Wroclaw - Krzyżowa - Wroclaw, Poland, 01-15 April 2005
ISTA - International School of Theatre Anthropology
Director: Eugenio Barba
ISTA XIV IMPROVISATION -
Memory, Repetition, Discontinuity
Organised by The Centre for Study of Jerzy Grotowski's Work and for Cultural and Theatrical Research
As soon as we land at the Wroclaw airport we are collected by a waiting coach and transported to a residential enclosure in a rural location – the village of Krzyzowa. We are allocated beds in single sex dormitoria where each room is shared by three or four people. It feels like being on a school trip and the sense of constriction and repression is palpable from the word 'go'. Soon enough we are given a very strict time-table according to which we are to rise at 6AM every morning and attend a singing sunrise ritual. This is followed by breakfast and a full working day consisting of workshops, lectures and demonstrations. The morning workshops are usually a double block consisting of an Odin workshop and a workshop led by one of Euginio Barba’s friends - usually from a non-occidental performance tradition. These workshops include Indian, Japanese, Balinese and South American dances as well as Biomechanics and Mime. The workshops are followed by talks or sessions led by Barba and they eventually result in the participants being sent away in small groups to devise their own response to a given task. Because Barba is working on his version of Hamlet – based on the original Danish source – and he needs a scene representing death by the plague, we spend most of the week devising ways of dying. But we don’t know the reason until the very end of the summer school when Barba chooses some of the individual pieces, weaves them together into a scene and contextualises this by revealing his underlying aim. During our week in Krzyzowa, we also attend a couple of off-site events, including a singing performance at a local church, and we also get some extra-curricular input– most notably by the Polish voice coach Zygmunt Molik. Apart from a couple of truly amazing highlights of this kind - and the saving grace of having my friend George and our new friend Patrick to frolic with in the central courtyard during the afternoon siesta hours - I end up having a mostly miserable time at this summer school. Barba’s deliberate mystification of his work, his one-way master-student attitude, the accompanying ban on laughing or clapping in the class, his unwillingness to take questions or comments from the participants and the fact that most of the technical classes are designed for students to copy the teacher rather than really understand any of the underlying principles unleash my teenage angst and rebellion. My notes below are therefore a mixture of disillusioned observations and positive learning experiences that I manage to derive for myself.
01.04.05 – Arrival
Theatre is all about shared history. A theatre company can be just a party of friends. Like Eugenio Barba’s ISTA: A certain level of arrogance. A mystification of the craft. The master–student power dynamic. An intention to instil a sense of religious following… I would have been seduced by this some time ago. Suddenly I feel older and more cynical. However, I recognise other directors I’ve worked with in Eugenio. The way he introduces his collaborators and guests. The way it looks impressive and slightly exclusive to the rest of us. The way it makes us want to belong. The way hierarchies are created on the basis of the length of time people have known each other and been together. The way authority is created simply through personality traits, courage and attitude. The way it gives right to self-indulgence.
* Balinese Dance
The frustration I feel with this class teaches me:
- the importance of breaking down the teaching point into smallest possible parts
- the importance of learning a gesture or a series of gestures rather than a movement sequence
- movement as a purely physical, external phenomenon is less effective than the learning of the mechanism of movement on an inner-outer, psychologically/internally motivated level
- learning a technique is based on bodily strength or an assumption of bodily strength
* Odin’s Roberta Carreri
I like Roberta. She places an interesting emphasis on:
- the use of the eyes
- the difference between action and beautiful movement
- the difference between intention and tension
- sitting down without falling
- getting up without jerking
- stomach as the centre of energy
* Barba’s Lecture - Organic Dramatrurgy:
- Dramaturgy is a succession of events, suggesting rather than illustrating; influencing the audience’s nervous system
- An error can become part of the score through the actor deliberately repeating the error twice more but changing it every time
- Performance of an action in No changes in each instance – the way that different conductors may change the opening of a Beethoven symphony – interpretation in No is like musical improvisation
03.04.04 – Barba’s ‘Action-Reaction’ Principle
- Barba’s teaching is based on the ‘action-reaction’ principle. In my understanding, this is a version of the Aristotelian dramaturgical system which Barba applies to movement, action and the dynamic of the piece or the process as a whole. He talks about the importance of ‘tension’ or ‘opposition’ (what I would interpret as Aristotelian ‘agon’ or ‘conflict’) and the notion of ‘finding the impulse’ within it. He is also aware of 'the rule of the three' even though he doesn’t use it explicitly. For example, he claims that:
“Improvisation [which is the overarching topic of this summer school] consists of three or four actions constituting opposition [tension] and featuring an impulse.”
