BUTOH, WAY TO GO!
Being an account of the transposability of an arcane artform to a less extreme acting approach.
A letter written in mid 2007 to Nathan Sorseth, an actor who lives in Seattle, USA:
Your mentioning of Katsura Kan (a fairly typical adept practitioner) has fired me up in another way. I'm not truly knowledgeable about Butoh, although I've been around a lot of it one way or another, but there seems to be many parallels between it and the sort of training we employ ( Frank Suzuki Performance Aesthetics).
As an example we use 60’s surfing music for some of the improvisatory exercises. When giving suggestions, I would say:
" Rather than pretending to be a surfer, be the wave he is on, or the wax on the board!" or even on one occasion:" Be his underpants left in the changing rooms!" This is very parallel with Butoh as it focuses not on outward appearance or structure, but identifies that which lies inside / behind / beyond the structure and then making it externally apparent. For instance, rather than thinking of the muscles and bones in the legs (a linear process), it is more evocative and inspirational to have imagery that consists of arcane thoughts such as “Use your legs as though the molecules in them used to belong to a dinosaur !” It is aiming for finding a sub-liminal essence inside things and then amplifying them, rather than going for the more obvious replication.
Once an adept has become proficient in any exercise, further explorations require more than just mechanical repetition, which inevitably hits a ‘finite’ wall. Exploring an ‘inner landscape’ of an exercise gives repetition a creative depth far greater than simple muscular facility.
This also applies to doing the more basic Suzuki Actor Training Method exercises like Number 2. The first action is swinging the leg out prior to bringing it forcefully back into a central position. As a beginner, one is concerned with getting the legs and timing and positions right. One then graduates to gaining strength, stability and stillness as one becomes more proficient. If it is continued, over the long term, one starts to move into a more transformative zone where the approach moves away from pictorial and linear to more abstracted ideas such as: What is behind or inside the muscles and the experience?
In the long run, if one doesn’t approach the training with more elasticity and suppleness, it hardens into brittleness and constipates the experience. This change of field beyond the linear and obvious to the abstract and the subtle is also congruent with Butoh.
During the Ozfrank training the other night I opined that that Butoh had become an inspiration for modern dance. Western post-modern dance had become so obsessed with the minutiae of vocabulary and had disappeared up a dry gully full of isms, e.g. minimalism, conceptualism et al., that one could say it had become fixated upon a sort of pictorial intellectualism. It is as though the pioneering spaces of broad movement invention had contracted into the dessicated obsession with esoteric minimal gesture.
Butoh’s ideas of inner search have proved to be a window into a new world for dance practitioners as a way out of the muddle because it has foreshadowed a terra incognita to explore - that of context, ie that of exploring not the object (the dance sequence), but the performer’s relationship with the object.
This type of context is where we have been leading the FSPA over the last few years and, I think I arrived at its objective articulation that night when I mentioned the context about Butoh.
‘Butoh’ ideas transposed to voice.
In the FSPA when we speak we use 4 major voice ‘levels’:-
1)Full voice – the body using its entire energy resources to speaking as powerfully as it can,
1)Quiet voice- a standard stage voice,
2)Super quiet voice- the quietest one can speak with the vocal chords resonating,
3) Whisper – The loudest one can speak with no vocal chord resonance.
Actors are expected to sustain or switch the levels at command, with the proviso that the rhythm remains unchanged.
Full voice (FV) is the most often used as it is the best educator, because at full energy, nothing stands between the actor and the experience. Essentially the other voices should have the same intensity as the FV, the FV being the primary learning point.
At this stage the ‘voice’ attitudes have the flexibility and power one associates with Suzuki Training. To make the experience even more flexible and fluent, I have recently added other voice zones:-
a)Freeform - any level, own choice
b)Change - switch to another free choice level,
c)Crazy - any of the weirdest possibilities one can invoke,
d)Different- the most interesting and most congruent with Butoh.
I might add here that all voice switches should be done as a completely instinctive action, as an animal might strike its prey. The idea is to ‘land’ on a switchvoice instinctively and maintain that choice despite any vicissitudes that may arise (such as shortness of breath). The actor shouldn’t be concerned with the ‘success’ of the experience, whether it sounds good, but concentrate on the ‘feeling’ of the experience as it is being done.
