Training to Live

November 25, 2020
by Caspar Schjelbred Minute Read
Select Dynamic field

Accord­ing to Jean-Louis Bar­rault, the­atre is “train­ing to live” – an idea that arguably per­me­ates Ira Sei­den­stein’s new book.

Ira Sei­den­stein’s new book Quan­tum The­atre: Slap­stick to Shake­speare  will soon be available.

I was hon­oured to write the fore­word. Here it is.


I dear­ly wish all aspir­ing actors, per­form­ers, direc­tors and teach­ers would read this book. Own it. Have it on their book­shelf, avail­able when they need it. For their own good – and by that I mean also for the com­mon good; for their col­leagues; for their audi­ences; for their stu­dents. In short: for all of us. It’s so easy to for­get that we’re all in it togeth­er. This life here. Which we some­times think we know, from all the parts we play in it.

What’s the book about then? If I knew, I’d tell it to you straight. I’d tell you what I think I know about the sub­ject mat­ter, if this some­thing could be told direct­ly in a mean­ing­ful way. I’m not so sure it can. How­ev­er, I do know that it’s pos­si­ble to give valu­able hints and clues – and this book is absolute­ly packed with them.

It’s not just anoth­er book on act­ing. It’s a tes­ta­ment to life in the­atre and the­atre in life. Nei­ther of them sep­a­rate­ly and cer­tain­ly not just one or the oth­er, i.e. life or the­atre – two impos­si­ble and unma­noeu­vrable abstrac­tions that nobody real­ly cares about any­way. It’s always some­thing else. I’ll say it again: life in the­atre and the­atre in life.

Famil­iar­i­ty is one of the inevitable traps and every­where to be found. We fall into think­ing we know some­thing, and of course we do know things, but what good does our knowl­edge do us? How do we know what we know? What can it do in the world? Is it of uni­ver­sal use – or strict­ly unique to our­selves? Learn­ing to know and how to know are, in my view, cen­tral to Ira Sei­den­stein’s Quan­tum The­atre: Slap­stick to Shake­speare.

I used to be very famil­iar with this type of ques­tions when I stud­ied his­to­ry of sci­ence at the uni­ver­si­ty fif­teen years ago. Han­dled with dili­gence, they could lead to glo­ri­ous moments of intel­lec­tu­al enlight­en­ment, often, how­ev­er, fol­lowed by exis­ten­tial hang­overs. I thought there­fore I was. But what if I did­n’t think for a sec­ond? What if I just felt? Uh-oh, the abyss of exis­tence opened beneath me. Back to pon­der­ing. Don’t let’s feel any­thing, it’s safer. Or how about a glass of wine? Ah, that feels bet­ter. Full-bod­ied. Nice. Goodnight.

It was not long after fin­ish­ing my offi­cial stud­ies that I met Ira Sei­den­stein and very soon began to prac­tise his method reg­u­lar­ly. It was a per­fect fit with its clar­i­ty and log­ic; a hands-on tool for prac­ti­cal knowl­edge – and with no direct­ly relat­ed hang­overs, just sore mus­cles and a bruised ego from time to time. Today, I’m still very much con­cerned with the above-men­tioned ques­tions, only on a much more prag­mat­ic and per­son­al lev­el. It’s health­i­er think­ing, in the sense that it’s more com­plete. There is more feel­ing involved. Are you ready for the joke? I spe­cialised in the his­to­ry of psy­chol­o­gy and the study of the emo­tions. One could say I had it com­ing. At any rate, I final­ly got what I’d asked for, but not from where I’d thought I’d get it.

And now? On the best of days, the won­der show of the world goes on with no end in sight. No futile hope for a final des­ti­na­tion. No reck­on­ing of a supe­ri­or van­tage point from where life or the­atre can be known and com­pre­hend­ed once and for all. Know­ing or knowl­edge as end prod­uct is not what it’s all about. Which is not say that it isn’t of immense val­ue. It is. I know it. And I love it, par­tic­u­lar­ly what remains of it: records of knowl­edge. Ancient scrolls of wis­dom. Books! The dis­til­la­tion of human expe­ri­ence, paired with deep insight and organ­ised so that those who come after­wards have a fair chance of ben­e­fit­ting from it. We’re back where we start­ed. What’s this book about? What can you get from it?

