news, updates, and conversations from Volcano Theatre

Friday, 21 June 2013

On Action Theatre: "For me, it is all one: the human body as a form of expression."

There aren't many licensed Action Theatre instructors in Canada, which is why we're excited to bring one - the exceptional Sarah Bild - to our summer Conservatory. We've asked her a few questions about this unique improvisational method:

You're one of the first licensed Action Theatre instructors in Canada. What drew you to this style of training? What do you think makes Action Theatre valuable for contemporary Canadian theatre?

SB: I met Ruth Zaporah and this practice at a real turning point in my career. I'd been slowing down my dancing and creating in order to make room in my life for motherhood, and as a result, had started to feel quite disconnected from the dance form, both on a physical and aesthetic level. Ruth's first workshop in Montreal in 2003 awakened me in many ways. It addressed many of the questions that had been eating at me: questions about live performance, what it means to be a dancer, a performer, and an artist on stage. It allowed me to extend my range as a dancer and choreographer by opening up the possibilities of voice and language, especially by rooting these in the body. It also renewed my firm belief that dancers could be "whole" artists, and not just makers of beautiful lines and shapes on stage.

Sarah Bild in action
photographer: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin
Outside of Action Theatre, you're also a dance artist and choreographer. What's the link between dance and Action Theatre / physical improv? How do these disciplines compliment and inform one another, particularly in what you create?

SB: This practice of improvisation calls upon your creativity and imagination at every moment. Ideally, even when you're performing set movement or text, you should be discovering and inventing and composing with your body and presence on stage. Action Theatre gives you the tools to do that. It hones your listening skills, your compositional skills, your sense of timing, presence and projection. The exercises are carefully designed to isolate these skills to work them in a very rarified and sometimes, extreme way. And then, with practice, this accumulated physical experience informs all your performance choices. As far as my creation is concerned, I now no longer distinguish what is theatre and dance, text, voice, movement. For me, it is all one: the human body as a form of expression. I now choose to work with dancers that have these skills and can move freely between them. They are not mere technicians or beautiful executors of the work, they are artistic collaborators who are making decisions that feed the work at every stage of development: in creation, rehearsal and on stage.

It can feel like a huge risk to lay yourself bare onstage, particularly in an improvisational context. What do you consider the personal risks of improvisation for a performer, and how can Action Theatre help overcome those challenges?

SB: There are risks for any performer, when she (he) knows her lines or moves, or not. She is exposing herself, expressing something of herself, and hopefully, in sharing herself meaningfully, being quite vulnerable on stage. Action Theatre can help one face these feelings and work with them, coming up against them through playful and rigorous practice. There is an understanding and a respect among improvisers, that we've all "been there," been horrified at what comes out, or worse, doesn't, when we draw a complete blank and have nothing to say. We also get frustrated with well-worn patterns of speech or movement: our habits. Again, by stretching our range and working with specificity of image and physicality, we move beyond our patterns and into the unknown. Diving into the unknown, accepting it, relishing the discovery of it is a strengthening and humbling practice.

What is the value of Action Theatre training / physical improv to artists who work predominantly in script-based theatre?

SB: As performers, we mostly feel a safety in knowing what words to speak and what steps to take. And great performers will make those words and steps look like they are new to them at every instant. This is achieved when we can tape into our imagination and creative spirit while performing, and the best way to practice this access to our creativity is to improvise. In Action Theatre practice, we explore the speaking voice as a physical action, not a mental, logical, or intellectual one. Words exist on the same plane as images, sensations, climates, and textures. We approach them as sounds, feelings, and landscapes. Words are not an end in themselves: they are part of a much greater expression. We explore the details of speech, where it sits in the body, what gestures accompany our words to support them or offset them. This demanding work of analyzing while doing, observing while creating, is at the heart of Action Theatre and can only enrich an actor's relationship with the words she uses. To embody the words in the voice as a physical action brings colour and range to her expression.

photographer: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin
It's been said that Action Theatre allows performers to become creators. What do you want students to take away from your course?

SB: Ideally, every participant will have the experience of discovering a wealth of images and ideas and sensations to draw from in their own work. They will have begun to identify some of the skills they need to work on and how to stretch those they already master. They will have felt the absolute wonder of being entirely present in the moment: that wonderful state of not knowing but being completely open to any new impulse that presents itself, the feeling of being truly alive.

Tell us about what you're currently working on! What projects excite you right now?

SB: I am creating the new trio, Plus Vrai, for three Montreal dancers: Sara Hanley, Alexandre Parenteau, and Isabelle Poirier. It will be presented by Dance-Cité in November. I have recently opened the studio space, La Poêle, with a friend and collaborator, Susanna Hood. We have many exciting plans that include presenting work-in-progress and improvisations, holding workshops and creative mentorship programs. I myself am in a phase of rediscovering how I work and how I want to work. What interests me? What holds my attention in space, both as a creator and as a spectator? How can I move freely between formal and theatrical vocabulary on stage? What kind of expression do I expect from a moving body? I am also very excited to be teaching at the Volcano Conservatory again this summer. I can't wait to continue sharing this practice that I am so passionate about.

