Phillip Zarrilli: His Intercultural and Psychophysical Actor Training

Fig 1. Phillip Zarrilli (1947 – 2020)
Photo: courtesy of the Phillip Zarrilli estate

Phillip Zarrilli was a theatre scholar, teacher, actor trainer, actor, director and dramatist with particular specialisations in intercultural performance, actor training and contemporary acting. His life-long work took many different shapes as he wrote, taught and created work extensively around the world until his final days.

Zarrilli went to India initially to research about kathakali dance-drama in 1976, and between 1976 and 1993, he lived there for a total of seven years during which he trained in yoga and kalarippayattu. Under the guidance of Gurukkal Govindankutty Nayar of the CVN kalari, Zarrilli was the first non-Indian to receive the traditional pitham representing mastery in kalarippayattu and was given the official status of gurukkal. In 2000, Zarrilli opened the Tyn-y-parc in Llanarth, Wales, the first kalari outside of India, where he held annual intensive Summer training until 2019. When he was invited to take over the Asian-Experimental Theatre Programme at University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1979, Zarrilli learnt taiqiquan from his predecessor A.C. Scott. Putting together yoga, taiqiquan and kalarippayattu, Zarrilli shaped a psychophysical training for contemporary actors.

Zarrilli’s training and theatre practice was intercultural and psychophysical in nature. The rich diversity in nationalities, cultures and generations are not only inherent in the make-up of the training but also evident in the international community cultivated by his work and generosity. In this tribute, we would like to reflect on what we learnt as Zarrilli’s students and collaborators focusing on the training as we experienced it.

Fig 2. The Tyn-y-parc CVN kalari/studio: the puttara where the guardian deity of the kalari resides, incense burner, oil lamp, and pitham where past gurus sit, with the flowers as an offering freshly picked by Zarrilli from his garden. Photo by Jeungsook Yoo.

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Reflections on Psychophysical Actor Training

Drop in.

On the inhalation, we’ll begin…

I know the sequence of movements. I no longer have to think about them as I once did. Instead my body simply remembers. It knows what to do.

Yet, this training is still as fresh, as new and undiscovered now as it was then. As my body has learnt the movements, I have become free to begin to explore the practice itself. Each breath sharpens my focus. Rather than pre-empting what is to come next, I allow myself to exist in the present. To explore the nuance of each movement.

How I perform it today is different to how I performed it yesterday. My connection to dantian, my awareness… all of these elements are reset each time I train. I start each session from a point of curiosity. What will I discover this time? What will I begin to understand today that I didn’t understand yesterday?

Exhalation. Sustain, sustain, sustain…. Inhalation.

Location. Location of the breath in the body. Location of your focus as you execute each movement. Location of the training itself.

In Exeter, we had the large Studio in which to train. Ample space in which to fully perform each action. A shared space with others, creating a shared experience, connection and understanding. All the while, we were led and mentored by Phillip’s calming presence. His watchful gaze, noticing the tiniest of details.

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Phillip Zarrilli — Kaite O’Reilly’s Letter

Below I have posted a letter from Kaite O’Reilly regarding the recent passing of Phillip Zarrilli. While this may not be news to some of you, I wanted to pay tribute to Phillip on this platform in the most fitting way. In the coming months, we will be posting reflections on Phillip’s work from some of his alumni, and if you would like to contribute, please feel free to comment on this post or contact me at jimmyacademy@gmail.com if you would like to write a stand-alone post from your own perspective. Rest in peace Phillip.

Kaite’s Letter:

On 9th March 2020 when Phillip received the news from his oncologist that the cancer he had been living with for fourteen years had begun to ‘seriously party’ (his words) he said to me ‘this is our last adventure together.’

I have been so fortunate, having this great mind, this gentle and generous man as my companion in so many ways – loving, working, living, travelling, thinking, writing and making performance alongside him for twenty one years, with and without The Llanarth Group. The journey may continue, but now it is in parallel, perhaps, not our accustomed hip-to-hip together.

Phillip died on 28th April 2020 at 13.52 UK time. He rode out on a breath – like so many times in his teaching he spoke of riding the breath to that moment of completion at the end of exhalation – the space in-between at the end of one cycle before the impulse of the next inhalation begins. This time came no inhalation.

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‘Seen But Not Heard’: Some thoughts on the actor’s aesthetic labour six years on

MA Physical Acting improvisation, University of Kent (2019)

This is a 2020 response to my article ‘Seen But Not Heard: An embodied account of the (student) actor’s aesthetic labour’ (Mitchell, 2014), made available as open access as part of TDPT’s 10 year anniversary celebrations.

Six years after this article was first published, the thing that strikes me is what I find in the title. ‘Seen but not heard’ was my effort to create something brief and memorable for the potential reader, and in choosing it of course I was thinking about all the ways in which an actor’s body is put to work (and put at risk), in a tension between business, art and the personal which we often see but rarely discuss.

What I didn’t reflect on so much at the time was where that phrase comes from: the old saying, ‘Children should be seen and not heard’. This English proverb dates from the 15thcentury, where it was originally directed primarily at young women: ‘A mayde schuld be seen, but not herd’ (John Mirk, ca. 1403)[1].

This opens up a couple of things for me that I don’t discuss in the article, but which I think continue to be important:

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An Actor in Training – Endings and Beginnings – Part II

By Harri Pitches

This is the second of two posts that return to the serialised account of a First Year BA Acting student at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS).  It is a first-hand account of the experience of a student emerging into the industry from three years of sustained actor training.

After RCS

We graduated as the BA Acting Class of 2019 on the 4th of July, alongside alumnus and Honorary Doctor, Richard Madden. Rubbing shoulders with one of the high-flyers from our course on the day that we were finally unshackled and let loose upon the world to seek our fortunes was a most strange feeling. There we were, standing proud, smiling and chatting to someone who represented the peak we could aspire to, just as we were now embarking on the odyssey ourselves. Drama school prepares you for untold challenges as an actor, but there is no etude or vocal warm-up that can get you ready for the daunting mystery of life after the cosy bubble of higher education. I spent my graduation day utterly elated in celebration of everything I and my classmates had achieved, but I was not without fear and anxiety for the future – while it was a wonderful, freeing feeling to escape the shallows of RCS, the ocean beyond seemed unfathomable. It was only when feeling this uncertainty that I was able to reflect on how I felt in the weeks before I started at the RCS – I left my high school with the same sense of foreboding for the much larger pool of fish I was about to enter. However, three (all-too-short) years later, I am a much more natural and confident performer, very much at home at RCS, and eager to learn more. It stands to reason then, that the new proving ground of working life will soon feel just as much like home as my alma mater. Now, as the weeks after graduation become months, I am slowly but surely finding my feet as a jobbing actor.

While I was in two minds about leaving drama school and entering the world beyond, I was blessed to have very little time to think about it, as I was immediately thrust into rehearsals for a children’s theatre production at the Shakespeare Rose Theatre in York. I completely appreciated my luck in securing acting work straight away after leaving RCS, and energetically and enthusiastically buried myself in my first proper job. I was the new kid on the block for the first time in three years, and I definitely felt that I had something to prove. My need to validate and cement myself as a professional in my first job was a very useful impulse – I conducted myself with utmost care, I was punctual, I was off-book within the first week, and I was  endlessly eager to demonstrate that my training had made me an efficient and indispensable utensil. I was the pen through which the director shaped the story, and it made my rehearsals deep, cerebral, and hard work. Although I have no doubt that I came off as a little green, and can probably afford to be less of a ‘Yes-Man’ in my next jobs, I think that the feeling of having something to prove brought enhanced attention to detail, sharpened performative senses, and a tighter control over my abilities. These are all qualities I would be loath to lose in any future acting employment, no matter how long I’ve been working or how comfortable I feel.

