An Artist Examines the Intersection of Creating and Teaching

An Interview with Robyn Hunt

Tommer Peterson

Robyn Hunt is a professor of acting at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. She is cofounder and director of Pacific Performance Project/East (P3) and has appeared in professional theaters throughout North America, Europe, and Japan. She worked with Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki for more than a decade and studied with Shogo Ohta in Kyoto. She has created several evening-length dance/theater pieces, including the trilogy Suite for Strangers, which had its Seattle debut in 2004. Other P3 dance/theater collaborations (with Peter Kyle and Steven Pearson) include Myra’s War, Prix Fixe, and Gravity. Her most recent collaboration, Flight, is with Steve Pearson and the P3/East company.

Tommer Peterson: You have managed a career developing new work, performing, and teaching. Let’s start with the crossover and the overlap between your life as an artist — your creative work — and your teaching.

Robyn Hunt: Sure. It is kind of a central theme, the balance of those things, but also at various times, teaching has fed what happened creatively elsewhere, and then other things often happened as a result, and vice versa. The social upheaval we now call the “sixties” was still a big influence when I was in school and, it would be fair to say, was critical to my thinking about teaching. So, there were two big threads. One of them was asking how you make a contribution; the other was, what is social and political activism? What do we need to do so that we have some value but also so that we’re working toward forceful and powerful change? I was fortunate to study with Bud Mehan, who ran the Teacher Education Program at UC San Diego. He had really crazy, wonderful, radical ideas about teaching and learning. Bud caused me to think about teaching in a less haphazard way, and to actually think that it deserved my full attention in terms of the optimal circumstances I could create, still leaving room for mystery and, of course, the role of the learner, in which something pretty remarkable could happen.

And the other thread would be the influence of my father and his teaching. There’s been this parallel between his work and mine all along. He played professional football and did a lot of coaching, so there was a performative part of what he did. But the heart of it really was his love of teaching and his idea that you could tailor what you did to the needs of each learner in such a way that the learner could find his or her better or best self in that moment. And that you could set someone on a course of independence that would foster inquiry that would far outlast the relationship of the teacher and the learner.

So, back to your question . . . I kept thinking about how one talks about it. One decides at some point that life is on a continuum and there’s a kind of time line, but of course when we experience it, it doesn’t work that way. A lot of things are happening at once and I keep thinking of a line that got repeated in a piece that Joseph Chaikin created called Terminal in which I remember the actors chanting:

The only measure of your life is your life.

The only measure of your life is your life.

So when you ask me to describe the time line of my work, I find it challenging to say “this happened, then this,” when, in fact, there were so many remarkable confluences and each of them caused a rippling set of other things to happen.

TP: Teaching performance probably offers one of the most open slates as far as the potential of what might happen at any moment in the classroom . . . There’s a certain part of it that’s technique and there is the bigger part of the students discovering or releasing whatever their potential might be.

RH: Right. It’s most interesting. I’ve taught undergraduates and graduate students. The graduate actors are very serious and have committed to the next level of a professional training program, so they’re basically saying, “I’m going to try to do this for a living.” In some ways the undergraduates get at what you’re alluding to — things that happen right in the moment — because you can talk about all the things theater teaches without having to constantly be sure that you’re inculcating the necessary skills for the profession. With the MFA, there is this sense that one should make sure that skills training is going on because that’s what we’re doing here.

When I began teaching, the liberal arts degree was not under attack in the way that I feel it is now. Actually universities are under attack right now. “It’s too expensive. Are students paying too much and still not able to earn a living after graduation?” When I began to teach, the liberal arts model was flourishing. So this idea that we could be practitioners of the arts, teach big ideas, and know and believe we were improving citizenship and critical thinking was an exciting thing. I don’t feel that way now. I feel like more often we’re asked to defend the practical purpose of teaching any kind of art. Some of it is mysterious, and some of it is skill based. Some of it is about collaboration, ensemble, critical thinking, and the ways new ideas are generated. This is possible to quantify, but it says a lot about our culture that we are asked to do “value assessment.”

