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Immersed in the art of Richard Schechner

Deborah Leiser-Moore: Richard Schechner, Imagining O

Deborah Leiser-Moore is a Melbourne-based contemporary performance maker whose works have toured internationally. Her most recent work, KaBooM, is a performance installation about cultural memory and war.

Imagining O Imagining O
photo Marina Levitskava

Adorned with ancient masks, photos and thousands of books from his many years as Founder and Professor of Performance Studies at Tisch School of the Arts, the office is the nerve centre of The Drama Review and the home of the brain behind the birth of the Wooster Group/Performance Group in the 1960s and is crammed with an eager cast from around the globe. Fourteen women and one man are all ready to dive into an intense six weeks (six days a week) working on Imagining O. All set for an investigation of sexuality, abjection and power and one of those ensemble experiences where people respect each other’s work and where you are given freedom to exercise your creative imagination. How often does that happen in life?

Richard greets me with a warm hug. We had last seen each other the previous year in Brisbane where my company, Tashmadada, had invited him to conduct a four-day Rasabox master class at the World Theatre Festival. Schechner devised the Rasabox training in the 1980s-90s, based on the Natyasastra, an ancient Indian text on stagecraft. It’s a training methodology to give performers concrete physical tools to access, control and communicate eight key emotions for performance. It was an essential part of the rehearsal process: when working on scenes, Richard would prompt us with a specific ‘rasa’ to explain an emotion he was searching for—or a phrase of dialogue. Some chunks of text had a different ‘rasa’ for each sentence—or even within one sentence.

I jumped right in—straight onto the floor and working physically. And straight into the transgressive subject matter of O—a character whose sexual fantasies involve unusual “alterations” of the body. No room for puritans in O’s cupboard. Not that this particular ensemble needed much prompting, everyone displayed great ease with their bodies. Richard, at the epicentre, created an environment in which trust, bravery and a feeling of ‘I can do anything’ existed. inhibitions dissolved quickly.

Each day for the next six weeks started with yoga—a specific form that Schechner has been practicing daily since the 1970s—and he is testament to its effectiveness. At age 80 the mind is sharp and the body still flexible—he often sits in lotus position. It’s a yoga series given to him by his Indian teacher and is invigorating without being too strenuous. As well as physical poses, the yoga includes vocal work and a very particular breathing series, which required tissues at hand.

After the daily trip to the Alexander Kasser Theater in Montclair, where the rehearsals took place (necessary for this site-specific promenade work) and the performances were to be staged and hosted by Peak Performance Festival, we were fuelled by caffeine and a passion for the new found material. Lunch was sporadic and dinner at 10 pm after coming back to Manhattan—who cared as the days were full of stimulation.

One of the daily theatre exercises included crossing from one side of a defined space to the other but infused with specific instructions. The exercise was a template for exploring all sorts of ideas—such as Schechner’s interest in slow motion as a tool to train the body, focus the mind and to create intense relationships between members of the ensemble. One variation saw us crossing the space as slowly as we possibly could (with Richard side coaching us to go even slower) and, on meeting each other, slowly swapping clothes. After the clothes swap we could continue our extremely slow walk. If not all clothes were swapped we had to be totally still until the exercise was over. It took at least an hour to cross the small space and it engaged every muscle in my Suzuki trained body, tested my focus and challenged my tenacity—all of which, until then, I had felt were strong.

United by the training regime and collective film shoots around Manhattan—including filming some of us performing movement sequences as we plunged into the waters off Coney Island, and on an early morning train in our ‘dressed to kill’ clothes—the ensemble forces grew stronger and the groundwork was laid for us to devise our own material. At one stage, in the final performance, the audience needs to perform tasks in a carnival scene before being allowed to progress to the next stage of the show. I ended up on my back on a specially made see-saw exhorting members of the public to feed me real flowers—they weren’t shy and I often had a number of them at once stuffing as many into my mouth as they possibly could (that image ended up accompanying the glowing reviewof the production in the New York Times, 12 September).

We were charged with devising solo pieces, our ‘dispersals,’ to explore whatever interested us in relation to the themes of Story of O. I was more than ready to abandon myself to whatever boundaries were to be transgressed. Thematically, I was particularly interested in the physical and emotional decomposition of both the O and Ophelia and their ultimate demises. My piece involved an atmospherically lit bathroom (thanks to lighting and set designer Chris Muller), hanging flowers, dripping liquid, a soundscape, a naked body (slightly faulty) and instructions for the audience to draw on my skin. I won’t say more as I am developing this into a durational piece.

Six weeks living and breathing with a power ensemble of gorgeous and talented women, of immersion in the art of Richard Schechner, one of the fathers of avant garde theatre (he is a grandfather now) with his lively, curious, razor sharp mind and endless energy, has breathed such life into my own being that I will treasure the experience for a long, long time to come. The sold-out shows for Imagining O have provided great external recognition but nothing compared to the internal emotions and sensations still resonating in my body.

Peak Performances: Imagining O, rehearsals commenced 4 Aug; season, Alexander Kasser Theater, Montclair State University, New Jersey, 10-14 Sept

Deborah Leiser-Moore is a Melbourne-based contemporary performance maker whose works have toured internationally. Her most recent work, KaBooM, is a performance installation about cultural memory and war.

RealTime issue #124 Dec-Jan 2014 pg. 40

© Deborah Lieser-Moore; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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