Stretching. I'm stretching out unused muscles and ligaments with about 30 other people on a drizzly afternoon in Ashfield. There are a few other grayhairs in the room, but most of the bodies ranged across the floor in T-shirts, sweats and bare feet are young and supple. They are stretching, so you better believe I'm stretching too.
We're all here, on a Sunday last June, to participate in one of Double Edge Theatre's monthly Open Training workshops—two-hour versions of the work the company does every day on their pastoral hilltown property, called simply The Farm. The 28-year-old ensemble is a laboratory theater, that is, its performances are developed improvisationally, through experiments with movement, gesture, sound and text. Emotion and meaning are expressed verbally (often not only in English) and in the performers' bodies and physical interactions.
The Double Edge aesthetic is based on the physical theater techniques expounded by the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, mixed with the carnival and street-theater styles that Argentinian performance artist Carlos Uriona brought in when he joined the company in the 1990s.
The Open Trainings accommodate all levels of experience, from first-timers like me to people who come regularly to the monthly workshops. Today's attendance is larger than usual, as it includes the students in the current Summer Intensive, a rigorous three-week residential training program.
The sessions begin with warmups and improvised group movement, and grow into unplanned inventions, sometimes exploring themes from current work-in-progress. Today, as company co-director Matthew Glassman tells those of us gathered in the farm's common room, they want to experiment with images that might connect to The Firebird, this year's "summer spectacle," a peripatetic performance that takes place in locations all around the property.
We're divided into three groups which disperse to different venues on the farm. Carlos Uriona leads my group—by example, not instruction, except for frequent reminders to "breathe." We begin simply walking around, reaching upward, stretching outward, each in our own airspace. This flows into one-on-one exchanges, picking up on each other's movements, and then into group interactions.
Music begins on a boombox, a languid violin and piano strain that eventually segues into a kind of Gypsy jazz that picks up the tempo, and with it our momentum. Walking gives way to stomping—a 1-2, 1-2-3 rhythm—and bursts of running. No need for reminders to breathe—we're sure breathing now.
Thirty minutes in, and I'm ready for a little break. Uriona is joining fully in the exercise, but he's also subtly aware of everyone, and I've barely taken two steps away from the swirling bodies when he's at my elbow. "Don't stop. Don't stop. Slow down if you need to, but keep it going." Sigh. I rejoin the throng, and within a couple of minutes I've got a second wind that, amazingly, lasts the rest of the day.
Stretching. Some of the movements Uriona initiates are connected to reaching out to each other. We create invisible balls in our hands and toss them back and forth. Those games slide into other exchanges of movement and energy. I find myself playing an imaginary tug of war with one of the students. And Uriona adds another rare vocal prompt: "Stretch."
As he tells me later, "Stretching into and beyond your motion makes it more real, because you give me actually your stretch, not just the invisible ball. I think we tap into a lot of little things about theater with these exercises." I get it. When I reach out to somebody and then reach a little more, that stretches me—literally and figuratively.
Eventually we file outdoors in a still-rhythmic procession. There's a fine mist of rain, but it's refreshing, cools us off. We head for the company's indoor performance space, a converted barn with high rafters and the spicy smell of old wood. The other two groups are already there, weaving about the space to the Eastern European Gypsy-flavored music that will form the soundtrack to The Firebird.
In between spontaneous encounters among the different groups, each of us gets to practice on one of Double Edge's homespun acrobatic toys: a large wooden cable spool that rolls on its edge. The trick is to "walk" on the round hub, keeping your balance while rolling forward. After a couple of tries, I'm almost able to do it without a supporting hand from below. It's scary and exhilarating.
And then we're outside again, all of us, moving in a kind of prancing hop through the wet grass and into a field, followed by some of the company's musicians on horns and drums. We pick up colorful flags and random noisemakers, and the procession continues.
