By Robert Faires
AUGUST 3, 1998: Theatre training isn't a subject you hear much about in these parts. Outside of the university programs and the handful of classes offered by this company or that artist, the development of theatrical craft just isn't discussed. For good or ill, Austin theatre artists prefer to channel their energies into creating new work, perhaps hoping that in the process of making theatre they will also be making themselves better actors and directors and such.
It can work out that way. Still, training shouldn't be dismissed lightly. It can be a profound experience, awakening an artist to new ways of seeing the world and of approaching art. It can allow the artist to tap talents previously unknown to him, can develop skills which will lift his artistry to new heights. It can inspire an artist so deeply as to change him for life.
A handful of local artists who can testify to this transformative power are the members of the theatre collective Rude Mechanicals. Seven of them took part in a three-week training workshop at the Saratoga International Theater Institute (SITI) in Saratoga Springs, New York. Founded in 1992 by directors Anne Bogart and Tadeshi Suzuki, SITI is a global center for the creation of new work for the stage and the training of theatre artists. Each summer it offers an intensive workshop for theatre artists, grounding them in the rigorous physical discipline of the Suzuki Method and the movement philosophy/choreographic tool called the Viewpoints and having them apply these methods in the creation of new work. The SITI workshop has generated international attention and every year draws artists from around the world clamoring to be included.
This year, the Rude Mechanicals were among them. Kathy Blackbird, Katie Glynn, Lana Lesley, Amy Miley, Gavin Mundy, Sarah Richardson, and Shawn Sides all wanted to go and, in a move characteristic of the group, they applied as a company. They didn't know that SITI had never before taken companies for its workshops. But it changed that policy this year, in part because of the convincing application of the Austin company. They became pioneers on this prestigious training ground.
What these Austin artists discovered in their three weeks in Saratoga were sore muscles and invigorated spirits, challenges beyond anything they had experienced in their lives and inspiration to fuel them for years. Four of the seven discussed their experiences for the Chronicle.
Shawn Sides: That would be me. I get the blame. When I was at NYU, I was trying to combine performance studies and actor training, and that turned out to be more difficult than I thought. But luckily I was in this weird program which allowed me to take classes outside NYU for credit, and I ended up taking two years of Suzuki and Viewpoints training with SITI and just loved it, loved it. I brought a little bit of it to curst & Shrewd.
AC: Such as?
Sides: Mostly the Viewpoints. Viewpoints comes from postmodern dance technique. It's a kind of improvisational technique to come up with character relationships and interesting stage pictures and gestures and stuff. It was developed by Mary Overlie, who happened to be at NYU at the time she was working on it and at the same time that Anne Bogart was -- they were both teaching in the experimental theatre wing -- and Anne Bogart loved it and borrowed it and molded it for theatre.
AC: What made you think a whole group of you could go up to New York together for a month?
Sides: Well, I decided I was going. Then Lana decided she was going ...
Sarah Richardson: And I pitched a fit.
Sides: So all these people were wanting to go, and we thought maybe if we applied as a company, that would be a good way to get in. And it happened to work out. This time. This was the first summer that SITI accepted companies. There were three of us: a company from Ireland, a company from Australia, and us.
AC: Did you know they were taking companies?
Richardson: No. In fact, they were in contact with us by e-mail and suggested that this was something they were going to have to think long and hard about, and I think they encouraged us not to apply as a company.
Lana Lesley: I can't remember, I just remember the e-mail saying, "We're considering this and as we consider it, you consider the fact that this would be a first for us and that we will work your butts off and you will be very, very challenged by this." We were a big risk. They were already working with the other two companies, the Irish company and the Australian company. They knew them, and Shawn was the only one of us they knew.
Sides: There were seven of us, and there were only 55 slots.
Richardson: And apparently this year they were overwhelmed with applications. So to accept a company was a big choice. After the training, one of the SITI company members said that our application was extremely strong as a company and because of that, it opened the door for them to go, Okay, should we do this this year?
AC: What's involved in an application?
Katie Glynn: Oh my god, it's so intense!
Lesley: Basically, it's an essay-style application.
Glynn: With four questions.
