Thursday, 10 July 2014

“It’s Impossible, of course, but Try”

by Miriam Fernandes

Over the month-long training in Saratoga Springs, in each Suzuki class that SITI Company Member Akiko Aizawa would teach she would say to us, “It’s impossible, of course, but try.”  This is the perfect way to sum up my time in Saratoga Springs—chasing the impossible.  The impossibility of keeping my balance in Suzuki, of being aware of everything at once in Viewpoints, of creating a newly devised piece each week with a group of new people and with a list of thirty things that must be included in the composition.  This is the beauty of the SITI Training—it gave me the tools to engage with the journey of chasing the impossible. 

My mind is still reeling from the whirlwind month and I am still trying to absorb and process it all, but I will attempt, in this blog, to start to bring some thoughts to surface.

Here are some of the things I am thinking about:

1) Training is a lifelong commitment.

When I mentioned in my previous blog that I was going to train “with” the SITI Company, what I really believed was that I was going to be “taught by” the SITI Company.  In actuality, I was training “with” the company.  Every morning we would have a 90-minute Suzuki class and a 90-minute Viewpoints class—and along with the 30-odd international artists, SITI Company Members would also take the class.  Consistent training is a fundamental value of the SITI Company.  They all teach and they all take each other’s classes.  This was ground shattering to me because in my experience, there exists a hierarchy of knowledge between teacher and student.  The teacher “knows” and the student “learns.”  And while this was still true in a sense, as many of us were learning new training methods, the company members’ participation in the classes taught me that in order to be excellent at anything, one must practice. You’re never “done” training.  In the case of the SITI Company, the teacher “shares” and the students “practice.”

And of course, it makes sense; ballet dancers practice their pliés whether they’re in a show or not—it’s a reaffirmed commitment to their craft.  And over the month I realized what a strange thing it is that as a theatre artist, I don’t have a practice—something I do daily to work on my craft.  The Company’s commitment to their training—Suzuki and Viewpoints—is humbling.  Training with people who have been studying these forms for over twenty years and watching them do their work and approach it with the same curiosity and presence as if it was their first time is inspiring—it’s how I want to work. 

2)  If you don’t know what you’re doing, get really specific.  Make choices.   If they’re wrong you’ll know, but you can’t know until you get really precise about what you’re doing.

In any given creative process, I get to a point where I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.  There are so many possible roads I can take that I get overwhelmed and frozen at the crossroads.  One of my greatest joys this month was discovering that choice will set me free.  Making a choice, however arbitrary, will bring me closer to what I am looking for. 

I had never realized before how many choices I have to make for every minute that I am on stage—it’s infinite and requires a rigor and clarity that I want to work with.  Nothing I do onstage can be accidental or unconscious, because the audience makes meaning (subconsciously) of everything.  As Anne Bogart says, “Acting is consciousness”.  It is being hyper aware, hyper present.  Both the Suzuki and Viewpoints training give the actor tools to bring themselves into the present moment, often by raising awareness by physically engaging the body.  And with this awareness, one can make choices:  to increase the tempo here, to create a more extreme spatial relationship there, to bring more stillness into the work: all choices that give me a way “in” to the work when I feel paralyzed. 

3)  There is a lot more to telling stories than text.

Ellen Lauren, (SITI Actor and Co-Artistic Director of the Company) says, “Actors are like braille that the audience presses into to read the story.”  It’s not just the text that we speak but the entire experience of seeing our bodies move through space and engage in the situation of the play, that an audience reads. 

And this is one of the MOST exciting challenges for me—if the audience is making meaning of everything I say and do, then everything on stage must be a choice!  From the moment I breathe in a monologue, to the turn of a head, to the dynamic of my speech, to the speed of my walk.  There is so much to craft—and each choice participates in the telling of a story to an audience. 

4)  Be interested, not interesting.

Often on stage, especially in a Viewpoints improvisation, I felt the need to “perform.”  What does that mean?  To be interesting?  To give the audience something worth watching?  That means that I am deciding what I think is worth watching and imposing that on my audience.  That’s not so interesting.

Anne Bogart says, “The one thing you can’t fake is curiosity.”  If you follow your curiosity, it will take you on a journey.  What’s way more interesting to watch is someone on stage who is interested in something.  What they are interested in, the audience doesn’t even have to understand.  It can be the actor’s secret.  But the act of being interested brings the actor into the present moment.  It activates their body and mind in a way that makes it impossible to not watch them.

Site Specific location for Composition 1: Parking Lot

5)  Language is power.

While there was a diversity of artistic practice in the room (directors, actors, circus performers, writers, puppeteers, etc.) the Company trains everyone as a Performer.  And as we created weekly compositions together, we needed to collaborate.

So how do you deal with the impossibility of collaboration?  How do you put five people from diverse backgrounds, cultures, languages, artistic practices in a room and get them to make something?  One of the SITI Company’s answers to this is give them the same vocabulary: i.e.  The Viewpoints.

The Viewpoints provide an artistic vocabulary that gives order to the chaos that is the world.

If you give a company of artists a way of talking about work, a common language, you give them the power to articulate their ideas and understand each other’s proposals.  Anyone who has studied Viewpoints before knows about vocabulary like tempo, spatial relationship, shape, architecture, etc.  These are the tools of a director, given to an actor.  Giving the actor these tools empowers the actor to make choices.  In my own practice, I know it has made me more aware of, and responsible for the “whole” picture, because I can now name what I couldn’t before.  I can take care of the whole by knowing what I am serving within it.

SITI Company – 2014 Skidmore Intensive
I went to Saratoga Springs seeking Master teachers and that is exactly what I got.  The level of pedagogy was unlike any I had experienced before.  The way the SITI Company speaks about what they do and why they do it was inspiring.  Working with artists from around the world was a gift!  I can’t quite describe how I am changed, but I feel it—I feel the fire.  I feel more alive.  The experience was truly paradigm shifting and I cannot express my gratitude deeply enough to Theatre Ontario, Why Not Theatre, and the sponsors for this opportunity.

The Independent Theatre Creators International Training Scholarship is a partnership between Theatre Ontario and Why Not Theatre, sponsored by Nekison Engineering and Contractors Ltd with funds matched by artsVest Toronto.  artsVest Toronto is run by Business for the Arts with the support of Canadian Heritage and the Toronto Arts Council.

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