acting, Poland, quotes, the chorus, theater

“Like most poets, I don’t know where I’m going.”

Monday, July 25, 2011

Dear Milo,

It’s Monday afternoon. I’m sitting in the front room of the dimly lit cafe Mleczarnia, at (I think) the very same table where I first sat with R. when I first came to Wroclaw, two years ago, eating a slice from the same walnut-encrusted cake. (Perhaps not exactly the same cake. But its brother.)

Mleczarnia is one of my favorite places in Wroclaw, and not just because its courtyard adjoins the White Stork Synagogue. It’s also beautiful inside. The walls are covered with black-and-white photographs. The people in the portraits, in black dresses with white collars, in wedding gowns and formal suits, remind me of the one photograph I’ve seen of my grandmother’s mother, Sylvia Schwartz. Candles as tall as rulers stand on tables, next to teapots of dried flowers. And in front of me, a line of actors and tourists and Wroclawians are ordering enormous glasses of Zywiec.

To my great happiness, R. is actually in town, and will be joining me in a few hours!
I have my laptop and my cake and some tea I’ve let overbrew. I have two days of training to tell you about, but first I have a quote. (“Now, sir, what is your text?”)

“Like most poets, I don’t know where I’m going. The pen is an instrument of discovery rather than just a recording implement. If you write a letter of resignation or something with an agenda, you’re simply using a pen to record what you have thought out. In a poem, the pen is more like a flashlight, a Geiger counter, or one of those metal detectors that people walk around beaches with. You’re trying to discover something that you don’t know exists, maybe something of value.”
–Billy Collins, interviewed in the Paris Review (

If you read “the performer’s body” for “the pen,” then this quote also applies to our own training. It is necessary to enter the rehearsal room with no more preconceptions than you have when you picks up a pen. (Of course, you often pick up a pen with tons of preconceptions. But the best writing comes when you let them go.)

The only way you can get anywhere is to let yourself not know where you’re going.

Recap of Sunday, July 24

After a shared breakfast in the kitchen with M. and L., we head to the theater. We
carry recycling down the steps to deposit it in a neighbor’s courtyard—not all the buildings here have recycling. We pass two old women at the corner of Jedenosci Narodowej, where we turn south to head over the Odra. One of them says something in Polish, and then cackles. M., who is fluent, cracks up as we move away from them.

“Did you understand what she said?” M asks me.

I didn’t.

“She said ‘I am wearing black because I’m in mourning! My cat died! Ha, ha, ha!’”

“From her tone, I thought she was slagging someone off,” says L.

We go to the theater, and we do the following exercises. Because I didn’t write this yesterday, my memory of what we did when is shady, but it was something like this.

1) Warm-up.Walk around the theater in the SOTG walk, thinking about ourselves and how we are. G. asks us to check in with ourselves—part of the same affirmation he gives each morning, where he says that whoever we are is exactly who we should be.

“Are you the kind of person who looks for problems?” asks G. “Are you the kind of person who isn’t happy unless there is some kind of a problem?” He implies, I think, that if we are, we might as well know it—but also accept it. This is powerful. Rather than saying “You need to change,” G. tells us, over and over again, that we don’t have to.

It reminds me of a yoga teacher, R., I had in Chicago who once, before beginning a difficult sequence, said “Make sure to judge yourself really harshly here.” We all laughed, but it was much more effective than saying “Go easy on yourself.”

2) Triggering emotions in body. As we walk around the room, G. re-incorporates the eye contact exercise from Day 1 for awhile, to attune us to each other. (Walking around with a drumbeat, looking at each other.) Once this is set, he calls out emotions and asks us to invoke them in our bodies and in our looks at each other. Jealousy. Love. And then–losing that love. Where are these emotions in our bodies?

