13.1.2018 (Sat) written by Yuko Takeda
After a provocative, sensitive, and intensive work in the violence and photography course late last year, we’ve moved onto “Imagination of Violence- atelier 1” with a half of the second year Swedish-speaking acting students. The atelier began on January 8th, 2018 and finished its first week as of now.
Prior to the first week of the atelier 1, Davide had given the students a few things to do as the preparation for this semester’s work. One was the mapping of violence, which is to write down every possible violent situation and try to place them in certain categories such as physical, psychological, and invisible violence. The second thing was to look for monologues that are about or by the perpetrator of violence. Each student will pick one from the possibilities and work on it during this semester. And the last thing was to make a list of the movies and plays that have strong, distinct aesthetics or expressions of violence. A selected few from the list will be viewed during the course.
My role has changed slightly from last year. In addition to documenting the process of the course, I’m also giving a physical training session for the students each day before Davide’s curriculum. My goals as a training leader and pedagogue are to provide a time and space to improve the whole-body sensitivity for powerful expression and to connect the experience of the training to the whole theme of the course for deeper understanding. I use Suzuki Method of Actor Training as the main tool for teaching and a few other methods such as Hino Method* and Viewpoints to enhance the students’ learning experience. (*Hino Method is a physical training method founded and developed by a Japanese martial arts master Akira Hino. Its aim is to develop the bodily sensitivity and intelligence to its full potential without relying on muscle strength.)
Anyway, the theme of the first atelier is “Intolerability.” What makes violence so intolerable that it drives someone into action? The theme spawns into many fields such as physical discomfort, psychological manipulation, moral conflict, etc. It is, as always with the nature of violence, sensitive and complicated, but we’ve got to start somewhere.
A typical day in the atelier started with my 90-minute training followed by Davide’s physical improvisation with animal themes. Each day he asked the students to explore the dynamics of movement of one specific animal. He told me that the exercise was based in the Jacques Lacoq method. Its emphasis is on the mimicry of movement dynamics, not the outer shapes of the living organism. During the exercise, therefore, the quality of each animal’s movement was discussed. For example, wolves emanate defensive, focused energy towards a target while monkeys tend to be hyper-curious and open towards their surroundings. The movement of a snake is sinuous with predatory intentions, which makes it hypnotizing and creepy. And so and so on.
Davide would then ask the students to continue the improvisation with masks. He briefly explained the history of the masks he brought for them beforehand.
This mask improvisation had a distinct procedure for the beginning. First a student picks a mask from the table and goes to the wall of the space with his or her back to us the audience, who sit at the opposite end. The student then puts on the mask and starts embodying the movement dynamics of the animal with sound. After a while, Davide yells “go!” and the student turns around, revealing the mask to the audience. The improvisation continues with Davide’s constant verbal interaction with the student.
The transformation induced by wearing a mask was fascinating to watch. To become someone or something else is what actors do in acting, and the mask seems to make the action inevitable and more extreme. At least for the audience.
Davide then asked the student to continue the physical improvisation and start incorporating his or her monologue into it. Sometimes the physicality of the movement gave new and unexpected meaning to the text, and sometimes the text specified certain gestures that helped the student to solidify his or her physicality.
One of the issues that came up at this stage of improvisation was how to connect speaking of the text to the bodily experience. Davide sometimes asked another student to hold down the lower part of the masked student to deal with that challenge. With a concrete resistance put against the body, he or she must engage the support muscles, including the core muscles to speak. It is a simple but often effective way to feel the connection between the voice and the body.
As the final stage of the improvisation, the student was asked to take off the mask and continue improvising with the text.
Tapping into the energy of an animal, which is raw and intense, for a prolonged period for improvisation is no easy task. I witnessed many moments of aliveness in the students’ improvisations and was constantly emphasizing with the struggles and challenges they were facing in class. It really is hard work and overwhelmingly intimate at times to explore what it means to express violence on the stage.
Once again, we talked about the challenge of differentiating the actor’s body that practices the imagination of violence and the private body that can get negatively affected by the act of violence in class. How and when to draw the line? I think that the question can only be answered in a safe learning environment with trust and respect between the teacher and the student.
After the improvisation, the latter part of the day was dedicated to lectures and discussions on violence. The highlight from those for me was when we were discussing the extreme violence in Greek tragedies. Specifically, in analyzing “The Bacchae” by Euripides, the main-stream interpretation is that it is about the irrational (represented by Dionysus) and the rational (represented by Pentheus) sides of human nature. It makes sense to a degree, but for actors who embody those characters in the play, there needs to be more layers than the dichotomic division of human nature to understand the extremity of human behavior, such as Agave’s ripping off her son’s head and later realizing that it was her son whom she killed.
Davide then introduced the discourse of René Girard (1923-2015), a French historian, philosopher, and anthropologist. It takes a lot of words to fully explain Girard’s thoughts. I only take what I’ve understood from them in the context of this course.
To understand violence, condemning it as wrong or evil is not the way to go, especially for actors who embody it. One must “channel” violence in order to understand its mechanism and origin.
According to Girard, human beings are driven by mimetic desires, which means that we want the things others want. (There is no such thing as an autonomous desire if a desire is something more than a basic need or appetite.) This “others,” the model for one’s desire is called “the mediator” in Girard’s theory. The examples of the mediator could be celebrities, gods, parents, etc. When the mediator is placed higher in your value system spiritually or socially, you have no qualms with the mediator. But, when you are on the same level as the mediator (for example, a friend has a crush on the same person), mimetic rivalry starts to develop. Mimetic rivalry is a common phenomenon in any human community and is the cause of violent conflicts. As the resolution to mimetic rivalry, the human society invented the ritual of sacrifice or scapegoat. Through the death of the innocent, the society is purged of the evil force or violence. Or the sacrifice of the king, or the most powerful and successful alleviates the hierarchical pressure in the society.
Greek tragedies are full of human sacrifices. And though different in form, our current society also witnesses sacrifices as well. Girard claims that human culture is based in sacrifice, which gives birth to a society.
Whether you agree with Girard’s theory or not, it is certainly a new angle to look at violence.
We also discussed intolerable images and situations of violence in the afternoon. Each student brought two images and two situations to share in class.
Those images were disturbing to say the least. And the mere act of searching for the images and situations for class presentation became somewhat “intolerable violence” for some students. Davide encouraged them to be aware of such a metaphysical experience of violence and to explore it further in their artistic research.
We also watched a movie “A Clockwork Orange” (directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1971) together and discussed it afterwards.
(Image source: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066921/mediaviewer/rm3700218112)
Davide said that the movie was about the ultra-violent protagonist’s becoming the instrument of other people’s violence.
The kind of structural violence depicted in the movie is often invisible in the society. How can we be sensitive to such invisible violence?
What can theatre offer to counter the kind of violence that is destructive?
The discussion ended in somber silence.
On the last day we held a brief feedback session. The questions were asked to reflect on the first week. What was good? What was challenging? What would you like to work on next week? etc...
My overall impression from the feedback session was positive. The students worked hard and encountered a few unexpected moments that made them confused, uncomfortable, or frustrated. And they understood that those moments could be the catalyst for their further research. Most importantly, they seemed excited for the next week.
To be continued…