Marek Turošík (Czech Republic)

A SHORT BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO CONTINUO THEATRE

 For the first time I learned about Continuo theatre 8 years ago as a undergraduate student of theatre dramaturgy. For the period of one month, I got a chance to take a part in its summer site-specific theatre project as participant, but also actually some kind of student of Continuo’s work. Its theatre creations and way of achieving them, just as way of living like a special theatre organism enchanted me.

Now, 8 years after, I am a PhD. student of theatre arts. Thanks to terrain research grants of my university I have a chance to witness Continuo’s activities again for some time, using direct observation, interviews with its members and study of documentary materials. The practical experience I was just simply amazed by for the first time when I encountered Continuo, I can describe and analyze in a little more detail now.

And because I observed their work with acting students most of the time last year, this paper will be dealing with the aspects of acting aesthetics in Continuo and the elements a student is supposed to experience there. Let it be some kind of guide for future new-coming students to get more orientated in what might be found in Continuo’s training and visiting the Plum Yard, the theatre’s residence space in general.

Continuo is a theatre

First of all, let us start with a little theory and history. Continuo was established some 21 years ago by Pavel and Helena Štourač, two set designers just graduated from an academy. During all these years, they have been working in the area of puppetry, new circus, street performances, site-specific projects, visual and physical theatre.

Continuo is an unusual Czech theatre, not for being an independent group surviving mostly on grant money or for its international crew. This is already quite common in Czech republic. What is not are these key three features:

1. Continuo uses its own theatre stage language (or aesthetics) that apparently does not come from any «school» but is a selective hybrid of the variety of other, more traditional languages. In the recent years, it is mostly affected by physical theatre inspirations.

2. Continuo is - as the only professional Czech theatre - based in countryside and is thus affected by this factor.

3. Continuo has uncommon way of the life of the group organization, along with and because its wide range of activities.

In this text, I will be dealing with the first and the second feature mentioned as on the third, Pavel Štourač wrote his PhD. thesis himself describing it utterly. Anyway, I think that elements of a hybrid language and the place will be more interesting for acting adepts.


Continuo is a place in a time

Much of the Continuo’s esthetics is determined in its location. It is based at the old farmer yard in very small South Bohemian village Malovice, in the region famous for its castles, nice generous people and artificial lakes.

Continuo is from its very beginning consciously predestined by this factor. Far away from the rush, noise but first of all, job opportunities of towns and cities, is made itself a monastery of dedicated theatre work. With almost nowhere to go (except the fields and small lakes around the yard), it drives its crew to most possible dedication. In a monastery, one have a lot of time to get an insightful look into spiritual essence of the world by praying. Here, it is a theatre one have almost unlimited time for continuous work on material that brings inspiration and on the performance and its contexts research, too. This is the crucial base on which Eugenio Barba’s famous Odin Teatret in small town Holstebro in Denmark was established.

Creative activities of Continuo involve a strong element of repeating. Company has a possibility to repeat and develop the material until it is ready. They have an unlimited time available for preparing a new piece. Life of a performance does not end with its premiere. Contrary, it continues as it is again and again developed and changed with every rehearsal and performing.

Apparently, Continuo sees the theatre process through work on separate inspirational material (it could be objects, ideas, physical actions - essentially anything). Its members believe each material has its own potential language and a secret will to speak to a person that dedicates enough effort and reveal hidden potential of theatre use. Thus one has to get deep into the material and really needs to get to know it a lot to use it for materializing the idea through is.

Moreover, bare character of Plum yard itself offers an infinite number of impulses that might lead to material. With its separate locations, rooms, alleys, corners and walls almost breathing like houses in Gustav Meyrink’s novellas, I always felt surrounded by yet uncovered stories. The same works for a country around. One evening here, I remembered a quote - quite possibly a one by Heraclitus - about the lifetime of a man spent in the world: «What we managed to find here, we are going to carry with us from now on. What we did not find, we leave here.»

The concentration is a key element here, as through concentration on a task, a state of meditative work mode arises and artists can cut off the conceptual, intellectual way of thinking and creating a theatre piece. It needs to be noted that Continuo, as a child of both first and second theatre reform of 20th century, finds this the only way of reaching what could be called stage «truth» without the need to turn to realism. It believes that the artistic creation can be achieved by partially unconscious process only, with its results re-arranged later.