With the job itself came new challenges that were alien to me upon leaving drama school, revolving around the need to audition for Autumn and Christmas work while in the middle of performances for my current job. This was something I had never even had to think about during my time at RCS. For instance, in my third year, which was essentially theatre in rep, I would finish one performance and glide seamlessly into rehearsals for the next, having auditioned for parts in these plays many months prior. Not so in the real world. At its most hectic, we opened the play in York, I awoke at four o’clock the next morning to get to Norwich by eleven for a recall for a Christmas job, and then hopped back to York the same day ready to rouse myself at five o’clock the next morning to start the get-in for my current job. Needless to say, I was burned-out before I had even really begun. Although I was a waking ghost, appearing zombified and monosyllabic to my family in the mornings, I could only be grateful that I was busy enough to be so tired. This was all part of a learning curve that I was lucky enough to be following, as I began to navigate the new relationship between actor and agent. Indeed, in these first few months that I have been signed, I have sought to strengthen this relationship by taking a firm hold of each and every opportunity that has come my way. I think this is borne from a similar urge as my need to cement myself as a professional in the eyes of my director. It is a relationship that I am becoming ever more comfortable with, and I look tentatively but determinedly forward to the months to come.

I feel a distinct need, especially at the end of one of life’s chapter’s, to immediately keep the story going – to find a home outside the familial house, and to venture to new places beyond the boundaries of the home county and make them my own, in whatever small ways I can. Glasgow and Scotland are without question those places for me, and even while in gainful employment, I grew restless while living at home over Summer. The decision to move back up was not a difficult one – after all, I have spent the last three years building a life for myself up here. My friends, my partner, my agent, and indeed, the ethos that being at the RCS has imbued my life with are all part of this wonderful corner of the world.

As it stands now, I am currently ‘resting’ – living the indefinable and purgatorial state between acting jobs. It is not easy. I am a creature of endless internal disquiet, and only when I am working is some of my innate turbulence quelled. At school, it was easy to fight the pangs of jealousy that crept into my consciousness, for drama school is its own little bubble, and what happens inside it is inconsequential to life on the outside. It is harder now – the playing field is levelled, and thus there is little certainty of work in any creative capacity. I have found myself working as a bartender, more because I am in desperate need of something to do that will put an end to my ceaseless refreshing of the Spotlight Castings webpage than for any financial benefit. However, luckily, the aforementioned early morning dash to Norwich reaped the reward of an exciting Christmas job for which rehearsals begin in mid-November. So in reality, I have just over a month to spend in limbo before I tread the boards once more. I would do well to remember this when I feel the green-eyed monster crawl its way to my door again. I am sure that this period of uncertainty is not the last I will ever experience. It is the first of many, many, many more, and tackling it with gusto and honesty is perhaps the key to dealing with the others that undoubtedly lie in wait. What will be, will be, and as long as I am doing everything I can to keep active, engaged, and productive, then these periods will be fewer and further between. So. Lots to think about, and lots of time to do it. My drama school journey was hard; often disappointing and frustrating, but it was also magnificent and mind-blowing. It was long and full of doubt, both in myself and in the profession I had chosen, but it also built me up and strengthened my character and confidence in ways I probably don’t even realise yet. It was desperately sad, and it was the happiest I have ever been in my life. If I have learned anything in my time there, it is that you cannot have one half of things without the other – drama school is a balance; unsteady, swinging from floundering in confusion to clarity and assuredness in a heartbeat. It is how you decide to walk this tightrope that defines who you are on the other side of the chasm. For me, I think I can be proud of the person drama school, and indeed Scotland, has moulded me into. I arrived here at once a scared little boy, and at the same time arrogant, spiteful, and honestly, not very nice. I return here – for good – warm, kind, open, and as my Dad would say, ‘with a feeling of ease’. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Harri Pitches, January 2020.

An Actor in Training – Endings and Beginnings – Part I

By Harri Pitches

This is the first of two posts that return to the serialised account of a First Year BA Acting student at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS).  It is a first-hand account of the experience of a student emerging into the industy from three years of sustained actor training.

My final year of training has without question been my favourite. I had a difficult start to the year, battling very poor mental health, which led me to question my worth as an actor and my place in the cohort. Seven months later, I feel like a new man – I know exactly who I am, exactly what I can do, and, while I have not been without disillusionment in my third year, I feel like I am ready to leave The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) as a professional actor in control of their abilities practically and professionally. In this blog entry, I talk about this growth.

This year has been one full of opportunity to develop and hone my professional skills, from showcase, to meeting agents, to auditioning in the latter half of the final year. Personally, I feel that in terms of my professional conduct, I’m pretty good. I feel like I come across well in auditions and interviews; I’m always very polite and open without being disingenuous and labouring. I do feel that this want or perhaps need to be liked comes at the cost of confidence sometimes – I am not naturally a very confrontational person, and I default too often to subservience. It has often been reflected in the characters I’ve played at drama school! This will not serve me well when fighting for jobs or standing out to casting directors, or even as I develop my working relationship with my agent – I need to be more pushy and more ready to say what I want rather than to immediately compromise, or at worst, simply do what others tell me. This is an industry that will take advantage of me if I continue this sort of behaviour.

However, I do feel that my having an agent gives me a great opportunity to start to change this. I have been offered a chance to act with more agency, and will lose out if I don’t start doing this. My training has well prepared me for the working world; particularly the discussions with Casting Directors like Simone Perreira Hind and Laura Donnelley that have made me far more aware of the kind of attitude I need to have in interviews and castings. I of course don’t mean that I now need to be self-absorbed and bratty, but that I need to have a better grasp of my own worth in these situations if I am to be successful. Currently, things are going well – through auditions I have had I am now fortunate to have work set up for the whole summer and will graduate and go straight into a two-month long job in York. I strongly believe that without this ‘go-getting attitude’, I would not be in this position. I am improving in this aspect of the industry, but I know there is a way to go.

The job of an actor is not an easy one, and I feel like I have never been under any illusion as to how difficult it could be. I know that I will not always have work lined up, and so have sought to make myself as castable as possible in order to stay in work for as long as I can. Throughout my training, it has been made abundantly clear to me that the 21st century performer cannot be simply one thing; one must be multi-faceted in order to stay in work. Accordingly, I have developed my skills as a musician in my free time during drama school, and can now play three instruments; ukulele, guitar, and cajon – the latter two to a high standard. Where possible, I have used my talents as a musician in my own devised work, and in productions outside of RCS that I have been in while in training. I feel confident talking about myself as an actor-musician, and believe that this is what I need to be in order to be successful.

I have also used my training to hone my skills as a writer – I wrote a play for On The Verge Festival of New Writing at the Citizens Theatre in second year, and am continuing to write and devise new projects that I am eager to produce. From discussions with graduate actors and through talking with Vanessa Coffey, Professional Practice Lecturer at the RCS, I understand what to do to get my work seen in Scotland. I believe that the RCS has fully prepared me for a portfolio career; I understand that the nature of my work may change, and I may not always be an ‘actor’ in the traditional sense. However, I find that I do not particularly want to be – I feel most at home when I am stretching multiple creative muscles, and think that the challenge of employability will be best tackled by me while I am doing this. I am already seeing the benefits of this – over summer, I am first working as a deviser for a festival, and then as an actor-musician. I am keen to keep developing my skills in these areas, and my ideal career will allow me to do this.

I do worry that I have been at a disadvantage as an English actor training in Scotland, and that this will translate to my professional career. I want to build my career in Scotland and make use of the myriad of connections that training at RCS has allowed me to make, but fear that the Scottish-centric nature of the industry will not let me do this. For example, I have a strong ability for accents and can do plenty of specific Scottish ones. At my recent audition for the Dundee Rep, I was asked to perform specific Scottish accents, but I do not feel like I have been considered for Scottish parts with the same seriousness as a native Scottish person would be. I do however realise that my casting doesn’t exactly scream ‘Scottish.’ Regardless of this, I feel like Glasgow and Scotland is the place I want to be – the theatre scene is very exciting for new and devised work and there are a myriad of roles for multi-faceted performers like myself. I think I would be foolish to have spent three years making connections with acting role-models such as Dan Cameron and Finn den Hertog and not try to build on them. Ultimately, I just want to be comfortable and creatively fulfilled, and I feel like my training has set me up properly to achieve this. I am ready to take the leap of faith… and see what happens next.

