Re-Purposing Suzuki
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Re-Purposing Suzuki

A Hybrid Approach to Actor Training

Maria Porter

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eBook - ePub

Re-Purposing Suzuki

A Hybrid Approach to Actor Training

Maria Porter

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Über dieses Buch

Re-Purposing Suzuki: A Hybrid Approach to Actor Training introduces a system of text analysis that synthesizes physical, psychological, and vocal components in order to truthfully embody heightened texts and contexts.

By understanding how the author has re-purposed Suzuki and other physical training methods, as well as Stanislavski, readers will gain an awareness of how to analyze a particular training method by extrapolating its key components and integrating it into a holistic, embodied approach to text analysis. The book explores a method of physical scoring via Rules of the Body and Rules of Composition, as well as a method of approaching heightened texts from Greek drama to post-modern playwrights that draws on the individual actor's imagination and experience and integrates voice, mind, and body. Readers will be able to either replicate this approach, or apply the logic of its building blocks to assemble their own personal creative process applicable to a variety of performance genres.

This is a source book for actors, theatre students, practitioners, and educators interested in assembling tools derived from different sources to create alternative approaches to actor training. While the process outlined in the book evolves in a classroom setting, the components of the pedagogy can also be practiced by individuals who are interested in finding new ways to explore text and character and bring them into their own personal practice.

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Part 1Finding a Context

DOI: 10.4324/9780429328992-2
This is a love story. Isn’t it with so many of us? We fall in love with performing, and somehow, we encounter technique. We do it instinctively, then we realize that our innate abilities or impulses are inadequate and we need TRAINING. We recognize that this is an art form; there are artists who, in this ephemeral medium, produce work that is consistently moving and life altering, and we want to be a part of this tribe.
I loved acting. I decided to go to a conservatory to study it because I intuitively loved the principles outlined by whatever version of Stanislavski I encountered in whatever class or book I found in high school.
Fast forward to the moment when I confronted failure and the sentence given to me as a 20 year old that I did not have the sensibilities to become an actor. At that time, most conservatory programs in acting were run in the form of silos; we had classes in various movement disciplines, voice, speech, and scene study, which was the ‘acting’ class. Acting class was taught from the perspective of whatever branch of the Stanislavski method the teacher most related to. The connection between the disciplines was not typically considered, nor was a cohesive narrative through the four years of training apparent, at least to the students. I know now that I was seeking a connective tissue or a unifying principle through the various disciplines and approaches. And then I met Steve Pearson and the Suzuki Method.

