This is an essay excerpted from the report of the International Suzuki Symposium (2009-2011, printed by Japan Performing Arts Foundation.....
A TREATISE ON THE ONE TRUE ACTOR TRAINING
I'd like to declare at the outset that I believe the Suzuki Method of Actor Training created by Tadashi Suzuki is a classic system for developing actors. I believe it can be equated with classical ballet, and similarly, many regional variants of Mr. Suzuki's system have and will be developed over time. Classical ballet has over its 150 years developed regional variations such as French, Russian and English; all with different mannerisms and ornamentations, but with the same core muscular principles.
Once it is better understood in the west, I believe that comparable situations will occur with Mr. Suzuki's seminal method. As an Australian actor and teacher I have evolved the Frank Suzuki Actor Knowhow (FSAK) over the last 18 years, as a vector of my experiences as actor, my personal beliefs and the culture in which I live. It is called the FSAK because it acknowledges the source, Suzuki, and it also indicates my own contributions.
Mr. Suzuki has codified his personal version of the Suzuki Method of Actor Training to suit his directorial aesthetic and I do not pretend to 'know' his system in its entirety, nor would I talk for it in specific terms. I can only speak about what I have learnt from his training and from working under him as an actor, and about how this has stimulated me to adapt and invent further exercises as a result.
For this article I refer to Suzuki Method as the prime system, whilst I'll be making references to the FSAK as an example of possible permutation.
What knowledge do I bring to the Suzuki Method?
For a number of years I was a professional modern dancer and my partner, Jacqui Carroll, the director of Ozfrank, was a choreographer working in many forms of dance, from three-act-classical ballets to post-modern dance pieces. In parallel career changes, I became interested in acting and she in directing texts.
At one stage during Jacqui’s choreographic career she was invited into the world of theatre and spent a year being groomed as a director with a flagship Australian theatre company, after which she returned, by choice, to dance. She did so because she preferred to work with dancers who possessed extremely definable skills, unlike the actors she had been working with, who, she had observed, appeared to work in an atmosphere of ego wrangling and prevarication. She was looking for an acting process which had the liturgical structure and moral imperative of a dance class but which would develop the voice in tandem with the body.
I myself had started doing acting classes of the 'peter piper picked a peck of pickled peppers' variety with an old-style thespian and found the lack of structure and its capricious whimsy bemusingly slight.
Through sheer serendipity I participated in a ten day training session with Mr. Suzuki in Melbourne in 1991, and instinctively knew I had found the system I needed. Likewise Jacqui, on viewing a demonstration at the end of the session, felt she had finally come across a truly methodical and deeply practical method of actor preparation.
A modern dancer, I had been schooled in the Martha Graham technique, the dance training that most places primacy on 'grounding', so I was very well prepared for the Suzuki training in terms of movement, if not voice.
Note: All references to dance training in this treatise refer to what I would call deep dance training. This labels the major dance techniques: Classical, and the four major modern systems: Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Merce Cunningham and Lester Horton. Each of these pursue, in separate ways, particular attitudes to the way the body moves and learns. What they share is:
1. An acute understanding of the body's structure and how to amplify it,
2. A truly self-interrogative attitude to their own development,
3. A moral imperative that the dancer be physically transcendent,
4. The belief that a dancer's growth depends on exacting discipline.
Jacqui is an extremely capable teacher in, amongst others, those five major techniques. So between us, I from the inside and Jacqui from without, brought a particular kinesthetic knowledge with which to ascertain the technique behind the moral power of the Suzuki Method.
This knowledge is important because the most striking aspect of the Suzuki Method is its moral imperative which possesses such a visceral power that most actors on viewing it are discombobulated into thinking it to be an aesthetic in itself. It isn’t, and it requires anatomical knowledge to divine the method behind the effect.
The Suzuki Method is a matrix with all the hallmarks of a classic physical training system!
What do I mean by a classic physical training system?
At its fullest stage of development, a classic system, unlike a post-modern style, is one which, irrespective of ornament and fashion, addresses the essential anatomical truths of the human body and amplifies their possibilities. By this I mean that it has devised exercises that stretch the body's range and capability without destroying the muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments.
It is a fine line between pushing the body to its maximum, and pushing it too far, and the appositeness of the training vocabulary takes time to refine.
I am making a comparison of the dance technique of Classical Ballet with the Suzuki Method because both have a clear 'liturgical' structure that moves from basics to advanced exercises through a very logical kinesthetic process.
A classic physical training system must have:
A comprehension (either explicit or implicit) of the mechanical functioning of the human body.
A technical procedure that is clear, anatomically logical and directed towards a thorough and careful accumulation of expertise.
A core philosophical knowledge that is apparent regardless of regional and cultural variations, notwithstanding the idiosyncratic preferences of the teacher.
A transparency whereby the structural integrity is apparent in spite of whatever ornamentation might (appear to) be dominant.
By these definitions, Suzuki Method and Classical Ballet are both classic systems.
To illustrate that the Suzuki Method is a classic system I would like to compare the Ballet exercise 'Tendu' with a Suzuki basic exercise like 'No. 3 pt 2', pointing out the structural kinesiological intelligence inherent in both.
Ballet class generally starts with practice at the barre, which is executed while the dancers lightly hold on to a waist-high timber pole with either their left or right hand alternating.
The tendu is generally the second exercise done at the barre after pliès.
Commencing in Fifth position (legs straight, turned out 180 degrees, one foot in front of the other with R heel touching L toe, and vice versa), the exercise consists of caressing the ground with the foot as the leg is taken forward with the foot, at the point of full extension, extended in a fully arched position and rotated outwards so only the little toe remains on the ground; this action is reversed to return to fifth position. The brush and extend action is then repeated to the side of the body with a return to fifth behind, and then to the back with a return to fifth behind; then back to the side again to return to the original starting fifth in front. The ‘out’ position is with the toe touching the ground in a direct line from where it started. These actions are then repeated by changing direction at the barre to use the other leg.
There is an entire library of arm positions, called port de bras, which for brevity's sake, I will omit.
The purpose of the tendu is to:
1. Develop control and flexibility of the ' turn out' in the hip joint, for without it, the leg cannot be raised to any meaningful height.