Richardson: [reading] "Why are you applying? Describe your experience and training up until now. How do you see your future? What and who have been big sources of inspiration for your work? And do you have any health or physical condition that would prohibit you from participating fully in these activities?"
Glynn: Of course, we all lied and said how buff we were.
Richardson: And then when we got accepted, we immediately started working out. But it was a wise choice because it was so rigorous. Like the third or fourth day, I couldn't walk up the stairs. My muscles had never been used in that particular combination.
AC: So you fly up there June 3rd ...?
Richardson: We flew in, got our little dorm rooms, got our little meal cards, then we started first thing in the morning. Every day was an hour and a half of Suzuki, with various SITI company members, then a 15-minute break, then an hour and a half of Viewpoints with either Anne Bogart or one of the SITI company members. We were separated in groups and we'd flip-flop, so sometimes we had Suzuki first and sometimes Viewpoints. Then a big fat lunch, a dorm lunch -- carbs, French fries, and soft-serve ice cream -- and then we would come back and have a movement lab taught by Akiko Aizawa, one of the SITI company members. Then we had Play Lab, where we learned some of the SITI company's performance methods.
AC: Was there any attempt to put everybody on the same level? Were things explained in a basic way or was everybody just thrown in?
Glynn: Learn by example. First moment in Suzuki, they get you up and have you stomping for two minutes. Well over half our class had never done that before. But you watch the first group go, then you go, and you just imitate it and pray to god you're doing it right.
Sides: And you aren't gonna have shin splints.
Glynn: And you aren't going to ruin your heels. There was very little set out for us. Viewpoints was more structured -- it had to be -- but Suzuki was more learn by example. They would say, "Anyone ever done this before?" And the people who had done it before got up and would show us. Then the rest of us would just watch.
Lesley: They made a point of always having at least one SITI company member lead it and at least two others in the class get up and do the class with us. So you always had somebody to eyeball, to aim for.
Richardson: We shouldn't make it sound like boot camp ...
Glynn: Although it did feel like that.
Richardson: It did, but there was tremendous care taken with our bodies. They always said, "Do what you can do. Do the best that you can do. Don't hurt yourself. You must be the barometer for your own safety." And they really were teachers in the sense that you would run into something and then they would describe it and talk about it and then do some more. Some days we would talk more than others and some days we would train more than others.
Sides: The pattern was: Get you up there, have you attempt it, then deconstruct it.
Glynn: But learn it by doing it first. It was a very kinesthetic approach. Which was really exciting because we're a very physical theatre.
Richardson: The other really important component of the training was composition class. We had that just once a week. It was a full three hours in the afternoon with Anne. Because it was only once a week, we only met three times. The first time we did some very small, on-the-fly compositions. Then she assigned these seven-minute compositions, and we had a week to bring them back. The second week, we were assigned new directors and new actors and had a week to bring back 10-minute compositions.
AC: What do you mean by compositions?
Richardson: Small performance pieces that had all these elements to them, like a revelation of space on the stage -- a space that you didn't expect or didn't know was there to be revealed in some way. Revelation of character. Revelation of an object. Music from an unexpected source ...
Sides: Fifteen seconds of silence, 15 seconds of simultaneous action, 15 seconds of fast talking.
Lesley: The first one had 25 elements, and they all had to be fit into the composition. It was hysterical watching seven groups of people trying to smash them all into seven minutes.
Richardson: But what was amazing was how radically different and rich and diverse these performances were.
AC: Did you follow this daily routine all week?
Richardson: Five days. The weekends were rehearsing compositions.
Lesley: And there were symposia. There was a symposium every week, with Anne or with Anne and Bill T. Jones -- the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company was in residency there -- or the designers for the SITI company. But for the most part, yeah, we would take the classes all week and then rehearse on the weekends.
Richardson: I think we had this fantasy that class was going to be from nine to five, and that we'd have some time off in the evening to learn our Crucks lines and that we'd go to New York City on the weekend ... Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! We were up rehearsing until midnight, one in the morning. There were days that I had 16 hours of rehearsal, straight through, all day long.
Lesley: We totally committed ourselves.