Action Theatre runs July 22-26 at the Volcano Conservatory. Visit our website for details, and email to register!

Friday, 14 June 2013

Mask Theatre: "Unflinchingly human"

We've asked Volcano Conservatory instructor Sonia Norris some questions in the lead-up to her class, 
Le Jeu & European Mask Theatre. Here's the first in a series of insights she's shared with us on the genre, and its value to theatre artists here in Toronto:

Off the top of my head, I can only think of one show I've seen in Toronto in the past year that used literal masks. Is mask used more frequently elsewhere? Or does common use of mask / mask training lie in production development, rather than the staged product? 

SN: In my experience, within Canada mask theatre is more present in the Vancouver theatre community than the Toronto community. This is largely due to Axis Theatre promoting the development of several mask shows over the years, which were possible because of the excellence of character masks created by Vancouver mask designer Melody Anderson. Without an incredibly talented mask designer, you cannot have good masks, and without good masks, you cannot create working characters, regardless of the talent of the performer. Melody Anderson has an exceptional talent for creating masks with great sensitivity and humour. Her characters have strong personalities, which offer actors a wealth of information to play with in their physical, psychological, emotional and intellectual development of character.

Sonia Norris leads a mask workshop in Zimbabwe.
Masks by Melody Anderson.
When I was studying at Ecole Lecoq, we all had to make masks without any instruction and bring them in for Lecoq to evaluate. All 30 masks were lined up on the floor at the back of the room and, one by one, each student would choose someone else’s mask and present it for Lecoq to see if it ‘worked’. As a mask was presented, Lecoq would give instructions for actions the actor should play with the mask on, to see if it lived. He would observe it in action for a few moments and then pronounce his verdict, which was simply either “Ca marche” or “Ca marche pas.” It either worked or it didn’t work. It either lived or it didn’t live, based on the skill of the mask maker. Disappointingly, I am not a good mask maker, therefore I commission my masks from Melody Anderson. Lecoq told me my mask was like a piece of Picasso artwork and should be hung on the wall, not played upon the stage. Being compared to one of the greatest masters in the art world was not meant as a compliment - my mask was a definitive “ca marche pas!” But it was this experience that started me on my own investigation into how to bring masks alive and how to teach actors the skills of finding the life force in a mask and translating this into their embodiment of character.

A Sonia Norris mask workshop.
Masks by Melody Anderson.
I do not teach mask because actors will have a plethora of opportunities to work in mask theatre – unfortunately this is not the case here in Toronto. (though by training actors in mask I would like to change this, and I hope to start work on a mask show in the coming year.) I teach mask because the skills gained in mask work will profoundly impact the work of the actor when not masked. When an actor is masked, every physical choice they make in response to their internal and external stimulus is suddenly, blatantly apparent to us in the audience. We see with absolute clarity the human truth of both the performer and the character before us. Ironically, it is extremely revealing to be hidden behind a mask. This allows actors to observe when another performer’s work is clouded by unspecific or timid choices, which then cannot be understood by an audience, leaving them confused by the information they are given and the story that is being told.

We rely too heavily on our intellects and our verbal communication, when it has been proven we absorb the majority of our information from the subtle physical responses of other people, not from their words. We are masters of this in life but it is done unconsciously, so actors often don’t bring these highly sensitized skills to their very conscious work on stage.

Mask training provides an opportunity to slow down time so that we can get inside each individual moment, each individual choice, and make conscious what we normally do unconsciously in our assessment of physical information in everyday life. This is essential for actors to understand and utilize in their work with character development and action on stage. It allows them to ensure the information they are offering the audience is accurate, and compels the audience to follow their character’s journey, just as they unconsciously follow every eye movement, heart beat and breath. The smallest movement of a single finger can tell a huge story if it is done with clear point of focus and isolation so that it is visible. 

Larval masks at a Sonia Norris workshop.
Masks by Melody Anderson.
We all inhabit the same physical vehicle, regardless of what differences there are in its shape. Therefore the experience of watching another human being is an incredibly visceral one. Actors can, and should, maximize on this unconscious connection with an audience to hook them through their physical response system so that they follow a character like it is themselves – because it is their own body through which they feel everything they are observing on stage.

I love masks because they are so unflinchingly human – we see their foibles, their truth, their stupidity, their ridiculousness, their brilliance. We see the strength of the human heart and its indomitable desire for life. But it is strength and sensitivity of technique in the actor that make this possible.

Specificity of thought and action, clarity of communication, physical awareness, strength of choices, physical and mental precision, movement isolation, embodiment of character, depth of understanding of the human response system, courage to take action on impulses, willingness to play on stage, expansion of imagination, pleasure to engage, sharing of spirit, and the development of a powerful and compelling physical presence. These are some of the elements addressed through mask training, which greatly strengthen the work of actors.

