Tag Archives: kalarippayattu

Phillip Zarrilli

Phillip Zarrilli – Kalarippayattu weapons training, CVN Kalari, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala

On 9th March 2020 when Phillip received the news from his oncologist that the cancer he had been living with for fourteen years had begun to ‘seriously party’ (his words) he said to me ‘this is our last adventure together.’

I have been so fortunate, having this great mind, this gentle and generous man as my companion in so many ways – loving, working, living, travelling, thinking, writing and making performance alongside him for twenty one years, with and without The Llanarth Group. The journey may continue, but now it is in parallel, perhaps, not our accustomed hip-to-hip together.

Phillip died on 28th April 2020 at 13.52 UK time. He rode out on a breath – like so many times in his teaching he spoke of riding the breath to that moment of completion at the end of exhalation – the space in-between at the end of one cycle before the impulse of the next inhalation begins. This time came no inhalation.

It was the ‘good death’ he wanted, I think – calm, pain-free, unsentimental – me holding his hand.

I keep thinking of the Tagore line: ‘Let it not be a death, but completeness.’

There is a fullness to Phillip’s last months and year: the trip to Kerala in January 2020 and all that happened there:

Phillip Zarrilli and Jo Shapland performing ‘Told by the Wind’, The Llanarth Group. Photo: Kaite O’Reilly

Performing Told by the Wind at the Kerala international festival, giving talks, workshops and teaching at Calicot University, seeing Kathakali with Rustom Bharucha and meeting again with his Indian family –visiting the significant people and places, too many to name in full here, but including Sathyan (G Sathyanarayanan) and family at CVN Kalari in Thiruvananthapuram, Phillip’s ‘brother’ Kunju Vasudevan and family, and an extraordinary Koodiyattam performance at the temple in Killimangalam, visiting his friend and former Kathakali teacher MPS (M.P.Sankaran Namboodiri) and family, to name just a few. He said that he felt all that happened that month was a full circle turning, a completion, and he was full of gratitude. We sensed this would be his last trip to Kerala, and were so grateful to be able to go, to have him so visible, connecting, being honoured by those who were so important in his work and life.

Phillip Zarrilli being honoured by Sathyanarayanan G at CVN Kalari in Thiruvananthapuram, January 2020

 

Five days after our return to the UK in February we began our final collaboration, co-directing the 5 star reviewed The Beauty Parade at Wales Millennium Centre – delighting in a sense of having possibly fulfilled what we could achieve together, a synthesis.

Phillip Zarrilli and Kaite O’Reilly in rehearsals ‘The Beauty Parade’, Wales Millennium Centre, February 2020. Photo courtesy of WMC

2019 had been a significant and prolific year, full of achievement and creativity. October 2019 brought the publication of his last, great book (Toward) A Phenomenology of Acting (Routledge), which launched at ITI (Intercultural Theatre Institute) in Singapore.

Phillip Zarrilli at launch of his last book ‘(Toward) A Phenomenology of Acting’, ITI, Singapore, October 2019

His scholarship continued, and there are various essays forthcoming, including a chapter on his lifelong engagement with traditional Asian disciplines of body-mind training in Generating Knowledge Through Interweaving (working title) for the International Research Centre: Interweaving Performance Cultures, Berlin, where we were both fellows for many happy and stimulating years, with wonderful colleagues. Our collaborative essay An Irreverent richard iii redux: Re-Cripping the Crip is published later this month in Playfulness in Shakespearean Adaptations (Routledge). Phillip was writing increasingly for performance and we relished the subversive crip’ playfulness of our co-written script richard iii redux [or] Sara Beer is not Richard III which Phillip directed, produced and also performed in, shortlisted for the International James Tait Black Prize for innovation in drama, August 2019, and published in my collected The ‘d’ Monologues.

2019 was a rich year for directing. His production of Lie With Me with the graduating cohort of Intercultural Theatre Institute [formerly TTRP] in Singapore completed that long relationship with Sasi (T. Sasitharan) and Beto (Alberto Ruis Lopez) and ITI.

‘Lie With Me’ company, ITI 2019 cohort, Theatres in the Bay, Singapore

He had just begun work on Carri Munn’s No.74, and earlier in the year directed Cosy, my play about end of life, with long-term collaborators Gaitkrash for Cork Midsummer Festival. Phillip was always keen to encourage audiences to talk about death and to have agency in how they would like their lives to end – but not to stop living until the very end.

