Tabula Rasa, Neutrality and the Youth Theatre Movement as Part of Actors’ Education.

In 2015, I published “The Youth Theatre Movement as Part of Actors’ Education: A Finnish Perspective” within the pages of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training (6:3). I interviewed the students of the programme of acting studies of the University of Tampere, and the University of the Arts Helsinki, and some of their teachers, in order to investigate the impact of prior experience of acting in the youth theatres and in youth theatre education to acting studies in higher education. In the article I wondered how the students saw the role of the youth theatre movement in their personal growth, and what the teachers thought about the ways of acting and thinking about acting the students had at the beginning of their studies; and the myth of tabula rasa.

In this post I come back to the themes of the article, with a little help from Mikko Kanninen, University Lecturer in Acting at the University of Tampere, and his current BA student, Sofia Smeds, both of whom I know as practitioners with special interest in current developments in the field, and who were able to answer on short notice. I asked both of them to read the article and comment freely on it. What follows is their reply.

Mikko Kanninen:

In his essay “The Youth Theatre Movement as Part of Actors’ Education: A Finnish Perspective” Hannu Tuisku wrestles with the complex relationship between the youth theatre movement and the everyday problems in professional performer training pedagogy: Where does the training begin? Should the student first unlearn everything “wrong” he has learned or should the pedagogy build something on top of something already learned?

Tuisku describes very thoughtfully the complexity of the situation, methods and recent history of Finnish actor training in higher education. In doing so, Tuisku also brings out one of the core problems in the Finnish educational system: drama education does not have the same kind of established status as a school subject as music and fine arts do. This status has no relation to the fact that theatre is more popular in Finland than going to movies or Lutheran church. Theatre is THE national art form in Finland but it is not recognized in our state school curriculum.

The question of neutrality or tabula rasa versus the habitual, lived body is an issue we face almost every day in our work in acting studies in higher education. The article is certainly of use for us! It is also worth noticing that the phenomena the article is about has always been a significant part of the Finnish higher theatre education and the Finnish theatre “scene” but nobody before Tuisku has made any serious research about it.  

Sofia Smeds:  

I think that these questions about acting studies in higher education and actor training in the youth theatres are very important and interesting. In my opinion, the education of professional actors should always be based on thorough studies rather than opinions or interests of certain theatre professionals.

I think, what has helped me a lot in the first year of my acting studies in higher education, is my previous experience of studying in the university. A sort of experimental way of thinking, not seeking to know what is right or wrong, an ability to look at things in a critical way and accept the complexity of human experience and communication. I feel like these abilities have given me the opportunity to really focus my energy in all of the specific exercises that we explore.

I don’t think my previous experience in youth theatre or adult education college has left any bad mannerisms in me. I believe people gain mannerisms from their everyday life anyway, mannerisms that affect their acting, had they participated in youth theaters or not. In my case, I believe participating in both youth theatre and adult education college made it possible for me to be accepted into the programme of acting studies in higher education in the first place.

I have discovered that in our education at the programme of acting studies at the University of Tampere the focus is on exploring one’s own body as an organism that thinks, communicates and creates. And I feel that it’s very productive. In my opinion, the purpose of professional actors’ physical training is to provide different exercises, methods or tools to become aware of your somatic reactions, to explore what’s happening in your body, and finally, to be able to choose and use these reactions and physical changes to create any kind of theater art. The teacher, then, is not telling the student to use certain qualities of expression, but rather the teacher is providing the student the opportunity to find the millions of qualities and movements in his or her own body, so that he or she can make the choices and be the artist.

The pedagogy in adult education colleges (and in youth theatres), however, I think should be different from the one in the university. Usually, the aim in adult education colleges is to get accepted into a programme of acting studies in higher education, so the pedagogy should be adjusted to that aim, as in the university, the aim is to educate independent theatre artists.

For further consideration, I think the applying process of acting studies in higher education should be opened up, discussed and studied thoroughly.

Reflections on these two comments:

It seems the topic of the article is of interest, and despite being written a few years ago, something still deserving further discussion.

I think the idea expressed by Sofia Smeds, the need for accepting ”the complexity of human experience and communication” is indeed crucial in performer training, and in life. This attitude rejects the mystification of artistic creation in a way that easily leads to distorted power relations, situations where the teacher/director (or anyone) knows better but keeps it to him/herself. Or, in fact, he or she thinks s/he knows better but actually s/he only has an opinion, perhaps to be appreciated because it draws upon the experience of a long career, but there are other opinions. We could simply ask: What do you think? How do you feel? Or: How do I feel? All it takes is confidence on the shared journey of exploration, and a reasonable amount of self-confidence that needs no back-up from mystification or intentional blurring of things, to cover one’s back.

Also, the comment by Mikko Kanninen, on the fact that the questions posed in the article are all too familiar in the Finnish context but there has been no ”serious research” on them, is interesting. We could consider this question in the British, or any context, not only Finnish: Are there issues in a given context that are commonly met but sparsely investigated? If there are, why is this the case? What kind of shifts in power relations would it mean if we brought the issues in question into bright day light? It seems apparent that the applying process into acting studies in higher education is, at least, something to be ”opened up, discussed, and studied thoroughly”, as Sofia Smeds suggests.