3) More work with the light bamboo sticks—throwing and catching in pairs, but incorporating, again, an element of stillness when we catch the stick. I am resistant to the stick work, probably because I’m afraid of hurting someone or getting hurt. This fear is one of the duller qualities in my own performance. I’m not trying to push myself or my partners as much as I should—I’m just trying to make sure we all get out in one piece. I’m not really sure I can change this about myself, though. The only way around it—apart from violently flinging sticks at people—is just being better coordinated and more alert. If I was more confident in my own abilities, I wouldn’t feel that I was taking my partner’s life in my hands every time I threw a stick at her. Practice, practice. I need more familiarity.

4) There was also something with the sticks with a kind of “horse and rider” name—the one with the stick was the rider—where we were walking around the room in a walk that got close to the leaping walk, with a drumbeat, following the hips and legs and rhythm of the “horse.” It was basically just to keep us attuned to our partners. G. would call out “Switch” and we’d trade who was leading and who following.

This kind of leaping walking is a second kind of signature movement that seems to be throughout SOTG—and something that is learned through example, rather than through directions. You watch it, and you know how to do it. It’s a kind of cavorting. Your knees are bent, your steps are large, your movements have many diagonals to them. Lots of going sideways.

5) Leaping walk with alternating clap and chant.
This was quite successful. A bit fuzzy here, but it was a walking exercise that turned into running, and somehow—I can’t even remember how, which means I was enjoying it—it ended with all of us chanting a note together, on “Ha,” and clapping every other beat. Like this: HA – clap – HA – clap. We would take one step on each count.

The effect was almost like a sort of slow-motion, or a freeze-frame, or slow old animation. But it was very vigorous—we were leaping and moving in and around one another with a lot of energy.

I absolutely loved this one. I can see that it’s going to be a problem for me to remember the nature of the exercises with singing, because I’m so happy when we do them that I just tune all the way in and stop analyzing.

When this exercise ended, after a long, long moment of alternating clap and chant, we were all, I think, very pleased with ourselves. It was a good moment.

“Okay,” G. said, “so you do have some energy.”

6) A powerful exercise around the nature of fire, or flame. It begins with two people—one is moving and the other one is still. A drum is playing, and the harmonium. The moving person dances (a kind of leaping running on the beat, very rhythmic, no set steps), and they come to a stop close to the still person, after about 8 counts. The still person then picks up the energy of the dance and continues for about 8 or 10 counts, and then stops and transfers energy again. The actors alternate being the still and the dancing performer. This continues.

We did this flame exercise in larger groups, first threes and fours, then two nines, then all eighteen of us—and any number of people could be still or moving as long as someone was still at all times. We worked on this for a long time.

There were a couple of times when four or five people were doing the flame movement together, and two leaping people would suddenly change into still people, and vice versa, and it really was like sparks flying in and out of a fire. It ignited. It combusted.

I think this would work with very young students, but it still had a significant challenge in it even for more experienced actors. I couldn’t get it quite right, myself. It was about timing, and listening, and giving yourself up to the rhythm—but also about watching and knowing when to leap into action yourself. It was harder than it looked.

We take a break after the fire/flame exercise, and begin, in the last hour of the day, our first explicit co-ordination exercises.

7) Beginning co-ordination exercises.
“Because you are doing well with all of this,” says G., “we will start an exercise that is the real core of the co-ordination method. This simple exercise—perhaps it is not so simple. Maybe it is simple to explain. This exercise is the core of everything we do as a theater.”

Part one:
-Separate into partners.
-Stand about a meter apart from each other.
-Just look at each other, without gazing into eyes—look.
-Make very simple movements, only a gentle lean or else walking, forward and then back. One person leads, the other follows. No other movements, no mirroring, no hands.
– The movement is not mirrored. In other words, if I am leading and I step forward with my right foot, your response is to step backwards with your left foot. In this way, we maintain our connection and our distance.
-Then the other person leads.

Part two:
-Still separated in partners.
-One person stands still looking straight forward.
-The other person moves, slowly, around them, changing position. When you take a new position, you hold it awhile, to see what comes from that.
-Both partners feel whatever they feel as a result of the changed positions.
-Do this for a long long time, and then switch; the other person stands still, and the first person moves.

This exercise is incredibly hard, for several reasons.