The Firebird is the second show in Double Edge's continuing romance with the imagery of Marc Chagall, which began last summer with the spectacle inspired by his suite of illustrations for The Arabian Nights. This one takes off from Chagall's designs for Diaghilev's 1910 ballet, with music by Stravinsky, based on Russian folktales of a magical bird that brings both blessing and sorrow.
The summer spectacles are part of what company founder Stacy Klein describes as "work that honors the land." Their stage is the entire farm, the audience taking a literal journey with the actors as the story unfolds. The journey we're taking today is feeding the company's imagination, creating images that just might turn up in the show. I'm trying to imagine myself into that fairytale world of magic and danger. And as if on cue, our group gets one more verbal prompt from Uriona: "Put what you're imagining into your body, not just your imagination."
We end on a grassy platform under clearing skies. One of the groups is clustered together, a flag stretched above them to form a tent (The Firebird will begin in a circus tent). Others continue circling and swaying as the company members and interns strike up the refrain of a Romanian folk song. Everyone's wet, and everyone's smiling.
Back in the common room, there's food and drink and animated chat. I sit down for some verbal exchange with Carlos Uriona.
How different are the Open Trainings from one another? "Very, depending on who's here. We adjust for age, experience, and each time, we explore something new. What we are creating here is a body language, a sound language made of words and music, a breathing language. This is a collective training, not individual training, so we need to create, all together, systems of signs and codes that we somehow all understand. When they come together sometimes in a satisfactory way, they create a metaphor or an allegory."
When I ask what he means by "language," he smiles. "For instance, a procession is made out of everybody's motion, but it becomes a procession. It started from us, all together, exploring a certain rhythm, with our feet, and then a certain pattern of walk, and we did not disconnect the upper part of the body or our imaginations. We all together created a procession. That, to me, was the evolution of a language that happened in a unique way with these people today."
Mingling with the other participants, I talk with a woman named Karen, who lives in Heath and has been coming to Open Trainings for six years. "I'm just addicted," she admits. "I love it. There's always something new."
Mike, a young man who trained with another physical-based theater company, admires the cohesion born of our free-form explorations: "Even though there were three different journeys happening at once, they're all part of the same world."
Ann, who directs children's theater in Seattle, is a student in the Summer Intensive. "I'm interested in experimenting with a collaborative way of making a show, making a story. Double Edge is very difficult, requires a lot of stamina. I like that. Also, for the first time in a physical theater workshop, I'm not being told not to move, that I need a clear reason to. Here it's like, no, no, move all you want, and whatever you're doing is going to take you into deeper levels of movement and concentration."
Bob is a 50-something actor and director from the Boston area who first contacted Double Edge for tips on "a piece I was doing that needed some physical work. They said, 'Come for the training.' I said, 'No no, I'm too old for that.' They said, 'No, really, come for the training.' So finally I came." He's done several Open Trainings and an Intensive and "now it's part of my DNA."
Kelly, who did the Intensive training some years ago, then moved away and has only recently returned to the area, says, "There's something about the way Double Edge functions—maybe it's the fact that they don't really give spoken instructions—it's just so easy to lose yourself in it and become involved in the movement. You get to a state where you're not self-conscious but you are somehow aware of everything that's going on around you. Which I think is really difficult, but amazing."
Kate, a writer and former actress from New York, found the work physically challenging—she's nursing a sprained knee. "But after a while you felt like you could do anything," she says. "I think that when you do this kind of movement, this kind of collaborative work, you're stretched beyond what you know, and that's part of the opening-up process. I think that's the point, to go beyond what you think you know."
As I change my shirt and pull on my shoes, I'm pleasantly surprised to notice that I'm not too sore—though my calves are already complaining about all that prancing. I'm satisfyingly tired, but invigorated. And yes, I've been stretched.
The Firebird plays at Double Edge Theatre, 948 Conway Rd., Ashfield. For info, calll (413) 628-0277 or visit www.doubleedgetheatre.org; for tickets, call (866) 811-4111.