Poland, the chorus, theater

For what purpose, I cannot say yet

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Dear Milo,

Today was a day I’ve been waiting for for a very long time—the first day back in workshops at SOTG.

[recap of evening of 22nd]

Last night, my roommate L-from-London cooked a delicious vegetable curry (cabbage, eggplant) and we ate it with kasha and talked over our apprehensions about what today would bring. Roommate M. came home later, and we all three shared some fears and some hopes for the next day. It’s fun living with two other actors, going through the same experiences, but it also has the effect of having emotions be multiplied. Last night, what we were all going through was a bit of nervousness.

I still felt very jet-lagged yesterday, and it was raining all day long—when L came home from a day out, she said her feet felt “rotten” with the rain.

I was absolutely unable to sleep last night. Eventually, I gave up and made a decision that I think will stand me in good stead in my time here. I may be in Poland, I may be embarking on an intensive theatrical experience, blah blah blah MA in Acting blah blah blah Fulbright blah blah blah, but you know what? I still get to watch American junk television.

There has to be some down time. In the words of O., an actor I worked with at Single Carrot last year, “I can only be on to the extent that I have allowed myself to be off.”

So I logged onto Amazon to buy S5E5 of Burn Notice on video-on-demand, only to find out that Amazon’s VOD is only available to US consumers.


Disheartened, I logged onto Hulu, only to find that Hulu is…you guessed it. Only available to
US consumers.


Thankfully, all the episodes of Star Trek are still available online. After some time spent with Hugh, the Friendly Borg, I was able to go to sleep.

I now return you to Saturday, July 23rd.

Some time in the night, it stopped raining. I woke up this morning with my roommates, and we ate breakfast in the kitchen before walking to the theater. The skies were still cloudy, but the sun was out.

We live in a flat about a mile and a half north from the converted monastery where SOTG resides. To get to the theater, we walk south on Swietej Jadwigi, and cross the Odra River twice—it’s divided in the middle by a little island.

We got to the theater around 9:30 and began preliminary stretching. About half an hour later, G., the director of our week’s workshops, came in.

We sat in a circle and introduced ourselves—there were about 17 people, from Sweden, Poland, Spain, the UK, the US, and more countries I can’t remember—and then G. spoke a bit about what distinguishes the work of Piesn Kozla. I did not have a notebook with me, so this is a paraphrase. (Since I cannot take on-the-spot notes in any TPK workshop, for this year, since I’ll be performing, every quote is a paraphrase. In doing this, I follow the practice of a number of recorders of acting training programs, including those who worked with Stanislavski, but it is a departure from absolute accuracy.)

“We call our work Co-ordination. It’s not a very good name, but that’s what we call it. We are talking about a co-ordination of voice, text, movement, singing, and also of imagination—and co-ordination between actors, as well.”

(This is exactly why SOTG is so appealing to me—text AND voice AND song AND movement. There’s your Greek chorus. They do it all. They don’t lose the text in focusing on other elements.)

“This is not like yoga, or a martial art, or meditation, or any kind of dance, where you try to make an exact form. There are no exact forms to copy.”

He also said that his own interest had been the singing body for a long time, and still was, but that he was starting to be more interested in the role of imagination in the actor’s work.

We then took a quick 5-minute break and began a series of exercises, with D. working with us on drum to keep a rhythm and on harmonium for musical background.


1) To walk around the room, in rhythm with the drum. Keeping the eyes up and alert. This walk, which I learned in A.’s workshop last year, is a walk with knees slightly bent and pelvis lowered—a stance similar to a fencer’s ready posture, or a martial arts stance, or the legs in a very tall sort of yoga Warrior 1. It’s a movement that is bouncy and light, always ready to leap or to change direction. Whenever, for the purpose of this blog, I refer to SOTG walking, it is this walk.

2) To go from walking normally to walking on the balls of the feet, and back again to walking normally, and observe the changes.

3) To run around the room, still keeping eyes alert, chest/heart open, pelvis lowered, etc.

4) To return to walking.

5) To walk but practice making eye contact with the other actors as we moved. We were all constantly moving, and our eyes found one another as we did. (I love this exercise. I like eye contact. I spent ninth grade with almost none, in a no-eye-contact high school social situation.) G. spoke some at this point about the role of eye contact in different cultures, and how, depending on the actor’s background, making eye contact can be difficult or even feel rude. But it is necessary. As he said, “Do you know what the audience loves the most? Your (adjective) eyes.”

G. spoke about the “mask” we were wearing, the tendency to fall into a socially acceptable facial expression. “Are you enjoying yourselves?” He kept returning us to a sense of playfulness.

“If you are not passionate, how can the audience be passionate? If you do not enjoy yourselves,
how can they enjoy?” (This reminded me very much of the Frost quote about no tears for the writer.)

6) Back to walking. Out of walking to a jumping and striking large, oversized exaggerated poses (not in character, just in movement) on 1, 2, 3, 4. For 16 counts. Pose! Pose! Pose! Pose! And then back to walking.

