Thursday, 24 April 2014

Searching for a Master

By Miriam Fernandes

In 25 days I will be on a bus on my way to upstate New York—Saratoga Springs to be exact—to spend a month training with Anne Bogart and the SITI Company.  I feel a flutter in my stomach just writing that.  In less than a month I will be arriving on campus at Skidmore College, along with artists from around the world who have left their countries to come on this pilgrimage for the opportunity to study with these Master teachers.

Miriam Fernandes performing in
the Toronto Festival of Clowns
in 2011
I have been thinking about my next level of training for some time now.  I am a Toronto-based actor and a graduate of York University’s acting conservatory, but am now searching for training in devising—specifically in physically-based creation.  I have always been attracted to the work of Lecoq graduates like Ravi Jain and Adam Paolozza; work that is physically engaged, and demands an energy and rigour from the performer that makes it impossible for the audience not to be engaged.  The SITI Company’s training in Suzuki and Viewpoints demands exactly this kind of rigour from the performer in the belief that the whole body is vital to the act of storytelling.  A theatrical experience is more than the spoken word—it is image and poetry and the in-the-moment liveness that theatre is by definition.

But this training is more than just a physical way into creation.  It is a way of looking at the world and a series of principles that are malleable and can be applied in countless different ways.  For example, there are three shows happening at The Theatre Centre right now:  ZOU Theatre Company’s Business As Usual, Ahuri Theatre’s Ralph + Lina, and Play it Again Productions’ Death Married My Daughter.  All of these artists were trained at Lecoq or Gaulier, but each show is bound to be drastically different.  Just as Lecoq-trained Ravi Jain has created shows like SPENT, A Brimful of Asha, and directed Nicolas Billon’s Iceland, the shows are completely different, but the artist is using the same principles, just applying them differently.

In the same way, artists who study with the SITI Company will not be bound to create work with a similar aesthetic.  I think SITI offers artists a way into the creative process, tools, and ways of thinking about the work.  In her blog, Anne Bogart quotes Michelle Kokosowski, a French promoter of global theatre initiatives, who talks about the difference between a teacher and a master.  “A teacher,” she said, “teaches you how to do something. A master lays out everything he or she knows and then asks you to make something new out of it.”  I am constantly questioning the work that I am seeing and making, and asking myself, What is theatre?  Where is the line?  Does there need to be a line?  What is the relationship between performer and audience, and how can it evolve?  I think this training will help me examine these questions and challenge me to see how far I can stretch the answers.

I have taken workshops in Suzuki and Viewpoints in Toronto but now I am going to the source of the training.  I know we will be working on a whole different level.  During the intensive, students train in Suzuki and Viewpoints, but also take classes in Composition, Movement, Design, Dramaturgy, and Playwrighting.  I’m really curious to see how the company carries the principles of Suzuki and Viewpoints into the creation of new work.  In our composition class, we’ll be studying Aeschylus’ Persians, as the SITI Company is currently working on an adaptation of the play, which will premiere this September in California.  I think it’ll be an incredible opportunity to look at the traditions of Ancient Greek Theatre and figure out how to find the contemporary in the ancient. 

I admire a lot about how the SITI Company operates: the fact that they are ensemble-based, that training together and creating together go hand-in-hand, that teaching is still at the heart of what they do, and that their training is never static, but constantly evolving. I am particularly drawn to their commitment to international cultural exchange as the company was formed as collaboration between American director Anne Bogart and Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki.  The fusion of Eastern and Western artistic practice is thrilling to me.  

I think what I am most looking forward to in this month is that it will mark the next big step in my training.  I’ve been cobbling together a series of workshops and classes in Toronto, but a four-day class can only take you so deep into the work.  I am ready now for a longer, more intense and focused training, away from my city, away from all of the distractions of everyday life.  For one whole month, all my focus will go into my artistic practice. 

Yoshi Oida, Theatre des Loges, Paris.
January 2014
I spent some time in Paris this winter and while I was there a friend told me about a performance that Yoshi Oida was doing in this little theatre in the northeast of the city.  So that evening we hopped on the metro and found our way to the Theatre des Loges—which had the same feel as the old Theatre Centre in Toronto.  The space was an old warehouse converted into a little theatre—concrete walls and wooden beams across the ceilings.  There were about two hundred people packed into this place: on chairs, leaning against walls, and sitting on the floor.  It was a mix of artists and theatre students, all coming to see this amazing man perform and speak.  Yoshi performed a 30-minute excerpt of his piece, Interrogations, wherein he asks questions of the audience (based on Zen Buddhist writings), and creates a relationship between performer and audience similar to that between Zen Master and his student.  At the end of the performance Yoshi took questions from the audience, and the one that remained with me was when someone asked, “What do you think of the notion of Master?  Do you think everyone needs to study with a Master?”  Yoshi thought for a moment and then responded:  “I am someone who needs a Master.  I am lucky my Master, Peter Brook, is still alive.  But some people don’t need a Master to find their way—some people can do that on their own.  However, if you are someone like me, who needs a Master, rather than spending three years with a mediocre Master, it is better to spend three years searching for your true Master.”

There are many factors that draw me to the SITI Company’s training, but I think at the forefront for me, is that I am in search of a Master.  Anne Bogart and her company have dedicated their lives to the development of this training and creation, and they are truly Master teachers.  I sense that I am on the cusp of something big. I can’t wait to see what June brings! 

Miriam Fernandes is one of two recipients of Theatre Ontario and Why Not Theatre’s Independent Theatre Creators International Training Scholarship.  The scholarship  was sponsored by Nekison Engineering and Contractors Ltd. with funds matched by artsVest Toronto, run by Business For The Arts with the support of Canadian Heritage and the Toronto Arts Council.

Miriam is currently in Soliciting Temptation at Tarragon Theatre until May 4.

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