However, there is one important feature helping both previous notes arrive - physical work, not speaking about the time spent on the stage working as an actor now. Farmer yard is still a farmer yard, now re-built only thanks to extreme dedication of company members that have been working very hard to built this place up for a long time. And yet, still a lot needs to be done. Physical work naturally lead to meditative state and to discovering new possibilities of movement, object and to new ideas coming from the outside. Also, the necessary physical condition is achieved. The same principle is used by Min Tanaka at his farm in Japan - his students are working in the field for a big part of a working day - having experiencing physical and mental preparation for the theatre work afternoon.

When watching Continuo’s shows - quite possibly all of them, I always perceived very strong visual connection with the ground, dirt, wood, dirty paper, dust and rusty metal. Set-design of the shows reflects the world company lives in, in Malovice rural Plum Yard. It is not an artificial aesthetics but real situation. In each performance, Continuo carries its own universe and makes it life somewhere else. And yet again, I reminded the quote of Heraclitus mentioned earlier.

Persons and personas

Continuo, just as the majority of modern physical and dance companies do not rely on the text written by any author. Personal inspirations gathered in the dramatic texts, plays could become a material but are definitely not a main frame of their shows. Simply said - literature is not as important here as in the classical drama. Instead of that, they are constantly trying to enter the dramaturgical realm of topics, ideas, processes, principles and possible performance structures without the need of the mediator person that play (text) author usually represents. This is an un-interpretative theatre that, instead of pursuing the fulfillment of an author’s wishes and visions, values much more the importance of the dispositions of its individual members and the common group dynamics, topics, interest. As a side effect, the level of artistic independency of the company actors rises.

Any theatre groups / companies consist of people that have desires they naturally follow. When it comes to artists, they usually stick with one artistic desire represented by style, genre or forms for most of the life. This is not the case of Continuo. When they started the company more than 20 years ago, they were dealing with puppetry almost exclusively. Then, without leaving it for good, moved to explore new circus. Then it was street theatre, then site-specific projects, then physical theatre. Nowadays, they are blending what they found on their way together, creating what I call their hybrid language.

Still, founders Helena and Pavel (who is also a director) are originally puppet theatre set-designers. This means a lot for the group. Not only performances have added visual (but pleasingly rough) qualities but also as graduated puppeteers deep inside, used to work with animating, giving the energy to dead materials using them as vessels, they perceive actor bodies similarly.

This idea, again, follows the tradition of second theatre reform as viewed by Czech professor Jana Pilátová (and especially the ritual phenomenon explorers like Grotowski but also Kantor) of using the body on the stage as merely a channel. To reach truth and life on the stage causing a small miracle to happen, actor has to get rid of his ego as much as possible to become a clear mass for what needs and wants to be manifested. Suppressing and surpassing the traditional theatre personas building and performing makes it possible to let the stream of inner and outer impulses flow through the actor’s transparent body, transforming regular theatre show into moment of meeting fascinating concentrated reality.

Impulses

Roberta Carreri, actress of famous Odin Teatret said during one of their workshops I attended: «I will tell you a secret. In theatre, there is never actually an action happening. There is only reaction.»

This work motive is in Continuo’s work one of the strongest. In fact, impulse is anything that invokes physical (also mental) reaction and could come from anywhere - from the stage partner slightest movement, as a tiny voice of a bird singing outside the rehearsing room, as a reminder of one’s childhood memories in the secret corner of the mind. What is important here is the ability to take an impulse, transform it, reveal its potential towards the stage action and use it as a part of the persona’s vocabulary / actions.

Developing a personal actor’s way how to get to a source of a stream of impulses summoning the stage action is absolutely crucial, without impulse nothing happens here. There is always something you can listen to but you have to be aware of that and be ready to receive - big part of Continuo’s training is focused on this.

The essence of Continuo’s work on character lies deep in the principle of improvisation of Commedia dell’Arte. Medieval Italian artists were trained in using already pre-created elements (lazzi) in the show according to current given situation. Improvisation was never pure unprepared event, it was rather a special way of using what had been mostly already prepared before. Anyway, this way was unique for any given performance and possibly not possible to be repeated.

In Continuo, actors are trained to develop and learn a number of stage principles, situation and relationships creation. An universe of stage possibilities open when a game rules are set - with some limits (represented by fragments of accepted, embodied, partially controlled forms and mechanisms) freedom for infinite improvisation variations enters. Even in «old» Continuo’s performances, there is still a space, necessity and desire for improvised parts.

