27 April 2011

Tom Otterness & 'Life Underground'

Ordinarily, I breeze through a subway station from train to exit, entrance to train platform, platform to platform. I expect most riders do, also. We don’t really slow down to pay attention to what’s around us—unless there’s an emergency or something extraordinary. Most New York City subway stations aren’t the kinds of places in which we want to take our leisure and smell the roses, so to speak. Roses aren’t what we commonly associate stations with, I wouldn’t say.

Occasionally that’s the wrong tack to take, however. Along with the musical performers who dot the system (and who, I confess, usually annoy me because when I’m traveling by subway, I’m not looking for a concert), there’s some interesting art in the stations here and there. There are mosaics on the walls of many recently renovated stations like the performing arts images at Lincoln Center on the 7th Avenue line (Artemis, Acrobats, Divas and Dancers by Nancy Spero) and the Alice in Wonderland figures at 50th Street on the same route (Alice: The Way Out by Liliana Porter). There are larger pieces, some by significant American artists, around the system, too, like the Jacob Lawrence glass mosaic (New York in Transit, his last commission before his death) and the Roy Lichtenstein panels (Times Square Mural) in Times Square, the Maya Lin sculpture (Eclipsed Time) in Penn Station, the Sam Gilliam sculpture (Jamaica Center Station Riders, Blue) at Jamaica Center-Parsons-Archer in Queens, and the Romare Bearden glass triptych (City of Light) at Westchester Square-East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. They’re large and smack you in the eye when you spot them—they’re hard to miss, even if you don’t recognize the artists. All of those are big and colorful. But on a different scale, and with a whole different kind of vibe, there’s a little surprise, a lagniappe, downtown in the IND and BMT stations at 14th Street and 8th Avenue on the border between Chelsea and Greenwich Village.

Scattered in corners, on banisters, in the crooks of I-beams, and on ledges all over the corridors, stairways, and platforms of the two lines are tiny bronze sculptures by Tom Otterness, a 58-year-old transplant from Wichita, Kansas. Otterness, whose studio is in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, has pieces all over the city (Battery Park City, Hell’s Kitchen) and elsewhere in the U.S. (L.A.; Fulton, Mississippi) and even abroad (Seoul, South Korea; Scheveningen, Holland)—he has a reputation as a public artist—but his most whimsical and probably best known (though, I suspect, often overlooked) work is in that 14th Street-8th Avenue station. More than 30,000 transit passengers pass by the sculptures every day; I wonder how many even notice them or bother to give them more than a passing glance. The series is called Life Underground and it comprises 140 (or more—the total seems uncertain) cast bronze statues most of which are no more than 8-10 inches tall. Even if you’re not looking for them, you’re bound to see two or three, but unless you make a point of searching them out in their various hiding places overhead and underfoot, like an Easter egg hunt, you’ll miss most of them, including some of the most humorous and intriguing. I hereby recommend giving yourself a self-guided tour of the station, taking a break from your to-and-fro rush or even making a detour to 8th and 14th just to enjoy Otterness’s sometimes dark-humored joke.

Life Underground seems to have begun in the late 1990s, but it was first unveiled in 2000 when the initial installation of 25 figures was completed. (Some of the sculptures were displayed preliminarily in Central Park in 1996 and Battery Park City in ’97 to attract public comment.) The project was completed in stages as Otterness added new figures and the artist is said to have ultimately contributed more than four times the number of pieces that his commission called for—he apparently got carried away with the idea. (He’s said it took him ten years to complete the series from commissioning to final installation.) “It was such an ideal stage for my work,” declared the sculptor, “that I could hardly control myself.” Maybe that’s bad business, I don’t know, but good on him! The whole thing is so wonderful that having 100 and more little figures to seek out under stairways and in nooks and crannies all over the station—if no other time, you can look for them along each platform as you wait for a train—is . . . well, the closest thing I can come up with is looking for the “Ninas” in Al Hirschfeld’s theater drawings. It’s a real kick, and I still do it whenever I pass through 14th and 8th even though I’ve seen the bronzes dozens of times now. (Last year, when my mother was visiting from Washington, I made a detour through 14th and 8th just to show the sculptures to her and we tromped all over the station looking for the hidden statues.)

The series was commissioned by the MTA’s Arts for Transit program which places art of various kinds in the transit system, including poetry on the cars and busses themselves. (The Poetry in Motion series has now come to an end.) Unsurprisingly, Life Underground is one of the most popular projects the program has commissioned. The installation’s a group of humorous bronze cartoon-like figures of people and animals in diverse poses and vignettes that often tell little stories, plus occasional abstract pieces. Otterness characterized the placement of the sculptures as “scattered in little surprises.” Many of the tubby little figures have moneybag heads and others are carrying huge coins or subway tokens (still in use when the artist started the work); some depict wide-eyed tourists, subway fare-evaders crawling under (actual) gates, sleeping homeless people, and transit workers using huge tools to do their maintenance and construction. Art critic Olympia Lambert wrote on ArtCat Zine that "the lovable bronze characters . . . are joined together by a common theme of implied criminality mixed with an undercurrent of social anarchy.” (She also complained that “his works are too cute.”) Otterness evinces an anti-establishment and even socialist streak when he speaks, and Vince Carducci of Sculpture magazine asserted that his “aesthetic is best seen as a riff on capitalist realism,” which the writer defines as “representations of advertising and the media.” “Otterness’s work is a contemporary form of social (as opposed to socialist) realism,” continued the critic, “. . . an expression of anxiety in the face of global capital unbound.” The sculptor, who said in the New York Times that his point was "the impossibility of understanding life in New York," asserts that he was inspired by 19th-century political cartoonist Thomas Nast's caricatures of William M. "Boss” Tweed and the depiction of the corruption of Tammany Hall that infected the original construction of the subway a century ago. “None of it seems to have changed all that much,” quipped the artist.

One of the most recognizable—and darkest—scenes, positioned under a staircase leading up from the IND platform, shows an alligator emerging from under a manhole cover and chomping down on an unwary pedestrian with a moneybag head. The evocation of the persistent urban legend that ‘gators live in New York’s sewers is here brought to life—but this beast is wearing a suit and tie (as is his prey) and has anthropomorphic hands! Observing the struggle is a 10-inch bronze man, his hands clasped behind him. In its “Metropolitan Diary” feature, the New York Times recounted the interplay between a small child and the sewer ‘gator, as observed by a passerby:

Recently, I watched as a 4-year-old struggled mightily to free the figurine from the nasty alligator. He began by jumping on the alligator's head, and when that failed, he tried to wrestle the figurine free. About to give up, he kicked the alligator, his foot connecting solidly with the bronze head.

Surprise spread across his face as he ran away, crying, ''Mom, it tried to bite me!''

Elsewhere there are a bronze donkey in a bowler and elephant in a top hat (above the stairs to the IND platform), policemen in early-20th-century uniforms watch over the fare-beaters and the sleeping homeless, and a snake is coiled in a corner as if about to strike. (Alligators in the sewers, maybe . . . but snakes in the subway?) There is also a subtly subversive scene of two workers each with one handle of a two-man saw, standing on opposite sides of a pillar which helps hold up the station as if they were in the process of bringing down the very structure in which they work. Among some of the less explicable images are a pair of bronze feet cut off at the ankles on the BMT platform or the single ears about five feet off the ground in the nooks of the girders that hold up the ceilings of the platforms. The ears seem to be saying, “Watch out—we’re listing!”—a kind of “the walls have ears” message. The feet, which only have nine toes between them because the pair have the innermost toe in common, are there just to attract curious attention from viewers, says Otterness. There’s also an enigmatic sculpture of human body parts assembled into a pay phone, a puzzled look on its “face.” “Sometimes New York doesn’t make any sense at all,” the sculptor explains, “so that gives me room to play.”

