January 1999 marked the passing of two physical theatre masters: Jerzy Grotowski and Jacques Lecoq. Throughout their lives, both men chose to remain outside the mainstream, researching the training of the body with unrelenting dedication. Upon their deaths, each left a concrete legacy behind: In Pontedera, Italy, the Workcenter founded by Grotowski continues under the direction of American actor Thomas Richards; in Paris, Fay Lees Lecoq continues her late husband’s school, Ecole Jacques Lecoq. A less quantifiable legacy exists around the world in the creative work of artists influenced by Grotowski and Lecoq. For this issue of American Theatre, I went in search of the lineage of Lecoq’s work that exists in theatre production and training in the U.S.
The journey actually began years ago when, as an undergraduate at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., I enrolled in an acting class called “The Actor as Creator” taught by the Lecoq-trained Touchstone Ensemble; the class was both terrifying and exhilarating. Every week we rehearsed original theatre pieces inspired by a theme, idea or word assigned to our small groups. As theatre majors in a liberal arts program, we found the style of teaching bizarre and uncomfortable at first. We trod on the unfamiliar and uncomfortable ground that lies beyond text and past improvisation. Our teachers asked us to let go of nearly everything we had learned up to that point and to observe carefully, move with balance and purpose-they asked us to play and, most importantly, to fail. And we did, time and time again, until we managed at the end of the semester to produce individual pieces that we all were proud of.
So began my connection with Lecoq’s American legacy. I experienced his teaching directly in 1994 when I took his master class during the Theatre of Creation festival, jointly hosted by Touchstone and Lehigh. Lecoq began the rarely offered course by pointing out the youngest people in the class-I was one of them-and announcing that he would hesitate ever to enroll us in his Paris school. When we asked why, Lecoq simply replied, “You’re too young. You haven’t lived enough to understand.” And he was right. At 22, I understood a fraction of what he shared with us: movement in nature; the neutral mask; theatrical styles such as commedia dell’arte, melodrama and tragedy. What I did learn-whether I knew it at the time or not-was that Lecoq’s ideas encompassed a whole theatre; they comprised an incredible body of work that sampling can never do justice to; they aspired to a study of the body that would take years to accomplish.
Although I never ventured to Paris to continue studying Lecoq’s methods, I did experience the sudden moments of recognition that his students describe: I found myself glaring with concentration at unraveling cellophane; I watched drama in ocean waves; I never looked at stage performance the same way again. Avner “The Eccentric” Eisenberg, one of the American theatre’s best-known Lecoq graduates, recalls, “Lecoq didn’t allow notes in class. He told us that more important than how we did as students was how we used the work five years hence. He still looks over my shoulder as a bellwether. Even now, 25 years later, especially when I’m teaching, I have small revelations-‘So that’s what he meant.'”
Avner stands among the thousands, representing more than 70 countries, who studied at Ecole Jacques Lecoq, founded in 1956. Today, a year after his passing, Lecoq’s worldwide influence is strikingly evident in the work of Ariane Mnouchkine’s Th?‰tre du Soleil and Simon McBurney’s Theatre de Complicite, and the successes of such Lecoq alumni as playwright Yasmina Reza (Art), film actor Geoffrey Rush (Shine and Shakespeare in Love), director Julie Taymor (The Lion King) and television actor Gates McFadden (Star Trek: The Next Generation), to name but a few. “Just to witness the work that was being done at his memorial in Washington, D.C.”-an event held in April 1999-“was sufficient evidence that his teachings are alive and well and will continue to flourish and be passed on,” observes performer Nick Newlin. Assisting that process will be the translation of Lecoq’s book Le corps po?tique by Methuen, due out in spring 2000, and the planned circulation of the French documentary The Two Journeys of Jacques Lecoq to American universities. But the master’s legacy remains primarily embedded in the work of his students.
Who are they? I found performers, teachers, writers, business people, playwrights, designers, buffoons, musicians, architects, jugglers and more. The diversity of their chosen professions reflects Lecoq’s insistence that each student “find her own way,” as Susan Thompson, a Ph.D. candidate at Tufts University, suggests. For some, like performer and teacher Babs Carryer, Lecoq’s detailed study of creativity and spontaneity “went so deep” that she “left theatre in order to preserve that spark.” But for the majority of Lecoq’s former students, theatre has fortunately remained the preferred venue of expression.