A couple of questions come to mind that readers might want to comment on:

  1. Historically, in Finland, there has been tension between drama teachers in the general education system, and theatre professionals. Theatre professionals have suspected drama teachers teach “wrong things” that create mannerisms that are difficult to erase within acting studies in higher education. In its extreme, some of these professionals have suggested that it is better NOT to have theatre as a subject in the general school curriculum. Maybe this is due to the fact that, historically, school teachers in music and in fine arts have studied at academies of their art form but drama teachers have not, and are not assumed as representatives of the art form (which I think is an unjustified prejudice). Is this kind of tension only to be found in Finland, or is it also met in other countries?
  2. In the article, much is said about controversial opinions of the impact of prior experiences in the youth theatres to acting studies in higher education. The interviewed student actors think their experience in the youth theatres has mostly been an advantage in their studies in higher education while some of their teachers stress the difficulties in unlearning former ways of acting and thinking about acting. At the end of the article I concluded that prior experience may indeed create unfavorable ways of thinking about acting at least, but they contribute to personal growth in such a way that makes them utterly important. How do actor/performer trainers of today see the problem of mannerisms, or the habitus of everyday life, versus the ideal of neutrality or tabula rasa? Is the habitus of everyday life a solid starting point for training, or is there a need to change or modify it? Does the ideal of neutrality (despite its apparent impossibility) still persist?

Comeback to the Bench Game

Since the original Bench Game blog we’ve played the game around the UK, again in India with the 2017 ‘Indian Steam’ tour, and elsewhere on our travels. Recently I was in Milan performing one of our Prodigal Theatre shows “The Tragedian Trilogy” at Teatro Della Contraddizione. I also led a three day workshop at TDC’s school. The workshop examined characterisation techniques in connection to our show in which I play multiple characters. Changes of character are played within the action, in front of the (in-the-round) audience. In particular I was looking at character through the lens of Social Learning theory. In discussing social learning theory and communities of practice, Etienne Wenger describes an ongoing process in which learning and identity are inextricably bound: The focus on the social aspect of learning is not a displacement of the person. On the contrary, it is an emphasis on the person as a social participant, as a meaning-making entity for whom the social world is a resource for constituting an identity. (Wenger, E. 2012) I was intrigued to see if we could apply this theory to character creation.

In the context of the workshop, we looked at three processes. First we established what Wenger might describe as a ‘Community of Practice’. This is more usually referred to in dance training as a ‘shared vocabulary’. We agreed a set of normative behaviours, in this case principles of scenic behaviour. I ran an exercise we call ‘The Waiter’s Tray’ which focuses on group movement in a space. The Waiter’s Tray is a core Prodigal Theatre practice that begins with the simple work of evenly distributing a group where everyone is moving constantly, and then adds levels of sophistication to this through numerous additional tasks. Again, using Wenger’s terminology, we are agreeing a level of competence that unifies all the members in our community of practice. Simply put we’re working on the fundamentals of stage craft. Once a general level of competency is achieved and shared we can move on.

So in the second phase of the workshop we looked at individual behaviour as we worked on the physical construction of character. Here we start to build upon the shared, group practices – stagecraft or scenic behaviour – the agreed level of competences that make it possible for us to all be working together and inhabiting the same space together. We add a second layer of individual behaviours and these additional, personal, physical ‘tasks’ are what forms a character. Here we are moving from focusing upon the agreed competence that allows us to be considered a member of the community of practice, and we are focusing on the unique identity of the individual. As Wenger discusses at length, the interplay between the individual and the community is part of what defines identity. A community of practice will regard a particular person within that community as ‘an old master’ and another as ‘an apprentice’ based on their interplay and relationships with those individuals. Wearing a badge that says ‘old master’ does not in itself confer that status upon you, and this is critical when we think about playing characters because it moves the work of conferring status, for example, from the individual to the ensemble. Put simply, and as has been discussed by many practitioners many times, the king is made not by the actor announcing ‘I am the king’ but by the ensemble reacting to the actor as they would (or as their character would) to this particular king, now.

Having worked through the first day establishing a shared language of stage behaviour, and having then worked individually on developing and defining individual physical characters, we then looked at ways of bringing the two together. The participants in the workshop were not all working on the same production, and in choosing characters to work on they had not discussed a common genre or play script. Within the room I had eleven students each representing a character from a different source, and I did not discuss those characters explicitly with them. In a later exercise students spoke the names of their characters indicating to me that some as old as Greek Tragedy might be sharing the space with Brecht’s and Kane’s creations. Our work was focused on a process we term ‘listening’ in the company but which might be better understood here as perceiving or reflecting. The aim is for the actor to discern their relationship with the characters around them by discovering together how these characters can find a balance within a space. This work falls somewhere in between a pre-expressive language of sharing space purely on the principles of how an actor exists upon a stage, and the later dramaturgical work of setting a score of actions. In this stage we’re trying to find a way of interacting which is discovered mutually. It was in this part of the process that I introduced the Bench Game.

