JEFFREY BIHR'S SUZUKI CLASS


NOTES BY VALERIE WEAK


These are notes by Valerie about her experiences in a Suzuki acting workshop.
These notes first appeared on the Acting-Pro Discussion List and are on this web page by permission.

If you have questions about these notes, please EMAIL HER.


MESSAGE ONE
Date: Tue, 22 Jun 1999

Okay - here goes.

There are roughly 20 of us in class. We all wear sweats, shorts, t-shirts, and shoes called tabi - they are cotton socks, kind of, with a separation between the big toe and the rest of the toes. Class starts at 8 am, very early for actors, so as people trickle in to class, we are mostly quiet, and do a bit of stretching.

Then its 8. We stand and we focus. This means being still, knees a little bent, feet pretty close together, arms at sides, and a forward focus of the eyes, mouth closed lightly. As we stand we do what Jeffrey (our instructor) calls "gridding the space" And that means connecting your body to the space from your belly straight in front of you, behind you, to either side (left,right) and then to the four corners of the room. That's the grid. Maintaining the focus, and the grid, we descend in a slow plie, taking our grid with us, and ascend again. We hold our focus and take corrections for several minutes (I am going to try and watch the time in class tomorrow, I never do). Then, we begin a warmup - normally in Japan, there is no warmup, but Jeffrey has developed one, and found that for Westerners, this works better. Our warmup comes from chi gon (chigong? - most of these words I only hear and don't see written down - so you will be getting my best phonetical attempt). Chi gon as I understand it is similar to and older than tai chi. The warmup involves stimulating pressure points, getting the chi flowing, and some stretching, but the stretching is incidental to stimulating pressure points. Some of the points we always hit include kidneys, a point on the side of the pelvis, the solar plexus, the knees (very very important), also the temples, the sinuses, the jaw hinge.

After this warmup, we go back to the focus exercise that we start class with - at this point it is much easier than at the beginning of class. I can find the grid much faster, again we may descend and ascend, and also Jeffrey will say things like "Add a glow to your focus. Don't change anything, but glow" or he will say "perform this, perform standing" early in the work he points out "how do you grab my attention when all you can do is stand still? You have no text, no movement, but you are on stage - so perform" I think that one aspect of Suzuki is that it is a technique for developing presence.

The next phase of class is walks. These are done across the floor, one or two at a time, and can be done slow or fast, and forwards or backwards. There are approximately 7 walks, based on character walks >from other Japanese theater forms. Several of the walks involve loud vigorous foot stomping, and if done incorrectly, with too straight of a leg, can really mess up the knees and more. Knees are always slightly bent while walking, except for the walk that is done on the toes with straight legs. While we walk, we work on focus, and performing what we are doing. Those lines from the grid now become the lines that connect us to the people we are walking with, and as I watch, it always looks like some very bizzare, very powerful army is advancing.

I have forgotten to describe the music - music is used throughout - Japanese stuff, I think from Suzuki's productions, and occasionally other music - opera, and sometimes silly stuff - we had this music by Australia's yodeling queen once! During warmups, its usually something quiet with lots of flute. Then during walks, it is more percussive, and it's music with a very distinct rythym, that you must match as you walk.

A few more suzuki concepts that usually get thrown at us during walks - every move is a stop - sudden, sharp, percussive. If you wanted, you could stop and freeze at any point in the work - foot in the air, both feet on the ground. Also during walks the upper body is quiet, it does no work at all. People are often told to - relax shoulders and arms, or relax faces, close mouths - from the effort of the work, we twist into grimaces sometimes.

After walks, there are several other things that we can do - and I will describe one today, and more in the next few days, as this post is getting long. This exercise is called slow-ten (see my earlier spelling note). The basic form is this - half the class watches, the other half does. Those who are up line up in two lines facing each other on opposite sides of the room. We find our focus, and get ready to go instantly. Once you are up, onstage, you are performing, so you don't fix your hair, wipe your face, adjust your clothes. The music starts, and as it does, we "bring a gesture from the belly" this gesture does not involve changing facial expression or position of the torso, but really only involves the arms. Everything else stays in that focus that we've been working since the beginning of class. The music is percussive, a steady, somewhat tribal drumbeat, and we begin walking slowly towards each other. We cross in the middle of the room, all the while focusing, performing the gesture, and keeping our internal image work going so that the gesture remains interesting. As we cross the room, there is a point in the music where we put both feet on the floor, freeze, and then swivel turn with both feet pushing into the floor, change the gesture, and walk back the other way. As we approach the other line, Jeffrey will ask us to change our focus so that we are focused on another person. We'll freeze facing them "eyes to eyes, belly to belly" He may ask us to descend, and then have us freeze partway down. My thighs at this point are beginning to shake from working so hard, but while we are stuck here, with our gestures, focusing on the other person - he will ask us to begin speaking text - we know a three line speech from The Trojan Women, and we use that text in class. It is spoken quickly, from the belly, with a pause for breath between each line of the speech. After we are done, we hold for a moment, then relax, and then switch groups, and watch the other group do the same exercise.

