Make It New

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Most SITI Company members have heard me tell the “naked nun” joke far too many times. It goes something like this: soon after emerging from a hot bath, a nun, still naked, hears a knock on her cell door.  “Who’s there?” she asks.  A man’s booming voice answers, “It’s the blind man.” Assuming that he cannot see her, the nun does not bother putting on her clothes and opens the door to find a man carrying a large package on his shoulder.  He looks her up and down and says, “Nice tits, now where do you want the blinds?” 

If any company member is present when I am telling the “naked nun” joke, I know that I must find a way to tell it with an irresistible freshness.  If I do not, I know that my colleagues will not be amused. For me the task is clear: make it new!  To reinvent the story while telling it requires heightened awareness and wakefulness. I pay sharp attention to attack, accents and timing.

Similarly, I find that part of the challenge, of working with the same group of people for over two decades, is that it is very difficult to rest on one’s laurels and suggest old stand-by ideas or solutions to new problems. In rehearsal I cannot propose ideas that we have used before without getting grief about applying concepts from a previous production. “You have pulled that card already,” someone is bound to say.

Reflections on the Prompts

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The new Prompts for Anne approach to the blog has provoked some eloquent writing and thinking from various readers.  A few of the prompts impelled me to respond and others are self-contained observations and rich thoughts, which I will include below.  Please continue to send me prompts via email to prompts (at) siti.org.

From Neil Utterback:

As a theatre maker and a theatre educator I find myself often wrestling with an ethical issue. A significant foundation of our training at Juniata is in Viewpoints and Suzuki. I’ve been lucky enough to train with SITI on a couple of marvelous occasions yet I have never trained with SCOT (well, not yet). I guess it’s a kind of Theseus’ Ship problem: How many generations out does a thing no longer exist as the original? For example, if I have never trained with Suzuki can I call what I teach the Suzuki Method? Or if I am making my own additions and alterations to how I teach Viewpoints can I still say that I am teaching Viewpoints? Or is it something else? Or is it just about transparency? I feel like, as the training becomes more and more incorporated into academia and other companies, we have to engage in a conversation about its evolution, the genomics of theatre pedagogy, if you will. Thoughts?

What's the Question

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Questions are the key tool of every theater artist.  Each worthwhile project is animated by curiosity, by questions, by a nagging itch that requires attention. Part of what makes a play endure through time is the significance of the question that lies at its core.

Emily Dickenson wrote, “Wonder is not precisely knowing, and not precisely knowing not.”  To live in between knowing and “knowing not” is a fecund place and a creative one as well.

I have found that many great questions can be answered with a single word:  Exactly.  These questions are themselves an embodiment of the action of trying to answer them. For example: Question:  How can I balance my personal life and my professional life?   Answer:  Exactly.  Or, question:  How can I work collaboratively and yet still maintain my personal vision?  Answer:  Exactly.  The paradox contains precisely the problem that needs attention.  The answer is an ongoing action.

Prompts for Anne

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For the past several years my blogs on the SITI Company website have been fruitful and useful as I worked towards the completion of a new book of essays entitled What’s the Story. Thanks to the blogosphere I was able to think intensively about issues that related to art, theater and storytelling and then share the consequent writing with you. In September I finished the book, a significant expansion upon the blog writing, and submitted it for publication with Routledge Press. I am excited about What’s the Story coming into existence in the world.  Thank you for your help in the process!

And now, in the quest for a new direction for the blogs on the SITI website, I turn to you for help.  How can we launch a dialogue together?  What are your burning questions, thematic ideas or prompts about subjects that you would like me to consider and attempt to address?