TP: Both your work and teaching are informed by your study in Japan with Tadashi Suzuki, whose method you now teach. How did this all come about?

RH: My husband, Steve Pearson, and I work in close collaboration on almost all our original projects. As in the case of Flight, our most recent piece about the earliest women in aviation, Steve spent three years in research, one year building a three-quarter-scale Blériot XI aeroplane, and then I began to write the play. More often now I’m playwright, actor, and choreographer; occasionally Steve acts, but primarily he directs the pieces we make. The experiences and time in Japan gave us new ways to find our own artistic path. We have a sense now that we can go into empty spaces with a group of actors, or alone, and simply begin. Our piece Gravity was a kind of memory poem and dance about Einstein’s physics and also about coming to terms with sorrow; with Flight, the audience watches the two aviatrixes actually assemble a Blériot XI. In a sense, Mr. Suzuki’s more physically driven approach freed us from being too bound to text, to any one style, and the time with him pushed us to find our own voice.

Steve and I teach in separate classrooms and at different times, but our philosophical and aesthetic work is deeply entwined. It was his teacher Jewel Walker (and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Rep) who first brought Mr. Suzuki to teach in this country. This was followed by more than a decade of Steve and I both going to Japan to study with Mr. Suzuki: his actor-training methodology, his approach to rehearsal and performance, and the ways he ran his theater company. We were exceedingly fortunate in this opportunity, because we not only learned an entire system for integrating the mind and the body on stage — and a comprehension of what real “grit” might be — but also witnessed his company’s rehearsals every night, were directed by him, and given a decade of summers to allow Japan to imprint upon us. It changed everything: how we eat, work, rehearse, teach, consider art, even understand “yes” and “no.”

Mr. Suzuki looked at the feet, and the core, the center or koshi, and created a series of movements, or kata, that would systematically strengthen both the actor’s mind/body as well as something he called the “inner sensibility.” The training is quite extreme, compared to a system like Stanislavski’s (which, through Lee Strasberg, became what’s called the American “Method”), which works on justification and more psychological adjustments connected to motivation. Mr. Suzuki’s training at first glance is quite martial and works on quickness, power movements, the ability to stop suddenly or change and to develop a keen sense of balance and dexterity — in short, a body, as he puts it, that “speaks even when the actor is silent.” Most famously, I think, is the way he demanded we be capable of expressing “movement in stillness, and stillness in movement.” In the presence of Mr. Suzuki, and his great actress Kayoko Shiraishi, we considered for the first time really the idea of “mastery.” This is a Japanese idea too; the “Living National Treasures” are examples of this.1 Mastery is the idea that an entire life might be dedicated, with deep focus and authentic attention, to attaining a level of skill, beauty, complexity, and mystery in one’s art. The challenge, of course, is how to teach younger learners about the possibility of mastery, when, in a university setting, we all must work on a time schedule called a “semester.” It runs counter to the bigger idea, the part that embraces the sporadic and sometimes mysterious process of learning and artmaking, and forces us to look for results at the end of a prescribed time.

TP: My experience in Japan was that teaching methods in the traditional arts were totally removed from what we’re used to in the West. Was that your experience? How do you now apply this in your teaching — if at all?

RH: Yes. At some point you say, “Ah, who is this for? How do I measure my own progress? How do I decide to begin today, and what is the quality of my concentration?”

With Mr. Suzuki, we’d have training in the daytime and then training with the company at night. Then we’d sit and watch their rehearsal. This is something I’d done all my life, rehearsing — but now I could watch how this Japanese director made demands on his actors, who he picked on and who he didn’t, and how he would get angry at them or demand that they do better. They didn’t look at him. They didn’t nod. They just listened, looked at a fixed point somewhere, and just received his criticism. They made no excuses. There was no dialogue. That was radical to me. And as I watched his company, I realized that I had total faith in his eye. I’ve had good teachers, but I had never before witnessed such clarity, power, skill, and nuance on stage before. When we watched the company, and particularly Kayoko, our hair stood up.

