Training to Live

by Caspar Schjelbred25/11/2020

 min reading time

According to Jean-Louis Barrault, theatre is “train­ing to live” – an idea that clearly per­meates Ira Seidenstein’s new book: ‘Quantum Theatre: Slapstick to Shakepeare’.


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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