‘Moritz to Fritz’ A Response to Performer Training Reconfigured: Post-Psychophysical Perspectives for the Twenty-First Century by Frank Camilleri

This blog post is based on a presentation for the Asian book launch of Performer Training Reconfigured, organised by the School of Dance and Theatre at LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore, 28 August 2019.

When I, Maiya, a performer-trainer-researcher focused on movement- and body-based approaches to theatre, started reading Frank Camilleri’s book, Performer Training Reconfigured: Post-Psychophysical Perspectives for the Twenty-First Century, I felt thrilled: ‘what comes next in this world of performer training?’ This is the first thing that the ‘post’ in the title suggested for me.

But then as I continued reading, I began to shift uncomfortably in my seat, ‘am I being asked to give up my commitment to embodiment as a primary point of departure both creatively and theoretically?’ The chair suddenly felt too hard, the back rest at the wrong angle, the air conditioning too low, my breath shallow.

Camilleri assured me, the Lecoq-based creator, trainer, and writer, that his work is indeed a development of the psychophysical commitment in performer training. And then, instead of just being uncomfortable in my seat, I took up Camilleri’s challenge and thought ‘well, if I am uncomfortable here it is only because there is a chair to shift in, there is a floor for my chair to stand on, and there is an air conditioning unit to control the temperature which is high because I live near the equator’. Quickly I started understanding myself not as confined within the border of Maiya’s embodiment but as one of Camilleri’s assemblages, which he takes up from Deleuze, Guattari, and DeLanda. An assemblage is a network of dynamic relations and connections which encompasses physical embodiment but extend outwards. Where this network ends, I can’t quite see… And it keeps changing …

Camilleri’s post-psychophysical approach moves forward and outward theoretically speaking, using a variety of disciplines and voices to point toward an ever-expanding notion of what exactly is being trained in 21st century performer training. Indeed as Camilleri notes, for a long time performer trainers have expressed how training tools and environments are essential to the training process. Masks, sticks, suitable studios are all important details for the training process. Any trainer or trainee has also experienced it. When you have to ‘make do’ with non-optimal spaces or tools you know the line between when you can make a plastic Friday-the-Thirteenth-Horror-Movie Mask work in actor training, and when it just simply won’t do what a Sartori leather neutral mask can do. Camilleri addresses this, but he is even more bold and goes beyond what other trainers have articulated: he looks to broader training conditions and the factors that make those conditions possible, he takes note of the affectivity in the process that is constantly moving through, from, and around objects, people, spaces, and relations, and he anchors this web of relations in a recognition that nothing, absolutely nothing, exists in psycho- physical- affective or social- isolation. This is how he argues for a necessary turn to assemblage theory.

I find a deep kinship between this book and my own interests in intersections of body-based actor training and cognitive scientific approaches. Camilleri engages some of these, including the enactive approach, which I use to consider the cognitive dimensions of the Jacques Lecoq’s pedagogy in my book Enacting Lecoq (2019). Through enaction, I argue how Lecoq pedagogy – and by extension, many performer training practices – are processes that transform our bodymindworlds to fundamentally cognitive ends. In this instance, I also see ‘cognition’ as a capacious category in line with enaction.

In my own journey to take seriously Lecoq’s commitment to movement, along with the enactive approach’s commitment to cognition as fully embodied, extended, embedded and affective, I had to drill down into many discourses and theories of embodiment. While the enactive view takes embodiment as a core tenet, scholars disagree over whether it should be a ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ embodiment. Matthew Bower and Shaun Gallagher[i] (whom Camilleri references) argue that a weak embodiment sees the body in an outdated conception of cognition, where corporeal software of the ‘body’, however important and active, fundamentally responds to the mental hardware of the ‘brain’. In this sense, even an active interest in foregrounding embodiment can bear the ghosts of Cartesian dualist bodies and minds. When they advocate for a strong embodiment, the body is the mind – the entire psychophysical unity makes cognition and makes mind. As someone who generally argues for a strong embodiment, I’ve realized that taking such a strong approach to embodiment opens up unexpected avenues.

If cognition is fully embodied, and knowing, doing, understanding, imagining, and learning are deeply related activities in an expansive holistic psychophysical process, then I would have to agree with scholars who suggest that reading is also an embodied practice, just as is training in so-called physical theatre practices. Indeed, if you follow the strong conception as far as it goes, humans can never escape embodiment. It is the only way of existing. If a strong embodiment is the human way of being in the world, then it cannot be limited to large physical movements, it must also include the fine-grained ways that we are bodies in the world – when we are still, when we are sitting at our uncomfortable chairs, when we are sleeping, when we are watching, when we are reading Deleuze and Guattari, when we are pondering even the most theoretical of theoretical physics. Or, most importantly to Camilleri’s discussion, when, like Fritz, we are writing in complement to studio work. The character of Fritz is Camilleri’s nod to Clark and Chalmers’s explanation of extended cognition.[ii] This explanation recounts a story about a man named Otto in comparison to a woman named Inga who both want to go to the museum. Inga simply remembers the way, where Otto must write down directions on a notepad because he has Alzheimer’s. According to the extended cognition hypothesis, the effect is the same because Otto has simply extended his cognition into the notepad. Camilleri playfully introduces this character named Fritz who is a practitioner and regularly writes journal-style about his practice. (Now, I don’t know about those of you others who have read this book, but I think Fritz and Frank have quite a lot in common…) He uses Fritz to argue that the studio work is extended into Fritz’s writing practice and should be understood as such. While Fritz purposefully handwrites with a fountain pen for a specific manual engagement with paper, even if he wrote on a keyboard, or like Stephen Hawking, used cheek movements to designate every letter, he is involved in an embodied activity. I’m not sure that we have found any living examples of escaping a strongly embodied condition, even if we are in some sort of fully technologically sustained state of extended cognition.

Camilleri is clear that the ‘post’ in ‘post-psychophysical’ refers to moving through and beyond the psychophysical tradition and discourse, rather than rejecting it. I do sense, however, that in the need to define and distinguish the ‘post’ part of the term, more attention is paid to how and why, ‘post-psychophysicality’ is different than ‘psychophysicality’. This is logical. What I wonder about in Camilleri’s turn, however, which I would be curious to hear more about, is just how the post-psychophysical exists because of and builds upon the psychophysical: how the ‘post’ comes into being through the ‘psychophysical’. Perhaps I am making Camilleri’s point about folks who are so committed to the psychophysical that we cannot see outside of it (me?). But as a person who has been trained, trains others, and continues to train myself, so far, I have experienced how we must address the complexity of performing by first circumscribing small tasks and issues, and then gradually collaging them together. This takes time. Activities to match breath and simple movement are not the whole picture, but it gives the performer a point of departure from which to develop. Of course there are countless other points of departure. To face the vast complexities of our interconnectedness may be overwhelming in practice – and there may be constraints on the human bodymind that keep us anchored in a kind of first-person perspective when initiating action. What if our profound interconnectedness and extension into the environment can only be experienced and made use of in bite-bite sized pieces? In other words, the psychophysical as a point of departure for action and for deploying agency has been extremely useful. In some philosophy of cognitive science, the question remains: is the human psychophysical body somehow the only agential point of departure for humans?[iii] 

I see one possible aspect of the post-psychophysical as a development of the mere psychophysical in this idea of taking a strong embodiment seriously, at least through an enactive perspective, with its grounding in embodied biological and cognitive processes. If you take a strong embodied cognition toward its limit, it actually goes beyond the limits of the flesh – it has to – the enactive holisitic bodymind’s cognitive apparatus emerges only from and through the entity’s interaction in the world – the extended space marked by Camilleri’s term ‘bodyworld’. Some enactivists like to quote philosopher Hans Jonas who suggests that life is in a constant state of ‘needful freedom’ where the entity only exists (it is free as a distinct entity) through taking what it needs to exist from its externality (the environment that sustains it).[iv] In a sense, I might suggest that finding yourself plop in the middle of assemblage theory is an inevitable consequence of the strongest commitment to embodiment there is – embodiment in inextricable entwinement with the environment. I’d like to know more about how Camilleri might trace this path.

