Background

  • Robert Lepage was born in Quebec City on 12th December, 1957
  • One of four children, mother was mostly a house-wife and father was a cab driver
  • A rarity at that time, they were a truly bi-lingual family
  • Lepage’s mother had lived in London serving with the army during WWII and his father was in Royal Navy, so they both learned English during that time
  • They adopted two English-speaking children, then had Robert and his sister some years later – he saw his family as a “cultural metaphor for Canada”
  • Growing up (60’s & 70’s) Lepage felt the effects of cultural and family politics in Quebec – dominance of white French Catholic, Anglophone minority had economic power while the francophone majority lived in rural areas or were working class – Lepage did not fit into either group
  • He was also struggling with his sexual identity, and he had alopecia which caused him at age six to lose all his body hair…all this caused him to assume the role of the outsider
  • He was very shy and prone to depression, and drama classes were a way to overcome this.  He says in Needles and Opium, “Well, you see, I suffer from a very low self-esteem.  It is problematic for someone in theatre, because people’s opinion is very important; it’s part of my work. It either empowers me or completely destroys me…”
  • His mother told him war stories and stories about old Quebec as a child
  • His father would take people on tour of Quebec City in his cab and regale them with stories that were a mix of myth, fact and fiction and would alter depending on who was listening and Robert would often accompany his father just to hear the stories
  • Was very interested in geography, then moved over to theatre – he became interested in the geography of human experience or the human environment…intercultural theatre
  • Lepage was studying geography at college before he shifted his focus and attended Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique in Quebec City where he didn’t do all that well – he had a difficult time creating psychological realism and was told he was acting without emotion. He says “I was taught a definition of emotion which I learned but never managed to produce on stage. But from my very first professional shows, however, I managed to move the audience. I didn’t really understand what made this happen and it took me a long time before I began to sort it out, before I could really distinguish the difference between the emotion that an actor feels on the stage and the energy he needs to generate that emotion in the audience.”
  • He did however gain a lot from studying with Marc Dore, a student of Jacques Lecoq
  • Then took workshops at  Alain Knapp’s theatre school in Paris (Insitut de la personnalite creatrice) – here he learned devised theatre and it was there that he realized he could be an actor/creator, he could be the focus of the mise-en-scene, in effect he could create and control the mise-en-scene
  • These experiences largely shaped the theatre he would end up creating
  • It’s worth mentioning that Lepage would’ve grown up with all the political, social and cultural tension happening in Quebec during that time – theatre in Quebec was already breaking with tradition, and was in essence rebelling again all the foreign “masterpieces” – in fact Quebec critic Michel Vais credits Michel Trembley with bringing “joual” (language of the streets) to the stage – he called a 1968 production of Les Belles-Soeurs “the birth of Quebec theatre”
  • When he came back to Quebec he started creating original work, and in 1982 joined Jacques Lessard’s  and Irene Roy’s Theatre Repere where he did much of his early work, including the internationally recognized Dragon’s Trilogy
  • With Theatre Repere he also created Vinci (1986), Le Polygraphe (1987 – 1990) with long-time collaborator Marie Brassard, and Tectonic Plates (1988 – 1990), all of which toured the world
  • He was the artistic director of the National Arts Centre Theatre Francais from 1989 – 1993 during which he created Needles and Opium among many others
  • I saw his production of A Mid Summer’s Night Dream at the National Theatre in London in 1992 – he was the first North-American to direct a Shakespearean play at the National Theatre
  • In 1994 he created his own theatre/multi-media production company Ex Machina, of which some of the more significant projects have been The Seven Streams of the River Ota (1994), Geometry of Miracles (1998), and The Far Side of the Moon (2000)
  • He has directed and acted in many films – who can forget him in Jesus de Montreal a film by Denys Arcand, and has directed numerous Operas around the world, as well as permanent show in Las Vegas for Circe du Soleil called Ka
  • In 1993 he staged Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Tour, and did the same again for his Growing Up Tour in 2003
  • Recently he’s even done unique projects like The Image Mill which celebrated Quebec City’s 400th anniversary – it was the largest projection in the world , and was projected on the Bunge grain elevators – it offered 4 centuries of human and material development in Quebec City in 40 minutes and did so with a focus on past, present & future
  • The Blue Dragon, a sequel to The Dragon’s Trilogy came out last year and recently was part of the Cultural Olympiad in Vancouver
  • He continues to be involved in all kinds of projects…he never quits…
  • It’s no wonder he’s been dubbed “the ambassador par excellence of Quebec culture”

Themes in the Work

  • Lepage is not interested in theatre as a pedagogue, and he is not trying to establish a system or an approach to be analyzed and studied
  • Due to his experiences growing up Lepage seems to have a several recurring themes in his work, travelling, geography, the local and global cultural intersection, language, non-verbal language, global communication, memory, cultural differences between countries, otherness or alienation, displacement, decalage, what is art or artistic integrity and how these things are defined, the role and identity of self in the context of the work, the role of the audience as a participant in the process – and he is interested in all parts of the theatre having equal value…total theatre
  • Transformation and connection is a very big theme…at the heart of much of what he does
  • His sense of otherness seems to have informed this idea of travelling – many of his productions contain an element where the main characters travel to another place, country or environment and learn something significant about themselves that radically changes their lives
  • The actor/creator often offers a personal account of what is going in the story – the audience gets let into the very personal world of who is telling the story, who the story is happening to, we get their perspective and understand their relationship with the story – the story-teller is defined by who they are in the context of the outside world
  • Not unlike the way he grew up, his theatre lives in-between worlds
  • The main character (usually young and usually a Quebecker and usually an artist – Pierre Lamontagne) will often have to travel or go out into another world to discover something…some truth about themselves…somehow by travelling out, we learn something about who we are within…this can be liberating…this is often the reason we travel when we are young…we discover who we are…it’s a rite of passage
  • Asia has influenced his work quite a bit and his fascination with the east helped him understand the west

La Caserne/Ex Machina

  • After founding Ex Machina in 1994 Lepage ultimately was able to create “a place where people don’t feel they have to produce to be productive.”  This place was La Caserne, Ex Machina’s artistic home – a kind of theatre artist’s dream facility where the members of Ex Machina can create at will.  The facility itself is a statement as it combines the old and the new, a traditional facade and a very modern rear section.  All the work spaces are very flexible, there is no fixed seating in the auditorium, all the separate sections of the floor can raised and lowered independently, it is also equipped to be able to do audio and video and multi-image production, editing, recording, etc.  It also houses scene and costume shops, make-up rooms, rehearsal halls, etc., and was built with over $5 million dollars of public money.
  • General Manager Michel Bernatchez defends the space by stating that “this is not Lapage’s toy, but rather a collective project that has the goal of uniting artists, scientists, architects, set designers, engineers, video-image specialists, and other people in various fields.”
  • La Caserne is in essence a theatre laboratory

Repere Cycles/RSVP Cycles

  • When Lepage was working with Theatre Repere, Jacques Lessard had just come back from studying with post-modernist dancer/creator Anna Halprin in San Francisco where her and her partner/husband, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin has recently created the RSVP Cycles
  • The RSVP Cycles were created as an approach to creative methodology that can be applied across all disciplines, and as Halprin states “describe all the procedures inherent in the creative process”
  • R: Resources – what you have to work with, human & physical, and what they might used for, what is their aim or goal
  • S: Score – the description that leads to performance
  • V: Valuaction – analyzes the results of action and possible selectivity and decisions…action-oriented and decision-oriented
  • P: Performance – the final result of all the scores used and becomes the style of the process as well
  • There is an inner cycle that has to do with the “separate self” and the outer cycle that has to do with the “collective self”…and all this is based on awareness…the point is to make the creative process visible and transparent
  • This approach was initially conceived to enable work in the area of urban planning and architecture
  • The Repere Cycles at Theatre Repere are based this:
  • RE: Resource, P: Partition, E: Evaluation, RE: Representation (reference pp. 88 – 89 in The Geography of Creation)
  • Lepage used this approach in much of his work with Theatre Repere
  • The relationship between the personal and the collective is very important. As Dunjerovic states, “Subjectivity (as an extension of one’s own subject self into an outer world) is central to the creative process