Other figurines, some of which are duplicated elsewhere in the station, in the collection include:

  • a pair of tourists holding hands and carrying an immense token
  • subway workers sweeping up mounds of coins
  • people sitting on top of bags stuffed with money
  • a woman pinned under a piece of machinery
  • a bare-breasted woman grasping a (real) metal pole
  • a woman holding her detached head high above her empty shoulders
  • a woman reading a book seated on top of a man lying on a heap of pennies
  • construction workers on a large, red I-beam (suspended in the stairway to the L platform)
  • a man arm in arm with a woman holding a massive hammer
  • a well-dressed couple (he’s wearing a topper) tippling on a ledge above a staircase
  • a man in a top hat standing on a pile of pennies while an even tinier woman hands him more
One of Otterness’s figures from Life Underground even escaped the subway and scurried down to the Lower East Side. A giant rat dressed as a cop from the series sits on the bar of a saloon. “It’s like one of them wandered loose and came downtown to find a drink, or to arrest people,” said Otterness. The city, it seems, decided that the bronze rodent in a police uniform wasn’t suitable for publicly-subsidized art on city property, so Officer Rat was cut from the installation.

Otterness, the first artist who ever designed a balloon for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade—a tumbling, upside-down Humpty Dumpty—isn’t often recognized despite the large number of his pieces around the city and their popularity and can still go anonymously into the subway to “hang out” with his sculptures. He eavesdrops on the comments of the MTA riders—“It’s like research,” he says. The simplicity of his artistic language makes interaction between the public and his creations easier, he feels. The cartoon quality of the images means that spectators don’t need an art education to appreciate them. People instinctively get the joke or understand the meaning, Otterness says.

Because they seldom know he’s the artist, people “tell me what they really think” about his work. He can get into sometimes heated discussions about the works when he visits them. He says he deliberately takes his creations from the studio out into the public as his form of “research and development.” That’s how he learns “how [the] work is being read once it’s out there.” “I think I’m making something that means one thing,” the artists explains, “and when I put it out in public, I find out maybe it means something else. What it means in public is what it means.”

Sometimes it’s very eccentric and personal. Sometimes it’s political, sexual, racial or social. That’s part of the reason it’s successful. Those are all subjects that people like to talk about. It’s the idea of the town square. I think public art in general, when it’s successful, functions that way.

Otterness, the New York Times declared, “may be the world's best public sculptor.” The paper equivocated some on its praise of the sculptor, lamenting the current state of public art in this country. “Nevertheless,” the Times continued, “Mr. Otterness can animate public spaces with amusing pudgy bronze cartoon characters acting out parables of modern life without pandering to either sophisticates or ordinary folks.” The artist arrived in New York City in 1970, when he was still a teenager. A budding Abstract Expressionist in the vein of Rothko and Diebenkorn, he’d been studying art in Wichita with his friend David Salle, a painter, since the age of 13 and his work in high school won him a scholarship to the Art Students League to study painting. He stayed a year, because that’s as long as his scholarship lasted, and returned to Wichita to make money to come back. A year or so later, he was enrolled in the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art, graduating in 1973. In 1983, Otterness went to Pietrasanta, Italy, to study an ancient technique of bronze casting used there since the Renaissance. “Bronze,” he explained, “allows for a different kind of animation, and I’d been looking at a lot of animation and did a lot of drawings. . . . I had these little figures that I could twist and literally animate . . . .”

Even as a young artist, Otterness became involved with art groups which focused on politically charged work. At the same time, he began his career in public art, which he says is intended to generate controversy and public debate. “Public art substitutes for the town square,” Otterness affirmed, “the area where we’re supposed to have our communal debates and discussions and exchange ideas.” He further asserts, “At best the public work initiates some conversation . . . among people who normally wouldn’t be talking to each other.” The MTA commission in 1996 was his big break.

Part of the delight of Life Underground, which Otterness has said is his favorite public installation, is that it’s one of the few subway art projects that actually interacts with the transit system. The only other one with a similar relationship to its environment that I can think of is the Burma Shave-like poem, "Commuter's Lament, or A Close Shave" by Norman B. Colp, mounted on the ceiling of the corridor that connects the 7th Avenue station at Times Square with the 8th Avenue station and the bus terminal. Not only is it partly hidden among the ceiling beams until you actually come upon each line (and, of course, you have to be looking up to catch them), but the poem is about commuting. (The 1991 poem, a series of panels, reads: "Overslept / So tired / If late / Get fired. / Why bother? / Why the pain? / Just go home / Do it again.") Otterness’s sculptures are also situated in real spaces of the station—on banisters of the staircases we use to get to and from trains, on the beams that hold the structure together, and so on—but they, too, are about the system and those who use it or work in it. And even Colp’s poem doesn’t site its lines right on the subway property used by all of us—the benches, the stairs, the gates—the way Otterness has put his miniature people. While the other art in the New York subway system may or may not relate to the city and its life and some may even evoke the transit system, most don’t actually connect to us and the system directly and self-consciously the way Life Underground does.

Another difference from other subway art is that Otterness’s sculptures were made to be touched. (They’re apparently bolted to the floor with foot-long pins.) Otterness says he can tell which ones are the most popular by how shiny they are; the ones that get rubbed a lot have lost the brown patina that forms on bronze as it oxidizes, leaving a brass-like shine. “The emotional favorite of people will get polished," said the artist. One of these appears to be a stout, well-dressed little fellow sitting on a bench on a platform holding a bag money as trains pass him by. (Since the MTA wouldn’t let Otterness usurp any available seating for his art, an extra bench was added, above the number required on a platform, to seat Otterness’s little would-be rider.) The brown-patinated surface has been polished to a bright sheen by the hands of hundreds of fellow passengers. Arts for Transit’s mission is to create an art show for “the people who ride the system daily”; Tom Otterness’s contribution is an art show of the people who ride the subway. Somehow that’s just so New York.

[Otterness’s work hasn’t been without controversy. In 1977, the artists made a video called Shot Dog Film: he’d adopted a dog and then shot it in order to film its death throes. In April 2008, he told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, "Thirty years ago when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for.” Still, some people, especially bloggers, have refused to accept the artist’s apology. Whether Otterness’s act over 30 years ago makes him a reprehensible man today is a private decision; it doesn’t stop his subway installation from being a delightful curiosity—though it may give the work a darker edge than it might have on its own.

[Aside from his public art, Otterness’s work can be seen in museum collections and galleries. In New York City, his work is featured at the Whitney, MoMA, and the Brooklyn Museum. In February and March, Marlborough Gallery on 57th Street hosted a show of his art. There are several websites with photos of the figures in Life Underground, but one that has a large selection is www.nycsubway.org/perl/artwork_show?21, which has three pages of photos (that can each be enlarged for a closer look).]

22 April 2011

Lanford Wilson (1937-2011)

[Playwright Lanford Wilson died at 73 on Thursday, 24 March. On 4 April, I published on ROT a memorial to Ellen Stewart, queen of Off-Off-Broadway, the arena that gave Wilson a place to begin his successful and important career in American theater. Not only were his plays among the first to appear in Off-Off-Broadway spaces—it’s hard to call them theaters back then—but his Balm in Gilead was the first full-length play to be written specifically for Off-Off-Broadway, produced at La MaMa in 1965. Wilson was one of the playwrights, along with Jean-Claude van Itallie and Sam Shepard, on whom La MaMa and other Off-Off-Broadway theaters relied for new plays, and in 1969, Wilson and his friend and directorial collaborator Marshall W. Mason joined with actors Tanya Berezin and Robert Thirkield to found their own theater, the Circle Repertory Company (which ceased operations in 1996).