2. Build the flexibility and strength of the arch of the foot, for without it, a dancer will never have a good leg line (aesthetic). As well the ankle is loosened and strengthened for balancing. (Accurate pirouettes and pointe work remain unattainable if the body's centre cannot be truly over the centre line of the knee, ankle and foot - structural integrity).
3. Develop the isometric strength of the leg.
A fully turned out 'fifth position of the feet is pictorially and mechanically the perfect ballet position, with the centre stationed over both legs, while they are in extreme rotation (in truth only the most advanced dancers can achieve a functional perfect fifth!).
To move from the fifth, in the three main directions, first at the barre and then unsupported in the centre of the room, is fundamental to gaining height and control of the legs. The issue here being to develop the true turn-out muscles, which lie immediately in front of and behind the hip joints - the ones associated with the supporting leg to maintain the integrity of the position, and the muscles of the working leg to achieve maximum turn out with which to achieve optimum leg height.
Later in the class, the basic action of the Tendu leads, via the Glisse, on to Grand Battements, where the Tendu is further extended to allow the leg to attain as great a height as possible.
Suzuki 'No 3 pt 2':
In this exercise, the actor moves directly towards and then away from the audience.
Starting with the feet together in parallel, heels on ground and with legs half bent, the first action is to sweep the R leg out directly forward and up, and pull it back sharply so that the bent upper leg is horizontal, and the foot flexed. Next, the lifted leg is ‘stomped’ downwards, vigorously, so that it engages the ground adjacent to the standing leg. The R leg then drives forward so that the weight is entirely on the R foot with the L leg behind, straight, and the L heel on the ground. All three actions are then repeated on the L side. It is done to random timing commands. The basic arm positions are maintained by the sides, hands held in a soft fist, but like ballet, there are limitless arm possibilities.
A crucial component is that the trunk of the body should not be deformed or disturbed by any of the movements, which should all be performed with great rigour.
Suzuki 'No 3 pt 2' has the following focal points:
1. To control the way the centre of the body moves on stage. Every movement in the sequence requires that the upper body and arms not be disturbed by the leg action.
2. To gain ‘groundedness’ while moving. The second movement, the stomp, is the core tool of the Suzuki Method. It is the most powerful way of grounding oneself, and the rest of the sequence trains the body to remain grounded while moving.
3. To engage the audience. The most powerful energy on stage is the one directed at the audience and the parallel legs and feet of ‘No 3 pt 2’ are one of its strongest manifestations. By moving directly towards the audience, the actor is encouraged to engage them... and vice versa.
4. To stabilise and strengthen the body and voice. The entire sequence is executed with great vigour, balanced by equal and opposite stabilising forces in the body and legs, so that the upper body is soft, strong and still - undisturbed by the action below.
‘No 3 pt 2’ contains a cross section of practical physical demands which develop ‘core’ strength and stability which lead the actor to gaining vocal and physical power and creativity.
Both the classical ballet and Suzuki Method systems have evolved to equip the practitioner with definable skills and expertise which lead to greater control of the body and greater understanding of the body’s creative potential.
The major difference between the two is that classical ballet is a method and a form, whilst the Suzuki Method is essentially a method.
In Classical Ballet the external ‘form’ is born out of the ‘method’, by seeking to coerce the body into picturesque absolute feats - e.g. a perfectly straight horizontal leg in arabesque. This aesthetic, based on extremely facile bodies creating seemingly effortless ethereal pictures, requires bodies that already have 80 to 90 % of the required final suppleness before starting.
The purely methodical Suzuki Method, on the other hand, is designed for anybody, irrespective of sex, age, facility, coordination, musicality and flexibility. It is often misunderstood to be a form, but unlike ballet, which is concerned with an external 'pictorial' image, rather, the Suzuki Method uses the mechanical experience of the body to reveal, amplify and promote an interior imaginative landscape to the audience.
Both systems address the body's centre and its relationship with the ground in different but fundamental ways. Ballet uses turnout and exercises like the Tendu to make the dancer able to go 'up' and 'out' (to look tall and fine , with arm and leg lines that seem to stretch to infinity), and the Suzuki Method uses extreme physical actions in simple postures to search deeper into the soul.
This treatise posits 5 pertinent questions, the first three referring to the philosophical underpinnings of the Suzuki Method and the last two, descriptions of the functions of the exercises themselves:
1. Why is the Suzuki Method so misunderstood in the West?
2. Why is the Suzuki Method the only true training for an actor?
3. Why is it most appropriate for the 21st Century?
4. How does it empower the microcosm (the actor)?
5. How can it enhance the macrocosm (the performance)?
1.Why is the Suzuki Method so misunderstood in the West?
The Suzuki Method was first introduced to the west around the early 80s and it aroused a lot of interest in the first years.
During the first ten years it had been accepted for its novelty value, but gradually the acting community perceived it as immiscible with the traditional acting paradigms that have remained doggedly true to the late 19th Century.
It became essentially ghetto-ised as a 'Japanese Samurai Acting Style', and I think that happened for four reasons:
a. The moral power became a blind,
b. Its holistic approach is an anathema,
c. The untrained are unable to judge a true training.
d. The maligned but apocryphal 'Suzuki Actor' .
For these four reasons the Suzuki Method has become misdiagnosed as an aesthetic in itself, generally considered to be Mr. Suzuki's.
It is ironic that since he has established a unique aesthetic out of rigorously interrogating a training, the inverse has occurred- the training is charged with being an aesthetic!
a. The moral power generated became a blind:
The major key to the misunderstanding of the Suzuki Method is the fact that the human energy evinced by its praxis, so similar to that created within a sporting context, is almost entirely absent from standard theatrical travails.
Other actor preparations are randomly arrayed activities of little moral demand and governed by an insipid feminant cajolery. In truth the major component of other actor preparation is a type of ego massage and deflection, subtly managed by the successful teacher/director. This manifests as what may be termed an Evasive Imperative, as distinct from the Moral Imperative, generated by the Suzuki Method.
When one observes the Suzuki Method done by either Suzuki's company or indeed anyone who is competent, one is undeniably struck by the high degree of visceral energy generated by the actors. Not dissimilar to an equivalent sporting situation, this moral energy is produced by a fierce individual AND collective desire for self-betterment and self-discovery in terms of vocal and physical practice.