This book is one of those rare animals that simultaneously engages with highly theoretical material – or ‘Theory with a capital “T”’ as I like to call it – while still retaining the in-the-trenches gravity that comes from an author steeped in lifelong practice. This is important to our fields of theatre and performance as many of us still fight to resist binaries of thinker and doer, scholar and maker, objective analyzer and subjective practitioner. One of the ways Camilleri accomplishes this is by providing a recurring feature: ‘tips for practice analysis’, or small practical exercises that engage a participant in the issues addressed in that chapter. It’s a way to remind the reader – you also have to ‘do’ to understand. This points to another aspect of the book that makes me hungry for more. On the one hand, Camilleri shows how training-as-assemblage may be considered to have always existed. On that view, we have just been slow to theorize it. On the other hand, it also feels like Camilleri is positing his post-psychophysical as a clarion call ‘Assemble!’ In other words, it feels like he is suggesting that by overtly acknowledging training as an assemblage that moves from, through, and beyond the psychophysical, we can envision and make something new together in the realm of performer training. Camilleri’s discussion on ethical approaches to performer training points in this direction. While this book is sweeping and attentive to the practical dimension, I want to know more – what is it like, or what has it been like for Camilleri to overtly develop a training system as assemblage? Does it look like anything beyond acknowledging what is already there and giving value to it? Or does that act of acknowledgment then transform the practice, transform the way practitioners think/move/act and train? In other words, at this moment, is the post-psychophysical descriptive or activist? I suspect both, and I am curious to know more about those details and their consequences. So if moving from bodyminds to bodyworlds, how, on the ground, in the studio, do we find purchase in an expansive new network way beyond the borders of our bodyminds? What does it create? Are practitioners overwhelmed by the new, expansive vista? How do we, in the act of performer training, take action in this new web of relations?

But I leave you with a short hand-written letter that I wrote I found from a fellow practitioner-researcher who makes theatre, trains performers, and writes about the process. I found it on 28 August 2019 when I was presenting this response to Camilleri’s book at LASALLE College of the Arts:

Dear Fritz,

Thank you for showing me how to assemble. I am enjoying it very much.

Now I have a new question: my training bodyworld is so vast that I feel paralyzed. What do I do?

Sincerely,

Your friend in post-psychophysical futures,

Moritz

PS: Here is a map from LASALLE College of the Arts to the National Gallery Singapore. I have the path memorized since I live here. You might need a map since you are new to the city. I’ll meet you there?


[i] Bower, Matthew, and Shaun Gallagher. 2013. ‘Bodily affects as prenoetic elements in enactive perception’, Phenomenology and Mind 4, no. 1:108–131.

[ii] Clark, Andy and David Chalmers. 1998. ‘The extended mind’, analysis 58, no.1: 7-19.

[iii] See Varela, F.J., Thompson, E. and Rosch, E., 2017. The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. MIT Press and Stewart, J., Stewart, J.R., Gapenne, O. and Di Paolo, E.A. eds., 2010. Enaction: Toward a new paradigm for cognitive science. MIT Press.

[iv] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The phenomenon of life: Toward a philosophical biology. Evanston: Northwestern UP.

Does History Matter?

If I am training myself or undergoing training, does the history that underpins the exercises that I do matter to me or have any meaningful impact on the efficacy of the training? Training typically takes place ‘in the moment’ and the immediate experience of the exercises is often what seems to matter the most. But what about the background to those exercises, their provenance and ‘heritage’? Can exercises come with baggage – either ideological, gendered, colonial or otherwise? And if so, how do we as trainers and trainees address that baggage and deal with it?

The S Word: Stanislavski in Context – Symposium at the University if Malta

Organised by The Stanislavski Centre and The Department of Theatre Studies (University of Malta) in collaboration with The University of California Riverside.

Dates: 5th, 6th, 7th April 2019

Venue: The Valletta Campus of the University of Malta, Valletta, Malta

Keynote speakers: Prof. Laurence Senelick (Tufts University)
Prof. Vicki Ann Cremona (University of Malta)

Co-conveners: Dr. Paul Fryer (The Stanislavski Centre)
Dr Stefan Aquilina (University of Malta)

Creative Adviser: Prof. Bella Merlin (University of California Riverside)

Following on from the past three successful editions of the Symposium, we are very pleased to announce the Call for Papers/Presentations for the fourth major event of The S Word project. Continue reading

Movement Training For Motion Capture Performance Part 3

    

Participants from the In-Character workshop sharing their devised character scenes

This post concludes my current journey of exploration of movement training for Motion Capture performance, specifically for Film and Video Games. In May 2017, I created a workshop series entitled Embodying Your Mocap and began running movement sessions that explored ways for the actor to become more receptive to a Mocap working environment. It would also prepare them for the type of physical awareness and performance work that would be required, based on the needs of the technology. During reflection upon completing The Virtual Body and Space workshop in September, I had discovered that participants were beginning to use their exploration of movement to connect with the psychology of characters that were starting to emerge throughout the session. Through this, I created the third and final In-Character workshop that would consist of exercises particularly focusing on ways to create and access character types and how certain movement tools could be used to help maintain thorough, connected and in-depth performances.

As mentioned in my first blog post, the first workshop was created and based around the movement components that I felt solidified a well-executed Mocap performance. In-Character was structured with the same objective where the workshop consisted of areas that I felt demonstrated a strong and embodied understanding of performance supported by clear knowledge of how it is read and transmitted through the technology. One of the areas explored had a significant focus on the breaking down and close analysis of physical components that would stem from, for instance, an emotion, a physical state or a neutral walk. This particular method was the starting point of the final product and worked backwards, discovering and identifying the working mechanisms of the performing body. This would allow the participant to knowingly highlight certain aspects of their physical work and adapt them accordingly to effect distinct changes to their performances. An example of this was evident in an exercise that explored stance, body shape and positioning. The participants were given a number of adjectives that described an emotion or type of personality and were asked to explore different physicalities drawing attention to their body outline, making an impression in the space and the silhouettes created (as seen in Image A). As they began working in pairs, they were then able to find positions that felt accurate and could then discuss how it looked and why the physical choices were made (as seen in Image B). Through the discussions and exploration, the participants could distinguish what specific physical components could define a type of character. They were also challenged to consider the data being captured from their physicalities, restrictions that may arise from a Mocap suit with protrusive reflective markers and then see how the choices made could be adapted but still have the same effect.

Image A

Image B

As a movement practitioner coming from a dance background, my practice has been deeply shaped by the notion that changes to the external can affect the internal. By this, I mean that I instinctively approach creative work by looking at the exterior body, such as form and shape, and work with its connection with the interior body such as mood and emotion. I thought this might be an interesting relation to work from, as it would enable the participants to experience a highly visceral and organic method that would then begin to produce productive and thorough physical performances. In the workshop, I used this as a basis to help create an exercise that looked at a simple pedestrian movement – the walk. I had dissected the universal sense of the walk into elements and instructed the participants to subjectively analyse their own walk. Once this was established, they then continued to explore different variations of a walk referring to these elements. For example, as seen in Images C and D, they combined weight placement with foot position, discovering what character(s) emerged and how this effected their full movement. They were also encouraged to consider the subtleties of their physical choices to begin to understand the detailed level at which the motion capture technology works from when capturing data from physical action and movement. It was essential for the participants to recognise the importance of how minor subtleties drawn from their performances could be manipulated and altered to transform a character’s physicality and expression. I felt it was also significant for the participants to allow their bodies to work articulately and with creative precision. Through this exploration, we were finding that there were efficient ways to access an organic psychological connection to emerging characters. One of the participants expressed that by focusing on different ways of using her breath, she was discovering that she would experience feelings and internal thoughts connected to the breath. It became clear that this could be useful for Mocap performance as a quick tool for character building effectively engaging with the character’s internal world and letting that manifest physically into the external world.

