Company Koan

The Odyssey Theatre's Ron Sossi is about to embark upon a long, adventurous journey, another of his odysseys. Sossi is looking for a few good men, and women, to join him on a voyage of discovery undertaken somewhat in the spirit of "We don't know where we're going, but we're on our way—to wherever the trail leads us." The voyage has a purpose and a goal, but its path and destination are as yet unknown. Eventual culmination of its Phase One, about a year hence, will be some sort of theatrical presentation of Goethe's masterpiece Faust. The form it will take is yet to be determined, and, in recognition of the challenge and mystery involved, Sossi has given this odyssey an intriguing name: "Koan."

Koan is a word one doesn't expect to find in a casting notice, but there it was, in boldface capital letters, headlining a casting notice in recent Back Stage West issues. Although it is a word probably unfamiliar to most Americans, many are familiar with the most famous of all koans: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Less familiar is another that illustrates the koan's baffling nature: A disciple asks, "Master, does the dog have Buddha nature?" The master replies "Woof."

This response, which would probably be the dog's response, is not an attempt to be funny or clever; it illustrates the definition by Zen master Dr. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, who writes, "The koan is neither a riddle nor a witty remark. It has a most definite objective, the arousing of doubt and pushing it to its furthest limits." The dictionary definition is: "Japanese noun, a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Buddhist monks to… force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment."

Sossi says a koan is: "In Zen, a nonsense question asked of a student to force him, through contemplation of it, to a greater awareness of reality." Shortly after opening, to critical acclaim, his staging of Ronald Harwood's searching drama of a moral dilemma, Taking Sides, and shortly before taking off for a week-long retreat as preliminary preparation, Sossi sat down in his office, deep within the labyrinthine corridors of the Odyssey Theatre, to discuss his new project with Back Stage West.

Group Dynamics

"I've always been enamored of ensemble work," Sossi began. "But through the years it's only been possible to maintain an ensemble for two or three years, and then it breaks up. The impossibilty of paying a living wage, and the situation as it is in L.A.—always with the pull of the industry—makes it very, very hard. Through the years, we've tried to create ensembles for certain projects—Voyage to Arcturus, The Adolf Hitler Show, to some degree The Love Council that we did a couple of years ago. And Tracers came out of that kind of work. John DiFusco got the idea, got a bunch of Vietnam vets together, and started with a workshop. We're doing the 20th anniversary production of Tracers in January," he said, adding with a laugh, "Not with the same cast, of course."

Sossi said he likes working with a group of people over a period of time because, "after the initial stuff that goes on when people meet each other, the unfamiliarity, you get to the place where you can take more risks with each other; you evolve more efficient ways of working, and you can dig more deeply. You can concentrate on people who really want to do the same thing. I know Grotowski used to spend a lot of time selecting people to be in his workshop, people of like interests, of like tone. He called them his brothers. He admitted there were many other extremely good actors, but they were just wrong for this kind of work."

The first day of auditions for the Koan project were underway as we talked, and would be followed by more the next day. "Then I'm going away for a week. When I come back, we'll have more auditions, mainly for people I don't know. Then I'll call in people I know, and I want to do a week of workshops for the finalists. I'll break it down to maybe 20 or 25 people for these workshops, and then I'll narrow it down to 12 actors, total."

This will be different from things he's done before, explained Sossi, "mainly because there's a little bit of money for it. So maybe we can get some longevity, get people to commit for two years and maybe raise some more funding in the course of those years. We got two grants, one from the Irvine Foundation and one from the Flintridge Foundation. I went to them basically to get money to pay the artists, hoping that would keep people together longer. It's not a lot of money but enough that each actor will be paid a couple of thousand bucks for each of the two years involved—$4,000 apiece in addition to the normal 99-Seat theatre money.

Don't Be So Clever

"The ensemble group to come out of this project, Koan, will differ from others—Number One, in its subject matter. I want to deal with largely metaphysical subject matter. It's not going to be about sociological problems, nor political ones. The big influences on me have always been Grotowski, some of Joe Chaikin's work, some of Peter Brooks', and various kinds of metaphysical and spiritual pursuits.

"Some very good groups are emerging that are, by and large, improv oriented, comedy oriented, and they get into this niche of—how shall I put it?—doing a take-off on a project. I'll make up an example. Let's say one of these groups is going to do King Lear. It wouldn't be an investigation of Lear, it would be a take-off on Lear in some way, a comment—heightened, usually very heightened, stylized. I find it very clever, very imaginative. But the work I'm after—I'm not as interested in cleverness or imagination as in the depth of the work. I'm old enough now that I don't have to do a lot of directorial tap-dancing. I don't have to get up there and show off the directing in a flashy way. I'm more interested in digging, in what goes on between the actors. In that way, the work will be different."

Sossi noted that most of the people he runs into at auditions who have an improv background come from the Groundlings, the Actors' Gang, Second City, or other groups that stem from the commedia dell'arté tradition. "And they have that sort of intellectual, comedic wit—an intellectual approach to the work rather than from the heart or the depth. So it's very clever work and often very exciting in terms of theatrical imagination. But I often find it rather empty. It doesn't scare me. I like to be scared sometimes when I go to the theatre—shaken. I like to be shaken. I like to be rattled. I was disappointed, for instance, in the Berliner Ensemble. I expected something else."

It's going to be hard to find the exact kind of actors he's looking for, Sossi acknowledged. "Actors kind of fall into two categories," he observed. "The younger actors, and I've found a lot of them in the past, are really idealistic, which is great, but they don't have a lot of training. You can find superb older actors who either don't have the idealism for this kind of work, or they don't have the time. They have families and obligations, and they can't commit to something like this. Often I don't even ask, because I just know their situations. It's kind of a Catch 22. I mean, I'd love to have an array of actors of different ages, but…"

Two actors at this point are definitely set for the Koan experience—Beth Hogan and Alan Abelew, both familiar to Odyssey audiences and both attuned to Sossi's concept, which expects a lot from actors. A certain degree of stress may be expected. "A lot of things happen to you when your body is under stress. That was one of the things Grotowski worked on," Sossi said. "When your physical body is exhausted, certain things become possible. Something happens, a giving up." It's very Zen. Suzuki called it "the bursting of the sack." A Zen master was asked "Of what does Buddhahood consist?" His reply was, "The bottom of the pitcher is broken."

It should be an exciting journey, the new odyssey upon which Sossi and a yet-to-be chosen few actors are about to embark. At the end of it, Faust beckons, and perhaps a degree at least of "satori"—supreme enlightenment. For, to quote psychologist Carl Jung, "Only the spiritual tragedies of Goethe's Faust and Neitzsche's Thus Spake Zarathrustra evoke the first glimmerings of the breakthrough of a total experience [of satori] in our Western hemisphere."

"The approach will be very exploratory," Sossi concluded. "The first two or three months will be just training and forming the company. Then another two months of general areas that have something to do with the themes of Faust. Then a formal, eight-week rehearsal period. Altogether, the actors are committing to about five months of preparation, two of which are formal rehearsal and two of which are building the company. Then another two or three month of performing it. Then, after it closes, we'll take off for a few months, and then come back and do it all over again. With another project."

When people ask him, "What are you going to do with Faust?" Sossi answers, "We don't know. We may end up doing Faust very much as written. Or not. It might be a two-evening Faust." That would be all right, too. And very much all right if out of it should come a true Odyssey ensemble.

"I've always wanted to have an ongoing ensemble unit here," said Sossi. BSW