Like you’ve prob­a­bly guessed, and although Ira will cer­tain­ly tell things to you straight, what you’ll get from this book is not straight aca­d­e­m­ic knowl­edge. Rather, you’ll get an open­ing, mul­ti­ple invi­ta­tions and a host of sug­ges­tions of how to move on from wher­ev­er you’re at, be it on or off stage. Now this does­n’t mean that you always have to move for­ward. One par­tic­u­lar­ly valu­able aspect of Ira’s teach­ing is how he con­nects the dots and acknowl­edges those that came before. Study them, their ideas, their work – and start with the great­est! It’s essen­tial to remind our­selves that we’re all dots with­in big­ger cir­cles. And that each dot, if we look close­ly enough, is itself a cir­cle. Know thy­self or what­ev­er the Pythia says will sound dotty.

In a very down-to-earth sense, Ira could indeed be con­sid­ered an ora­cle of the­atre and clown­ing or act­ing and cre­ativ­i­ty. Remem­ber though, that we most­ly hear what we lis­ten for. Ira wrote this book; it comes from his more than four decades of expe­ri­ence. But it’s not about him. When you read the book it’s about you and how you take it in – not just the book, but the world it came from, the world it con­nects us all to. The one phys­i­cal world and the count­less ones of poet­ry and imag­i­na­tion. Old sto­ries. And from them new sto­ries. Our sto­ries. We’re all his­to­ry before we know it.

In the words of Jean-Louis Bar­rault, the­atre is “entraîne­ment à vivre”, train­ing to live. If we just look at those words togeth­er, it’s all there. What it’s for and how to go about it. It is not for life, tak­en as an abstract prin­ci­ple or a gen­er­al phe­nom­e­non, but for liv­ing it. And the train­ing is not to be exe­cut­ed just as a means to end, but to be lived, to be ful­ly expe­ri­enced, in and of itself. Here we can note that entraîn­er also means “to lead to” and “to car­ry away”. Lived train­ing leads to ful­ly alive the­atre which car­ries the audi­ence away. It is mate­r­i­al, real, ethe­re­al, remem­bered, for­got­ten, gone. Not unlike our indi­vid­ual lives.

The gist of this fore­word came to me this morn­ing. While still in bed, I heard the famil­iar sounds of the garbage truck out­side. Clonk. Clat­ter. Crash. Clonk. Beep beep beep. The world start­ing anew. No escape in sight from these annoy­ing sounds inau­gu­rat­ing the dai­ly onslaught on my ner­vous sys­tem, mind, spirit.

All of a sud­den it switched. I start­ed actu­al­ly lis­ten­ing to the sounds, now hear­ing them with­in me, rather than resist­ing them as out­side phe­nom­e­na. Their source remained with­out, of course, but I felt and accept­ed them for what they were inside of me. Pure effects detached from the work­ings that caused them into being, exist­ing ful­ly as them­selves – and free for me to grasp in their brief passing.

At peace now with the world just out­side the win­dow, my atten­tion turned to the home­ly sounds inside. First the breath­ing warm body of the woman I will mar­ry, then the motor of the refrig­er­a­tor. Over­tones and under­tones. Back to the breath, my own this time. This I could both lis­ten to and feel the work­ings of. Then all the sounds at the same time. Ah! The world! Oh! To be alive! Right here! Right now! From annoy­ance and ani­mus to con­sid­er­a­tion and love in a heart­beat. A sort of quan­tum leap? Per­haps. At least human.

This expe­ri­ence was not a giv­en. It was there for me to take. And if I was able to do so, to live that moment this morn­ing, it was in large part thanks to the many, many hours I’ve spent work­ing with the ideas in this book. I’ve learned to put reac­tions and per­son­al feel­ings aside, see them, see through them, and come back to them. All in a mat­ter of sec­onds. Some­times even a split sec­ond. And on rare occa­sions simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. That’s like a mir­a­cle. And if there is a goal to strive for, I’m con­vinced that’s it: to act from the liv­ing con­scious human heart.

So. I urge you to real­ly dig into this book. Engage with it. Don’t believe it or dis­be­lieve it. Read it. Think it. Feel it for your­self. At the slight­est provo­ca­tion, doubt­ful thought or spark of inspi­ra­tion, put the book down and try some­thing. Express your­self. Get up on the floor and dance or pick up a pen and write. Ask some­one to watch or read. Expose your­self. Risk oppro­bri­um to reach equi­lib­ri­um. Rinse and repeat.

The world is nev­er end­ing
Until it ends
You are read­ing this
It’s not over yet. Go on

The noth­ing new remains
To be seen anew
Rise and shine! Be
The sun that you are

Good morn­ing.


Cas­par Schjel­bred
Paris, Novem­ber 2020

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