Because of the extraordinary quality of the company’s work and Mr. Suzuki’s direction, I was willing to endure how critical and verbally challenging he was to me. He once asked, “Why are you so good at my training and so bad onstage?” During one rehearsal of Clytemnestra, he got so frustrated with me that he bellowed at me for a long time, and keep in mind that in those days I didn’t understand any Japanese, so I had to experience both the bellow and then the translation of it into English. But that rehearsal was ultimately invaluable to me, because some odd sort of split happened, in which I realized that he was bellowing at my actor self, which actually was separate from my more private, or essential self.

That moment changed everything. I later gave it a name, which now students quote, and I find very funny. I call it the unassailable core, and I just came up with those words to try to describe it to Western students. “If I’m sharp with you, or if a director gives you very critical notes, which will happen, and you take it personally, you are wasting so much time.” What I mean is that the you of you, the core part of you, cannot be assailed by any director. But you have to nurture that core, that space, and that can only come from contemplation and quite a lot of hard work. I don’t think I ever would have experienced that in this country. I’m sure other artists come to it, but I didn’t until I had that experience, which felt brutal at the time.

When students ask, “Well, what do you think? How am I doing?” I often say, “I can tell you the answer, but you’re not going to understand it. It’s too soon for you to understand it.” Ultimately, I think my job is to foster an appetite and a desire for inquiry in the learner that will outlast me and any contact that we may have, and so shifts the focus from my approval to progress and change.

TP: Interesting. So how, and I don’t know if this is a possible question to answer, but —

RH: But you’re going to ask it anyway.

TP: Right! How has all the experience you’ve just described about the breakthroughs and the change in teaching — how does this inform your other creative work outside the classroom? Is it a parallel track, or how do these things relate to or feed or not feed one another?

RH: This is slightly difficult to describe. If I describe how I now can concentrate more deeply, find the way a character moves — which is different from the way I move — with more abandon, sustain my focus until the end of Hamlet . . . it feels and must sound self-aggrandizing. What happened to me in Japan and, subsequently, creating a theater in San Diego with Steve, running a second small theater there, doing regional theater work as an actress, and creating original plays and dance/theater pieces — all of this has given me a way to work in which fear or inhibition is always subordinate to the impulse to make something. I live in my torso differently, with a sense of fullness and a kind of dexterity or prowess, that probably complemented my dance training but which feels free and automatic, instinctive. I also can imagine more fully, and trust the sometimes quirky, odd images I get. Perhaps I breathe differently now, because of the training, and because of years of effort to focus my attention and my mind and body. And I just don’t give up now. I just keep going.

I’ve reconsidered the space itself where performance happens. Because of the work in Japan, I have the idea that the performance space is much more fraught. The potential of the space and what the performer is doing within it has really changed for me. One of the experiments in the space is taking lessons from bats, right? What is sonar? What is radiating? What are these other objects? Is radiating different when it’s imaginary or when the objects are real, like a wall or a door or an imaginary tree? And some of that I learned just going to the Kabuki and watching those actors and what they do. They play straight out, toward the audience, but you know when there’s a tree somewhere in that same empty space, or you know when there’s a memory. That’s invaluable to me now.

I’m now always concerned with how the whole body is something to be read. It is not just something that happens in the face, but rather in the whole body. And we also read what is held back. What is not quite revealed. That’s one of the biggest things: what can we make onstage that is not completely finished, which the audience completes?

TP: So in some ways, you’re talking about a different vocabulary, or maybe better put, a different toolbox for storytelling?

RH: Yes. Mr. Suzuki’s work helped us see that everything needn’t be explained to the audience. He was also incredible about sound, both the created sound score and the actor’s voice. He said, “The voice should be like a bullet.” This can’t translate exactly when speaking in English, because of the way our language works with subordination, and where the verb is, and so on. But he did invite us to experiment much more freely with the voice, and find how to connect with the native power of the body in using it.