[Lanford Wilson was always a playwright whose work I enjoyed. Of the American dramatists who came of age in the second half of the 20th century, following in the footsteps of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, Wilson was the writer who most intrigued and engaged me. His lyrical use of language almost approached Williams’s prose poetry, though his characters were a step below the iconic figures Williams created. (Wilson was the librettist for the 1971 opera adaptation of Williams’s Summer and Smoke, with music by Lee Hoiby—the only one of Williams’s major works set to music during the playwright’s lifetime.) I’ve seen eight of Wilson’s plays performed, starting with a university production of The Hot l Baltimore when I was at Rutgers getting an MFA in the mid-1970s (I wasn’t involved in the production). I saw Tally’s Folly, Redwood Curtain, and Burn This on Broadway; Burn This, Book of Days, Rain Dance, and Fifth of July Off-Broadway; Angels Fall Off-Off-Broadway; and Fifth of July and Lemon Sky on TV (American Playhouse). Unfortunately, I only wrote on two, Fifth of July and Rain Dance, both part of the Signature Theatre Company’s Lanford Wilson season in 2002-03. (As it happens, I didn’t start writing theater reports until January 2003, so I lack reports on both the earlier two plays in the season, and anything that I saw in the almost 30 years since I’d moved to New York City. There are passing mentions of the earlier Signature productions in my brief reports, however.) As a homage to Wilson, I’m publishing those early play reports, however inadequate they may seem now (I seem not to have had much to say about Fifth of July), on ROT. ~Rick]

(10 February 2003)

The Signature Theatre Company production of Fifth of July was really excellent. I was looking forward to seeing this show because I've never seen Fifth of July on stage before—only the PBS TV version in 1982. I had seen Burn This, which Signature revived earlier this season in September-December 2001, on Broadway, but with Scott Glenn instead of Malkovich. Ben Brantley's New York Times review of Fifth of July came out three days before I saw the show on Friday, 8 February, and ironically, Brantley drew a comparison between the two sets of stagings, noting that Swoosie Kurtz's stellar performance in Fifth of July on Broadway in the early ‘80s overwhelmed the other performances just as Malkovich's had done in Burn This later in that decade, but that the Signature's productions had evened out the acting so that all the work was balanced. (Truthfully, I can't say I liked Edward Norton's performance much. I haven't liked his film work much, either, really.)

A couple of the performances were a little over the edge, but the rest were terrific, and the play comes off tremendously. It is a little dated, being too tied up with the experiences of the Vietnam generation in the aftermath of the war, but it was well handled, and even if Lanford Wilson's dramaturgy harks back to the '50s well-made play era, it still works as theater. The two performances that I didn't like were Parker Posey, who was just trying too hard to be a flake—she wasn't quite credible—and the girl who played Shirley, the 13-year-old kid, who was just too much of a precocious brat. Posey, whose problem may stem from the fact that she's mostly a film actress and not a stage actress, seemed more like she was playing at being a flaky flibberty-gibbet than being one. The little girl (and I have no idea if the actress, Sarah Lord, is as young as the character, but if she is, her problem may come from inexperience) was way more annoying than I think the character is supposed to be. She should be amusing and quirky—this one you just wanted to get off the stage. The rest of the cast, including Robert Sean Leonard, was good, and a couple of the supporting characters were really great. Anne Pitoniak as Aunt Sally was terrific; I never quite knew if she was failing and frail or as strong as a bull, dotty and gaga or sharp as a whip. She didn't so much flip back and forth, but be all of that at once, spotlighting some characteristics one time and others another time. Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who played the musician friend, was a little like that, too—he was either a burned-out flake or a perceptive guy who just happened to hear different music from the rest of us. And Michael Gladis, the fellow who plays Ken Talley's lover, doesn't have a flashy role, but he's just solid and believable. It was just nice work all around. Diane, who shares the subscription with me, complained that there was little that was happening—she even called it Chekovian—but I don't think that's necessarily a fault. It's a kind of portrait of part of a generation—mine, as it happens. (My guess is the gang depicted here, who all went to Berkeley together, were there at just about the same time as I was in college, myself.)

(23 May 2003)

Lanford Wilson’s Rain Dance at the Signature Theatre Wednesday night, 21 May, was a disappointment. That's especially due to Ben Brantley's New York Times review, which was very positive all in all. (He had some quibbles, but came down in the end on a laudatory note, I thought.) I've had trouble with Brantley before on this score, but in this case I’d thought maybe he’d been more accurate because his evaluation lined up with Wilson's track record. I probably should have stuck with my usual skepticism with respect to Brantley's reviews.

(My problem with Brantley isn't simply that he's too "gentle." I've had dichotomous disagreements with his reviews from both sides—he's panned plays I thought were good and praised some that I thought were not. This has happened both so often and in such extremes that I almost always discount his evaluations and read only for descriptions of the shows. I’ve read that he holds himself entirely aloof from the theater world—so he isn't contaminated with personal associations—and that he lives far from the city and only comes in to review his shows. It sounds like he lives in a separate world in his head, isolated from everything real the rest of us use as measuring sticks. I first came up with this notion when he gave an elaborate description of a smell associated with a performance that was entirely imaginary on his part and associated it with memories that only he could have had. I interpret this to mean that when he sees a play, he sees something in his head that's not the same as what the rest of us see.)

The play’s set in 1945 at Los Alamos, on the day—or rather night—before the first A-test. It's June, I think (the first bomb was dropped on August 5), and a young scientist, played by James van der Beek, is hanging out in some outbuilding with a sergeant who is a Pueblo Indian (Randolf Mantooth). Shortly, the wife of one of the senior scientists arrives, and subsequently her husband (Harris Yulin) shows up. I won't bother with the little plot details like the apparent affair between the wife and the NCO—it doesn't go anywhere in terms of the play—or even what they were doing in the building (especially since I never really figured out where it was anyway). The play was almost entirely talk, with a lot of dropped factoids and, especially, names (though they were all just last names—you'd have to know the history to figure out who they were really talking about—like Szilard and Teller, or nicknames, like "Oppie"), that was supposed to be expressing the mixed feelings of the scientists over what they were about to do. (Oppenheimer's famous Baghavad Gita line, "I am become death, destroyer of worlds." is alluded to, but not quoted.) There was a little side issue between the sergeant and the young guy—he's very taken with the Indian culture and beliefs, and he waxes philosophical about what he thinks he's learned, to the amusement of the Indian (who had had a career in the '20s performing Indian dances in Europe with a troupe that had turned the sacred rites into show-biz entertainment, à la Folies Bergère). There was also some talk about the strange attractiveness of the desert and Sangre de Cristo Mountains—lots of references to the colors and the light, as if they (it was mostly the young guy again) were channeling Georgia O'Keeffe—but this was all just atmosphere. The play ends before the A-test, though we know it succeeded, and virtually nothing else happens in the two-hour, intermissionless performance.

As Diana pointed out, the main point—the dichotomy of the scientists' feelings—has been treated and discussed a lot by now—it's not really a revelation, and Wilson didn't add anything new or startling to it. He also didn't arrive at any conclusion, one way or the other. I mean, we know they went through not only with the test, but with the development of the bombs themselves, and Los Alamos continues even today as a weapons development lab. (In the one ironic note of the play, which was not developed—and may have even slipped everyone else's attention—Yulin's character talks about the future of the Manhattan Project and predicts that it will be disbanded after the successful test because there'd be no further need for it. The young guy tells Yulin that he's been recruited to stay on with some other scientists, but this little exchange doesn't go any further. Probably everyone in the audience knows that the lab is still functioning—it's been in the news a bit lately.) Anyway, the conflicted feelings don't really go anywhere, either.

Personally, after thinking about it, the play I'd like to have seen Wilson develop is the one that works through the contrast of the young scientist's response to the Indian culture he's observing and that of the older Indian man who sees it as just the way his people live, nothing extraordinary. (The young scientist's from the Bronx, by the way, and an Italian-American—obviously meant to be as far away as you can get from a Southwestern country boy with any previous contact with native cultures. And the Indian man has left the reservation and lived not only among Anglos, but in Europe, so he has a somewhat distanced perspective on his own people. When the scientist—you note that I can't even remember the characters' names—remarks that the mountains are sacred to the Pueblos, the Indian guy says, "Well, yeah. Everything's sacred to the Indian.") It might have been really interesting to see the "noble savage" image of the scientist put up against the more realistic, even skeptical, view of the Indian. I'm not sure where that might have gone—that's why I'm not a playwright—but it strikes me as an interesting idea to look into.

