Haptic possibilities: practising physical contact as part of online actor training

For the second post of this series and as UK drama schools started re-opening for in-person classes the week of March 8 2021, I thought it would be valid to acknowledge the online experience that dominated the past few months. The questions and the nature of the project remain the same, what changes is the context of the practice.

So here we are once again, scattered in the strange intimacy of our own spaces and the camera of our electronic devices. As I shared in an online event organised by the Healthy Conservatoires Network on February 10:

If I can narrow down the challenge [ … ] is crossing the first barrier of transitioning from the studio to moving in front of a screen. The barrier of accepting that yes it cannot be the same, yet it is still a space of relational possibilities. And of course this screen is attached to an actual space which may not be spacious, may be crowded and noisy, may hold memories and other relational dynamics outside the training context that may not be of help for the learning process.

My intention with this post in not to talk you through all the methods I have been developing towards productive online practice. Instead, I would like to welcome you to the intimacy and the atmosphere of an online class while inviting the continuation of your own ‘haptic practice’. To do so, I am using material from the first online class I offered the postgraduate actors in training of the MA Acting course at East 15 Acting School. It is how we began the second term of studies based on the skills developed through the in-person, yet physically-distanced, classes of the previous term.

I choose this class for several reasons. First, it carries my questioning of whether the boundary mentioned above would be crossed: will the actors manage to connect? Both electronically and with the taught material. It also offers a glimpse to how I have been playing around with technology adding the use of a second camera, combined with exploring ways to effectively disseminate the taught material through the screen. For instance, in the case of this class, I quickly share a ‘shape’ of the exercises’ structures before witnessing and facilitating the actors’ own studies.

From cellular contact to cellular text

The exercise from the class I introduce here is called Cellular Text and is inspired by the practice of cellular touch or contact at a cellular level in BMC® and IBMT somatic movement practices. It is part of my work with the actors on multiple ways towards the embodiment of text as part of their acting module on Shakespeare. Most importantly in relation to the project ‘From haptic deprivation to haptic possibilities’ discussed in these posts, the specific version of the exercise includes the study of what can arise when, due to the circumstances, partner work turns solo.

As you can read in this post in which I outline a brief workshop for the TaPRA 2016 conference: ‘The [Cellular Text] process is [normally] developed between the actor-mover and the actor-witness and it is an active dialogue that focuses on the support of the actor-mover’s exploration through the shared visualization of the cellular metaphor’. The basic quality of cellular contact is that it does not intend to change, to guide, to direct, to press or push; it is simply a membrane to membrane contact that aims at ‘listening’.  

And it turns out that when this subtle ‘listening’ through points of contact practice is modified as solo work some new exciting observations can emerge. Apart from managing to cross the screen boundary, actors noticed they could develop fuller agency of their physical expressions, awareness of embodied gesturing when moving with the text and solutions to the ongoing acting question ‘what do I do with my hands?’.  

In my witnessing and reflections as an educator, I find the necessary alteration of the practice due to the online context very insightful when it comes to the questions around negotiating and learning through/from touch included in the end of the first post of this series. So I am wondering: what if this self-practising contact remains as the first stage of the exercise even when the physical distancing guidelines are lifted? Could this introductory shift offer a productive preparation towards more aware partner work and collaboration?   

For your practice

In order for you to develop your own practice and insights regarding these questions, this time I use a video (5:31) and an audio file (7:50), both with added captions if your click on the CC option on YouTube.

The video is a brief introduction to the structure of the Cellular Text exercise and the audio moves on to my verbal witnessing of the actors’ diverse work. Both files come from the Zoom recording of the same class and for reasons that have to do with the sensitivity of the context they focus on my input to the process instead of the dynamic interaction with the actors in training. Nevertheless, I have not edited the files and I am choosing to use these instead of recording separate material for this post to maintain an alternative documentation of the educator-learners dynamics.

Acknowledging that in comparison to the synchronous class I cannot respond to your own experiences through my active witnessing, here is how I would invite the development of your own Cellular Text practice.  

Step 1: Choose a piece of text you would like to study in an embodied manner. It may be an acting monologue, a poem or a song. For my quick sharing of the exercise’s fluid structure in Step 4, I use extracts from the Nurse’s prologue in Euripides’ Medea as translated by James Morwood (1998).

