Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

07 September 2011

Thomas Richards

Thomas Richards and the Grotowski Workcenter are visiting my school right now and I have been really excited by their work, though most of my colleagues seem skeptical (and some of the younger, more arrogant ones downright hostile). I attended a series of workshops last weekend, where observers were able to watch some of the work Richards and his company are doing, and in which some students participated. This morning I attended a talk of sorts where Richards answered audience questions. I asked one about the significance of the feet to his work.

I found his answers to my question exciting. The work they are doing in Pontedera holds my interest in a way that fascinates me. It is as though the work they do asks me to remember my own body, an activity I do not often practice, or at least one I have practiced a lot less since about 2004/05.

There has been a lot of skepticism on the part of my colleagues about the preciousness of the work, the way that its practitioners hold it in this almost mystical regard. And it doesn't help that Grotowski himself speaks about (and I quote) the ancient Mysteries with a capital M.

But for me the Workcenter's practices have meant something else. Richards answered my question about the significance of feet in the work by speaking about a certain way of walking where the body bends forward and as I raise my leg up I bring it into my body and I make my body smaller. Then he began to describe this making smaller as a kind of giving up or giving in. I think he means a surrender, an abdication of the significance of individual subjectivity. But the walk that Richards described also involved getting back up, right? Because in order to walk, I have to raise my leg (give up) but then I also must make myself erect again so that I can raise the other leg. Richards described it this way:

I give up. And I stand.

As you probably know if you read my writing in this space with any frequency, this task of making myself smaller, trying to make my own individual subjecthood less important to myself, is something I think about often. So Richards' work really resonates with me on this level. So much of it is about communal sharing and responding instead of leading.

He also said this really cool thing about working with a company: It's hard to work without anybody watching you.

He grinned, and then he elaborated in this way:
Because there is no enemy (the audience) the enemy is in the team. And the group must constantly work to neutralize that. An external force like an audience absorbs the negative energy between the group members, and then we can get back to working as a group.

I've never heard this put so intelligently. But he is obviously correct. A glance at any documentation of a group that works together for a long time makes that abundantly clear.
(André Gregory's Alice in Wonderland, for example)

In a way, writing is the same. It is easy to criticize myself in my work, to get frustrated with the same old sentences and ideas, but once I send it out to another reader, get a little feedback, a response, a note or two, the negative energy dissipates and I am able to return to my writing again. I had no idea it was going to, but ATHE did this for me this summer... and I came back to Tallahassee and wrote 50 pages!

All of this Grotowski work, however, makes me really re-think my life-path, I have to confess. I'm not quitting the PhD or anything, but physical practice was such a huge part of my life for so many years, and watching these folks at work makes me definitely miss my own immersion in these practices.