Chapter 1Remembering the Beginning

DOI: 10.4324/9780429328992-3
At the end of my sophomore year, I transferred from a BFA conservatory program to the BA program in Drama at the University of California, San Diego. I was cast in the MFA production of The Good Person of Setzuan. Steve Pearson, a professor in the program, had just introduced the Suzuki training into the MFA acting curriculum, and the director of this production wanted the actors to use the training as a preparation before rehearsals. I remember watching the actors stomp around the room with tremendous focus and discipline, breathing heavily and seeming exhausted, but with a will to continue until they all dropped to the floor. Then the music shifted, and they slowly rose to their feet and started walking forwards, as if in a trance, with little evidence of the prior exertion. I felt as if I had just seen a play in two acts, without words, and with very simple staging. They vibrated with a kind of energy I’d only ever seen in rock concerts, in some Shakespeare performances and musical theatre productions. They seemed superhuman, and yet all they were doing was walking toward me. Equally impressive was the wide array of body types in the ensemble that participated in this exercise with the same grit and ferocity. They were ALL compelling, and beautiful. That was my first exposure to the training. I became an enthusiastic participant, seeking out as many opportunities to train with the graduate students as I could. I had no idea what any of it had to do with the subsequent rehearsal process, or indeed acting at all, but it offered me something I had never before experienced in acting school: a practice. An objective measurement of how I was progressing that was not based on subjective opinion. You either stomped, or you didn’t. All of the exercises had a set standard against which we could measure our mastery of the form, and if that standard was not achieved at any given moment, it was ok. (At least in Steve's practice.) The point was that one tried, and the continuous effort to strive to meet that standard was prized above all else. Finally, I had found a practice within my discipline, in which my strength, body type, and individuality was, if not celebrated, accepted.
In my recent reflections, I have come to see the histories of the great and lesser known masters as a series of obsessions and disagreements and the trainings that have come from their work products of their aesthetic visions. I also have come to appreciate how our artistic DNA is formed, as I traced my obsession back to Steve, who shared his with his teacher.
In the mid-70s, Suzuki moved his company to Toga for part of the year and formed the SCOT company (Suzuki Company of Toga). He began to invite Western theatre practitioners to train with his company in the summer months. Steve was introduced to Suzuki training by his former teacher, Jewel Walker, who invited him to see what was going on in the mountains of Japan, with this theatre company directed by Tadashi Suzuki. They both recognized that Suzuki had created a method, or training, that encompassed what they both were working on in terms of the body/mind connection and its relationship to acting. Soon after his return to the United States, Steve invited Kenji Suzuki, one of the company members, to come to San Diego and introduce the training to his students.
I began to formally study and train with Steve as a part of my coursework when I was accepted into the MFA program at UCSD. Steve's passion for the Suzuki Method seemed sourced in his desire to de-silo the disciplines of voice, movement, and acting in American actor training programs. While his class was officially our ‘movement class,’ he thought of it as an acting class. He frequently discussed how Suzuki's training could imbue any behavior, or daily action, in psychological realism, with intention. My deepest memories of class with Steve are when he would break from training and discuss how he was experimenting with Suzuki's technique in his own theatre company's productions. He would share the connections he was making between Suzuki's method and the craft of acting as delivered via the Stanislavski technique. I remember feeling, perhaps intuitively, that what he was getting at was exactly what I was looking for, but I could not rationalize how it could work with the Stanislavski technique. It is clear to me now that he was trying to take what was perceived as a movement training in the United States, and integrate into the disciplines of voice and text analysis. His aim, I think, was to formalize the body/mind connection, and to de-stigmatize, in an American system that at the time privileged psychological methods of actor training, the idea of working ‘from the outside/in.’ The concept that physical choices could inform our inner life. Steve's ‘movement class’ was an acting class. I just couldn’t explain why.
Steve traveled to Toga frequently and helped open up the opportunity for students to spend a few weeks training in Toga with Suzuki and his company. In 1986, I was selected to be one of those students and joined others from Juilliard, the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and actors from StageWest, a regional theatre in Massachusetts. We trained with the company twice a day, and lived communally in the theatre compound. We also were able to attend all the performances of the International Theatre Festival that occurred at the same time.
Being in Japan, living and training with his company allowed me to experience Suzuki's method in an entirely different way. I saw how it functioned in the life of a community and was an integral component of their ability to sustain it. It was the first time that I’d been introduced to an ensemble company that lived and worked together. The actors woke up at the crack of dawn and began their day by doing housekeeping duties that included cleaning, cooking, office work, among many other things. They joined us for morning training, after helping prepare our breakfast, then when we went back to our dormitory in the afternoon, after they helped prepare our lunch, they would resume their other activities. We had another training session with them in the evenings, and then they would rehearse while we had dinner. After the rehearsal, they would go back to their other activities because they were also in charge of the technical aspects of producing their performances. I don’t know when they slept. They rehearsed, maintained the facilities, organized all the activities with the same intensity and discipline with which they trained. Mr. Suzuki would lead the training sessions, translated by professional interpreters, who also did the training. I had never experienced ensemble in this way. It was in Toga that I understood that the underlying ‘way’ in which they work, that I would eventually call the Aesthetics, was the connective tissue that kept them going as a company, and sustained the impossible schedule they kept. I fell in love. Again.
I returned to finish my last year at UCSD and even confided to Steve that I wanted someday to teach the training. He said that he could not give me permission, that I must ask Mr. Suzuki. I moved to New York to begin my acting career and would train occasionally on my own, but I missed the ensemble, and the work I was offered did not seem to need the energy, precision, or focus that I had gained from the Suzuki training. I did not need the kind of presence that the exercises had engendered in me. I did not know what to do with the great treasure I’d received.
In 1991, I received permission from Mr. Suzuki to return to the ‘master class’ he’d organized that summer, at the end of which, he would give us permission to teach. I spent that summer again in Toga-mura, with Steve, Robyn Hunt, and many of the actors who were affiliated with the StageWest Company at that time and who now are members of the SITI Company, including Ellen Lauren, Kelly Maurer, and Will Bond. While we kept roughly the same schedule as my first visit, this time, some of our training sessions were led by senior members of SCOT. Unlike the first time, when the actors were generally silent about the training, I had the opportunity to hear how they understood this work. Like Steve, they peppered the sessions with their thoughts on acting, and how the training helped shape them. They were exacting mentors, they rigorously critiqued our form, and they were kind. They welcomed our participation in some of the daily work of the compound (like cleaning the bathrooms), and I remember thinking that I’d never felt so lucky to clean a toilet before in my life. While I think they wondered what our fascination was with the training and how we were possibly going to use it when we left, they were wonderful companions in the work, and often whispered words of encouragement when the training was particularly grueling. At one of the final meetings of the session, Suzuki announced he would be forming a ‘little Toga,’ in Saratoga Springs, New York, joining forces with theatre director Anne Bogart to form the SITI Company. I studied with Anne at UCSD in my final year, after returning from Japan the first time, and I remembered watching her watch the training in our studio on campus. I had experienced the synergy between Suzuki's training and her version of Viewpoints, and I could only imagine how her work would profit from such a collaboration.
At the end of our time there, Mr. Suzuki (jokingly now, I realize), said that we could hang up our ‘shingles’ and teach. I took that to heart, returned to New York, and with the help of my fellow UCSD alumni, I organized training groups that met throughout the city. We were kicked out of many spaces because the force of the stomping would disrupt anything that happened below it. I did this for about three years and continued to ask myself how I was using the actual training in my work as an actor. While I valued the training sessions and weekly meetings as sources of companionship and a sense of ‘fight’ in navigating my career, I struggled to make use of the training in contexts where the training was not known or practiced.