Step 2: Designate your movement space and clear it up from any clutter. Choose where you can put your device so you stay connected with the material without losing your comfort. If needed, you may wish to have a copy of your text available nearby, maybe on the floor or somewhere you can reach it with ease.

Step 3: Arrive to a state of present attention by using the connection to your breath and the ‘brushing’ of your skin, as given in the first four paragraphs of The study section in the previous post.   

Step 4: When ready, click on the video below. Feel free to respond to the way you are receiving most helpfully the offered information. You may wish to start developing the exercise as I am sharing its ‘shape’ or you may observe how it comes up in my expression before focusing on your own study. As I tend to repeat, please bear in mind that I am only sharing the fluid structure of the exercise, not how it should come up for each one of you. I am using the term fluid structure to highlight that each actor-mover’s expression of the exploration can be and, in a way, should be different.

In the video you may have noticed how I move quickly through the stages of the exercise, how I maintain throughout the awareness of the learners, how the quality of my voice shifts from the attention of the practice to the attention of ‘explaining’ the nature of the study, how I am louder than needed as I am afraid that I may not be heard, how mistakes organically come up as my primary concern is not to take up the learners’ time, particularly within the revisited duration of the online class (1 hour and 30 minutes instead of the normal 1 hour and 50 minutes).

Transitioning to the screen of my laptop I continue with my verbal witnessing included in Step 5 as an audio file. By listening to my input, you can observe once again shifts to my witnessing voice, how I develop my responses in relation to the actors’ explorations, how I allow moments of silent witnessing wishing to support each actor’s fuller ‘self-listening’, how I genuinely motivate the actors praising changes in their physical expressions, how I offer individual input. I should add that for practical purposes the microphones of the actors are muted during the study. Yet, I manage to follow the unfolding of their work attuning to the qualities of their physicalities.

Step 5: Listening to my input, check if it is possible for you to become part of the narrative of the class (please note there is a change in the background noise when I switch to the microphone of my laptop at 1:34). Notice if you could stay connected during the silent pauses, the moments of exciting praising or when I am offering individual notes. Most importantly, feel free to stay at each stage of the exercise as much as you can and wish to, following your curiosity beyond the duration of the audio. The overall sequencing is I touch-I move-I sound/voice-I speak. And by recognizing that you are not really part of the class’s structure and educational intentions, feel free to move from the one stage to the other only when and if it becomes available.

Step 6: When your study comes to a conclusion, as suggested in the end of the audio, the final invitation is reflection. If written, allow the words to come up freely through the attention to your senses. Trust that they will ‘make sense’ and, as always, I would be very excited to go through your observations leaving a reply to the post at the bottom of this page.  

Many thanks for your time and practice!   

LIST OF WORKS

Euripides (1998) Medea and Other Plays. Translated and edited by James Morwood. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Haptic possibilities: practising physical contact as part of online actor training

  1. Dear Christina,

    Here are my observations:

    As I explored cellular touch with different points of contact, my hand came to rest on the front of my throat. From breath, movement, and sound I eventually added some text. I was drawn to repeat this process with my hand on my sternum, then on my solar plexus, and lastly on my lower abdomen. As my hand rested on each point of contact, I experienced a sense of ownership of my breath, my body, my voice, and then the text, in each point of contact, as though the words were mine. I focused on my experience rather than on what I sounded like.

    Eventually, I felt able to remove my hand from the last point of contact while maintaining the feeling of the contact. Gestures connected to the text emerged naturally. As I included my awareness of space, I felt connected to the skin of the space, as though the space were connected to me, rather than being “out there.” The text and gestures were part of me in the skin of the space.

    • Dear Kelly,

      How generous and kind of you to share your observations.

      I echo: ‘a sense of ownership of my breath, my body, my voice, and then the text’
      ‘I focused on my experiencing rather than on what I sounded like’
      ‘The text and gestures were part of me in the skin of the space’

      So helpful and so refreshing to move my attention through your words as I begin to reflect on documentation of the wider project.

      As ever, deeply grateful.

      My warmest wishes,
      Christina

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