This was the second "new" play in the Wilson season, as I mentioned earlier, I think. Both seemed to have been written, or at least staged, in a rush—going from concept to production without a lot of noodling and rethinking. Book of Days had too many different points, all jumbled together and none really developed or concluded. This one has a sort of half of an idea that hasn't been fully probed or examined. But both plays look to me like they were conceived out of topical politics that angered Wilson. The first was the sort of take-over of American politics by (phony) conservative religiosity. (If the William Bennett revelation concerning his gambling problem had happened before Wilson wrote Days, I'm sure it would have ended up in the play—it fits with the rest of the stuff he included.) Dance seems to have come out of Wilson's feelings about the saber-rattling and war-mongering of the Bush administration over Iraq. He had to have written the play before the final build-up and war, but the atmosphere has been present since 9/11, and it looks like the "debate" (it wasn't one, unfortunately, but I imagine he meant it to be) among the scientists at Los Alamos over the morality of what they were doing vs. the pure science of their accomplishments (and the specter of more Americans dying in the Pacific if the war goes on—that was raised a couple of times, especially by the Indian man because some of the young men from his pueblo were fighting the Japanese) is meant to be a stand-in for a debate over a war with Iraq—a debate that never took place in the real world. In the case of both these plays, I feel Wilson wrote out of immediate anger—a strong feeling that he needed to express. That may account for the sense I have that they were both rushed into production without much revising and rethinking. Artistically, unfortunately, that seems to have been a bad decision. (This is all rank speculation, of course. As my former teacher Aaron Frankel used to say—I don't have Wilson's phone number.)

It's really too bad about both these plays, especially in terms of the Signature season. Revisiting Burn This and, especially, Fifth of July only show what wonderful stage pieces he can write and has written. His program bio lists some of the best contemporary plays of the past three decades. It makes these two seem all the more wan and unworthy by comparison. (That's why I wonder if Wilson's slipping.)

I didn't say anything about the performances, mostly because they were basically fine. Brantley singled out Suzanne Regan as the wife, but she's really no better than anyone else. Mantooth had the most interesting character to play, so he stood out for me—but he did just as good a job as Yulin and Regan. Actually, van der Beek, whom Brantley criticized as miscast, had one real fault. He pushed too hard (as I said about Parker Posey in July). He came off a little louder than everyone else, but I don't think he was just shouting. I think—and this is also just spec—that he saw the character as being over-enthusiastic and this is how he played him. Brantley said he wasn't complex enough, and he's right, but I wonder if that wasn't partly the director's fault. (Maybe TV acting ruins an actor, even one with stage chops, but my bet is that one-dimensional performances work on TV because the writers manipulate the scripts to benefit the limited range of the actors, and stage and film work won't accommodate that. When a good actor, say, Patrick Stewart, works in TV, he gets more to do as an actor because he can do more—his talent opens up the possibilities that the writers have to work with. Sometimes, however, the TV screen just can’t contain an actor with tremendous range. I think that's why James Earl Jones, for instance, has never succeeded on TV. It's too limited to handle him.)

The whole play was pretty one-note in terms of character work. (The director was Guy Sanville, of whom I’d never heard.) Anyway, I take my cue for van der Beek's performance from the things he says onstage: he's wowed by everything, from the landscape, the Indian cultures and art—he goes on about a platter by a famous (real) Pueblo potter—and, not least, that as a 25-year-old, he's rubbing shoulders with the most famous physicists in the Western world, including his idol, Enrico Fermi. (Oh, I do remember one name—the young guy's Hank, which he explains is the Americanized nickname for his real name: Enrico.) Yulin, of course, is one of those consummate pros who can go on automatic pilot and turn in a credible performance; the hardest work I think he had to do here was put on a slight German accent (he and his wife are refugees from Hitler's Germany). Since all any of the cast had to do for the most part was talk—an actor's stock in trade, after all—it wasn't all that demanding. (There wasn't even all that much science in the dialogue that might have made it hard to learn.)

17 April 2011

“The Stone in the Soup” – Excerpts: Part 2

by Tom Crawley

[Below is the conclusion of the excerpts I took from “The Stone in the Soup,” Tom Crawley’s journal of Jerzy Grotowski’s first American workshop. I pick up with notes from the sixth session.]

The body must not get in the way, either by a lack of control or by being over-controlled. There should be a series or set of impulses which are themselves invisible; but by their operation, they become visible. Then it is not simply the body that is being seen and being responded to by an audience or another actor, it is the series of impulses. The actor’s body then becomes the language, as he said the other day.

This physical “language” is not imposed on the body as a highly controlled sequence of moves (or even as a sequence of uncontrolled moves). The language which the actor becomes is a complex and transient phenomenon composed of personal association, external contact, emotional and physical impulses, and the details of whatever form is being executed.

Pantomime, like the Oriental theater, is an art of signs and signals; our theater is not. When an actor here throws an arm into the air, the movement itself is not as important as the impulses that run through the arm. The raising of the arm is not an arbitrary signal; the gesture is inseparable from the impulses, the emotions and the contact that generate it.

As actors we need to be able to make many kinds of movements, we need to have a great deal of control, so that the impulses triggered by our associations (physical, emotional or imaginative) may have these channels to flow through, if they choose or if our external contact directs them there. Again, spontaneity and technique.

We work to expand our physical abilities so that the body is free, unblocked, for the impulses to inform it. When this takes place, there is not a series of impulses and a gesture to express them, the expression is impulse made visible. So that, later on, one does not merely say, “Oh, what a beautiful gesture;” but perhaps, “What a beautiful moment,” or “The feeling was so clear,” because the movement can not [sic] be separated from the motives and the impulses that drive it. The gesture is not just a gesture, it is the emotional moment (VI.1-VI.3).
Leo Shapiro (who begged off yesterday [Mon., 14 Nov.]) did a scene with Richard Schechner—the Hamlet-Polonius Scene—they’re not actors, either one of them, but directors. Grotowski insisted on their participation, however (VI.4).
. . . a director cannot direct, a scene cannot have fullness, unless the actors are allowed to create. The director must have something to shape (VI.13).
And Clyde’s [Burton] work was remarkable, thinking about some past event—as directed previously—and comparing it with the words and the situation of the scene, he was clearly a distracted and obviously a preoccupied man saying Hamlet’s words.

Grotowski commented, saying that Clyde was working very exactly in the first part of the scene, but then began to play the present scene as though they were his own.

“Clyde, do not identify,” he said. “These are not your words. They are someone else’s words. Compare the experience with your own, compare the two” (VI.16).
He [i.e, student Clyde Burton] was not to identify; he was not to imitate Hamlet or pretend that he was Hamlet because he is Clyde; and to pretend to us (or to anyone) that he is Hamlet is a lie (VII.2).
He [i.e., Grotowski] conferred with Cieslak, who said that it is impossible to be unaware of the audience, ever, in this kind of work (VII.3).
The first thing that is necessary on the stage, he said, is that we do not imitate a character because this is a lie; do not pretend to be someone we are not, or do not try to show an audience we are someone who we are not. If we pretend that something which does not exist does exist, this is a lie. If a child is thoroughly and naively convinced of having something he does not have, this is not a lie, but a dream.

On stage, we are to utilize ourselves and reveal ourselves. We are to find a process, an activity of our own, similar to those that he has been having us go through—a process of our own that will actually be working, that will make the scene go, that will make it true.

We do not engage in the process of questioning for narcissistic reasons. We are not doing it simply to find answers or emotions that are satisfying to us as people. We are not trying to find a pride in ourselves. What we are doing is posing these questions for the sake of the work, in order to find our relation to other people, in order to find our external contacts. Narcissism is the great danger of this process, falling in love with ourselves and not pursuing the work as we should be doing.

Secondly, once we find an answer to these questions we must either look for answers in smaller details or change the question. By question-and-answering, Grotowski does not simply mean making an interrogative statement; placing hands on somebody can be a question: how was a contact in my past like this? The actual placing of the hands us the question and the contact is the answer.

However, we must not attempt to find, we must not be looking for, final answers. He used the image of man as an onion (from Peer Gynt) that we peel layer after layer off. We must go on beyond answers, must constantly pose questions and constantly work.

