Feature in Issue 18-4 | Winter 2006

The sounds of silence, violence and liberation: Cassie Werber sings the body electric with Enrique Pardo and Linda Wise of Pan Theatre.

In a high-ceilinged, wooden-floored room flooded with natural light, twenty people have gone mad. Some are wrapped around the pillars in the centre of the room, whilst others slide slowly across the floor, dance, shout, whisper, or climb onto the piano, which a man is playing while sporadically singing, growling, calling out instructions and encouragements. This is Enrique Pardo, and at Farnham Maltings in Surrey, on a spring afternoon of brightness and rain, Pan Theatre’s workshop is underway.

A peculiar energy is sometimes produced in theatre workshops, allowing participants to transcend norms of behaviour in ways which can be deeply creative and highly addictive. Once participants have accepted the offer of genuine freedom, there is an increased ability to sidestep inhibitions towards a full exploration of the possibilities of creativity. In a rehearsal situation, for example, constraints already in place often mean that real creative freedom is not an option, and any company is defined (not necessarily negatively) by the personalities and interactions of its members. At the beginning of the week, Enrique Pardo and Linda Wise offer the chance to travel outside everyday experience, inviting us to ‘go places’.

Pan Theatre, founded in 1981 by Enrique Pardo, is co-directed by Linda Wise and Liza Mayer. Based in Paris, it retains close links with the Roy Hart International Arts Centre in Malerargues in Southern France, where a summer workshop is held in July. In the Farnham workshop, organised by Arts Council England, the various ways in which the voice can be used – to speak text, to sing, and for all other forms of sound-making – and the relationship between movement and vocalisation, are the subjects to be explored. Towards the beginning of the workshop, some questions are posed, to be revisited throughout the week. We are asked to consider: What is singing? If singing is to take a sound and to then present or give it, then no vocal sound should be precluded. Perhaps, Pardo and Wise postulate, we should sing everything, concentrating rather more on exploring the possibilities of the voice than on creating a sound which is ‘pure’ or ‘beautiful’. There is a cultural inclination towards beauty, Pardo explains, which makes us wary of exploring other realms, making other sounds, in some sense, subversive.

Everyone has learned a text, and experimentation with language is a part of Pan’s core thinking. Etymology, and the relationships between words in various languages and in all their forms, clearly fascinate Pardo, and he plays on words continually, experimenting with their sound, and the phrases with which they are associated. Again, it is the possibilities which we are looking at, though here the meaning is also paramount. The sense of words is important, the explorations a way into that sense. Language itself is key to Pan’s thinking about theatre; as Pardo goodnaturedly asserts, ‘Internationalism annoys me profoundly… the advantage which non-language performers have annoys me… the work [of Pan Theatre] should be rooted in particularism – which is a limitation but also a glory.’ The watchwords for the first day of the workshop are ‘N’importe quoi’: words to which we will return and fail adequately to translate, but which Pardo and Wise use to signify a certain quirkiness, an off-the-wall quality, light but engaged, which they hope collectively to explore.

Practical work falls into three main groups, which increasingly overlap: vocal work, partner work, and ensemble. In each section, there are moments of revelation and discovery: a performer, having given up control of his own physicality, picked up and cartwheeled across the room while delivering a text both seductive and gently tragic; the chilling discovery of a mass grave described in a near-comic contralto which jars with the text in such a way as to make the audience listen all the more diligently; a dreamy meditation delivered as a rap. Such moments do not translate well into description, and perhaps not directly into performance. But the possibilities that they provide for opening up and digging into text are exciting for anyone interested in creating theatre.

In discussion of the use of ‘broken sound’ – all the vocalisations which are not speech or song: sobbing, screaming, croaking and growling, howling and hissing, etc. – it has early been acknowledged that many people, and especially trained singers, are wary of this work, which runs so much against the grain of traditional voice teaching. Pardo and Wise liken the work to back-flipping across a room: you would not do it without training or carry on all day, but you yourself are the best judge of when to stop. The possibility of accessing a more complete expression, especially of genuine emotion, is the goal. The feeling within the group, after a very short space of time, is of freedom and safety, a licence to wander in the darkest forests and come out unharmed. I am surprised, therefore, when Pardo references the idea of violence as key to the work, and question this in discussion. Pardo and Wise outline the background of this work on ‘broken sound’, tracing its origins back to the 1940s.

Following his involvement, as a Jew enlisted in the German Army, in the massive violence of World War One, Alfred Wolfsohn (1896–1962) found himself appalled by the effects of trauma on the vocal powers of both himself and his compatriots. Suffering shell-shock, he began to hallucinate voices and, having been a singer before the war, lost his singing voice completely. After trying several forms of therapy, he began experimenting on himself. On escaping Germany for pre-World War Two London, he met Roy Hart, a young South African actor researching into the same area. The Roy Hart Theatre was formed in 1969, and Pan continues its explorations.

Pardo explains his reasons for placing the notion of violence at the heart of work that seems, in practice, freeing and supportive: ‘the things of nature have their economy of violence. Humans have pulled out of that logic… the potential for violence that humans have is enormous. The killing power is immense. Human beings have disturbed the balance. This needs historical, political and massive artistic reflection. The reflection itself doesn’t have to be violent. You have to do violence to some of the pre-conceptions in order to examine some of these things.’ There seem to be dual ideas at play: that of the perceived ‘violence’ of the work, of the sound itself, and our reaction to that, which is naturally defensive; and also the need for art to engage with and comment on an increasingly violent environment. Linda Wise qualifies the centrality of ‘violence’, giving an alternative viewpoint: ‘I still have a problem with the word… I don’t see the work as aggressive in that way.’ Identifying a different way in which violence informs Pan’s practice, she speaks of the ‘huge importance in being able to express violence, one’s own violence – confrontation in that sense. “Going beyond” can be very violent to one’s idea of who one is.’ The violence within the work, in this context, is creative, as opposed to the destructive violence that it helps to express: ‘I think that a lot of violence comes from incapacity to act. [There are] violent ways of singing, dealing with the violence of death. Rape victims can lose their voices because they have been unable to scream. We are very afraid of those high-energy sounds.’

Back in the workshop, we have received complaints. The Opera Appreciation Society has been unable to appreciate because of us ‘howling like a lot of dogs’. It is an illustration of the hostility, confusion and even fear that such work can instil. As Sharon Feder, a Pan collaborator, points out, ‘People aren’t used to hearing these sounds.’ Pan Theatre apologises, explaining that the nature of the work makes it fairly impossible to impose quiet.

As the work progresses, we explore the idea of ‘singing bodies’. After addressing, early in the process, the ego-based problem of worrying about what you look like doing something extreme and unusual, we begin working with it: with performance, pride, seduction.

‘Refresh yourself,’ Pardo counsels, reminding us that when working with emotion, it is imperative to retain the element of humour. ‘Never shame yourself’ is another useful injunction, shame being the ultimate killer of the creative spark. The workshop ends on a note of community and openness; we feel we have journeyed together. Instructed to yield to possibility, we yelt. That may not be a word, but I think, in this context, it is allowed…

The Pan Theatre Workshop took place at Farnham Maltings, Surrey, in March 2006. For more information on Pan Theatre’s training programme, including short courses and weekends in Paris, visit http://pantheatre.free.fr

This article in the magazine

Issue 18-4
p. 22 - 23