First, standing still for ten or twenty minutes kills your feet. Absolutely kills them. It is by far more painful than running.

Second, being observed, being gazed at—having to submit to someone else’s gaze, and not being able to move—brings up tons of difficult memories for a lot of people.

Third, and most importantly, these are hard exercises, and they require a lot of trust and concentration. You can’t get them the first time. I have done the Part 2 one before, in Anna’s workshop, and it was amazing to see the responses from the advanced students who had done it before. Some were still brought to tears by it.

These co-ordination exercises end our session for the day. 30 minutes of yoga winds us down.

After training, we head over to the White Stork courtyard. We didn’t go to Mleczarnia, but to Sarah—the restaurant that serves Jewish and Eastern European food. Latkes in a Polish version with spinach on top of them, covered with cheese. Pierogi. Goulash. It’s very good. We sat, about ten or twelve of us, around a table, a little dazed. We drank beer and tea with lemons sliced into it. Some of the actors stayed near the Rynek for a concert, but I lost steam around 7 or 8 and headed home, just missing R.

I bumped into L. at home, and we talked awhile. I told her about how great it is for me to hang out with a British actress, like her, and the weird inferiority complex I have about all British theater, and obsession with British literature, never-been-to-London, etc., etc. She has some great stories—she grew up in a region not that far from Bath which sounds a heck of a lot like Santa Cruz or Sedona, with hippies and crystals. She spent a couple summers in Bath, and says it has weird energy—that it’s deep in a valley and sometimes you feel that you’re trapped there and can’t get out, and people do strange things. It gave me a new appreciation of Austen’s Bath.

More Star Trek: TNG, and bed. I look forward to watching old American television at night more than I can say. It seems to serve as the reward I need in order to keep doing this work, day in and day out. It reminds me of my childhood. It also reminds me of my poet friend L. from JHU, who loved TNG as much as I did. We were of an age, and both of West-Coast semi-hippie parents, and it just must have been in the water.

However, my brain is buzzing with thoughts of “what is acting” and “what is performing” and I find myself analyzing Patrick Stewart more than I usually do, even rewinding the little online video player to look at his face.

Sleep. Insert Lethe reference.

This concludes the recap. Moving on to the present.

I’m still in the cafe, writing, and in front of me, a toddler is passed out in his mother’s arms in line. He looks like a statue. But he also looks like something familiar to me. He reminds me of how close I felt to E. during an exercise today, a marionette/puppet exercise in guided touch where you only move when pushed by your partner.

The intimacy that a child has with his mother’s body is something close to the intimacy we’re trying to create between actors’ bodies. It’s a kind of touch that comes from need, and a kind of trust that comes from not knowing fear. It has to do with giving your weight entirely to someone and knowing they will support you and not resent it.

U2 is on the radio. I don’t recognize all the alt-rock and jazz they play here, but I’d know this song from its first note in and among a thousand. It makes me think of K., and driving in her blue Subaru around the Stanford foothills, on a quest for movies and enormous flagons of beer. She drove me from Stanford to LA one break—it was the best cross-country drive I’ve ever had.

The sound system fails, and a screeching noise interrupts the song.

In any case:

Monday, July 25, 2011: Day 3 of G’s workshop

I am very sluggish when I wake up, and peeved at having missed R. at Mleczarnia last night. I send her four contradictory emails hoping she hasn’t left town yet, and pack my laptop with me in my theater bag so I can check my email the moment after rehearsal. I really need to get a cell phone. Something for the day off.

All of us are dead tired this morning, but no matter how tired we are, there is a tightening of energy, and intensity when G. walks into the room, and we all stand up, alert and bouncing on the balls of our feet, ready to work. There is so much respect for him in the room. This morning, he asks us if we had any parties last night.

Despite most of us having been drinking at Mleczarnia from 4 till about midnight, it didn’t really feel like a party as much as sitting at a table with a beer, so no one says anything.

“No?” G. says. “No parties? Is this true?” He turns to A., one of the MA veterans.

