Learning in the unknown
written by Yuko Takeda on February 19, 2018
So, “The Imagination of Violence—atelier 1” ended on Friday, February 16th. The last week of the course was filled with pregnant conversations and discussions and bursts of growth. Here are the highlights of them, or the things I remember.
Much of the week was spent on the preparation for the demo on February 15th. Davide planned it as a four-part presentation about the course. The first part would be a short Suzuki Method warm-up session let by me. The second part would be a series of monologues about ambivalent violence. The third would be a polyphony of the personal texts the students had written for invisible violence. And the last part would be the enacted images and videos of extreme, grotesque violence in pop culture coupled with the speeches of infamous modern-day school shooters. The extreme pop culture violence section would be augmented by fake blood. The total duration of the demo should be about 90 minutes.
When Davide revealed his plan for the demo to the students at the beginning of the week, it seemed that the focus of the course changed from a research-oriented process to a process of building something for the audience. The students were still working on the same things as before in terms of their challenges as actors and artistic researchers. But a specific demo structure of presenting their works and a thought of having an audience triggered a few interesting reactions. One of the students expressed a degree of aversion to the word “demo.” “We have done so many demos in school,” she said. For her, the demo didn’t allow a fully-committed performance to happen “because it’s a demo.” On the other hand, another student expressed his anxiety about the demo because “now it feels like I have to make a performance,” which would keep him from being fully present in his work.
Davide responded to them by saying, “In this demo, we’ll show what we’ve been working and researching. It’s not about proving anything to anyone. You don’t need to do that.”
The expectation of the audience who come to a free demo might be different from that of the audience who pay to go see a performance. But that is out of the actor’s control after all. Therefore, I think that an actor shouldn’t let it be the cause of his or her stress or affect his or her level of commitment.
I understand their frustrations in a way, though. The presence of the audience is a powerful, essential factor in a performative situation. How to meet the audience or how to be present with them is as important as the content of a live performance because it IS a part of it. It’s the ultimate unknown element in theatre that experiences and contributes to the quality of a performance along with the actor(s). It is usually quite a jump of commitment an actor needs make from a rehearsal studio to a stage with an audience, not necessarily due to the expectation but more because of its very presence. I was once told by someone, “Treat rehearsals as performances and performances as rehearsals.” That is a mindset to practice how to be with the audience even when they are not physically there.
During the final week, Davide and I often discussed how we as pedagogues could allow the students’ processes of developing their works to happen even with the pressure of a demo performance. As a theatre director, Davide had a certain vision for each part and for an overall impression. He, however, also wanted to encourage the students to keep on exploring their monologues and personal texts. His approach, therefore, was to give as much time as possible to improvisations to work various dimensions of a character before settling down on certain blocking. Masks were brought back to get in touch with the raw, powerful energy for the monologues of ambivalent violence, for example. The personal texts of invisible violence were worked on individually before being made into a polyphony where the texts were divided, and the characters spoke alternately or simultaneously. And even while he was blocking a scene, his directions tended to be less technical and more pedagogical. He also listened to the students’ thoughts and opinions about certain moments and tried to incorporate them into the final form.
For my part, I continued to lead a physical training session as the first thing of each day (except the very last day of reflection). My biggest question of the week was how to support the students’ growth on a fundamental level and with long-term thinking, after all the past weeks of improving their techniques. I thought about the purpose of the training for them. At least for me, training has much bigger implications and consequences than the improvement of techniques. So, one day I shared a few articles and videos mostly about Suzuki Method and Hino Method. It was important for me to give personal, philosophical contexts to the things I teach and deem to be crucial such as stillness, connection, listening, and presence. The last video I showed was a British voice coach Patsy Rodenberg’s speech “Why I do theatre,” where she talks about the importance of the actor.
Those articles and videos were the ones of the major influences that helped me to form my artistic core and changed the way I train. Maybe they will inspire them, too.
On a practical side, in addition to the Suzuki Method and Hino Method practice, I incorporated the texts into the training to help them memorize and embody them deeper. For example, simple physical resistance such as pushing down someone’s hands while speaking can aid getting the text “in the body,” not just in the head.