Image C

Image D

 

The overall intention of this workshop was to provide a space that allowed participants to immerse themselves into the characteristics of their created characters. This could allow them to remain “in character” and maintain the physical components that essentially create the foundation of their characterizations. Once this is established, it would then create a self-initiated process that the participant could further utilize when building more complex characters. This work, in conjunction with the previous workshops with areas explored on space, environment and basic technical knowledge, could be used as a device to help an actor enter Motion Capture work with clarity and basic understanding of how their physical creations work in relation to the technical processes. These workshops have further proven the creative and dynamic benefits of this type of movement practice for Motion Capture. Through the movement training I am developing, I aim to highlight the bodily elements of performance, opening up creative flexibility to invent identities, stories and worlds that can be executed and delivered through the technology and enhanced by the animation.

It is very clear that deeper knowledge of the mechanics of the technology is required in order to completely comprehend how a movement practice could strengthen and support character and overall motion capture performance. Therefore the next steps of my journey would suggest spending significant time in a Motion Capture studio. I believe it would be very informative to explore various levels of nuances within a type of physical performance and discover how this can begin to be translated into film or video game content. I would like to work closely with various environments and virtual settings using technology, such as pre-visualization cameras and screens. I’d use the material explored in the Virtual Body and Space workshop as a stimulus to further develop an understanding of the body’s relationship to space and assisting the actor to creatively maneuver and exist within a digitized world. I would also continue to explore character building techniques and adding context through the use of 360-degree camera awareness, Mocap suits and markers.

In conclusion, it is clear that the curiosity and interest in Motion Capture has considerably increased throughout the years through its expansive use within the arts (theatre, live art, dance, TV dramas). Also through personal experience in the last year, I have discovered a growing interest among artists just through running the Embodying Your Mocap series and teaching independently in institutions. On reflection, I look back on my initial enquiry where I questioned the acknowledgement of the actors’ work in this field. Through this the question arising now is whether the implementation of these types of movement practices will create a wider awareness of the performance work involved in Motion Capture. Consequently, will this affect the way the Motion Capture process is publicly viewed and in turn offer opportunities for the actors’ work to be further recognized, celebrated and awarded?

 


Photo Credit: Sarah Ainslie

Workshop Venue: PQA Studios (formerly The Poor School)

Reflections on the IPPT Ghent 2018

The International Platform for Performer Training (IPPT) provides a safe and supportive space for performer trainers and academics to share their research and pedagogical practices. It is organised annually and each year hosted by a different institution. The IPPT 2018 took place in Ghent, and was hosted by the KASK/School of Arts Ghent (Belgium). The theme for this year was Movement, with particular interest in the exploration of movement that does not directly relate to or derive from the European physical theatre tradition. Attempting to widen our understanding of movement and its use in performer training, we gathered to ask questions such as: ‘how does movement stand to dance or choreography’ or ‘how does movement stand to (spoken) language’.

Continue reading

Michael Chekhov: New Pathways, Research Project Report

In 2013, Theatre, Dance and Performance Training published a special issue (4.2) on the work of Michael Chekhov, edited by Franc Chamberlain and Andrei Kirillov with Jonathan Pitches. It included interviews, conducted by Cass Fleming, Sinéad Rushe and me, with prominent UK-based Chekhov practitioners Graham Dixon, Sarah Kane and Martin Sharp (‘Interview: the MCCUK Past, Present and Future’). Between them, Dixon, Kane and Sharp had been in responsible, in 1995, for setting up the Michael Chekhov Centre UK, now reconfigured slightly as Michael Chekhov UK, a network of artists ‘who are inspired by and working in a variety of ways with the ideas of the Russian actor, director and teacher, Michael Chekhov.’ (http://www.michaelchekhov.org.uk/).

The interviews grew out of a series of conversations between us, as two generations of practitioners working with Chekhov’s technique, at what felt to us to be a transitional moment in the history of Michael Chekhov’s work in this country (for an account of that history, see Jerri Daboo’s chapter in Jonathan Pitches (ed.), Russians in Britain: British Theatre and the Russian Tradition of Actor Training (Routledge, 2011)). Following the publication of these interviews we decided that there was a compelling case for research that built upon historical analyses of Chekhov’s ideas and explorations of his legacy in contemporary actor training towards a consideration of the future of his technique.

To this end, in 2013 we began a project asking, ‘How can Chekhov’s techniques be used in the 21st century in contexts other than actor training designed for the interpretation of existing dramatic literature?’ We undertook practice research into the use of Chekhov’s technique as part of theatre-making processes that blur conventional distinctions between writers, actors and directors, and took his work into areas of theatre practice he had not taught himself: voice, movement, dance, design, applied theatre and therapeutic practices. We also initiated conversations with Chekhov practitioners in other parts of the world.

That project came to an end in September 2016 with an event at Goldsmith’s featuring over 120 participants and the production of an edited collection: Michael Chekhov Technique in the Twenty First Century: New Pathways (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama), edited by Dr Cass Fleming and Dr Tom Cornford, which will be published in 2018. The attached report offers an overview of the research undertaken to date and of our future plans. We hope that you will find it stimulating and encourage you to engage either with us directly or with Michael Chekhov UK here.

Please click here to download a copy of the New Pathways, Research Project Report.

Dr Tom Cornford

Lecturer in Theatre and Performance, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

 

Movement Training for Motion Capture Performance Part 2

This post continues to discuss my journey as I run a series of movement workshops for actors in preparation for work in Motion Capture. I have completed the second workshop and the following will be documenting my process and reflection.

When I originally began planning the overall content of the Embodying Your Mocap series, the idea of exploring virtual environments was not a significant part of the preparation process until after I had completed the first phase of the taster workshop. After some reflection, I had realised that a substantial part of the core work I had begun to explore had been centered around Space. However we had only used the explorations as a tool to encourage physical awareness of the working environment. I decided this needed to be explored further and with direct references to realistic shoot considerations in a MoCap context. I wanted to delve deeper into the relationship between the body’s movements and its surroundings, considering both actual and virtual space. This led to the enquiry of ‘how could an actor connect with an environment that could affect or enhance their physical performance?’ I was intrigued to discover ways of how they could transport themselves to an imagined location/virtual scene and what physical implications would emerge.

The second workshop of the series was entitled The Virtual Body and Space. It was important to put an emphasis on the body in relation to the virtual world, and in particular within the context of Video Games but also to indicate the prominence of space as a performance factor as well as suggesting the possibility of exploring the specifics of ‘virtual space’. The workshop was divided into two sections; the first consisted of a detailed exploration of specific video game environments I had created. I wanted the participants to be able to imagine an environment but more importantly the elements within it. In one exercise, the participants were given ‘Environment Factors’, where they were to discover their physical connection to the imagined spaces and experience how this affected their body and movement. In Clip A, you will see the different movement qualities that were created through this exploration. This would later inform more complex character and performance choices.

 

Clip A

 

The second section of the workshop was focused on introducing Idle Poses* and encouraging an embodied understanding of this technical procedure. With it having quite a technical focus, I thought it would be interesting to use a game for the participants to experience a physical state of readiness. I decided to use ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’ as a way to engage the participants in the physicalisation of readiness. By creating a playful moment, it allowed them to begin to discover a particular essence that was natural and free of inhibitions. As seen in the photos below, the participants began showing evidence of a physical state that was open and responsive with focus on their stance, centre of gravity and placement of breath.