Something I should have mentioned before is that these workshops contain not only a master teacher but a number of almost-master teachers, or apprentice teachers—sort of like brown belts in a karate class, or something. More advanced students.

“It is true,” says A.

“No Kalambur?”

“No.” (Kalambur is a great bar off the Rynek, louder and more partytastic than Mleczarnia. Mle. is mellow.)

“When I was at Gardzienice,” says G. (and we’re all ears—that company’s work is legendary) “we would work until very late in the evening—two or three AM—and we were too energized to sleep. So we would drink until morning—lots of vodka—sleep all day, and go back to the theater at around six, for rehearsals.”

We laugh, smile, and nod. There’s an understanding, I think, among everyone in the room, that, awesome as this was, there is a reason that we have all chosen to work during daytime hours now.

“And now I have no liver,” says G. “Let’s walk.”

1) SOTG walking again.

2) Giving each other massages while standing. This is something I was awful at during A.’s workshop last year—it made me uncomfortable, and triggered the part of me that is shy—but we are so damn stiff and need this so badly that I get over it. I even remember to tell my partner that my shoulder is screwed up and not to dig in too hard. Well, she did ask me how hard to go, but I answered her honestly, instead of trying to tough it out.

3) Back to walking and something that had singing in it. (I’m terrible.) Okay, wait, it had four notes in it, a little four-note melody, maybe E F E AbelowmidC—the most complex musical phrase we’ve learned so far—and we were supposed to connect with eye contact to one of the other actors on each one of the notes. Give each note to one of the actors. We did this for a long, long time.

He had us maintain the melody while we walked, while we were still, in a circle, scattered, etc.

He had us give the notes to each other (still walking, still moving) with certain emotional intentions, certain verbs–“come here,” “go away,” “love,” “hate.”

Our last formation was, I think, scattered, and G. conducted us on the melody, controlling the length and volume of the notes, for quite some time. Very cool.

After the break (all these breaks are no more than 10-15 minutes in length—we are all eager to return to the room, to keep the energy up) G. talks about Gardzienice again. He says that when he was there, he enjoyed the strength of his own body in physical performance, very much—but that what he is getting more interested in now has to do with feelings, the performers’ feelings, not just strength.

He also says that he is feeling tired, and he would like to lie on the floor and go to sleep.

“Of course, I don’t do this,” he says, “but I would like to. It is better to just be honest about it.”

Nods. Agreement. We are all so worn out. G., who has the body of Bionic Man, is obviously not as tired as we are—or is he?—but it is so nice of him to acknowledge that he is not Superman, either. This moment, of sharing human frailty with a group of actors—it takes a strong director to do that.

I don’t think of this in the moment, but I am reminded now of the directors I’ve known (including myself) who would have rather died than acknowledged to a cast that they were sick or at all off-kilter.

We are human. We are flawed. We are tired.

“So, let’s run,” he says.

Funny. He made us think we were going to get an easy afternoon, cause he was tired. Nope. We run. And I have to take back everything I’ve said about there being no humor in Polish theater. There’s a kind of drill-sergeant black humor, for sure.

We run, round in circles, changing direction as we go.

My feet are in pain. Luckily (knock on every tree in Sherwood Forest, Sequoia National, and all along the Appalacian trail) I don’t have blisters yet—it’s more that they hurt everywhere. My running is perfunctory. As running, it sucks.

But then something happens, and this has to do with running in a group. My energy rises to the occasion, and I am running freely and fluidly. It happens every time.

After the running, we do an exercise where we are trying to be like snakes, or to find a snake-like connection throughout the joints. We gyrate our hips, our knees, our ankles, then we let the gyrations move throughout our entire bodies, and we find a circularity, a sort of sinuous thrashing around. This lasts a long time, and I am helped by thinking of the idea of the “spiral” that I learned in A.’s workshop last year. G. doesn’t use this word, but by looking round the room, I see lots of spirals happening.

I really throw myself into this one. I’m so happy not to be running that I’m flinging my body around like a Slinky. It feels good. I feel as if I have a limitless spiral within me.

