Saturday, May 05, 2007

Entering the New World Performance Laboratory

Oddly enough, I've found that it is easier to keep up with the blogging when I'm in production with a show and not so easy when I'm not in production. Although putting on a show can be all-consuming, it is also a time of heightened self-discipline and days that are organized into effective routines. But after the show is over, suddenly I'm faced with all those mundane tasks I've been putting off until "after the show is up." I find myself with long lists of Things To Do, like changing the oil in the vehicle, mowing, laundry, various errands, working in the house and digging in the garden.

I did manage to get over to the University of Akron on Thursday night to catch up with the New World Performance Lab. Six company members gave us a rare glimpse into the process that fuels their work. We were treated to a condensed version of some of their warm-up work, as well as a preview into their latest work inspired by Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein. According to director, Jim Slowiak, the new piece also explores the real life relationships of Mary Shelley with her husband Percy and their comrade in art Lord Byron.

After the performance, the audience was invited to a talk back session with the company, a multicultural group, whose members rehearse four hours a night, five days a week. This is not an easy commitment for any of them, but it was clear that work within the company provides something not easily obtained elsewhere. For one thing, co-directors Slowiak and Jairo Cuesta are teacher-directors with direct lineage to Jerzy Grotowski, having served as the great Polish theatre innovator's assistants during his years in Irvine, CA and later when he moved his center to Italy. Both are co-authors of a new book which gives vital details into Grotowski's life and principles that were tested in his Polish Laboratory Theatre.

Thursday night, we entered another laboratory, in which the work of Grotowski is not reproduced, but rather added into a mix of possibilities, from both original and external sources. We began to understand the difficulty of the work of the actor as we were given a rare glimpse into the group's creative process.

The warm-up began with individual stretches that morphed into contact improvisations with each other and ended with a challenging game of catch two sticks while running through the space and counting randomly to 20. If anyone drops the stick or if two or more people call out a number at the same time, the count must return to 1 and continue until 2o is reached cleanly. This is very hard to do, but the point is the doing rather than the winning. Many different skills are being honed during this practice, building up of stamina and attentiveness to the self and the others for example.

Once the actors were primed, they re-entered with costume pieces and props. They had each developed "actions" based on their response to Frankenstein. One audience member described what we saw as similar to "watching art." I understand what she meant, although this art is definitely kinetic, rather than static. There are rich visual images that flow, transform, appear or disappear, odd connections and contrasts revealing themselves in each moment. The company claim that they are not playing "characters" but rather discovering themselves in the work. From Frankenstein, they are playing with the myth of the monster, with horror and fear, and with the idea of creation.

I have said this before, and I'll say it again -- it is amazing that such an important group of theatre artists should be living in my home town. I actually left Ohio back in the 70s because after four years of college and a theatre degree, I was convinced I knew nothing about acting. I was right! On my journey, I eventually discovered and learned from people who had worked with people who had worked with Grotowski. My joy was great when I found this group making their home in Akron. We are very fortunate to have NWPL here and so few local folks know about what they do, while around the world those who are interested in expanding their knowledge of physical acting come here to pursue research with them or send for Jairo and Jim to teach workshops in their own countries.

You can join their mailing list at the NWPL web page given above. Frankenstein should be ready for public viewing in the fall.

1 comment:

Philip Grant's Daughter said...

A poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley that will not go out of date so long as we have leaders who think they are kings and a society based on rancid consumerism.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.