The third element of Grotowski’s description and summation for today [Wed., 15 Nov.] was courage. These investigations must not begin or end in lies, so a great deal of courage is required to probe ourselves truly and profoundly. If there is no courage, the questions will not be significant and the answers, if any come, will be lies. In asking ourselves such questions as the ones he drove Lynn [Norris, partner of Clyde Burton] to ask herself in the Hamlet-Ophelia scene, any answer we finally state or formulate will only be words, not an actuality or a reality.

He quoted Lao Tse: when the true tao is spoken, it is not the true tao. The true tao is that which is unspoken. So that any of the words he himself has used, any of the descriptions, any of the ways of working, any of the exercises, these are formulations. What likes important is what lies beyond and inside them, beyond and inside ourselves—the plunge into the unknown. This is to continually work beyond ourselves; and even saying this is a formulation.

We are not to do what the words say, we are to engage in an inner pursuit of our true identity for the sake of contacting others, so that there is not a division between our true selves and the lies we tell ourselves, or a division between what we know ourselves to be and what we are trying to indicate or demonstrate to other people.

In trying to show a contact or an emotion we really do not feel causes a division, a split in ourselves. The actor must be single, identified with the process he is engaged with, and must not lie. He must be what he does (VII.5-VII.8).
Any actor—at whatever stage he is—must go beyond himself, must plunge into the unknown. So there is no such thing as an actor, really an actor, with savoir faire. If he knows techniques, skills and tricks which he uses exclusively, then he is lying, he is false. What he does not know is where his creativity takes place—outside his abilities and beyond his techniques, the only place creation can occur.

There is no such thing as a mediocre artist. A mediocre engineer is bearable, but a mediocre artist is a misery (VII.9).
As a witness, I must say the man [i.e., Grotowski] has prerogatives. . . he does not merely ascribe them to himself, he does not merely take them. He has them. When he goes into a script, or when he works with anything I’ve seen him do, he is like the monarch invading territory that belongs to him by reason of his power. He is not simply a clever director; he is a man of skill, intelligence, power, passion and genius (VIII.4).
“In order to play this scene, in order to relate to Brutus or Bill [Lafe] as a friend, either you [i.e., Stacey Hines as Cassius] are colleagues rather than strictly friends, the relationship has to be built along one of three lines,” he said. “One, either you ask yourself how you would act if you were his friend. Two, if you have another friend, if your Cassius has a friend, then you have a specific person to project on Bill . . . a specific relationship which you can use in this scene—I act toward my friend this way, so I will act toward Bill (Brutus) in this way. Three, your Cassius has no friend at all, but he has a notion of ideal friendship, a notion of what he would like friendship to be, and he will act in accord with this” (VIII.5-VIII.6).
“The only thing I can tell you is that once you have an answer, once you know how to do something, then you’ve stopped creating.

“You must go beyond that point. Continue searching and asking questions because answers are not fruitful, only questions are. Once you find an answer you’ve reached a point of stopping and must begin again” (X.2).
“A director, when he begins to work on a show, thinks first of blocking and a set, perhaps costumes, then lighting. I myself began that way, used to work that way; but you know, if the director doesn’t go beyond this, the actor is simply an object that he lights, that he costumes, that he moves in such and such a way. And you can derive certain effects and get certain results from this kind of approach.

“If this is all the director does, then the director is in an infant stage—he’s an infantile director. A great director—and there are very few (as there are very few great actors)—encounters his actors; and out of this encounter, this give and take, they embark on an adventure, a discovery, a creation. They find in their contact something real, true . . . the human element . . . that the infantile director doesn’t concern himself with because he’s involved with the elements of a spectacle” (X.6-X.7).
Grotowski said there is nothing in life without danger, without risk, except mediocrity.

“There will be risk. You must take the risk. If, after taking the risk, your whole nature says this is impossible, this goes against yourself, then it’s not for you. But take the risk first, take the chance in looking” (X.8).
He does not want us to use these things for self-punishment; he does not want us to be over-precise and cautious; he does not want us to concentrate on the word “truth” or on any word fetish, but to explore ourselves, to confront ourselves, to ask ourselves questions.

“If it’s a habit of mind, a habit of thought, to investigate yourself, then do it; but internal investigation for its own sake is infantile. What the actor needs to be concerned with is not the indulgence of his feelings and emotions, but the investigation of one’s self in order to give one’s self.”

The deeper an actor goes into himself and the more profound the questions become, the more his whole being engages in the pursuit. And this questioning becomes a physical act. If, for example, you touch your arm with your hand, you ask, “How have I done this in the past? Why did I do it?” And when an answer comes, question it, explore a detail that the answer does not cover, or change the question. The answers are not fruitful, only the questions are.

The more fully an actor engages in this, the fuller is his whole being, his whole physical action. At the height of his work, when the actor has matured and his whole self is an active posing of the question, answers come from his whole being.

“This is transcendental. This goes beyond ourselves and in that sense is religious. It isn’t a matter of believing in God because both of these are abstractions. In my case, I do not. We know deep down that the final answer rests somewhere else, whether we believe in God or not.

“It is possible to look upon these things as a religion, to use these elements and these investigations as a ritual, as a cult: Do these things, say these words, and you will be released from work. This is wrong. The work is most important; and to work is to do things to the end, to do something totally and completely.

“In the ancient sense, etymologically, the word religion means to be in relation to and when you relate to the God in you, both its depths and its heights, this can be called a religious experience in the broadest sense of the word” (X.8-X.10).
“. . . you can’t learn formulas or recipes for creativity. There are none, because creativity is working with the unknown.

“Instead of doing Hamlet, for example, to express something you know, come to Hamlet not knowing until you’ve done it. Having this search to carry out, having a question and not an answer to express, is why many actors are better in rehearsal than in performance. They search in rehearsal, find the answers, and then perform their answers. This is not creative.

“Treat your performances as rehearsals, and at the end of a performance of Hamlet, you will know something. If you know it beforehand, it won’t be creative. The search is the most important part of all this” (X.18).
“When we look at our own small, private needs and impulses, we will find things in common with the world. We will find in our wounds, if they are truly our wounds, the wounds of mankind. But if were go to principle first, we won’t get anywhere” (XII.1).
You need to ask the question for yourself: what is my reason for doing this? This may seem amoral, but nature is amoral. You may be ethical, and that’s good. If you are ethical and have ethical principles then you fight for them certainly. But ask yourself, why do I fight for these? The answer will be something other than the principle (XII.3).
In order to work as actors, in order to create and go beyond ourselves, we will have to look more deeply into ourselves . . .—once we find our adversaries, find that in ourselves w has to be passed, which we must go beyond. “Creation is not an avoidance of ourselves, not a denial of ourselves, but a going-beyond ourselves in some way” (XII.9).
As a director and as a teacher, Grotowski is concerned about the secrets in each of us. In exploring our secrets, he can use us as a screen for his own secrets and problems. . . .

As a director and as a person, he works with somebody until he finds the secret, until the person is no longer a mystery. Then Grotowski’s use of this person as a screen, as a help to unravelling [sic] has own mystery, has been accomplished.

So, he said, the work of the actor and the director really is not different at all. If a director simply dresses an actor in the director’s own thoughts, ideas and notions, he is imposing something on him he has known before, and is not creating at all.

In order to be creative, a director comes to the actors and works out his own secrets, his own problems, his own self, just as they do. Then there is not contradiction in the work they do together. Such a meeting in such an adventure—this attempt to find out about themselves and about things they do not know, this going beyond themselves—is a truly creative endeavor (XII.10-XII.11).
“What comes of this approach is really an amour fati, a love of our fate, and not an attempt to escape it. Although it is almost self-evident, I will say anyway: in our metier there is a combination of wounds and the search for light; the wounds are the stimuli to go toward something else—something we had lost or that we had wanted, something we wished to rid ourselves of, something that was missing or painfully present or possible or a hindrance to ourselves.

