The first scene of film opens with a church, then a handful of people appear under the tall vaulted ceilings to sing, dance and roll on the floor making baby noises.
The film is the work of Thomas Richards ’84, the artistic director of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, which is an internationally recognized drama conservatory an hour outside Florence in Pontedera, Italy. Richards came to Yale last Thursday and Friday to screen his work and give a two-day workshop with 12 students from the Theater Studies major and the School of Drama.
On Friday, Richards’svisit to Yale culminated with a screening of a Workcenter documentary titled “Action in Aya Irini,” a film of performance art — the same singing, dancing and rolling on the floor — in a church in Istanbul. The screening was followed by a talk with Tom Sellar, who is a critic and dramaturg at the School of Drama. Mario Biagini, associate director of the Workcenter, was supposed to accompany Richards, but due to a stolen passport, he was unable to make it to the event.
“Action in Aya Irini” was part of the Workcenter’s Tracing Roads Across project, which is an initiative that aims to expand the involvement of the Workcenter to nations outside Italy, from the United Kingdom to Tunisia. The project was initially sponsored by the European Union’s Culture 2000 Programme, which fosters cultural cooperation between various countries in order to link disparate cultures.
As the talk with Richards commenced, Daniel Larlham — a faculty member in the Department of Theater Studies — introduced the film and gave an outline of Grotowski’s periods of work. Larlham’s speech was followed by an introduction from Richards, who discussed how his position of leadership in the Workcenter was thrust upon him and elaborated on the work of the Workcenter. According to Richards, “Action,” a type of performance art focused on the connection between singing and the physical body, had been in practice for more than 15 years.
The film began with Biagini sitting next to a translator and explaining the concept of “Action” to his audience.
“[Action] is not a spectacle; it is not improvisage [sic],” he said in the film. “The sense of this doing does not depend on the look of an outside observer.”
The rest of the film consisted of the six performers, including Richards and Biagini, partaking in “Action” as they spoke, sang, danced and interacted with one another.
After the film concluded, Richards explained the importance of ritual songs in the practice of “Action.”
“The song physically opens the body,” Richards said. “It is based upon potentialities that are inside human beings. Different zones inside are being touched and a kind of collecting of one’s energies can take place.”
Richards acknowledged that, to the average person, the Workcenter’s style of theater might seem very different from traditional theater performances of scripted characters driving plot-based narratives.
He noted that during his time at Yale, he often felt a restlessness in relation to traditional theater and often desired to find something more personally inspiring.
“Every time I felt like, ‘No way, there’s something missing,’” he said.
Following the discussion of “Action,” Sellar questioned Richards about the nature of his new project, “I Am America.” The inspiration for the project came from the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and the music of the slaves from American South.
“What exists in the songs of slavery is just an extension of what we find in Africa,” Richards said. “It was a natural step that this become a part of what’s happening in the Workcenter.”
“I Am America,” which was directed by Biagini, will have its U.S. Premiere in November. The Workcenter was founded in 1986.