Mask is an essential part of actor-training in most countries, but not in North America. I have trained extensively in Europe and benefited from this physical approach to actor-training, which has inspired me to focus on bringing this work to Canada. I believe it creates extraordinarily engaged performers and therefore exciting, alive, provocative theatre.

For more information on Sonia's class at the Volcano Conservatory, or to register, click here and visit Sonia teaches with us July 21-24.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

"The artist, naturally, is expert at synesthesia."

Ideas from Conservatory instructor Quinn Bauriedel in the lead-up to his class with Volcano, New Directions in Music Theatre Fusion

A good friend and composer, Troy Herion, when speaking at the Pig Iron School, talked about a moment in his artistic life when he had immersed himself so fully in music that it was no longer distinct from the rest of his life. He didn't have to put on a music hat once he got to his desk. Music was the lens through which he saw the world. Birds sitting on a wire had a rhythm in the distance from one bird to another. He could hear the rustling of the leaves as a musical composition, as though the wind played an enormous harp. Everything - from autos careening down the highway to a ball rolling across a field to the slow movement of the moon in the sky - Troy couldn't help but notice, had musical qualities.

Photo: L. Todd Spencer
My lens is a theatrical one. I see individuals in the park and can't help imagine their stories. I watch someone walk down the street and intuit things about them from their gait, their gaze, to what degree they are falling into the earth or rising off of it. A ride on a subway is like watching a tremendous play with entrances and exits, chance encounters, relationships teetering on the brink, all range of human behaviour and interactions. But my theatrical lens, I must admit, moves far beyond people toward the more musical building blocks of live performance. Like Troy, there is a natural drama - and dare I say music - in a grove of trees planted too close to one another, each vying for sunlight, water, and nutrients in the soil. The tree that has been hit by lightening has endured tragedy, can't undo this scar, but continues to attempt to survive nonetheless. There is a song in these trees and a sound that comes from them. The artist, naturally, is expert at synesthesia.

Photo: Warisan Indonesia / Hardy Mendrofa
I lived in Bali, Indonesia for a year, soaking in the rich theatrical traditions there. There is no word for actor in Balinese, only a word for dancer. Actors are dancers and every performance is underscored with music. The music provides the motor for every piece from the tragedies to the comedies. In the Balinese shadow puppet plays, the dalang (puppeteer) is simultaneously puppeting up to 25 puppets and giving each of them different voices (speaking up to 5 different languages) while also playing drums with his feet and conducting the orchestra that accompanies the play. The dalang is responsible for the piece and understands how to control the tempo. The battle scenes need a driving tempo. The love scenes need something, perhaps softer. When the clown characters are caught with their pants down the music must resemble something closer to slapstick. Their master artist makes no distinction between music and drama - both are essential components of live performance and both are required to engage and awaken an audience. 

Cab Legs. Photo: Clemens Scharre
For me, the lines between theatre, dance and music are fairly thin, if they exist at all. A few years ago I saw a Christoph Marthaler piece in Avignon and the play was a mix of silences, choral singing, talking, dancing and stillness. I couldn't help think that  Marthaler envisions the stage as a kind of symphony. I remember an early Elevator Repair Service play, Cab Legs, which utilized loads of stage whispers as the main sound design of the piece. Though the PS122 space was 20'x20', they created a space far bigger than that with the playful use of sound. In Pig Iron, we often loop simple musical phrases - feet scuffing on the floor, a tennis ball bouncing - to lay a carpet on the stage of sound and tension. At times you almost don't notice the sound, but it supports the work the characters are doing. It heightens the drama. It draws you in.

Quinn Bauriedel and students. Photo: Andrew Daddio
This summer at Volcano, I am eager to crack open the big question about music and theatre, working toward something that is neither rock concert nor Broadway musical. I am eager to fuse the musical and theatrical lenses into one where music can be considered as the rhythms between bodies in space, and theatricality can be considered as the relationship between a character and the music that supports the stage. My guess is that this will take us toward the use of music in many Theatre de Soleil productions where live music is improvised alongside the actors so that, like Bali, everything is underscored onstage. Perhaps this has its roots in the early films that were live scored. Film directors, of course, know that without sound and music, ordinary actions and relationships remain ordinary, but with sound and music they become epic and extraordinary. We will also look at sound design to break the convention that sound design exists to cover scene changes, in order to discover ways that simple sound design choices can focus the action onstage and can contribute as a vital language of performance.

Lastly, we will examine songs and melodies, bands, and choirs onstage to understand the theatrical potency of live music, played and sung. Like in Emir Kusturica films, can we create a new convention in which characters are supported by bands who play the music that shares how they feel, as though in life you wander around with your own soundtrack? Mine goes something like this:

Tak tak dee doom ba dum dum dee dum...whack!

New Directions in Music-Theatre Fusion runs July 19-21 at the Volcano Conservatory. Click here to register!