Now, it's the end of class, and Jeffrey says "oat-SCAR-ee saw-maw desh-taw" and bows, and we repeat the phrase and bow back. I am told that this is how all rehearsals end in Japan. The phrase means "you must be very tired"


as you must be after reading this post -
more later

Valerie Weak




MESSAGE 2 Date: Wed, 23 Jun 1999

A concept - in great stillness lies the potential for sudden, explosive movement. And the converse - in the midst of sudden quick movements lies the potential for great stillness. We talked today about how the more stillness, quiet, and inward focus one can find, the greater the potential for explosion, surges of energy and intention from the body directed outward.

Today we do one of my favorite exercises - I'm not sure how Suzuki it is, it may be Jeffrey's own work - towards the end of the Qi Gong section of warmup, we are asked to bring our hands to just in front of the belly, we focus, and begin to visualize a ball of energy there, and when the vision is becoming clear, we take the ball away from the belly, shift the focus from straight ahead to the ball, and "allow it to move around the body, where it wants. It leads" as this becomes comfortable, we are allowed to walk and move, if that's what we want to do. I become playful, exploring the room and also myself - height, closeness to the ground, the back of my neck, the tops of my feet. After 1-2 minutes of this exploring, we bring the ball back to the belly, and hold it in front and bring the focus forward again. Slowly on a ten count - we visualize and work to push the ball back into the body at the belly, and the belly accepts the ball. We end with our fingertips lightly on our stomachs.

I love this exercise. I find it very focusing, and also it reminds me where intentions come from, and the pureness and simplicity of wanting, needing. And I love the chance to play. I often do this work in my last five minutes before an audition - if there is the room to do it.

Back to class - today we do our walks forward and backward, and focus strongly on the rythym. We also do the marches - similar to the walks, but always done two at a time, and there are more steps to repeat - instead of 1-2-1-2-1-2, the work is more like kick -stomp-slide, kick stomp slide. The pace is also much slower.

Two other exercises - standing statues and sitting statues. For standing statues, we begin standing and focused. The first statue goes up onto the toes, and there is a gesture. Instantly. We are cued from a signal given by Jeffrey - sometimes he has a bamboo pole which he hits on a mat, sometimes it is a clap and a vocalization "hi" . He claps again, and we all drop to a low squat, heads down, hands at sides but not touching floor. When he claps again we are up again. We move quickly when the signal is given, and the rythym varies, sometimes, we wait and hold the statue pose for 20 seconds, sometimes we hold for 2. The note drop your shoulders is given frequently when one begins this work. The tension and energy sent to the shoulders should be in the belly. He may ask us to drop one arm, but continue to play the intention, then drop the other arm, then the head, and then collapse. Or he may say to make the statue low - that is come up, but crouching, engaging the thighs. And at some point, when we are working very hard, he may ask us to recite the text from Trojan Women.

Sitting statues - very similar, but begins with us sitting on the floor in a tuck position, knees drawn up to chest, hands wrapped around, and head dropped. When the signal is given, both legs and arms go out to make the gesture. Legs don't touch the ground - the abs are working very very hard. He tells us "your sit bones are your feet in this position - they connect you to the floor" We do several of these and then are told - next one, make a very large gesture. He claps - my legs shoot out into a V, my arms fly up, my shoulders stay dropped, and the muscles in my stomach are holding for now. Then he asks us to recite our text. I breathe, and my muscles begin to shake, but I find the intent and speak "O splendor of sunburst breaking forth this day whereon I lay my hands once more on Helen my wife (breath and fill up, work through the shake) And yet it is not as men may think for the woman's sake I came to Troy (breathe deeply and desparately, I've got to complete this thought) But against that guest proved treacherous who like a robber carried the woman from my house" It ends in a shout, and then sudden silence. We are all focused, breathing hard and continuing to play the intent of the line. Jeffrey claps and we return to the tuck. Heads up.