Decalage and Performance as Process

  • This was a very difficult thing to define but it is really at the core of Lapage’s work
  • The actual Quebecois definition is something like jet-lag, or time-lag, or offset, or shift, or gap, or staggering, or maybe skew
  • For Lepage it “combines autobiography, coincidence and paradox, and the performance moment.  It is a way of working, thinking, living, which gives Lapage’s work a relentless indeterminacy and a dynamic, unique imagistic inner life – even in (because of) the work’s chronic “unfinished” state.”
  • “Decalage is the main impulse, the principle mode of working, and a major result of his productions, both onstage and in the audience”
  • “It is an acknowledgment of gaps, indeterminacies; it is a way of working that trades on impulse, intuition, and broad creative freedom; it results in a theatre of simultaneity and juxtaposition in which actor, image, text, and audience are brought into dialogue, a questioning, and an active co-constitutive role.” (refer to pp 89 – 90 in the Geography of Creation)
  • “Decalage fuels the impulse to create…it is not logical or idea-based…it is visceral, intuitive, and therefore very personal.”
  • Lepage would call it “omnipresent”
  • “Theatrically, decalage is most often manifest in the use of simultaneity, often achieved by the manipulation of performers”
  • This leads us to Lapage’s idea of rehearsal as private performance and performance as public rehearsal…in other words it’s all process…nothing is ever truly finished, everything is in a state of “unfinishedness”, a work in progress, and the audience then becomes part of the creative process because they participate in these public rehearsals, they help to articulate what the piece is, what its meaning is
  • Lapages’ shows will continue to change and grow over the course of a run or a tour…quite often Lepage will follow the tour for the first while to continue to affect the production based on the audience, not that he is trying to make the show into something that the audience will like necessarily, but that the audience response is a key factor in the creative process
  • Lepage uses this idea of decalage in many ways and his hope is that it is experienced by the audience as well as the performers…sometimes the collaborative performers are asked to perform and create in a language that foreign to them.  One of Lepage’s close collaborators Marie Gignac says that “In your own language you hide behind the words. When you improvise in English you have to get to the point, to the emotion, to the situation, to real feeling, to the essential.” And Lapage states “The process of translating is like an x-ray of our own writing where we can see all our thoughts.”
  • Material and meaning are only found through interaction with the audience
  • He deliberately invites chaos into his work…this is part of the process
  • He sees his role as much more a facilitator than a director. He is very influenced by the actor-creators he has in his collective. Lepage says, “directing is not the sole property of the director. With our approach, it comes out of a collective effort. When we rehearse with actors, we discover and uncover the play. When I direct, my approach is closer to that of a student than that of a teacher. I think this is what makes the play continue to evolve right until opening night and even beyond.”
  • He expects each actor-author to find their own personal mythology through the process
  • Even Picasso realized that often artists will create things and then discover what they mean…Lepage and Picasso are similar in this way
  • For Lepage, the theatre is something wild and untamed, without rules…he wants to keep it that way
  • Chaos plays an important role in his work. He is like Peter Brook in this way. Brook says, “the creative process begins with a deep, formless hunch, which is alike a smell, a colour, a shadow. I have no structure for what doing a play because I work from that amorphous non-formed feeling, and from that I start preparing”
  • Chaos is the generator of creativity an needs to be present in both rehearsal and performance. He says “out of chaos the cosmos was born – the order of things, yes, but a living, organic, changing one. This is where true creation lies.”
  • Lapage dislikes extreme organization. “creating lists, for example of all the works written by Jews in order to destroy them and, in this way, destroy the very idea of Jewish people – this organization is completely contrary to the process of creation that comes out of chaos.”
  • Two types of creativity: Psychological and Visionary as Carl Jung describes them:
    • Psychological – “works with materials drawn from man’s conscious life, made of all general human experiences, emotions, events”
    • Visionary – “derives from primordial experiences, dreams, the unknown depths of the human soul, ‘from the hinterland of the human mind, as if it had emerged from the abyss of pre-human ages, or from a superhuman world of contrasting light and darkness.’”
    • The purpose of technology is to tell stories that bring people together, and in some way unify them. Lapage says “In the great black of night, we gather around the fire to tell each other stories. Fire is used to inaugurate important events: the Olympic Games are opening with the lighting of a torch, which however, does not illuminate the whole stadium. Fire is the symbol of gathering. When we assemble in a cinema we are plunged into darkness and the light is restricted to the screen. It’s like watching a fire, a light whose shapes and colours are in constant motion.”

The 7 Faces of Robert Lepage (documentary)

Below are all quotes directly from Robert Lepage unless otherwise stated:

Director

  • What am I trying to say? I’ve no idea! Everybody used to criticize me: “What is is trying to say?” I don’t know. And I’m just beginning to understand that…maybe it’s a good thing. It’s my way of doing things.
  • I’m not very interested in “casting” actors. I don’t think that way, “I have to get so-and-so for the part”. Instead I’ll go, “is he or she interesting? Oh they’re intelligent, I like the way they work. Can they tell me something about the part?”
  • I’m the traffic director. My job is to make sure that all those ideas turn into…

Writing

  • When you set a play down in writing, print it, publish it, it should be the very last step, not the first one. The performances are actually part of the writing process.
  • But I’m sorry to see that here in Quebec, more and more plays are written and published without ever being put on. And theatre departments in various universities actually make their students read such plays, plays that haven’t gone through the production process, that haven’t gone through the meat grinder…plays that haven’t found their true voice yet.
  • Theatre isn’t literature. Theatre is about writing. And literature and writing are two different things. People tend not to realize that. Writing is an ongoing process. It’s full of unfinished sentences, crossed-out words…and when I’m told my writing is awkward, it stimulates me. My answer is “Yes! We have to make that statement. We have to welcome that type of writing.”

Private (Solo)

  • Even when I do my one-man shows, whether it’s improv or things I’ve written, prepared myself, it always become a team project at some point. I can’t focus entirely on my own. I’m not the kind of guy who’ll “do his own thing.” Frankly I don’t see how else I can explore my own complexity, my own purpose…Not entirely on my own. I can’t.
  • I can see myself through their eyes and find myself there too.
  • I always start off from a rather naive point of view. I tell myself, “Just doing something on Vinci is worth it.”
  • Any part of anyone’s life is worth telling about, except that I need to have those limits…that distance between public and private life. So I suggest things; I don’t tell them outright. Robert Levesque said it best I think. He said that I didn’t really reveal myself, but that I trusted the audience.
  • Speaking of his relationship with his brother: It’s a recurring theme for me and I want to talk about it, but it’s also a private thing between my brother and me. So I don’t want to do what a lot of other people do. They’ll write the actual story, and that’s that. A lot of people believe that you have to suffer…to relive things through some sort of gestalt process. Personally I don’t need therapy. I try to be attuned to the feelings, the impressions that I get when I’m writing. So that theme of two brothers, their conflicts, the way they interact on different levels…does show up fairly often in my work. It used to be in veiled terms but it’s been surfacing more in films like “The Confessional” for instance.

Public

  • I think that the audience – and that’s probably why I’m a bigger success with the public than with the critics – the audience knows that I’m actually still looking for things…that I’m a seeker, not someone who’ll walk onstage with this…aura of intelligence and culture, or someone who makes statements, “This is it.” I think people see that my works are in progress, so to speak.
  • You’ve got to trust your public, to appreciate it deep down.  The public never stinks…but sometimes, we do. We’re responsible for our own successes or failures. We have to communicate with our public. We get to…to decide everything: how the game is played, and where, so the ultimate responsibility is ours. The public will follow our lead.
  • “…sometimes the audience lacks the culture, or the educational background required to understand every ramification of the text or of a metaphor, I don’t know…but the audience is intelligent, and it does want to learn…and play too.
  • Speaking about the reduced sense of playfulness in the theatre: And even though I can’t say that it’s actually gone, it seems to me that it’s been replaced by a cult of “acting” created by the movie industry, and which has now invaded theatre circles. So now we get to see “Actors” onstage…so I’ll see them spilling their guts in front of me, drawing on every feeling they’ve ever felt, doing their number with such subtlety, such skill, except that I’m sitting there, in the audience, and I don’t feel much. That’s a huge issue right now, and a lot of people don’t share my point of view. But I think that the feelings they’re spilling out onstage rarely – if ever – reach the audience sitting out there. And that emotion, those feelings should be the audience’s. I’m not against their being onstage too, but I’m trying to get the public to feel them. That’s my priority. Well, I think that’s a noble goal, although that too can be dangerous. When you’re trying to make the audience feel certain things, well, you’re liable to make mistakes. Sometimes I’ve created thrills instead of true emotion.
  • When you go to the theatre, you’re part of a group. It’s a random group made up of people from various strata of society and assembled in the same room. And they become one, because the room with laugh, and cry, and feel as a whole. And this will have an impact on the show. It’s not merely communication, but a sort of communion…and that only happens in theatre. This doesn’t happen at the movies…you’re dealing with one-on-one communication at the movies, but at the theatre we become a community.