Looking around the TDC venue I couldn’t find a bench of the simple stye that we’d used so successfully in India, or the kind of generic block that we often tour with in the UK. Instead I settled on a set of treads – the absolutely generic three step rise that take us from stage to auditorium in theatres all over the world. It proved to be a great asset to the game. For starters, the potential for status games is increased exponentially when you add these few extra levels into the mix. In addition to sitting on the floor, there are three step heights to choose from and the back and sides of the treads offer great ‘leaning’ possibilities. To begin with we played the bench game ‘neutrally’ and as described in the original piece. We explored games of cooperation and non-cooperation, and we played with various numbers of players. We then went back to the characters we had developed and brought them into the game. Now, each player was entering the game both with the tasks that define ‘The Bench Game’ and another set of personal tasks which for them define ‘The Character’. There is of course a whole other set of articles to be written on that process of building characters, but as long as you are working with a defined physical characterisation the exercise should work. Taking one character from our Tragedian show for example, I know that in the character of Mr Elliston my feet and knees are turned in, my weight low, back forward with elbows out and chin tucked. My hands are held in fists with thumbs extended. My motion is sideways, like a crab, moving forward and backward only on the diagonal and my breathing is raspy, up at the top of the chest and in the throat. I don’t want anyone too close to me, but won’t hesitate to invade another’s space and I’ll stand my ground rather than give way. Its a character I’ve been playing for years, so I know this set of behaviours well enough that there is a particular rhythm to all of Mr Elliston’s actions. One of my main purposes in running this exercise was for students to start discerning the particular rhythms of their characters.

Essentially the Bench Game here was used to discover characters through a process framed by reacting, rather than acting. The results were fascinating and bridged us nicely into the third section of the workshop. From looking at group sharing of space, to individual characters, we were now looking at the role of the audience in jointly creating our characters. In the context of the workshop, participants formed audiences to each other as we worked in small groups. One character would enter the space, find a place to sit on the treads, and as they began to settle I’d send in the next. After a few goes I didn’t need to direct this, as the actors became very good at judging their moment to enter.

The bench game demands near constant movement, but with characters in play this becomes too repressive. The character must be given enough time and space to exist, or the demands of the Bench Game will overpower actors who are not yet fully familiar with their characters. So I borrowed from the late, great Torgeir Wethal (Odin Teatret), with whom I was led through a character exercise where, in order to restrain some of the wilder improvisational impulses exhibited by young and adventurous actors, he asked us to remain ‘Within the bounds of anything you might witness in the Doctor’s Waiting Room’. Obviously when we think about such a setting, there is still a huge range of activity, but its enough of a restraint just to slow us down a little and give us the space to observe what is actually happening. I always felt Torgeir used this particular setting in that improvisation because it was ubiquitous for an international group of actors, but also because within that context people tend to restrain themselves somewhat.

I also asked my students to ‘disguise the game’ from the audience. It is not the game we want to see, the game is a language through which we get to discern the characters. And so it went on. Very soon we added a chair set at a right angle to the treads, and raised the numbers from two up to three and four players. The interplay was fascinating. In this context the audience begin to focus on a very fine level of communication. The actors become concerned not with broadcasting their own character – its status, its habits, its behaviours – but in discerning those of the players around them. The layered activity of playing one’s own character, playing the game, and attending to the audience’s reactions requires this extended sense of ‘listening’ which is our object. By focusing on reactions distinct character rhythms also begin to appear.

When the work goes well what follows is something of a revelation. The tiniest stirring of a hand or foot or the smallest turn of the head, the eyes, can shift the whole balance of the space and a relationship between two or more characters can coalesce and disappear in seconds. The audience projects its own stories on to the action, too, and the listening actors perceive this level of reaction in the audience and attune themselves to it. To illustrate this, the final part of the game comes when we share a context not with the performers, but first with the audience. I say to the viewers ‘Let’s now watch these three players and see them in a sauna’. The players, however, have no idea of this. What follows is a bedroom farce of betrayals and secret negotiations. The actors on stage are still concerned only with their own characters, and the game, but the audience is in hysterics and the actors cannot help but be effected by this. When I ask the audience afterwards ‘What did you see them wearing?’ they all shout ‘Nothing!’. So a group of fully clothed actors are convincingly naked without even knowing it. In another round of the game we watch spies engaged in espionage, in a third its Lear dividing his kingdom. When we give the actors this context, the game is changed entirely. They cannot help but try to tell us ‘where they are’ or ‘what they are doing’ and it gets in the way of the purity of action that communicated their characters so clearly when we kept the context a secret for the audience.

This is another aim of the exercise: to illustrate the audience’s creative role in the game. Character, understood through this game, becomes more clearly a social construct. It is an ongoing interplay between the actor, their colleagues, and the audience. The bench game, or now, better, The Treads Game, provides us with a space in which actors can begin to discern their characters through the reactions of their colleagues and their audience. Rather than imposing a pre-existing notion of the character upon the space, they discover their character through a social activity in which the group collectively understands each character and each character changes and effects the group.