Richardson: But it was incredibly exciting. I mean, the process of creating those performances. ... A lot of people think of a compelling theatrical performance as a play, a text that's written, which is staged. These performances were created of just elements and ideas put together collaboratively. They had directors, but they were very collaboratively created. And they were full, the pieces were absolutely stunning. We presented them once for Anne, and she gave us notes, then we refined them for presentation to the entire group. Then we drank a lot of tequila.
Glynn: And Jägermeister.
Sides: We impressed them all with our drinking prowess.
Lesley: Just so you know, the Texans did go home with the prize.
Richardson: They would go, "Oh no! The Texans are here!"
Sides: We even drank the Irish under the table.
Lesley: And the Australians.
Richardson: You can tell the city of Austin that we made a big impression on the international community.
Richardson: The level of discipline and talent among the participants was so high. ... It was an amazing group. There was a standard set from the very first moment you walked into a classroom, below which you would not fall or you would fall into the center of the earth in shame.
Richardson: There was no way to give any less than your everything each day.
AC: Did any of you ever feel like, "What the hell am I doing here?"
Glynn: Oh yes.
Richardson: I don't think there is a single person who goes through that program who at some point doesn't leave Suzuki class in tears. Every single person went through that, at some point feeling like, I am so unworthy. I can't do it.
Glynn: Or Why am I here? That's a question that they constantly asked us: "Why are you here? Why are you onstage?" And during the middle of a round of stomping, doing various marches and whatnot, halfway through you would wonder, Why am I here? Why do I want to be onstage so badly?
Richardson: And put myself through this?
Glynn: And that's what the training was about: coming up with a reason. Sometimes it was tangible, and you could get it out in words: "Because I love it!" And sometimes it was just simply that you knew there was a calling.
Richardson: What was Tadashi Suzuki's phrase that they would repeat?
Sides: There's no such thing as talent, there's only a depth of profundity for the actor's ...
Richardson: ... for the actor's reason for being onstage. And in many ways that's what Suzuki -- which is a very profound physical and kind of spiritual experience -- is always probing: Why are you up there? Who are you? Make your presence known.
Lesley: There's so much to go through. I think each of us processed it individually. Like I learned how I go through it, which is to get very deep inside myself and smoke a lot of cigarettes and sit and write a lot and think. I became very introverted when I was not in class.
Sides: It was also difficult because if we did have a spare second, there were all these people there from all over the world, and they're amazing. God, I love my friends so much, but here's three weeks when I can meet these people.
Glynn: You don't want to take your friends -- these people who you're here with -- for granted, but on the other hand, you're not gonna see these other people for a real long time, if ever.
AC: Still, you went up there as a company. With all this individual challenge and development, were you able to integrate any of it into the company?
Glynn: That was very difficult.
Lesley: We didn't have the same ideas going in, which was interesting. There were a few of us who had the idea that it is an individual experience; we're going as a company but as individuals. We will go and experience the thing and come back and process it together. Then there were those of us who thought, "We're here as a company, we should experience it as a company and process it while we're here."
Glynn: I thought SITI company too wasn't quite sure how to deal with us.
Richardson: They split us up in some classes and put us together in others. But even though we were in composition class together, we were still in separate compositions.
Glynn: They kept calling us a company, yet sometimes I just felt like the Existential Girl: Oooh, I'm here by myself. Some ways we did try to stick together were by saying, "Okay, we have to have lunch today" or, "Let's try to Viewpoint together." I remember dragging Gavin up one time. "We're the only Rude Mechanicals. Come on, Viewpoint with me." And sometimes those would be the worst experiences.
Glynn: "I don't connect with you at all. Go away!"
Lesley: For me, the desire (to connect came) in the class in the mornings. I wanted to watch the Rude Mechanicals who were in my class.
Richardson: Actually, I thought that was one of the most effective ways we did connect. In Suzuki class, I was with you and Kathy a lot. We would split up so that we could watch each other and give each other feedback and just get to know each other's bodies. It wasn't so much that we were physically working together as we were observing each other and considering that part of our responsibility to observe each other and learn about each other's experience that way.
