Training with Terzopoulos
The Work, Explained
Γεια σας! Hello, everybody. This is Brian. In the last post we wrote mainly about the political situation in Greece, and while there is still an enormous amount to say about all that, today's post will focus on the workshop that Jered and I have been attending at Attis Theater, taught by Founding Artistic Director Theodoros Terzopoulos and his company member, Savvas Stroumpos. A Disclaimer: everything below represents my own current understanding of the teachings and practices that we have been receiving over the last few weeks. To the extent that it (inevitably) misrepresents the philosophy or methodology of Mr. Terzopoulos, it's my own fault.
First, some conceptual background. The essence of Mr. Terzopoulos' work concerns the liberation of the "triangle", the region encompassing everything between the hips, the pelvic bone, and the coccyx. (I once asked Savvas to clarify what the three "points" of the triangle were––he explained that it's really more of an upside-down pyramid rather than a proper triangle, and that I shouldn't over-think it. My constant battle, ha). The triangle, according to Mr. Terzopoulos, is the seat of power in the human body, and he constantly encourages us to engage more actively with that region, and to breathe more deeply into our lower diaphragm. If I've heard it once, I've heard it a hundred times: "You must go DEEP, and then OPEN from within". The triangle connects us to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, theater, fertility, and ritual madness. The mind, on the other hand, the seat of logic, planning, order, caution––this is the domain of Apollo. In the balanced Body (Mr. Terzopoulos frequently references the "Body with a capital B", which includes not just the physical body but also instinct, emotion, memory, the imagination, etc), there is a harmonious collaboration between Apollo and Dionysus. However, ever since the Renaissance, Dionysus has been "banished" from the collective body. The triangle has been largely "forgotten or forbidden or both" by our modern culture, leading to a profound imbalance in our being. We live in our heads, disconnected from the rest of our bodies. Any and all functions pertaining to the organs of the triangle are publicly ignored, or shamed. Menstruation, Defecation, Copulation, Masturbation––these are taboo subjects, banished from polite discourse. Dionysus is seen as subversive, dangerous, improper. And so we lose the connection to the triangle, and so the body becomes passive, submissive, inert. Our task, as participants of this workshop, is to awaken and develop this primal connection.
Now for some words on the exercises themselves. As we mentioned in the last post, every day of the workshop follows a very similar pattern. The first 80 mins or so is an unbroken sequence of physical poses and gestures that we all perform in silent synchrony (Savvas calls it "a score of psychophysical actions", borrowing the term from Stanislavski). We breathe together in a very particular way: a deep collective inhalation (sent to the lower diaphragm, so as not to raise the chest), and a long slow projected exhalation on a "hiss", like you're deflating a sleeping pad. In every position or exercise we are instructed to connect to the triangle and to the breath; even when the movement is ostensibly coming from the neck or shoulders, the impulse should originate in the pelvis. It's a tricky principle to embody, as evidenced by the numerous times that Savvas has stopped us mid-exercise to correct our "passive, disconnected" bodies. Following the physical sequence is a ~30 minute series of vocal exercises, again conducted simultaneously as a group. We breathe together, we sound together, we move together. (By the way, Mr. Terzopoulos would almost certainly take issue with my choice of words. He encourages us to think of them not as "vocal exercises", as though the voice is something separate from the body, but rather as an extension of the physical exercises. The voice, after all, is simply a sound made by the body). Then we usually have a fifteen minute break. We gratefully change our sweaty shirts, gulp down some water, devour some fruit, and then we're back to it.
The second half of the class is typically dominated by an exercise called the "deconstruction of the triangle", which takes some explaining. Essentially, it is an attempt to eliminate the blocks in your body and liberate the imagination (or "fantasy") so that you can participate in what they call the "infinite improvisation". Since that all sounds very abstract, here's what we actually do: we begin standing in a large circle, like at the beginning of class. We begin breathing collectively, but this time we use punctuated exhalations (ie, emptying our lungs over the course of seven or eight staccato exhalations instead of one long one). We then punctuate both our exhalations and inhalations. Then, we move into a mode he calls "the dog breath", which is just what it sounds like: panting. It's not quite that simple, however, because the breath (as always) needs to be sent as low as possible. So rather than shallow chest breathing, the panting should activate the lowest part of the abdomen. This requires simultaneous activation and relaxation of the gut, which can be an elusive state. Finally, as we continue that low in-and-out breathing, we begin to move the pelvis. We swing our hips "forth and back", gently at first, and gradually gaining speed and power. At a certain point the dog breath is released, and we breathe openly and naturally, while maintaining the pelvic oscillations. This process goes on for a loooong time. As we slowly migrate around the space, sweaty and glassy-eyed, Mr. Terzopoulos or Savvas will give us various commands: slowly go to the floor, or allow the movement to enter your spine, or shoulders, etc, all the while maintaining the movement ("Don't stop! Never stop!"). It's very difficult to describe the state that you slip into after 30 or 40 minutes of this. You're very present, but also distanced from the concerns that typically dominate your mind. Your Self feels "dilated", somehow. And out of this place of liberated un-self-consciousness eventually will come text (the whole third session, beginning next Tuesday, will be focused on text-work). As Savvas said last night after a particularly rigorous session, "this state is not the end. This is the beginning."
So that's what we've been doing for five hours every day for the last two and a half weeks… Thanks for bearing with me during this rather involved description. Please leave your comments below, I'd love to hear about your reactions to the work! And (shameless plug), don't miss the Wilma's fall production of Antigone, directed by Mr. Terzopoulos and featuring a mixed cast of Philly actors and Greek actors from Attis. I get the feeling that all the work we've done so far is still just child's play compared to what's coming in the rehearsal process… I can't wait to see how these principles manifest themselves theatrically.
Τα λέμε αργότερα! See you soon!