In our early days of teaching we would be asked, “How do I use this in my acting?” And sometimes we would try to answer that earnestly: “Well, you’ll concentrate differently. Your mind and body will be more unified. The voice will be different if you support it in this way, use your legs, and simultaneously find some ease.” But of course what we came to see was that people either are fundamentally changed or not, and so answering the question in that way was a kind of Western answer. If you’re fundamentally changed, then your acting will be fundamentally changed, and that’s what we’re working for here. That’s a big one that leads us back to this idea of mastery. What changed and stays with me still is this: an artist must have a practice, and with diligence and grit and, one hopes, some authentic vision, the artist will fundamentally change.

TP: So circling back, how has all this played out in your own work outside teaching?

RH: Steve and I realized we were not satisfied with people just learning the methodology: the walks, the particular hand gestures, the kata. So in addition to working on more traditional productions in professional settings, we wanted to make new work that was genuinely our own. We realized this could only help the young artists put this Japanese training in context, and would also move us into a new phase of working. So we changed the focus of training to include making new work. I first made 1942, a piece that’s set in a train station. Nine or ten languages are spoken there, but the audience doesn’t need the text. It’s as much “danced” as “acted.”

TP: So let’s turn to the future for a moment. What do you see as the next chapter in your work? Or, what would you do if funding were not an obstacle?

RH: One of the things we’d love to have is a circumstance like Sundance or the O’Neill, some situation where the graduate students who have worked with us on this mind/body stage language, this clarity, and this more spare, economical style could continue to work in a sustained, intentional manner. Young artists could have a retreat, and a place where at different times all of us could work on our experiments. It’s thrilling for people who speak the same aesthetic language to rehearse and talk together. Artists we have nurtured could come and say, “I have this idea for a piece and I need this and I need these players,” and there would be a big rehearsal room and they could use that space. We would really like to do that. Who knows what kind of work would come out of that?

About a year and a half ago, a former student, Michael Place, wrote us and said, “I’ve seen evidence of Mr. Suzuki’s training taught in a way that is totally different from the way you and Steve teach it, and I felt strongly about the way that you have interpreted it and its usefulness for the American stage. There is a group of us who would like you to teach us the training so that we can be true to the way you want it taught and in a way that we think is commensurate with the generous way you work on it, the integrating way that you work on it.” And so that was a really interesting thing, first of all, to know that you are old enough for somebody to say, “Could you pass this on to me?” That was a good thing to experience, very humbling and in fact appropriate. We had the first training last summer in Seattle. In the daytime we worked on teaching and learning with ten former learners, now either teachers or actors or directors out in the world, and then at night we had the big intensive — where we had a whole bunch of people who wanted to study again with us or had heard about us from a friend and wanted to study. I don’t know if I’ve expressed this to you before, Tommer, but the miracle of the opportunity of coming back was to find out that the lasting thing isn’t the building or the institution, but what’s in the learners. It’s hearing that people still think certain things and ask certain questions as a result of work we’d done together. A teacher dreams of this. A teacher can’t expect it, but when it happens, it’s pretty amazing.

Our theatrical wing is called Pacific Performance Project/East, which people have shortened to P3, and this new group of teacher trainees is called P3 Studio. We intend it to be at least a three-year plan, to include a trip to Japan for a kind of salon where people could experience where the training came from in context, as well as see some Kabuki, some Bunraku, and some Noh, all of which were big influences for Tadashi Suzuki.

TP: Other projects in the works?

RH: One thing that’s next: a tour for Flight. The play tells the history of aviation in an unusual way. It’s about dreaming big and not letting obstacles stop us.

So that’s the larger vision: that we could make a big, lasting contribution to the American theater with a company, a group of actors who come and go, are alternatingly connected to us and free from us, who speak a unique language, and make work that is fresh and compelling and somehow surprises and touches audiences. More immediately, we’re about to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with our rocking stage, new trusses so Puck can fly, and where the lovers have to walk a tightrope.

We try to create conditions for making new work in settings that encourage contemplation and a deep consideration of the implications of what gets made. We intend to do that for as long as we can.

1. Living National Treasure ( Ningen Kokuh) is the popular term for those individuals designated by the government of Japan as keepers of important intangible cultural properties, defined as dramatic, musical, artistic, and other intangible cultural artifacts of high value in terms of Japanese history or art.