The Big Secret Book: An Intense Guide for Creating Performance Theatre

By Christine Quintana

by Denise Clarke
Uproute Books
2018/$29.95/208 pp.

It’s a strange thing, as a Canadian theatre artist, to be part of a relatively small community of colleagues spread far and wide across a massive land mass. Though our aesthetic and pedagogical lineages are often tightly interwoven, geography can prevent us from conversing with one another. For this reason, The Big Secret Book, by Denise Clarke, is a vivid and vital contribution that captures the working methods and performance philosophy of Clarke and the prolific One Yellow Rabbit theatre company—famed for their many performance pieces and annual Summer Lab Intensive. For those of us who haven’t ventured to their home in Calgary, The Big Secret Book gives a window into the unique and rigorous practice of Clarke and the Rabbits.

The book is organized into three parts, shifting the lens from “Part One: The Player,” to “Part Two: The Observer, the Observed and the Process of Observation,” to “Part Three: Setting Up a Room and Making a Performance Plan.” Within these, each chapter runs through terms, concepts or values and offers “Activity PLAY” exercises. Chapters such as “Precision, Economy and Relaxation” beautifully capture Clarke’s proffered set of ideals for the working artist and ensemble, while “Who Does What” is a framework for articulating shared values that are immensely useful in our modern theatre practice and in collaboration across difference. Clarke’s direct and crystalline description of the Rabbits’ pedagogy is a gift. Though not all concepts will be unfamiliar or novel to established artists, the clarity with which Clarke expresses them is invaluable.

Case studies such as Clarke’s description of her emotional release process while performing an emotionally demanding role in Tigress at the City Gates provide a framework for application to an artist’s own working practice. This and other examples illuminate the Rabbits’ body of work in vivid and captivating snapshots, offering those outside Calgary a taste of what these works may have accomplished in performance.

I much appreciate that The Big Secret Book acknowledges the existence and validity of work outside a Eurocentric practice, and of artists with disabilities—too often I find teaching texts are absolute in rules and practices that exclude, diminish or obscure the contributions of artists outside what has been the Canadian “mainstream theatre.” While Clarke doesn’t dive deep into this territory, she provides a vocabulary and set of values for consideration. The Big Secret Book offers a beautifully succinct set of lessons for young artists, a well-articulated summary of learnings for established artists and a lovingly crafted memoir of one of Canada’s most prolific performance ensembles.

Christine Quintana is an actor and playwright in Vancouver.

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