Each month I will make selections from your prompts and I will do my best to address and expand upon the subject.  Your question or prompt will be included in the blog and with my response. In this way I hope that we can stimulate even further dialogue. Please send your prompts to: prompts@siti.org

What's the Story

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I am writing today in West Fulton, New York in the heart of the Catskill Mountains. I am close to finishing a new book of essays entitled What’s the Story.  The book is made up of eleven chapters, each with a one-word title:

Chaos

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Our capacity to tolerate error depends upon our capacity to tolerate emotion.
(Irna Gadd)

In 1974 I moved to New York City with the dream of making a life in the theater but first I had to find gainful employment to support my passions.  Here are some of my many day jobs:  Collecting overdue payments from the clients of a bottled water company, teaching theater to adolescents at the United Nations International School after-school program, analyzing expenses for a Wall Street brokerage firm and leading theater workshops in a halfway house for schizophrenics. Each job provided a window into a particular social, political or economic world. Each window taught me valuable lessons about how to be a better theater director.  I mostly learned through my own errors. After many mistakes of presumption and conjecture, I eventually learned to abandon my own carefully premeditated plans, slow down and listen, really listen to what was happening, and then adjust. I learned the necessity of giving up control in order to ride the wave that was already in motion.

Heat

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Successful theater requires a combination of technique, content and passion.  Like a three legged milking stool, if one of the legs is missing, the entire enterprise collapses.  No one cares about the content of an endeavor without the ingredient of the artist’s requisite passion for the material as well as the craft or technique to express it articulately.  Similarly, without having something to say and a point of view, neither passion nor technique is sufficient. 

What is passion and how can it be cultivated?  Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal, inspired by the ideas of Lope de Vega, insisted that, “Theatre is the passionate combat of two human beings on a platform.” He proposed that passion is a feeling for someone or something, or an idea that we prize more highly than our own life.  Clearly Mr. Boal was a passionate Latin American with high ideals.

Time

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I am late with this blog and I feel the pressure of time on my back.  I work on the blog in the five minutes before leaving for rehearsal or on a plane in an uncomfortable seat.  Afterwards of course I reproach myself for not using the extended time on the airplane to write.  Why did I “spend” this precious time watching inflight television?

The ancient Greeks conceived of time in two radically different ways and produced two different words to distinguish one from the other: chronos and kairos.  In English, we have to make do with only one word: time.  This “making do” has led us to confuse these two fundamentally diverse means of experiencing time. 

Chronos is measured time.  Kairos is unbound and unmeasured time. Chronos is quantitative while kairos is qualitative. Chronos is chronological time. It is the difference between time and timing. Any moment can be experienced as either chronos or kairos.  

Longing, Frustration and Desire

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The Buddhists propose that pain is caused by personal attachment to desire. Accordingly, I consciously and vigilantly police my own burning desires in order to live closer to and in harmony with the realities of the unfolding present moment.  I try to stay free from what I perceive as a prison of “wanting.”

In public I have often suggested that the word “want” is killing the American Theater. I propose that in rehearsal we employ the word “want” excessively.  A director says to an actor, “now I want you to walk downstage,” or an actor asks a director, “is this what you want?”  In so speaking I believe that we unconsciously set up parent-children relationships between the director and actors.  And I see this manner of speaking as an endemic and a serious spiritual and political problem in our field.

Community

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The subject of the theater is, at its core, community. The nurturing substance of theater is not only the story that the play relates and the manner in which the story is expressed, but it is also the actual event of a particular community gathering together to experience the “rite” of enactment.  A “rite” is the performance of a ritual and the theater contains vast amounts of ritual. 

In 1987 my dear friend, the actor Henry Stram, was performing the role of Cusins in a production of George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara at Baltimore Center Stage.  Towards the end of the rather long and windy third act during a sleepy Sunday matinee, Henry made a crucial mistake. His character had an important plot line about his parentage and his appropriateness to take over the Undershaft Munitions Works.  In describing why he should be entitled to run the foundry, Henry misspoke a line from the play and rather than saying “My mother is my father’s deceased wife’s sister; and in this island I am consequently a foundling!” he said instead: “My Father is my brother’s deceased wife’s sister; and in this island I am consequently a foundling.”   To his immense surprise, the entire audience, who Henry had until that moment supposed was a sleepy, blue haired mass, gasped loudly, as one, at his slip.  And Henry at that moment realized that audiences DO, in fact, listen; that what we say on the stage really does register.

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