Schechner Saturday Part 1: Practice

The Barbican, London, 22nd October, 2011, with University of Kent School of Arts

I still have the bruises, physical and emotional, to prove that I survived a Richard Schechner workshop! Now, why do I think he’d take that as a compliment?

Schechner is an American academic and director – author of the Big Purple Book (previously the Big Red Book) properly entitled Performance Studies: An Introduction; he is also founder of the 1960s experimental theatre Performance Group, which, after he left, became the Wooster Group. The latter are taking part in 2012’s World Shakespeare Festival, hosted by the RSC and the Globe Theatre. Schechner has strong links with the Shanghai Theatre Academy, and (co?) devised their 2007 Hamlet: That is the Question.  I saw this in revival, directed by East Coast Artist, Benjamin Mosse, in Romania in 2010 (see posts for May 2010).

The theme of Schechner Saturday was Rasaboxes (further details available at http://rasaboxes.org/). Shall I explain first or describe what we did first? On the day, we were offered a similar choice: watch an introductory film, or just ‘do’ it?  The choices we made seemed to have a significant impact on how we approached the rasaboxes exercises, and even the entire day. On the day, I chose to watch the film before ‘doing’, so now I’ll describe the ‘doing’ first, and explain later.

A grid of 9 boxes are taped out on the studio floor.  In each box a Sanskrit word is written.  These words roughly translate as

Rage/Mirth/Love/Sadness/Courage/Disgust/Fear/Surprise. 

They can be in any order.  The central box is empty.  We step into a box and taste the emotion, visualising it in some way, drawing or writing on the floor.  Later we will have no pens. We step into a box and taste the emotion in our bodies, (or to be more precise, on our bodies because nobody who partakes in this exercise escapes unscathed, judging by the red marks on people’s knees and elbows).  Later still, a food type will be put into each box.  Surprising yellow cloudberries, disgusting baked beans coated in cake icing (these don’t taste anywhere near as bad as they sound), angry chilli powder (not very imaginative, that one).  We have to eat it without touching it with our hands, preferably off somebody elses’s body (don’t ask, it’s a sixties thing I expect).  I’m not a germ freak usually, and I’ll happily eat berries from off the floor, but I just wasn’t tempted to  eat cheap sweets spat across the room by a stranger.

In which box did the food belong, mused Schechner (or was it his acolyte/colleague Pawel)?  It could taste like love but feel like disgust (how very Shakespearean we’re getting).

Each time I entered the rasaboxes I had a different experience.  The first time we were invited to step in, I remained on the sidelines – as did most of the other workshop participants.  Why was this?  Was it because we had just watched a film of others doing what was being asked of us?  Did we feel inhibited because we knew what we would look like? Or resistant because we felt we would be controlled? Or stunted because we no longer felt like we could have a spontaneous, original response?

A clearly annoyed Schechner reminded us that we had paid good money to participate so what was the point of sitting on the sidelines?  He grouped pairs of us with his student helpers from the University of Kent drama department, so that we could ‘mirror’ them (his phrase I think).  From a pedagogical point of view, this was an extremely sensible thing to do.  However, it rather undermined the fact that there was to be no coercion (who wanted to look foolish enough to waste their money?).  Furthermore, it somewhat went against the fact that we were to resist stereotypical responses and not think about what other people were doing…

I felt self-conscious during this mirroring.  I don’t think I would experience disgust by vomiting, anyway, but it was useful to start thinking about what was me, my response.  Mirth was hard – I had to imagine myself into a situation (playing with my baby boy) although that is probably too Stanislavski.  I stepped out of the boxes before I reached Rage and Sadness, not because I thought I couldn’t do them but because I knew I could.

The second time a student helper/trainer selected me to lead through the boxes.  She was young, non-threatening.  I stepped into Surprise, but felt I was acting, and acting badly.  I knelt down in Disgust, arched my back slightly, flared a nostril.

‘More!’ the student helper encouraged.  I flared another nostril. 

‘Your sitting in your own excrement,’ she added hopefully, echoing Schechner’s phrase from the DVD.  The trouble is, excrement is only poo in a less friendly word-choice.  Having a baby, I’m quite used to poo.  Having watched another of my children nearly die from a fecal-oral disease  contracted from contaminated water in South East Asia, I also knew to keep my mouth shut and my hands well away from my face…

But Rage was easy.  I was screaming.  It was lucky the poor student helper wasn’t in the box with me.  And as I lay in Sadness, making myself smaller and smaller as she suggested ‘Bigger! Bigger!’ whilst asking me to imagine I had lost everything, I whispered ‘If only you knew’.

 Analysis: see Schechner Saturday Part 2

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