But then I notice that I am doing well at it, and noticing makes me do less well. This phenomenon in performers—patting yourself on the back and then losing focus as a result—is something I was discussing with L. last night. And here it is.

In performance, unlike in writing (and unlike in film—I mean in live performance) your every psychological second-guessing, misstep or doubt, becomes a part of the work.

We are all moving very vigorously. Once we get the snake-movement going, G. varies it by asking it to be less violent, more violent—on the ground, not on the ground—etc. Then we move around some, maintaining the spiraling and snaking.

After the snake exercise, the remainder of our session is focused around an marionette/puppet exercise in partners, where you change your partner’s physical position by touching them. This exercise has these parts:

1) From standing in place, still partner with eyes closed—moving partner with eyes open. The moving partner touches the still partner, and your body responds to the touch by moving gently in its direction. After your body moves, it returns gently and gradually to its neutral standing position, like a spring, and your partner touches you again to make you move.
2) Same exercise, but the still eyes-closed partner can now walk around, fall to the ground, roll, etc., where as in (1) you needed to basically stay planted.
3) Repeat (1) and (2) with the partners changing roles.

And then:
(4) Repeat (1) and (2) with a new tone to the movement. Two changes:
– Eyes open.
– Movements are meant to end in a kind of suspension. In other words, your body doesn’t go back to neutral, but ends hanging mid-air wherever the push took you.
(5) Continue (2), the version where you can move around the room, for a very long time. (The words “for a very long time” should be added to most of the descriptions of the exercises in this blog. Time, duration, is an essential component of how SOTG works.) Treat your partner as if you are dancing with them.
(6) Continue touching and guiding, but try to respond to the puppet partner’s emotions, to touch and guide what they are feeling. Bring out their feelings.
(7) At the very last stage, get close to your partner, and if you are the puppeteer, say your text very gently and quietly in their ear. Whisper. Try to move them with the text as well as the direction touches. This last stage only lasted a few minutes.

This was very powerful, both in terms of surrendering your body to another performer and in terms of the theatrical principle that everything you do on stage should be done to produce an effect on someone else.

After this exercise ended, G. said it was OK, but not to be perfunctory. The point, he said, in all these exercises, is to be completely engaged and open all the time. If you shut down, if you close off, it doesn’t work.

I took this to heart, because I know I wasn’t completely open all the time. As with the stick work, if I think someone else’s safety is at stake, I second-guess myself. I would rather be too careful than stretch our boundaries. I’d rather just be good enough.

Creepily, just as I was writing this up in the cafe, my partner of this long marionette exercise—a short and beautiful dark-haired woman—walked up to me out of the candlelit room. Small city, Wroclaw.

She probably doesn’t need me protecting her. I need to find a way to worry less about safety.

After workshop, I dash from yoga to the shower queue. (So many Brits—no one calls it a “line.”) I shower, and, God, I feel marvelously invigorated. Clearly showering immediately after these practices is the only way I’m going to want to hang out.)

It is sunny and glorious. When I come outside and see all the actors gathered on the brick steps, they look like a postcard of cool. We have been running for five hours—we are self-satisfied and hungry and worn out, we are wearing sunglasses and colorful scarves and thin leather jackets.

We sit on the steps outside the theater, some of us drinking beers from Lulu Belle, waiting for the smokers to smoke and the showerers to shower and all of us to just get our heads together, and then most everyone makes their way up to sit by the bridge over the Odra and eat carry-out food in the sunlight.

I don’t. I am on a mission to reconnect with R. and I’m going where there are Internets. I head back through the Rynek, with an obligatory stop at my favorite gelato place (stracciatella). Yes, ice cream and cake in the same day. If you were doing the exercises I am, you’d feel entitled to eat a boar’s head.

The Rynek is beautiful in the sun. The enormous tall buildings with their funny curved and colored facades, with their detailed window-dressings. The building painted head to toe with murals of the nine Muses, or the four Graces, or whatever. Children in bicycle seats. Teenage boys with balloons. It makes me remember why I fell in love with this city and this theater, and why I have gone through so much to be back here.

