We do all this, just so we can stand in space.
When you’re on the other side of the planet, your entire body is aching and you’ve not slept properly for a fortnight, this is not a combination of words you’re hoping to hear.
I’m halfway through an exhausting, month-long theatre training in New York when our instructor Barney O’Hanlon shares the above insight. My first thought is: if someone had put that on the promo would this training be quite so popular? It also briefly crosses my mind that I may have joined a theatre cult.
These thoughts pass quickly. The training is in fact mind-blowingly good and immensely rewarding. And it has good reason to be. SITI company has been running this particular month-long intensive every year for a quarter of a century. The same group of artist-teachers has turned up in Saratoga Springs each summer for 25 years to take students through a series of elegantly structured classes. Brilliant and provocative, the course is rightly famous for being a transformational training for directors and actors.
The gruelling, foot-numbing half of the training is a series of physical exercises developed by Tadashi Suzuki, who was there for the genesis of SITI company. This leg-trembling brutality is set to a seemingly lovely soundtrack of Shakuhachi (Japanese flute) that, as it turns out, haunts your sleep. I learnt yesterday that Brian Ritchie from the Violent Femmes now plays the Shakuhachi and it would be the single thing he’d take to a desert island. I have made a mental note to never be in a situation where I might get shipwrecked with Brian Ritchie. The Suzuki training is punishing but builds an actor’s ability to control their breath, energy and centre.
The other half of the training is called Viewpoints. SITI company are masters of this improvisational theatre technique which grew out of the postmodern dance world. And the month in Saratoga Springs each summer, where they train a small group of practitioners from around the globe, has helped to spread the practise worldwide.
Barney’s quote about standing in space is repeated regularly over the training. All explorations in time and space undertaken in the viewpoints (and there are many) are building towards this simple goal. The aim is for a performer to reach a place of assurance and ease where they can simply stand on stage, wholly embodied, entirely present.
It is an immense privilege to be trained by the masters of this form. SITI’s co-Artistic Director Ellen Lauren captures the importance of lineage in instruction:
Everything that’s worth learning in the theatre has to be taught in person. That’s the only way this gets passed on.
And in fact the Viewpoints themselves predate the SITI company. This particular system of thought originated in the 1970s with director and choreographer Mary Overlie. Profoundly influenced by the Postmodern, Conceptual Minimalist Art Movement, Overlie sought to answer the question:
What are dance and theatre made of?
Quite a question! Overlie’s answer proved to be world changing. Her research took her through a range of experiments in theatre and dance and the final result was her development of six fundamental Viewpoints:
Emotion (or presence)
Story (or logic)
Sometimes also described as the materials of performance, these viewpoints are essentially ways of seeing, understanding and experiencing the stage. In Overlie’s theatre cosmology these six ideas are the guiding lights: the principles from which all action follows. It has taken her decades to finally publish her work, which she did in 2016: her inspirational book Standing In Space. The oracle, the original source of these mighty ideas finally on record.
But it is SITI’s brilliant founding Artistic Director Anne Bogart who is known as the international face of the Viewpoints. Anne Bogart and Mary Overlie worked together in the late 1970s in the Experimental Theatre Wing at NYU. Anne learned the viewpoints from Mary but developed them in her own unique and wonderful direction. In Bogart’s rehearsal rooms Overlie’s original six viewpoints expanded into nine, along with three vocal viewpoints. And these became the bedrock of SITI company’s methodology and a phenomenon in world theatre. This work coalesced into The Viewpoints Book, co authored with Anne Bogart and Tina Landau of Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
After 4 weeks, the training is winding to a close. The concepts from the Viewpoints training will take years to unpack but have already profoundly reframed my thinking about time and space in the theatre. And I feel certain that a small handful of colleagues in the course will remain part of my growing network of brilliant, likeminded international theatre artists.
But more than anything else I’m taking away a sense of how the SITI company work together. What has been most valuable for me has been the opportunity to be in process with a long-term, functioning theatre ensemble with a shared language. This group of artists is like a family: one that has had regular reunions here every year for 25 years to practise together.
Honest collaboration involves collisions. The agreement to disagree is important.
As Anne says, the company are used to disagreeing; to the rough and tumble of collaboration. Disagreement is necessary and allows the best ideas to emerge.
We train with rigorous compassion.
Co-Artistic Director Leon Ingulsrud defines rigorous compassion as the ability to forgive failures, but still point them out. The goal of all of this is to be able to create the best possible theatre.
What we are training for is the crisis of the stage.
Bogart says scientific testing has shown that an actor simply standing onstage is under more stress than an Olympic athlete. So training for this moment is crucial. But an audience is not interested in an actor’s preparation, nor their perfect execution of a part. They want to see a human being struggle moment-by-moment through a real situation, fully present and alive. The SITI training is all about developing the presence and courage to simply stand in space.
After 25 years of teaching this content together you would think there might be a sense of teaching by numbers for the SITI company. In fact, each class is taught with care and presence and packed with hard-won insights. So despite the sore body and sleep deprivation, I wouldn’t have been anywhere else. Thank you SITI company!