I wanted to use this physicality as a starting point for the participants to develop Idle sequences. In the following exercise, they were asked to put together a sequence of movements or actions that would begin and end with the same Idle Pose. This is similar to a direction an actor would be given in an actual MoCap shoot. In Clip B, some participants can be seen performing their Idle sequences incorporating Environment Factors and movement transitions (such as walking, running, creeping, changing of direction). Through repetition of the sequence, the participant would find proficient ways to move in and out of their Idle, developing a seamless, direct and natural physical performance method.

 

Clip B

The workshop participants generally felt that the session allowed them to access their own movement and discover particular movement qualities in a different way. They were able to lay the foundation of character creation and its development using an in-depth and analytical approach but also developing an effective and efficient physical language that enables flexibility within performance work. This supports and strengthens my initial views on movement training benefiting MoCap performance through its applicability. It seems that the participants also picked up on this and one of them commented that the workeshop offered  ‘a great opportunity to play and explore a movement quality applicable for Mocap‘. 

The main purpose of this workshop was to allow participants to use movement-based approaches to connect their imagination with potential virtual worlds in order to execute thorough performances and gain an embodied understanding of the technical procedure of Idle Poses. I intended for the Virtual Body and Space workshop to explore qualities of movement that reflected certain environments. I wanted the participants to find a physical connection to these elements before contextualizing it within a video game scenario. By doing this, they would have a physical experience and a sensory impression of the ‘space’. However, I had not anticipated that the participants would begin to create characters and scenarios of their own. They had naturally responded to these exercises by creating psychological journeys/stories driven by what was physically initiated to guide them through ‘their’ space. An example of this can be seen in Clip C with the participant on the left. Through his Idle sequence, he has clearly created a character that is moving through a particular environment, and in effect, producing a sequence of actions and a consistent line of intention.

 

Clip C

I found this quite refreshing as it was beginning to show evidence of what my following workshop will soon be exploring with building and developing character types. This third and final workshop will continue to utilize technical processes to support and contextualize the performance work created and will be shortly followed by a blog post documenting my discoveries and reflection.

 

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Photography by Sarah Ainslie

Workshop Venue: Fourth Monkey Actor Training Company

* An Idle or Base Pose is a video game animation term, denoting the range of positions the actor performs that will be placed at the beginning and end of an action sequence. For instance, an Idle Pose may be used when the player character is ‘paused’. Each movement would be stationary but still maintain a sense of life within it and would be flexible to move in and out of any action sequence.

 

Reflections on the open panel of the Performer Training Working Group – ‘Training and Other Disciplines/Practices’ – 1st September 2017

In the whirlwind of PhD study, teaching, and the endlessness of admin tasks associated with these activities one can forget that there is very exciting research happening within the performer training world. It is only when you have the opportunity to attend a conference with the diversity of program that is included in the TaPRA ‘Performer Training’ working group, which took place at the University of Salford August 30th-September 1st, that you fully understand that there are others thinking and working fruitfully on this topic in research terms. Continue reading

TaPRA Conference 2017 — Performer Training Working Group — Training Comedy and Transgression

 

This session began Day Two of TaPRA. The three papers in the sessions all drew upon the personal experiences of the presenters as artists and performers. The papers questioned and reconsidered traditional paradigms of performer training for comedy and theatre. Continue reading

On Modes of Sharing: Blog Report on Training and the Ensemble/Training Beyond Training Session at TaPRA Conference 2017

The Training and the Ensemble/Training Beyond Training session of the Performer Training Working Group at TaPRA Annual Conference 2017, included three different modes of sharing new knowledge and new practice. The session started with the group’s reflective discussion about the blog “Tuning: Preparing to Perform Gaudete with OBRA Theatre Co.”, compiled and edited by Eilon Morris with contributions from Kate Papi, Oliviero Papi and Fabian Wixe. The session continued with the presentation of Jane Turner’s and Patrick Campbell’s paper “The End(s) of Training: Three Case Studies from the Third Theatre”. The session ended with the workshop “The Ends of Your Training Revisited—A Timeline Experience”, designed and delivered by Ysabel Clare.

After two long days of paper presentations, attending a session that involved three different modes of sharing findings, brings attention not only to the overall theme of how specific actor-training practices affect the individual/ensemble but also about the complications and challenges of the sharing mode itself.

Eilon Morris, Kate Papi, Oliviero Papi and Fabian Wixe are all members of an ensemble that creates work under the direction of the core members of OBRA Theatre Co., Kate Papi and Oliviero Papi. Inspired by Peter Brook’s use of the term ‘tuning’ for ensemble work, OBRA Theatre Co. members give an insight into specific exercises that they use for the purpose of pre-performance preparation.  The three exercises of this first sharing mode— ‘Bouncing’, ‘Balls’ and ‘Tuning’—are described in the Theatre, Dance and Performance Blog in a ‘workbook’ format. The sharing structure of each exercise includes basic description, how each exercise was deposited to the training capital of the performer who introduced the exercise to the group and the main objectives of the exercise.

Carlos Simioni, Mia Theil Have and Carolina Pizarro are three actors who have a training relationship with Eugenio Barba’s Odin Theatre. Turner and Campbell share the actors’ training experiences, through a critical analytical account of the actors’ testimonies. Turner and Campbell’s critical analysis is driven by Barba’s writings, but they also draw on Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s philosophical concepts in order to elucidate their investigation. This second sharing mode uses a ‘case studies’ format: the three actors’ testimonies are used as a basis for offering different perspectives in which a specific practice may affect different individuals who embody different cultural and actor-training backgrounds.

The last sharing mode of the session was a practical workshop, which, under Clare’s facilitation, invited the participants to revisit memories of their own training life. The participants were invited to explore how this new embodied experience resonates through their prior training capital. The practical process inspired each participant to generate their own findings about how their past and future training work with and against each other.

Closing my report for the Training and the Ensemble/Training Beyond Training session, I would observe how the challenge of ‘curating’ innovative sharing modes in academic conferences speaks to contemporary challenges not only of participatory performance but also of practice research. I will summarise my point in a series of broader and more focused questions:

How much interaction is enough to keep a participant interested?

When does interaction distract from the new knowledge?

What is the most appropriate way of disseminating specific forms of new knowledge?

What are the expectations of specific audiences?

What is a ‘taster’/brief description of a practice and how can it be framed differently for academic and other environments?

How do different modes of sharing new knowledge to actor trainers reveal common assumptions about how an actor trainer should behave, like willingness to actively participate (thou shalt not refuse peers’ invitations to participate) and ability to use technology (thou shalt not live anymore without blogging and microblogging)?

Evi Stamatiou is an actor, director and writer who works across stage and screen with 14 years of international experience. She is currently finishing a PhD in Actor Training and Direction at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She trains actors in conservatoires and universities and is currently the Programme Coordinator for the BA (Hons) Acting at the University of Chichester. She specialises in comedy and in using a variety of text-based and devising practices that tackle under-representation and misrepresentation issues in the acting industry. Parts of her academic work are in preparation or have been published by Intellect Books, Routledge, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama and McFarland & Co. She also specialises in the development of new work, having workshopped new writing for various platforms, including Lincoln Centre Theatre Directors Lab. She is an Associate Artist to New Theatre Royal. She is represented by RD Casting in all aspects of her creative work. You can see more about her work at www.evistamatiou.com.

 

Limits of Training: The Songwork Catalogue

I have previously argued that ‘the concept of training is limiting insofar as it emphasizes the transmission of knowledge over its creation, discovery, or production’ (What a Body Can Do, p. 117) and suggested that we need to go beyond performer ‘training’ if we are to adequately represent the depth and complexity of what takes place in our studios and embodied practices. Here I would like to share a document — actually a catalogue of documents — that for me illustrates both the power and the limits of training as a concept around which to organize sustained embodied practice.