Glynn: And learn how each person processes. Lana goes and sits and writes and needs to do it that way, whereas maybe Sarah needs to talk about it. Just learning that in and of itself is precious to the company. Learning how each person processes something is gonna give us insight into how to make a decision about what shows we do next or how we continue training. Kelly Maurer (a SITI company member) mentioned this after a particularly tough day in Suzuki; she said, "Two things: Work hard and find a group of people who you trust, who will call you on your shit and who you can call on their shit." All of a sudden, I got some insight on how to call people on their shit and how people probably should be calling me on mine.
AC: Are there areas in which you found strengths within yourself or within each other that you didn't know existed?
Lesley: Huge question.
Richardson: It's a huge question, but actually it's very important. I don't know how to adequately describe how deeply challenging Suzuki is -- on a physical level, on a personal level. I have so much respect for any person who gets up and does it. There's this whole thing in Suzuki, the teachers are like, "Take it out of your face. We don't care about your pain."
Sides: "If you're tired, we're bored. We don't want to see that. That's boring."
Richardson: "If you're going through a challenge, just go through it. Don't make faces. Just go through it." So to see my colleagues go through that experience, and I went through it, too, ... I have such respect for their level of discipline. Nobody crumbled. Nobody left. I think this is the first year that nobody left. Usually, there's one or two who get there and after the first couple of days go, "Yep, not for me."
There was one day in Suzuki when I thought I was going to physically die. There was one day when the world went black for a moment and my head started to spin and I thought I was physically going to die. And Kelly Maurer came up to me and said, "Don't panic, don't panic, don't panic." And she brought me back from the brink of death.
Richardson: Since then there are few things in rehearsal that scare me very much. I mean, I'm a human being, so I do feel fear and self-consciousness and all that, but I feel because of that I was able to come back and throw myself physically into Crucks in a way that I couldn't have done before. It's like, I've been to the brink of death in Suzuki class.
Richardson: I can do anything.
Glynn: When I would come away from Suzuki, I would hear a lot of people saying, "I suck! I suck!" Like, I'm never gonna get better. And I think after a few days of that, I was like, That's bullshit. I may suck, but I am gonna get better. I kept re-affirming why I wanted to be onstage. That strength was really amazing to me.
Lesley: You do get better.
Glynn: You do. But the important thing was that my self-talk wasn't about being poor or wanting to run away. I'm going to face this, and I'm gonna be better than I ever thought I was gonna be. And I was pleased to see that when it did seem like the group was separated and going different ways, I could say, "Hey, I think we need to talk." That was a strength of mine I came to see. And watching how Shawn was able to communicate with Ernesto, from Bogota, Colombia, who didn't speak a lick of English, seeing their chemistry and their physicality and how well they were performing together -- that's agift I didn't possess. But watching that in Shawn -- in each of us -- in those little ways, you would think, "I get to take that person back with me." That was incredibly exciting.
Richardson: A lot of people up there were jealous of us -- in a kind way. They were like, "You have a company? You can take all this back." It was very difficult to leave. It was very emotional for everybody, but there were people who said, "Why are you crying? You get to go back with a group of people who you shared this experience that you're continuing. We just have to go back to Ohio and try to figure out what to do now that we've seen the Promised Land."
Sides: It's weird. Because it's so physically intense and people are challenged. Actors -- we're always saying, "Are you comfortable with that? Is that comfortable for you?" We're never allowed to really work hard and have pain and all that. So there's the danger of all this sounding very self-help-y and therapeutic.
Richardson: It didn't feel that way at all.
Sides: But talking about it sometimes makes it sound that way.
Richardson: It's okay for dancers and athletes to have pain and injuries and to train, but actors -- for some reason, it's not really part of our tradition. And for the SITI company, it is. It really is about conditioning the body to develop your presence for the stage. For me, it's had a profound effect on how I approached Crucks. I have an attention to detail now as a performer that I never quite had before. I'm very concerned about it onstage. I'm holding the wheelchair. Where exactly are my pinkies? Where must they be to make this moment work? Every detail now is really important to me. And it feels different in the body. In Play Lab, Kelly talked about how interesting it is for the actor onstage to be actually going through something that is difficult to achieve. Not creating the pretend moment of going through something but actually going through a physical challenge, which translates into the challenge that the character is going through. Shawn played a character who was carrying a suitcase with a teacup balanced on top of it, and she had to turn and make this move downstage and then turn back up and get back into line and go offstage. Well, any other theatre company would have glued the teacup to the suitcase, 'cause it never comes off. But not the SITI company. The SITI company actually had the actor balancing the freaking teacup, because that actor's actually going through a physical challenge to make that happen. And that is so compelling to watch onstage.