The Sensational Facts

In 2014, I wrote an article in which I explored the role of vision in solo, unaccompanied, un-scored improvisational dance performance. The paper proposed and situated a mode of solo ‘direct looking’ that can be practised as a means of training for solo dances which are improvised in performance. This calibration of solo ‘direct looking’ as a pragmatic training tool for the generation of choreographic material was positioned and contextualised through analysis of the aesthetic and socio-cultural values of the global training/performance practice of Contact Improvisation as well as various articulations of ‘direct looking’ that have also developed in post-1960s Western solo/duet/ensemble dance training models (Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 5 (1). pp. 31-44).

This Comeback relates to one small part of my original article – the reflections I made on Contact Improvisation’s inward orientation, which is intricately entwined with the use of vision – and my current interest in approaching the form as a mode of actor training in which an embodied appreciation of the energetic dynamics of give and take and an ability to maintain an open awareness that does not depend on vision may be cultivated. I will briefly relate an experimental teaching session that I ran in February this year, in which year 2 students on our BA (Hons) in Drama were introduced to the pragmatics and socio-cultural valences of Contact Improvisation through a tripartite structure of lecture, practical session and reflective writing.

The session took place in what is traditionally a 3-hour ‘lecture’ slot, but I wanted to challenge this theory-oriented, lecture and discussion format by implementing a more fluid tripartite structure; one that would segue from lecture, to practical experimentation to reflective writing and in doing so embrace and embody different modes of learning and knowing. I wanted the students to appreciate the socio-political dimensions of the form so that they could grasp the link between the desire for social change and questioning of the ideological principles that ruled over social, political and artistic fields that was characteristic of 1970s (and 1960s) American society and the invention of a form of movement that adheres to philosophies of socio-sexual equality and challenges stereotypical behavioural norms. Contact Improvisation was thus introduced as carrying particular socio-political values; this understanding reinforced by showing a clip of a performance which the students were asked to analyse in terms of markers such as the informality of presentation style.

I also needed the students to experience the form from inside; to attune to the tactile-kinesthetic exchanges that are at the heart of the doing of it. I wanted to see if the students could make experiential sense of what Steve Paxton meant when he said that contact improvisers should concentrate on ‘the sensational facts’ (Paxton quoted in Novack, 1990, p.82).[1] This statement – pointing to both pragmatic and ideological indices – was introduced in the lecture, and I was interested in then discovering whether any of the students would be able to consciously attune to their ‘sensational facts’ – to the feeling of the body as it gave and received weight, followed a point of contact, rolled, fell or found itself upside down. Once the session moved from lecture into practice, I therefore led the students through a warm-up which began by adopting the idea that the floor is a ‘partner’ so the students could initially work alone, concentrating on rolling, sliding and pushing movements before developing into slow falls into the floor and rolls back to standing. Students then transitioned to working with a partner, learning how to support and take weight, slide and fall through a series of simple structures. Further work on resisting or yielding to one’s partner was explored before the students were invited to improvise a longer duet, drawing on their understanding of the foundational principles of the physical laws of momentum and gravity that govern and generate their movement.

At this point in the session, I drew on Viola Spolin’s technique of ‘sidecoaching’, in which I called out ‘just that word, that phrase, or that sentence’ that would keep the students ‘on focus’ (Spolin, 1986, p.5). Phrases or questions were designed to encourage the students to attune to their ‘sensational facts’ as they improvised (also making an explicit connection between the lecture and practical component of the session). Questions such as ‘which parts of you feel soft or fluid, which hard or dense?’ and statements such as ‘notice your breathing pattern’, ‘sense your weight’ and ‘let your weight settle and accept support’, functioned as prompts for the students to consciously focus attention on the stirrings of somatic, bodily knowing. At times I asked the students to deliberately slow down as a radical shift in speed invites an even more heightened sensitivity to the tactile-kinesthetic exchanges. Encouraging the students to move with this kind of conscious attention to the subtleties of what Sondra Fraleigh calls ‘our body-self’ (Fraleigh, 2000, p.57) laid the foundations for the reflective writing that was to follow. The students were beginning to register the immediate moment of experience and were operating as active participants in the process.

I was aware of the challenge of the final reflective writing part of the experiment and curious about how the students might capture in words aspects of their experience of encountering Contact Improvisation for the first time. Fraleigh notes that ‘finding the direct and intuitive way to describe movement, affect, and our sensate proximity to others is at first daunting’ and the process of describing one’s immediate experience requires the student ‘to voice what is not initially discursive, but kinesthetic in nature’ (Fraleigh, 2015, p.21). In asking them to reflect on their experience and bring it to language, I encouraged them to write quickly and intuitively, ‘not listening to their internal critics’ (Fraleigh, 2000, p.56). The period of reflection also included a more speculative piece of writing, in which the students were asked to note down some initial ideas on how they might transfer what they learnt in the session to their work as actors and directors on other modules. This was to enable me to gauge further whether, and how, this movement form might be appreciated as a mode of actor training. David Zinder notes that the form ‘is one of the best ways…for actors to keep up improvisation/creative skills’ and that the form ‘is a must for anyone interested in any aspect of the physical approach to theater’ (Zinder, 2002, p.95, original italics). The more recent Actor Movement: Expression of the Physical Being (Ewan and Green, 2015) outlines some of the ways in which Contact Improvisation fosters ‘freedom through movement’ and confidence for the drama student (Ewan and Green, 2015, p.24). The reflective writing component of my experiment would hopefully add the students’ own views on how Contact Improvisation might be able to be applied to their studies in acting and directing.

