Tag Archives: aesthetics of Quietude

Intercultural work – Wales to Kerala – The Llanarth Group at ITFoK 2020

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:

Theatre person Phillip Zarrilli on adopting and adapting intercultural techniques in his teachings and works

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.

Lecture by Phillip Zarrilli at ITFoK looks into essence of the art

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.

Audience’s role

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.”

Good response

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:

Exploring the domains of being

Kerala Tales

Theatre of Quietude: Poignant tales told by silences

 

 

Finding the plot

“I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.”
- Kurt Vonnegut

Narrative, character, motivation and action have been my lodestars of late. I’ve been developing a treatment for an independent television production company, and returning to the basics has been both a struggle and a joy. It feels like a very long time since I considered story arcs and chronological throughlines and even consequential action… The past few projects I’ve worked on in live performance have been using either non-western structures (Told by the Wind and Japanese Aesthetics of Quietude) or post-dramatic dramaturgies (Playing the Maids). It always takes time to shift between media and adjust to their different demands when you work, as I do, across genre, style, and form. I feel like I need to acclimatise, or pass through a decompression chamber, so varied are the atmospheres and their related demands.

So after spending months considering Yugen, the untranslatable Japanese aesthetic principle which means something akin to ‘the hint’, or ‘what lies beneath the surface’, I now have to make the components which create the drama visible, tangible, concrete. It goes against every fibre in my body. I’ve spent months invisibly structuring, and denying narrative closure to create what Ota Shogo described as ‘Passivity in art’ (no ‘meaning’ or narrative is foisted upon the audience – rather, they are invited to participate in the creation of it). As a warm-up I attend a Pitch Your Film workshop led by the very excellent Angela Graham. If anyone can shake me from my current aversion to formulaic structure and GOAL MOTIVATION CONFLICT, Angela can.

And she does, with great aplomb. I love her directness, her clear instructions and thorough understanding of shaping material for the particular medium of film. She cuts through my froth and resistance, giving me clear directions in what I need to do to mould this material for the specific medium and for the activity at hand: a Pitch.

I’ve always loathed ‘loglines’ (‘Jaws in space’ – Alien), and I resist the highly codified and formulaic structures required to give the essence of the drama, even whilst understanding the need of these for such an expensive and commercial enterprise. After much struggling the penny drops – a pitch is told in a three act structure – and with some satisfaction I find my own way to supply what’s required without ‘compromising’ on my writing style and storyline too much.

If that sounds snobbish, I certainly don’t mean it to be. It’s simply a description of this particular writer’s struggle across and between media and form and what each demands. After working as a dramaturg with collaborators on a co-created piece of live performance, it takes a while to activate and then strengthen certain creative muscles which haven’t been used for a while. My character-driven naturalistic action/reaction and then and then and then narrative skills had become flabby. It hurt to flex them, and it was immensely difficult to motivate myself into using my imagination in this way after such an absence – especially when I knew it was well-honed and strong from working in other ways. After Angela’s work-out and then some very serious activity alone, the muscle sprang back surprisingly quickly, and I again started to enjoy working this way. It’s all stuff I know and have encountered as a reader, as a student, as a writer, as a maker, it simply takes a while to re-remember it, to re-enter this particular atmosphere, and with all the equipment needed to breathe and prosper there.

 

 

 

Night Flight to Tokyo: aesthetics of quietude

I’m writing this on the night flight to Tokyo. All around me people are sleeping, tucked up in airline blankets, some with surgical masks over their mouths. We fly over the frozen plains and mountains of Siberia – extraordinary terrain, the likes of which I’ve never seen, before. It is the topography of another planet – one colder and more hostile than the one I have inhabited recently.

The past days have been filled with strangers in the north of England telling me stories – or, rather, members of various audiences reading symbolism, interpreting subtext and telling me what narratives were suggested by watching a performance of The Llanarth Group’s ‘Told by the Wind.’

Jo Shapland, Ace McCarron, Phillip Zarrilli and I travelled to Huddersfield University last week to be part of a conference organised by the Centre for Psychophysical Performance. We presented three performances of ‘Told by the Wind’ as part of the conference as well as for the general public. In anticipation for this tour to Tokyo, I shakily took over running the show from Ace, ably supported by Hannah and Tom, two student technicians from the University.

Jo, Phillip and I co-created ‘Told by the Wind’ almost four years ago, working with artistic advisor Mari Boyd, an academic and translator of the late great Japanese playwright  Ota Shogo. Mari’s highly recommended book, ‘The Aesthetics of Quietude’ was influential in our thinking when creating the performance, which uses embodied silences, spare text and slowed down motion. The following, from Mari’s book, is something we quote often in programme notes and ‘Talk backs’ after the performances.

