Haptic possibilities: practising physical contact as part of physically-distanced actor training

Video still from the video documentation of the discussed introductory study of touch. It aims at suggesting movement through points of contact.

Introducing the project

This post offers a first glimpse to a wider practice-research project I started developing since the beginning of the pandemic in the UK in March 2020 and the Covid-19 implemented physical distancing guidelines. It is the first in an intended series of posts on the project, under the umbrella title ‘From haptic deprivation to haptic possibilities’. This research looks at how we can compensate for the current inability to experience haptic interrelations within and beyond actor-training environments, including the exploration of wearable haptics towards tactile ‘translations’.[1] Even though the specific investigations sprang out of the urgency of the current pandemic, it is already apparent that its findings and applications could have a clear impact post-pandemic as well.  

  

Within the context of actor training, the question I am exploring as a movement educator is: would it be possible to find new tactile possibilities and opportunities around alternative use of contact as we practise physical distancing in the studio? The ground of my practical inspiration comes from the study of touch through the awareness of the skin organ in somatic practices and more specifically the methods of BMC® (Body-Mind Centering) and IBMT (Integrative Bodywork and Movement Therapy). I bring this in dynamic dialogue with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of flesh that represents the ability of our bodies to be exemplar sensibles (1968, 135);[2] I sense and at the same time I am sensed, I touch and I am touched.[3]  

An introductory study of touch

Working in the studio with the current actors in training at East 15 Acting School in London, we get to an introductory study of touch after the steps of mapping our somatic states, grounding and centring our somata (plural for soma as diverse and dynamic bodymind) in the space. We also heighten our attention to our breathing by connecting to the countermovement and countersupport between lungs and diaphragm; how they complement each other, how we can allow this ‘breathing dance’ to travel to the full length of our spines (head to tail connection) and through our spines to our upper and lower limps; how we can start checking the integration between moving and sounding adding a subtle humming.

The structure I have chosen for this post focuses on the haptic study that comes right after the above steps. The practice was part of my second physically-distanced class (Autumn Term 2020-21) with the postgraduate actors on the integration between movement and senses.

The first part of the following narrative, in italics, is an experiential invitation for each one of you to explore. Following the way I communicate the practice in the studio, I shift between the ‘we’ of the shared experience, the idiosyncratic ‘you’ and the first-person ‘I’. In that way, I wish to acknowledge the group dynamics and each actor-mover’s unique perception, including my own experiential engagement as a trainer-witness.[4] The writing is then integrated with a short video on how the practice evolved in the classroom with one of the MA Acting groups.[5] My invitation to you is to approach the written and the video parts of the study as one narrative before moving on to reflections.  

The study

We start by finding a comfortable standing position with a supported base and a soft connection to our breath. Try to ground your attention to the dialogue between your feet and the floor as well as the simplicity of the opening and closing movement of your lungs. You may wish to take a couple of minutes to map how you are within your body in the here and now seizing any small or bigger movements that want to be expressed.

Now let’s activate the organ from which we get in touch, the skin, softly brushing with your hands the surface of your body. As you do so add to your attention that your skin is the biggest organ that envelops your body. It brings you in contact with the world, it gives you shape and contributes to the development of your unique identity. You may also wish to add the questions ‘what is my connection with physical contact?’ ‘how does that feel to me?’.

Begin the brushing from your head, including your face only if it is fully safe for you under the current circumstances. Then go to your neck, the full surface of your arms and hands, your front torso, the sides and the points of your back you can reach without over-stretching your arms. Responding to the flexibility of your skin organ, the change of temperature and the shapes your body takes, continue this ‘skin shower’ as you get to your pelvis, the front part of your legs, the upper part and the soles of your feet. As you follow the journey up through the back of your legs continue the brushing all the way to the crown of your head. Make sure that you awaken every little inch of your skin.