Freeform, crazy are fairly straight forward, but, I hear you ask; “Aren’t ‘different’ and ‘change’ the same thing?”
Another vector on this inspiration trail was provided when I read a biography of Charles Laughton by Simon Callow. CL would be considered by many people to be the greatest actor to ever appear on film and one can also describe him as the inventor of ‘Method Acting’ in the late 20’s in England, well before the golden period in New York in the 50’s.
The writer, Callow is a very capable actor himself and so has forged a book full of pertinent insights into the drivers of CL’s achievements, and by extension opened certain windows into potential acting agendas. There are a stack of Bon Mots throughout, but an earlier one in particular took my fancy. It is on Page 51 and goes like this:-
“……it’s never the simple observation with Laughton, though, it’s never impersonation. He embodies both what he saw and his attitude to it……
I found this a very exciting thing to read as it represents an intelligent actor’s articulation of a supreme actor’s modus operandi, opening up a potential for creating a technique for developing same, by constructing exercises utilising shifts in attitude, concentrating on the ‘shifts’ rather than the ‘results’.
If one could use the example of playing ‘Richard III’, using this approach meant that you could not only play the character of R III, but you could also invoke your thoughts about him, your attitude to him. It is always difficult to play mythical figures convincingly, especially those with highly drawn character traits, (e.g. Nasties), as it is hard for actors to attain a transcendent zone where they can appear larger than their daily mannerisms. It is easier to have an attitude to someone such as R III, so if you can combine the character and your attitude to it, it could be possible to access deeper and more flexible interpretations. One way of looking at it is to say that your version is the character multiplied by your relationship to it.
It is easier to change your attitude to something than it is to change yourself viz: It’s hard to BE a nice person, but not so hard to BE NICE to other people. Maybe by changing your attitude to outside things, then you can evolve yourself.
Such a viewpoint is a hallmark of Butoh, and shows that the ellipticality is quite transposable.
Another piece of this thematic jigsaw…..
Whilst working with Suzuki as a guest member of his company, I observed how demanding he was and often found it difficult to ascertain why he became dissatisfied with certain aspects of the play sometimes, but not at others, and how he would say a speech was good one day and slam it the next. I personally could not perceive any differential and one could have put it down to mood swings, etc.
Of course as a director, he would be concerned with making the work constantly fresh and of continuing interest to him, so he could well have demanded that you say a speech differently. But Suzuki is rare in that he doesn’t want you to change things for change’s sake as he regards that as a weak and obvious response, so how could he expect you to be continuously interesting without changing elements such as speed, intonation, etc?
I could never perceive a falsity about Suzuki’s attitude, so I pondered on this anomaly for a number of years( actually from 1994-2006), before realising that if he didn’t want it to be the same, but he also didn’t want it to be different; maybe he wanted neither OR both.
Was he after what might be called the place between same and different?
We generally expect ‘same’ and ‘different’ to be two separate experiences- perhaps they could be considered two parts of the same experience rather like the obverse and the converse of a coin(another Butoh thought pattern!).
Armed with this notional shift, I could look at how to introduce that idea to our training.
Over the last few weeks during training we formulated how the commands ‘different’ and ‘change’ would be interpreted. We decided that ‘change’ would indicate a pronounced shift away from the existing voice zone (full, or whisper, etc) to another zone, and ‘different’ would signify a different sensibility about it whilst trying to keep it the same as it was before. I wasn’t quite sure why I wanted this or where it was leading, but I certainly felt that the frisson of energy in the room caused by this enigmatic state was very compelling. One night at training, the ‘his attitude towards the subject‘ aspect of Laughton’s craft came to me as we were doing a speech and the idea crystallised at once:- “ I don’t want you to change the speech… I want you to change your attitude to the speech! ”. From there it morphed into changing your ‘relationship with your voice’.
Although I profess no real knowledge of Butoh, if I hadn’t been proximate to it over a number of years, I don’t think I’d have had the requisite facility to be able to think differently about the same thing.