Kaite O’Reilly, Phillip Zarrilli and Seamus O’Mahoney discussing end of life scenarios, Cork Midsummer Festival June 2019

Phillip lived with cancer – creatively, fully and without complaint – for fourteen years. He always spoke of how grateful he was to have been able to teach, create, perform, direct and, most importantly, complete his books, constantly giving thanks to the brilliant skills and ideology of universal free healthcare offered by the UK’s NHS (National Health System). We are both hugely grateful to Hospiscare in Exeter, UK, who gave Phillip such tender and expert palliative care, and in the most challenging of conditions, in the middle of a pandemic. Against all the odds, they allowed me to be with Phillip, showing such compassion.

Owing to Covid19 there will be no funeral, but we hope that when we are able to travel and gather again, we all will find opportunities to celebrate Phillip and our relationship with him, to tell our stories and sing the old songs, all across the world. He is much beloved, and he also loved – his son Barth and daughter Samara, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren – and he cared deeply for his many  decades-long friends and collaborators, valuing the wealth of students, actors, and scholars he shared his time, skills, and thoughts with, and who enriched his existence.

I believe Phillip inhabited every second of his life until he departed, soaring, on a breath.

Singapore

I’m in Singapore, returning to work with old collaborators Access Path Productions and Intercultural Theatre Institute  (ITI) and new partners Singapore Writers Festival. After the sudden snap of cold weather and signs of morning frost when I left the UK, Singapore is like swimming in a hot broth. The air at times feels liquid and languorous, but it is the beauty of the place and extraordinary mingling of cultures, cuisines, languages and belief systems that has me suddenly staring, standing stock-still in the street, entranced.

I’m teaching some seminars in Intercultural Dramaturgy at ITI, while the graduating cohort are in rehearsals with Phillip Zarrilli, preparing for the Singapore premiere of LIE WITH ME, my reworking of Schnitzler’s La Ronde.

Intercultural Theatre Institute: outside the rehearsal room

It is rare for a writer to have a second chance with a published or produced piece of work and I feel immensely fortunate to have the opportunity to rework LIE WITH ME  for a Singapore context. The student actors have all been assisting in this revision, researching specific topics such as funeral practices, the law and attitude regarding homosexuality, online ‘influencers’ and employment law, amongst other apparently obscure subjects. I originally wrote the play for a London-context, reflecting the experience of urban life for young people in a metropolis. Shifting the context to Singapore has been fascinating. As a playwright I’ve been surprised and excited by the amount of editing and re-writing I’ve had to do, to make the context credible for Singapore. I’ve had to reinvent some of the figures, such as a refugee – very common and current in an European context, but not here. It’s been intriguing exploring alternative characters and dynamics and I’m immensely grateful for the research and suggestions the actors have given me.

Phillip Zarrilli leading his psychophysical approach to actor-training

Prior to the daily rehearsals, Phillip Zarrilli leads the students in his psychophysical approach to actor-training, using kalarippayattu, yoga, and tai chi. One of the focuses is ‘atunement’ to the space and each other on stage.

The elephant pose. Kalarippayattu. Phillip Zarrilli with 2019 ITI cohort

LIE WITH ME differs from the original (first produced in 1897) in that it focuses on encounters and interactions of all kinds, not just sexual. It raises various questions, such as how do we form genuine relationships in an unstable, post-truth world? What are the ‘rules’ of sexual engagement in a ‘swipe-right’ culture? What lies do we tell ourselves and each other in a throw-away consumerist world filled with ‘alternative facts’?

The production opens at the Esplanade Theatre Studio on 7th November and runs until 9th November. Tickets and information are available here.

Other activities while I am here in Singapore include a lecture-performance at Singapore Writers Festival on 2nd November, and a workshop on 3rd November, challenging ableist language and the representation of difference in fiction, poetry and plays.

I’m delighted to be reunited with some of my collaborators from And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues for a lecture-performance, followed by the Asian launch of The ‘d’ Monologues (published by Oberon). It was fantastic to pick up the scripts again with Wheelsmith Danial Bawtham and Grace Lee-Khoo. I’m looking forward hugely to the event and it will be a privilege to share this with some of the brilliant Deaf and disabled Singaporean individuals who supported, engaged with and inspired the fictional monologues.

 

Summer Intensive: psychophysical text, monologue, movement.