In many ways it is a theatrical event in itself, with an overwhelming charisma that can convince the spectator that they have witnessed a form of theatre. And the strength of this charisma has caused major misunderstandings throughout the Western theatrical sphere.
And here I'm not really referring to the uninitiated, the patron who comes in from the outside, lays his money down, and accepts or rejects with scant critique.
No, it is the actors and pedagogues who, on witnessing, for the most part are disturbed, befuddled into thinking they have been watching an aesthetic. This is compounded if they are also viewing the training mixed in with a performance cycle, such as in Toga during one of Mr. Suzuki's festivals, for Mr. Suzuki's theatre is every bit as compelling as his training. This has led many practitioners to the imprecise consideration that Mr. Suzuki's training and his theatre are indivisible!
I personally have been going to Toga on and off for many years..... was in the early stages very overwhelmed..... and have spent much time divining the difference between his training and his theatre, and determining what elements drive them both.
b. Its holistic approach is an anathema:
Conventional western acting approaches are sanctioned by the institutions for their literary and intellectual compatibility with academia. They have been affected by the Too Conscious conception that there be separation of the vocal and physical functions of the body because the western mind applies its marvelous scientific scrutiny to the amorphic mystery of art, in the forlorn hope that it can dissect it and then 'make sense of it'.
This separation entrenches the idea that the body is only the carrier of the voice, and only nominally connected to it
As with other pre-civilized (non conscious) learning systems, the Suzuki Method posits that integration is prime from the outset, with a ' liturgical' process that enhances the functions without separating them.
Rather than see the actor's body purely as a vehicle for the voice, the Suzuki Method functions as though there is no disconnection between the muscles of the body and the muscles of the voice. They are complimentary parts of an indivisible whole! This experiential rather than analytical attitude to learning puts the Suzuki Method into conflict with the prescriptive intellectual nature of modern western learning.
c. The untrained are unable to judge a true training.
All the Suzuki Method exercises, like their equivalents in music and football, are a preparation - in this case, for acting. But whilst such an approach is accepted as a requirement in music and sport, in acting it is generally regarded as weird and eccentric.
In sport, training consists of breaking down general field play into its constituent elements, then distilling them into repetitive routines, and practicing them until they become second nature. Once that happens the routines are then re-constituted in the form of practice games. This can be seen as the equivalent of rehearsing.
However, in a theatrical context such separation/distillation/recombination is often seen as bizarre stylization.
This misconception arises because, for the vast majority of actors who first encounter the Suzuki Method, they have no knowledge base (i.e. real previous training) from which to comprehend this new extreme method. Whatever they may have done before has given them no technical knowledge which they can then transpose to judge a novel experience. They only have querulous 'feelings' about what acting should be !
Up to now in the West, there seems to have been no systematic comprehension as to what a theatre training should and can be and this is because conventional acting has been blindsided by the human body's muscular structure, perceiving it to be unrelated to the voice.
Ironically, it is because the Suzuki Method exercises are so defined, and most actors are so unused to such a clear methodology, that there is a widespread misunderstanding that it is only a style of acting! It, of course, can be a style in a way, similar to classical ballet being seen as a style of dancing, but only if one's view is simplistic and culturally linear.
But quite emphatically, the Suzuki Method can also be a proving ground for theatre making - a matrix for making the production- about which later.
d. The maligned but apocryphal Suzuki Actor.
Apart from its reputation in the western Anglo-sphere as an exotic Japanese acting style - a Kung Fu Klub, the major misinterpretation is the extraordinary assertion that it produces a 'Suzuki Actor'!
Countless times I've heard or read references to 'Suzuki Positions' or 'Suzuki Movements' and most especially a 'Suzuki Voice', as though a statue or type of walk has been invented by Suzuki and doesn't exist outside the Suzuki Method. Suzuki hasn’t invented any positions, he doesn’t own the copyright on any movement or style of speaking!
It’s as ludicrous as saying a Stanislavski posture, or a Meissner speech.
What does inadvertently indicate?…..... this bizarre Suzuki name tagging?
It is compelling, is it not, that no-one talks of a Stanislavski movement or a Stanislavski voice?
As a pointed sports analogy…… no player in Glasgow Rangers football club would be described as having a Scottish kicking style!
So this peculiar labelling is an inverse tacit admission that the Suzuki Method is the first true training they have encountered - likely as not it'll be the only one they ever experience!
Such simplistic nomenclature is proof of the inverse respect and fear that the traditional holds for the Suzuki Method.
2. Why is the Suzuki Method the only true training for an actor?
The Suzuki Method has a number of elements not found collectively in any other acting systems, but have analogies in sports and music training:
c) A combination of Matrix and Dialectic
d) Lowest Common facility
f) Moral Imperative.
If one is looking to find an actor system with parallels to music or sports training, then the Suzuki Method is the only one! Why? Because it shares two crucial structural components with music and sport: (a) time and space formats and (b) bridging tools. In this situation, by formats I mean highly defined structures.
a) Time and Space Formats:
Both scales and arpeggios in music, and the highly codified and reduced training routines used in sports, are formats (defined structures).
In music, scales are melodic routines strongly defined in time and space (the space between the notes determines the rhythm).
In virtually all sports, players perform fixed routines such as (in soccer) dribbling the ball sideways for prescribed times and distances.
In both sports and music, such routines have a dual function - the development of concrete skills, and a deeper philosophical concept of self awareness.
In music, as well as developing dexterity, scales are also a meditation on the purpose of the music and the playing of it.
In sport, alongside personal skills, the player also develops an awareness of the other team members and his shifting geographical position on the field.
In the Suzuki Method, many of the exercises use music to structure the time (in terms of providing cues), matched to stage cues of space and distance. For instance an exercise may start at one point on the stage and end at another stage point on a certain music cue.
In our variant (the FSAK) we will do the same with speech, cue-ing it to specific points on the stage. In such a way the actor learns to perceive his voice as penetrating time and occupying space, and this 'experience' can be logged away subliminally, for use as creative source material in the future.
b) Bridging Tools:
Music has capos and metronomes, while sports have flags, cones and other devices that all provide 'bridging' experiences to simulate most aspects of the game, without the opposition present. They are 'bridging' because their residual muscular memory remains in the player, to be instinctively drawn upon during the game/performance proper.
