Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Paige Rogers of Cutting Ball Theater

During the summer of 2014, Paige Rogers, co-founder and acting artistic director of San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater, and the cast and creative team of her Antigone project were invited by the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw, Poland, to be in residence there for 16 days to work with members of the world-renowned Theater ZAR. Theater ZAR is a Polish theater company known for using liturgical chants and funeral songs collected from group visits to isolated communities in the Caucasus Mountains as the primary material for their work. Rogers, an experimental theater artist, was keen to work with the Polish company after being profoundly and viscerally affected by work they performed while on a U.S. visit. In this interview we spoke with Rogers about how the residency transformed her approach to work and informed Cutting Ball’s presentation of Antigone.

NEA: How would you describe your work?

PAIGE ROGERS: We call it an experimental theater company. The mission of Cutting Ball is to reveal the poetic truth of plays as opposed to the literal truth of plays. That means people could come away with all kinds of different impressions from the work onstage. It might affect people very differently but it's still their truth, their personal truth, as opposed to us trying to define what that truth and perception is for our audience.

NEA: Theater is so much about relationships--with the work and with each other. Why were you drawn to working with Theatre ZAR?

ROGERS: I had heard about Theatre ZAR through Philip Arnoult of the Center for International Theatre Development and from Barbara Lanciers who is now the head of the Trust for Mutual Understanding. They had been to see a show of ZAR's at the Grotowski Institute in a very small space in downtown Wroclaw. I was in Wroclaw for the 2007 Dialog Festival at the time, and they had invited me to skip one of the festival shows and go with them because they had heard wonderful things about this group. I declined. It was hard, but I just thought, “I can't miss a show in this festival to go to one that's not in the festival.” Then they both came back just completely stunned, almost quiet in how it had affected them. Usually, people come back from a show they love and they say, "It was the…..! Oh, you should have been there, it was totally sold out!” They were almost, I don't want to say dumbstruck, but they were as if a fairy had touched them on the head with a wand, and they were stunned in a way.

I found out that… ZAR would be in residence at UCLA, a seven-hour drive from my home. So after returning to the U.S., I left my husband and my five- and seven-year-old and drove myself to stay in a little grungy hotel near the UCLA campus and I saw their work twice. It made a profound impression on me, specifically because there was room in the performance for each audience member to be physically affected by what they were hearing, the music of the songs being sung, and the visual imagery and pictures being presented onstage. As well, the resonance and vibration of their voices created for me a strong visceral reaction to what was being presented. There was space almost for a sitting meditation while watching the piece. I'm trying to figure out my own aesthetic in this way [so that] you as a viewer never go away from the work, you don't think about what you're going to have for dinner, but there's space for other thoughts that the work gives. I think the work potentially gives the individual, patron, or audience member the time and the space to go deeper, to think about larger issues as they pertain to what they're seeing onstage and what they're feeling in their bodies. With ZAR, in particular, because of the music of the songs, there's an added element to that.

NEA: When did you decide to transport the ensemble of artists you were working with on Antigone to Poland, and how did that come about?

ROGERS: We got the translation ready to roll. After reading [Daniel Sullivan’s] translation practically every night, I realized there were certain things that I wanted to see onstage that I didn’t have training in. I had mentioned this several years ago to Philip Arnoult. I said, "It's frustrating for me because some of what I want to create onstage, I don't know how to put it on there. I kind of know what I want to see and how it might feel to the audience but I don't know how to put it onstage." His response offered so much relief: "Oh that's not a big deal, you can always find people who have the training and then you involve them in your process and they work with you.”

So my Antigone cast traveled to Poland to train with members of ZAR who live in Wroclaw. I had followed ZAR as they've created more and more work: the first work in '07 was Gospels of Childhood, and since then they've done Caesarian Section, Anhelli, and, most recently, Armine Sister. I reached out to the theater and asked if we could travel to them. It might have been cheaper, actually, to bring four members of ZAR to San Francisco, but we went to Poland where the Grotowski Institute is in downtown Wroclaw, a darling university town. We trained way out in the country in Brzezinka where Grotowski himself went to create a lot of work. It's a converted barn where there is only one place to stand to get any wi-fi.

Everyone just had to be present--there's nothing else to do, we're out literally in the country, we weren't even jogging distance from a convenience store, any kind of market or store at all, restaurant, coffee shop, nothing. So we're really out in the middle of nowhere, and we had to eat what we had bought the previous weekend and parse that out. The cooking was done over gas, the kind of gas stove that you bring camping. It was a large one but a cook top. And we rotated cleaning, cooking, and every day we'd sing and move and work on the script. That's what we were there for. I've never experienced anything like it. I think the ensemble reflected that back at the end, after being completely cut off from society and working solely on the piece. Daniel Sullivan came to join us for a little bit and we worked on the script, and then those four members of ZAR came at three different times to work on movement and to work on singing. So that's what we did out in Brzezinka.

NEA: So you had a different sense of time and space in this environment and relationship with your artists.

ROGERS: Well, even with one's self because you couldn’t check your phone all the time, only once a day. The youngest member of the ensemble would check his e-mail probably three times a day. This made us laugh. There was time for reflection: A peace of mind that I was looking for to be created in the actual performance of Antigone that we experienced just as human beings during those 16 days in Brzezinka.

