Thursday, 3 July 2014

Practicing Deeply

By Colin Bruce Anthes

Over the past month, I have had the tremendous privilege of training with Anne Bogart and SITI Company in Viewpoints, Suzuki method, and devised composition. The unique opportunity, which I could not have otherwise afforded, was made possible through the Independent Theatre Creators’ International Training Scholarship arranged by Why Not Theatre and Theatre Ontario. For me, this scholarship was the completion of a unique circle; while conducting my initial training at Humber College, I had the great pleasure of soaking in Why Not’s mesmerizing production of The Prince Hamlet. It was one of a handful of pieces that built in me a compulsion to start my own company and pursue a career as a theatre creator. Five years into that journey with Twitches And Itches Theatre—three since making our permanent home in St. Catharines—the same company that helped inspire my beginning now opened the much-needed door to strive for the next level.

The month was creatively and personally immense; this report is doomed to be too long trying to be brief. I was a beginner again, which caused alternating feelings of inspiration and frustration practically second by second. I spent great amounts of time being not very good at things, and yet left each day with a vast collection of meaningful images, new ideas, and different exciting ways to think about the profession. Returning home, I have been astonished at just how much I have been able to pour into my creative projects, as if a flood of insight had been dammed up and was finally allowed to burst. I kept a notebook throughout the intensive, and I have a sense I will be scouring its pages for many years to come. 

Warming up for Suzuki class
Photo by Miriam Fernandes
I arrived representing Canada with fellow scholarship recipient Miriam Fernandes, a terrifically talented Toronto actress who is also at-least part-angel. Miriam and I were part of a truly international contingent: the intensive drew participants from Brazil, Finland, Spain, Singapore, Belgium, Greece, England, and more.  The range of disciplines was equally broad: everything from theatre historians to circus performers assembled to expand their particular artistry through an intense month of hands-on physical training. I have never before collaborated with such a diverse group, and that alone would have made for a worthwhile training experience.

The SITI Company members themselves are unique not only for their inspiring life-long commitment to training—they have practiced Suzuki method and Viewpoints before each rehearsal of their 23-year history—but also for the immersive walk-the-walk way they pass that training on to others. Rather than establishing a dichotomous trainer/trainee arrangement, the handful of core company artists alternate turns as instructors, while the remainder jump into the fray with the rest of us.

I found this approach both refreshing and extremely useful. Too often instructors establish an unproductive hierarchy in which they, except from actually doing the work, represent a technical perfection we all imagine exists but have never seen. By engaging in the classes with us, the SITI performers produced every kind of useful example. Sometimes the image of an artist completing a Suzuki exercise far more capably than me provided something to strive for, with a clear idea of how I might go about that striving. But what was perhaps more useful was to see them in moments of struggle. They would sweat, make and correct mistakes, and navigate the pressure of starting each Viewpoints improvisation from scratch just like everybody else. The image of the graduated, perfect professor shrugged off, I was instead left with an image of training perpetually replenishing its value across the span of a career. Perfection would be stagnant and no longer training. A quarter of a century into their journey, the members of SITI Company are still looking for meaningful challenges.

Without going into methodological detail—the methods are meant to be tried, not described—the Viewpoints/Suzuki combination provides extremely practical long-term training. Suzuki is about contained form; Viewpoints is about free-flowing improvisation. One has great objectivity (am I as fast as I could be?), the other is completely subjective (have I discovered an interesting relationship?)  Suzuki method is made up of challenging, often impossible physical exercises that provide the artist a concrete way of measuring their progress. Viewpoints, meanwhile, is a series of ways of improvising based on the component parts of performance: one improvises with shape, then tempo, then special relationship, etc. The company often said that Suzuki is the training in which one can never be right, and in Viewpoints one can never be wrong. By practicing both, the actors build complementary skills that provide balance and feedback for each other.

In addition to regular classes throughout the day, evenings were spent working on compositions. Compositions were comprised of a weekly collaborative assignment—each time with different group members—based on Aeschylus’ The Persians: SITI Company’s next production. The Persians is quite a bad play, but it is doubly unique for being the first extant Western work of drama and for being the only Greek play that tells its story from the perspective of an enemy nation. Early before the final morning class, I bumped into Anne and had the pleasure of picking her brain one-on-one for a bit. I confided my suspicion that she selected The Persians for all the challenges it presented rather than because she had a natural vision for it. “You bet,” she agreed. “We had no idea how to do it.” I thought that was brilliant.

In addition to being her trainees, we were also Anne’s lab rats; oftentimes she would ask permission to steal the ideas that emerged in our weekly compositions for her own production. In the age of Wikipedia, it was fitting and fascinating to see theatrical collaboration expand to sixty-plus creators. 

The triumvirate of Viewpoints/Suzuki/Composition makes good sense in the long-term, but in the one-month intensive—much of which was spent learning how to actually do the work—they were somewhat mismatched. It was not at all surprising when company member Ellen Lauren told us in our final Suzuki class “you are just now ready to start training.” Classes gave us more tools, but their use is to be honed over the long-term; they did not lead into composition as a math class leads to a test.

Perhaps because of this, the greatest challenge I faced throughout the intensive was a lack of pride.  Despite spending all day working on theatre, most of that work was geared towards learning the training, with very little towards actual performance. Compositions are wonderful because the group is under the gun to create something outside the box in a very short time, often leading to surprising discoveries. The weakness, of course, is that one has to settle for a product quickly, with only the spare hours in a week-long process to (hopefully) integrate everyone’s creative visions, memorize, fine-tune, and perform the work. One strives for the best, but for a piece to really come together an element of good fortune is necessary. While I was able to conjure up a few well-received images for these pieces, and often felt there was something to our material, I was rarely able to feel at home in what we created, and most of my work fell below the standard I expect from myself.

And yet, it was oddly refreshing to feel so helplessly incompetent. I might even go as far as to say it was inspiring. As an indie theatre maker usually operating on a shoe-string budget, I am typically in the position of having to know. If I am not perfectly stable, presenting the exact step-by-step guide to a successful outcome, the project will wobble all the way to the finish line. Here I had a chance to be surrounded by remarkable artists handing me fascinating new techniques and ideas, and to be fumbling about—permitting the immense gulf between where I am and where I want to be to stand front and centre—was extraordinarily freeing. It presented me with the start of a journey, attached to my current journey, yes, but also thrillingly new. It was a bit like the moment back in college when I realized I was going to have to start my own company.

I could blab on and on about the intensive forever—I fear I may have already. I will conclude by offering my deepest thanks to Theatre Ontario, Why Not Theatre, and the sponsors for providing this invaluable experience. I have no doubt I will continue to be grateful for many years to come. I will leave you with a quote from Anne’s new book. I think it describes where the intensive has placed me exactly. “To practice deeply is to live deliberately in the space that is uncomfortable but with the encouraging sense that progress can happen.”

Next week: Part 2 as Miriam Fernandes reflects on her experience

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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