Similarly, in our variant of the Suzuki Method, we use sticks, brooms, umbrellas, mirrors, and teddy bears as bridging tools to extend the actors' capabilities and sensitivities, with the proviso that the actors use them to create a kinaesthetic memory, which can be recalled at some later time. We also practice speeches with eyes shut, on tiptoes, and on one leg; variations which serve as 'body' challenge tools to more greatly empower the actor.
The term 'bridging tool' refers to a temporary transitional learning device that opens doors to other, deeper possibilities. Ultimately the tools are relinquished, for the actor has absorbed the requisite ability as locked-in memory.
c) Matrix and Dialectic:
The Suzuki Method, due to its highly structured nature, provides both a Matrix and a Dialectic.
Unfortunately few theatre people appear to be able to distinguish between an actor training (a matrix), and the relationship between an actor and director (a dialectic). Most think they are the same, and fail to realise that there is a huge difference in the way they affect actor preparation.
Let's define the terms: Matrix and Dialectic.
Matrix: "an environment or material in which something develops".
This is the training regimen.
Dialectic: "to and fro 'dialogue' between two different positions leading gradually to some form of rapprochement".
In this instance it might be put as the dialogue between the ideas of the director and the ability of the actor to realise them.
The word Matrix is used in science to describe a structured environment that provides nutritional potential for an organism, as well as protecting the organism from destructive agents that would threaten or corrupt it. A good example of this would be the Agar Gel used in a Petrie Dish, that scientists use to create and study chemical cultures.
If actor training is to have rigour, it has to exist inside an equivalent matrix, imposing structures and employing formats to minimize maverick emotional and psychological elements. The 'protection' this offers is the cropping of the deceptive and destructive highs and lows to which an actor's Ego is susceptible.
In Suzuki Method, a vigorous exercise such as The Stomping Sequence is a matrix, because it is a standalone event that doesn't require the necessary input of the director. He can stand outside - he doesn't need to be constantly injecting content - if he did the whole activity would be a dialectic!
Music training and Sport achieve this by utilizing clearly defined parameters. The player/musician is clear about what is required of him, and where and when he should be 'on the field' or 'in the music'.
The basic craft work is thus addressed within the Matrix, enabling the teacher/coach to concentrate on more compound aspects such as interpretation in music, and strategy in sport. These extrinsic aspects would come under the heading of dialectic.
The dialectic consists of the reciprocal compact between the actor and director. It is a circular dialogue consisting of suggestions and interdictions given by the director, and answered by the actor's response in generating creative shifts. Its process is very dependent on the character types on both sides of the fence, and as such, cannot be pinned down to any meaningful extent.
In order to sustain a dialectic, the director needs a readymade landscape (matrix) to work because he needs to move inside the space with the actor initiating components that transcend structure. But then he needs to distance himself in order to witness and judge the results. He cannot simultaneously be inside the space (matrix), whilst in the process of making the space (dialectic). It would be analogous to a coach giving instructions for a particular passage of play, whilst at the same time trying to study the efficacy of the player inside that passage of play.
In Suzuki Method, the sheer clarity of the matrix allows the director the opportunity to witness the event from a third person remove. Creatively, it is then incumbent on the director to respond by taking the exercise to another level, and this is the way the Suzuki Method becomes a tool for making theatre (which is the last and most important function, and to which I will return later).
d) Lowest Common facility:
The genius of the Suzuki Method is that Suzuki has developed a vocabulary that is thorough and demanding, but which surprisingly requires very low level facility. It is able to be done by anyone, regardless of: age.....sex.....strength......experience......history......co-ordination...... or....... musicality.
As I have stated above, the major determinant is the moral imperative - that the actor should be working on the threshold of their peak ability at all times. The vast majority of the exercises have been pared down to the lowest common facility, so that no actor is precluded by lack of particular skills e.g. loose hamstrings or hip joints.
Peak ability means, for instance that it is not expected that older actors can stomp with the same vigour as younger ones - what is crucial is that all actors endeavour to work on the boundaries of their own personal limits, for the exercises are not about physical achievements, but are about having profound physical experiences.
The positions are not purposefully attractive forms, but diagnostic machines for testing the body at high energy levels. The goal is not to be proficient at holding a pose but using the 'pose' as a 'platform' where the body experiences itself at high demand - to be calm, energized, and open to its inner creative potential.
As another instance, the leg height in a one-legged statue is not an aim but its instructive relationship with the body is. For this reason it is a method, not a form.
Another indicator of its systematic nature is that all actors who've been doing the Statues exercise for any length of time would say that it doesn't get any easier and that they don't feel any more comfortable than a neophyte! In fact it becomes more demanding as they attempt to mine the same material of their bodies in deeper ways. Of course they have become more proficient and are more able to utilize those learnt skills, but they continue to be tested and endlessly challenged to feel the statue more profoundly! This makes the Suzuki Method truly a method.
A further aspect for all the Suzuki Method exercises is that they are to be continuously witnessed as a readily apparent public event (as a preparation for performance) - by the teacher, other actors and the audience.
This takes the form of the actors facing directly to the front, with the director facing upstage as though she were an audience. It is crucial that she faces the actors and vice versa, so she can 'read' the actors as individuals and as a group - impossible if they are facing away from her in random directions. This face to face engagement sets up a further moral imperative, more about which further down the page.
For similar reasons, the Suzuki Method eschews 'Boys Club' acrobatics such as peanut rolls and handstands as they are not performative - they are not designed or capable of being witnessed, mainly because the faces and bodies do not directly engage front, and so cannot be viewed and assessed.
As well, one can’t really speak while doing a peanut roll, so they have no value in instructing the voice through bodily actions, further separating the functions of body and voice !
In other words, within the Suzuki Method, looking directly at the audience is not a style of acting, but a tool with two properties:
a) head still and facing the audience, which means the audience engages the actor and vice versa, and
b) the still head becomes a stable reference point that enables the actor to substantially feel the effect that the experiences are having on him.
f) Moral imperative:
The clear structure of the Suzuki Method creates a two way moral compact between the actor and director. To any outside observer witnessing the Suzuki Method, the moral ask of the actor is very apparent, with the actors striving to achieve a transformative experience. This, once again is strongly parallel to any sports training, where athletes are very much on display, revealing their willingness to go the extra yards.
