Monday, January 5, 2015

The Vigil

  Reflections on “The Vigil”
Patricia Ryan Madson 

The year was 1980.  I was a young faculty member in Drama teaching acting at Stanford.  One day I saw an ad in the San Francisco Bay Guardian which read something like this:   "Come join members of Jerzy Growtowski's Company for an event called "The Vigil".  This four hour workshop will take place on Haight Street in San Francisco in a Studio Space  (normally used for dance classes ) on Saturday. (date I can’t remember). The cost is $25 to attend and participate.  Please come wearing clothing you would wear for a dance or movement class and be prepared to do vigorous movement.   The fee will be taken at the door and instructions for the class given at that time. No experience is necessary. All levels of interest are welcome."

To the best of my memory this is all that was advertised.  I was drawn to whatever they were doing because The Polish Lab Theatre, led by Jerzy Growtowski was the hottest experimental theatre training happening in the world at the time.  Check out Growtowski's famous book, TOWARDS A POOR THEATRE, 1968, if you can find a copy or look for him on Wikipedia.

He was attempting to train actors in very fundamental ways and return to the primacy of the physical body.  Some of his early workshops, I understand, had actors literally running for hours. He believed in no props, no net, nothing but the human body and spirit at work.  It was raw, physical work that was the basis for his training.

I decided to show up in my leotard and tights on that Saturday morning and see what this workshop was all about.  Growtowski himself was not present, but I gather the leader of the day was a women who was a primary trainer of his.  A dozen or so strangers assembled on the sidewalk outside the dance studio, most of us looking excited and a bit apprehensive.  It was somewhere near Haight and Ashbury Streets. 

Our money was taken and the leader explained the “rules of the Vigil.” They were simple, but absolute, she declared.

1.      Maintain silence at all times.
2.      Keep your body moving continually.
3.      Be mindful of your safety and that of others.
4.      No “set movement routines”  (e. g. tai chi, yoga or drills)                                    

This was all we had to go on.  We knew also that the experience was to last for four hours.  We were not allowed to take anything personal into the space, so backpacks and jackets were left in a pile in the anteroom to the large dance space.  After various questions had been asked and answered the leader reached out a firm hand and extended it toward one of men standing closest to her.  She walked purposefully toward the door of the room holding hands and escorted the student into the space.  Moments later she came back to us and extended a hand looking directly at me.  I eagerly accepted her strong lead and the two of us walked into the empty space.  I think we got to the middle of the room and she stopped, looked at me directly, smiled briefly and then let go my hand.  She walked carefully back into the lobby to escort another student.  Her thoughtful lead continued until all of those registered were finally brought into the room. 

As soon as she left me standing in the center of the room I remembered the instruction: “Keep moving at all times.”  So, I began just walking around the space, observing.  The large room featured a well-polished wooden dance floor bereft of any chairs or equipment or decoration.  One of the walls had the obligatory full-length mirror prized by dancers.  I noticed that others in the room were also moving around randomly.   I suppose most of us were slightly nervous wondering what we were “supposed to be doing” and imagining that someone might lead us in something after a while.

But no “set pieces” ever happened . . . that is, the leader never did offer any instruction or lead.  What happened was an amazing, random, physical event.   I found myself alternately running and skipping, flailing around, sitting on the floor doing stretches and movements to loosen every part of my body.  I’m no dancer but at 38 I was reasonably healthy and fit and moving for a few hours was possible, albeit a stretch as the hours wore on.  Certainly I had never stayed “in motion” for four hours continually up until this moment.

I don’t have a lot of detailed memories of those four hours with the exception of one “riff” that is permanently etched in my mind.  It is about a relationship.  Sometime into the third hour or so I remember making a connection with another young women, she was young and appeared to be a dancer and very agile and graceful.  At some point we began a kind of pas de duex.  We started swaying together and doing a kind of “mirror exercise” which evolved into movement and response, coming together and then going apart.  Some kind of story seemed to be evolving at a subliminal level and we held hands and began moving in a soft, close way, like deep friends.  The word that has stuck with me after nearly forty years is “intimate.”    I still remember the feeling of being human together with her, of being two sweaty women, playfully having fun and being kind to each other.  We explored so many ways of relating physically, although there was never anything sexual, it was very personal.  I can even today remember the scent of her body.  Of course no words were ever spoken, and after the event ended I never saw her again, and have no idea what her name is.  But I do remember that I thought I learned something about human intimacy (or was it a form of love?) by the half hour of physical play we shared wordlessly. 

I don’t have much memory of what the other dozen plus participants were doing.  I can say that there was much in the four hours that was trance like.  After the first hour we got over the novelty of being on silence and in motion and simply began to explore what was possible.   It was a day rich with discovery . . . much of which can’t really be translated into words in an essay. 

In the years since that vigorous day of being a body alive I have adopted Growtowski’s “Vigil” idea and led students at Stanford in my Improvisation class for a two hour version of this event.  I have witnessed a wide range of things happening, and I’ve learned a few important things about setting up the event.  During one Vigil I had left blocks, tables and chairs stacked on the side of the room (normally used in acting classes).  Almost the first thing that happened during that Vigil was that the students began arranging and rearranging those pieces endlessly.  There wasn’t that much physical movement beyond the life sized “building blocks” game that evolved.  I didn’t want to prohibit expression so I didn’t stop this while it was happening.  But I learned clearly that anything, any item that can be moved, will be moved if it is in the space.  I began to understand the primacy of an empty space as a crucible for discovery.  Peter Brook understood this, and his famous book, The Empty Space is a testament to this point. We are all fond of playing with our toys whenever we have any.  The purpose of the Vigil is not to circumvent the restrictions by substituting activity for pure movement.  Also, some groups have begun to make noises or percussion as diversion.  When the first rule is given as “No talking” (instead of Silence) students have been known to begin lively gibberish interactions.  And while drumming and humming and gibberish-making are fine things themselves I’ve come to believe that they can be distractions to the initial prompt to “MOVE CONTINUALLY”.  I’m guessing that Growtowski wanted his actors to become fully exhausted and invigorated with what happens to the body during prolonged physical use.   Oh, yes, and one of the instructions given during the question period before the Vigil that I attended was:  “If you need to rest, do so only briefly, and even then, keep some part of your body moving.  Do not just lie down or stop moving altogether.  Even rest should be with the awareness of keeping moving, ” she said.

In a world where the biggest stretch most of us get daily is with our thumbs, texting, something like the Vigil is a rare opportunity. 

October 16, 2014

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