Independent theatre maker Martin Carnevali with Brandy Leary of Anamdam dance theatre, Toronto

Independent theatre maker Martin Carnevali with Brandy Leary of Anandam dance theatre, Toronto

Every July and August Phillip Zarrilli leads a ‘Summer Intensive’, which he describes as “an intensive, ongoing, preperformative psychophysical process of performer training through Asian martial/meditation arts including t’aiqiquan, Indian yoga and the closely related martial art, kalarippayattu.” The first non-Indian to be awarded master status in kalarippayattu, the martial art of Kerala, South India, Phillip has developed an approach to actor-training utilising Asian martial arts to explore body-mind connections through psychophysical disciplines, developing an intuitive awareness necessary for performance.

Every summer participants come from all over the world come to his studio in Wales to train in his approach and learn to apply the principles  to performance through structured improvisations.

This August I was privileged to be involved in the workshop, leading participants from Canada, Italy, Estonia, Jordan, Germany, Portugal,and  England in writing exercises to be utilised in the studio. Working through the senses, the exercises generated original written material and starting points for solo performance scores. Sometimes the text became spoken monologues, or unspoken ‘inner’ monologues to help animate the actor. Some came with work already in development, whilst other participants created material from scratch, guided and ‘side-coached’ by Phillip.

It’s a very different way of writing from my own practice – and a very different way of using text, often to enliven the performer’s inner work, and provoke physical scores or choreography. It was a fascinating and stimulating week, reminding me why one of my definitions of heaven is being in the studio…

 

 

‘The 9 Fridas’ first week of rehearsals – and The Sunflower Protest

In the first days of rehearsals with Mobius Strip Theatre Company in Taipei.

‘The 9 Fridas’ is a performance text with multiple protagonists who are and yet are not the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. In the script I’ve taken moments from her extraordinary life and reframed and reinvented them, in contemporary contexts. Using cross-gender, cross-impairment casting, we are creating a mosaic of voices and experiences which, when combined, suggest the whole.

 

Bobo Fung and Faye  Leung in 'The Two Fridas' pose in rehearsals for 'The 9 Fridas'.

Bobo Fung and Faye Leung in ‘The Two Fridas’ pose in rehearsals for ‘The 9 Fridas’.

The self-portraits of Frida Kahlo are naturally playing a large part of the visual ensemble work. From the first day of rehearsal director Phillip Zarrilli gets the actors to embody and inhabit some of her paintings. Although they are taking on – with precision – the physical positions of the portraits, they are not ‘being’ Frida – they are creating their own version, working from behind the eyes.

Ying-Hsuan Hsieh working with Po-Ting Chen, 'The 9 Fridas' rehearsals.

Ying-Hsuan Hsieh working with Po-Ting Chen, ‘The 9 Fridas’ rehearsals.

Each morning begins with an hour of pre-performative psychophysical training led by Phillip, to prepare and awaken the bodymind through Asian martial/meditation arts – Chinese taiquiquan, Indian yoga, and the martial art from Kerala, kalarippayattu. Apart from making us all more flexible and  fit, this warm-up is building an ensemble dynamic, and heightening the actors’ awareness of each other in the space.

The cast of 'The 9 Fridas', Mobius Strip Theatre, Taiwan.

The cast of ‘The 9 Fridas’, Mobius Strip Theatre, Taiwan.

For me as the playwright, this time is one of testing the script, fielding questions, and making revisions. I’ve decided to rewrite one of the scenes representing Frida Kahlo’s political activity so it has even more resonance for the contemporary Taiwanese audience.

Frida Kahlo was immensely political – and was last seen in public participating in a demonstration only days (or hours, according to some sources) before her death. We have been working with this last photograph of her out in the rain in her wheelchair, dark head wrapped in a shawl, a placard with Picasso’s Dove of Peace in one hand, the other fist raised in a defiant salute.

The cast of The 9 Fridas

The cast of The 9 Fridas

On March 18th  2014, hundreds of students occupied the “Legislative Yuan”, Taiwan’s parliament, to protest against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement. Their action was in protest against perceived undemocratic procedures pushing through this trade agreement between China and Taiwan without  fully informing the Taiwanese people what it would entail. Many feared this would make Taiwan too dependant on China economically, isolating Taiwan from other allies, and therefore vulnerable to political pressure from Beijing. This quickly spread across the city, and soon thousands of citizens gathered on the streets outside the parliament, to support the students inside.

On March 30th, twelve days into their occupation, students organized a demonstration that saw more than 500,000 Taiwanese citizens taking to the streets in support of their non-violent cause. The support was across Taiwan and  internationally, with demonstrations occurring in many cities across the world. This became known as The Sunflower Movement – a sign of hope.

Occupying the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's parliament. Photo: http://flipthemedia.com/2014/07/social-media-taiwan/

Occupying the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament. Photo:
http://flipthemedia.com/2014/07/social-media-taiwan/

With this support, the government had to listen and respond and the action ended officially on April 10th.