Even more importantly, this Moral Imperative has a symbiotic function, in that it imposes a two way contract, a reciprocating relationship between the actor and the director. The actor's ask is easily comprehended and felt, for it creates a 'barometric' change of pressure in the room that is undeniable.
What is not so generally understood is that this 'Barometric pressure' places an equally powerful reciprocal responsibility on the director to take the actors further.
A Suzuki Method exercise such as Voodoo, with its readily apparent rigour and vigour, apart from developing skills, also creates a portrait of the actors' willingness to learn, to enter pioneer discovery zones.
The director, in order to complete the compact, cannot stand back, but must respond by using his creativity to provoke the experience to another level. This involves much more than making them: "do it again............harder!"
Instead, the director must add creative elements that make it more transformative; more metaphysical, subtle, and abstract.
And it is the director's creative response to the actors' endeavour that constitutes the ‘shape changer’ of the culture they are all involved in. Thus the stand alone microcosm of the Suzuki Method eventually morphs into becoming the developing tool for the macrocosm of the aesthetic itself. I'll expand on this later.....
The moral power I talk of is essentially collective, emanating out of a group in which each actor individuates alongside the others in an Aristotelian (balance and order) collective experience, which fosters a moral imperative that stimulates the director to refine and advance his own aesthetic.
The Suzuki Method is unique in acting for being able to pass the ‘truckie test’! A truck driver could watch and be viscerally very impressed........ maybe infer that it was not ordinary, but would not invoke such vulgar putdowns as: "Bunch of wankers!" This 'apparentness' or 'undeniability' is a form of moral imperative, such as one might see in athletics.
Whilst many a thespian will protest that the same is true for their pet approach, it will be found, on close scrutiny, that the moral temperature, compared with the Suzuki Method, is very tepid indeed.
3. Why is the Suzuki Method most appropriate for the 21st Century?
a. It is intrinsically wave/particle
b. It engages paradox
c. It is Jungian rather than Freudian.
a. If you dissect any of the fundamental Suzuki Method exercises (such as the stomp), they are perfectly attuned to the metaphor of wave/particle theory in action.
b. A follow on from this is their confident embrace of paradox which is required to deal with 21st century uncertainty and it achieves this by zero-ing in on the Jungian bifurcation of Conscious /Unconscious.
c. Other actor-ly approaches are still waving the flag of
19th C Newtonian cause and effect, oblivious of paradox and for the most part dwelling on being ‘Freud-ly’ re-active.
Wave Particle theory became the necessary explanation for science's jump from coal and steel technology to electro-magnetics. Until the invention of electricity in the late 1800's, Newton's simple laws of motion were entirely adequate for explaining the way the world worked. In a sense Newton's three laws are one-dimensional in that they explain mechanics in terms of simple cause and effect. For example the forces that hold the earth and moon in place (gravity) were explained as if they were a fixed rod between the two - rigid and stable.
With the discovery of electricity and subsequent probes into the nature of electro-magnetics, it gradually became apparent that nothing was fixed as in the uni-dimensional Newtonian model - the universe wasn't just simple cause and effect - there was morphing in the space and time between the cause and the effect. It was as though the gravitational 'rod' between the earth and the moon was flexing - stretching and twisting.
The problem was centred around the complex nature of light. Prior to electricity, light was thought of as a beam (a wave), much like a ripple on top of water. But a wave needs a medium, a liquid or a gas, to move through, which was fine until they realised that outer space is empty. In order to move through outer space, it had to be a spurt, a blob (a particle).
Uh Oh! So..... sometimes it’s a wave .. sometimes it’s a particle... big confusion! Which one is it? A fair amount of whacky theories like 'the invisible ether' bounce around until a boffin called Einstein says: "Actually it’s not either/or…. It’s both…….wave and particle are not different answers, so much as different parts of the same answer to the question..." In that sense Light is a paradox.
This became the defining attitude of the electronic age, without which we couldn't have invented computers, fly in jets or live comfortably in remote-controlled air con.
But how can wave/particle apply to acting?
The great dichotomy in acting is that the actor has to be both himself and also the role he is playing.
This brings to mind descriptions of two very different but equally outstanding performers, Rudolf Nureyev and Henry Fonda. In separate books I have read about them, their writers are emphatic that they were always very much themselves, but they were also very much the character they were playing, whether it be ballet in Nureyev's case or film in Fonda's. The writers (quite independently) described the sensation as: whilst you were always aware that you were watching Fonda/Nureyev, you were also completely absorbed in the role they were playing.
Another way of saying it is to say that they are very much themselves, and at the same time, they are also very much the thing they are doing.
This is a classic paradox. Surely the actor must be one or the other, but cant be both together? Under conventional, linear thinking the two appear to be mutually exclusive. How can an actor be both when they seem to be opposite and contradictory experiences?
The answer lies in using Einstein's conceptual process as a template. All those around Einstein were desperately trying, by analysis, to force the wave and blob together, to make them the same thing, like putting square pegs in round holes. However, in an instinctive process using his Unconscious mind, Einstein divined that they were two complimentary and necessary parts of a whole, more like Yin and Yang in eastern terms.
I believe such unconscious processes are one of the goals of the Suzuki Method, and it is exemplified by The Stomp sequence. It lasts around 3 minutes and consists of firmly planting each foot on the ground continuously in time to music with a strong 4/4 rhythm, whilst also moving throughout the space in a freeform pattern.
When I teach it, I stress that it is a metaphorical reduction of the twin issues facing an actor:
a) to say the words of a speech (e.g. "To be or not to be......"), and
b) to be on a journey, firstly as the character (e.g. Hamlet) and secondly, as the person playing the role of Hamlet.
To be successful, both of this yin and yang must be given full attention, in a type of complimentary 'conversation'.
Each individual stomp can be seen as equivalent to each word in the speech, with each foot following on as a physical version for each sequential word that progresses the speech.
I also stress that there is a vector in each individual stomp that is also an affirmation of the actor's self:
"As I stomp, I am aware of being definably here, present in the moment, and can feel myself here on this very spot in that moment."
This 'moment' compares with the Particle aspect.
At the same time the actor perambulates throughout the stage space in a freeform pattern, and I believe this is a paradigm for the journey of both the actor and the role, going through the space as though navigating through a speech. All the physical turns and nuances inside the space are analogous to the emotional and psychological twists and turns in a speech. This 'journey' is equivalent to the Wave.
