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For Actors, an Altogether Different Type of Method

Theater * Anne Bogart has created a revolutionary technique for her company, making its L.A. debut this week.

April 24, 2000|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For decades, the interpretive focus of the American theater has been fixed firmly on the Method, that process of creative internalization first espoused by Stanislavsky and modified by such venerable practitioners as Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. In recent years, however, experimental director Anne Bogart has quietly started a revolution.

The Viewpoints, Bogart's improvisational yet highly regimented theater training technique, turns the Method inside out, focusing on the specific interactions and spatial relationships between actors rather than the individual's inner psychological journey. Increasingly, Bogart's procedures are being embraced in the highest circles of academic and commercial theater.

No mere theoretician, Bogart uses the Viewpoints as the foundation for her directing work, which has earned her two Obie Awards. Her productions run the gamut, from Noel Coward to Laurie Anderson--whose "Moby Dick," seen at Royce Hall last season, Bogart helped stage. With that exception, Bogart's professional exposure in Los Angeles has been limited primarily to training workshops, taught by Bogart and her associates from the Saratoga International Theatre Institute. SITI, an ensemble-based theater company co-founded by Bogart and Japanese theater maven Tadashi Suzuki in 1992, has been Bogart's creative base for almost a decade.

Now, Los Angeles audiences will have their first opportunity to see Bogart and SITI at work in "Cabin Pressure," opening Tuesday at UCLA's Freud Playhouse for six performances only.

Speaking from New York, where she is an associate professor of directing at Columbia University, Bogart explains the unusual genesis of the piece, which plays havoc with conventional notions of actor/audience boundaries. "We wanted to look at the relationship of the actor and the audience, and the relationship of the two on stage," explains Bogart. "In a way, it's audience participatory. It changes every time."

"Cabin Pressure" was created at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky before premiering at the theater's Humana Festival in March 1999. While developing the play, Bogart conducted extensive interviews with 47 handpicked audience members from outside the theatrical community. Bogart and the SITI company then cobbled those interviews together with selected snippets from theatrical criticism and other far-flung source material.

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If that all sounds a bit abstruse, be assured that Bogart has no intention of subjecting audiences to an evening of dry abstraction. " 'Cabin Pressure' is a pastiche, but I'd like to think it has a lot of humor in it," she insists. "I think that a human being without humor is not very interesting, and a show without humor is not interesting either."

Bogart makes a clear distinction between her training and rehearsal processes. "Our rehearsals are actually pretty conventional," she says. "However, they are hopefully informed by a common vocabulary learned during the training phase. It makes the staging so much faster because you share that vocabulary."

"The Viewpoints is essentially a method to practice spontaneity," continues Bogart. "But at SITI, we actually do two approaches. We incorporate the Suzuki method of actor training--which is very rigorous and repetitious, the equivalent of a dancer doing barre work. The Viewpoints is much more improvisational. There's an emphasis on lightness and quickness, and the ability to respond to other actors on stage the way that dancers do with that kind of kinetic energy. I have personally never done the Suzuki training, but doing both Suzuki and Viewpoints in combination seems to have an alchemical reaction. The actors become very strong and flexible and quick to respond."

To the uninitiated, Bogart's complicated Viewpoints philosophy brings to mind the parable of the six blind men struggling to describe an elephant: Unless you know what type of animal you're dealing with, you might misinterpret the whole.

Choreographer Mary Overlie, Bogart's fellow instructor at New York University's Experimental Theater Wing in the late 1970s, first propounded the Viewpoints as a dance discipline. "Mary Overlie was a huge influence," Bogart says. "I was blown away by what she had taken from the postmodern dance world and then distilled into this extraordinary new way of looking at time and space."

Bogart subsequently adapted Overlie's theory specifically for the theater. Expanded and refined through the years, Bogart's Viewpoints exercises are divided into the temporal (Tempo, Duration, Kinesthetic Response and Repetition) and the spatial (Shape, Gesture, Architecture, Relationship and Topography).

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Still blindly groping around that elephant? Or does this all sound too heavily systematized to be of any practical use? Actor and producer Douglas Weston, an enthusiastic Bogart proponent ever since he attended her workshop at the Getty in 1998, considers his Viewpoints training transforming.

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