Notes from a workshop
At first, there is nothing but a yellow curtain at the back of the stage. It is not particularly big, perhaps three-by-three metres, but it glows like the sun in the bright heat of the floodlights. In front of it the black, bare surface of the stage stretches out towards the audience, leaving a space for possibility, imagination and expectation.
There are around sixty people gathered in this theatre in the north of Oxford. Most of them are young actors but there are also directors, university students, artists, an IT specialist and an anthropologist among the group. While some are from Oxford and London, others have made their way here from Spain, Germany and even Australia, to learn first-hand the methods Ariane Mnouchkine, director of the Parisian theatre collective, the Théâtre du Soleil.
Here, in the auditorium, begins our first lesson: you must learn to respect the stage, Ariane tells us, you must respect the yellow curtain. She is standing by the first row of seats in front of the stage, the group gathered around her. A tall figure dressed in white linen and a grey vest, her curled silver hair flaming around a watchful face. Her expression is mild and her voice calm, but her whole bearing commands attention.
Here are the rules of imagination. Nothing is allowed on the stage that is not part of a performance, it must remain a pure place. The stage can only be entered from behind the yellow curtain, which will be opened for you by specially trained curtain openers. When you want to enter the stage again, you have to walk offstage and enter through the yellow curtain. These are the boundaries and rituals of performance, crucial to the formation of an imaginative space.
The Théâtre du Soleil was founded in 1964 and has been run by Ariane, its co-founder, for the last half-century. Ariane, born on 3 March 1939 to a French-Russian film producer and a British actress, has devoted most of her life to the theatre collective. After studying at the Sorbonne and Oxford she trained with Jacques Lecoq, founder of the École Internationale De Théâtre in Paris, and soon after founded the Théâtre du Soleil.
Situated in the outskirts of Paris in the grounds of a former munitions factory called La Cartoucherie, the theatre has become something of a legend in the theatre world. It is known for its rich internationalism and intense, several-hour long performances that mix Western and Eastern theatre traditions, put on every few years and performed around the world. Using intricately designed sets and costumes, live music and a multi-ethnic cast, the troupe brings an extraordinary vibrancy and precision to each of their characters. The process of production takes months, even years, and involves a long period of improvisation through which the actors explore and develop their characters before the final play takes shape.
With a faint historical echo, Ariane returned to Oxford with the École Nomade (the name of her traveling school) in the autumn of 2015 to hold a theatre workshop for two weeks. Despite its internationalism, this is one of the few times that the company has visited Britain: before Oxford, the École Nomade took place in Chile and, after Oxford, its next destination is India. As someone who believes in theatre as a collective process, Ariane considers it among her duties as a director to offer training to actors throughout their career and has been holding such workshops every few years throughout the last decades. The École Nomade isn’t so much a drama class, but an opportunity for exploring the nature of theatre and learning about the specific methods of the Théâtre du Soleil.
In the École Nomade there is an emphasis on the playful character of acting. You are here to play, Ariane keeps repeating, not to perform an exercise. This is expressed more easily in French, where ‘acting’ is often translated as ‘jouer au théâtre’ – ‘to play theatre’. The expression conveys the resemblance of theatrical performance to the mindset of child’s play: to play with the freedom and imagination of a child, but also with the utter seriousness and conviction that children bring to their make-believe world. This may sound light-hearted, but it in fact turned out to be one of the most difficult challenges of Ariane’s workshop. The unassuming expression ‘playing’, we come to realise, marks the difference between simply pretending to be a character on stage, and actually being a character on stage. Performing an exercise is simple. Playing, on the other hand, requires a whole different degree of commitment, imagination and the ability to let go of your usual, everyday self. It follows the paradoxical rule of so many creative tasks: the harder you try, the more difficult it gets, but when it works it seems like the easiest thing in the world.
After the initial introduction we are ready for the first game. A group of five people disappear behind the yellow curtain and the audience waits curiously for their entrance onto the stage. ‘Ready?’ Ariane shouts from her throne-like chair in the middle of the auditorium, right in front of the stage. ‘Ready,’ we hear their voices from behind. Ariane hits the button of her computer, and music blasts out onto the stage. It is the Masquerade Valse by Aram Khatchaturian, dramatic, adventurous, moving.
