a visit with SITI

Today I was privileged to sit in on rehearsals for SITI Company’s The Trojan Women at the Getty Villa. This company employs a specifically theatrical technique to make art that fully exploits the liveness of the space and time of performance. Composed of actors, designers, and a director who have been working together at a very high level for years, this company doesn’t just get together in a room and do a play, each bringing their own thing to the table. They collaborate on the most fundamental aspects of storytelling. Whereas in LA the discussion is “what is the emotion of the character,” with SITI it is “what is the event that is happening? What is happening between people and what is happening in the story?” (The closest I heard an actor come to talking about emotion all day was, “When your character says that, it really deconstructs my character’s confidence.”) These actors create character and tell story with their physical voices and bodies, through movement and sound.

Working quickly, with actors who have either spent their whole day in class and still have homework to do (when I am teaching) or who are late because their commercial shoot went long (anything in LA), I do not have the leisure to work the way SITI does. Very few people do. But it is remarkable to watch, and in order to apply it to other situations, I’m trying to name it, to identify what are the qualities of that collaboration, and thereby make them into tools I can use to work with any actors anywhere.

The first thing you notice is the softness to the air. And yet the energy doesn’t ever become diffuse; on the contrary it is laser-focused. Perhaps “finely-tuned” is a better way to describe the air in that room. At the same time, everything is malleable. Everything can change and does change when it needs to, whether to allow a particular actor to work out something individual or to bring everyone back into the same moment. The process is, quite literally, step-by-step: “Should I take these three steps while they’re sitting down or after?” At one point an actor addressed an issue by saying, “There are several different times existing on stage right now.” And that made sense to everyone. The blend of voices discussing the structure of the scene, both in terms of the staging and the plot, was seamless. Without ever telling anyone else what to do, everyone in the room contributed to making decisions that tell story.

What can I take from this into my own rehearsal rooms, so different in both the amount and quality of time spent in the them? Never miss an opportunity to specify. With practice, creative decision making can happen quickly, and the benefit to the storytelling is worth budgeting most of your time on it. Refined choices not only create possibility, they also rule things out, thereby making your theatrical vocabulary specific enough to create clear meanings.

Also: breathe. In particular, exhale. Clear thinking requires oxygen. Everyone in that room today was breathing. Feeling rushed by time or like I’m having to push actors to get them to do something they are not used to makes me clench my core, which makes me breathe funny, which makes me skip beats and miss moments. In order to get the actors not to do that in performance, I have to make sure I don’t do that in rehearsal.

And finally, connect the dots, even when the dots have to be further away than you wish they could be. Take the time to figure out how one thing leads to the next, and a lot of the other stuff will take care of itself.

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