Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Today, my workshop with Hans Thies Lehmann, Helene Varopoulou and Josef Szeiler had its beginning. I really didn't know what to expect - Lehmann's book is full of all sorts of diverse and exciting examples of what constitutes "postdramatic" and Szeiler, best known for TheaterAngelusNovus - was a shining example of this, his work specializing in changing our conceptions of time and sound, and the spectator/actor divide. But the question remained: how the hell do you TEACH this kind of stuff? Say what you will against the "dramatic" form that has permeated our culture for the past few centuries, and seems to endure endlessly over here in the states (and I have said plenty), but what it offers (and perhaps this is why it still is the norm) is a specific pedagogy. This pedagogy, allows one to create works that are "dramatic" (i.e. the well-made play), creates actors that are modeled after structures of character based on natural life (method or some forms of Stanislavski), and allows directors a clear direction in which to go and train themselves. Of course, the problem is with such a specific aim, what becomes obscured is the sameness of the experience. Sure, we have a beautiful target and a clear bout of open air with which to aim our arrows, we have the tools and training, but soon it gets boring to watch arrow after arrow hit a bulls eye, soon we begin to wonder why we decided to put that bulls eye there in the first place, when there is literally all of nature around us, and we were just aiming on a small circular space among it.

OK - enough digression. What did we do? Well, if you look at it one way we did nothing. I mean, we didn't accomplish any mind-bending emotional revelations (at least in any particular way), we did not learn what "Seneca's Death" (or Senecas Tod - in German, the Heiner Müller text we are using for our workshop) means, or come to some literary revelation as to the "story" Müller is telling us. So what did we do? I can break it down in one sentence.

We walked in slow motion and we might have said a thing or two.

All that? For a day's work. Yes. And it was exceptionally difficult. And we did not succeed. And you ask yourself, if you want to create something amazing, something exceptional that really brings us into an understanding with ourselves, and we want to use our bodies and voices to create this something - and we can't even Walk in Slow Motion or Use our Voices correctly - what does this mean for when we try to do more? When we try to create an entire work? Or, you can ask it this way - why even bother with drama if this is much more compelling, much more challenging - the act of walking slowly, not stopping movement, toward one point, and not doing anything but walk - it brings up so many questions, it tells so many stories, but what does it say? In the words of Szeiler, words which he repeated throughout the over evening "It means nothing...".

Even the beginning of the workshop, where we spent probably close to half an hour warming up in the dark empty room that was the Wyoming building - asphalt and white walls, and a strange Iron-circle that was either for Ballet Dancers or Black Masses. And I sat there trying to first remember all my warm-ups that I've ever done, back in Usdan, back in Sloan's or Kennedy's acting classes, all the warmups I led with my actors, my Seido Karate warmups, and I was thinking so fast, too fast. I felt like I should be taking my time, then I felt like I was doing nothing. And suddenly I also became aware of everyone else, and wondered whether I was embarassing myself, and of course Szeiler would walk by us and look at us, his expression blank but instantly you feel he is judging you.

Lehmann and Varopoulou didn't say much, they stayed with the other half of the workshop group who focused on Müller's text and was (I guess?) supposed to memorize it. But most of the time Lehmann would walk, like Szeiler and watch us. It's strange, but so much of today was about being watched and watching, and it wasn;t because we were bored in either sense, even though not "much" was happening, but because watching became an intrinsic part of the experience. Watching was the experience, like every other element - each introduced as itself, and in turn opening and uncovering and unleashign worlds upon itself that didn't dare be touched lest we focus on one and lose them all...