Barba claims that:
- theatre is about taking away unmemorable moments from life
- theatre is an art of: -
· seeing, making visible
· giving life
- biography happens in the discontinuity of memory – omitting the unmemorable
life: before – after
biography: after – before
- ‘the first day’ doesn’t belong to life but to memory; it’s our job to be biographers
- ‘the first day’ is a woodworm
- body memory – remains (separation after the act of creation)
- soul memory – is lost
How to achieve being continually in a creative condition?
- Stanislavski’s answer – ‘improvisation’
Barba understands and uses ‘improvisation’ in a Stanislavskian sense of the word and as a rehearsal methodology rather than something that can potentially be a performer’s tool in the process of performance. (In contemporary Western training I think that this particular understanding of ‘improvisation’ would simply be considered ‘creativity’.) I don’t get a chance to ask whether he is aware of the latter possibility and what his standpoint is in relation to it, and he never suggests that he might indeed be aware of it.
According to Barba:
Improvisation is a struggle against 1. spontaneity
3. pre-vision; foreseeing, predictability
On a wider level, Barba also offers a pearl of wisdom, making a distinction between:
loyalty – ‘respecting the contract with another’
faithfulness – ‘respecting the contract with oneself’
(Grotowski’s actor and collaborator, now a voice coach and acting teacher)
Molik asks for someone with a pre-prepared speech to come onto the stage. A Greek Cypriot actor Apostolos volunteers. Molik asks Apostolos to kneel on the floor and close his eyes. He takes him through a visualisation where he asks him to imagine that he is a plant or a bush. He asks him to imagine the being of this plant all the way to its roots. His coming up has to involve a sense of struggle. To start off with there is only a vibration of the voice, then comes the text. Molik asks Apostolos to deliver his text, but Apostolos struggles.
Molik: What is your plant?
Apostolos whispers into Molik’s ear - to a general delight of the audience. They talk privately for a bit.
Molik sends Apostolos away warmly, and then informs us in a reassuring way that ‘this was not completely a plant as it had elements of the human being in it.’
Barba and Molik stand quietly and meditatively on the side of the stage for a bit and then Barba attempts to change the mood or just take the limelight again by expressing his joy and gratitude for Molik’s being here in a typically long and pompous way.
Molik: But we are not here so you can make me a confession of your gratitude, we are here to do things!
Barba: I am happy to give you the last bits of my authority that I’ve got left and make you the chieftan of this horde!
Molik: I’ll take you up on your invitation and do some work with them.
Molik asks the audience to make a low level murmur. Slowly and gradually, he orchestrates a choir of voices – a symphony of positive energy, an all enveloping good vibration which lasts for about 15 minutes. It’s almost as though he is performing a healing ritual on Barba’s loyal but exhausted and exasperated horde. Equally gradually he brings the choir to an end and walks slowly out of the lights to stand aside once again, in silence. We all sit in silence for a while.
Molik (to Barba): Is that all?
Molik starts a tentative conversation with Barba - which might have been a chit chat – in French.
Silence. A Kind of comfortable silence.
Molik: Is that all? Shall I say something for the end? (To all): Have a good evening and good night.
Finally – the real master. Stripped from all ego but imbued with a reverence which is earned and comes easily from the others. By comparison, all the rest of this summer school seems facile – pure vanity, surface and ego. In an embarrassing kind of way. Deeply embarrassing. It strikes me that everything Barba does is potentially a result of deep seated insecurity. Perhaps everybody in theatre is deeply insecure? Perhaps the whole point is to achieve a liberation from insecurity and a very simple focus on what is essential.
Some Thoughts on Pedagogy: Advice from the Student to the Teacher
- First decide why you are here and why I am here; what do you want to teach me?
- Break down your instruction into units so that I know what I am meant to learn.
- If you are teaching me how to walk, it is not fair for you to correct me on how I hold my hands (to point out my mistakes in an unrelated area).
- Don’t use my getting something wrong so you can show off your power, superiority or knowledge – that goes without saying.
- Don’t bore me.
- Don’t patronise me.
- Don’t take me for granted.
- I am prepared to suffer in order to gain knowledge, but I am not prepared to suffer your incompetence or your ego.
