‘The memory of mortality as a root to life’
It’s the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards in Pontedera, Italy where a group of actors reside, working intensively on theatre performances, and on the singing of songs of ancient traditions. Here, I meet the Brazilian actor Guilherme Kirchheim.
Kirchheim (31) is part of the ‘Focused Research Team on Art as Vehicle’, one of the three theatre groups connected to the Workcenter. We discuss his performances, struggles in relation to his acting craft, his youth in Brazil and the role death plays in his life and work. What does it really mean to act?
An empty stage. It’s quiet. At the far end of the stage is a wall with an opening the size of a door, half covered by a curtain. Behind the curtain it’s dark. Suddenly, like a shot out of a gun, a slender figure appears from behind the curtain, wearing a raincoat, clumsily holding a big pile of books. He walks onto the stage with a determined step, stops in the middle, drops the books and looks apologetically at the audience. His strange embodiment of dignity and complete awkwardness makes the spectators roar with laughter.
‘He speaks about secrets that are difficult to confess, but are very recognizable to us all. So you can laugh about him, even if you’re not able to confess your own secrets.’ Actor Guilherme Kirchheim, who plays the slender figure in the raincoat, explains why he thinks his performance is funny. The character he plays is based on the voice in the famous Dostoevsky novel ‘Notes from the Underground’. When Kirchheim speaks of ‘secrets’, he refers to that part of our inner life we tend to hide from the world, or as Dostoevsky himself once put it: ‘(…) finally there are still [reminiscences] which a man is even afraid to tell himself, and every decent man has a considerable number of such things stored away.’
Kirchheim’s entry as described above is the beginning of a theatre performance called: ‘The Underground: a Response to Dostoevsky’, by the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards. A beginning so elaborate and full of meaning, that it’s the perfect premise for the whirlwind that’s about to come. In the play Kirchheim is ranting at high pace while doing a dense score of actions, brought with an overpowering quality, both funny and sincere, a way of performing that reminds one of great comic actors like Charlie Chaplin or Peter Sellers. In ‘The Underground’ he and his fellow actors, besides being funny, pose big philosophical questions and give the audience the feeling of being part of a ritual. Something so subtle, that it feels like it’s not meant to be witnessed by outsiders’ eyes.
When interviewing Kirchheim, he’s thoughtful, relaxed, and rather introverted. The high paced speech patterns from the performance made way for slow, well thought-out answers, in which he constantly second guesses himself – ‘Maybe I’m not the best person to describe this work. I’m still discovering’ – and stresses he’s no better than the eccentric character he plays: ‘I find myself battling with the same topics every day.’
In Dostoevsky’s novel we meet a man who retreated from society and spends his days in a cellar, plotting a passionate revenge on the world he once knew. In his interior monologue he reflects on big themes regarding human life and his relationships, and creates an underground realm where all his desires and frustrations ferment. ‘For me it’s the image of feeling sorry for oneself in a dark cellar on one hand, and on the other opening the window to greatness and divinity’, Kirchheim says. He and his character have a lot in common: ‘For me there is a constant need to open the window of my own cellar, of these dark places, in which I put myself every day. Out of habit, comfort, and fear. And at the same time there is always a possibility of a higher quality of living: a possibility I can reach for.’
Kirchheim is part of one of the three groups that operate within the Workcenter. The name of his group: ‘Focused Research Team in Art as Vehicle’ refers to the last stage of work of the Polish theatre practitioner Jerzy Grotowski. Grotowski is considered to be one of the most influential theatre practitioners of the twentieth century. His work – often referred to as ‘experimental’ – was in fact a constantly evolving exploration of the essence of theatre and human potential. An exploration that wasn’t restricted to the boundaries of the traditional Western theatre with a stage and spectators. In the last phase of his research, that started in the eighties, he and his actors studied traditional practices of different ancient cultures: in particular the singing of songs of traditions. He transmitted this work to his apprentice Thomas Richards, who is since Grotowksi’s death in 1999 the head of the Workcenter, alongside colleague Mario Biagini, who is the director of his own group. Since the death of Grotowski both of them continued his artistic research in small, constantly changing groups of actors.
Central to Richards’ way of working is the combination of two main activities: theatre performances meant to be witnessed by an audience, and the ritualistic singing of songs of ancient traditions, meant not to be witnessed but to be experienced by doing. The songs are however present in the theatre performances, as a vital thread. At the core of the work is the question how the inner life of an actor performing or singing can be elevated to a state of consciousness that is present, focused, and in direct connection to the other.