The tripartite structure is one I would like to pursue further, as there were clearly useful links between aspects of the lecture – including viewing and discussing footage – and the students’ own practical experiments. There was a palpable sense of play, experimentation and enjoyment in the practical work, with a few students choosing to work in quite a dynamic register in following momentum and falling. Given that these students had never encountered Contact Improvisation before, nor had they had any significant grounding in physical training or exposure to touch as a medium of learning, I was impressed by their openness and curiosity. Additionally, the writings have given me some useful insight into the students’ responses to their introductory encounter with this form and the ways in which they were able to begin to transition from bodily to linguistic knowing.

Sample student responses

Calm – a bodily calm rather than my mind, I felt I had to be quite focused mentally

Heavy – I was surprised at how much weight my body could give over to my partner

Relaxed, open, spacious, released

Flowing & fluid – when we came to improvise the duet, I was surprised and impressed by how much myself and my partner flowed into and around each other

I felt very relaxed. Yet physically challenged. Basically it felt like a good workout

From a directing standpoint, I find the idea of experimenting with CI during my rehearsals interesting. I would be intrigued to find out whether it would open up my actors’ physicality and make them more fluid (especially in their interactions with the other actors) as I suspect.


Ewan, Vanessa and Green, Debbie. (2015). Actor Movement: Expression of the Physical Being. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Fraleigh, Sondra. (2000). ‘Consciousness Matters’. Dance Research Journal. 32 (1), pp. 54-62.

Fraleigh, Sondra. (2015). ‘Why Consciousness Matters’. In: Fraleigh, Susan. (Ed.) Moving Consciously: Somatic Transformations through Dance, Yoga, and Touch. Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Novack, Cynthia, J. (1990). Sharing The Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Spolin, Viola. (1986). Theater Games For the Classroom: A Teacher’s Handbook. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press.

Zinder, David. (2002). Body Voice Imagination: A Training For The Actor. Routledge: London and NY.

[1] Contact Improvisation is widely credited as having been ‘invented’ by Steve Paxton in 1972. As part of a residency at Oberlin College in Ohio, America, Paxton did a showing of some work he had been doing in a men’s class. The showing was called ‘Magnesium’ and explored how two bodies could negotiate the sharing of weight around an ongoing point of contact.

Still Pursuing Pleasure

For the first edition of TDPT I wrote an article called ‘The Pursuit of Pleasure’ (1:1).  It focussed on the rationale for locating pleasure at the core of a performer’s training practice.  Put simply, I suggested we structure our work so that it fills us with delight.  We should, I suggested, seek intrinsic delight in all our work, however challenging, rather than ‘suffering’ in the expectation of an anticipated outcome.  Learning, I suggested, is an intrinsically pleasurable experience.  It is useful to acknowledge that.

When I wrote the article in 2010, the training I run, ‘Self-With-Others’ (, was well-established and formed the basis of an MA course in Huddersfield.  Since then, three major developments have taken place that have caused me progressively to reconsider – and ultimately recommit myself to – the centrality of pleasure in my work.

The first of these is that I left the academy to return to a freelance life as a trainer, director and performer.

The second is that I developed a significant international practice directing, teaching and running residencies in diverse and complex contexts – urban and rural, professional and non-professional, culturally traditional and progressive.  This has offered me a rich opportunity to explore my understanding of training with a range of participants from very diverse backgrounds and with hugely differing ambitions and expectations.

The third is that I decided to set up my own School: The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre.  The School offers a ten-week intensive training.  It is unattached to any institution and unfunded by any cultural, educational or government organisation.  We run the School in low-cost economies (last year and this year it is in Greece) and we keep administrative costs to the minimum.  This means fees are as low as we can make them.  Still some are excluded on the basis of cost, inevitably, but there is perhaps a greater diversity – culturally and economically – than would be the case if costs were higher.  I’ve written elsewhere about my rationale for setting up The DUENDE School, and the pedagogical and ideological lineage I see it as being connected to:

As I now reflect on last year and prepare for the next iteration of the School, and as I recover from an intense visit to India, I wonder again about pleasure.

A few thoughts:

1.  Almost everywhere I work, people tell me that the devaluing of pleasure (and passion, playfulness, laughter) is a problem they see as being especially critical in their own culture and education system.  Repeatedly performers and teachers suggest: ‘We really need this work in Singapore/India/Australia/Greece…’.  Perhaps there is always a sense that people elsewhere are having more fun and working in more enlightened ways.

2.  Almost everywhere (this thought is not unconnected to the thought above), people have learned to distrust – even to despise – the value of their own pleasure.  People fret about ‘self-indulgence’ and continually, sometimes obsessively, seek extrinsic rather than intrinsic validation of their choices.  Frequently they seek to validate artistic choices by judging them against non-artistic criteria.  I wonder how much this is a reflection of an international/ideological devaluing of the status of art as something of intrinsic worth, and its replacement with an ideology of art-as-instrument, and artist as primarily a servant of extrinsic social objective.