- I am not here because of you, I am here because of the knowledge.
Some Thoughts on Belief
Belief is an emotional state. In order to believe something I need to be guided emotionally. The same applies to the process of learning and to the process of watching theatre.
Believability is the ability to maintain suspension of disbelief.
Some Thoughts on Barba’s System and Improvisation
Barba’s Aristotelian-inspired system of ‘action-reaction’ works both macro- and microcosmically, both in terms of a narrative and in terms of action: each individual action, each movement, each step. Individual actions are montaged on the basis of counterpoint.
Improvisation is explored through fixed forms, within the controlled circumstances of rehearsal. I think that in this way creativity is hindered. In such a case the creativity of the actor(s) is exploited by the director rather than being facilitated by him. The improvisation is not being used to foster a creative collective ownership of the piece. The work is in a way taken away from the actor-creator and does not necessarily serve his process and creative journey through the piece.
I would say that there are three kinds of improvisation:
1. improvisation - in a Stanislavskian sense - that serves to generate material (from a theme, situation, task)
2. improvisation that helps the actor’s process
3. improvisation that is necessitated in the process of performance as a result of an unforeseen obstacle
Members of Odin on Improvisation
Individual members of Odin theatre demonstrate their techniques of sequencing actions-reactions on a given topic to generate material. They take it in turns to give particular examples.
The most interesting one is given by Roberta Carreri. She relates an occasion on which she was given a nursery rhyme on the basis of which to improvise a scene – a sequence of movement – around. Her response was to begin by enacting the nursery rhyme. However, in order to avoid illustration she decided to change the scale of objects in the narrative (so stirring a pot could become really big, or very, very small). She also tried responding personally to particular aspects of the narrative. So in response to the line ‘the fog rises over the sharp hills’, she would try seeing the fog, being the fog, remembering that her brother had a car accident and died in the fog, or she would try walking on the sharp hills, imagining them round and sharp like the breasts of a woman, rain over the hills, being able to feel it, taste it, etc. In other words her strategies would be:
- changing the subject/the character of the narrative
- not following the linearity of time – going backwards and forwards in the narrative
- concentrating on the verbs rather than adjectives
- changing the physical pattern – the dynamics: slow-fast
- changing direction
- thinking in terms of details (not in general), clear images, precision
They warn also against the danger of over-improvising, becoming too technical, and the importance of editing.
This riveting account again seems to me to be a very interesting and useful take on devising and the actor’s creative process, rather than improvisation per se.
Following a talk by one of Barba’s dramaturges – the Italian academic Franco Ruffini who chose to deliver his paper on improvisation via an interpreter, I am sitting with him outside of the lecture hall having a cigarette. I didn’t really understand much of his paper and I am eager to get an answer to my question: ‘What about improvisation as an actor’s tool in the process of performance in Barba’s theatre’? Ruffini, probably on a high from having just delivered his paper, suddenly starts speaking to me in beautiful English:
“The working space is like a church to Barba. That’s why he doesn’t like people laughing or clapping. He wants to make theatre because it allows him to ‘scream’ – which real life doesn’t allow. To scream about the insufferable, the pain.
He doesn’t really have much to teach a young director because he works with a mysterious kind of energy, and with instinct. You can’t teach that. Organic dramaturgy.
There are three kinds of improvisation:
1. towards the actor
2. towards the spectator
(Ruffini gets closer to me and lowers the tone of his voice significantly)
3. towards God –
but we mustn’t speak about that!”
Ruffini explains that this last kind of improvisation cannot really be taught because the notion itself can easily be misinterpreted. He claims that he only ever saw this kind of ‘improvisation’ in Grotowski’s own work – ‘an improvisation towards God, towards the sacred, towards the ‘not known’ – ‘that which cannot be named’. Not everybody can do that (although what Molik did the other night could perhaps be seen as coming close to it).
“An actor might think that they can improvise for God, but when they strip the layers – they get to the banal – a man and woman having sex.”