The Songwork Catalogue is a set of nearly two hundred short videos documenting embodied studio practice. Its focus is the various kinds of work — especially psychophysical, interpersonal, and cultural/political — that can be done around and through songs and singing. About half of the videos (‘Songwork II’) were generated during the Judaica project core laboratory phase using a narrowly focused methodology with three practitioners alternative between the roles of practitioner, director, and videographer. In addition to this core set of videos there is an older set of selections from materials dating back to 2010 (‘Songwork I’) and a more recent set of videos produced through an expanded methodology involving the presence of additional guest artists in the laboratory space (‘Songwork III’).

Do these videos document training?

I am certain that the kind of work documented in these videos is precisely what we aim to address when we talk about actor and performing training; and also that the people reading this blog are the most qualified to understand and assess this practice and this archive. At the same time, I am certain that the Songwork Catalogue is not a catalogue of training but of research.

A crucial point of difference is in the method of producing the videos. As seen in the image above, each video has a title. These titles did not exist at the time the recording was made. They do not name the tasks we set for ourselves in the studio. Rather, they name what happened as articulated from a later perspective. Additionally, these short clips were selected from many hours of footage. We did not set up a video ‘shoot’ and choose from one or two ‘takes’. Rather, we thoroughly integrated video into the studio process and then made selections from a large corpus of material, sharing via the Catalogue perhaps only ten or fifteen percent of what was recorded. This reversal of standard videographic practice is crucial in shifting the focus of the Catalogue from performances or demonstrations of established exercises (training) to unexpected outcomes of dynamic improvisational and interactive processes (research).

I know what it means to render songwork pedagogical in a training context and that is not what we have done. I therefore notice a tension between concept and community: Our community is gathered around the idea of training, but on its own this idea undervalues and underserves what we actually do. In emphasizing the pedagogical and transmissive dimension of embodied practice, we risk being complicit with the dominant reductive view of embodied practice today: namely that it is an optimization of the body rather than a mode of knowledge, discovery and thought.

I am not suggesting a simple shift from training to research. Although I am committed to exploring the possibilities opened by an explicit focus on embodied research, there is a risk here too: Without training, research disintegrates and becomes a free-for-all of unstructured voicings. Rather, as I argue in my most recent article, we ought to put more attention on the phenomenotechnical research edge between the technical (known) and the epistemic (unknown); between embodied training and embodied research.

Concretely:

1) All research involves training. We need to acknowledge this, for example by more clearly specifying and articulating the bases and lineages of the embodied training that underpins any given PaR research project.

2) All training involves research. We need to acknowledge this, for example by expanding the kinds of epistemic claims we make for what we do and continually tracking the points at which repetition is interwoven with difference.

How do you trace the edge of training and research in your practice?


Six selections from the Songwork Catalogue:

partner contact through shared associations (J017)
Practitioners: Ben Spatz, Nazlıhan Eda Erçin
Director: Agnieszka Mendel
Videography: Gary Cook
Date: 11 May 2017

perezhivanie or structured delirium (J029)
Practitioner: Agnieszka Mendel
Director: Ben Spatz
Videography: Ben Spatz
Date: 17 May 2017

structure with songs and movement qualities (J032)
Practitioner: Ben Spatz
Director: Agnieszka Mendel
Videography: Agnieszka Mendel
Date: 18 May 2017

five songs, five associations (J043)
Practitioner: Nazlıhan Eda Erçin
Director: Agnieszka Mendel
Videography: Ben Spatz
Date: 23 May 2017

following through voice (J049)
Practitioner: Agnieszka Mendel, Nazlıhan Eda Erçin
Director: Agnieszka Mendel
Videography: Ben Spatz
Date: 24 May 2017

kaleidoscope (J095)
Practitioners: Nazlıhan Eda Erçin, Agnieszka Mendel, Ben Spatz
Director: Nazlıhan Eda Erçin
Videography: Gary Cook
Date: 15 June 2017

Movement Training for Motion Capture Performance

The title “Motion Capture” suggests there’s importance placed on the motion of the performing body. 

Let’s investigate!

In the beginning…

This post discusses my initial interest in Motion Capture leading to the creation of a series of workshops that I have called – Embodying Your Mocap. 

My interest in “mocap” began to take form whilst studying at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama for a Masters in Movement: Directing and Teaching (previously Movement Studies). I had initially expressed this interest to my fellow classmates and tutors and in time I had come across a past student’s dissertation on the subject surrounding the actor’s preparation for work with mocap technology. At this point it was evident that there was awareness, however small it was, that actors had to enter this particular field with a slightly different approach than when working in film or theatre and that movement training could be beneficial to mocap performance.

Andy Serkis was, and still is in some respects, the face of motion and performance capture and although his performances are fascinating, I was hoping to find examples of a deeper analysis of his physical work. Looking on YouTube, I found that many clips of motion capture performances featured scenes from Avatar and Lord of the Rings discussing the relationship between performance and animation but not an in depth examination of the aspects of the performance from a physical perspective. There was no real acknowledgement that there might be a different approach to working with mocap, that actors would need to consider how their performance was being perceived or “captured” and how this would affect them creatively. The title – Motion Capture – suggests that there is significance placed in the actor’s movements (motion) and the process of how this data is collected (capture). However, I felt that there was more emphasis on the capturing of the actor’s motion rather than the actual performance itself. I had discovered that during a typical shoot for a video game, it was most likely that any suggestions on the performance would come from the animator/supervisor who would be commenting from a technical perspective. Furthermore, there definitely was not a movement director present in the studio. This was something I had to investigate further and over the next few years I took part in various workshops and intensive courses that allowed me to get a deeper insight into the actor’s performance and what would be required due to the nature of this very unique industry.

Developing the Workshops

The inspiration behind the Embodying Your Mocap workshop series came from the need to create a regular movement training opportunity that concentrated on motion capture performance. Solely the physical performance. With this specific focus, there would be a natural separation from the specialized skills that are usually associated with motion capture in film and video games such as martial arts, stage combat, sword fighting and animal work. I wanted to delve deeper into the aspects of the actor’s physical work regarding the moving, performing body and how this could be utilized to create characters and enhance the general performance. Much like the way I’d approach a regular movement class, I wanted to explore the similarities between actor movement for theatre and motion capture performance. I also wanted to discover if the specific demands of the technology would make an impact on the performance.

As well as researching the more technical side and working procedures of a typical mocap shoot, I began a line of enquiry by sending out a questionnaire to whom I identified as my “mocap contacts”. This consisted mainly of actors who had either experienced a professional shoot or those who were aspiring to enter this industry. The questions were based around the level of experience, what training they were currently doing to prepare themselves for work and the reasons why they felt movement sessions could benefit their on-going training. The response I received was very insightful. The more experienced actors noted the importance of the creative aspects of their work such as the creating of characters, imagining environments and ultimately their physical acting performance skills as a whole. Generally, I learnt that actors wanted specificity regarding the technical requirements of the movements that were captured. They craved opportunities that would allow them to engage in created environments with various characterisations that encouraged full immersion into virtual world scenarios physically and psychologically. Some actors also wanted opportunities that would prepare them for working with physical obstacles such as suits/markers, camera angle awareness, props etc.

On the basis of these responses, I decided that multiple workshops could be more beneficial than trying to squeeze all the material in one session. Only 3-4 sessions, mind you, but nevertheless each one covering a particular area in a fruitful and productive way. These would include exploring movement components such as weight, space and body shape in performance, character types and imagining virtual environments. Thenceforth the Embodying Your Mocap workshop series was created with the taster workshop being launched on 21st May 2017. Within the taster, I wanted to create movement exercises that were influenced and informed by particular mocap procedures so that the material had noticeable reference points. For example, I used the process of ROMs* to create the basis of the warm up, highlighting areas of the body (mobilising joints/strengthening muscles) that would be in use within the work that we’d continue to explore. For instance, lubricating the ankle joint and engaging with the soles of the feet informed the movement seen in the picture below where the participant is jumping during a travelling exercise. The main aim was to release the body, opening the ‘backspace’ and using the floor for take off and landing.