O-tsukare-sama deshita
(thanks to Shaula for the spelling help)

Valerie



MESSAGE 3 Date: Fri, 25 Jun 1999

Today we begin with the slow ten exercise - something that we usually do after about an hour of class. It is intended as a kind of test. "1-2-3 act!" It jolts and is difficult to find the connection to the room, and the others as well as holding the basic focus, but despite feeling like my insides are full of moss and cobwebs, I manage. After we finish, we are told we will do this again later and compare.

We warm up, and begin our walks series. Today, we don't ever go one by one, but always with a partner. At first, the partner is next to us, and we advance together, working on starting and stopping together, as well as keeping together as we cross the floor, which is can be a challenge when I (5'10") get paired with someone who is 5'4" When we switch to fast walks, we work so that the partners are facing, and one goes backwards while the other goes forwards. We advance belly to belly, eyes to eyes, and the one walking forward is told "drive this, push forward" The backwards one is told "resist this advance". As we advance, we are to keep the same distance apart.

Some thoughts and concepts - the belly is seat of breath, seat of voice, center of the body (the arms and legs intersect here) emotional center, where balance happens, and also where any intention comes from. All of these things are located in the belly. another concept - the original (latin?) meaning of the word focus is hearth - the hearth is - where warmth comes from, where food is cooked, where people gather, where stories are told. All of this is in focus. Also, focus is two way - it can be sent out, but should also be received, and allowed to affect you - from other actors, as well as from an audience. We talk of actors who give the same performance regardless of what the other actors onstage are doing. They do not allow themselves to receive the focus of others, and therefore give static performances.

Also, there is some point early in class, where we stand and focus, as usual, and we are asked as usual to "add a glow to this focus" Jeffrey says this should be "as if we are capable of, and about to do something astonishing" and that the key to this is to "believe that one can do something astonishing" He says that the body will make actual physical and physiological changes based on belief - belief is that powerful - whether the belief is true (events in daily life) or false (events which occur onstage) DOES NOT MATTER.

After walks, we again do the slow ten work from the beginning of class. We create gestures, walk them slowly through the room, turn and change gesture, walk forward, walk backward, and speak our text. Afterwards, people talk of feeling clearer, that focusing is easier, their body is energized, their mind is sharper, they are more attune to their body, and "where the wobbles are" In the past hour's work, we have stirred up the energy flow within ourselves.

We do a series of standing statues and sitting statues in two groups, alternating back and forth. At one point, we are asked to do the standing statues using no arms at all, only the head and the inner sensibility. Quick shifts inside to make one into a different person, or into someone with a different intent - it's difficult, and I don't think I do it well.

Towards the end of class, Jeffrey begins using words to suggest the quality of the statue - and the words are along the lines of mirth, hilarious, cute, coy, tricky. He says he is reminding us that although this work seems to have a very serious nature, half of the plays which Suzuki's company presents are comedies, and there are these elements to be found as well. Class ends with a question about whether the face should be used in gesture work - and the answer is at first no, because it tends to keep the actor from accessing the inner sensibility to be found in the belly, but, as one gets used to that, one can begin to choose to use the face. Also, because we tend to get a lot of information from reading someones face, it is interesting to see a performer who gives no information from the face (no expression there, only focus) so that the watcher must focus on the gesture, and what it means.

O-tsukare-sama deshita

Valerie




MESSAGE 4 Date: Mon, 28 Jun 1999


The heat is suddenly starting to wave here in the SF Area, resulting in a very sweaty, very grueling class experience.

We warm up.

We focus.

We walk in pairs, both slow and fast, and also with gestures.

We begin our slow-ten work in groups. The note/correction that resonates for me today is that gesture begins in the belly - with an image, an intention, an emotion. We find that first, and then bring up the gesture, and then begin to walk. We are asked to do our slow-ten work walking backwards, from the start, trusting in the path as we criss cross each other (we have 4 people stage left, and 5 stage right), and revealing the gesture to the audience. When watching the other group, I notice the difference between people whose gesture comes from the center, and people who have made something external, and put it on top of the face and body. In the second case, I lose interest quickly because it is if they have frozen in this position, they are full of tension, and I don't believe the gesture In the first case, there is one person I kept looking back at, because the focus was so deep and rooted, there was a sense of relaxation, and although the gesture didn't change at all, there was a sense of extreme connectedness that I wanted to watch.

