‘stomping ‘culture was a uniquely Aussie phenomenon and we ‘own’ it, so now we do ‘Stomping at Maroubra’ followed by ‘Pipeline’.

Another aspect of the ‘Aussie’ quotient is that we have visited Suzuki in Japan every year since 1994 and, rather than becoming more Japanese, as popular opinion might expect, we have, in fact, had our ‘Aussieness’ fostered by using Japan as a cultural viewing platform from which to observe our work in Brisbane.
3. Do you think that Australian theatre has a unique fingerprint incomparison to works in the UK and the US? And if so, what qualities doyou consider as exclusively Australian?

I think Australian Theatre, with few exceptions, suffers from the same weaknesses as most other western theatre. I here list four of the major aesthetic weaknesses as I see them:

Re-enactments of the theatre styles of yore (yet another Shakespeare set, this time, (how modern!) in Fascist Italy, where the costumes are different but the delivery is essentially Olivier circa 1953)
Kitsch entertainment (Menopause The Musical)
Sub-Marxist rants against incumbent conservative politicians.
Post-Modern elliptical (non) performances that earnestly attempt to integrate banal multi-media to make theatre more ‘relevant’.

The continuing structural myopia is the obsession with words- most people in the ‘Anglo’ world equate theatre with writing. Theatre is the performance of writing. Writing is an important component of theatre, but it is not the most important. The most important factor is the sensibility of the human energy, shaped by the director vision, that is delivering the text. In many productions it would have been more interesting for the audience to take the book home and read it alone in bed!

4. I have noticed that a lot of the Suzuki Actor Training Method is based on extreme physical training.(Part 1) How much importance do you put on thephysicality (the movement quality and use) of the performer? (Part 2)

A: (Part 1)
The extreme physical training you refer to is necessary because FSPA training is essentially experiential in nature. By that I mean that the actor is meant to really experience something, to truly know and feel themselves in that experience, not to just think they are ‘doing something’. For us theatre is more than an intellectual or literary or dramaturgical or emotional or psychological occasion. It must have all of these elements, but the primary ingredient, that which makes it truly exciting, as exciting as a football game, is the expression of visceral human energy. That energy is often unquantifiable (Suzuki has called it ‘animal’ energy) but it is always apparent in all exciting performances. This animal energy is a holistic compendium of the physical, vocal, emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of the actor.

(Part 2)
Following on from the Question 3, the words are the intellectual information and exist as documents in their own right outside the performance, so it is incumbent on the practitioner to give them shape and depth, way beyond the capabilities of the printed page. The performance should be a landscape of time and space, wherein the text can perceived in a new and unique fashion, revealing to the audience nuances and insights not apparent on reading the book.
This time and space landscape not only includes set and costumes but also the appearance and ‘feel’ of the actor. So, the actor’s sense of space and time must be addressed and enhanced, otherwise all we get is another ’talking head’. Since all performances are essentially myths, the actor must have a physical presence that transcends daily gesture to create a holistic portrait that invites the audience into the myth. Of course this ‘physical ability’ must be fostered in the training and rehearsal process.
5. In reading Essay 2 on the OzFrank website I was intrigued by thenotion of enhancing all elements of the actor's skills in their training. I realise that training is more a qualitative process than a quantitative but how much time is spent ideally on the actors training for a member of the Frank theatre?

This may well have been answered to some extent above, but for us the training performs three main functions:

1) Trains the actor,
2) Trains the director /trainer,
3) Develops the company aesthetic.

All these functions are addressed all the time in the FSPA. A new trainee can gain a working knowledge of the training very quickly but to truly absorb the ‘whole’ gestalt with its Zen-like psychological underpinnings will take as long as it will take (6, 8, 15 years ?) Time is not the issue-in fact time is the process!…… The exploration can only take place ‘on the floor’ so dedication of mind and body over the long term is the one absolutely essential ingredient. The ‘learning’ process is carried from the training through the rehearsal and into performance so it is all seamless after you are invited to become a company member. 6. What other influences have you had primarily apart from the work ofTadashi Suzuki?

Before meeting Suzuki, both Jacqui and I had extensive careers in dance, she as Teacher and Choreographer and myself as a modern dancer. Jacqui is a highly respected choreographer of works that range from conceptual and minimalist to big classical works and she is also a very qualified teacher of most of the major dance forms from primitive to ballet technique. We both had close collaboration with many of the world’s most accomplished dance artists so that when we were faced with Mr Suzuki’s theatre style we could recognise where it stood on an international level. Being from the dance world we were comfortable with theatre that wasn’t obsessed with words.

Parallel with that, we were able to apply our kinaesthetic knowledge to the analysis of Mr Suzuki’s training method and divine the universal practice from that which was intrinsically Japanese. Being able to distinguish between the two enabled us to develop the FSPA as an East/West hybrid.7. I have noticed that the tale of Hamlet and Macbeth has been tackled by your company on two occasions, what was the purpose of this and what were you looking for (philosophically, unexplored areas, content etc.) inexploring it a second time round?

Both the first productions of Hamlet (Heavy Metal Hamlet) and Macbeth (The Tale of Macbeth: Crown of Blood) are essentially classic distillations of the plays as written, and even though many people would have thought them ‘striking and different’, they are really only linear reductions of the originals.