Baroque

  • I get away with everything I’ve done – and I still do – by telling myself that I’m a student of the baroque. You know, aesthetic harmony onstage bores me to tears. I can’t stand it when all the actors play the same way, when they all look as if they’d graduated from the same school. I like when actors have different styles, when they play on different levels, etc.
  • Said of Lepage: He isn’t very bossy. And he won’t impose a rigid set of rules when he works. The climate is open, easy. People will come and go as they please. He’s very flexible. I think he likes it that way. He doesn’t need that kind of rigidity. I think it would hinder him, actually.
  • I tend to work more and more with people from various artistic communities. I intend to go on doing it now that I’m able to without falling into the trap of imitating Brook, because Brook is really in a class by himself. His theatre is somewhat akin to theatrical anthropology, because he uses people from Asia, South Africa, etc. I’m not that international, but in the western world, I’ve worked with Germans, with Swedish actors, and these people have developed a kinship with me, or with my group, my working methods.
  • Quebec City is smaller (than Montreal). People are more focused there. It’s like a monastery, in a way. We work in a closed, almost monastic environment, but afterwards, we’ll actually tour the world and open up to it.
  • Speaking about Lepage and his rehearsals: There’s electricity in the air. It’s quite chaotic actually. It’s a chaotic working process, and I think he likes it that way.

 

 

Repertory

  • Speaking of staging Strindberg’s “Dream Play” in Stockholm: “…it ended up being an extraordinary experience, because I did identify with one of the characters. I found out why I liked the play and why I wanted to stage it: because one of the characters moved me…that was it. I built everything around that. And for me, all of a sudden, that play became quite clear. I had my concept and I could get to work, but I needed that spark first. To me, it made all the difference in the world. And when a classical work is being staged, as they often are, I think the director needs to project himself into the play instead of paying tribute to the play or the playwright.

Technology

  • Technology is often rooted in – and I’m going to say something very Buddhist – technology is often a product of the swamp, but we turn it into a lotus.
  • I was thrilled when I worked with Peter Gabriel because a bunch of whiz kids used to knock on his door and show him the gadgets they’d just invented. And he used to pick up the equipment, turn it upside down, and plug the wires any which way, and they’d be horrified. But that’s what an artist does with new technology. Not what he’s supposed to do, but what he feels like doing. He’ll turn it upside down before he uses it.
  • All one-man shows, no matter what your theme or subject is, are about solitude, because there you are, all alone. Whether that individual is fighting outside forces or himself is irrelevant. And how can you protect that intimacy, how can you tell people increasingly personal things and let them peer into your soul, in a way, when theatres have become so huge? This is partly why I use technology.
  • To make people feel closer to you up there on the stage you’ll start doing anything. But one day you end up not needing these props anymore. They’re crutches really. So you give them up because you’ve outgrown them.
  • I think that artists ought to keep track of new technology. They should exploit it, transform it. Because technology is an agent of change. It creates new styles and transforms the old. And my favourite example is, it’s a fairly long example, I’ll try to sum it up. (it’s the painting/photography example) It took painters over 50 years to realize that photography really, had liberated their art. Film liberated the theatre! But in theatre, we’re still trying to imitate the movies, and it’s a dead-end street, unless you create a specific style out of it. And that’s why I used the word “baroque earlier. It’s not just a matter of technology. Television is coming of age, finding its voice, deciding what it wants to say and how it wants to say it. But theatre is quite a different medium. It’s mad, baroque…it allows us to express things that haven’t been expressed yet. When painting was faced with such changes – a metamorphosis really – in the early 20th century, it began to express things it had never even dreamed of expressing before.

International Message by Robert Lepage

There are a number of hypotheses on the origins of theatre but the one I find the most thought-provoking takes the form of a fable:

One night, at the dawn of time, a group of men were gathered together in a quarry to warm themselves around a fire and tell stories.   All of a sudden, one of them had the idea to stand up and use his shadow to illustrate his tale.  Using the light from the flames he made characters appear, larger than life, on the walls of the quarry.  Amazed, the others recognized in turn the strong and the weak, the oppressor and the oppressed, the god and the mortal.

Nowadays, the light of projectors has replaced the original bonfire, and stage machinery, the walls of the quarry. And with all due deference to certain purists, this fable reminds us that technology is at the very beginnings of theatre and that it should not be perceived as a threat but as a uniting element.

The survival of the art of theatre depends on its capacity to reinvent itself by embracing new tools and new languages.  For how could the theatre continue to bear witness to the great issues of its epoch and promote understanding between people without having, itself, a spirit of openness? How could it pride itself on offering solutions to the problems of intolerance, exclusion and racism if, in its own practice, it resisted any fusion and integration?

In order to represent the world in all its complexity, the artist must bring forth new forms and ideas, and trust in the intelligence of the spectator, who is capable of distinguishing the silhouette of humanity within this perpetual play of light and shadow.

It is true that by playing too much with fire, we take a risk, but we also take a chance: we might get burned, but we might also amaze and enlighten.

Robert Lepage

Quebec, 17th February 2008

Secret World Tour

  • Transition and transformation
  • Round stage and square stage – feminine and masculine – the tree and the phone box

Show opening of Secret World Tour (1st track), and opening of Tectonic Plates

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Billy Bishop Goes to War is an amazing piece of Canadian theatre history.  Since its first appearance on stage at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in November 1978 its creators Eric Peterson and John Gray have toured it across Canada many times; they have taken it to Broadway, London’s West End, Los Angeles, the Edinburgh Festival and it has been produced for television in Britain, Canada and Germany.  It is still one of the most produced Canadian plays both here and abroad.  And now 42 years later, the original cast is back again in Toronto at Soulpepper Theatre Company, and what a treat!

I’ll preface this critique by acknowledging that this is a play I know quite well.  I’ve been honoured to play Billy in two productions of Billy Bishop Goes to War, one in Alberta and one in Saskatchewan.  So my hope is that my intimate knowledge of the play will only help to provide some added insight to this critique that one might not otherwise get.

Both Eric Peterson and John Gray are in their sixties, although you wouldn’t know it.  Although little parts of the script have been updated to make sense of their age, there are times when the spry Peterson is so youthful and energized that I could actually see the boy he once was, even at age 62.  As actors we will often use the term “to play” to describe what we will sometimes do in rehearsal when we are discovering a role, or when we are in the studio working on some element of a character that might have us blocked, and it’s true that when we do this, we will often make these discoveries by getting in touch with our child-self.  Watching Eric Peterson go through Bishop’s first solo flight or his first dogfight was like watching a kid in a sandbox.  It’s amazing to me that the age of the performers did not detract at all from the liveliness of the production.  While it’s true that a younger actor might be able to leap around a bit more and perhaps be more agile overall, Peterson finds a way to deliver every bit of that story in his 62 year old body without losing any of the youthful energy Billy Bishop had…and he makes it look easy.  Now I notice that Peterson and Gray also had an Alexander Coach (Kelly McEvenue) on the production so I’m sure that helped!  None-the-less Eric Peterson has an ease and a comfort on stage that is almost unparalleled.  He handles the story-telling with simplicity and efficiency, and when it comes the twenty-some characters he brings to life, he does so with grace, specificity and fluidity.

Peterson is called upon to play everything from Bishop’s patron, the old matriarch Lady St. Hellier and her butler, to the French lounge singer the lovely Helene, to various soldiers, pilots, generals and captains in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), and even the celebrated British war hero Albert Ball.  This would be a huge challenge for any actor to pull off and if it is done so successfully it is a tour-de-force!  It is exactly this for Peterson.  He weaves in and out of these characters with ease, and his choices with each person are so specific and so simple that not only do we have no problem following the story, but we fully believe the new human being that has just magically arrived on the stage.  Each one of his characters has a speech pattern, a set of mannerisms, a body type, and a voice, and they are just distinct enough to make the character recognizable and clear, and yet not over done.  And it seemed not to matter if the character is male or female, large or small, or powerful or weak.  One of my favourites is Sir Hugh, who Bishop is interviewed by to become a pilot.  Sir Hugh had a single mannerism that immediately invited us into the world of that character.  Peterson is a master of his craft and it is a treat to watch him work.