G. harangued us to let our bodies go, to fall into more extreme poses. “What sorts of actors would be if your parents had never told you ‘Girls don’t do that?’ If they had never told you that boys weren’t supposed to cry? I can see your parents on stage with you—I can see them telling you what to do, how to be polite. Don’t be polite. In here, you don’t have to be polite.”
We added loud vocalizing to the posing.

7) We then began an exercise I love, one where you walk but are always a little bit off balance—there’s falling and losing your step incorporated into it. Because I like it so much, I have a hard time describing it. When we entered this stage of the workshop, and I realized we were going to do more losing-balance work, I lost my academic note-taking mindset entirely. We worked on this awhile, but I hardly know how to talk about it.

8) Standing in place, feeling the balancing muscles within our legs. Feeling what is necessary to balance.

9) G. called this one “personal T’ai Chi”—moving very gently in place, from a standing position to a slightly changed position. Feeling how your body wants to move, but not moving very vigorously. Almost stillness, but with a slight internal movement.

10) Working from “personal T’ai Chi” to invoke a childhood memory, and moving within it.

11) Tall bamboo sticks. Throwing them back and forth to one another, while walking. I lost focus at one point here, and got smacked in the face with a stick. My lip swelled up as if a bee had stung it.

We then took a fifteen-minute break. I don’t know how much time had elapsed, to that point. I decided not to check my watch so I’d be more in the process with the group, and less thinking of time.

After break, we returned to the childhood memory and the stick.

First, we improvised “personal T’ai Chi” movement in and around our childhood memory for a long, long time. G. added directions—less movement, more. Find a tree, trace/climb the tree, be the tree. Let your hands find a quick flapping movement in contrast to a slow continuous movement of the rest of the body.

I enjoyed this exercise, until I was snapped out of it, in my own head, by wondering how this applied to my work in the US, how I was going to explain it or persuade others to participate in it.

I returned to the work without having resolved this question, and only resolved it later that evening with the help of Leonard Nimoy.

Capt. Picard: The only communication that was sent were the numbers 1 4 0 0
Romulan senator: What does it mean?
Spock: It means that the Proconsul has apparently been attempting to deceive me. For what purpose, I cannot say yet—but his conversations with me have obviously been part of a greater plan which involves the stolen Vulcan ship.
(Star Trek, The Next Generation: Unification, Part 2)

Although I cannot promise that a stolen Vulcan ship is going to make any appearance in this episode, or any episode, of SOS: Poland Edition, I very much appreciated hearing Spock say “For what purpose, I cannot say yet.”

I do not know what the purpose is. I only know that I am here.

Next, we worked with the stick, a tall bamboo dowel taller than I am, in pairs. We tossed it back and forth, we added elements of playfulness and precision. We played with speed, with catching it in a moment of stillness. We thought of our text as we were throwing the stick. We worked with 3 different sets of partners.

Then there was only one stick, and one person who walked around the group to throw it. Everyone else was still around them, like a forest.

They could throw it to anyone.
They had to keep the whole group’s energy focused on them, and try to make us not know exactly where the stick would go.

And then they would throw the stick, and someone else would take over.

This was difficult. Very difficult. This exercise lasted the longest. I had the stick many times, as did many of us. It was hard.

G. told individual actors to keep the text in mind as they walked, to not lose the group’s focus, to never look down as they caught the stick—to carry the impulse forward, to keep the focus of people behind as well as in front of them.

This all seems obvious on paper. It’s not obvious with a stick, with nearly 20 actors around you in a still forest, how to make the people behind you pay attention to you. But it has to be done.

G. said that when actors have this kind of focus all the way throughout a 2-4 hour performance—always ready to catch the stick, to throw it—that is the best.

And then we walked more, and then it was the end. We discovered we had worked straight through 5 hours with no lunch break. I wish I had time increments for these exercises, but if I HAD checked my watch and known that, I would have had much less energy.) We had a 30m. yoga cooldown, led by A.

I got out of the theater quickly. I was so happy to have made it through a day, and made it through in one piece.

I went home, showered, changed, ate, called my parents and my grandmother on Gmail’s Google Voice call-within-Internet thing (great quality!) and started typing up these notes—interrupted only by Star Trek and by singing with Roommate M. First she taught me an absolutely haunting Ukrainian song I know from Maisternia Pisni’s Sunday Morning album, and then I taught her Gram Parson’s “In My Hour of Darkness,” and then we sang a mash-up of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” together with “Frere Jacques.”

And now I’m going to go to bed. Tomorrow, thanks to G, we will start an hour later—at 11 AM.
See you on the opposite side.

I do miss you—all of you—I was telling M. about Parallel Octave and choruses and songs and I used the phrase “Before I left the United States” and I got really sad. But I am happy to be here, too.

Yr Faraway Friend,