3.  The deeper we dig into pleasure as an intrinsically valuable objective in our work, the harder the search becomes.  In the end – as the intensive experience at the School lays bare – if we acknowledge that we are pursuing a particular path because we want to (because it yields us pleasure), then we have to take unconditional responsibility for our own actions and choices.  We are not training because we have to, we are training because we want to.  In exploring, unapologetically, who we could be, guided by open acknowledgement of our desire, we discover our genius, our contribution, our ‘social’ role.  This demand for absolute self-responsibility leads almost everyone to a place of personal crisis.  Almost everyone breaks sometime during a training.  Pursing pleasure is not always enjoyable.  The centrality of pleasure in my pedagogy allows the person who is breaking both to smile inside her crisis and to chart a sustainable route beyond the encounter with despair that seems inevitable during a journey of growth.

4.  Almost everyone (including me) gets sick of the word ‘pleasure’.  It ends up feeling twee and reductive.  The two core questions of my training ‘What did you like?’ and ‘Why did you like it?” become a little annoying.  People start to ask instead: ‘What did I notice/enjoy?’ or ‘What excited me?’  This movement beyond the core word of ‘pleasure’ is personal to each performer and I welcome it.  I also – when things get tough – encourage them to return to the basic formula for personal and interpersonal reflection: ‘What did you like?’

5.  The centralising of the details of pleasure within reflection and feedback shifts the paradigm within which we work.  We are not working, we are laughing and playing.  I encourage unconditional acceptance of oneself and of others.  This is not about complacency or arrogance, it is about reality.  Unconditional acceptance of self and others in a reflective process, requires us to discuss what actually happened within and between us, not what we think ought to have happened.  It leads to analysis of real (inter)actions rather than discussion of how one wishes things had been different.

6.  The ‘permissive’ environment of training is, I suspect, the single most important thing I offer.  I have a rigorous pedagogy and I know the conceptual and theoretical context of my work. That’s important.  Nonetheless, perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to have the confidence to get out of the way, to encourage performers to laugh and enjoy themselves and to learn rigour and discipline for themselves.  If they do that, they will mostly learn what they need to learn.  I need to intervene only when occasionally it seems necessary.

The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre in Athens last year saw 19 women from 8 countries collaborate for 10 weeks with great joy, enormous discipline and significant results.  The first principle of the work, which became increasingly complex and challenging as each student dug ever deeper into her work, was ‘Pursue Pleasure’.  Not ‘Have Fun’, but ‘PURSUE Pleasure’.  It is an active hunt for intrinsic enjoyment.  As I reflect on the process and recruit a new cohort of students (there will be some men this year!), I wonder about my own pleasure.  I sit quietly and wonder if I want to run the School again.  After all, I’ve done it once, and there are always other things to do…

The answer is an instant and unequivocal ‘yes’.  That’s important.  Without my passion, based in my own joy, the work will be form without energy.  The School offers me (and my colleagues) a place of growth and research.  The curriculum will evolve for its second iteration based on a simple sense I (and my core collaborator) have about what worked – what yielded pleasure to us and to the participants – and what felt a little soulless…

In 2010 when I published in TDPT I was well aware of the problematic nature of pleasure.  Since then my perspectives have both become more and less complex.  The more one commits oneself to pleasure, the harder it becomes, because that commitment strips away all excuses and all self-pity.  Yet, paradoxically, things also seem simpler.  The more simply I pursue genuine personal pleasure – in an exercise, a production, a training programme, a career-choice – the better my work will be.  The difficulties of surviving outside The Academy notwithstanding, nothing since 2010 has really challenged that core principle.


Variations on a theme: Active Analysis at the “S-Word” symposium

The following post was written by David Jackson but due to IT issues was posted by the current Comeback curator Bryan Brown.

I intended to blog about The S-Word: Stanislavski and the future of Acting symposium soon after the event was held at Rose Bruford College on 18-20 March. I’m shocked to see we are already well into May and I’m only just sitting down to do it. I blame a blizzard of assessments, timetabling problems, teaching commitments and research events at the beginning of the summer term. Clearly, it couldn’t possibly have been my fault. So before memory fades any further, I put fingers to keyboard. At a symposium where three sessions run simultaneously (two panels and one work demonstration) delegates construct their own programme by picking from the menu of papers and workshops. Naturally, we follow a thread according to our own obsessions. So one of the key themes of ‘my’ S-Word was Active Analysis. I was originally taught Active Analysis by the late Albert Filozov, the celebrated Theatre and Film actor who trained under Michael Kedrov at the Moscow Art Theatre School. Filozov led the ‘Russian School of Acting’ summer schools that took place in Birmingham in the mid-90s. If it resonates with you, there is something about Active Analysis that fills practitioners with a missionary zeal, and I certainly went on to make full use of it as a professional actor and subsequently as a teacher in the conservatoire. My first article for Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, published in 2:2 (2011), documents my experiments with the technique in training and rehearsal at the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. I frequently use it in my current job as an acting tutor at the Birmingham School of Acting (BSA). The symposium was a rare opportunity to gain an insight into how other scholars and practitioners use Active Analysis.

