A SWIFT KICK TO THE HEAD - 4 days of workshops with Satori Group in Seattle

One of the great artistic pleasures I've had over the last few years has been to lead workshops for ensembles.  Perhaps the pleasure comes from the knowledge the seeds planted will have ample time to germinate within the ensemble and, therefore, a 4-day workshop can have a much longer impact .  

Perhaps it comes from the chance to connect with other folks across the country who are facing similar challenges or who understand deeply the possibilities of ensemble theatre.  Perhaps it reminds me of the experiences Pig Iron has had when we have brought in guest artists to lead workshops, knowing how a new vocabulary and a new perspective will take hold within the company from even a very short encounter.  Perhaps, still, it is the adventurer in me who enjoys soaking in a new space, a new theatrical ecosystem, hoping that there will be a residue of these meetings in my work with Pig Iron.


It was with these thoughts that I traveled last week to Seattle, invited by Satori Group, a young and vivacious ensemble who seem to be rapidly making a name for themselves amidst the water and mountains of the Pacific Northwest.  Upon arrival, two members of the group, Adrienne and Quinn (the only other Quinn I've met!), picked me up and explained the meaning of the company's name.  Satori is a Japanese word meaning "enlightenment" or "swift kick to the head".  Upon hearing this, I secretly wish Pig Iron meant something so active, so filled with potential energy.  And already after being together for less than 5 years, they have mastered the "what does Satori mean?" question in less than 15 seconds.  If only Pig Iron was easier to explain, I think to myself.


The night of my arrival, I taught a 4-hour workshop at On The Boards, a great Seattle venue that hosts cutting edge dance and theatre.  Perhaps they are the BAM of Seattle; though their main space seats 300 and is far more intimate than any of BAM's spaces.  The one-night only workshop is hosted by Satori for the larger theatre community.  As everyone gathers, I tell them that art is either about everything all at once or about a single thing.  Ulysses manages to really touch on just about every theme there is.  All of humanity is squeezed into that book without it being over-stuffed.  Then, of course, there are poems that are about a single observation of a singular moment.  The 4-hour workshop, I tell them, will be about everything.  We proceed to work on the fundamental qualities of the stage, the unchanging staples by which live performance is made.  The body, in space, creating tension, using rhythms, over time.  I introduce what I think are the primary ingredients in an original piece of theatre which include: a dynamic use of space; a set of rules that are established about the world of the play, a few of which get broken and a few of which get added, over the course of the performance; a sense of playfulness and abandon within the performers; a "music" underlying the performance with rhythmic breaks, crescendos and decrescendos, accelerandos, major and minor chords, point and counterpoint, among other musical techniques


Despite my cross-country jetlag, the energy in the workshop is high.  The evening concludes with small groups formed to tackle a performance project that tries to synthesize the various exercises in the first 3/4 of the workshop.  Each ensemble must make a piece in which a group of people witness an event and through us (the audience) watching them (the performers) watch the event, it is clear what happens in the event.  It should be clear that if we watch someone watching a baby be born or a street fight or a building collapse, we see - in their bodies, in the rhythms in between people, in the contracting or expanding of space - an echo of that event.  We see a reflection of what happened.  This, to me, gets at something so important about the act of making theatre.  We come to the theatre to witness people witnessing and reacting to events.  We see ourselves in them and, perhaps, vice versa.  Thus, actors share with an audience their keen observations of the world around them.


The next three days are spent working with Satori in their rehearsal studio in a building that one day soon will be knocked down to make room for a major tunnel being built that will ease traffic flow through downtown Seattle.  They are on the space hunt right now, with the help of the Seattle government who will aid their search as they are basically being relocated for a massive civic project.  The space itself is functional and intimate with a beautiful view of Puget Sound, partially obscured by a freeway that manages to create a near-constant soundscape.  We compete with traffic throughout the 3 days and at times manage to overwhelm it and at other times manage to ignore it. 


Despite that obstacle, the ensemble is raring to go.  They are a game group that do not shy away from risk, big choices, or supporting one another onstage.  They have made training a big part of their company's values and it shows.  I feel as though I am in the midst of a cohesive ensemble  who seem to have an abundance of passion for the work they do together.  Few of the 11 members are from Seattle; like Pig Iron they have all found this new home together.  They have continued to attract friends and collaborators from other places to make Seattle their home, too.  It seems as though, in a few short years, they have carved out a big space for themselves in the theatrical landscape of the city.  I only wish I could see one of their pieces.


I was immediately struck by how similar they sound to Pig Iron.  They are a group that formed largely as friends in college.  Half of the folks come from Williams College, half from Cincinnati Conservatory of Music...a liberal arts college (Swarthmore, for us) and a conservatory (Lecoq, for us). Their work looks and feels very different from one project to the next.  They don't seem to have a house style, only a desire to work together.  They have divided up the administrative tasks amongst themselves.  I would say that Satori Group has their act together far more than we did and they run as an 11-member collective, rather than as a 3-headed Artistic Director.


Our 3 days are spent sharing many of Pig Iron's obsessions.  I introduce the singing and running warm-up work we do, which seems to delight this mostly musically-gifted group.  Though on Day 2 there were a few folks struggling up the stairs with calf soreness, a common problem from this work.  We make little puppet plays performed on top of a table which includes a brilliant one which could have been titled: "The first 8 days".  I introduce some of the exercises we used to work on SHUT EYE and PAY UP.  We work on developing a heightened sensitivity, an ensemble actor's greatest skill.  I make the connection between the work of the tragic chorus and the work of the ensemble.  They work on finding a shared impulse, a shared breath and a shared heartbeat.  Heady, utopian stuff, to be sure, but an important step in an ensemble's growth together.  If you can truly find a shared impulse, the group will head in the same direction.  This is as true for a 5-year old ensemble as a 25-year old one.


The longer I spend with Satori, the more convinced I am that there is something at the core of their company which will stick them together.  They are beginning to form a mini society, a little microcosm of the world which is governed by its own set of values and rules, which comes together because of a shared vision for the future and a real hunger to play together and make plays together.  There is something so noble and sexy about this; no doubt if I were 24 and unsure of my next move, I would hop on a bus and head to Seattle to do what I could to serve the company's dreams.  The trip most certainly renewed my sense that anything is possible within an ensemble and that they can be a real hub of energy in a city of individual artists looking for an artistic home.  


I am secretly, and now on this blog maybe not so secretly, hoping to check back in on Satori in a year or two and see how their maturing process is going.  Their energy is contagious, their warmth and humor is inviting and I hear they throw a heck of a party.  The workshop was just the swift kick to the head I needed.