Centered staging
Jeffrey Bihr brings Suzuki to the bay.

By Sima Belmar

IN A LITTLE studio on Miles Street in Oakland, more than a dozen actors meet once, twice, sometimes three times a week to train in the Suzuki Method of performance with Jeffrey Bihr. After an hour-long Qigong warm-up, Bihr drills students on loud and rapid stomping, stiff strides on tiptoes, inch-along low squats, painstakingly slow skirmishes that culminate in abrupt freezes on the balls of the feet coupled with unison performances of short monologues from Shakespeare at varying speeds and volumes. Bihr's teaching style swings from Japanese taskmaster with bamboo switch in hand to easygoing Californian eager to let loose an impish grin.

A native San Franciscan with a pile of silver curls on his head, Bihr spent 14 years with the International Acting Company of Tadashi Suzuki; he's also a founding member of Anne Bogart's Saratoga International Theater Institute Company. The Suzuki Method draws from the highly stylized Noh and Kabuki Japanese theater techniques, which Suzuki applies to his adaptations of classical and contemporary plays. SITI grew out of an agreement between Bogart and Suzuki to establish a United States-based group that pursues international collaboration and trains actors through a blend of the Suzuki Method and Viewpoints, a postmodern dance improvisation technique created by Mary Overlie and adapted for theater by Bogart.

This weekend SITI and the Suzuki Company of Toga (an avant-garde Japanese theater group directed by Suzuki) will visit Bay Area stages. The former is updating an Orson Welles adaptation of an H.G. Wells story (The War of the Worlds); the latter's Dionysus is a staged interpretation of Euripides' The Bacchae. As a prelude to this Suzuki-influenced activity, I spoke with Bihr – who is also directing the upcoming Word for Word production of Scattering Poems All Through the Night.

Bay Guardian: What are the main principles of the Suzuki Method?

Jeffrey Bihr: First, the literal grounding of the performer. Suzuki talks about the placement of the foot on the floor as the beginning of your performance. How you stand and walk and move usually informs a lot of your choices in the building of character.

Also, the centering of the performer. An inch and a half below the belly button is the seat of the breath and the voice, where power is stored in the body and released – where impulse and intent come from.

And choosing a focus to look at inclusive of everything else is a vital practice in terms of stilling the mind and stilling the tendency to be scattered. You can actually control the audience's focus with your focus.

BG: The first thing that I noticed about your class was that nobody asks questions. Is there a reason for the silence?

JB: Partly because this is such a rigorous, formal, stylized form; I think the less talk about it, for a while, the better. The American proclivity to overanalyze and understand with your mind before you try something can be antithetical to actually "getting it" in the body. When I got to Japan, I had 16 years of professional experience, [but] none of that stuff worked. I had to get to a place where I didn't know anything about my craft. [During the] first rehearsal of King Lear, Suzuki dressed everybody in full costumes, full lights, full sound, and then he said, "Do the play. Go." No blocking, no discussion. He let us go for 45 minutes, and it was excruciating and extremely exhilarating at the same time because it cut through all the bullshit. That made a huge impression on the way that I work.

BG: What might an audience look for when they watch a Suzuki production? What might be different or surprising?

JB: Explosive stillness. A kind of marshaling of energies in stillness that is able to explode in any direction. An active theater rather than reactive. Heightened formality, which is, if done well, very fascinating and at the same time odd enough to remind you, "Hey! I'm watching a play!"

BG: So Suzuki accentuates artifice.

JB: Absolutely. It's the same thing that Brecht was interested in. Don't get caught up in the emotions. Look at what we're doing, look at the story, understand how this has ramification in the world. Suzuki's constantly doing that because of the extreme aggressive formality of his work. And of course, if you do that really well, it produces terrific emotion.

'Dionysus.' Through Sun/2. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m., UC Berkeley, Zellerbach Playhouse, Bancroft at Dana, Berk. $30-$46. (510) 642-9988. 'War of the Worlds – The Radio Play.' Through Sun/2. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m., Stanford University, Memorial Auditorium, Pigott Theater, Serra at Galvez, Stanford. $32. (650) 725-2787. 'Scattering Poems All Through the Night.' Through Dec. 30. Previews Sun/2, 3 p.m.; Tues/4-Wed/5, 7:30 p.m. Opens Thurs/6, 7:30 p.m. Runs Wed.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (special youth performances Dec. 13 and 27, 1 p.m.), Magic Theater, Fort Mason Center, Bldg. D, Marina at Laguna, S.F. $10-$22. (415) 437-6775.

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