I had been following the protest from the UK, aided by translations of news reports and a very active social media, provided by Betty, the translator of the play (Yi-Chun Chen). When I arrived in Taipei last week, I looked for people to interview who had been involved in the occupation – and didn’t have to look very far. In fact, I didn’t have to leave the rehearsal room. Cast members as well as our excellent stage management Knife Liao and Kuo Yi Chi  had been deeply involved. This week’s lunch hours have been spent with them and Po-Ting Chen telling me their experiences and how significant the protest has been in opening up discussions and politicising the younger generation. Knife Liao and Kuo Yi Chin have also shared political stickers and  the photographs they took inside the Legislative Yuan during the occupation.

Kuo Yi Chi and Knife Liao

Kuo Yi Chi and Knife Liao

This production doesn’t allow me to go into the protest with any real or meaningful depth – to do so would undermine the main story we are telling – but our conversations about democracy, correct political procedures and Taiwan’s independence have been thought-provoking. I doubt that I will be able to do justice to the protest and the actions of my company members – but I hope the introduction of resonant phrases and references may bring an additional layer of meaning to our Taipei audience.

*    *

Coverage about The Sunflower Movement was often difficult to find in the UK and Europe, where the significance of this protest was perhaps underestimated. I am grateful to Knife for collecting some of the links she feels are useful and reflect the event, so we may share them here:

Documentary made by Japanese TV, NHK  (Knife is visible at 29:40)   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1agYWMah4E

‘We sing this together until the sunlight of hope covers everyone on this island” (lyrics to the Sunflower protest song: Lyrics: 
http://mojim.com/twy105739x6x1.htm

Officials song with animation: 
http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=N6vRCQqOiUw

English version: 
http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=PvtvxmjfwfA

someone made before the demonstration on Mar.30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCT_dAVcVwY

shooting from air on Mar. 30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbEOc2VT_vs

College students sing 〈Island Sunrise〉in their Campus

National Chung Cheng University

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_xY4dCptaI

National Chengchi University

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUEHAwOxNTo

Tamkang University

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABFpvG7HdTE

National Central University

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uLrt_c0q70

National Sun Yat-sen University

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yz4zLKL_-4E

National Taipei University

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNILN2pDKi0

Shinto shrines and performance workshops

Shinto shrine

Shinto shrine

There is a Shinto shrine across the road from the capsule apartments where we stay in Tokyo – ancient stone statues of local deities all pocked and weather-worn, topped with cherry red hats and bibs. Fresh flowers, fruit, and an opened plastic bottle of water adorns the altar and the bell clangs often as people pay respects as they pass.

Another Shinto shrine is on the single track road winding through the individual homes and a housing complex near to Babylon Theatre Tokyo, where we work. Each day walking to the theatre is a reminder of how close the ancient, spiritual and sacred is to the surface of this fast, digitalised, ostensibly modern life.

For the past three days Phillip Zarrilli of The Llanarth Group has been leading a workshop in his approach to actor training with Ami theatre, our hosts, and students from Sophia University. It is part of the cultural exchange supported by Daiwa and Wales Arts International between the two companies: we present ‘Told by the Wind’ later this week and then Okamura Yojiro of Ami Theatre will share some of his company’s process with us.

Phillip Zarrilli and Okamura Yojiro, Babylon theatre Tokyo.

Phillip Zarrilli and Okamura Yojiro, Babylon theatre Tokyo.

Zarrilli uses South and East Asian martial arts and yoga to train actors, starting the workshops with breathing exercises focussing on initiation, process, and completion.

The first non-Indian to be honoured with master status in Kalarippayattu, the martial art of Kerala, Zarrilli claims good martial arts practitioners and actors are similar, in having 360 degrees awareness and a sense of everyone in the room. He quotes a Malayalam folk term about the practice: ‘the body becomes all eyes,’  which goes some way to explaining why he uses the training with actors to start initiating this awareness.

His work is all about activation, awareness, the active imagination, and focus – and one of the first of many parallels between West and East approaches to performance appears: he quotes Zeami, the fourteenth century co-creator of Noh Theatre, encouraging the students to take the opportunity to get inside their bodies through the work and not just in their heads. Such training and body awareness allows respite from the ‘squirrel-like minds’ – busy, busy – of the young actor; a wonderful energy, but totally unfocused and a mess. Okamura San listens quietly to the translation, smiles at the mention of Zeami, then nods his head.