The purpose of the sequence is to unify the twin components so that they become symbiotic and conjoined; and the vigour of the stomp is the glue! The continuous demanding stomping, although discomforting, invokes a very positive energy in the actor. This disaffects the Conscious mind.
For one's Conscious (the Ego's defensive reactivity) cannot bear pain or discomfort. The partial withdrawal of the Conscious mind allows the Unconscious free rein to combine the paradox of 'each word' and 'the journey'.
And as with pain, the Conscious mind, with it's fixation on the quotidian, cannot reckon with paradox. The Unconscious part of the mind, because it is both timeless and immediate, embraces paradox without trying to 'make sense of it'.
Apart from encouraging the actor to feel his 'presence' in each stomp, I make no prescription concerning what the actor should think during the 'journey' aspect. They may indeed be thinking of something as mundane as runaway shopping trolleys or could well be astral travelling on inter galactic stellar research - it is their choice.
What does matter is that, regardless of what they may be imagining, they must be ever present as indicated by the vigour and commitment of the stomp.
In point of fact, the more abstract their 'journey', the greater the dialectic (creative potential) between it and the self definition of their stomping. This ability to embrace these two performative extremes (self definition and journey) inside the same experience is the artistic equivalent of the Einsteinian particle/wave paradox.
When superficially confronted with such Suzuki Method exercises as the stomping sequence, the moral 'volume' generated leads many participants and teachers to think that the sole purpose of the Suzuki Method is to create energy. I believe that the energy created is not the goal, but the means, for it takes the psyche to a creative space, by shocking the conscious mind into a remove.
As well as the Suzuki Method fostering artist practice in the 21st C, it also has wider implications at a socio/political level.
Most currently practiced acting approaches are descendents of those (mainly father Stanislavski) devised in the 19th C, and are essentially cause and effect - you say this, then I respond by doing that, etc. This simple linear reaction suited a time when values were much more certain than now..
In the 21st century absolutes are an anathema, and we now live in a time where there is no certainty, everything is in a state of continuing flux - things are morphing even as we look at them.
Instead of engaging this 'morphology', conventional theatre practice seems to be in denial, falling back on a C19 Chekhovian paradigm, and for an actor, this does not provide an effective counterbalance to the pressures of modern life.
4. How does the Suzuki Method empower the microcosm (the actor)
To explain the general functionality of the Suzuki Method, I'd like to use as a specific example, an exercise sometimes called Standing Statues. It is one of the most fundamental in the Suzuki Method canon, and its instructive value can be taken to represent many aspects of the Suzuki Method.
This is an exercise whereby the actor starts hunched low to the ground with his feet spread apart, fully in contact with the floor, with the heels down. In response to a command, he rises with great speed on to his toes: the hands, arms and body freeze to create an arrested image. Apart from the rising on to the toes, the feet do not move from their original position. On a second command, the actor returns to the hunched position which becomes the neutral stance between statues. This sequence may be repeated for several minutes at great speed, and there are, in addition, sporadic commands for the actor to speak lines of a text in the still positions. Each statue represents a unique sculpture and particular emphasis is placed on not repeating any of the positions.
For myself as teacher and an actor, these statues have served to explore three main themes:
1. With their speed and abruptness they awaken in the actor a form of 'animal' energy - a prime insight in Mr Suzuki's pedagogy. This state contains and expresses a great deal of visceral shamanic power and initiates within the actor a moment of great potential.
2. The moment of stillness at the top of the statue also becomes a form of 'self reading', whereby the actors feel the results and resonances of the position they have made. This ‘reading‘, by its speed of initiation and arrest, is essentially non-intellectual, non-prescriptive and non-judgemental.
3. Throughout history the static image, as created by painters and sculptors, has been one of the most powerful embodiments of an idea, thought or emotion. By its stillness, this embodiment has been compressed temporally and spatially, creating a compelling memory that resonates through time and space.
In much the same way, when an actor creates statues, he creates a series of unique images, accruing inside himself a catalogue of physical information, which he can then instinctively draw on later.
In recent years I have introduced bridging tools such as shutting the eyes and small hand mirrors to the statues, which have proven extremely useful in extending the exploration.
When the eyes are suddenly shut during a statue, the performer needs to be genuinely connected with the ground as he can no longer use the eyes as locators. The actor then becomes more self connected, freer and eventually more daring. The 'eyes shut' becomes a form of mask which demands at once a simplification and a densification of voice and gesture.
Likewise watching oneself in a mirror aids in self-definition, as one is connecting with one's image, reinforcing the sense of occupying the experience. The mirror also introduces the element of witnessing - the 'third' person objectification of the 'first' person subjective occupation.
Skills and imagination:
A common misunderstanding with the Suzuki Method is that it’s: Good for Grunt!.....but....... This is extremely narrow and, as before, it arises when the viewer is befuddled by the enormous power that is produced and that power is perforce pejoratively judged to vaporise any creativity.
Rather, I perceive that the 'power' generated by the Suzuki Method is to be understood, not as an end product, but as a highly energised state, an energy level that facilitates transformational prospects.
I believe All the Suzuki Method exercises empower the voice and body of the actor in both craft (fundamental skills) and creativity (accessing and revealing imagination).
In exercises such as standing statues, fundamental skills are addressed when the actor attempts to speak with great flexibility, control and freedom in the inherently demanding positions.
To access and reveal his imagination, the actor explores the nuances and textures of the speeches, positions and movements in parallel with the craft demand. As before, the residual memories of these experiences can then become an important reservoir for the creative life of the actor.
What do the Suzuki Method exercises do to the actor?
The above describes what the actor does in Statues. I would now like to outline how these statues actually empower the actor in terms of both creativity and skills. Over time I have realised there are four distinct stages in the effect they have on the actor, and by extension, the effect they have on the audience.
a. STILL: Can you be still ?
b. FEEL: Can you feel yourself in the statue ?
c. EXPRESS: Is the statue a portrait of your poetic/imaginative impulse?
d. RESPOND: Can the statue trigger in you a poetic/imaginative impulse?
a. Can you be still?
