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Workshop with Eugenio Barba and Julia Varley

»Odin Teatret«

»Odin Teatret«

9 September 2014

»Codified theatre and theatre in statu nascendi. Practical reflections on acting principles«




Eugenio Barba


Theoretical and practical master class by Eugenio Barba and Odin Teatret actress Julia Varley on objective principles in acting technique

Today actors apply a technique which doesn’t aim at fixed forms and patterns nor does it respect well-defined ‘rules of the game,’ as in the case of performances with a pre-arranged codification like ballet, kabuki or kathakali. I speak of the actors in those theatres which lack or refuse a codified tradition, and have no specific stylisation or recognisable manner. These are theatres with a particular destiny or vocation: they live as if they were always in a statu nascendi, in an emerging state of creativity or in the constant condition of the new beginner even if they have many years of experience.

We often use expressions such as ‘body language,’ ‘theatre language’ or ‘actor’s language’. But within the context of a theatre in a statu nascendi, teaching acting technique has never been like teaching a ‘language’ which is difficult but has a definite structure. Latin, Sanskrit or ancient Greek can be transmitted through tested methods, and anyone can learn these languages in time.  

On the contrary, in a theatre which is an eternal new beginner, teaching can only trigger and inspire a personal process. This may perhaps lead to success, but unfortunately it does not always achieve its aim despite commitment and devotion.

I’m referring here to a technique which functions as such only after one has embodied it and, looking back, can forget the numerous defeats while displaying a few discoveries. Such a technique is clear and consistent only when observed a posteriori. But each of these techniques is a particular micro-history, the consequence of an unrepeatable biography. The actor’s techniques are not body techniques, but a technique of a personality, of a particular and unique body-mind.

However these personal results make visible a range of objective psycho-somatic principles which help any performer of any style to develop the particular state of subjective creative stage presence.

During the whole of the twentieth century the idea of an actor’s training materialised, an apprenticeship which aimed at creativity, and not at a form, a style or a pre-established performance genre. It was always a question of an anti-training or a pedagogical fiction. It was a revolt and a need to destroy the theatre in order to reinvent it anew.

The exercises invented by the various reformers didn’t serve to prepare an actor for a theatre with a precise and recognisable profile. On the contrary, the exercises tended to free the actor from a stereotyped stage behaviour, mimetic attitudes and clichés. In spite of the different forms and justifications, the different exercises were a tool which allowed the actor’s body-mind to absorb certain mental and behavioural principles which would estrange and intensify their performance on stage.  



Eugenio Barba was born in 1936 in Italy. In 1954, he emigrated to Norway to work as a welder and a sailor. At the same time he took a degree in French, Norwegian Literature and History of Religions at Oslo University. In 1961 he went to Poland to learn directing at the State Theatre School in Warsaw, but left one year later to join Jerzy Grotowski, who at that time was the director of the "Theatre of 13 Rows" in Opole. Barba stayed with Grotowski for three years. In 1963 he traveled to India where he studied Kathakali, a theatre form which was unknown in the West at that time. Barba wrote an essay on Kathakali which was immediately published in Italy, France, the USA and Denmark. His first book about Grotowski, In Search of a Lost Theatre, appeared in 1965. When Barba returned to Oslo in 1964, he wanted to become a professional theatre director but, being a foreigner, he was unable to find work. He gathered together a few young people who had not been accepted by the State Theatre School, and created Odin Teatret in October 1964. As the first theatre group in Europe, they worked out the new practice of training as a total apprenticeship. They rehearsed in an air-raid shelter their first production Ornitofilene. They were subsequently invited by the Danish municipality of Holstebro, a small town in north-west Jutland, to create a theatre laboratory there. To start with, they were offered an old farm and a small sum of money. Since then Barba and his collaborators have made Holstebro the base for their multiple activities. During the past fifty years Eugenio Barba has directed 76 productions with Odin Teatret and with the intercultural Theatrum Mundi Ensemble. Among the best known are Ferai (1969), My Father's House (1972), Brecht's Ashes (1980), The Gospel according to Oxyrhincus (1985), Talabot (1988), Kaosmos (1993), Mythos (1998), Andersen's Dream (2004), The Chronic Life (2011), Ur-Hamlet (2006), Don Giovanni all'Inferno (2006), and The Marriage of Medea (2008).

Julia Varley was born in 1954 in London, Great Britain, and joined Odin Teatret in 1976. Apart from acting she is active in directing, teaching, organising and writing.   Before joining Odin Teatret she worked in Milan with different theatres, and earned her living as an assistant film producer. With Odin Teatret, Julia Varley teaches in schools and universities and has synthesised her experience in four work demonstrations: The Echo of SilenceThe Dead Brother, Text, Action, Relations and The Flying Carpet. Since 1990 she has been involved in the conception and organisation of ISTA (International School of Theatre Anthropology) and of the University of Eurasian Theatre, both directed by Eugenio Barba. In connection with Odin Teatret's intercultural productions and Holstebro Festuge, she has started an ongoing pedagogical collaboration with groups of young actors ("Ageless," "Jasonites," "Ur-Hamlet Foreigners") both in Denmark and abroad. Julia Varley has written two books: Wind in the West - a novel by a theatre character (Odin Teatret Forlag, Denmark) and Notes of an Odin Actress - Stones of Water (Ubulibri, Milan; Escenologia, Mexico; Alarcos, Cuba; San Marcos-Yuyachkani, Peru; Entretemps, France; Routledge, UK). Her articles and essays have been published in journals such as The Mime Journal, New Theatre QuarterlyTeatro e Storia, ConjuntoLapisThe Open PagePerformance ResearchTeatro XXI and Máscara.





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