The last few days before I left Newcastle for Poland had been spent working towards the premiere of Julia Darling’s musical Manifesto for a New City in Hexham. It was based on a series of poems Julia had written for us the previous year for an event called Flying Homages which I created with four poets and three Northern Stage actors-musicians to accompany the run of Homage to Catalonia. Actor Jim Kitson wrote the music for it and Alan Lyddiard directed it as his last piece for Northern Stage (as he had just resigned as the Artistic Director of the company). Julia and I had spent a lot of time together over the last few months – which was made even easier by the fact that our offices were on the same corridor at Newcastle University. However, her condition had been deteriorating rapidly over and she would often be lying down on her sofa when I went to her for a working session. Julia was pretty much bedbound the last few weeks before the opening but she managed to pay us a visit for a dress rehearsal.
Since coming here, I have been thinking of Julia intensely, texting her and reading her blog. In it she said that her trip to the dress rehearsal of the Manifesto was probably the last time she ever got out of bed. I was panicking, but trying not to show it – calling Julia to arrange to see her on my return, calling our friend Margaret to share my anxieties…
But I was feeling very inarticulate, afraid and increasingly sad. I was remembering times I’d shared with her, how I met her in a book first, ages before we actually set eyes upon each other, then I met her by word of mouth, just weeks before we actually met. Her complete smile. When she came round for a cup of tea and told me she made lists of things she wanted to do or wanted to come true. Sometimes they did or did not, but at least she kept finding these notes to herself months later… I’ll take that with me.
Margaret said: This is not about us, it’s about her. This time is for her…
Driving with Julia through snow, one evening after rehearsal, sharing stories of falling in public places. I must remember her caps and hats….
Some Thoughts on Theatre
Dramaturgy is about conceptualising.
Acting is about instinct.
Directing is about power.
Barba’s principle of action-direction is really about returning to the laws of physics. A see-saw.
This inspires me to think of the whole of theatre-making practice in terms of the paradigm of a children’s playground:
- a see-saw – as the principle of ‘action-direction'
- the swings – as ‘communication’ with the audience
- a walking bridge – as a dramatic arc
A flourish of today:
An ‘improvisation’ in which life is represented through a metaphor of eating an orange, and death arrives when eating finishes.
Having spent about a week in Krzyżowa we are finally back in Wroclaw for a theatre festival organized by the Grotowski Institute. However, the return to Wroclaw is marked by the downbeat feeling surrounding the recent death of Pope Paul II who was of course Polish. Ever since the Pope’s death on 2 April, there has been a palpable sense of anxiety among the Polish people as to how this will reflect on their political situation. Our arrival into Wroclaw coincides with the TV broadcast of the Pope’s funeral so the entire city is quiet... Nevertheless, over the next few days we get to see some really interesting theatre (including Odin’s Andersen’s Dream) and this at least goes some way in redressing the balance of the entire experience which has been less than ecstatic for me so far. Even though we get a terrible cold in our last few days in Poland, I am still much happier having the freedom of being in a city...
For me ISTA has been a culture shock in reverse. Everything that constitutes Barba’s theatre practice is intensely familiar to me as a conservative, hierarchical, vertical system of values that characterises both the notion of theatre practice and of education in Eastern Europe.
Having settled in Western Europe more than ten years ago, I was forced to unlearn and leave behind such elitist ways of thinking about knowledge and theatre in favour of more democratic, empowering and inclusive processes. As a result I have grown to resent those ways I’d left behind.
At the end of this ISTA I find that in many ways adaptation sums up my state of being. But that having moved away from one context and having left one way of being behind for another - diametrically opposed - one, it is impossible to continue to appreciate or return to the original condition.
Maybe one decides to stay faithful to something on the basis of the level of difficulty it took to get there.
A Post Scriptum on
Memory, Repetition, Discontinuity
Julia died on 13 April 2005. I returned to Newcastle two days later and placed this under In Memoriam on her website:
I returned from Poland yesterday with a jar of raspberry confiture. I was going to call round with it. In amongst other things, Julia asked for home-grown raspberries in the Manifesto. She also asked for imaginary travel, and I hoped this was going to be an imaginary postcard in a jar.
I also met Julia through a story first – a story called Bloodlines which I found in a small publisher’s collection many years ago. All I remembered about it was its beauty, a nameless city with the metro and references to Spain. Then in 2002 a friend of mine urged me to catch Personal Belongings at that year’s Fringe. When I moved to Newcastle the following month, one of the first people I met was Julia Darling. And when you met Julia it was impossible not to become an instant friend. She was also one of my first visitors in my new home, one Sunday afternoon when she was on a research trip to that part of town. In retrospect I realised, that visit was my small casual initiation ritual. Julia had also been a newcomer once and she loved making people feel welcome in this place that she made her home.
