Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of participating in Double Edge Theatre’s Open Training, out in the wilds of Ashfield, MA. The Berkshires are lovely this time of year, of course, but what I got to experience was far more than the usual New England leaf-peep. Rather, I had my body worked, my mind expanded, and my spirit uplifted. (Also, my toes blood-blistered. But that’s another part of this tale.)
Double Edge is what I can only call a holistic theatre company. They are housed on an old dairy farm in Western MA, where they have extensive gardens and some chickens and pigs. Much of their 100 acres is protected agricultural land, and the artists in residence are doing their best to run the place in a sustainable way, including switching to wood heating and getting their water from an artesian well. More importantly, though, they create amazing performative art, large, highly physical pieces that take years of development and tend to be based on well-known stories like Don Quixote, The Firebird, and The Odyssey. Their latest touring piece, currently in development, is called The Grand Parade of the Twentieth Century, and I for one can’t wait to see it.
I wasn’t clear what I expected when I went into the afternoon workshop. I went because an actress I respect told me about it, and since seeing Transcontinental Love Affair in Minneapolis, I’ve wanted to do more with physical theatre. I knew it was going to be physical; I didn’t know exactly how or to what degree. I thought at least some things might be explained, or discussed. No: this was to be entirely experiential. Strenuous, ecstatic, playful, and almost entirely without words.
When my friend and I entered, there were probably about 40 people there. Many looked like they’d attended one of these before; I’m sure many were new. Everyone was stretching out, so we followed their leads.
This turned out to be a good plan, since the next nearly two hours were to be an extended, complex, and beautiful game of follow-the-leader, where the leader keeps changing, and then there are several, and tribes and groups and bands form, fighting, cooperating, dancing, strutting, cowering, and carrying each other through an organically evolving, entirely improvised story.
But it started with a jog.
The magnificent Matthew Glassman – though we didn’t know who he was yet – entered, said something like, “Okay, let’s start,” and began to lightly run around the room – a medium-sized community hall with benches around the sides and a low stage at the front. At first it felt like a martial arts class warmup: we all began to jog around the room. But soon it became clear that we weren’t all jogging in the same direction. Then we weren’t just running in different directions but trying to avoid collisions. We began to encounter each other, dodge, confront, play. It became clear in a short time that we were meant to follow Matthew’s other movements, too, and he eventually guided us into a large circle, skipping sideways around it. Soon another leader emerged: Carlos Uriona, another core member of the group, and he and Matthew split the group between them without much preamble. Before the end there were at least four groups that I could count. The group I was a part of ended up running out of the hall – barefoot – our hands behind our backs, and running along the street and the sidewalk of the little town, into a church yard, through the leaves and mud and puddles, sitting on a rock wall, looking at the sky, peering about suspiciously at the spirits of Puritans looking disdainfully at us. When we came back in, some people were wearing vests and hats, and a large cable spool had been rolled into the center of the room. People were taking turns balancing and walking on it. A smaller one was introduced. Then long lengths of sheer fabric, which groups of us moved with, hid under, swept into the air and down again. The hall became like an organized chaos of circusness. Every one of us was soaked in sweat.
In the midst of all of this, a number of things happened. I’ve felt this kind of thing before, most notably in ritual space and at times in less organized dance events. First, the physical activity, which was intense, thrust all of us out of our heads. When you’re working that hard, committing that passionately to movement, and making sure that you and others aren’t getting hurt, there’s no space for doubt, or fear, or wondering what you’re going to do next. You do it, and that’s all there is to it.
I noticed almost immediately how easy it was to invoke an emotional state using my body and others’ bodies. I could tiptoe around and not just appear, but feel, sneaky and mysterious. I jumped back and changed direction in fear and alarm. I leapt into the the air with elation. I flung myself to the ground in despair. All of this at the physical prompting of the leaders, and I felt how my heart changed as my body changed, how much I could change my state at will.
Once I was thoroughly warmed up, and so enmeshed in the physicality of it all that I forgot to be self-conscious, I also began to feel the powerful connection that forms between people who are doing something intense together. There’s a trust that forms almost instantly, and the energy of the group – in this case, both the larger group and the smaller subgroups – becomes its own thing, an organism outside of the individual. The movement becomes collaborative, the breath becomes a thing that you are moving together. Touch becomes easier, and a kind of radical intimacy develops. The sense of safety, of co-creation, of togetherness, becomes intensely moving – to the extent that you can process it in the moment. In the moment, it’s really just something that’s happening to you: an ecstasy of change. And for me, a reminder of what human interaction can truly be like, even between strangers.
It’s hard to say what exactly happened. We moved: we ran, crawled, knelt, reached, jumped, pushed and pulled, leapt and twirled, balanced and twisted, held each other. We draped the fabric over another group of fallen comrades and either tucked them in for a nap or mourned the dead. We touched and were touched. We moved and were moved.
At the end, we stretched out and breathed, rested and reflected. I wasn’t sure what we had created but it felt profound and important and true, and yet ephemeral, an ongoing work, the work of a lifetime.
I know I will return.