These wounds and this search for wisdom or enlightenment, something beyond, are the two driving forces in our work” (XII.12).
“Wounds are important, limitations are important, and questioning them, overcoming them—the reaching beyond them—is an artistic gesture” (XII.13).
“There’s a difference between imitating a savage reaction and finding primordial reactions, feelings and responses inside ourselves. There can be no spontaneity that isn’t based on discipline. Objective elements, such as the exercises, are necessary if there’s going to be any point of departure for being spontaneous” (XIII.2).
The inner aspect of this work is not psychic, profound, mystic or religious, but is only the process of association. “To pretend that it’s anything deep and profound is really to be hypocritical. It is a training in form and surprises, not in personal confession—it’s a kind of game” (XIII.3).
“Work simply and with a sense of humor, using your sly side. One of the physical elements is in reality its own search for association and justification. Watch for the play in common with or against a partner. Or, you may even play against the exercises, but play! And if you lose an element, do without it; but look for your partner. Make contact and look for justification” (XIII.4).
. . . “Art is the destruction of life’s illusions. And whatever we do in our social life—however we smile and converse with people, whatever social mask we put on—on stage we need to do without it and go toward what is really true. Chaos is not expressive, and spontaneity is never chaotic. If there’s no structure, there’s nothing. If you keep the elements and the structure and look for associations, you’ll find spontaneity. In order to destroy anything, you must have built something—structure, the elements” (XIII.4).
“Do what a director gives you, however bad. Master the details of it, but destroy the director’s logic and replace it with your own. He will be disarmed because you will be doing precisely what he told you to do. He’ll know something is wrong, but he won’t be able to do anything about it” (XIII.9).
“It is in the eyes of others that we are strong or weak. The same eyes can change, as though possessed by another spirit, make you (or le moi) like the sun and then like a candle” (XIV.2).
“It’s in the little things,” Grotowski said, “in specifics, not in the great movements or gestures or sounds that our work is found” (XIV.3).
“Avoid correctness. Don’t treat any role as something that must be correct, like homework. Take the risk. We may fail, we may triumph, but everything that is correct is most dangerous” (XIV.14).
“Your [i.e., Larry Pine’s] social mask is very close to your profession—the mask is one of an intelligent, cultured actor who moves in society. And within this mask, there is a certain amount of freedom of movement so you look upon what you have trained yourself, and your mask, to do as liberating. But this mask locks the actor’s deeper and more personal responses.

“There is an automatic conjunction between the body and the psyche. The way the body moves is in fact a description of the way the psyche is moving. Or perhaps the body moves in a pattern to cover, to counter what the psyche is feeling, but there is a deep connection between the body and the psyche” (XV.2-XV.3).
“We all find masks to protect ourselves from the world. In order to work with this carefully constructed and well-trained mask, you need to follow the character of the mask.” That is, behave naturally; because when Larry behaves naturally, his mask is operating.

“Behave naturally, but ask yourself, when the mask is operating, what it’s hiding—what you want from others, what you want to suppress in yourself. This plunge into the personal is necessary for your acting.

“Sometimes a mask contradicts what’s inside: a thoughtful mask may hide a person unsure of himself. This might seem a frightful situation. We might be afraid to work with ourselves below the level of the mask if we are not sure of ourselves, say intellectually, and so, we present an intelligent mask.

“But when we admit to ourselves that we know nothing, then we are very close to Socrates, who said he know nothing and was always looking for answers. At those moments, he was his wisest.

“At these moments of questionning [sic], you will be able to construct characters as a kind of game; but these characters will have roots in a personal search within and below the mask.” . . . .

That is the first step. “The next step is to penetrate below the mask, to do without the mask in your acting. You may keep it in social life if you want, because there is a distinction between the way we live in society and the way we live in our art. But when you have analyzed the mask, you will be able to use it as an instrument if you choose, or you may choose to do without it.”

The mask will no longer be leading him, but he will be using it. Then, at the summit of his acting, he will be able to do without the mask entirely and to attack what is most personal (XV.3-XV.4).
. . . Grotowski distinguished between a gesture and an impulse.
“A gesture is done only by actors or by people who act too much; a gesture begins at the tip of the fingers or slightly lower. With an impulse, the movement in the fingers or slightly lower is really the end of a wave, the end of a reaction that begins in the chest or in the spine. It isn’t a gesture, but simply the completion of this impulse. It’s the same with movements of the head, the feet, and so on.
“If the movement is rooted in our attitude and begins higher or lower than the move itself, it’s not a gesture but an impulse—and gestures will come of themselves. To act with the hands, begin in the spine; to act with the feet, begin in the head or the hands” (XV.5-XV.6).
. . . “Look for your associations and your memories and your partner while you’re working, not before—not apart from the work, but in action. And then you’ll have the greatest chance if finding them.”
Grotowski then clarified associations. “Whenever you talk about them, you seem to consider them as emotions or as thoughts. But by associations, I mean body associations, not sentiments, not thoughts.
“In a scene, how do I see my partner’s eyes? What eyes did I see in this way? How did I defend myself? What did I do? Not what did I think but how did I physically respond” (XV.6)?
Art is a kind of cleansing, a kind of purgation, for the artist as well as the viewer; and if you deal with personal, private things but deny the purgative process, the art itself is debased (XVI.6).
Jerry Mayer then asked about working with fixed points—fixing a “score” and working from it. “If you work this way, the points you fix should be emotional keys for a cycle of contact. You should write down—you very often have to write down—these things; but use a word which would be incomprehensible to another actor or to another person.
“These are not complete literary statements but simply stimuli. There should be no objectivity in their formulation. It might be the first name of a woman, for example. The fixed points of the score should be emotional keys” (XVI.6-XVI-7).
Somebody asked about a work of art being used for protest. Grotowski said, “A work always functions in context, and a great work always finds its context. The work itself will protest” (XVI.7).
* * * *
[Crawley, whose widow, Linda Segal Crawley, gave me access to the typescript, died before completing a series of interviews of former classmates which he intended to accompany the published journal. Linda Crawley was contemplating completing her husband’s work.]

14 April 2011

“The Stone in the Soup” – Excerpts: Part 1

by Tom Crawley

[In 1967, the renowned acting theorist Jerzy Grotowski (1933-99) and Ryszard Cieslak (1937-90), Grotowski’s principal actor, taught a four-week “methodology” workshop, Grotowski’s first in the United States, from 6 to 30 November at NYU. The sixteen sessions involved 18 actors, four directors, four observers (including Richard Schechner and NYU theater program director Theodore Hoffman), Grotowski, Cieslak, and, since Grotowski spoke French in class, a translator (principally Jacques Chwat). One of the actors, Tom Crawley (1940-95), kept a daily journal during the workshop.

[Entitled “The Stone in the Soup: Jerzy Grotowski’s First American Workshop” (unpublished typescript, Thomas P. Crawley, 1978) after an anecdote Grotowski used to illustrate his basic training philosophy (related below), Crawley’s journal is a detailed and precise daily account of the workshop (each chapter recounts a single session). The text has not to date been published, though Crawley apparently intended it to be; this remarkably clear and succinct account of Grotowski’s early work, before he turned away from public performance, may eventually be available to readers. Until it is, I’ve decided to publish on ROT extensive excerpts from my notes to disseminate this glimpse into Grotowski’s early teachings and theories.

[Among the participants in the workshop were Leonardo Shapiro, the stage director about whom I’ve written on ROT in the past; Stephen Wangh, an author, NYU acting teacher, and former dramaturg for Moisés Kaufman’s Tectonic Theatre Company; and Larry Pine, an actor whose name some readers may recognize. The typescript, readers should note, is paginated by chapter—hence the somewhat idiosyncratic page references I’ve included. When Crawley quotes Grotowski's own words, they’re enclosed in quotation marks.

[Wangh, who included some of the material in “The Stone in the Soup” in his book An Acrobat of the Heart: A Physical Approach to Acting Inspired by the Work of Jerzy Grotowski (Vintage Books, 2000), described the start of the workshop in his Preface:]

When we were all seated, Ted Hoffman, Richard Schechner . . ., and several other N.Y.U. dignitaries ushered in two men who sat down behind the table along the wall to our right. One of the two was pale and rotund. He wore a blue suit and dark glasses; his face was expressionless, but there was something imposing and enigmatic about his presence. The second man looked younger, more physical, his eyes were alert and intense.