For the beginner, just to learn to be still is a major achievement. For most of us, stillness in daily life is extremely rare. It is only in moments of great intensity and drama that we are genuinely motionless, transfixed. So the actor first has to train himself to recognise when he is being still and when he is not. A simple although difficult goal, it is easily objectified as the actor can clearly know if he is/is not moving, first by observation, and later, by feel.
It also has a very clear moral determinant, and that is : DON'T MOVE A MOLECULE! No matter how:
a. exhausted you are,
b. nervous you are,
c. experienced/inexperienced you are.
The simplicity is in itself very instructive, as it teaches the actor that early straightforward goals are achievable despite vicissitudes.
Once an actor can be truly still, he is then ready for Stage Two:
b. Can you feel yourself in the statue?
I urge the actor not just to hold a position when making a statue, but to really feel the statue he is making. This sounds obvious and axiomatic, but again, it is surprising how many actors will so doggedly hold on to a position in such desperation of 'getting it right', that they are effectively locking out any possibility of feeling what they are doing.
I have a simple solution for this by saying:
"Don't stop doing anything you are doing, but start to feel your arms, legs, body, etc, while making that position".
Immediately they start to invoke this suggestion, their statue gains greater density and resonance - it has much more inside it than it would have if it were just holding a position. What is then occurring is that there is now the making (overt) and the feeling (covert) - another example of a compound wave/particle event.
I also encourage the actors to consider that their stillness is not fixed, but should feel as though it is increasing - that it is getting more and more still (even more particle!). Not strictly possible in a living body, perhaps, but nevertheless an extremely provocative and useful operational hypothesis! Until an actor can feel himself in his statue, he is unable to make creative use of those statues he makes.
But once he can do that, he can start to use the statues creatively:
c. Is the Statue a portrait of your poetic/imaginative impulse?
As the actor continually revisits the exercise, it must graduate from competent craft to inventive instrument. If it was merely a form of cathartic calisthenics, as is often supposed, then it will remain in the realm of 'grunt and clump'. Instead, I encourage the actor to consider that the statues stem from a creative impulse, and I neither stipulate the source of the impulse, nor judge the validity or success of the statue. What I feel is important is the instinctive nature of the impulse, and the legibility of the effect the impulse and statue has on the actor. By legibility I mean: Can an audience sense a change in the actor?
We talk in terms of the statue being not just a position or pose, but a portrait or sculpture of a type of poetic impulse initiated by the actor's imagination.
The 4th stage is where the Statue sustains the actor, in ways both physical and metaphysical:
d. Can the Statue trigger in you a poetic/imaginative impulse?
After dwelling on the Third Stage for quite a while I found, through a specific personal experience, just how the statue can stimulate the creative inner life of an actor.
Incidentally this instance shows that it’s not talent or intelligence that's paramount, but repetition of quality exercises which heuristically (self learning) teach you.
During training, I was doing a statue-like position as part of another exercise, and I realised that it reminded me of something I had done or seen before......, I had somehow arrived at a gesture that reminded me of the famous classical statue of the 'The Discus Thrower'. I decided to go with it, just to see where it would take me, and where it would go. I hadn’t deliberately set out to make that image - it had arrived unbidden (in retrospect it must have arisen out of feeling my position). I was following an unconscious impulse, for it was much more than a random thought, and doing it in public amplified it even more.
Rather than trying to invent or recreate an emotion or a psychological situation and make it credible, I was following a train of subliminal thought, of inspiration, and doing it as a public act. I found it far more enjoyable and productive following this unconscious instinctive sculpture- much more than if I was trying to sustain a 'clever' or ‘talented’ manoeuvre.
That statue prompted an attitudinal shift in the way I approached training exercises such as the statues, and I began to see how I could stimulate certain experiences and to develop other exercises that might be the most apposite.
Because the original statue was instinctive and not premeditated, then that may be the reason the outcome was exciting and instructive. If premeditated, then it seems that the result is much more mundane and a creative dead end. I assume that's because 'premeditated' is a prescription of the Ego, the 'I want', and its dominance is such that it chokes out possibility and nuance, preventing any flow and blocking the deeper reaches of the other creative zones of the brain.
Given that the unconscious or instinctive statue is the creative gateway, the long term investigation then becomes: How do I do statues in a way that are entirely instinctive, and therefore, will have a creative impact on me?
Transposing Statues to Voice:
In the Suzuki Method I believe the four statue stages can also be transposed to the cultivation of the voice. This parallels the way all the training trajectories work. They are all heuristic - the instinctive body is both the teacher and template for the more complex and subtle vocal aspects.
Each vocal stage can be summarised as:
1. Can you hear and understand what you are saying - Do you know your voice?
2. Can you be understood by the audience - Does the audience know you?
3. Can your speech tell the audience something - HOW does the audience know you?
4. Can the audience augment/complete the speech for you - Can the audience tell you something about your speech/yourself?
It may seem self evident to ask if you can hear and understand what you are saying, but, in fact, it takes a long time and quite a lot of training before actors can truly hear what they sound like. We often incorporate the use of hand held mirrors during speeches, which give the actor a good sense of what she presents to the audience when she is talking. Hearing and understanding what you are saying is a further manifestation of self-definition - this requires much repetition and inside that repetition, self inquiry which can be: " what is the effect that the words/actions are having on me?".
This stage is the state where the actor is highly aware that his performance is reaching out to the audience - he is not too immersed in his own world. At the same time as he is speaking or moving, he should be aware that the audience is a real time witness to the speech or action. This sensitivity grows out of an awareness, while training, that he is also a witness to what he is doing - he is both first and third person.
This goes further than presenting something to the audience. The 'What' is replaced by introducing the 'How'. Not just telling the spectator, but asking..... what are they getting? How are they perceiving you? Not……..what do you want them to get? But what do they want to get from you?
This shift from linear statement to compound question doesn’t require an answer. It is enough to thematically pose the question inside the speech - asking the question is an operational hypothesis!
This 'How' involves a shift from independence to interdependence, as it confers on the audience the responsibility for interpretation- that they are no longer passive observers, but actively ingesting the incoming information.
In stage four the actor perceives the audience as graduating from ingestive observers to subliminal participants. Any audience is a catholic group with diverse backgrounds and attitudes, and will interpret performances eclectically. Once understood that the audience will have its own 'take' on the experience, the actor can escalate the sense of inquiry, expanding from the idea of 'How are they receiving the speech?' to 'What responses might they have?' or ‘How would they complete the speech?’