The curtain opens and we see the actors: knees bent, in group formation, a young woman upfront as chorus leader. With a grimacing look on her face she leads the group slowly across the stage with heavy steps. Their performance is cut short by Ariane who breaks off the music and makes the actors stop. ‘Tell me, Hannah,’ she asks the chorus leader, ‘what was your state?’ ‘I am not sure.’ ‘Yes, me neither. It was confused. But the commitment was good. It’s a beginning.’
‘State’ and ‘commitment’ are two of the words that we will hear again and again over these two weeks. The actor must have a clear state of being when entering the stage , a feeling, a passion, a desire , to which they must commit absolutely. ‘Trust’, ‘courage’, ‘surrender’, and most of all, ‘belief’ – these words are also central to the workshop. Their purpose is to bring the actor away from thinking and planning and towards the immediate present. For the audience it can feel like watching someone trying to catch a fly: so elusive is this moment, this now. But when it works, it is everything. ‘It is a struggle, a battle!’ Ariane reminds us, ‘It is a battle with the gods of the theatre, a battle against nothingness. You have to watch like a mother watching her child learning to walk.’ We are watching and watching, living with every actor going up on stage to try their luck, so much so that we find ourselves completely exhausted by the end of the day. Ariane is watching too, rigorously – even at her age, she very rarely seems to get tired during the work. Instead, she gives what she demands: uncompromising attention.
She observes everything that is happening onstage with infinite care. Sometimes she calls out orders, – ‘Don’t comment!’ and ‘Stop scribbling!’ – laughs with joy, or guides the improvised performance into a new direction – ‘Oh, but she is short-sighted! She cannot read the letter without her glasses!’ Her facial expressions reflect the performance onstage and whether it is going well or not. ‘Yes – and no. No – and yes,’ is a comment she likes to open with, followed by an explanation of what she saw and what she didn’t see (but would have liked to have seen). She asks the actors to explain what they felt, ‘for pedagogical purposes, so that the others can learn.’ The actors beam with delight when an improvised performance comes together and, when it hasn’t quite worked, they return again to the same hindrance: ‘I could not stop thinking.’
As soon as we start to be in the present moment on the stage we immediately and inescapably find ourselves on the essential quest of theatre, of art: the quest of the form. What does that mean? To be relaxed on the stage, for example, does not mean to be relaxed. ‘When you paint an apple, you don’t just crush the apple onto the canvas,’ explains Ariane to a befuddled actor, ‘you paint it. In the same way, you must not “relax” but design a relaxed person.’ Every movement on the stage has to have a certain rhythm, each character has to have a private ‘little music’, each state a certain shape. No feeling without shape, no shape without feeling. Never just be realistic: theatre is transformation. This becomes especially apparent when, after the first week, the masks are introduced.
When we enter the auditorium at the end of the first week of the workshop, the masks have been laid out on a large table on the stage, covered by a white cloth. Carefully, Ariane lifts the cloth to reveal them and begins to explain each individual mask to us.
First, we meet the masks of the comedia dell’arte, whose origins reach back to sixteenth century Italy. They are made of dark leather and cover the upper part of the face. Each is a vivacious character: Monsieur and Madame Pantalone, Arleccino, Matamore and Pulcinella. Madame Pantalone is an old authoritative woman who could be a merchant, a ship magnate, or even the director of a theatre company. ‘She is old but she is young, she can’t but she can. A mad, desiring old woman, who has struggled against her obstacles, always.’ Or the deserted soldier, Matamore, who walks like an ‘old rusted rooster’ in an armour full of dust: ‘Saluting is a sacrifice.’
Further down the table lie the colourful, wooden masks of the Balinese Topeng theatre, which cover almost the whole face. They, too, are individual characters, but less severe, less consuming – ‘delicious companions,’ Ariane calls them. There is Fiffifon, who speaks in a strange way, Rajissan, who is very intelligent, or Pandapah, who is like ‘a little bouncing melon, a very sweet melon. Think baby elephants. He loves everything in life, he is gifted for happiness. And he is not without a certain refinement.’ A lot of respect is paid towards these masks, and while they are types, they must never be stereotypes. ‘A lot of the time,’ Ariane warns us, ‘you mix up design and caricature, exaggeration and dimension.’ To give the audience what they expect is not enough. It must be deeper than that, more interesting.