Many young acting adepts do not realize the act of a theatre is not actually happening on the stage, in between the actors speaking or moving but in the nervous system of the spectator - in his senses sensors and brain. To make theatre really happen, we have to create natural impulses of various tonality and quality in the body and mind of a spectator then. To manage this and to lead the spectator where it is necessary to experience what artists intends, is the biggest goal of an theatre maker.

Continuo - deeply aware of this - has its own principle. As a follower of second theatre reform, wants to flood the spectator with impulses to experience very intense theatre performance (dozens of impulses per minute). But, instead of other companies, it has a slight tendency «not to finish the sentence» and not to present finished, final theatre topics done in a «proper», direct theatre way. It intentionally creates blurry stage images and symbols without one particular meaning. Thus, it actually create a sort of virtual canvas where unconscious motifs, ideas and topics of spectators could be projected aiming to create a personal, secret experience for each of them, with their active mental artistic participation. 

Spaces

Space has its own poetry. Even if empty or because empty, it calls for fulfillment. It offers it itself.

Space and its character determines a lot. It is one of the main sources of Continuo’s inspiration and also impulses for actors. Not only a physical dimensions structure, it is rather another partner that actor can be affected, influenced by - by receiving the impulses.

Countryside is a space natural for a man. Just like the theatrical space, it is a space that calls for filling with action. That is why site - specific projects were started in the 20th century. In Czech republic, Continuo was one of the first companies to explore theatre potential of the country itself, organizing the events and performances organically connected with the memory, stories of the country. They do it every summer until these days.

Moreover, inside of a man, there is another countryside, loaded with structures, forests, quells and streams that Continuo tries to re-discover to put it in the role of another partner, too, at every rehearsal.

Lines, forms and their bodies

Continuo’s actors move according to a natural patterns. Watching them carefully at one of the rehearsals common, I suddenly realize I am seeing lines drawn into geometry shapes by body movement. As a result of their ambition of harmonizing these movements, I can actually hear this harmony. And it sounds like the music of the spheres. Their bodies in the space of the rehearsing room resemble stars crossing the night sky, as if I had a model of a solar system spread in the wide space in from of me. I see planets and star interactions, I see infinite, unstoppable movement dictated by the laws of nature: there is gravitation closing them to each other, along with a force pushing them from each other as in the centrifuge. All of that, while central point of their bodies constantly moving around the body. They interact with each other until the collision.

The actor’s body is a place of a battle of unleashed natural, physical powers. An object in outer space.

This is actually how baroque dance patterns were constructed. In its essence, Continuo is - thanks to inspiration by the nature’s magnificent manifestations - modern baroque theatre.

And suddenly, everything stops in a cut and I see a solo part of an actress where she has a body of an animal, followed by a duo of two animals. Planets change into bodies of organisms where another battle is taking place - the one of an unnamed desires of wild things.

Actors are in constant search for an ambivalent state between two states: being controlled by released potential of their bodies and observing and directing the control of their bodies. The theatre Continuo is looking for lies somewhere in between. Rational thinking is deliberately cut off (hard part of the training), to create an inverted golem - natural mass directing the actions of a living body.

Aesthetics of physical theatre and puppetry has a lot in common and Continuo uses this pulsing tension on purpose in its creations.

The very last note

Many of Continuo’s students have a desire to join the company or to create similar theatre group of their own. Very few actually succeed, thinking they do not have the proper background or disposition. Interestingly, most of the company members do not have a theatre education and technically are not professionals actors.  

It is not that important what pre-dispositions one have but whether he/she wants to achieve them.

 

Reference list:
1
. TUROŠÍK, Marek. Creatio Continua divadla Continuo. In: Divadlo a interakce VI. / Miloslav Klíma a kol. Prague: Pražská scéna, KALD DAMU, 2012. 314 p. ISBN 978-80-86102-75-7.
2. ŠTOURAČ, Pavel. Hledání místa pro divadlo [online]. Prague, 2011 [cit. 2016-12-14].Accessible from z: . Dissertation thesis. Academy of performing arts in Prague, Theatre faculty AMU. Thesis leader Jan Vedral. 
3. WATSON, Ian. Towards a Third Theatre. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. 232 p. ISBN-13: 978-0415081498
4. PILÁTOVÁ, Jana. Hnízdo Grotowského: na prahu divadelní antropologie. Prague: Institut umění - Divadelní ústav, 2009. Světové divadlo. 581 p. ISBN 978-80-7008-239-3.
5. RUDLIN, John. Commedia Dell'Arte: An Actor's Handbook. New York: Routledge, 1994. 296 p. ISBN 0415047706.

 

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