Phillip Zarrilli at Kerala’s International Theatre Festival January 2020
Being invited to the 12th International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) was a great honour, and only possible thanks to the support of Wales Arts International (WAI) and Arts Council Wales (ACW).
The Llanarth Group presented Told by the Wind, a performance text co-created between Phillip Zarrilli, Jo Shapland and myself. It’s a mature piece of work – not just in its use of the Aesthetics of Quietude and aspects of String Theory, but in that it is ‘old’…. we first premiered the performance in Cardiff in 2010. Ten years on we are still touring the piece internationally – so far to Evora Festival in Portugal, The Grotowski Institute in Poland, The Dance Center in Chicago, TanzFabrik in Berlin – and this is great delight and privilege. The work deepens through re-visiting it. As dramaturg and outside eye, I have the pleasure of observing Joanna and Phillip’s work as performers as they return to this piece. It’s like a reunion with an old friend – the eventual ease and depth of engagement they create as they ‘attune’ to the material, their history of performing it, each other, time, and the space.
It is a challenging piece for both performers and audiences – 55 minutes of performance predominantly in silence – but one that ultimately is worth the investment, as can be seen by the initial 4 star review from The Guardian in 2010. We were slightly concerned about how this ‘slow theatre for a fast world’ might be received in dynamic India, but as the extensive press coverage reveals, the work was greeted enthusiastically, and with great curiosity and interest. ‘I’ve never experienced this before in theatre’ I was told repeatedly by initially quizzical but ultimately appreciative audience members. ‘It’s almost meditative. I make the story up.’
The aesthetics of Quietude, as described by Mari Boyd in her book of the same title, focuses on an apparent paradox around what she calls (referring to the work of Japanese playwright Ota Shogo) ‘passivity in art’. By not aggressively projecting a ‘message’, or storyline, we open up space for the audience to inhabit, inviting them to meet in a dynamic exchange and the creation of meaning and pleasure.
The interest in the work and in particular Phillip Zarrilli can be seen by the interviews and responses in The Hindu and other Indian papers I have linked, below. Phillip is extremely well known and respected in Kerala. As he describes on his website he is the first Westerner to seriously study kalarippayattu–the South Indian martial/medical art. He began his training in 1976 under the guidance of Gurukkal Govindankutty Nayar of the CVN Kalari, Thiruvananthapuram. Between 1976 and 1993, Phillip lived in Kerala for a total of seven years, with each trip devoted to undergoing intensive training in kalarippayattu. In 1988, he was gifted the traditional pitham (stool) representing mastery by Gurukkal Govindankutty Nayar. When the new CVN Kalari Sangham was founded in 2004, the Tyn-y-parc CVN Kalari in Llanarth, Ceredigion, Wales (UK) was certified as an official kalari of the Sangham under Phillip’s guidance as gurukkal. Inaugurated in 2000, the Tyn-y-arc CVN Kalari was the first traditional kalari operating outside of Kerala.
Phillip and his company The Llanarth Group have been invited to festivals in Kerala on many previous occasions, but this is the first time his work as a co-creator and actor has been received in Kerala, thanks to the support of WAI and ACW. Articles and interviews follow:
The actor-director was at the 12th International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) in Thrissur with his play, ‘Told by the Wind’
Phillip Zarrilli, renowned actor, director, acting coach and pedagogue, was in Kerala recently to stage his play, Told by the Wind at the 12th International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) in Thrissur. Despite a hectic schedule, Phillip managed to take time out to discuss his work and interculturality.
Excerpts from an interview…
Interculturality has been central to your work and training process. So, what does ‘intercultural’ mean to you?
To me, life is a process of encounters and negotiations. You encounter something, you respond and negotiate. It’s so unless you’re somebody with a closed mindset, where you wrap yourself within a specific way of thinking, putting yourself in a box, whether about ideas, people, other religions or other cultures. I think it’s much more interesting when we encounter and try to negotiate. So, interculturalism is not just about ‘between cultures’.
It is a way of seeing the world. The question is whether someone is open to a real, face-to-face encounter with others. I think, unfortunately, the world we live in is much more a world of separation than what it was when I was younger.
Do you think interculturality has relevance in the contemporary world?
Sure. Because it’s about encounter and understanding, and wanting to embrace difference. And not just, you know, be in a box, so as to speak. Unfortunately, I think, a lot of politicians are creating boxes, and pitting one box against another.
In the acting studio, the problem with the term interculturalism is that when it was used for the first time, it was limited to the early works that Peter Brook and the other kind of directors were doing when they brought together people from different cultures. I’d call that surface interculturalism.
