Wednesday, 15 May 2013

A Monk and an Actor: The common Factor? And it Rhymes! Blog 112

Morning - and my goodness it is morning. I was woken at 3am by a loud crash outside my window - disturbing a lovely dream about holidays! And then when sleep evaded me I succumbed to some Facebook friperie and engaged with a couple of transatlantic friends who hadn't gone to bed yet! Its a sad life!

One of the lovely things about being a hard core blogger (a title I now allow myself after over 250 blog posts!) is that you have no idea about who reads you regularly unless of course they decide to declare themselves which happens  from time to time. And that's exciting - you get to have an occasional virtual conversation with a diverse mix of people from all over the world if you are lucky. So it was yesterday that I got a wonderful message from a Benedictine monk called Paul. And yes Paul used to be an actor. We have just started our conversation so I have no idea yet about his journey from theatre to religion - apart from knowing that the two things have many connections and synergies. 

Benedictine Monk - Not Paul though
Paul is only the third monk I have met, and he only virtually. The other two were Franciscan and I am not entirely sure what the difference is between the two - apart from the fact that they are dedicated to two different saints. I hope to find out more soon. Those of you who dip in here regularly may remember the two Franciscan monks I met at Abbotswick a couple of months ago - Oshiem and Angelo who run a soup kitchen for the homeless in Canning Town. I keep promising myself to jump a couple of stops on the tube and go and visit them. I learned a lot from those two hugely funny guys - not least about their attitudes to their vows. It was Angelo talking about poverty that impacted on me most. He talked of begging for food as an honourable pursuit - and the monks in Canning Town feed themselves and 40 homeless people a day from the food they beg at the end of the day from the market and supermarkets.

Kenneth Branagh
This conversation put me in good stead when I was recently deciding whether to pay £100 for a room in a Premier Inn or £40 for one in an Ibis Budget - now don't get me wrong I love a bit of luxury - but on that occasion I just needed a bed for the night. So I recalled Angelo's words and thought - well if he can sleep in a cell every night and have such a great sense of humour so can I. Admittedly its not something I would want to do every night, but a bed is a bed after all. 

So when Paul's email arrived I was intrigued. It got me thinking about the relative demands and merits of being a monk and an actor. A superficial google search came up with nothing in common. So I turned to my own actor's bible - Towards a Poor Theatre by dear old Jerzy Grotowski. I've talked about him on a number of occasions in my blog - and indeed went back to his laboratory now Institute on my last trip to Poland and reminisced with Maciej about our time working with Grotowski's company in the early eighties.

Like his ideas on theatre or not old Grot has had huge influence on theatre practice in the last part of the 20th century and ongoing. Students of theatre learn about and experience some of his methods if they have good teachers. And the title of his book brings up the issue of poverty again. When we talk about Poor Theatre, we don't mean theatre with no funding - although that is a pressing issue in the current economic climate! No - Grot was talking about a different kind of theatre from the traditional western expectation. He was a dedicated trainer of actors too - believing in what he called the 'Holy Actor' and expecting equal personal sacrifice and dedication from an actor as is expected of a monk. Indeed a monk's life was an important reference point for him.

In Grotowski’s opinion, the actor needs to avoid accumulating a ‘bag of tricks’ that he can apply to any situation. ‘Tricks’ are set actions and therefore cannot completely express specific impulses. The holy actor realises these techniques and stock skills are less than ideal for his goal and strives to penetrate his own personality at every moment so that he can express his immediate, visceral reactions to stimuli. This action is coupled with physical training that increases the actor’s control over his body. Grotowski explains the system he uses like this:
Grot looking quite scary!

“…the actor will never possess a permanently ‘closed’ technique, for at each stage of his self-scrutiny, each challenge, each excess, each breaking down of hidden barriers he will encounter new technical problems on a higher level. He must then learn to overcome these too with the help of certain basic exercises,” (Grotowski: p.36).'

Training actors to engage in acts of self-revelation and subsequently express those revelations in a performance setting became a life-long mission for Grotowski. He gradually developed a method of training that allowed actors to realise their personal limitations and then guided their efforts to erase those barriers. This concept is again elaborated in Towards a Poor Theatre:

'The performing of this act we are referring to – self-penetration, exposure – demands a mobilisation of all the physical and spiritual forces of the actor who is in a state of idle readiness, a passive availability…

One must resort to a metaphorical language to say that the decisive factor in this process is humility, a spiritual predisposition; not to do something, but to refrain from doing something. (p. 37)'

The same concept is espoused elsewhere in Grotowski’s book in this way:

'The requisite state of mind is a passive readiness to realise an active role, a state in which one does not “want to do that” but rather “resigns from not doing it.” (p. 17) This method of training is necessarily an individual one. Which is another reason Grotowski firmly opposes the accumulation of abilities as a means of creating an expressive role. The outward abilities do not necessarily correspond with an inward truth that an actor confronts within himself.'

Grotowski’s research into training the ‘holy’ actor took on a distinctly physical approach that has influenced much of the theatre since. In his book, there are two sections devoted to the exposition and explanation of his training practices. However, Grotowski specifically warns against making these exercises rigidly formal.

“The exercises have now become a pretext for working out a personal form of training. The actor must discover those resistances and obstacles which hinder him in his creative task. Thus the exercises become a means of overcoming these personal impediments,” (Grotowski: p. 133).

Again, Grotowski sought out the intensely personal forms of training that would allow an actor to personally identify blocks inhibiting his total expression and eliminate them in order to grow closer to the ‘holiness’ of his craft.

Just as Jerzy Grotowski had begun to master his actor training methods in the Polish Laboratory Theatre and gain acclaim for his research, he came to the conclusion that theatre, as it was traditionally thought of, still left a barrier between the actors and audience that had not been erased. Because of this division, he left the production of theatre altogether and began devoting himself entirely toward continuing his acting research (Hodge: p. 191-206). He also spent this time encouraging the elimination of the traditional concept of theatre in favor of a more complete communion between the audience and actor. (Brockett1: p.513)

Throughout his career, Grotowski never ended his search for the essence of theatre. His search for the fundamental elements led to a theatre removed from the tyranny of the script and closer to the basic interaction of human contact and expression. His unique approaches to set and house design brought the audience and actors together in a ritual of inner-penetration that drew every participant to a closer understanding of what it means to be human. Most enduringly, we find that Grotowski’s definition of a ‘holy’ actor has brought much of the late twentieth century theatre closer to a ‘poor theatre’ that requires nothing outside itself.

So I suspect this morning that my email exchange with Paul is an exciting new engagement with some of this stuff and reminds me that in my own practice I must remain vigilant to the dangers of formulae whilst at the same time being truthful to actor, text, space and culture. 

All great fun - but a few weeks before I am in a rehearsal or workshop studio again - tant pis! But writing bids for money to stave off pecuniary poverty is of course a necessary evil - so here goes again!

Have a great day y'all.

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