And now release your hands and arms. Do you feel a subtle buzziness through your skin? If so, follow that no matter how strange it might seem. Start moving from your skin as if it becomes a membrane. As if I want to bring all the structures that are inside my body closer to my skin. I become this organism that moves only from my skin ‘costume’ that hugs my body from the front, back and sides. Keep checking in the support of the flow of your breath and whether you hold back your breathing in and out cycle. Feel free to explore the qualities that come up, ‘how is it to move from my skin?’ ‘what can I get out of it?’.

As you keep going, start playing with clear points of contact between your hands and different parts of your body. I am suggesting the use of your whole palm observing how that may be different from other tactile qualities like stroking. I allow one point of contact to bring movement and the movement shows me the next point of contact. Check what possibilities come up for you, maybe lifting your limbs, balancing shapes, finding connections between your upper and lower body. Just try to offer yourself clear impulses through clear points of contact as you further develop your study. Do you connect with your ability to touch and simultaneously receive contact?

And then gradually you may notice that you can start playing with different parts of your body contacting each other. So it may not be my palm coming into contact with my thigh; it may be my elbow and my thigh responds. Keep seizing the movement and how it brings up new points of contact. Observe rhythms and images that might come up. Would you like to add some music?[6] Continue your study by clicking on the following video:

Reflections

Use your experience of the study as ground for a reflection. You may wish to follow what is present for you allowing some writing. How about opening your writing with ‘I sense …’ or ‘I touch …’ ? How about sharing some of your reflections in the ‘Leave a Reply’ section at the end of this post? For further guidance on how you could develop somatically-inspired writing you can have a look here.

Through my witnessing of the group, I am drawn to effortless expressions of focus and flow. I am also curious about the diverse tactile qualities the actor-movers engage with and I intentionally do not add further orientation as I wish to ‘hold’ the openness in this introductory step. For instance, working with another group, negotiating tactile pressure became instantly part of the shared study so I acknowledged it as a further part of the process.

Opening the space for experiential reflection, the majority of the learners echoed my witnessing mentioning elements such as easy engagement with movement and support towards focus. The study was also received with surprise for two main reasons. The first was a sense of profoundness and the second an opportunity to practise a form of relational contact improvisation in the context of a physically-distanced class. At the same time, I should include here some expressions of discomfort and a sense of loneliness which I entirely recognised as experiential nuances of the same process.

In the following classes I continue to modify the use of touch or physical contact as learning and creative tool within physically-distanced actor training. And as I further revisit the interrelational dynamics that have been the ground of my practice since its initial shaping, I observe that I could maintain some of the current studies as individual processes even post-pandemic. This thinking relates to my ongoing interest in supporting the significance of the diverse and different sense of self in embodied learning. Specifically when it comes to touch, I find resonance in the questions Evans et al. (2020) pose in their post on the special issue ‘Against the Canon’:

What does touch mean post #MeToo and the killing of George Floyd? Who owns space, how do we negotiate touch, what might touching signify, what can we learn from/through touch? Where are our embodied borders and what do they mean now for us and for others? How do assumptions around touch, weight and space play in to assumptions around gender, sexuality, disability and race/ethnicity?

I will return to some of these points in future posts. My aim is to shape a dynamic dialogue between how tactile interactions emerge in my physically-distanced teaching and how I have been navigating touch-based work pre-Covid. In both cases my premise is the awareness of actor training as diverse and relational environment of mutual sensitivity and vulnerability.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Thanks to the current actors in training at East 15 Acting School (MA Acting), who gave me permission to use footage from our second physically-distanced class.

LIST OF WORKS

Evans, M. et al. (2020) Teaching with the special issue: ‘Against the Canon’. Theatre, Dance and Performance Training Blog. [Accessed 7 November 2020].

Kapadocha (2016) The development of Somatic Acting Process in UK-based actor training. Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices, 9(2) 213–221.

————— (2019) Somaticity within and beyond arts praxis: Inviting your witnessing. Theatre, Dance and Performance Training Blog. [Accessed 7 November 2020].

————— (2021) Somatic logos in physiovocal actor training and beyond. In: Christina Kapadocha (ed.) Somatic Voices in Performance Research and Beyond. Oxon and New York: Routledge, 155-168.