The S-Word attracted an extremely high calibre of scholars in the field. Arguably all the leading Stanislavski experts in the English-speaking world were present, including Sharon Marie Carnicke (University of Southern California), Rose Whyman (University of Birmingham), Jonathan Pitches (Leeds University), Bella Merlin (University of California, Riverside), Maria Shevtsova (Goldsmith’s University) and Sergei Tcherkassky (St. Petersburg Theatre Arts Academy). Delegates came from all over the world, including Australia, India, Brazil, Mexico, China, Canada and the US, in addition to several European countries.

The programme for the first evening consisted of two keynote speeches, the first by Stefan Aquilina and Jonathan Pitches. Their topic was the transmission of Stanislavskian practice, not just to the obvious destinations of Russia itself, the US and Europe, but to additional territories in Australasia, Asia and Africa. They argued that practice is necessarily inflected by the individuals who engage with it and that this process is entirely consistent with the spirit of the Stanislavski ‘system’, since it is not and never was fixed or unitary. They concluded that it is a living thing that will continue to spread and develop in response to local conditions. The second address was delivered by Sharon Marie Carnicke, one of the most influential Stanislavski scholars in the world, a Russian speaker and expert in Active Analysis. She spoke eloquently of the importance of separating the principles of the system from the historical contingencies of the time. In her own practice, she has applied Active Analysis to situations undreamt of in Stanislavski’s era, including a motion-capture experiment designed to generate a digitised method of reading emotional expression and a performance of a post-dramatic text written by contemporary Russian playwright, Ivan Vyrypaev. 

The whole of Saturday and Sunday morning were devoted to a series of papers and practical demonstrations, with two panels and one demonstration running concurrently. The presentations I saw nearly always illuminated some area of the field in a stimulating and useful way. Stephane Poliakov’s paper was devoted to Stanislavski’s rich use of painting and drawing to generate the ‘obrazi’ or images that informed his set designs and ‘inner images’ of characterizations. Maria Kapsali and Sreenath Nair debated the strong influence of yoga on the development of the system. Two of the less obvious perspectives on Stanislavski dealt with the application of acting techniques in the classroom. Tamara Guenoun’s paper dealt with the use of drama therapy with troubled teenagers. Petronilla Whitfiled introduced new strategies for teaching verse-speaking to dyslexic students. My own paper proposed a novel way of understanding acted emotion, by linking the Stanislavski-Vakhtangov concept of ‘affective emotion’ with Antonio Damasio’s hypothesis of the ‘as-if’ body loop.

Active Analysis was addressed in both formal presentations and workshops. Jay Skelton’s work demonstration explored the integration of Active Analysis with Viewpoints. Knowing little or nothing about Viewpoints, I was curious to see how it might merge with a method that is one of my areas of expertise. Skelton’s session bore little resemblance to anything I would recognise as Active Analysis – which I hasten to add is simply an indication of how the same or similar practice can develop in completely different directions. John Gillett’s popular workshop posed the question, is Active Analysis relevant to Shakespeare? Although I couldn’t attend Gillett’s session, I was intrigued by his research question, as I regularly use Active Analysis in the rehearsal of classical text. The final plenary session was introduced by a documentary made at the University of California, Riverside, about Bella Merlin’s use of Active Analysis. After the screening, an informal conversation with Sharon Marie Carnicke made it clear that her use of Active Analysis was different from all of these models. So my closing reflections were dominated by the thought that an apparently simple technique in the hands of a relatively small cross-section of practitioners can generate very diverse practices and performance outcomes. This observation corresponded with some of the themes that emerged during the weekend. Throughout the symposium, three ‘witnesses’ were stationed in each of the three conference spaces and reported back to delegates at the plenary event. The principal issues they identified were:

  • The transmission of practice and its assimilation into a wide range of cultures
  • Separating the durable principles of acting from ephemeral theatre fashion
  • An appreciation of flexibility and diversity rather than a dogmatic view of the Stanislavskian tradition
  • Cognitive perspectives are often interesting, but how will they affect practice?

The system is now well over one hundred years old. If Stanislavskian practice is to continue to survive and develop into the 21st century, it is essential that it is subjected to a continual process of review and renewal, at conferences, in the studio and through the literature. As I post, two new S-Word events have just been announced: “Translating the Art/The Art of Translation” will be held in June in London and a Spring 2017 Conference will be held at DAMU Theatre Academy in Prague. It’s too soon to tell but as the “S Word: Merging Methodologies” Conference grew out of the conversations had at this future of acting symposium, it may just be the future event needed to specifically address variations on the theme of Active Analysis – there’s plenty more debate to be had on that topic.

David Jackson, 26.05.15

Contact Improvisation and actor training


My article “Contact Improvisation to Scene Study: Authenticity in Word and Deed” (2012) explored the use of C.I. (contact improvisation) in actor training. The following one minute video shows an example of a CI session between actors Jacob Dresch and Claire Edmunds during a training session concentrating on the use of counter balance.