Performance of ‘The Living Room’, one of the productions of the Focused Research Team
Kirchheim grew up in Londrina, a city in the south of Brazil, home to one of the oldest theatre festivals of the country. When he was three years old he was convinced he wanted to be a clown, because of their capacity of transforming something heavy and gross into playfulness and joy. When he was five he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a chronic disease that drastically reduces life expectancy. From the age of five to fifteen he was in and out of hospitals. ‘I almost died several times’, he says. ‘My way of dealing with it was – in a naïve way – quite wise. It was with tenderness that I faced these near-death experiences, discovering important things: that even when there was fear of dying, it was never the main thing. I had friends. I had fun. My relation to pain, to the discipline of taking medicines and going to physiotherapy, to hospitals and needing to face my phobia of needles – all of that brought me to the other side of being a victim. That’s what I try to remember today when I’m acting. How to not be a victim.’
When he was fifteen Kirchheim decided to stop doing physiotherapy and taking medicines for his illness – which he describes now as an act of teenage rebellion. Because he was in good health, his doctor agreed to his decision. It went well, and for ten years Kirchheim lived like any other person who was never diagnosed with anything. When he was twenty-five, he got the surprise of a lifetime: after a medical check he was told that he in fact didn’t have cystic fibrosis – and that the diagnosis he got in his early youth was a medical mistake. By that time there was no telling what the life-threatening condition had in fact been. So after living for twenty-five years with the conviction he wouldn’t grow older than forty, he suddenly had no prognosis anymore, and his life expanded before him.
‘So my relation to death became different. I had the certainty that I could die at any moment – and even if I survived – forty would be a deadline. It was very weird when this certainty suddenly disappeared. A strong aspect of who I thought I was, was removed. But it didn’t take me long to realize this was bullshit. Death was always unknown, and it still was. What did change by losing my prognosis is the way death would come to me. And that brought me to the responsibility I have with my time, meaning here and now. It’s the only place where something can really happen.’
The way Kirchheim approaches his work triggers curiosity about the extent to which he exposes himself to the world. He often describes his work as a confession: it’s fueled with his own questions and struggles. Is there a danger involved in showing oneself with this level of vulnerability? ‘Creative work has to do with facing the unknown. There is a danger there. It’s a wild forest, one can get wounded.’ He explains that the danger hasn’t that much to do with the level of exposure of him as a person, but more with the internal struggles that come with creative work. ‘The danger can be to get caught inside of the mechanics of my ego. If I’m stuck in these traps, self-pity appears and I’m not able to move because I think I’m a victim. Sometimes I can get confused, and lose the trust in myself or in other people.’
Wat he describes as his own worst trap, is wanting to be good as an actor. ‘This desire to do good relates to several things that are pitfalls. For example, the idea of good and bad, which can be quite equivocated. Or the fact that when I’m trying to do good, I’m not necessarily doing anything. Fear of judgement is also a weight which can suffocate something inside. When I am trying to do good, it’s trying to match expectations of a person, to make an idea of myself, of my identity. But this is not acting. It’s trying to act.’ What happens when Kirchheim tries to do ‘good’ on a stage? He becomes the frustrated man from ‘The Underground’, instead of performing him. ‘I descend into the small realm of identity. In that moment I’m not doing my line of actions anymore and I’m officially out of my score. To deal with thoughts like ‘I need to do good’ requires constant vigilance. But to become aware of them and to face them is already a valuable step.’
What would he say – other than trying to prevent to fall into the traps of his ego – is his biggest challenge in developing his character from ‘The Underground’ further? ‘Remembering that I don’t know who he is. That it is a creation. So I can’t only execute a score of details that belong to the character. In that way I’m only presenting ideas. So the question is constantly: how does the work I developed relate to who I am today? To the questions that are unfolding inside of me? I need to listen to that in order to articulate this character in a present way. It is a way of remembering one aspect of my being. This picky, obsessed idiot. The part of me that constantly wants to nominate black and white, good and bad. There’s no second life to this man. It’s me there, having fun with it. Taking enough distance to be able to laugh about it.’
When it comes to remembering a certain aspect of his being, the aspect of death is a major thread in Kirchheim’s life, and in the unfolding of ‘The Underground’. The performance, that starts comical, turns more and more into a strange daydream. Kirchheim’s character is joined by the character of death, who enters the stage in a coffin. At first death is the laughing stock of the performance, but he gradually gets the upper hand, making the audience realize the joke is on them. ‘There is a moment in the piece in which words start to be articulated in a different way’, Kirchheim explains. ‘There are more ancient songs of tradition. It becomes more about the inner life of the people who are acting in the piece, and less about the story. The vibratory quality of the songs formulate an answer to the questions asked by Dostoevsky. With these songs we call for a quality of life. I make a confession of the mortality of my identity. Of the lightness of death. How the memory of mortality is in fact a root to life.’