McAllister-Viel, T. (2021) (Re)considering the role of touch in “re-educating” actors’ body/voice. In: Christina Kapadocha (ed.) Somatic Voices in Performance Research and Beyond. Oxon and New York: Routledge, 115-129.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968) The Visible and the Invisible. Translated from French by Alphonso Lingis and edited by Claude Lefort. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.


[1] The first step towards this direction was my collaboration with the computational artist and composer Christina Karpodini on her project Sonically Touchable (September 2020).

[2] I am using plural to add the element of embodied diversity that was not part of Merleau-Ponty’s discourse.

[3] You could find more on the way I have been integrating somatic and phenomenological praxis in my recent chapter ‘Somatic logos in physiovocal actor training and beyond’ as part of my edited collection Somatic Voices in Performance Research and Beyond (Kapadocha, 2021). Given that the use of touch is widely studied in somatic or somatically-inspired methodologies, you could also find relevant discussions in many other chapters in the collection, including Tara McAllister-Viel’s ‘(Re)considering the role of touch in “re-educating” actors’ body/voice’.

[4] ‘For  the  significance  of  the  potential  contribution  of  an  educator  who  wishes  to  “hold”  each  actor’s  creative  journey  allowing  space  for  the  development of individual strengths, critical awareness and expression I introduce the identity of the trainer-witness’  (Kapadocha, 2016, 218).

[5] The video includes captions.

[6] In the classroom I used the music piece Melodia Africana I by Ludovico Einaudi.

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About Christina Kapadocha

Christina Kapadocha (Ph.D.) is a Lecturer in Theatre and Movement at East 15 Acting School and winner of the 2020 Outstanding Early Career Researcher Award in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Essex. She is a London-based theatre and somatic practitioner-researcher, a Registered Somatic Movement Educator (RSME) and founder of Somatic Acting Process®. Her current practice research and publications concentrate on the application, modification and impact of somatically-inspired practices into theatre-performance environments and beyond. Christina has been working as an actress, director and movement director in Greece and the UK since 2007. Prior to her full-time appointment at East 15, she has also taught at other major London-based drama schools such as RCSSD, Mountview and Rose Bruford.

4 thoughts on “Haptic possibilities: practising physical contact as part of physically-distanced actor training

  1. Thank you Christina for this invitation to explore haptic possibilities. I look forward to hearing more about your research as it continues to unfold.

    This is what I experienced:
    I touch my skin and feel that I’m here. I sense my skin as a soft container that protects my insides like a warm embrace. I feel joy whilst moving from my skin as though it is a costume – I’ve never thought of my skin this way before. As I sequentially touch one part of my body and then another I feel this is me. This is where I start and where I stop.

    After the study, I reflect on how we can still touch others with the qualities of our voice as we teach movement remotely.

    • So grateful for your response dear Kelly. Many thanks for sharing your experience and apologies it took me a while to respond as I’m going through the last busy week of this annual year.

      I echo your words: “I’m here…I feel this is me. This is where I start and where I stop”.

      Your reflection on tactile potentialities of voice brings me in relation to a project that gathered my attention and filled my presence for the past three years (I’m simply referring to my edited collection on Somatic Voices). And I find interesting how our thoughts resonate as I make plans for the next post.

      Curious about the communications and the interactions the next steps will bring up!

      Please keep sharing,
      Christina

  2. Hi Christina,
    Thank you for this article and for the attached video. This was extremely helpful in reminding me of the tools we used in your class at East 15. I am in the process of re-acquainting myself with somatic movement practice (as studied in your class) and I look forward to reading more online.
    In the meantime, are any of your research books available online, and/or for purchase? Thank you again for this and hope to connect soon. 🙂

    • Hi dearest Breanna,
      So lovely to read your comment and I’m so glad the post is of help for revisiting and reconnecting with our practice!
      As for publications that are available, you can spot some in the List of Works here and will drop you an email as well for further info.
      Until our next communication, take care and really hope you resource yourself with some holiday spirit no matter what!
      Christina

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