5. How does the Suzuki Method develop the macrocosm (the performance)?
In order to explain this final section I am illustrating some of my experiences transposing the Suzuki Method into the FSAK, as a way of showing that the Suzuki Method has an inbuilt self learning process which is cumulatively produced by interrogating the deeper levels of simple primal exercises.
The Suzuki Method is often misunderstood due to the moral temperature created by the rigour and vigour of the content. It is simplistically labeled militaristic, autocratic and oppressive. Ironically, this is exacerbated by the extremely practical and clear formats and tools which the training incorporates, for those formats and tools are falsely adjudged to be a 'style of acting'.
While such discipline, formats and tools are fully accepted within a sports, dance or music training context, the Suzuki Method is often regarded as an oddity by conventional actors who, basically, are unused and unprepared for real work. The general fallback excuse by these actors to deny validity is that the Suzuki Method 'kills creativity'- the delicate balance of these actors' so called ‘crystal sanctum’. And so it no doubt would for those with fragile dispositions, but, when viewed from a different perspective, it is a comprehensive culture generator.
Actor Training as a culture generator.
As I mentioned before, the moral imperative conferred by the Suzuki Method on an actor imposes a reciprocal demand on the teacher/director, and if she responds in a transcendent fashion, then it becomes very creative indeed. By transcendent, I mean that the director shepherds the energy produced by the training to shift the creative atmosphere to another plane. And this is what belies the autocratic putdown, for it is essential that the director refrains from merely imploring machismo extension, but creatively ’changes gears’ to further transform the 'zone' around the actor.
This implies going higher up the command chain of creativity and here I quote another ‘Einsteinian’ explanation:
When sub-atomic particles are bombarded by other particles, there is a huge release of further energy, the atom vibrates, and is dynamically lifted to another 'zone'.
This is an apt metaphor for the fecund energy stimulated by the compounding dialectic circulating between the actor and director....
To make it more easily understood, I will once again transpose to a sporting situation, where one can feel the tremendous build up of energy borne of watching sequential play in a football match. As each player slots into the chain of events, he adds his energy (skills), augmenting and compounding the group dynamic. The spectators become highly involved in this very palpable energy which is a combination of their expectations (a winning goal) and the players challenge to realise it.
I am sure any reader has experienced this type of excitement found in sporting events and we might describe it as a 'plasma' existing between the players and the spectator(s).
For acting purposes, I'd like to refer to the performance equivalent as a type of Theatrical Plasma.
(Plasma: A neutral gas of positive ions and free electrons. The fourth form of physical state. Higher than solid, liquid and gas.…)
How does reading the plasma augment a performance?
There are many similarities between teaching and directing in terms of dialectics and interdiction with the actor. It is a very complicated process to quantify, predict or prescribe because it is attempting to codify the psyche space of the Unconscious......of Dreaming.......of Imagination; ideas that stand shoulder to shoulder with the very unquantifiability of 'creativity' itself!
However, I believe there are pathways that can open up for the Director or Teacher if he engages the indefinable energy (plasma) that a group of complicit actors establish.
Because I am not a director, I can only offer as evidence some of the imaginative burst moments that occurred during the long trajectory of my teaching the FSAK. And I add here that I am convinced this 'reading' by the teacher is an expansion of the mode wherein an actor uses the training to 'read' other actors and to 'read' herself.
I give this following example of my own experience to show once again the essential self teaching nature of the 'plasma reading' and, through affirming the idea that I learnt to do it FROM the Suzuki Method, show that the reader can refashion these examples into his own (lose mindset) process to stimulate his own instinctive creativity.
One of the chief paradigms of the Suzuki Method are two stage exercises in which the first is extremely vigorous, followed by a second, which is more reflective. One of the FSAK variants consists of a 60s Aussie surfie culture stomp song for the first stage, and the second, a naive and bubbly early surfing instrumental.
An example of an unconscious inspiration sourced from 'plasma reading':
Half way through the instrumental, I may say: Make like a surfer with his leg half bitten off by a great white shark! They would, of course, hop around pulling some pretty unconventional moves, leading to some compelling 'stories'. At the end of the song, I could create an even more shape shifting potential by asking them to say the standard speech as though they were the severed leg!
To make clear the differentiation between the Suzuki Method and other twee 'acting' nostrums, this is very different from the Lee Strasberg 'Pretending to be a Teapot' exercise that film actors such as Brando and Paul Newman used to recall with a groan.
We remove the jejune emotional pressure by setting the context in an oblique third person remove. We suggest that the actor speaks with the attitude of a teapot, or as a teapot would speak, if it could speak. It helps too, to go past trite, mundane daily images such as teapots to ones which are more dramatic and provocatively surreal such as Sharks and severed legs.
The effect, as the actors would do the same training speech with a very different, instinctive sensibility, could be remarkable. There would be a frisson in the air, a change of atmosphere, a shift in barometric pressure - a semblance of some special feeling hovering over the room.
I stress here that the shift in sensibility would be from the entire group, not just a few exemplary individuals, and this is crucial - it has to be connected and communal for true shape shifting. Any other witnesses present, plus the group itself, will confirm that some special feeling had transpired!
It’s a matter of learning to 'read' the plasma!
For a long time, I couldn't figure out a way that I could make sense or use those 'plasma readings', until it one day it dawned on me that I was trying too hard to force some sort of outcome!
I realised that all I had to do was simply to feel the plasma that the actors had produced, and let it osmotically enter my own psyche, and make it’s way to the back of my brain. At some indeterminate later time, it would re-emerge as a transformed creative impulse.
Before, what I had been trying to do was to organise it with my conscious analytical mind but that was taking the wrong bus. Once I had begun using the unconscious pathways, I was able to ingest, process and express the inspiration very effectively, even if it were in ways difficult to quantify or predict.
This 'Feel the Plasma' for the Director/Teacher is a thematic extension of the 'Feeling' that the Suzuki Method encourages in an actor.
Looking back on the trajectory of the development of the advanced FSAK exercises, they had to have come out of these plasma readings that emanated from earlier exercises. The exercises evolved out of a series of often widely disparate inputs and became subliminally crystalised into interlinked sequences, unified by some sort of 'unconscious glue'. There is no doubt that they would never have occurred without my heuristic dialectic