Monday, October 17, 2011

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.


Dramatic, Lyric, Epic// Momentum, Suspension, Gravity

Three Basic Energies

Magis Theatre Company's work with the three basic energies started with a bringing together of the very physical work done at Columbia University's MFA Theatre program with the work of Robert Taylor, a Shakespearan Actor trained in Britan and a lecturer at PTTP program at University of Delaware, Carnegie Mellon and Moscow Art Theatre.
Columbia Trained actors worked with Niky Wolcz to establish a plasticity of the body and an openness of the instruments. Much of Wolcz' work comes from Grotowski and Meyerhold but blended in Niky's own way.
At Columbia, a variety of different ways of working gave the actors a chance to explore the resonance and dissonance of some of these training methods. In a sense, the students bodies were the crucible where different acting approaches melted and became its own "alloy" of these elements. Le Coq mask work, Wolcz work on physicality came face to face with Ann Bogart's Viewpoints and Tadashi Suzuki's regiment of training.
What all of these had to work on together was a raw "energy", a term which was so important to Stanislavki.
Allowing energy to flow freely and putting it in the action combined very well with Robert Taylor's instruction on the three basic energies which he terms
Dramatic, Lyric and Epic... corrsponding to the the three basic forms of Poetry. Taylor gets these categories from the work of Rudolf Steiner, particularly his book SPEECH AND DRAMA. And while we need not agree with Steiner's metaphysics, it is useful to understand and his observations.
Those observations are aimed at a kind of engagement which translates to "presence."

Tapping the Energies

Each of the 3 basic energies has its own locus.. where it lives in the body... where it comes from and where it passes through on its way out to the audience.
The energies are accessed, opened, and focused through a shape/action that is particular to each energy. Training in these shapes and practicing them regularly opens the channels of energy very much in the same way a pianist practicing scales allows for a proficiency in executing step-wise progressions in a piece of music.
The aim of this practice is not to "do" the energy (worse yet to "act" the energy) but to open the channels so that when I am doing the physical actions of my score, these energies will support and fuel the action.
This is the difference between an action that has presence and one that does not. Allowing the free-flow of energy in the action draws the attention of the audience to what is being done.. what is being embodied in the moment.

Once before a show with Ralph Lee’s Mettawee River Company, we warmed up with our usual routine of exercises, one of which was “the body swing:” a simple exercise I had done many times before, though never before with the awareness of the instrument I had developed in grad school. I had also just begun working with the Robert Talyor, and so was able to see this exercise in a new context.
The exercise is a reaching up in the body, allowing oneself to fall over at the waist and swing back, and then allowing the contained energy of that action to propel the body forward to a standing position again. What immediately struck me was a feeling of suspension at the standing point, just before gravity pulled the body down again. My body remembered the sensation of "Lyric Energy" from the work with Robert Taylor.
It was unmistakable for me that this Lyric Energy WAS suspension. As I continued in the exercise, I then made an investigation to the other energies...Gravity, the force pulling the body out of that suspension felt like "Epic Energy," and the swing back up which I will call momentum was the sensation of "Dramatic Energy." It was exciting to have this connection. The energies suddenly seemed even more organic, more basic... this began to inform much of the physical work I did with my own teaching at Fordham. Connection to Stansilavski's later work on physical actions began to emerge as well.
While this realization can seem theoretical, it is entirely practical: gravity, momentum and suspension are constants in any action. The energy shifts based on the instrument’s relationship to gravity at any given moment. As such, the actor does not manufacture energy, the actor merely taps the energy that is there.