At the beginning of 2017 I wrote of a new Melbourne-based theatre company, that has morphed into The Thursday Group, comprising Elise Britton, Rodrigo Calderón, Kathleen Doyle, Lorna McLeod and myself, and we have completed five public showings of the Suzuki training and excerpts of my play, The Intriguing Case of the Silent Forest. The play was written as a vehicle to apply our training explorations to performance and the initial inspiration came from an improvisation several years ago between Yoka Jones and Kathleen Doyle. Looking ahead to 2018, we will continue with the performance laboratory, showings of training and excerpts from Silent Forest and we will contemplate our first season.
2017 saw us welcome visitors to the studio, from all around–two who have worked at the SITI company in Saratoga, north of New York where my mentor Ellen Lauren trains, teaches and performs. And I am reminded that it is approaching thirty years ago that we performed together in Suzuki’s Macbeth at Playbox (now Malthouse) in Melbourne, Adelaide and Tokyo festivals, a project that spanned two years and in which I learnt the Suzuki training–from Ellen, from other Suzuki Company of Toga actors and from Mr. Suzuki himself. And I reflect on what a change in direction the training made to me and how much it influences the work we produce on Wednesday and Thursday evenings here in Melbourne. Very shortly The Thursday Group will run another elements workshop and once more I will see performers approach the training bringing their diverse life and professional experience. This year we will open the training to casual Wednesday classes for performers who know the Suzuki vocabulary, and I hope that some of those performers might join us in our slow-burn explorations in form and theatrical application. Here are some reflections on last year’s work.
2017 finishes with a kind of bewilderment. So far have we come in explorations arising from training, and rehearsal, that in trying to order my thoughts, I am beset with a rush of sparks, transient moments of brilliance shining from the lights in performer’s eyes–new unique things, challenges laid, discoveries made, plans and schedules mapped–my impression of our work together this year is as much a thrill as a list of achievements; but the latter is probably more meaningful.
This year we have investigated a variety of modes. An exercise we call Tone–intonation arising from physical attitudes, tones that emanate from a physical shape, which appear to fit–astounding the discoveries each performer has made with their own vocal range and connection to text. Looking at the choral aspects that Silent Forest demands, it is exciting to think what we may achieve bringing this aspect of the laboratory into performance.
And within the Swords exercise we have considered ideas of opposition, shared breathing, 間 (Ma–either temporal or spatial, variously translated as ‘space’, ‘gap’ ‘interval’) and thanks to Rodrigo’s study, Yoshio Oida’s notion of the invisible performer. This year we have fallen into a pattern of doing Suzuki’s physically and aerobically challenging Fast-Walks exercise, forwards and backwards, which usually runs for around twenty minutes, followed immediately by the demanding Swords exercise speaking from The Cherry Orchard while facing each other. Challenging the performer to achieve expression while under such aerobic duress has been, shall we say, character-building. But important discoveries have been made in those moments of extreme stress.–concerning the nature of the breath, resonance, the priority of performer-to-performer relationship over self, and the intimate relation between movement and stillness.
With the canon-chorus work that Silent Forest requires, we have learnt a lot about listening. In a group of five that works so regularly, and which uses exercises that have unshifting foundations, it is very easy to measure when a performer is closing themselves away from the rest, and when they are tuning in. It’s a skill that is easily forgotten and in our pursuits, is such a necessity that it is often discussed and acutely practiced.
This year we examined the meaning of ritual in contemporary theatre. The experiments were intriguing and audiences reacted in different ways, it must be said, not always positively. Perhaps theatre is naturally a ritual which doesn’t need emphasis. Études such as the Tone exercise and canon-chorus work from Silent Forest have lead us to incantation–a form of speaking that transcends the usual psychological realist interpretation of texts without necessarily precluding it, and through resonance, repetitions and rising intonations, reminds of priests singing to parishioner-spectators. This is a kind of ritual that we will continue to examine.
Another exercise that has appeared on the horizon of our work and been incorporated into the movement vocabulary of the play is what has embarrassingly come to be known as Crosby Falls. It is simply the continued falling, stopping, rising and stopping of the performer. A significant challenge is created with the speed and precision of the stops while speaking. What emerges is an act of survival, a near achievement of the impossible, a pattern that is based in movement yet celebrates stillness, a segment that only really makes sense upon completion when the spectator sees the journey travelled and the cost incurred in the performer’s eye. Year beginning and end, even just the comparison of the physical and aerobic abilities is a proof of our hunger for, and readiness to climb onto the theatre stage.
Perhaps the most certain direction I have taken in the interpretation of The Intriguing Case of the Silent Forest is that the complete performance characteristic–text, choreography, song, underscore, light and design–must be generated by the onstage performer. This rule has created vitality to all our experiments, and has reminded me of Suzuki’s oft-quoted maxim that the actor must not forget to perform with physical energy. It’s not a unique concept, in fact it is probably a definition of performance; but in holding the line on it, I see real application of our training and laboratory, and am excited to witness the power we are creating in the space. 2018 will continue a process that feels like it is accelerating–I am strapping myself in.