There must of course also be a shadow side to all that brilliance and experience with the piece.  Peterson is so familiar with the piece and knows so well how audiences react to it that it seems as if he doesn’t really care about all those lines that might not get much of a reaction from the audience.  He skims over them in such a way that I found that even I was losing some of the phrases, and I know the script very well.  It made me wonder what the experience would be like for someone going in not only not knowing the script, but also not knowing any of the history.  I can only assume that they leave the theatre with holes in the story, and certainly having parts of the play that may have enjoyed, but didn’t necessarily understand.  When I reflect on this I am somewhat divided.  On the one hand it’s a shame for some of the audience to lose chunks of that very rich story, and on the other hand by leaping through the text with agility from good bit to good bit Peterson keeps an audience in 2010 on their toes and doesn’t allow them a moment to lose interest.  This might be necessary for a script written by two novice playwrights in the 70’s.

This incarnation of Billy Bishop Goes to War was directed by Ted Dykstra and the set was designed by Camellia Koo with lighting design by Lorenzo Savioni.  Mr. Dykstra is of course another giant in the world of Canadian theatre, although he has found much more acclaim as an actor and a writer than as a director.  This is perhaps for good reason.  While I loved the nostalgia of the set design, presumably Billy’s (or Eric’s) old armchair and various road boxes and road boxes & suitcases supposedly from previous productions and/or tours, I found that the staging was a bit clunky at times and in fact detracted from the magic of simply having one actor and one piano player on stage telling a story.  The use of various models of the Neuport 17 (the fighter plane Bishop flew) in one of the dogfights seemed unnecessary and too didactic.  Almost as if it was more important for us to get the nitty-gritty details of the dogfight rather than the importance of Peterson as Bishop connecting with us by letting us in on this experience.  It ended up distancing us from what was going on rather than drawing us in.

Conversely one of the most visually stunning and gripping parts of the show was the solo attack on the aerodrome at dawn.  With a cloudy blue sky cyclorama in the background, and Billy decked out in his flying jacket, helmet, goggles and gloves, Peterson, holding a single model of a Neuport 17, took us through the adventure of a life time, and it looked spectacular.  This time, with the simplicity of one plane, we were able to see everything that was going on, and what wasn’t there we could see in our mind’s eye with the help of Peterson’s lively text.  The image of that single fighter plane against that sky still burns brightly in my memory.

Another bit of Mr. Dykstra’s staging that seemed overdone was the use of framed photographs that Peterson set up at various places around the stage at various times throughout the play, each with its own lighting special that would highlight it at appropriate times on cue.  One was of Bishop’s beloved Margaret, another was of Albert Ball, another was a WW1 scene, etc., these all being photographs and memorabilia that a war vet might keep hung on the walls in his basement.  Although this was a neat idea and would make sense if we were in Bishop’s basement, they were I’m sure lost on most of the audience.  I was in the 4th row and I could barely make out what the photographs were of, and if it was that bad in the 4th row it was far worse for most of the audience.  In the end I felt we didn’t need them.  If they had simply been up around the set as if they were part of it all along I think we would’ve been able to accept them more readily.  As it was, to have Bishop lift up the photograph, make sure the bracket behind it is holding it properly, and have a light come up and illuminate it made me want to ask, “What’s all the fuss about?  Get on with the story!”

Musically, the production was also very simple.  The music was approached as if it were actually a couple of old guys, hacks really, getting together to tell stories and sing songs.  It had none of the polish and slickness that most musical theatre is known for.  One could argue that this show is more a play with music, songs and live underscoring rather than a musical.  There were however times when I would’ve liked to have seen a little more polish to the songs and especially some of the more tender harmonies.  The beautiful Friends Ain’t Supposed to Die ‘Til You’re Old comes to mind.   And the underscoring of the first dogfight could’ve used a little more finesse.  This feels a bit strange to say this of the creators of the show, but I guess we see what we see.

This play is about many things including a boy’s dramatic journey into manhood, a statement of the glory and ugliness of war, and perhaps at its core is the theme of survival.  Bishop ultimately learned how to survive in a brutal world where, as a drunken pilot says truthfully to Bishop in a bar, “the average life expectancy of a new pilot is about eleven days.”  Bishop became a machine, not unlike his plane, designed for one purpose, and that is to gain victory in the sky by taking down enemy planes.  Bishop learned survival.  Peterson says that “surviving such great difficulties reshapes our self-awareness as individuals and as a country.  (Billy Bishop Goes to War) is a metaphor for life.  We’re all trying to survive, and we all pay a price for it.”  Peterson and Gray found survival in the harsh realities of the theatre industry in Canada in the 1970’s through telling Bishop’s story of survival.  And here they are 42 years later, having survived, like great theatrical giants, a marvellous, meaningful and courageous life in the theatre, and still gaining victories in the sky!

It is utterly fascinating to me that so many of these theatre icons give such deference to that elusive…what shall we call it?  Shall we call it a thing, being, spirit, muse, the other, that something outside of us, that some other presence?  We won’t call it God, nor will we even really relate to it as a tiny piece of what God might be.  Not that we have to…we certainly don’t, but I can’t help but wonder sometimes if we doth protest a little too much.  There is no question that Grotowski spent his life searching for a kind of holiness in performance that transcended this mortal plain in some way.  I expect he found it as I am certain that he who seeks shall surely find.  If Grotowski knocks on the door, it shall surely be opened for him.  Could it not be possible that that “other presence” that is almost like another doer in Richards’ work is in some tiny way part of a universal intelligence that loves to create?  Perhaps…

I suppose then it’s no surprise that Thomas Richards, to whom Grotowski was determined to pass on everything he knew, seems to find himself in the same place.  Not that he is searching for holiness per se, but rather that Richards acknowledges that “other presence” in a way that feels very reverent.  There is much discussion of the soul and what an integral role the soul plays in the work that Richards does.  He explains, “It’s as if the soul meets something, something touches it, fills it.”  In the work at the Workcenter, Richards seems to be, not unlike his mentor, paving a way for the spiritual, or that elusive thing, to be not only welcome in the work, but to be central to it.  When speaking of the songs and where they can take two doers in a “tandem” Richards says, “A passage can occur from ‘me’ towards ‘us,’ and then to ‘not only us’ but, rather, ‘us and some other presence.’”  What is that “other presence” that he speaks of?  I don’t know, but whatever it is, it is vital to the work Richards undertakes.  It’s the thing that connects elements and doers together and to each other in an “art event” or an “opus.”  One might suggest that it is that elusive spirit that flows between us all and actually connects each and every one of us to each other and to the universe.  I often get the feeling that Richards is talking about a kind of telepathy between doers that allows for an unspoken dialogue to occur where the doers are engaged in their singing, and in the midst of this precision, they are also communing with one another on a totally different level…a spiritual level, or perhaps one might suggest a psycho-spiritual level.  As I understand there are also times when an observer is able to tap into that same channel and have a similar inner experience.  One would have to believe that they are in fact communing with the doers…they are on the same channel.  We are speaking of those viewers who have eyes to see and ears to hear, or perhaps all that is truly necessary is a willing heart.  There is much, much more to say on this topic, but this will have to suffice as an initial introduction to these ideas.

The answer to the question of whether or not the research at the Workcenter has any relevance to more recognizable types of theatre is elusive.  From all accounts the research is fascinating and is serving to further and even evolve the kind of research Grotowski was interested in, but how this might actually translate, I cannot say.  It appears that this kind of work takes a significant amount of time to develop, and of course most theatres are lucky to have four weeks to work on a project, let alone several years.  It’s also clear that Richards is not really trying to create theatre per se, and in fact even by Grotowski’s own definition, theatre must have at least one audience member otherwise it ceases to be theatre.  Richards maintains that his work is not at all about the viewer or the observer, but rather about the doers and the exercises they are engaged in.  The work would continue regardless of observers.  This is not to say that an observer would not get something very meaningful from their viewing, but whereas most theatrical events attempt to affect the viewer in some way, Richards’ work treats the effect on the viewer as secondary.  All this being said, perhaps at the moment, the greatest value this work has to offer more recognizable types of theatre, is in knowing that there is a place where this kind of research is going on.  As a practitioner of more recognizable types of theatre, I cherish the idea that someone somewhere is pushing the boundaries of what performance is, how we go about “doing” it, and being willing to challenge any and all commonly held notions about art.  All of us theatre professionals need this; it is necessary as it provides us with an understanding of where the outer boundaries are of theatre practice.