Then we walked slowly. First three of us, me included. I was all the way on the other side of the room and had to walk to the window. It should take me "two-three hours," Szeiler joked, but meant it, he was serious. And you saw it possible, you saw time different in that space. The doors were glass, the window was a storefront, and you could see outside and everything moved fast and was loud, loud and brash and not stopping to think, not stopping to walk slowly. Walking slowly is not boring, and it is not easy. It is exceptionally maddening and exceptionally difficult. I broke out into a sweat and felt my entire body tense up. I had moved 3 feet, and was trying to keep moving, never stop, and I felt like I couldn't do it. I either moved too fast or too slow or I stopped, or my shoulders slunched or my face scrunched or I had to wipe sweat off my face or I suddenly caught Lehmann staring, or Szeiler staring or my colleagues staring and everyone - and I had to keep watching the light ahead of me. And soon I found it, I found that there is a curious suspension of gravity that goes into walking, right between where you shift the weight from the one foot to the next - the place when one foot is being viciously pummeled by gravity and the other foot bears all the weight. When we walk normally we bear it effortlessly, but when we walk slowly and constantly it all becomes your weight and you become aware of how little of your weight you can control, how little of your body you have polished. You feel that as an actor you need to rediscover your instrument. Slowly you realize that by walking slowly you have more control over everything - who needs a character when the purity of movement, of one singular movement towards an empty space followed by a simple spot, says everything. It says everything and it is "beautiful", but it, as Szeiler tells us "means nothing". We are doing nothing. There is nothing we feel, we merely walk. And it should be the easiest thing, and it is the hardest thing.

Szeiler took a cigarette break, and I took a chance to speak to Lehmann and Varopoulou - he said something that lingered with me "There you go - the critical in action -". And it is true, without realizing, all these movements, this concentration, it said everything theory did, it merely enacted it, the empty space becomes endless becomes that space of endless possibility - the silence becomes that which unsettles everything but also the birth of the voice, and the gaze, that fractured, intense gaze that we take for granted, it comes to life, it comes to life more than any Foucauldian panopticon you can imagine - you can see the gaze, you can feel your body change as the gaze meets you - and you become aware of your gaze, you become aware of the power it has on others. End break.

Finally one more exercise. Those who studied the text must stand against the wall or stare at the table and speak one line of the poem. Those who acted must create an improvisation (move around the room - - total freedom) and only say "Senecas Death" or "Senecas Tod".

First we, like overexcited schoolkids went wild with it, we thought it was like those repetition exercises where we showcase all the different intense ways our voice can act. Soon the room was alive, and cluttered with Müller's text, a mess of adjectives that soon lost meaning. Szeiler soon stopped us. "no, no, you are speaking too soon, too easily - the important thing is to listen for the silence, it is where the sound comes from, the silence, really hear the silence, then finally the voice can emerge. Use the whole room, learn the whole room, the way the voice effects the entire room. It doesn't need to do much, it is enough. But it is nothing. Do nothing with it. Just speak..." (I paraphrase... of course)

Silence, so much silence, I walked through the room and every now and then an overexcited word, but soon there was nothing but silence. Every now and then I heard the words "Tears are not philosophical" - that was perhaps the only constant. I spoke "Seneca" then "Tod" - but my words shocked, me, the voice, so much presence, so much power. I couldn't hold it in, I said it a few times, but suddenly I realized that the more I did not speak, the more I did not say anything but listened through the silence, felt the space that every now and then spoke a few words to me, I could feel my own voice getting more and more powerful. To speak it would ruin it, it's like putting out a fire, and of course it would be powerful, but then it would disappear, dissipate into the room. Szeiler was right, it was the silence that was holy, the silence that was the birthplace, the silence that was the incubator. I held silence for so long, the exercise ended, but I was scared of speaking - I gestured to my colleagues and friends, I mumbled, finally outside, into the cold rainy New York air where words were tossed off carelessly, I spoke. But I felt so conscious about it. I decided to be silent more often.

The power of a word in an empty space, a space completely awash in silence is a thing of great beauty, a human miracle - to realize the power of this should be a new categorical imperative for a new theatre - to rediscover the simplicity of movement and the power of each and every gaze - this also. Perhaps it can be said as this - to never take anything in experience, anything convivial, for granted - each is a beautiful thing, each is a miracle unto itself...each is worthy of its own moment, privileged to whatever time it needs to become - (as Szeiler would say, just do this, 2-3 hours, sure.)

On one of the exercises two of my colleagues walked towards each other in slow motion but in constant movement, finally meeting then passing each other then looking past each other held by each others bodies, both in mid walk. Szeiler stops us and says this - this is beautiful, and can go on for hours - after the audience has left, thats when the true theatre begins...the true moment becomes beautiful. That is of course to achieve the impossible in theatre, our greatest goal - to make the audience leave, but keep them in their seats...keep them watching...

Not bad for two and a half or so hours.

More tomorrow.

- J