As for the theoretical part, Davide gave a lecture on philosophy regarding violence and its language one afternoon. It was fascinating to hear how philosophy views violence. It questions and examines the very reality of violence. How can we be sure of what we see as violence? How is violence born through language? What does violence do in relation to reality? Is it something that grounds us to reality even? The questions were swirling in my head as I listened to Davide’s talk.
Davide also introduced two types of discourse about language: the apophantic and the non-apophatic. The former concerns with the truthfulness of a logical proposition or phenomenon. So, in the apophantic discourse, statements that are semantically determinate, such as “All penguins are birds,” are more truthful than those that are semantically indeterminate, such as “Single men are unhappy.”
On the other hand, the examples of the non-apophantic language are commands, prayer, narration, law-making, and magic (mystical) thinking. They are there to create a reality on their own. Theatre has traditionally been done in non-apophantic language (narration). Acting, therefore, is mostly in the non-apophantic system, a created reality or a fiction.
Davide then shared his ideas about the actor’s body in different philosophical discourses. First, there is the semiotic body, which is Aristotelian and goal-oriented. The semiotic body comes on stage to achieve some goal. Many of the dramatic texts in the West are written with the semiotic body in mind. The second one is the phenomenological body, which started to emerge about a hundred years ago. It is the body that can express meaning by itself. It doesn’t need a goal or an objective to exist on the stage. Then the third one is the apophantic body, the like of which was started by a German playwright Bertolt Brecht. In Brecht’s plays, the actor often comments on the character he or she is playing. In other words, the apophantic discourse has entered the stage, questioning the reality of the drama.
It was an interesting idea to think about different acting styles in the West.
Davide also asked the students one day to revisit the mapping of violence, which they had done last year as the preparation for this course. He proposed a flow chart to show the causes, the types, the applications, and the affects of violence we had covered in class. Here’s what it looked like:
Then the students paired up and tried to categorize each violent situation they had listed, according to the map. For example, a violent situation: one partner slapping the other during a fight once is visible violence (type), human relationship (application), one to one. There were too many situations to categorize in such a short time. Plus, the students were too tired from the day’s work to do the mapping thoroughly. Nonetheless, it was important for Davide and the students to go back to it and acknowledge the complexity of violence once again.
On February 15th, Thursday, there were a run-thru in the afternoon and the demo in the evening.
Before the run-thru, I led a brief physical training session for the last time. “What could I say to them?” I wondered. So much emotion was pouring inside me. After giving them a few physical exercises to listen with the whole body and to connect with the audience, I just said, “Have fun. Have life on the stage.”
Then the run-thru was done with a few audience members. It was the first time the students ran the whole package. Afterwards, Davide gave them the final notes. There were still a lot of things to work on, but in the end, he also told them to just “enjoy.”
And that was exactly what they did in the demo. Starting with a short Suzuki Method warm-up, they marched through the monologues, the personal texts, and the extreme violence scenes drenched in fake blood. With fervor, determination and joy, they shone and touched the audience. One of my friends who were in the audience said to me afterwards, “The intense process you guys had really showed in the performance.” I felt proud of the students.
After the demo, there was a Q&A session between the students and the audience members.
Many good questions were asked and answered. Here are a few that I thought were indicative of the students’ progress in the course.
Q. What is artistic research for you?
- We did many things, not only the practical work on the monologues but also studying theories, doing field research, etc. It’s a process to form some sort of a methodology.
- For me, it’s a place where I can wonder and distance myself from judgement. I can experiment, and I can also just observe.
- For me, it’s about asking the right questions.
Q. What did you find in your research about violence?
- There’s a big difference between reenacting violence from fiction and from real life. For example, I had so much fun doing the extreme violence from pop culture because it was all fictitious. But when I was dealing with the historical photographs of extreme violence to reenact, I had so much difficulty.
Q. How did you carry your research in your work? What did you feel as the responsibility of an artistic researcher?
- I became more sensitive to hidden violence around me. It’s everywhere. We’ve gotten so used to it and keep pushing the limit of what’s tolerable. But it’s not ok.