Thomas Richards is engaged in a life-long experiment in artistic practice, and because of this, we may not really know the full results of this research until Richards himself is at his life’s end.  I suspect we could not fully examine Grotowski’s life work until he passed, and only then were we able to truly appreciate where his work had taken him.  Richards is also on a noble quest of his own, and I trust it will also lead him to holiness and truth.  Sing on Richards…

Okay, so I’ve heard lots about Jerzy Grotowski over the years, done the odd Grotowski-based workshop, talked Grotowski with various people, and I’ve even seen My Dinner With Andre about three times!!! But I’ve never actually read Towards a Poor Theatre and that is clearly my own loss.

I happen to be a theatre artist who holds the arts and the spiritual very close together, and very close to my heart, so you can imagine the fireworks that were going off inside of me as I read about the value that Grotowski places on the role of the spiritual when it comes to making theatre and performance.  In fact he intentionally quotes scripture and makes biblical references many times throughout the book.  He differentiates between the “holy actor” and the “courtesan actor” and speaks of their differences as being the same as between “the skill of the courtesan and the attitude of giving and receiving which springs from true love: in other words, self-sacrifice.”  Grotowski’s language is steeped in the language of the Christian church as if he knows intimately the people with whom he is trying to communicate, although he makes it clear that when he speaks “about holiness as an unbeliever, (he) means a secular holiness.”  What a fascinating concept!  Is it possible to attain holiness without God?  Perhaps it depends on the kind of holiness we are speaking about, or better still, perhaps God honours holiness no matter what context within which it is sought and what is important is the quest itself, but regardless it is a noble pursuit for any actor to aim for.  Grotowski clarifies by saying “only a sinner can become a saint…in the same way the actor’s wretchedness can be transformed into a kind of holiness.”  He is not interested in lukewarm actors.  Grotowski defines the term “holy” as a “metaphor defining a person who, through his art, climbs upon the stake and performs an act of self-sacrifice.”

The level at which Grotowski places the bar for his actors is extremely high.  The actor must be willing and able to “reveal himself and sacrifice the innermost part of himself – the most painful, that which is not intended for the eyes of the world.”  Only through this process is the actor able to publically challenge others “and through excess, profanation, and outrageous sacrifice reveal himself by casting off his everyday mask, he (then) makes it possible for the spectator to undertake a similar process of self-penetration.”

The actor’s body or instrument “must be capable of performing a spiritual act.”  Grotowski wants the actor to go beyond Stanislavski’s method.  And although he holds Stanislavski as “a secular saint,” Grotowski maintains that the actor must “dissect himself.  It is not a question of portraying himself under certain given circumstances or of living the part,” but rather the actor’s job is to “give oneself totally, in one’s deepest intimacy, with confidence, as when one gives oneself in love.”  This requires that actor act in a kind of trance that allows him/her to completely leave oneself and enter fully and totally in the work.  It’s as if Grotowski is calling on actors to go beyond anything thing they have been taught before, beyond presenting, beyond representing, beyond any of the traditional approaches to acting, to a point where whatever is happening to the actor in the play is actually happening to him/her.  It ceases to be any kind of a “show” and actually becomes the real thing.  In Catholic terms it’s almost a kind of transubstantiation of the actor and his/her circumstances.  In the same way that for many Catholics the Eucharist is able to actually become the body and blood of Jesus, the actor is able to actually become whatever he/she needs to become in any given moment of performance, and it in fact ceases to be a performance but becomes the actual event.  In other words for the actor to succeed in his/her task, requires a kind of secular miracle of holiness.  Grotowski might call this a transmutation of the actor.  In speaking about this process as well as his own relationship to the actor Grotowski shares that “The actor is reborn – not only as an actor but as a man – and with him, I am reborn.”  The result is “total acceptance of one human being by another.”

I was lucky enough to watch a video of Grotowski’s Akropolis on the weekend.  Having never seen any of Grotowski’s work I had no idea of what to expect.  I was blown away! Of course it all in Polish so I didn’t understand a thing, however there was a voice-over that occasionally let the viewer know what was going on, and with this it was remarkable easy to follow.  That being said I had the feeling that following the story was hardly the point.  Set in Auschwitz “the characters re-enact the great moments of our cultural history; but they bring to life not the figures immortalized in the monuments of the past, but the fumes and emanations from Auschwitz” itself.  However what I was left with was must less about the “story” but rather a feeling of the overall production.  The intensity, and I can think of no other word, of the actors was at a level that made it difficult to breath, and this was a video!  I can’t fathom what it must’ve been like for the spectators who were actually there in person.  I can’t help thinking that there is something of Artaud’s theatre of cruelty in what I saw in Akropolis.  It certainly was able to grab hold of an audience in a vicious, visceral and violent way, and hold us in a way that would be deeply affecting to dullest among us.  And now I think I need to watch My Dinner with Andre again.

Follow the quest Grotowski…and may you find holiness…

Antonin Artaud (1896 – 1948) was nothing if not outspoken and direct.  It appears that even from a young age he felt the need to speak out and fully let his feelings about a variety of topics be known.  He was in fact thought to have had neuralgia and depression and spent five years in a sanatorium, and in the end he was put on laudanum which launched his addiction to a variety of opiates throughout his life.

His passion regarding the potential power that theatre could and should have on society is truly inspiring and cannot be ignored.  The collection of essays on theatre contained in The Theatre and its Double will raise the blood pressure and speed up the heart-rate of anyone who has a deep love for the theatre and what its place is in society.  One may agree or disagree with Artaud, but whatever the response is, his writing demands a reaction.

Artaud’s description of the plague is nothing short of diabolical and reads like something you might come across in a screenplay for a horror movie; I could barely breathe as I read it.  And then the kicker is that Artaud compares the various plagues throughout history to the theatre, and I come away from that discussion feeling like I have to side with Artaud.  In many ways the theatre of today does need to be like a plague.  We are in a time where our need to purge or cleanse the theatre of everything that is mediocre and/or meaningless is almost a necessity.  One just has to read my blog (and Victor’s for that matter) about True Love Lies to know that this is true right here in Toronto, Canada’s theatre capitol.

Artuad states that, “Like the plague, theatre is a formidable call to the forces that impel the mind by example to the source of its conflicts.”  He goes on to say that he not comparing the fact that the plague is contagious, rather that, “like the plague it is revelation, the bringing forth, the exteriorization of a depth of latent cruelty by means of which all the perverse possibilities of the mind, whether of an individual or a people, are localized.”  Artaud saw the theatre as something that was, “created to drain abscesses collectively” and that it, like the plague, is a “crisis which is resolved by death or cure.”  Theatre is, “a disease because it is the supreme equilibrium which cannot be achieved without destruction.”

For Artuad, involvement in theatre in any way, as part of the creative team or as an observer, should have an inherent cost.  It should require something from our soul or our mind or our spirit, and because we have paid the toll we will ideally walk away forever changed.  What a marvellous vision of the power of theatre!  Oh, that we should be devastated to that degree in our theatre here in Canada!  And when I say devastated I mean driven to utter madness through fits of laughter or by way of being wracked in tears.

Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty is toward this end.  He has created it to “restore to the theatre a passionate and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigor and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood.”  Artaud longs to be so visceral and so real that the an audience is almost shocked out of their complacency and launched into a mindset that allows for the theatrical experience to travel directly to the core of our humanity like an arrow piercing the flesh cutting straight through the heart.  It’s not that he is looking to make violence gratuitous, but he does not want to shy away from it in any way.

I wonder if some of the film work of Lars Von Trier could be categorized as Theatre of Cruelty.  I think of Dogville and his latest, Antichrist.  Although I have not seen it, from what I’ve read it almost dares the audience to walk out of the theatre.  Now I don’t think Artaud wants to alienate the audience, which would be contrary to how passionately he wants to reach them.  I believe he wants to keep the audience in the theatre, but he wants to make sure that the audience is truly, madly, deeply affected by what they experience.

It’s worth noting the “Affective Athleticism” Artaud demands for the actor.  “ The actor is an athlete of the heart.”  And not only that but that Artuad’s actor depends heavily on breath, in fact “the actor’s body is supported by his breath whereas the physical athlete’s breath is supported by his body.”  Given the amount of breath work here at York University I can only think that David Smukler must agree!