Sides: Sometimes it's not so tangible for the audience. Maybe many people in the audience thought the teacup was glued to the suitcase. I think what they're going for a lot of the time is to get this sort of emotional whirlwind that naturalism has taught us -- you know, you've got to be going through something emotional onstage -- and physicalize it. So that even if the audience can't tell that walking in a straight line in slow motion without moving your center is incredibly difficult -- even if it just looks like, yeah, they're just walkin' in slow motion -- it is very difficult. You're going through something and the act of going through something translates into a sort of ...
Richardson: Into an emotional life.
Sides: Or presence.
Richardson: A state of being as opposed to just throwing yourself out there.
Glynn: It's really apparent in Crucks, which I'm not a part of. Just seeing the opening couple of performances, I was taken aback. I thought, Wow, they put in a bunch of stuff that we just learned. That was great for me, seeing specific moves, seeing a slow 10 as they move forward on the stage. Sitting out in the audience, I was like, Even if I wasn't part of the company, I would want to be, based on what I saw. I thought, That physicality is stunning. I want to do that.
Sides: And the thing is, it's very simple. It's not like flip-flops. It's not like cartwheels.
Glynn: Although we can do those, too!
Sides: It's precision and building up a certain kind of energy inside. At one point, I had one instructor say, "What you want to do is just get all the atoms moving really quickly inside."
Richardson: One of my favorite images from Suzuki was when we would take a turn in slow 10 and they would say, "You're not moving your body. You're moving the room with you." So this idea that you're moving, and you take the whole fucking room with you as you turn, that kind of relationship to the stage is what we're interested in developing.
AC: Has there been any talk yet about processing this stuff for the future of Rude Mechanicals?
Richardson: Not yet, but that's mostly because we had to go into rehearsals for Crucks the day after we got back. But now we've opened it, and we're gonna sit down and schedule some kind of company meeting to talk about it.
Sides: I'm a little worried because, yeah, I think what we brought back from SITI completely influenced Crucks, but our rehearsal process for Crucks began before we left, so Crucks is infused with it, and it informs the work clearly, but Crucks wasn't built through Anne Bogart's composition technique, and there was very little Viewpointing involved. (The SITI training) is not a guru-type thing; it's just another thing to add to the whole that we have.
Richardson: There's a danger now in thinking of us as this SITI satellite in Austin or something. We're very deeply influenced by them as teachers and by the work and by the training, but the challenge now is to make our own productions and to make our way with that information and to incorporate it with what we already do and already know.
Lesley: We definitely want to continue the training and see how that training can influence the development of the work, but I think we've found the beginnings of a style that's our own. And the task for us is to see how we're going to combine our style and our aesthetic with the training that is so valuable.
Richardson: It's something the SITI company really encouraged, too. They said, "Take this and interpret it. It's yours now."
Sides: It's definitely gonna morph.
AC: Which in some ways is what Anne did with Mary's version of Viewpoints.
Richardson: And they talk about it. They're like, "Steal. We steal. Steal everything."
Lesley: They're so generous with everything; every piece of information you could ever want to know, they'll just tell you.
Sides: Of course, we're not even the only people in Austin who have had this training. And there's other training, too. We want to incorporate other things into this mix.
AC: It's one more thing to synthesize into the group. One more way of answering that question that's always out there: "Why am I here?"
Richardson: Another way that Kelly put it was that Suzuki is putting your body in a series of impossible tasks, things that you can never achieve. But in the context of attempting an impossible task, who are you? Why are you there? What do you learn about yourself, and what do you create that's real and honest in the middle of attempting to do an impossible task?
Glynn: It's interesting because in this day and age, it seems as though young theatre companies are an impossible task.
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