- For me, it became important not to jump into conclusions or not to make strong statements about violence. I want to understand what is behind violence.
- For me, the most important thing was the attitude, “Let’s not judge. Just try and do.. and fail. It’s ok.” But, now that I’ve done the doing, I feel that I need some distance from the process to formulate what I think about it.
Davide also responded to one of the questions about the course. He said, “In this course, we wanted to explore how to imagine an alternative to the loop of the narrative of a catastrophic future.” We the theatre artists imagine violence not to proliferate it to a destructive end but to transform it for the evolution of humanity. It’s the vision that has been carrying us forward in the course.
We held the final reflection session on Friday at Studio 1. All the blood and white cardboards had been cleaned up. We were back in an empty studio. What a feeling it was. Everyone seemed full of thoughts and emotions, but no word could capture them fully.
The reflection session started with a pair work. First, each grabbed a partner to interview each other with the following questions: (1) What did you learn about violence? (2) What did you learn about acting? (3) What will you keep from the course for your acting? (4) What is your definition of violence?
After an hour, they came back and shared what they wanted to share from the interview. There was a lot of overlapping with what they had said during the Q&A session the previous day. But the important discoveries are worth repeating. Here’s some of what the students have learned in the course regarding their processes as actors:
- To move out of hypocrisy to learn. Go for understanding, not judgement. And have fun.
- To accept audiences’ interpretations. To not impose emotional responses on them. Not knowing what and how the audience would react and see was new. Different reactions are fascinating to me now.
- To work without an answer. To be ok with not having a clear position.
- We should do first and criticize. (Criticizing first and too much had made me feel less confident in the past.)
- To question myself without feeling shame or negativity.
- To transform the obstacle into research.
- To have the courage to jump with open eyes. Take risks with awareness.
Then Davide asked each student to articulate his or her definition of violence. They struggled with this one quite a lot now that they have learned and experienced how complex violence is. Here I wanted to point out why we must define it at all. It’s not about coming up with a perfect or right definition. The act of defining something forces an artist to take a stand or a point of view about that something. You might be wrong, but at least you start to communicate and express with a perspective of your own.
Then we moved onto a feedback session about the course. Big pieces of paper were put on the pillars for different questions: (1) What was beneficial for you? (2) What needs improvement? (3) If you were to continue, what would you like to explore in the next atelier? The students went back and forth between the pillars to answer the questions.
After a while, we as a group went to each pillar to discuss or clarify the answers. To Davide’s relief and delight, the students wrote almost all the things they did in the course as the answers to the first question. And there were much fewer things written for the second question. The answers to the third question indicated that they did want to continue and deepen the themes explored in the course.
To change gear a bit, I then led the students to ponder over their future. I asked them to write down eight dreams on a big sheet of paper and to come up with eight means to achieve each dream. So, in total, there will be sixty-four things he or she could do to get closer to his or her dreams. One’s life is not linear but a complex intertwining of different patterns and networks. All kinds of things happen in life, and sometimes it’s hard to keep track of what one wants to do or should do. Visualization of dreams like this could help one in seeing an overall picture and relationships between dreams.
They spent about 30 minutes to fill the paper with dreams.
At the end of the reflection Davide gave each student personal feedback on his or her work. It was concise pieces of advice from Davide for the students to grow further as artists. Everyone took notes and fell silent for a moment, not knowing exactly how to end the course collectively.
Luckily, Davide invited us all to his house for dinner to celebrate the end together. With good food, wine and laughter, we put all the hard, intensive work to rest.
It didn’t feel like an end. Something has just begun for the students. It is an awakening of some sort, manifested in the strong connection among them and the warmth of their hearts, embracing the unknown.
Keep on learning.
Learn in the unknown.
And see how you shine in it.
To be continued.
My deepest gratitude goes to Davide Giovanzana for inviting me to this amazing journey. Davide, your vision and passion for the course never ceased to challenge and inspire me to do well. Thank you.
And to the students: Emilia, Herman, Tom, Joel, Andreas and Astrid. Thank you for your hard work and generosity. You are golden. I heart you all.