BREATHE…and thanks for telling us how you really feel Artaud!  We are better for it, and may we one day reach a place where we are truly devastated by the theatre we participate in…

Carl Weber, who was fortunate enough to work with Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble in the 1950’s, appears to have had amazing experiences with him.  In his article titled Brecht As Director he relays a kinder, gentler Brecht than that which we are used to hearing about.  I adore his descriptions of the atmosphere in Brecht’s rehearsals.  How fascinating to think of this iconic figure, who from my memory is usually described with words such as intense, demanding, unrelenting and uncompromising, as someone who is so relaxed and laid back in rehearsals that one is not really sure if this is work or a break.  And it seems that Brecht took on an extremely caring position with regard to his actors.  He would go to such an extent to make them feel comfortable and secure that he would even listen to them drivel on about nonsense for a very long time, when apparently Mr. Weber was certain that Brecht vehemently disagreed with whatever the actor was on about.  Brecht’s attitude of “play” and “exploration” sounds as if it would be heaven for any actor.

Now we must be reminded that this is the fifties now and it would appear that Berthold Brecht may well have mellowed a bit in his later years, but that being said I sometimes find it hard to reconcile the two Brechts.  On the one hand he appears to be coddling his actors, and on the other hand he appears to laying it out clearly that they “act wrong” and that actors don’t really know how to communicate, at least not the way Brecht would like them to.  He even rakes his wife’s performance over the coals!  Mr. Weber maintains that Brecht “never cared about how his actors worked.”  “He didn’t give a damn about the mechanics they used, he just cared about results.”  This contradicts some of what Brecht seems to be saying in Brecht on Theatre where he lays out a kind of Brechtian approach to acting.  Now to Brecht’s credit, Mr. Weber’s comment that his experience watching Mother Courage in 1949 “remains the great theatrical experience of (his) life,” cannot be ignored.  Nor can the fact that he states that this was “the first time (he) had ever seen people on the stage behave like real human beings; there was not a trace of “acting” in that performance.”  So, Brecht’s demanding yet relaxed standards must’ve brought about some significant results.

What struck me most about this article was Mr. Weber’s description of how a production was conceived.  The attentions to detail is staggering, as well as the preparation time involved.  In fact it reminds me of how most high-budget films are conceived.  The detail put into story-boarding every scene, and the breakdown of scenic elements is very similar to the process that Brecht and Caspar Neher would go through.

Brecht’s emphasis on clarity is astounding as well.  Being that we are in an age today where it often appears that clarity has taken a bit of back seat to spectacle, mystery and sometimes angst, it’s refreshing to read of Berthold Brecht going to such extremes to make things clear for the audience.  Even going to the lengths of bring in a group of youngsters to watch a performance of Katzgraben and spending two hours with them finding what they thought worked and what didn’t.  Brecht’s emphasis on blocking further supports his desire for clarity.  His notion that the blocking should be able to deliver the gist of the storyline even if one was not able to hear the dialogue is a marvellous and attainable goal.

I’m also fascinated by Brecht’s exploration of acting as an art form.  He is very clear about what the actor does in the theatre and what the eyewitness does on the street-corner when retelling the events of a tragic car accident.  One must agree with Brecht that there is a significant difference, and then one must ask, “Why don’t we take the street-corner into the theatre?”  Will there always be this disassociation from reality in the theatre?  I expect there will be.  When we go into the theatre we are preparing ourselves for an experience of some sort.  We know we are going to be told a story.  We may get wrapped up in an excellent production and begin to feel that the characters and their circumstances are real, but we are still aware that we are watching something that is separated from reality.  Is this okay?  If we still manage to provoke, to engage, to stimulate, to move, to transport, etc., does it matter if this disconnect is still there?  It might even be that this separation between reality and what happens in the theatre, or cinema for that matter, is the very thing that allows an audience the safety and security to fully engage in a story.  Without that separation we might find that all our efforts in the theatre that are designed to reach an audience might be for naught.  I expect it is that distance that allows us to fully engage in a story.  At times our task is to break that barrier in an attempt to shock an audience into a new mode of understanding, and without that barrier we would not have that option.

Enough musings!  That being said I enjoy the dialogue and I look forward to the discussion tomorrow in class. J

True Love Lies…Lies

November 7, 2009

What happens when we set out to truly communicate something to an audience, and instead end up doing the opposite?  What do we do when the very thing that we’ve set out to accomplish backfires on us and we end up working against our own intentions?  What if we’ve tried to draw an audience in, but instead we end up pushing them away?  Unfortunately I feel this was the case with True Love Lies written and directed by Brad Fraser.  Where shall I begin…

In my humble opinion this was a very unfortunate, short-sighted and shallow production and in the final analysis it simply did not work.  That is not to say however that nothing worked.  There were moments that were quite powerful so there was definitely some potential; it’s just too bad that those moments were sent to their room without dinner rather than being able to sit at the dinner table with all the other dysfunctional grown-ups. 

This play tells the story of a family’s response to the discovery that Kane (the husband/father played by the capable Ashley Wright) was once in a serious homosexual relationship and now his former gay lover (David), portrayed by David E. Keeley, has come back onto the scene.  This character is also clearly the playwright.  The play looks at how this affects the longsuffering wife (Carolyn), embodied by the talented Julie Stewart, and the troubled teenage daughter and son, Madison (Susanna Fournier) and Royce (Andrew Craig) respectively. Carolyn begins to doubt her husband’s sexual orientation even though they have supposedly have had a great marriage and have a great sex life.  They appear to be working out their relationship in the best way they can.  Madison wants to find out what this former gay lover is all about and ends up seducing him and sleeps with him because in her words, “I have to sleep with every man I meet. And only then do I know I’m okay.”  In fact we think she’s trying to get back at her father for something, and although it’s not exactly clear what, it would seem likely that it has something to do with her father’s lack of involvement and honesty in her life.  This could’ve been explored much more.  The younger sibling Royce is having a major identity crisis that is combined with a sexual identity crisis.  He thinks he wants David to sleep with him, but is actually desperately trying to reach out to his dysfunctional parents in some way.  He is so desperate for some kind of role model and some kind of authentic connection with his parents that he’ll do anything, including attempting to kill David, and/or maybe himself.  So as one can clearly see there is in fact a lot of meat here that could make for some scintillating drama.  Instead what happens is that the portrayal of this family is so plastic and paper-thin that we don’t care about them, and if we don’t care about them, I for one begin to question why I’m sitting in the theatre.  I end up feeling distanced from them and I can’t seem to find a way in.

Some of this may be due to the fact that the playwright was both author and director.  Unless one is extremely skilled and discerning this is more often than not a set up for failure.  But let’s talk a bit about the elements of the production.  I mentioned earlier that the portrayal of the family was “paper-thin”, and this was true of the set design as well.  Bretta Gerecke’s set was all made of tissue-paper.  The large, square tissue-paper flats at the back of stage was the most successful design element, mostly because they could be lit in a way that was at times very beautiful.  That being said, I don’t feel that Ms. Garecke used these to their fullest potential.  They were evocative of light boxes and could’ve been used so much more to echo what was going on with the wrecked lives on stage, or in the relationship between David and the other members of the family, or to even give the audience a sense of the cloud of oppression that that the characters were living under.  The actual set pieces (kitchen table & chairs and kitchen counter on stage-right, and a kind of curb/step/bed on stage-left) were also covered in tissue-paper.  It made them look like bad Paper Mache.  There was nothing elegant or imaginative about how this design was conceived.  I also felt like the design has no visual movement in it; nothing danced in it.  There was very little depth to the design and the playing areas felt cramped and static.  The costumes worked on a very basic level to simply convey only that first, shallow layer of the character, suggesting that they we all skin-deep and I really felt that the concept (if there was one) could’ve gone much deeper.  Again, this may have all been intentional to drive home that “paper-thin” quality of the relationships, but I have to ask the question why these choices were made.  Was there not a better way to achieve this?  Why not let us see the full three-dimensional depth of the characters and the relationships and then break our hearts when they make shallow or destructive choices?  We might then have the opportunity to experience a deep visceral reaction to the characters and their circumstances.  I feel the production countered what the playwright may have intended.