What I Did with the Training

When I began teaching Suzuki in educational theatre settings, I taught the exercises, for the most part, and accompanied it with whatever philosophy I remembered and extracted from my own training. I didn’t share why we were doing what we were doing explicitly, except to point out its efficacy in promoting focus, concentration, and the accumulation of a tremendous amount of energy. I also taught Basic Acting, and Voice and Speech, but I did not integrate the studio practices. At the end of the semester of Suzuki, I would assign a ‘creative’ task in which students would choose a text from Shakespeare or the Greeks, and assemble various forms of the training of their own choosing to create a small piece. I understood that those texts, that I’d seen Suzuki's company perform, had challenges that might require heightened energy, focus, and stamina. I had not yet extrapolated the physical principles from the exercises, so the only physical structures I had to offer were the exercises themselves. After several years, I devised a piece with a group of students, based on the Agamemnon, entitled The Iphigenia Defense. I integrated the Suzuki training more closely with the generative process of creating the performance. The piece was built on a series of physical narratives with text and music, and I ended up altering or copying the actual forms of the training. That experience was the closest I’d come to a ‘practical’ implementation, but I knew that copying the forms would only get me so far and no further. I was getting closer to finding a place to ‘put’ the training, but its relationship to the Stanislavski work eluded me. Somehow, I’d inherited Steve's obsession; but finding a connection between Suzuki's work and the demands (or lack thereof) placed on Western actors independently seeking to sustain a life in the theatre confounded me. How could this training function without a group and a specific aesthetic aim? So, I made of group of one, me, and set about creating my OWN context.

Chapter 2Creating a Need

DOI: 10.4324/9780429328992-4
The piece I developed with my students motivated me to continue this line of investigation: to source the need for the training in generative or creative projects rather than in the interpretation of existing texts. In 2001, I took a sabbatical from teaching and began to look for other theater artists who used physical techniques to make performances. The search brought me to the Odin Theatre, where I attended my first Transit Festival, organized by Odin actress Julia Varley. The festival was part of the Magdalena Project, an international network of women working in theater, and most of the artists were members of the organization. It was there I found what I was looking for: performances that were amalgamations of text, movement, and music that blurred the lines between dance, musical theatre, and text-based performances. I saw solo performances by Julia and her colleagues Roberta Carreri, and Iben Rasmussen that contained the kind of totality and extremity of physical and vocal expression that I’d only seen before in Toga-mura, in Suzuki's performances. Through their work demonstrations, I learned how they’d combined trainings from many different physical and vocal practices, and I was impressed by the fact that after a period of time, they created their own trainings. During that festival, I also saw Umbral, a solo performance by Cristina Castrillo, founder of Teatro delle Radici based in Lugano, Switzerland. It remains one of the most powerful moments I’ve had as an audience member. Much like other performances, hers wove text, music, and objects together in such ...