Everything about Julia always seemed so effortless – her boundless generosity of spirit, her radiant smile, her literature. She always responded to every call, to every cause, to every occasion – she loved people and she loved writing and those two loves always went hand in hand. And those two loves never asked for anything in return.
I think it was at the time when we were rehearsing Valentine Verses that I learnt about Julia’s illness. We were in the lift in the School of English and just before she got out on the second floor she joked about how her cancer was part of her literary reputation. I stayed behind shell-shocked. I could never have imagined that cancer could co-exist with so much beauty and love, and I tried to reassure myself that the latter would surely triumph.
On occasions like this, when recollection is a means of coping, every memory inevitably seems magnified. In this particular place, where Julia revealed her innermost feelings and thoughts, it is impossible to ignore the cancer. Yet on a daily basis, the strength of Julia’s personality was such that it always overshadowed her actual state of health. Yes, she would casually mention the nurses, her acupuncture sessions and her afternoon naps on her new sofa, but always with her beaming smile.
Almost a year to the date after our theatrical celebration of poetry and love, we were planning another staged poetry event. This time the idea was to link the event with Northern Stage’s co-production of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. We would send Julia, Bill Herbert, Linda France and Colin Teevan on Easyjet flights to Barcelona and get them to write their own homages to Catalonia. Julia returned from Barcelona with a Manifesto for a New City. In it she famously called for the artists and makers to take over the city and for the property developers to cut up their suits and make them again. Soon after her return, Julia found that her cancer had started spreading…
As a result of the success of Flying Homages – the evening of poetry and music performed by the writers together with Northern Stage’s actors – Julia was commissioned to write a full scale musical for the company. We started working on it intensively last autumn and Julia seemed to be bursting with ideas. Occasionally she’d say: “I have to go and have my blood changed, but maybe you could come with me and we can work in the hospital”. Such was her attitude to her work in relation to the demands of her body.
The second floor at the School of English has always been a lively place – a home to writers and creative individuals who would call in on each other with ideas or just wave joyously across the corridor filled with the smell of incense coming from Julia’s office. I loved going into her office for meetings. Not only did it smell nice, but it was a real writer’s den furnished with simple luxuries – beautiful lighting, intriguing pictures and carefully chosen words and notes to herself. And of course – there was the sofa. When Jim Kitson came in on the Manifesto meetings, the second floor was also filled with catchy tunes and beautiful music.
Manifesto the musical had several incarnations. At first it was a proper play with songs and jokes and a character called Maureen who would bring Maureenism into the City. Around Christmas-time, however, the director Alan Lyddiard became really keen on the idea of Julia being in the show herself. For a moment it seemed like Julia was also up for it, but then she confessed that she could not be relied on and just continued writing furiously, bringing up new possible versions of the musical.
I don’t know where she found the time, but she was also keeping at least another fifteen projects on the go – poetry readings, masterclasses, radio plays, interviews – and she was also travelling or planning travels. In January we staged another reading as part of the Holocaust Memorial Day exploring the theme of survival. At this point Julia was very much into knitting and we built this newly-discovered means of survival into the show. I later thought – what a wonderful metaphor for poetry! I often think of playwriting as weaving anyway – maybe the entire literary activity can be reclaimed by women on the grounds of their inherent handcrafting inclinations.
I would have liked to have shared this thought with Julia. In the last two weeks, stuck at a symposium in Poland, I kept thinking of all the things I would have liked to have shared with Julia but never got the chance to. Then I realised that we shared wonderful moments working together, and work was exactly what kept Julia going. There was never any time for sentiments – only pure feelings, pure enthusiasm and a sense of purpose.
The last time I saw Julia at the dress rehearsal of the Manifesto, we parted with the words “See you!” The last time I spoke to her a week ago, we almost made an appointment. I came back with a jar of raspberry confiture hoping to call round with it as a token of imaginary travel. And it is this set of circumstances which made it impossible for me to see Julia once again that brings out the sentiments in me, and the memories: the times she smiled, the time when I realised I had met her first all those years ago through her story, the time when she came into my office with a radio and two cappuccinos and we listened to the Appointments while watching the snow through the window, the way in which I was swept off the beach while reading The Taxi Driver’s Daughter in Nice and then continued turning the soaked pages till the end.
In a way, knowing Julia was like experiencing that wave in Nice and I am deeply honoured to have had the opportunity.