Drawing on mime, modern dance and dance/theater explorations and expanding through 30 years of studio work with actors, this use of C.I. in actor training releases the physical/emotional honesty of actors. This is a training of energy and weight exchange in which the ultimate goal is kinetic and intimate responsiveness to a partner. The playful, dynamic and exhilarating shifts of counter-balance that characterize this work are reached through the practice of contact improvisation. Basic tumbling, energy exchange exercises and partnering dance lifts are its fundamental building blocks. Text may also be used in a contact session and this allows the spontaneous physical language of the actors’ bodies to parallel the spoken dialogue. Without consciously imposing objectives actors inter-relate spontaneously, dynamically and elegantly; and the outcome is an imprinted ability to deliver emotional and physical honesty in a scene. Counter-balance Theater (my physical theater company) uses this technique to train performers within the company, in classes at UCI, and in workshops for the wider public. The physical techniques in leveraging, complicit interchange and trajectory of motion, are used to create the imagery scored in the Counter-Balance scripts.



‘Crisis’ Revisited: Re-entering Dark Voices in Revolt

In 2013, an article that I wrote called Dark Voices in Revolt was published in the TDPT Journal (vol. 4(3), 2013, 360-380). The article discussed the application of existing Oriental and Occidental voice and movement methods (the term Physio-Vocal, to me, captures the exact essence of voice/movement integration practice and theory) in order to ‘discover’ an alternate to the multifaceted area of the voice in performance pertaining to the notion of ‘crisis’. Simply put, ‘crisis’ may be defined as an emotionally significant event (which possibly has negative connotations attached to it), an unstable situation, and so on. Throughout our investigations, training, performance practice and research, we came to the conclusion our work was categorised into three forms of ‘crisis’: physical crisis, conceptual crisis and vocal crisis.

Physical crisis is a situation where the body is engaged in a challenging position, for example, it may be off balance in a moving or static state, moving dynamically through the space or placed in a position where the abdominal muscles are engaged to keep the body upright or in a stable position. Through these physical states, the performer must engage in various voice work. Conceptual crisis is a term (and practice) that is largely influenced by  the philosophies and practice of Butoh dance, for example, exploring the illogical, absurd with the underpinning notion of ‘revolting’ against the convention. Of course, Butoh means one thing to one practitioner, and another thing to the other. It is not a method, which makes it quite difficult to pin down. Vocal crisis is a term given to when the use and semantics of the voice is extended, amplified, enlarged beyond recognition to depict the primordial, preverbal and representational significance of the inner contained energies expressed through sound.

Continue reading

Comfort: The first step towards an intercultural and bespoke training regime

In my article ‘Dance training in Bali: intercultural and globalised encounters’ [5 ( 3), pp. 291-303] I discussed the changing approaches to the traditional world of Balinese topeng, which refers to the masked, dance –drama of Bali that is performed within a ceremonial context. (My short film gives a degree of context to the genre).

In contrast to a purely ethnographic documentation of this training which the article fully details, I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond and ‘come back’ with a more personal and embodied perspective which centers on the challenges, obstacles and difficulties that I have faced in learning topeng and how I have overcome them by devising a more bespoke training suitable to my body, cultural understanding and abilities.

Whilst I can technically ‘do it’ however much I can theoretically understand and appreciate the qualities of energy in the dance, as articulated by the Balinese, as a non-Balinese person I am unlikely to realise the potential of full embodiment and achieve something akin to taksu, the divine charisma that artists aspire to.

On a less culturally ambitious level I am unlikely to achieve great success as I am following a training regime designed for a younger, nubile, pre-teen boy body which is somewhat difficult to follow.

The challenge is to configure an appropriate training that can re-situate a specific performance technique within a wider intercultural analysis. This integrated training may enable a richer, deeper, more comfortable approach to dancing the traditional choreography of topeng. By seeking comfort in the gesture, being ‘in dialogue’ with the choreography means I can actively visualise the (dis)comfort, stop –pause- change and reassess as necessary. In this discussion of comfort, there is a paradox because Balinese dance is by nature difficult and virtuosity is the aim. Therefore comfort is never to be replaced or confused by making the gesture ‘easy’, however easefulness can be sought so that the dance ceases to be painful. Seeking comfort during training may compromise one’s gestural or expressive potential in performance, but it does promote actual enjoyment of the choreography, which in turn expels delight in the dance. I therefore experience on occasion what Fraleigh calls ‘intrinsic dance’ which she describes as a state of ‘pleasure we feel in our bodies when we are in our own flow of being, moving for the dance and not to please others’ (Fraleigh 2000: 58).  Enjoyment and delight, is indicative and closer to the higher qualities of ceremonial performance as described by the various Balinese levels of attainment (Ruben and Sedana 2007: 125-126).

This one, simple change in perspective has developed into a far more process driven approach to my topeng training which is based on somatics; and beyond the scope of what I have space to write here. All I can say is that this has enabled a shift from the Balinese pre-occupation with the spirit of the mask with a renewed interest into the potential ‘life force’ of my body.

Fraleigh, Sondra. (2000) ‘Consciousness Matters’, Dance Research Journal, 32 (1), pp. 54 – 62.

Rubin, Leon and Sedana, I Nyoman. (2007) Performance in Bali. Abingdon, New York: Routledge.