by Stephen Sachs
In Japanese tea ceremonies, the term Ichi-go ichi-e describes the concept of treasuring the unrepeatable nature of a moment. Translated as “for this time only” or “one opportunity, one encounter,” the phrase reminds us to cherish any gathering that we may take part in, citing the fact that any moment in life cannot be repeated; even when the same group of people get together in the same place again, a particular gathering will never be replicated, and thus each moment is always a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Treasure every encounter, for it will never recur again.
Such is also the ephemeral nature of theatre.
Each performance is alive, in that instant, never to be repeated. Like a tea ceremony and life itself, theatre is experienced in ‘each moment, only once’ and the value of each stage performance is that it happens only once in a lifetime. There is no other opportunity. Only this time.
The duality of the “one moment” reality of theatre is that it comes after endless repetition. Actors labor through weeks of rehearsal, reworking scenes dozens of times, with countless hours drilling the same lines over and over. In rehearsal, the director’s mantra is “Do it again. ” Basketball great Larry Bird said that in high school he would shoot 500 free throws every morning before his first class. Actors, like athletes, rehearse the same scene repeatedly so the mechanics of the lines and the blocking become second nature. They no longer have to think about what they’re saying and doing, so they can be “in the moment.” Repetition brings freedom. Release. As Prince once sang, “There’s joy in repetition, there’s joy in repetition.”
In film-making, it is the norm to perform a task dozens of times before you get it right. Some movie directors are notorious for shooting multiple takes. Stanley Kubrick was famous for it. He reportedly made Tom Cruise walk through a door 90 times while filming Eyes Wide Shut, and had Shelley Duvall repeat a scene 127 times for The Shining. On the set of David Fincher’s Gone Girl, each scene averaged approximately 50 takes. One scene in the first Spider Man movie with Tobey McGuire took 156 takes to get right.
In the theatre, however, there is no such thing as “getting it right.” Not ever. That film concept is foreign to theatre people because the essential essence of live performance is that it is never right, never the same, never perfect. Even in the long run of a play or musical over hundreds, even thousands of performances. Not only is each performance unique, so is each scene, each line within each scene, each moment within each line. A word, a phrase will never be uttered that same way again. A light cue, a swell of sound, the flurry of dazzling costumes, affects each audience member differently night to night. Each moment is unrepeatable and special in its own right.
The routine of theatre — the drilling of lines, the daily rehearsals, the nightly performances — are essential to its devotional life. Devotional life is deepened by repetition. A true practice is a repeated activity with no expectation of result. It’s the doing of it that matters. We do it over and over again, but it’s really not so much because we think we are going to get it perfect, or even exactly right. We do it for experiencing truth in the moment. A daily meditation practice, for example. If your purpose for meditating is “to become enlightened,” you will never achieve it. If that is your destination, you’ll be lost. There is no destination. There is only the present moment. It’s only when seeing the present moment that enlightenment may come. The origin for the word “routine” comes from route, or “way, path, course.” Therefore, routine, practice, rehearsal is a journey.
For my twenty-nine years at the Fountain Theatre, the “one opportunity, one encounter” concept of ichigo ichie is proven true over and over again with our audiences. After seeing a play in our theatre, our patrons spill out onto Fountain Avenue changed, not the same people they were going in. An alchemy happens. In that moment. That can not be repeated. For tomorrow night’s audience, it will be something else.
I have learned to embrace the truth of “one moment” as a way to understand and celebrate the impermanence of life and the art form I practice. My other art-love is jazz, and a line from a famous jazz ballad from 1949 called “Again” lays bare the same message. There is nothing Zen about the lyrics or their origins, of course, but the words remind me that life, love and theatre are all ecstasies of the moment, each instant unique and unrepeatable.
Again, this couldn’t happen again
This is that once in a lifetime
This is the thrill divine
What’s more, this never happened before …
We’ll have this moment forever
But never, never again.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.