Sunday, December 13, 2009

Why do we train?

I was speaking to someone recently about our training process-- the fact that we meet once a week or more year-round, even when we are not in rehearsal for a specific project.

So, why do we train?

In most North American productions, actors are cast in a project shortly before rehearsals begin. Projects are usually scheduled to have between 3-6 weeks of rehearsal, with most rehearsal schedules lasting about four weeks. Actors in any given show may come from many different schools of thought regarding theories of acting, different attitudes about the rehearsal process, with different artistic backgrounds and wildly disparate vocabularies.

Obviously this doesn't mean that wonderful theatre cannot occur even under these circumstances, but it does mean that these rehearsal processes have to cover a lot of ground. Sometimes it is hard for actors and directors to communicate with each other when they come from different educational backgrounds or have different ideas about the way theatre should work. Actors are asked not to "give notes" to each other or talk in a critical way about the scene when they are not in the presence of the director, as egos can be easily bruised. Actors are usually powerless within the casting process-- they can audition, but beyond that they must simply wait, hoping that they will be "picked."

With Magis, some of us have been working together for more than 6 years within the group, and for as much as 14 years total, dating back to the founders' days in graduate school at the Columbia School of the Arts. In fact, the main idea behind the founding of the company was based on the wishes of the founders to continue some of the group activities and exercises we had learned at Columbia and to discover new ways of combining these training modalities to make new connections. After we had been working together for a few years, we started the process of formalizing as a company, but training has always been at the heart of the company's mission. Training brings us together as an ensemble and gives us a common vocabulary we can use during the rehearsal process.

For instance, Margi Sharp Douglas and I have each played parts, some large, some small, in all of Magis' productions so far. She has played my mother, my father (check out the pictures of her in drag as the Old Shepherd in The Winter's Tale!), my sister, my rival, my disapproving aunt-in-law-to-be. The relationships we create on stage are of course going to be richer because of our long history together. But this is not just because we have known each other for a long time. We have taught each other in class, discussed what we wanted for the company, sometimes argued and sometimes competed, and over the years we have developed a vocabulary to talk about any issues that may arise. Sometimes in a joking way, sometimes in a serious way, we can say, "Oh, this is like that scene in The Great Divorce," or "Remember the exercise with the tabla rhythms?" Training together has given us a great respect for each other, and a history that we can each refer to when questions come up. We can give each other feedback without being afraid of offending each other.

When projects are considered, we can look at a script, and think about what parts might be good for different members of the company. I can say, "Oh, that would be a great part for Wendy" or "Does this part have to be played by a man?" or "I know I wouldn't usually be cast this way, but I'd like to read for the villain." While the final casting decisions always rest with the director, we try to make room for actors to put themselves forward for specific roles-- to have some agency within the process. We are going to be starting our formal rehearsals for Shakuntala in January, but we have been experimenting with the play and learning Indian storytelling techniques since September, and thinking about the play for several years. Training year-round gives us an opportunity to play around before making final casting decisions.

But beyond the benefit for the ensemble, training is also beneficial for me as an actor in any venue. In the past, I often felt totally unsure about whether I would have a good performance on stage or not. Some days, I would feel like "the muse" was with me. My timing would be on, my energy would be good, I could feel a real connection with the audiences. Other times, I would stand up on stage and feel like I had nothing to give. My performance would meet acceptable minimum competency standards, but wouldn't be anything special.

Training gives me a way to encourage the muse to show up more often. At an audition, in rehearsal, or in performance, I know that I have been given a set of tools that will enable me to do my best. Sure, there are still times when I feel especially "on," and days when I may not be as brilliant as I might be on another occasion, but I know that I can trust my training background to be there for me. I can choose from the many ways we have worked on text in our classes to help me through any challenge. By training, I am clearing the way for the muse, and while she may not show up every time, I am better prepared than if I had not given her room to arrive. I am setting a place for her at my table, and opening the door.


1 comment:

Soneela said...

Your post made me really reflect on what training means to me. Thanks for that, Erika.
Even though I had training at Columbia, some of the exercises we do with Magis were new to me, which was exciting (and very challenging!) For instance, I love integrating text into the exercises. Sometimes the text pops out of my mouth in way I've never heard it before, which can be exhilarating and informative. In that sense, I feel that the training opens me up and allows me to accept and discover new possibilities. But at the same time, it focuses me as well.
This past week, we had mini-training sessions to help us warm up before our performances. On Sunday when I arrived, I was keenly aware that my energy was all over the place. I couldn't harness it, let alone utilize it effectively. And after about 15 minutes (!) of training I felt infinitely more focused (and less nervous!)
It's wonderful, almost a year after I did training with Magis for the first time, to still be discovering new ways in which training can be useful.