. . . . The enigmatic man in the blue suit . . . was Jerzy Grotowski, the famous Polish director. The younger man was Ryszard Cieslak, the leading actor of Grotowski’s Polish Laboratory Theatre.

. . . .

While we sat bewildered . . ., Cieslak silently stripped to his shorts, went to the middle of the empty studio and proceeded to demonstrate the “impossible” for us. With incredible ease and precise physical control, he performed a series of headstands, rolls, and backbends, each flowing into the next, each completely centered and yet somehow off-balance and dynamic. His body seemed to be made of liquid muscle, enormously powerful, yet utterly soft and supple. He moved with the strength and precision of an accomplished gymnast, yet there was something in his face, in his searching eyes, that removed his work entirely from the world of gymnastics. It was as if the enormous muscular energy we witnessed was merely the exterior emanation of an even more intense inner life.

. . . .

Cieslak, for his part, demonstrated impossible exercises. And we Americans tried to emulate his work . . . until we began to understand that “emulation” was not what this class was about.

At first many of us were so overwhelmed by the pure physical challenge of Cieslak’s exercises that we could not see beyond the technical difficulties we encountered. Our headstands were wobbly, and our leaps were hesitant. When Cieslak demonstrated his “rivers” of “plastique” body isolations, kinetic and dramatic impulses seemed to flow through his entire body as if it were made of molten metal. When we tried, our rivers alternately surged and froze, creaking through our torsos by rusty jerks. The infinite agility, the intense concentration, and the wonderful precision with which Cieslak glided seemed entirely beyond our abilities.

* * * *
These meetings ranged over strenuous physical exercises, vocal work, scene work and monologues, with Grotowski illustrating his “non-method” approach to the actor’s metier (2).
The plastiques, articulating the parts of the body; The Corporals, exercises engaging the entire body (2).
“I can give you no positive techniques,” he said. “No tricks or systems to use. Only a negative training to remove personal blocks you might have in expressing creative acts.”

. . . .

“There are, however, three principles in this negative approach.

“The first principle is the use of the person, the use of yourself.”

“Whenever an actor comes to a part, he should not construct gestures and vocal inflections out of the air. Nor should he concentrate on the character—where the character is coming from, what his objectives are, what he is wearing, what room he is in, etc.”

. . . .

“The actor should concentrate on what he, the actor, is personally revealing or displaying. The first consideration is the personal experience, the life and energies of the actor himself” (I.3-I.4).
What should an actor do with the role of Hamlet, then? “His own creative work is not to reproduce Shakespeare’s projection of himself, but to use this mythic creation for expressing himself, the actor’s own deeply-rooted self.”

My impression: to act a given character is to perform a totally personal, self-revealing piece of creation. In this sense, acting is not imitation (I.5).
“The second principle in this negative process is the organization of the units of the actor’s art.

“The unit of a musical score is a single note or pitch. The unit of the actor’s art is a unit of exchange, in which the actor gives something to his partner, to an object, or to some personification, and gets something back.

“It is a unit containing a giving and a taking. Such units exist not only in the processes of the imagination, but in the physical and vocal processes as well” (I.5).
As I understand it, an intonation, a response, a gesture or an emotion eventually becomes fixed, “scored,” as a unit of giving-and-receiving.

This second principle, organization, crystalizes [sic] or concretizes the actor’s personal energies. Spontaneity is not the key, although it is the content, because each “use of the self” becomes a specific, repeatable element of the performance (I.6).
Grotowski’s third principle is the overcoming of obstacles.

“A sculptor does not create something from wood or stone by toying with the surface. He must hammer and carve to overcome the material. He must struggle with the element out of which he will forge his creation.

“The actor, also, if he is to reveal something significant, personal and profound—that is, deriving truly from the use of self—must reach into the depths of himself, through whatever psychic or physical blocks that impede such expression.”

This means that an actor must not be satisfied with a facile gesture, statement, movement, inflection, etc.; but, by contending with resistances in his body, psyche and emotions, will touch what is truly creative and real.

“We will not imitate the gestures of another actor who has played Othello, for example, but will find by overcoming his resistances the gestures that his Othello would make under these circumstances.

“He will do, in public, what is considered impossible” (I.6-I.7).
This man [i.e. Ryszard Cieslak] seems to be an accomplished gymnast with a control of his body so complete as to frighten any actor who is sloppy about his physical condition.

He stripped to his work shorts, agilely performed a series of difficult-looking exercises—the Corporals—and then invited us to do them. The impossible was upon me.

We stripped down and tried them. First, a “whip” of the head and torso in a full, deep circle from the hips. Then, two head stands, one with the hands flat on the floor, the other with hands clasped behind and supporting the head.

We tried a three-point shoulder stand and a kneeling, back-bending thigh-stretch. Finally, the resting squat.

While doing the Corporals, we were asked to examine our own body’s limits and to push a bit beyond them (I.7-I.8).
When Cieslak laid down a thick, black tumbling mat, we formed a line and ran, one after the other, into a somersault; then a one-handed somersault, then no hands. Finally, we ran and dove into a somersault while Cieslak stood in our way until the last minute—ducking or jumping out of our way.

Here we had a physical, working model of what an actor does: committing fully to an action in the face of an obstacle (I.9).
It is clear to me that this work is not calisthenics, not mysticism, not therapy. It is a radical investigation of the actor’s only instruments: his body, his voice, his spirit.

Out of this flows actions and objectives, the engagement with another, and character work (I.10).
The objective is to be without trying to be like. If one is functioning as a particular animal or physical phenomenon—”Consider your voice as water, your body as wind”—one is not “imitating.”

If an actor is functioning as a given character, then, he will not imitate but will find the character within himself. The manifestation will be from the inside out (I.12).
“Creation involves effort, obstacles, something achieved. It is not something simply avoided or arrived at by whim. It is an effort brought out of commitment, risk and, in many cases, pain” (I.14).
There seems to me, now, no war between Grotowski and Stanislavski, only another approach, a different mode of beholding.

In An Actor Prepares, Stanislavski concentrates on the actor’s inner creative state. In Building a Character, he focuses on the outer creative state, linking this with the inner in the “general creative state.”

Grotowski begins here—with the whole actor, body and spirit, on the mat (I.14).
Today Cieslak began with a general warmup for the “plastiques.”

These are not gymnastics nor mime movements, but are individual manipulations of specific parts of the body, from the head to the feet (II.1).
After we had done them for a while, loosening up, we were told not to do them automatically or “symmetrically.” We were not to do them simply as exercises, but were to make contact with a partner outside ourselves, either another person we imagined or some imaginary object (II.1).
The whole body performs these things, the whole body responds to an image. The hand may be the specific point of contact, but it is a contact the whole body makes. I may be fondling a woman’s breast instead of an apple. And if that is the case, then the body posture, the body engagement, is totally different from that of stroking an apple on a tree.

We repeated the plastiques, taking care to avoid the mechanical and autonomous, to relate the movements to a person or an object (II.1-II.2).
All this physical activity is to be directed outward—the whole body is functioning when a finger is moving, when a hand is moving. Contact is made with some outside point by your whole self (II.2).
“Look for an answer by an indirect path.” When you try to solve a problem in its own area, when you look directly at the problem, you don’t find the answer. Look in the opposite direction, somewhere else. Proceed by indirection (II.4).
Just as the physical exercises are artistic rather than gymnastic only when there is a contact or an image, an external point or partner that is utilized and related to, so also in voice production. The voice is only being artistically utilized and employed if it’s making contact with some external point or person (II.7).
After stressing the contact principle—that the body and the voice need a partner or an image, a point of contact outside in order to operate fully and correctly—Mr. Grotowski urged the class to master the details of the exercises we’ve done, that it is very important to do so. Not for their own sake, but because these exercises are the stone in the soup—in the story of the gypsy and his stone soup.