NEA: So you saw transformation with your individual artists?

ROGERS: Oh, absolutely. And what was asked of them physically and emotionally was so much different and so much more than they'd ever been asked at home during a quick four-week process, when you have four-and-a-half hours of rehearsal every night. Everybody was willing and sometimes eager to step up to that challenge What they experienced during the 16 days was coming together as an ensemble in a way that I've never [experienced]. I mean maybe dance ensembles who've worked together for ten years [have that]. I went to Trinity Rep and they have a company of actors who've known each for over 20 years, and I see there's an ease, a quickness of understanding and support that they developed out there, and you could see it later on in the piece, absolutely no question. In fact, [everyone in Antigone] became very close in this ensemble-way of working with one another…. I had to manage it but I wasn't part of it at all, they were linked to one another.

NEA: So you and the artists from ZAR were able to create a sense of trust and a safety within this space in the studio, and the artists could really unfold within that environment? 

ROGERS: We had two different leaders for movement and then we had a pair of leaders for singing. They quickly trusted these leaders. It was a little bit tricky then to transfer over when we got home and when the leaders left. It was back to me and I didn't lead them to find these things, the ZAR folks did. But in the end, it was my vision and my project and it had to be what I intuited and what I wanted. The thing is, I'm never a person to say, "This is my vision; we must do it this way." Once in a while, yes, but I had a directing teacher at Trinity named Wendy Chapin and she really led us to feel that it was okay to say, "I don't know, I'm not sure." And I felt that way a lot of the process, probably until the last three weeks before we opened. There were many things I just thought, "I'm not sure, I don't know." I'm led by an overall feeling and a desire, and so I think it was hard for the ensemble to be led that way--that's just not an American way.

NEA: In some of your writings, you talk about this technique that teaches you as a director and artist how to break down personal idiosyncrasies, ticks, and movements, and cultural idiosyncrasies are able to be pared away. To come to maybe a more neutral or pure state as an artist who is really waiting and looking for cues rather than a preconceived notion of where to go.

ROGERS: Well yeah, the whole time, the 16 days in Brzezinka, that was what the whole thing on all levels, was for each and every one of us to be in a place of freefall in a way, really not knowing, "What's the goal? What are we doing? Why are we doing it?" For the ensemble I will say their physical journey was very, very challenging, all of them. There was a time when one of our leaders asked them to take a run in the forest for several miles where you were partnered with someone and one partner was blindfolded and you had to guide that person on a run and they stopped and switched. They talked a lot about how truly frightening that was and also very liberating. They came back drenched in sweat, I mean they were just coated in sweat, all of them and breathing very, very hard, it was quite a run. There were only two people in our ensemble who would call themselves runners. Then the person who had taken them on this run said, "Now just get a drink of water and go in the studio, we're going to continue working." I just thought, “Are they going to balk?" Interestingly enough, nobody did. They went right with it, in pure exhaustion, into some physical work as an ensemble that as a result of being exhausted was even deeper. The members of ZAR tell me that many things that we see onstage were created at 2:30 in the morning after eight hours of rehearsal and just covered in sweat and pure exhaustion. Certain things are able to then rise to the top as a result of that state.

NEA: How do you think this training experience manifested itself in your production back in the states?

ROGERS: I think the physical sort of parameter that the ensemble created among themselves was like nothing I've ever seen….. Sometimes we would set up something for them to do that had parameters and maybe a couple of goals within a scene, and we'd say, “Go,” and it would be fascinating for the dramaturge and for Daniel and myself to observe almost identical things happening simultaneously on different parts of the stage where people's backs are to one another. They had no idea that the other person was doing almost the exact same thing.

One thing that was a little challenging for me was that when we got back to our home theater, I said, "Okay, let's have the stage be like this and alley seating and then let's have the playing space be this big." And what came back to me is, "Oh, the playing space could never be that big or we'd have absolutely no room for any audience whatsoever." And so I had to really compromise.

NEA: Work within constraints.

ROGERS: Yes, work within the constraints of our space. We sat fewer audience members than for any other show and the front rows were benches that you could just scooch as many people onto as possible. I've seen several shows in Poland where I sat on a bench scrunched up to someone else, so it wasn't unfamiliar. But for American audiences, especially for previews of the show, people said, "I don't want to sit on a bench.” But there are reasons for it as well as getting as much playing space as possible. Those people on the bench, by the way, a lot of those audience members would come a second time and sit on the bench.

NEA: What is the most important thing that stays with you after your experience of working with Theater ZAR?

ROGERS: The main thing I got was that when the ensemble, the dramaturge, the director, the assistant director, the stage manager are able to sleep on work that has been done, take it into our subconscious. We live with that work, and we're able to have time when we're not rehearsing and reflect back on it. Then we come together again, and it's been fleshed out. We haven't rehearsed for two weeks straight and yet all of us have, because we've had two weeks of sleeping eight hours a night to think about, dream about, live it. What I want to make available to people working at Cutting Ball is to make available the space and time to take a longer process.

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