I feel, today, as if it was the right decision to come here. And I’m here now, back in Mleczarnia—and R will be here in eight minutes—and the radio is playing Simon and Garfunkel.

We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files—
We’d like to help you learn to help yourself…

Here’s some more Billy Collins—I will try to have a quote at the end, on occasion, as a reward to those of you (anyone? anyone?) who make it through these lengthy posts. They are so so so so long that after I post them WordPress chimes in with a little “Wowzers*! That post had EIGHTY BILLION WORDS!” message.

Quoth Collins, in the same Paris Review interview:

If you had to construct a poet out of whole cloth, so to speak, what attributes would you give him or her?

A Frankenstein monster! First, a sense of attentiveness. Then wanting to hang around the language. If you look a word up in the dictionary and twenty minutes later you’re still wandering around in the dictionary, you probably have the most basic equipment you need to be a poet. It’s just liking the texture of language. I think there’s another thing, a kind of attitude—an attitude of not ever getting used to being alive, of not ever taking your life for granted.

There’s a very deep strain of existential gratitude that runs through a lot of poetry. It’s certainly in haiku. Almost every haiku says the same thing: it’s amazing to be alive here. There’s a little haiku: “A cherry tree in blossom / In the distance / I hear a dog barking.” Those two things have nothing to do with each other, except the fact that the poet was there to see and hear them. So the haiku is saying, I was here. “Kilroy was here.” To appreciate the wonder of that, you have to imagine the absence of that, of not being there, of nonexistence, right? I consider poets to be a part of a larger group of people who don’t have to survive major surgery or go through a windshield in order to feel grateful for being alive. It shouldn’t require such traumatic experiences to feel grateful. So I think a love of language and a sense of gratitude would be two ingredients in the recipe for making a poet.

Billy Collins, interviewed in the Paris Review (

A sense of gratitude, yes.

The work I’m doing right now with TPK is so incredibly physically demanding that it can only be done by either a) young people or b)older people who have taken very good care of their bodies. I am still in category A. I am grateful for that.

I am grateful that, despite not having really done that much to take care of myself—my fitness up to this point has been of the “work really hard for awhile and do something crazy like run a marathon or go to yoga every day for six months and then do nothing at all for the next two years” variety—I can still participate in this work. Not just participate—not just survive—but enjoy. I am enjoying myself, and I’m still young enough to do this.

And I found this company when I still had a chance to take part in their work, before it was too late for me.

Thank effing goodness for that.

Here are some things I thought after rehearsal today:

As a writer, I am never interested in what is safe. I never worry if I am being asked to do something “hard,” like write a poem in meter, or whatever. I welcome “hard” tasks and challenges. In fact, I’m constantly looking for harder ones. Also, as a writer, I never worry about “if I’m really a writer or not.” I trust and believe that I am. I do not doubt it.

Perhaps, as a performer, I need to grant myself the same liberties. That is: I should welcome, not fear, “hard” exercises, I should not be at all interested in “good enough”—and I should give myself freedom from this constant worry about “if I’m really a performer or not.”

This will be hard to do, and will require returning to a mindset I haven’t had since, I don’t know, second grade. But it is the way to move forward.

The other actors are pouring into the cafe now, including my friend L. She sees me at the laptop and says “You look very at home.” Yes, well, I am a writer, and this is my home—writing.

But I am also a performer.

I will try not to doubt it again.

I’m done with my post, and the cafe sound system is playing “The Age of Aquarius” from HAIR. My spine, conditioned to leap into movement at the slightest sound from the past three days, starts doing the “snake” thing again. Really, the best way to keep doing work like this is to never stop doing it.

Harmony and understanding,
(incomprehensible lines)
mystic crystal revelations…
(something something)

When the moon is in the seventh house…

I miss you guys. But here is where I need to be, and we both know that.

Yours in Poland,

*It is really my friend the poet S. K. who says “Wowzers,” not WordPress, or anyone else on the planet.