The play was written in a style that reminded me a great deal of mediocre TV sit-com writing.  Now I know that Mr. Fraser has been working in TV for the last while and I feel that some of that genre may have crept into his play writing.  The dialogue was abrupt and stilted and every scene seemed to be gunning for an unearned resolution or button.  This approach in the writing was supported by an imposed acting style that made it feel like every scene, and ultimately the entire play, was a furious race to an ambiguous unresolved conclusion.  The actors seemed to have been directed to play every scene as fast as possible and to not let any of the deeper meaning of the lines or the circumstances affect their characters in any way or to affect their line delivery.  I’m guessing that the intent of this direction was again to try to convey a “paper-thin”, fragile family unit.  Instead I felt as though we were watching unfeeling robots going through bizarre circumstances in fast-forward without giving the audience any opportunity to find out who these people really are and why they are doing the things they do.  One might compare this play to something like Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?, a play that is also fraught with dysfunction and relational conflict and yet the major difference is that we care deeply about George and Martha and the choices they make even after all the difficult things we watch them go through.  One could make a similar comparison to Miller’s A View from a Bridge or even more recently Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County.  Now maybe these are unfair comparisons, but surely True Love Lies longs to be part of that same canon of dysfunctional family drama.  But this is an assumption.  I could be wrong.

It’s worth stating that I don’t hold the actor’s accountable for these infringements as I can tell from their performances that they are all very strong and committed performers.  I have seen some of them in other productions and can attest to the fact that they truly are seasoned, well-trained actors.  Ironically it was the younger actors (Andrew Craig & Susanna Fournier) who had some of the best moments.  As they played the “kids” in the family, they had moments where they were able to cut through much of the shallowness that the play was fraught with, and actually let us discover some tiny thing about who they were.  These moments were a scarce few; and the production needed much more of this.

In his attempt to rocket this play to its conclusion in under two hours Mr. Fraser has also chosen a rather dull and boring staging device.  Basically as soon as a scene is finished on one half of the playing space the actors run offstage behind one of the big tissue-paper flats while two other actors entered on the other side of the stage from behind one of the other tissue-paper flats.  This went on and on in rapid succession to the point where I was not only anticipating it (“Don’t tell me, the next scene is going to be over there with the actors running on there.”) but I was becoming hypnotized by the back-and-forth action of the blocking.  I think Mr. Fraser may have been trying to imitate the kind of wipes that one might see in TV land, but again it simply didn’t work.

It’s curious to me that Mr. Fraser reveals in his program notes that “it’s been nine years since (he’s) directed for the stage” and that he “finds it very taxing.”  He also states that his “general rule is never to direct the first production of (his) own plays.”  His intention with this rule is to “allow another director to premier it and then stage the second production (himself) – allowing (him) to avoid all of the first director’s pitfalls while also stealing his or her best ideas.” As it turned out due to the need for sudden spinal surgery he was not able to see the first production in Manchester.  In his abandonment of his “general rule” he apparently feels somewhat liberated in the fact that this “ensures that all of (his) work is entirely original.”One wonders if Mr. Fraser should stick to his “general rule.”

It’s also worth mentioning that I do understand what Mr. Fraser is saying in his notes when he challenges that, “Far too much of our stage work is obsessed with the past, relies on events from the past and is told almost entirely, often including the delivery of the performances by the actors, in that safe, slightly sentimental ‘past tense’ style that keeps everything from being too immediate.”  Mr. Fraser is clearly attempting in the production to keep the action very present and even hurtling toward the future.  While this is a noble and commendable pursuit, I feel he has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.  The reason good stories and good story-telling have some emphasis on the past is that it is by bringing the past into focus and understanding past events that our characters can then make choices in the present, healthy or unhealthy, that then hurtle them into an unknown future.  This is what makes good drama.  If we the audience are given a chance to understand some of the character’s past, we can then understand why they make the choices they make and we have an opportunity to truly grieve with them when destructive choices are made, and rejoice with them when choices are made that lead to healing, wholeness, forgiveness and redemption.  Without that past-perspective our character’s choices are meaningless and without understanding.

Once again, ultimately I felt that this production was unsuccessful.  It’s too bad because the framework and storyline of the characters, their circumstances and relationships have a lot of potential for great drama.  Perhaps Mr. Fraser will make some better strides towards keeping contemporary theatre in the present, in the future.

One Step Beyond…

October 27, 2009

It’s fascinating to me to that it appears that many people want to make sure that through their training and research they find out whose technique or system was “right”, and to do this would mean coming down and landing in one camp or another.  Have we decided to settle in the Stanislavsky camp or some seemingly opposing camp such as Meyerhold or Chekhov?  It’s as if as we must determine that only one master can exist as the definitive truth on the subject of acting.  It’s as if our very worth is wrapped up in proving who “right” and who is “wrong”.  To me this is like standing in front of a exquisite buffet with food from all the very best chefs in the world and then making it one’s task to go about determining which dish is not only the best one, but the “right” one, the one that somehow has more credibility than all the others.  Perhaps this is the part of the academic pursuit that I don’t fully understand, but my first impulse is to simply celebrate the bountiful feast in front of me.  This is how I feel about the discussion of Stanislavsky, Meyerhold and Chekhov, and even Hagen, Miesner, Strasberg, and dare I say Mamet.  This is a feast of insight and study into the art of acting…I say “Gorge thyself!”

Please don’t get me wrong, I whole heartedly enjoy the discussion that compares and contrasts all these approaches.  From these discussions we discover aspects of the people and their various approaches that we may not have gleaned before.  We sharpen our own understanding and practice of the techniques that each master promotes.  I suppose part of me wants to question the spirit of how we go about it.  Perhaps instead of solely focusing on where and how these various masters differed, we should focus on the similarities between them.  I am always struck with how many times one master’s approach seems to echo another’s, or how one approach is clearly an extension of the another approach that had gone before.  One might suggest, and I believe truthfully so, that much of what Chekhov was exploring was a clear extension of much of what Stanislavsky was working on.  This in no way invalidates what Stanislavsky put forth, in fact it’s likely that without the predecessor’s work the successor’s work would not be possible.

It occurs to me in reading about Chekhov’s approach to acting, he has taken aspects of the classic Stanislavskian system and turned it on its ear by extending it beyond the realm of a logical and repeatable examination of character and circumstances, and made it into a fascinating esoteric exploration of imagination unbound!  How exciting!  This would not however be possible without Stanislavsky taking the time and effort to break down his understanding of acting into a clear, concise system that could then be studied and furthered.

It could be said that Chekhov’s Psychological Gesture is an extension of Stanislavsky’s examination of character objective.  Where Stanislavsky is looking for an articulation in words, Chekhov is perhaps looking for an articulation using image and a coinciding inner gesture.  Some might say that Chekhov is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain for actors, meaning some might say that his is a more intuitive, right-brained approach to acting.  Of course we know that acting requires a beautiful balance and interplay between both the right and left parts of the brain, and both are extremely valuable and necessary to create a good performance.  It might also be true that in our western world we could all use a little more intuition in our approach to our art.

Psychological Gesture is a brilliant way of distilling a character’s essence into something that can’t be fully explained, but rather must been seen or experienced.  I love the intuitive nature of this exercise, and in fact do we not do this in life all the time?  We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we are without words to describe an event, feeling, person or situation, and we resort to some physical gesture to try to communicate to the listener what we mean and feel.  A similar process happens for the actor with Psychological Gesture, but that gesture is in an inward event and may not be the same as anything physical that is happening on the outside.

Chekhov’s use of Eurythmy is another way of intuitively approaching character.  How does the sound of vowels and consonants affect our inner gesture and vice versa?  All of these exercises are designed to distil for the actor an intuitive, right-brained image or sense or feeling on which can be hung the central basis for a character.  Later practitioners of acting like Uta Hagen have chosen to include these types of associations in their teaching.  Hagen has said that any amount of research that will lead to an inspired moment on stage is worth all the effort.  She argues that it in addition to the practical actor’s work of addressing character, given circumstances, objectives, actions, etc., it is also completely valid to use one’s imagination to find more right-brained associations like “my character has the feel of a rainy street in Paris”, or “at this moment I feel like dog being disciplined by its master”, or “at the end of the play I feel as though my body is in an outstretched  position, hands and arms in the air, feet pointed, and I’m soaring through space!”