In addition to Touchstone, other U.S. ensembles draw heavily upon Lecoq’s training, including Theatre de la Jeune Lune of Minneapolis, UMO Ensemble of Seattle, Theater Grottesco of Sante Fe and Pig Iron Theatre of Philadelphia. Companies like Argentina’s De La Guarda, whose Villa Villa continues a long Off-Broadway run, and Ireland’s Barrabbas…The Company, which recently appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival with The Whiteheaded Boy, include company members trained at Lecoq. Individual artists like Eisenberg, Jim Calder, Argentinian Denise Stoklos and Frenchman Philippe Avron (whose one-man show Je Suis un Saumon premiered in October at Manhattan’s Ubu Repertory) count themselves among Lecoq’s former students. The list grows as more students continue to leave Paris and begin creating new work.
Lecoq’s students have not only made themselves present in American theatre, they have promoted the fundamental principles of his teachings. Vincent Gracieux of Theatre de la Jeune Lune describes his company as a “physical theatre of imagination and ideas,” capturing in that phrase three elements emphasized in Lecoq’s teachings. “He taught the idea that the actor is not an interpreter but a creator-the actor has to understand what he is doing, and he has to express himself well.” Gracieux goes on, “Creation doesn’t come through text only.” Jeune Lune artistic director Robert Rosen adds, “Lecoq taught you to find the artist within yourself. He trains you to be a whole artist: writer, performer, musician, architect.”
Such creative expression, Lecoq insisted, requires an available body. To achieve this availability, Lecoq perfected neutral mask training, one of his most widely circulated actor-training tools. “The neutral mask is a pedagogical tool, because when someone puts it on, you see all their problems-their physical posture, everything,” explains Dody DiSanto, a theatre teacher at the Center for Movement Theatre in Baltimore, whose techniques are considered by some to be the most authentic representation of Lecoq in the U.S. “The mask,” she says, “quiets you and makes you able to be present.”
If, in Lecoq’s scheme, the actor must seek neutrality in order to be ready to play a character, DiSanto points out the difficulty of this challenge of stillness: “Neutral mask has nothing to do with sameness; all you are trying to do is be there, have a living eye-to become an active, available person standing in a space.” DiSanto, whose school is in hiatus while she concentrates on her theatre company, Membrane, adds, “I feel that since he died, it’s more important than ever to teach the training, and since people have less time to devote to full-time training, I’ve found that the most feasible way to train others is through the company.” Even apprentice actors, she feels, can benefit from the long-term effects of the complicated lessons embedded by Lecoq training.
DiSanto’s method is being replicated at Jeune Lune-the Minneapolis company offers the opportunity for selected young artists to work with the ensemble for a year at a time. Many former Lecoq students teach in a variety of venues around the country-community arts programs, university theatre departments, conservatory programs and the K-12 system-however, full-time physical theatre training programs operated under the influence of Lecoq are rare.
One such program is the year-long course at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake, Calif. It represents an unusual opportunity for actors to study in depth how to make original theatre-and while the program is not entirely based on Lecoq’s methods, one of the school’s founders is the renowned performer, teacher and mask-maker Carlo Mazzone-Clementi, who studied under Lecoq in the 1960s. Even today, Dell’Arte’s Joan Schirle comments, “Students inspired by Lecoq who choose to study in the U.S. sometimes come to us because we are the only full-time professional actor-training program in the States devoted to the work of the actor-creator.” Like Lecoq, she says, Dell’Arte’s curriculum offers the student tools to “make theatre, not tools to make the actor act better.”
Among the university training programs that espouse Lecoq’s methods is the graduate acting program at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, headed by Zelda Fichandler, where Jim Calder, a Lecoq-trained performer and teacher, supervises mask and movement instruction. He explains why his style fits into NYU’s curriculum: “Zelda wanted to train people to be available, actors who could collaborate with others and become transformational performers.” Lecoq’s mask work, his emphasis on autocours-theatre-making assignments on a given topic-and his approach to character development all match these requirements. At the University of Missouri, Kansas City, department chair Dale Rose has hosted guest artists from the Dell’Arte school to conduct ongoing training with theatre students. He especially feels that Lecoq training has a lot to offer the conventional actor: “Lecoq teachers take the American actor out of naturalism and into the curiosity to create at your fullest, to listen and react to your partner-which could be your ensemble or your audience.”
