Friday, August 19, 2011

Spotlight: The SITI Company

In 1992, the year I graduated from college, Anne Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki started a theatre company called the Saratoga International Theatre Institute company - or as it has come to be known The SITI Co. It is one of the rare ensemble based theatres still found in the US. And the gel that keeps its company together is its training. Like a theatrical Reeses Peanut Butter Cup, Anne took The Viewpoints technique developed by modern dance choreographer Mary Overlie and combined it with theatre director Tadashi Suzuki's nearly martial arts form of theatre training. 
Suzuki (not to be confused with the musical training style) is a rigid set of exercises led by a sensei like figure in what feels like a karate class where every step you take is stomped into the ground with all the power you can muster. Viewpoints requires you enter an improvisational mode, open to receiving information from everyone and everything around you and reacting to all influences instantly. If someone sneezes, it must directly change the entire course of a Viewpoints exercise. Suzuki can be brutal, calling upon you to ignore pain in order to accomplish a routine. Sweat pours. Ankles are wrapped. People burst into tears. Viewpoints can be sensual, or spirited, calling upon you to be profoundly intimate with the people you practice with. Your mind opens and you become aware of the bolts sticking out of the wall in the back to the rehearsal space. Then by groupmind they become the focus of the entire piece. 
Suzuki is vertical - connecting you to the Earth and raising you to the heavens. Viewpoints is horizontal - connecting you with everything and everyone in this temporal plane. And the juxtaposition of the two make for a fascinating training which has nothing to with how to act. It just refines the tools you use when you act. And that's why I love training with SITI. 
I first heard about Anne in 1998 when someone who saw my show Virtual Motion asked when I'd studied with her. I had no idea what they were talking about. It seems my pursuits in choreographed new experimental opera aligned so strongly with Anne's it looked like I'd used her theatrical composition techniques to generate my show. In retrospect, my intuitive particular focus on The Viewpoints of Gesture, Repetition, Floor Plan, and Kinesthetic Response would seem like something SITI might come up with. That made me curious enough to seek out SITI and spend 2 weeks immersed with them in 1999. Then I went to NY and continued studying with them on and off through 2001. 
After all that, I believe the training, taught by all the members of the company, comprise an amazing gymnasium that trains you to be present and able. The acting part, they leave up to you and your director. And I think I was able to stay with it for so long because it didn't come with a dogmatic pedagogy. 
Anne is now the head of directing in the Theatre Department at Columbia University and she and SITI have become the premiere alternative form of theatrical study in the US. Anne has written two beautiful book about the artistic process that make me weep. And Anne writes some similarly themed blogs which are based on the premise that the arts are indispensable and for those who say you can't eat art, she would respond that actually you can - artists nourish the soul. And they do so in a world where few others besides the clergy have that awesome responsibility. She makes being an artist a noble calling. Reading her work can be simultaneously inspiring for what she believes artists mean to the world and depressing if I feel I haven't lived up to her expectations.
However, despite how much I've enjoyed her writing and training, when I've seen productions by her former students I've found the traces of Viewpoints and Suzuki so present in their work, they looked like they were constructed from elements that weren't authentic to the piece. In fact, dramaturgs had to catch up to SITI and give a name for what they and others were doing, and so the antiseptic and academic nomenclature of "Devised Theatre" was born. For a long time Anne said little on how to apply the training to one's actual projects. Recently she expressed her "frustration" about the trend of devising the staging of a piece by using The Viewpoints in rehearsal and declared "to apply this training directly to making a play is like applying a barre class to the making of a ballet." I think this is equally if not more applicable to Suzuki which is so specifically Japanese of origin, it looks particularly foreign object in any American production. 
And when the SITI Co. itself presents a work, you don't see the Suzuki onstage. Occasionally you do see The Viewpoints like in the climactic 15 minutes of Cabin Pressure (which I'd heard came directly out of a Viewpoints rehearsal and it looked like it). Not that that was a bad thing in the context. The theatre became a dance and as the piece was about not only the relationship between audience and actors, but also about the sacred space of 'Backstage', it seemed in keeping with the theme to have a rehearsal experiment become part of the finished work. My favorite moment in that particular show was with Barney O'Hanlan playing the role of a stage manager backstage. We could hear the "performance" being given off-stage while we watched Barney follow the script in near darkness. Calling off cues to his unseen board ops, he quietly paced the boards, whispering into his headset like a NASA flight controller in Houston romancing the telemetry of a mission, "...cue 35, ready... aaand... go." It was so intimate and beautiful and fragile. It felt like witnessing first love. Never have I felt anything so powerfully captured the sacred space of backstage.

And that's where SITI excels - in creating magical moments. Their weakness I'm afraid are the texts they choose to perform. Sometimes they're created by committee. Sometimes they bring in playwrights they love and work with them again and again. But too often there's a structural integrity missing to the text which is a profound imbalance when you see the extraordinary integrity in their performance. So in the end, I've only seen two shows I've seen of theirs that have dramatic integrity throughout the piece. One was bobraushenberamerica by Chuck Mee whose collage style fit the artist who inspired the piece perfectly. The other was Death and The Ploughman, a play from 1401 by Johannes Von Saaz Translated by Michael West. The bones of that old piece were so intact, SITI could weave their ornamental webs around it to profound effect.
And with that in mind, here's some really good news:
SITI is doing a rare show in Los Angeles. And it's based on an ancient Greek play The Trojan Woman adapted by Jocelyn Clark. A fine spine to that old show. Moreover it's being performed at the amphitheatre at The Getty Malibu starting September 1, 2011. I can't wait to see it. And with their growing reputation, the demand will be huge, so get your tickets now right here.


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