In the slow ten work, there is a point where we are asked to drop the gesture, but keep what started it in the belly, and hold that, and then, drop the inner work without moving. The changes in people are imperceptable, but they are there, because when they are done, they look different. It's subtle to the eye, and loses something in this description.

As if we aren't already sweaty enough, we do the marches - slow laborious hard work, with kicking and sliding, rising up to the toes, etc.

Then we are asked to line up in two lines, facing each other some distance apart. We begin doing one of the marches, and move slowly towards another person. We switch to slow-ten, with the whole group attempting to move as one. Eventually, my partner and I are inches from each other. We descend. We whisper our text, as if it were a shared secret, just the two of us. We ascend, and stop 1/3 of the way up. We speak our text at the highest volume possible, blasting these words through the room. We finish standing, still focused on the partner inches away. We release. Jeffrey compliments us on the energy levels generated in that last exercise, particularly the second time we spoke the text.

O-tsukare-sama deshita

Valerie




MESSAGE 5 Date: Wed, 30 Jun 1999

Some thoughts that are brought up today include - the link between performer and audience member. That the ultimate intent is the intent to move the audience. To make them gasp or howl with laughter, and that audiences connect with each other as well. He talks about audiences at movies, connecting to each other to share a comedy, or getting drawn in individually to see a serious art film. Yes, there is an internal focus for the self, yes there is also the intent toward the others onstage, the connection shared there, but the ultimate link is to add the audience into that connection. Jeffrey draws a circle in the air with his hand that goes from performer 1 (himself) through an "audience" to performer 2 and back to him.

I have trouble connecting to the work today, to feeling the "grid" and the belly to belly connection that should happen when doing walks with a partner. My brain gets in the way, and I feel odd tensions creep in - the mouth or eyebrows, and the shoulders!! which is an old problem, from when I first approached this training two years ago.

As we work on slow-ten, we do an exercise in groupthink, trying to move in a semi-triangular clump of ten, walking forward and through another clump of ten, and then reforming. In an earlier class, Jeffrey has said that the western character is built on individuality, and the eastern one is built on serving the group/working in the group - as westerners, we should work more on our groupthink, and easterners need to find a greater sense of individuality.

We also use our slow-ten to work through an exercise that I think of as the assasination. We start in a large circle/ovoid shape around the edges of the room. Taking cues from Jeffrey and from the music that is playing, we begin to move towards the center of the room. We all pass through the center, and form a circle, and as the group is moving, there is an individual moving as well, who comes to the center of the circle exactly at the moment that the rest of us form it. Following cues, we descend, we create gestures for the person in the middle, we speak our text and then ascend. When the second group goes, I notice the backs of their legs are bright red when they stand up, as blood flows through the area. We step in to the circle as a group, creating a smaller circle. We then take hold of knives (mimed) and following cues in the music, we stab the person in the middle of the circle. She sinks to the floor very very very slowly, and takes in our eyes one by one as she does, and at the end, we turn to face out. The whole thing is a tremendous exercise in focus, in working with the group, and in giving and receiving energy between the group (chorus) and the individual.

At the end of class Jeffrey addresses a question about the comic nature of the work, and where that lies. He says realize first that half of the human experience/expression is comic in nature, and then talks about the fact that intensity and grimness are not the same thing - it is possible to be intensely hilarious. He also says that people tend to begin this work with a grim intensity, and that it takes a while, it is in fact advanced work to find the mirth, to find where that lies underneath all of the intensity and intention. He says its about a choice made on a very very deep level, and that ultimately, making the choice to allow a lightness, a mirth to inform the sensibility of the work is what makes the performer interesting to watch. It's similar to what he's talking about when he asks us, during the focusing, to allow a glow to come up, as if something pleasant were about to happen.

This Friday will be our last day of class. He asks us to evaluate how this work has affected us physically, and how this work has affected our work in rehearsals/performances of the other projects that we are working on. We will talk more about this on Friday.

O-tskare sama deshita

Valerie

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