Lecoq’s insistence that the actor listen and react to her audience has had a deep influence on Touchstone Theatre’s artistic director Mark McKenna. “Lecoq identified a circular response between actors and audience. Touchstone is a community-based theatre, and I’ve learned to adapt this circular response to our community audience.” A recent example is Touchstone’s adaptation of Prometheus Bound, entitled Steelbound, a collaborative effort with the Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theatre and composer Ysaye Barnwell, which grew out of the eastern Pennsylvania region’s struggle to deal with the closing of the massive Bethlehem steel mill. “Lecoq visited the closed mill back in 1994 and was so inspired by the possibilities that the space offered,” notes Touchstone ensemble member Jennie Gilrain. Subject matter, Lecoq held, can guide the theatre maker to the appropriate form-and in this case, the company felt, that form was tragedy. The abandoned Iron Foundry on the grounds of Bethlehem Steel became the setting for Prometheus, a former steelworker, to suffer through the “chains of progress.” McKenna notes that the need to continually listen to the community did not end once the show was chosen and a script developed, but grew as the cast of five professional actors and more than 50 community members worked toward mounting the production. Steelbound debuted last September to sold-out audiences.
Tragedy is only one of the theatrical styles that second-year students at Lecoq’s school study as points of reference for creating characters and theatre pieces. Through teaching the techniques of commedia, melodrama, clowning, buffoonery and other styles, Lecoq offers students an entire pallette from which they can draw to create compelling theatre. UMO Ensemble, whose company has resided on Vashon Island near Seattle since the late 1980s, currently tours the buffoon piece El Dorado, an examination of the spirit of conquest and domination in the Americas. “Not many people are doing buffoonery,” says David Godsey, one of UMO’s artistic directors. “It’s about the dark side of things. We approach our subjects with humor, but we hope audiences wake up the next day and think: What was I laughing at?”
Lecoq’s embracing of buffonery, Jim Calder points out, testifies to his long-term commitment to learning from his students and remaining open to new ideas. “In the ’70s it was hard for people to come up with a hero, and Lecoq was smart enough to figure out that what they needed was the mocking and derision of the buffoon.” The buffoon character, Lecoq argued, had deep roots in European culture, dating back to medieval festivals; these outcasts of society would return to the town squares on selected days of the year when their irreverent mocking of the dominant order was tolerated. Buffoonery techniques-in what Babs Carryer refers to as an example of Lecoq’s ability to “balance planning and spontaneity”-has successfully been integrated into the school’s curriculum for over 20 years.
“I was one of those people whom he describes as being in it but not understanding it-someone who wouldn’t understand until later,” Dan Rothenberg says of his immersion in Lecoq pedagogy. After studying with Lecoq in Paris in 1995 and 1996, Rothenberg returned to the U.S. to found Pig Iron Theatre in Philadelphia with fellow Lecoq student Quinn Bauriedel. One of the country’s newest Lecoq-inspired companies, Pig Iron has created nine original theatre pieces that have toured internationally, the most recent being the World War I melodrama Gentlemen Volunteers, which had its premiere at the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Company members teach regular workshops at Swarthmore College, where they spend summers creating a new piece annually. What’s it like to teach Lecoq’s methods so early on in one’s career? “I don’t think you can teach it only after you’ve mastered it,” Rothenberg ventures. “For me, it’s about continually trying to figure out what style is-Lecoq’s legacy is a spirit of inquiry.”
Companies like Pig Iron and its predecessors are making their own way, despite the difficulties of maintaining a resident ensemble in American theatre. This kind of journeying on seems to be what the master called for. The legacy of Lecoq will continue to permeate the American theatre and beyond precisely because Lecoq taught his students to go beyond him.
Jennie Gilrain remembers Lecoq often asking: “What do you want to say?” When their time at his Paris school had ended, he would send them off with a teacher’s benediction: “Now it’s yours. It’s the time that you live in. You decide what you want to say.”
Sara Brady is managing editor of The Drama Review and a Ph.D. candidate in performance studies at New York University. A website (www.lecoq.com) designed for the Lecoq memorial in April 1999 still offers the following invitation: “The Ecole Jacques Lecoq is open to all future forms of theatre.”