But, it’s a different kind of situation for those who work in the acting studio, doing it for years on end. There’s a give and take that takes place in a studio. When I first came to Kerala and studied Kathakali in 1976, my teacher MP Sankaran Namboothiri (MPS) was generous with his time.
Both MPS and Killimangalam Vasudevan Namboothirippad, the then superintendent of Kerala Kalamandalam, were people who liked to think. Likewise, my Kalaripayattu teacher Govindankutty Nair was also generous with his time.
The encounters that took place between all of us, in and outside the studio, the discussions, the exchanges of ideas about body, thought and reflection, that willingness to open up, were intercultural.
I have brought together Kalarippayattu and Tai Chi into my practice. For me, this process of negotiation is taking place within my body and through the body-minds of those who were training in the studio with me. Contemporary theatre in Kerala, or in India itself, came about via an encounter with the West. So, it is intercultural on one hand, and still growing with its own rootedness in India.
You recently co-edited a book, Intercultural Acting and Performer Training, with T Sasitharan, Director, Intercultural Theatre Institute, Singapore, and Anuradha Kapur, former Director, National School of Drama. Was that book an attempt to define ‘interculturalism ?’
Rather than ‘defining,’ it was an attempt to open up. My book, Psycho Physical Acting: An Intercultural Approach After Stanislavski, published in 2009, is about my training process. But the purpose of this present book, Intercultural Acting and Performer Training, was to give space to other voices.
There are 14 chapters written by different people, about different dimensions of interculturalism as it exists today. We, the three editors, did not even write a joint introduction. The book has a three-part introduction.
Is there interculturalism, however subtle, in your directorial works?
Told by the Wind is an intercultural performance, inspired by the Japanese art form, Noh. However, it looks nothing like Noh. Only the dramaturgy and our performance are inspired by principles of Noh. I’d call it a subtle form of interculturalism. However, when we performed it in Japan, the Japanese audience who knew Butoh and Noh appreciated it. They could see the subtle elements, the influences.
The 2015 production Playing the Maids, which we did with Korean, Irish and Singaporean Chinese collaborators, was another subtle form of interculturalism. The text was primarily in English, but it had Mandarin, Korean and Irish Gaelic. The Singaporean performer had worked with Wayang Wong, the Javanese classical dance theatre, and her movements were subtly infused with the form. One of the Korean dancers showcased her roots in classical Korean dance.
You have worked with differently-abled actors in some of your works.
I’ve done two plays with differently- actors. One was The 9 Fridas, which Kaite O’Reilly had written. She has been working with differently-abled artistes. Richard III Redux or Sara Beer (Is/Not) Richard III, co-created by me and Kaite, was written for Sara Beer, a Welsh actress who had scoliosis. It was written as a response to the vilification of Richard III, as the epitome of evil because he had a disability.
When I am working with differently-abled artistes, I have to adapt my teaching to their individual needs, not just to a general group of actors.
Acting is about becoming sensorially aware of imagining or remembering. “Consider one dimension of our embodied consciousness, which is also the dimension of our sensorial,” Phillip Zarrilli, actor, director and scholar said, elaborating on ‘Phenomenology of Acting’ in the Special Lecture at the ITFoK on Tuesday.
His play Told by the Wind that was staged on Tuesday was about such a nature of acting when growing awareness would unfold unexplored domains of being.
“It is passive, but also active. It is about listening. When we mindfully attend to something, we take time, it happens through time.”
From this, the theatre practitioner ventured into a contemporary actor’s learning methodology attuned to these concepts; approaching it from the martial arts perspective of being “open to what might happen” instead of anticipating, and how awareness is cultivated and actualised in a performance. They have to perform in a state of not knowing. “We have a score, until it emerges, I do not know what comes next,” he said.
As actors, we would have to discover by doing and not over-thinking, Mr. Zarrilli said. “It is a series of actions. When I work on it, we do not do analysis. That is for the audience. I should have no anticipation of what flung me or why I am flung. That is the audience’s work. That is not my work as an actor.”
The 12th edition of International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) witnessed good crowd of theatre enthusiasts from across the world on Tuesday.
The festival that has been conducted with the theme ‘Imagining Communities’ seeks to reflect upon the state of democracy and the need to reflect on alternative voices.
It also provides platform for other folk and traditional theatre forms. In all, 19 plays will be staged at the 10-day festival.An Evening with Immigrants by Fuel Productions Ltd, England, directed by Inua Ellams; Coriolanus, by Mostaghel Theatre Company; Iran, directed by Mostafah Koushki; Cheralacharitham by Nataka Sangham, Kongadu, directed by Sajith K.V. are the plays to be staged on Wednesday.
Three further links to interviews and articles about The Llanarth Group’s appearance at the festival in The Hindu below: