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Subpoetics International

A Boat Constructed While on Water

Sylvain Paolini and Cassagnol Leonidas Jr. in Nomansland rehearsal. Ljubljana, August 2016. Photograph Fesih Alpagu.

November 3, 2016

L’viv, Ukraine

A group of actors from different nations are on a raft stranded in the sea. While traveling from port to port, from theatre to theatre, they construct a boat, which over time becomes a ship. That’s what Subpoetics International is—a boat constructed while on water. For us, like so many in the world, transitory has become permanent. As a group we have no home, only the theatres we visit. And on our vessel I stand as the director, like some kind of sea captain in perilous waters, whose sole task is to move wherever necessary to balance the craft. Around me I hear the actors’ voices and watch how my mates communicate while playing. None speak the same language, nor do they dance to the same drumbeat. We do not have any common culture except the one we have created since our journey started.

Our performances can be characterized as echoes and shadows of the rustling voices and movements of humans in transit.

From Calm to Chaos to Sudden Stop
Subpoetics actors are from many nations and because of the varied language spoken in the two performing groups (the International Team and our Ukrainian laboratory), the performances are in a mélange of English, Farsi, French, Haitian Creole, German, Jamaican patois, Kurdish dialect, Russian, and Ukrainian. I am more interested in the sounds of language than what words convey. And I prefer the body in dynamic action to the portrait of the human at rest. Our performances can be characterized as echoes and shadows of the rustling voices and movements of humans in transit. Subpoetics’ work avoids the narrative of any one ethnic or national group. We create our performances (Nomansland and Stranger in a Strange Land) because of our own nomadism and dedication to physical and vocal training. I draw what is most effective from the training to structure our projects. Strangely wherever we work, the geography of displaced people becomes our space; time is suspended and actions are rendered extraordinary.

Subpoetics performances move quickly from calm to chaos to sudden stop. Our songs and poetry are performed in tandem with the kinds of physicality one might associate with modern dance and martial arts. Sometimes you can hear up to ten different actors’ voices interweave texts simultaneously while their bodies move through the playing space quickly with surprising angularity taking on the appearance of a crowd. And at other moments voices are reduced to a whisper and the performers’ movements are sensual and delicate. Sometimes all is still; the only sound is breathing.

When all this is drawn together, the actors’ training and diverse cultural heritages perform the entangled environment of the encampments and migratory routes of displaced people all over the world. In the performances, contrasts between how each actor speaks and moves produces an oscillating energy which both attracts and repels the other actors (like when you play with two magnets and sometimes they stick together instantly yet if you turn them around they will never touch unless you force them together). This kind of magnetic/antimagnetic actor to actor relationship which is seen in the Subpoetics training manifests itself in our performances because this force is transferred in energized “leaps” from the performers to the audience and produces meaning.

Subpoetics has been a long time coming. I began to direct performances according to what I witnessed in actor training sessions since my first meetings with Eugenio Barba, my principal mentor since 1985. However moving away from Barba and going my own way occurred when I was teaching in West Texas (1997–99) and my students, mostly of Mexican heritage or Southern Methodist faith could not tolerate the typical musical comedy expected of them by the university. So I found a way to teach theatre without relying on any known drama. Over the years, even when directing well-known theatrical oeuvres or operas (with their familiar stories and plots), such as Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler or Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman, I deployed these techniques, making discoveries along the way. Then in 2014, after roughly five years’ silence as a director (mostly teaching and giving the occasional workshop), quite by accident, I met the founding members of the present group: Madeleine Bongard (Switzerland) and Eva Goldenberg (France). By June 2015 Alireza Daryanavard (Iran) and Anne Mourier (France) joined us and we had our first training in Paris. In October 2015 we continued in Vienna and were joined by Sylvain Paolini (France) (and also Fatma Guetary (Tunisia) and Anne Wiederhold (Germany), who remain as members though now currently involved in other projects). At that point we called our performance Port d’Alger 1962 after a series of photographs we used to construct some of the physical actions seen on stage.

When I am asked what Nomansland is about, I say: Nomansland is about the inner turmoil of displaced souls who find themselves in the perpetual purgatory of a detention encampment. The performance examines the complexity of lives lived through and with trauma. In this harsh and desolate landscape, the performance is a celebration of language, culture, and dignity told by characters at a crossroads they did not choose.

In Nomansland there is no there, and no one is there except as a detached soul eternally reborn without memory, only reminiscences. The sensuality of youth remains, the home address is forgotten. So when we work, we journey and ask ourselves: Who am I here? What is mine? What is ours? This we then translate into performances through which others may ask the same questions, and maybe it is the audience who must answer. In the year 2015–2016, Subpoetics International has journeyed to train, perform, and guide workshops in Austria, France, Slovenia, Ukraine, and most recently, Poland, where twenty-eight of us from nine nations gathered in the small Lower Silesian city, Opole, for a ten-day symposium of training, workshops, public discussions, and performances.

If we are a political theatre, then we take only one position. We renounce xenophobia. From this point of departure our journey continues.

Our Journey
Why are we journeying? Paraphrasing from local newspapers in Ljubljana: Saturday, 27.8. 2016. Midnight. Around 20 young neo-Nazis attacked Metelkova city. They marched in from the south side, from the museum's platform and started to throw rocks, bottles, tear gas, and firecrackers. One person was hit in the head immediately by a stone and started bleeding. Everything happened very quickly. They just attacked and ran away. The police arrived in seconds. They probably knew in advance what was going to happen. They took some notes and attempted to arrest the still bleeding person. After the attack everything stayed calm.

If we are a political theatre, then we take only one position. We renounce xenophobia. From this point of departure our journey continues.

Subpoetics actually had its formal start at Glej Theatre in Ljubljana (October 2011) in a week of experimentation with Ljubljana actors. This method emerges from my renunciation of a handful of commonly held beliefs and teachings about how theatre tells a story. Before people see Subpoetics performances, I am usually asked, what is the story? And I can easily make something up. I always have my own personal story, and I can also pull a story line out of the of actors’ work visible on the stage. In Nomansland stories appear and are then transformed, dissolving into new stories. Our work is never performed the same way twice. That’s because I don’t accept the notion that a performance must always tell a decipherable story as though theatre were some kind of talking book. I prefer that spectators create their own stories. Rather than tell a story, the performance carries the audience as though they were swept up by an ocean wave. I ask, what is the story of a large wave that carries you away and carves the coastline?

Four Trains on a Forceful Tide
When asked about the performance’s theme, I have a similar response. At the beginning of this project in 2014, during planning, the actors asked continually, “What is our theme?” I explained that a theme would emerge in the work process—not very reassuring. The real answer is that in Subpoetics the actor is like three trains traveling simultaneously on one track, all in the same direction. When this is achieved, story and theme emerge as a fourth train on the same track. The railroad track is the actor. The first train is the actor’s body and voice: his/her physical self. The second train consists of texts chosen, spoken, and sung by the actor. And the third train is the actor’s inner reality where s/he clarifies and justifies how the first two trains can both be on the same track. Since the performer’s actions emerge from arduous physical and vocal training, many hours a day, the actors are at first disconnected from their texts. In this third step, in order to connect the actions and voices to the texts (to suit the actions to the words), the actor must tell him/herself stories—secret stories unknown to the others and me. How the secret stories tie the texts to the actor’s physical actions are the subpoetics. And the actor must believe the stories to be true to successfully get from one moment to the next (to make this triple tracking work).

After we accomplish believable justification of actions and text through connecting them to internal stories on an individual basis, we interconnect each actors’ individual work to devise a collectively justified group work. In Nomansland, since there are seven actors each possessing three different realities (physical, textual, and internal), there are twenty-one trains on seven tracks resulting in 441 possible points of convergence that we can explore as we create our work. At this juncture we accumulate and release powerful creative energy, which we then refine in rehearsal and channel in performance. And here the fourth train (theme and story) appears. We do use standard beginning-middle-and-end dramatic structure to transform these trains into a performance that, like an ocean wave, with its own beginning, middle, and end, will wash over the audience so they may surrender to the water.

Subpoetics rises like the tide in the actors too (all these trains engulfed in a wave). This water carries driftwood, seaweed, stone, and sand; some of it hits us. And that’s where themes emerge. During the private training sessions details from the external world seep into our closed ateliers like grains of sea sand into an oyster’s shell. We are so irritated when digesting this sand—events in the surrounding world—that the fourth train, of pearly nacre, rides down the same track as the first three fleshy trains, a little more slowly, with much more fortitude. The result: 194,481 possibilities suddenly emerge; and in rehearsal we choose those which fascinate us most. When we began the project we could not ignore certain situations. Outside our studios and ateliers in L’viv, New York, Paris, Semur, Vienna, and on the road, we were always acutely aware of worldly events such as the Charlie Hebdo shootings; the Bataclan shootings; Euro-Maidan and Ukraine’s frozen war; police murders of young African American men; displaced people’s detention camps surrounded by barbed wire throughout the Balkans and Central Europe; neo-fascists marching in city streets; Syrian children dying in their parents’ arms; newly nomadic people endlessly walking from nation to nation toward illusory safety. Underscoring all of this, global religious obscurity reduces the world’s youth to cannon fodder for humanity’s war against itself. These events and conditions (some which we witnessed and survived) colored our work at significant moments while searching for justification to match texts and actions. So this is how our seeming story of refugees gathered in a no mans’ land of people whose identity has been erased finds both horror and joy in a world of permanent transit came into being. Thus my dispute with the notion of theatre as merely a form of storytelling (the hero’s journey, the villain’s demise) or that it should have a clearly legible theme (peace in our time, good shall outweigh evil) allows me to create a fictive world in which uncomfortable realities coexist with youth’s laughter as a life condition. Four trains on a forceful tide: something you don’t read, you ride.

In Vienna we began filming our work as a means of making a documentary that traces our route and that can be used as a teaching tool for those who do not take our workshops or see our performances. It was then that the filmmaker Fesih Alpagu (Vienna) joined the work. While in Vienna we were visited by my close colleague from Ukraine, the director Yevhen Khudzyk, who traveled eighteen hours by bus from L’viv to spend one day with the group during preparation for our Vienna guests-only performance of Port d’Alger 1962. Khudzyk invited the group to the Lesia Ukrainka Dramatic Theatre in L’viv to present the work to the public as a formal part of the theatre’s workshop series. The L’viv project required another augmentation in membership.

We were joined by Bohdan Koshyk (Ukraine) who did all the videography and photography in Ukraine. And since Guetary and Wiederhold could not stay with the project, Vernice Miller (Jamaica), my longtime colleague (also trained by Barba) joined the work along with our mutual student Cassagnol Leonidas Jr. (USA). This sudden shift in personnel required a two-week training/rehearsal period in Paris in January 2016, followed by a ten-day period of work in Ukraine during which we trained all morning, ran a workshop teaching our methodology to young actors in the early afternoon, and then, after rehearsals throughout the late afternoon, we gave performances at night. The result was full houses for all our L’viv performances.

We take great pride in the work of our young group, now called Gershom Theatre Laboratory in L’viv, who created a new work, Stranger in a Strange Land (which we continued to rehearse in L’viv and is now ready for public performance). The Ukraine experience galvanized us as a group. During another two-week rehearsal period in Paris, during April—when we were joined by our dramaturge, Magda Cirillo (Greece), a Paris-based fine and performing arts curator and writer—we decided that Port d’Alger 1962 was an inappropriate title for the work because, apart from the photographs, nothing in the performance referred directly to the 1962 insurrection in Algeria. It was then that we struck out on our journey to Nomansland and came ashore in Ljubljana at Glej Theatre (August/September 2016) where we trained intensively and rehearsed for ten days before opening the performance to the public. What we performed in Ljubljana differed drastically from what we presented in L’viv. From November 25 through December 4, 2016, Subpoetics International was in Opole, Poland, (birthplace of Grotowski’s Theatre Laboratory) to give workshops and perform Nomansland on a double bill with the world premiere of Gershom Theatre Laboratory in L’viv’s Stranger in a Strange Land at Teatr Lalki i Aktora as part of the Symposium “Estradas for the 21st Century: Global Theatre in Opole.”


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As someone who travels frequently and makes it a point to learn and understand other cultures, I love that this group of people is making an effort to renounce xenophobia through art. Art is the only thing that can cause change, because art is found in every aspect of life and can be created from every aspect of life. In a directing class that I am taking, we learned that only 5% of theatre has anything to do with words. This is especially true when there are possible language barriers. The rest is created through action, and movement, and gestures, and countless other things that bring people together, none of which have to do with words.

Please do not answer this question if it would endanger you to do so, but I can't help wondering if people in Ukraine (in general) consider the current government to be valid (that is, democratically elected and representing the will of the people), as we (here in the States) have been repeatedly told it is by our government (through the mainstream media), or whether what I hear from my contacts in the anti-war community is more accurate: that a few years ago there was a coup whereby the democratically elected government was declared "invalid" (because of an allegedly tainted election) and replaced (the help of the U.S. CIA) with leaders who are much more pro-U.S. and anti-Russia than the Ukraine people (who I'm under the the impression prefer, like me, to peacefully get along with everyone) actually elected.

This is perhaps one of the most vital issues of our time, as our government (both the previous one and most of the new one), with the help of the mainstream media, keeps trying to convince us that Russia is our enemy... whereas I believe the true enemy of the American people are those in our government (both past and present) and media that keep insisting that Russia is our enemy (and allegedly helped overturn the results of the Ukraine election).