The more recent versions, Hamlet Stooged and, work-under-construction, Voodoo Macbeth, in no way attempt to reproduce the play at all, but are essays reflecting Jacqui’s deep interest in the psychic and archetypal elements within the stories.
There are two reasons for this, actually, one reason in two parts:
1) As a director, Jacqui feels that first one must address the classic elements of a canon, before embarking on the more explorative and interrogative journeys that lie inside a great text.
2) The actors needed to develop their skills by testing themselves within the landscape of the great stories e.g. Can they rise to the challenge of speaking the great lines from the great plays?

Now that the essential skill levels have been achieved and the style of the company become more defined, a further, much more creative phase has been entered and it is imperative for Jacqui to be likewise more self-challenging as a director by making more personal statements.

8. What elements do you look for in a good topic, theme or story to choose for a new piece?

A: So far the works that Frank has produced have dealt with tales that are extant, that are part of the collective history of world theatre. Studied and brought to a new life by Jacqui’s re-arranging of them they challenge both the director and the actor to renegotiate moderately familiar territory. The texts are always reconfigured and edited.

For example, permission by living Australian playwright, Ray Lawler to allow Jacqui to re-invent his Summer of the Seventeenth Doll into a theatrical fantasy, renamed Doll Seventeen, was sought and permission given. Jacqui excised approximately 85% of the original text and reduced the work to one act. Ray Lawler, in an extraordinary and unusual act of faith, allowed this to happen. He, among living playwrights, is an absolute rarity which is why Jacqui was able to re-invent this current text. This is the only work of this nature in the company’s repertoire. (see reviews and photos on our website

Because we believe that the words are a starting point from which a work of theatre will emerge, Frank’s repertoire is invented out of texts that can be manipulated to create montage/collage. The work itself will contain text, movement, music and dance in whatever form the work requires during its creation. However, even the most extreme works that are created do have a beginning, a middle and an end…they have form.

So, selecting works for presentation is based on availability of text that can be manipulated and have a cogent internal storyline that is familiar. Also Jacqui has a strong desire to tap into her psyche map and to make manifest her vision of the play’s central conceit using the actor’s unique energies as the most important element.

Example: Hamlet Stooged! was firstly re-assembled by Jacqui from Shakespeare’s script into a new format and then re-written by myself in a sort-of Wayne’s World/Simpsons/Clockwork Orange dialogue. The original cadences of Shakespeare’s writing were assiduously reproduced within the new words (my words in bold, Shakespeare’s in brackets) eg

(Am I a coward? Who calls me villain? Breaks my pate across?
Plucks my beard and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? Gives me the lie in the throat as deep
as to the lungs? Who does me this? Ha!)
9. I was reading the chapter titled: 'The Nigels; Bits and Pieces', thefirst entry 'Letter to a friend', in your book Frankly Acting, and in it you saidthat it is the director's responsibility to create the aesthetic of thepiece, to create a good space for the actors to work in. You alsomentioned that when directors adopt the 'moral mantle of newness' thatthey create a negative space and that they suck the energy from theactors, could you elaborate on this?

I have thought further on this subject since the book was published. If one agrees with the following statement, it can be used as a starting point:-
“One cannot learn from one’s peers, because by definition they are in the same place. One has to go to someone who is further down the track that is prepared to take the responsibility for imparting knowledge. One learns alongside one’s peers”.
From our perspective a director’s moral responsibility is to take the actor on a journey, beyond what he already is capable of achieving (you’ll find that many great theatre directors have, as well, been very able coaches and teachers).

To function in this position they must stand for something - they must have a set of tenets they believe, a vision of the world AND their relationship to that vision. It may be idiosyncratic as long as it is highly definable (definitely NOT empty and easy statements such as ‘World peace’ or ‘Everybody can read into my plays what they would like)’.Their productions become reflective of this ‘Mind-Map’ and become effectively a psychic landscape where the actors, by interpolating their own personas, discover or refine new versions of themselves. Most directors absolve themselves from this responsibility by saying things like: “What do YOU feel like doing now?” This reveals that all they are doing is managing the situation NOT progressing it. I hope this answers the first part of your question.
Referring to ‘moral mantle of newness,’ I meant that the most unethical directors were those who pretend to be different, but are really living off historical precedents, only hiding behind hi-tech (video/multi-media) or swimming in current catch-phrases (“Let’s text Him!”)……. Beware the director that tries to be relevant!!!

10. Also in your book you discuss the idea of 'holding a stick' and'holding on to a stick', and is this the same as the principle ofbalancing of opposing forces within the actor? Would you say also that it is an apt analogy for the combining of Japanese and Australian theatre forms?

Why not? Given that with the exception of music, there are no absolutes that can take place on stage (unless one is born or dies half way through a show!). Everything else is subjective and the actor cannot define themselves with absolutes (the musician can define themselves with a top C – a top C either is or isn’t !!!!!!!!). The actor’s recourse is to define himself by invoking opposites (He then finds himself as a loci placed somewhere between the opposites). In our experience, the more types and variation of these paradoxes, the more compelling and defined you become.
Be Warned! Thinking in these zones can be highly destabilising (wanky!) if you go too far, and you can become a real space cadet if you don’t ally such transcendant thoughts with hard visceral work. This is where a good stomp comes in very handy.

PS We will be showing Hamlet Stooged! in Chicago in August if you can come down. As well, we will be teaching a workshop. Contact Conan Dunning (Barney in Doll Seventeen) who is currently in Chicago or

John Nobbs
Frank Theatre