Mr. Grotowski told us the story. A hungry gypsy came upon a housewife and asked her for a stone because he wanted to make some soup. The housewife was intrigued and she gave him a stone. He put it in a pot and then asked for some water, which the housewife provided. He put the water and the stone on the fire and began to stir it and brought it to a boil. Then, he tasted it and asked the housewife for some butter, then for some beef, then some vegetables, then potatoes. Finally, he took the stone out, threw it away, and ate the soup. The housewife was amazed and told all of her friends that she had witnessed a gypsy who made soup out of a stone.

The exercises we do are the stones in the soup; the creative acting work is really found in the spices and the accessories we bring to the exercises. They themselves become less and less important. Their real value lies in our not being able to do them—we have an obstacle, our body is getting in the way. The body becomes an inhibitor; there are some things we cannot do because our bodies limit us. We must get rid of these limitations so that we can feel free to express, from inside outward, using the body, the whole body to make a contact; so that the whole body is alive (II.12-II.13).
An isolation is movement of one part of an otherwise still body (III.1, note).
This set of exercises called collectively The Cat, are movements an actual cat might make if it had a human body. The actor does not pretend to be a cat, does no “magic if” in his mind, but actively looks for the cat-in-himself becoming physically aware of the world around him.

Here, in miniature, we have what Grotowski is constantly insisting on: an actor functioning inside a physical-image structure, focusing on and making contact with external reality through a series of specific movements (III.2).
We were now warmed up and ready for the plastiques.

These are specific and isolated articulations of the body, . . . but they are to be done—as the cat is to be done—with accents.

An accent is an abrupt, momentary and unpremeditated freeze in the action. Flow and accent combine in the plastiques so that the movements are neither mechanical nor autonomous; are, rather, both impulsive and shaped.

These exercises are also to be done with personal associations, and imaginary partner or object you are looking at, following, touching, etc.

If the association [is] of a person, say, it must be a real person the actor knows by name and calls up in front of him. This is not the ghost of a person, a “friend-in-general,” but a specific, personal and immediate relationship.

Although Grotowski and Cieslak want us to be able to do the exercises completely and exactly; we do them, not in order to be technically exact, but to express something personal about ourselves. We are to combine technique with spontaneity.

. . . .

These exercises are really explorations, done most fruitfully as a physical search and examination of emotional images and associations.

For instance, moving a shoulder up toward the ear or down blow its normal level, moving it back and front, then articulating it in a circle through all these specific points may call up events and feelings from one’s life (III.3-III.4).
Cieslak and Grotowski have made a major point of courage, physical courage, in our sessions together. Take the risk, go to the point of pain, they say; overcome the obstacle (III.14).
In doing these exercises, Mr. Grotowski said, we are not to be students who get everything correct. A good student cannot be creative, because he takes down the details, he remembers the details, but he does not work through the details for personal expression. We must not think like students: we are artists. There is organization and discipline in what we do, but this is the stone in the soup. You don’t get the soup unless you’ve got the stone (III.15-III.16).
Mr. Grotowski cited great writers as an example of what great actors need to do. He said that average writers, ordinary writers, have something to say and some point to make; they looked around and chose a way to express it. But great writers actually uncover or discover a great deal of what they communicate in the process of writing, in the process of communication. The way they say something becomes part of what they have to say (IV.3).
He asked, what are the tools of an actor’s expression? What constitutes his language? The units of contact, the giving and the taking. If we have a contact, if we intend to have a contact, in order to show it to somebody else—in other words, if our attention will be divided in much the same way as an average writer’s attention is divided between message and medium. He urges the actor to have the contact—actually call up the person, actually relate to the external contact; do not attempt to show that we have one.

In actually making the contact, the actor will become his language; will become in fact, a living, breathing, incarnation of what he is expressing. There will be no separation between what is being said and the way it is being said. There will be no separation between the actor’s contact and communication of that contact. If the body is making a specific contact, if the hand is making a specific contact, if the voice is, the whole body will adapt by itself, to the external stimulate the actor has conjured up (IV.3-IV.4).
At some point today [Thur., 9 Nov.], Mr. Grotowski told us a story from the Middle Ages, “Our Lady’s Juggler.” A juggler leaves the circus and becomes a monk. Being uneducated, not knowing the prayers, the rituals or the language as well as his fellow monks, he is at a loss how he should pray. So in the middle of every night, he leaves his cell, without telling anybody, and goes to the chapel. His fellow monks become curious about this and mention it to the abbott [sic]. The abbott conceals himself in the chapel one night and watches as the juggler-turned-monk enters the church, goes to the statue of the Blessed Mother, kneels down, takes juggling balls from under his robes and begins to perform before the statue.

The abbott becomes enraged and interrupts this blasphemy. But while the abbott is reprimanding the juggler, he becomes aware if movement in the statue. The Blessed Mother comes down from her pedestal and wipes the sweat from the juggler’s brow.

The point of the story is that the juggler, not having words, made a direct contact with a specific person through a physical action. The contact was truly made and a miracle happened.

In the same way in our work, Mr. Grotowski said, if we actually reach out beyond ourselves to make the contacts we want and need—instead of trying to demonstrate that we have them, or trying to indicate that they are present—if we do this, miracles will happen in our own work (IV.5).
Our concern is to be with a revelation of ourselves, of our own experience, by combining spontaneous memory with a predetermined series of technical moves.

The elements of these physical exercises are pretexts for association and not the other way around—we should not call up an association in order to find a sensible way of doing the exercises, but the exercise should, themselves, trigger memories, persons and places that activate our bodies and emotions (IV.6).
He summed up the day. Creation is discovery. And discovery is of something that we did not know before. If we attempt to totally control a process or a drift of association, of we try to determine at the beginning what will happen at the end or at most of the moments throughout what we are doing, we will go astray. Creation is a plunging into the unknown; it is a going beyond our own limits and that is why we drive ourselves through these physical exercises. Certainly not for themselves but to get control of our bodies and, through that, control of our voice. Here is the core of the theatre as Mr. Grotowski sees it: the actor’s body and his voice (IV.7).
To pretend . . . that the past events and emotions are happening in the present, is to lie. The greatest secret, the basic need of our craft, Mr. Grotowski said, is elementary truth: doing, feeling, operating in a way that is true at the moment for the one who is acting. However he is revealing himself and his own experience, the actor must not lie; he must not show or demonstrate something, but must engage himself with the actual and the immediate (V.2).
Grotowski said he wanted to show us various ways of working through our scenes, and, I think no one of them can be called a method, or rather his method. I see mainly his concern with “de-blocking” an actor, as he said in the beginning, and finding ways to effect this so that the actor can operate truthfully and reveal himself through whatever material he is working on.

For instance, Betsy’s searching her memories, with Lee as a screen to project them on, differs significantly from Stanislavski’s sense memory. One major difference is the external contact with Lee; the other is Grotowski’s emphasis on the search—the process that is actually occurring within the actor—rather than on the results of the search (V.3-V.4; Betsy Lumpkin and Lee DeRoss did the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet).
Then he told a story of seeing a hunch-backed boy, a child, playing with friends. Aware of their eyes on him, he was very lumpish. But when the boy was alone, Grotowski saw him play and run and jump as though he had no hump, pretending it was not there. Grotowski said he saw in this the birth of art.

In order to act and to present beauty when one feels that it is not there, one should not attempt an elaborate and glamourous [sic] make-up job because this is a lie. What you should do—as in the case of the boy—is to act the daydream, play the daydream with the total naivete and commitment and belief that a child does—so that there is no doubt about its truth (V.5).

* * * *

[The 1967 workshop met for five hours a day, Monday through Thursday (Friday, 24 November, was substituted for Thanksgiving Day). Crawley’s journal was probably typed from contemporaneous notes 11 years after the classes. There are occasional hand-written corrections and emendations which I incorporated directly into subsequent quotations without comment. I left all idiosyncrasies as they appeared in the original, however.

[I don’t want to trim the excerpts I took from “The Stone in the Soup,” so I’m splitting them into two parts. Come back to ROT in a few days for the remainder of my notes from this remarkable document.]