The respect begins with attention to detail. Before every improvisation, the actors take at least fifteen minutes to dress in beautiful, elaborate costumes, each specific to the mask they are playing. Madame Pantalone is dressed all in black, with heavy skirts and a big cape to add volume. Matamore wears a white shirt, a princely costume with one sleeve tied at the back, a cape, a hat, and a sword. The Balinese are wrapped in magnificent fabrics in red and black and gold and purple, with turbans and flowers behind the ears. The rich texture of the fabrics, the hustle and bustle on the side of the stage, the scrutinising looks of the knowledgeable actors from the Théâtre du Soleil before they decide that yes, this actor is ready – all these details make the air brim with excitement.
The masks and costumes make tangible the very basic principle of theatre, the distance between the actor and the character. ‘As soon as the first person crushed some blueberries in his face, he stopped being himself,’ Ariane reminds us. ‘Because as himself he didn’t have the right to do what he did. Theatre is the duality between actor and character.’
Sometimes this distance is not always so easy to comprehend. ‘What if I have to play Adolf Hitler?,’ a young woman asks. ‘What kind of respect do I owe? Should I respect, should I “love” this character?’ Ariane shakes her head decisively. ‘You cannot accept Hitler or transmit “love” for Hitler, because you have an artistic responsibility, a moral responsibility. But being a host for a character means to imagine the other, which doesn’t mean to accept everything about them.’ She thinks for a moment. It is late afternoon. Outside the world goes on. ‘We can be a good host only when we don’t lose ourselves,’ she continues slowly. ‘This is what we fail to explain to those who are afraid of the current exodus that is taking place at this moment.’
Over the course of the next few days we sometimes glimpse a shadow of Arleccino being overcome by the craving for a cak, or a Matamore sighing for his beloved on our small stage. Gradually we begin to understand that the actor suddenly has the right to do what he would not do otherwise – climb the balcony of the theatre, scream with fury, roll on the floor. But with freedom onstage comes a duty to obey the mask. They have existed long before us. They have a history that has lasted centuries, their characteristics are the concentrated essence of a collective culture that goes far beyond the knowledge and experience of us individuals. Originality is not the point.
A Madame Pantalone enters the stage, slowly, carefully, weighed down by old age, and she is stopped. ‘No,’ says Ariane. This is not how Madame Pantalone enters. She has more energy than that. ‘She must burst onto the stage.’ In this moment, someone else enters from the back of the auditorium and storms onto the stage. It is Caroline, one of the Soleil’s actors, but we hardly register that, because Caroline has disappeared and there is only the real Madame Pantalone in front of us. She whirls onto the stage like an old gypsy queen, like a gold-toothed gust of wind, black and radiating and hilariously funny. Furiously she tries to step on the second, smaller stage, but she cannot, so she spits and mumbles to herself, until her hawk eyes catch sight of the little stairs at the foot of the main stage, and immediately she rushes towards them to lift them high into the air. The audience is mesmerised, nothing seems to exist in the room but Madame Pantalone and her struggle. We are all brought into this outburst of performance, experiencing her battle and the hilarious absurdity of it.
‘You see,’ Ariane picks up with a smile once the laughter has quietened down and Caroline has lifted her mask. ‘This is theatre. She is struggling. And we are struggling with life, too. She shows us our weakness and makes us laugh about it. Molière, Shakespeare, all these theatre makers from the old times had a very difficult life, and the people they were playing for had very hard lives, too. They were relieving the burden of this hardship through laughter. They were doctors, very good doctors. To lift a very hard burden. Theatre is useful. It’s not just entertainment, it is useful. To bring compassion – real compassion, which is imagination. To understand what someone else’s life is. They cure us from melancholy and nostalgia.’
There is a pause after Ariane has stopped speaking. Softly, the wind whistles through the closed door at the back of the stage. The yellow curtain billows gently in the light. Then, Ariane lifts her head and seizes the group’s attention: ‘Allez!’, she calls out, ‘Who is next?’