“The underlying principle of quietude is what the Japanese [playwright] Ota Shogo terms ‘the power of passivity’. Passivity in art refers to the making of aesthetic distance. Instead of trying to aggressively transmit meaning to the audience, passivity exercises a spirit of ‘self reliance’…that compels the audience to attend, focus and participate imaginatively in the pursuit of signification, meaning, and pleasure. Passivity thus paradoxically engages the audience in a dynamic exchange of energy.” The Aesthetics of Quietude by Mari Boyd.

In our desire not to ‘fix’ or promote one particular narrative in the work, we have prompted members of the audience to make their own – hence the different stories and versions of our work I have been told by audience members this week.

It was Mari who, at the 2010 premiere at Chapter arts centre in Cardiff , suggested we try and bring this work to Tokyo. She was interested in how the work was informed by Japanese aesthetics but didn’t attempt to replicate them. I was influenced by Noh dramaturgy when structuring the piece – an influence Mari felt was discernible to those, like her, familiar with the form – and yet we clearly were not attempting to make Noh theatre, but a contemporary, Western piece inspired by it.

And so here it is – happening. We are on our way to Tokyo to present the work and begin a cultural exchange with Ami Theatre, whose new performance ‘Silent Rain in the Neander Forest’ by Yojiro Okamura we shall see tomorrow. It is the start of an extraordinary journey – and one I shall document here over the next three weeks.

A Welsh/Japanese artistic and cultural exchange: Ami Theatre and The Llanarth Group.

Aminadab, performed by Ami Theatre Company, Tokyo.

Aminadab, performed by Ami Theatre Company, Tokyo.

Some years ago I co-created Told by the Wind with Joanna Shapland and Phillip Zarrilli of The Llanarth Group in Wales. Informed by Quietude and Noh Theatre, we aimed to make a chamber piece shaped and inspired by the dramaturgy of the form and Japanese aesthetics, but not reproduce them. We were fortunate to have Japanese academic and translator Mari Boyd as an artistic advisor. It was her book, The Aesthetics of Quietude, which provided us with much stimulation in making this largely silent piece.

Mari was with us in Cardiff when we premiered the performance in 2010, and consistently said how interesting it was from her perspective, as anyone who knew Noh theatre would be able to recognise elements in our work, but it was most definitely not Noh, which was our intention. It also proved to be impossible to capture on video, even more so than other live performances, so when people ask about the performance, or question what is Quietude, I usually refer them to the delicate review by Elizabeth Mahoney from The Guardian:

Stripped of most ­elements we ­associate with drama, this intense ­meditation in ­movement revels in ­stillness. It’s so still at times, you worry that ­scratching your head or crossing your legs will be audible to all. Performers Jo Shapland and Phillip ­Zarrilli, with writer Kaite O’Reilly, draw on Asian ­aesthetics, string theory and the Japanese theatre of quietude to present something that is beyond linear narrative, character and gripping plot twists.

Instead, they offer fragments of ­memory, speech and gestures, ­composed in moments that have a haunting, painterly beauty to them. A man and a woman are on stage together at all times, but never connect; he speaks a little, tugged at by the past, she remains silent, trying to form words but expressing herself physically as she shuffles, runs and dances in bare soil.

With no dialogue or ­fathomable action to follow, you try to make ­connections even though everything resists them. Is she in the memory he speaks of? Is she a character in the music he is writing, or the dance he appears to choreograph? What happens, slowly, is that those nagging questions subside and a calmer understanding emerges. It’s all very hypnotic, with repeated small movements and shards of ­sentences, and it has the astringent purity of a haiku poem, though haiku seems ­positively wordy in comparison.

The performers have a remarkable presence, even when their movement is barely perceptible. This is a ­challenging production, but oddly affecting and ­quietly cleansing. On the opening night, the audience lingered at the end, as if not wanting to head back out into the noisy, demanding world.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/feb/02/told-by-the-wind-review

Mari also enjoyed the understated quality of the work and expressed a wish to bring the work to Tokyo, and perhaps create an exchange with another director, Okamura Yojiro and his company Ami Theatre, who also make contemporary work informed by Noh.

I’m delighted to announce that such an interaction, and collaboration will take place later this year in Tokyo between Phillip Zarrilli, Artistic Director of The Llanarth Group, me, as resident dramaturg/playwright of the company, and Okamura Yojiro, Artistic Director of AMI Theatre Company, Tokyo, Japan, and members of the two companies. We shall present performances of Told by the Wind, a new piece created by Okamura Yojiro, have workshop exchanges, discussion, and initiate a collaboration between the two companies as part of a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Japan-British relations. Mari Boyd will be part of this exchange.

We have already begun our interaction through hour long skype sessions between Wales and Japan, tentatively laying down the foundations for our exchange in November 2013.

As part of our desire to share publicly our discussions of dramaturgy, form, and process, I will be blogging about our Skype sessions here in English, whilst Mari or members of Ami Theatre will be blogging in Japanese.