So, here we are almost 10 years into the new millennium and we have rich buffet of acting approaches in front of us…I suggest we celebrate and fill our bellies with a variety of all the delicious foods before us.  Pick and choose what we like the best.  Take more of what is most tasty to us, but because we’re adventurous, risk-taking artists we’ll still sample those items that we’re less familiar with, the one we thought we didn’t like as kid and who knows, we may find something there we love!  When we were kids travelling overseas and having to try food that was foreign to us, my mother would cry out to my sister and I, “Trysies everyone, Trysies!”  So we must not be afraid to go beyond the text, beyond the body, beyond the mind, beyond the spirit, maybe even beyond time and space to truly find the essence of a character and an inspired stage life.  Take it one step beyond…

We had seen God in His splendours, heard the text that nature renders.

We had reached the naked soul of man. – Earnest Shackleton

This quote by the heroic Antarctic explorer of the early 20th century sums up a great deal of what true theatre of the soul could and maybe should strive to be.

Why do we go to the theatre?  (And here when I use the term “theatre” I include the cinema, or at least a portion of the film industry, because much of what is talked about here is true for the world of film as well.)  In truth there are many reasons why we go.  It may be for entertainment, to escape, to learn, to grow, to laugh, to cry, to understand, to be challenged, to connect with ourselves and our fellow human beings, etc., or any combination of the above.  No matter why we go, I believe that we are all searching for some kind of transformative experience.  We’re looking for something that transcends this temporal plane in some way and allows us to catch a glimpse of a new way of thinking or living.  Perhaps we’re seeking something that has the potential to release us into a new sense of freedom.  Or maybe it’s an experience that reminds us of our connection to our fellow human beings.  This experience could happen in any number of ways.  We might find ourselves transformed by spending an evening laughing at an outrageous comedy, or weeping at a tragedy that touches the depths of our soul and moves us to reconsider our relationships or our circumstances.

I believe there is something inside all of us that longs for transformation.  Not unlike the caterpillar that spends her whole life crawling earth-bound, and then one day, after much effort and many trials, she is finally free.  She gently lifts her delicate body with her graceful wings and takes flight.  She is a new creature, with a new life and purpose.  She is transformed.  This transformation rarely comes easily.  The butterfly must never be helped out of her cocoon.  It is the fight and struggle to get out that gives the butterfly the strength she needs to fly.  If she is aided in her attempts to escape the transcendent prison of her cocoon, she will develop the strength she needs to survive in the world.

I believe that we search for transformation in all kinds of ways.  Thrill-seekers are looking for a transformative experience, as are most drug addicts, alcoholics and sex addicts.  In fact it was one of the most influential English writers of the 20th century, G. K. Chesterton, who stated that “Every man who walks into a brothel is searching for God.”  Most people of faith are searching for transformation, no matter what set of beliefs they subscribe to.  Much of the quest for the further exploration of outer space is in many ways a search for transformation, as are many of the scientific disciplines.  I marvel at the fact that we’ve spent over four billion Euros to build the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on the Suisse-France border to basically conduct one experiment.  This one experiment will either prove or disprove our Standard Model of the universe.  We will either carry on in our pursuit to further understand the universe with the assurance that we are going in the right direction, or we will discover that everything we thought we knew was wrong and we have to start all over again.   Either way, obtaining this information is nothing less than exciting and either way the scientific community is in for fully transformative process.

I feel that the theatre is one of those rare places where for centuries people have congregated to hear stories, and through those stories, have hoped to find transformation.  It’s fascinating to me that one of the core mediums we use to communicate transformation, or to communicate matters of the soul, is stories.  There is a sense that in order to truly talk about some of these concepts, transformation, the soul, we must move into another form of communication, or dare I say communion.  “The play’s the thing!” Stories are the stuff dreams are made of, and epic journeys, and life lessons…we grow through stories.  There is a reason that so many religious leaders and people of faith have used stories to get their message across.  Jesus did it, Buddha did it, Confucius did it, Ghandi did it, Rumi did it…and some of these folks combined their stories with action.  There you have it.  Story + Action = Theatre!

But what makes it theatre of the soul?  If there is anything about us that exists beyond the physical, it must be the soul.  Our brain dies with the body, but I suspect that the mind lives in two places, both the brain and soul, so that when the body dies somehow consciousness is able to live on in the seat of the soul.  It is that part of our being that I long for the theatre to touch.  Only then does it have the power to change, to heal, and to offer a kind of transformation.  A comedy can cause us to laugh so much that we momentarily lose touch with our left brain and allow ourselves to be lifted out of our troubles, even if only for an hour or two.  That is transformation.  The same can be true in the sweet pathos of a drama where as we grieve with the characters on stage we are transported to another plane and we are reminded of the oneness of humanity through the commonality and communion of suffering.  That is transformation.  In the astonishment of the circus or a stunningly original movement piece we can suspend our disbelief, become like children and allow ourselves to be taken on a journey we didn’t think possible.  That is transformation.  Well-crafted spectacle can often take our breath away and launch our right brain and cause it to soar.  This is transformation.

Theatre of the soul is not about doing a certain kind of theatre in a certain way, or within a certain school of thought.  Theatre of the soul can be created anywhere, anytime, in any kind of venue, with any kind of people.  It can happen in an old schoolhouse where a group of amateurs are putting on a play for the local community; it can happen in someone’s living room or around a campfire while a storyteller weaves her magic; or it can happen in a fully-equipped theatre as a group of professionals committed to their craft create that magic night after night.  Theatre of the soul can happen spontaneously at a party or a concert, or it can be part of a show that has been carefully crafted to bring about the conditions within which transformation is possible.

Theatre of the soul is taking place all the time if we foster eyes to see and ears to hear, and I feel that one of our primary privileges as theatre artists is to nurture these gifts and keep our soul-antennae tuned and maintain the hunger in our bellies for soul food.  And when we find an opportunity to cook up some soul food, whether it’s a re-heat in the microwave or making it up from scratch, we must put on our apron and get to it with all the commitment and passion of an executive chef!

We must take Earnest Shackleton’s lead when it comes to the soul.  Good theatre has the potential to become theatre of the soul if it seeks to reach out and touch that part of us that is transcendent…if it desires to reach out and touch the naked soul of man.

Toporkov and Me…

October 6, 2009

What a fascinating account of working with Stanislavski.  I must say that I really felt that a lot of what Toporkov experiences during his the first portion of his time with Stanislavski is quite similar to what I am experiencing here at York.

It’s heartening to see that much of what many of go through as actors is not uncommon, and is not particular to this day in age.  The very fact that Toporkov describes experiences that are almost word-for-word experiences that I have had, comforts me to no end.  I’ve shared the struggle he describes when he was doing a “comedy” at the Krosh Theatre where he was working on a speech he gives just before jumping to his death.  This speech is supposed to bring some empathy from the audience, and perhaps even bring the actor to tears.  What an impossible place to be for an actor.  How does was one make their way through a mess like this?  There are so many trappings for the actor…so many holes for one to tumble into.  I’ve found myself in similar situations and like Toporkov, found that success was elusive and seemed to be at the whim of the muse.  This is one of the most frustrating places for an actor to wind up.  One feels out of control and as if one is left to merely step out on to the stage and hope for the best.  It can be incredibly demoralizing, humiliating and humbling.  It puts one into a state of doubt and questioning that can be debilitating.  I’m so glad I’m not alone in that feeling.  I’ve often heard it said that actors are the most insecure people around, and I’m sure this is one of the reasons why this is true.  How grateful are we to have a “system” that allows us to find our way through this kind of murky mess to a place of creating a genuine life of the human spirit.

It’s also heartening to realize that Toporkov struggled with the notion of “getting into one’s head”.  Toporkov was in the habit of working out what he was going to do on stage, even how he was going to say his lines.  We know of course that today this would be a preposterous way of approaching a role.  How can one do all this and still be in the moment and remain alive?  This is not to be confused with doing one’s homework on a role in terms of character, relationships, given circumstances, etc.  This must all be done regardless.  The aspect of “getting into one’s head” that Toporkov and I are referring to is more about actually working out your reactions and your actions in a way that do not allow for any spontaneity.  Most actors need reminders to “get out of their heads” and Toporkov’s journey is a remarkable comfort.

Much of what Toporkov goes through and is challenged by are the same kind of reminders I’m receiving here at York.  The constant challenge to abandon the tricks that might’ve worked in the past and rather enter in to the work with beginner’s mind (a wonderful notion) has been a kind of artistic salvation.

I feel that the Stanislavski that is revealed in Toporkov’s book only confirms that this detailed, generous, passionate theatre artist who is has something to offer all of us, is truly the father of a step forward in the world of theatre that is unparalleled even to this day.  Thanks Stan…from all the Toporkov’s…and me!