I had also used the T-Pose** (as seen in the picture below), as a way of connecting the participants with the sensations of their movement and drawing attention to the surfaces and core structure of their body.

The overall content of the workshop was based on movement components that I felt were the main factors of a well executed motion capture performance. This included the awareness of the space surrounding the body and performing 3-dimensional organic movement. Using an analytical approach in these explorations, I wanted to provide a space for the participants to investigate their own natural movement to understand how this can be applied to performance and character work in Motion Capture.

Reflections and Future endeavours

The Motion Capture industry is not as accessible as other art forms and because of this, artists and performers are intrigued to know ‘how does it work?’ and specifically ‘how does it work in relation to my work?’ My intention is to develop an accessible approach to motion capture performance and thus, by giving a little insight into the world of mocap, allow performers to stretch their physical performance skills to a new dimension.

My ultimate aim with the Embodying Your Mocap series is to provide a seamless merging of technical knowledge with movement exploration and self-discovery. This then allows the participants to inform their performance through a clear understanding of what the technology requires of their physical work. Furthermore, I am using these workshops as a way to formalise a method to approach motion capture performance that considers significant technical factors which could have an impact on the performance quality. The next workshop I will be running will be looking at using some of the tools introduced in the first session to explore virtual environments and creating in-game content and procedures linked to video games. The blog post will be another sharing of my reflections on the workshop and its outcome. Overall I hope to use these blogs as a platform to start a dialogue with others interested in Motion Capture, actor performance and movement training.


Photo credit: Chloe Knott

Workshop Venue: Fourth Monkey Actor Training Company

* ROM stands for Range Of Motion where the actor moves each body part for the animator to track the markers on the body and see how they move in relation to the rest of the body.

** A T-Pose is the position the actor stands in for the animator to locate the markers on the body in order to create a digital skeleton.

Reflections of a First Year Acting Student – Part II:

 

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – BA Acting

 By Harri Pitches

This is the second installment in a serialized account of a First Year BA Acting student at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS).  It is a first-hand account of the experience of embarking on the rigorous and holistic training offered at that institution and intends to provoke responses from students who undergo such training, or those who teach them.

The End of the First Term

As I come to the end of my first major ‘chunk’ of time at the RCS, ready to throw myself into the challenges and renewed excitement that 2017 at the conservatoire will doubtless bring, I find myself reflecting on what I have learned, and how I’ve found the whole drama school experience so far. The question everyone has asked me since I’ve been back in my Yorkshire hometown for the Christmas holidays has been ‘Is it what you thought it would be?’ The answer to this is not as simple as ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Continue reading

Reflections of a First Year Acting Student – Part I:

 

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – BA Acting

 By Harri Pitches

This is the first installment in a serialized account of a First Year BA Acting student at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.  It is a first-hand account of the experience of embarking on the rigorous and holistic training offered at that institution and intends to provoke responses from students who undergo such training, or those who teach them.

The First Lesson – 26/09/2016

My introduction to the RCS in the first ‘official’ week of my training has given me a fantastic idea of the kind of actors this institution hopes we will grow to be.  I have already had the pleasure of the revered ‘freshers-week’ meeting and greeting the wonderful people with who I will share the next three years of my life. Continue reading

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?

Phillip Zarrilli: Pre-Performative Psychophysical Training of the Actor/Performer

Inspired by Jerzy Grotowski but seeking his own pathway as a young theatre director working in Minneapolis, over forty years ago Phillip Zarrilli began a life-long project of exploring an alternative approach to the pre-performative training and preparation of the actor/performer using the techniques and underlying principles of Asian martial arts (taiqiquan/kalarippayattu) and yoga which would move actor training beyond Stanislavsky.

Over the years, Zarrilli developed a rigorous, in-depth, immersive process of training and preparing the actor’s bodymind for performance through the in-depth use of these traditional exercises—applied specifically to acting/performance problems. Continue reading

Epistemic Objects: Four Channels

I have been showing versions of this edited montage for the past five years. These four videos document not just highly skilled embodied practice but more precisely embodied research: practices that produce new technique. The ‘objects’ in question are modern postural yoga, aikido, dance/movement therapy, and the plastiques. These epistemic objects did not predate the practices and practitioners shown here, but they have lasted beyond them: Of these four pioneering embodied researchers, only Adler is alive today, but the technique they invented/discovered is still available and taught more or less widely.

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Training with Ensemble, a journey to meet myself.

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Mei JiaoYin is a  PhD candidate in “Theory and Research in Education”, at The University of Roma Tre, Italy. Her first 20 years of life were in Hangzhou, China, where she studied “Art Education” in Zhejiang Normal University. For the last ten years she has been living in Italy and teaching creativity dance. Mei recently attended one of DUENDE’s training & performance residencies and is now at The DUENDE School for just the first two weeks of the course, before returning to Italy to complete her PhD.

I started to observe my state of body, emotion and movement, without judgment, just simply observe all that is there: fear, qualities and aliveness.

I accept everything that appears though observation, just like an adventure, I don’t know where it will take me, but every moment is so exciting to explore myself. For example, these days in the Ball Game, I notice my body when I react in the moment of catching the ball: breathing becomes rapid, toes grip the earth, sometimes I try to beat the ball. By simply observing the body I can connect with my fear and it is interesting to play with fear. When is the next ball coming? I just focus on my breathing, and a new feeling comes, that moment is so wonderful! This experience gives me the opportunity to discover myself.

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Self (Criticism) with Others

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Hannah Waters is a UK-based performer. She studied both BA and MA (Physical Acting) at The University of Kent. Her Masters dissertation explored ‘Applying the systematic principles present in constructivist artwork to a method of physical theatre composition’. As part of her time at Kent Hannah also studied at the University of California.


I came to the DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre this autumn dragging all the traits of a life spent in formal education in the UK with me, traits that I am beginning to address, unpick and challenge as I approach my third week of training at DUENDE.

This is my first foray into vocational training after four years at university: I previously undertook a BA in Drama and Theatre Studies and an MA in Physical Acting, the latter of which I completed a matter of weeks before I made the journey to Athens to begin my work. And so I have made the leap from the world of academia to another, very different world, where my perceptions of myself and my work have suddenly been challenged in ways they never have been before.

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Educational Applications of Ensemble Physical Theatre Training (DUENDE)

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The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre is meeting in Athens, Greece, through the autumn. Each week a contributor to the school will write a short reflection for this blog.

This week’s post is written by Manjari Kaul. Manjari studied Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi before becoming a Primary School Teacher, Performer and Director.

Manjari attended The DUENDE School in 2015 and has returned in 2016, at the School’s invitation, to explore in more detail the pedagogy of the work – with a view to running DUENDE training sessions in India and perhaps organising an iteration of The DUENDE School in India in the future.

Manjari is one of DUENDE’s Associate Artists.

This post is an attempt to understand how my training in Ensemble Physical Theatre might be used as a tool by school teachers in the classroom. I will explore the possibility of viewing a Primary/Middle School classroom as akin to an ensemble that must be alive in the here and now, responding to ever evolving dynamics.

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Futures (and pasts) of Performer Training: by Murray, Evans and Pitches

Anyone attending the Future of Performer Training conference at Coventry on November 4th and 5th 2016, might want to take a look at this joint paper by Simon Murray, Mark Evans and Jonathan Pitches.

And if you’re not coming, then we’d love some feedback. It’s a layered vision, imagining the pasts and possible futures of performer training.

Download it here: theatre_training_beyond_theatre_ideas_ch

 

DUENDE & The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre

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I set up DUENDE in 2010 – intending to nurture a loose collective of artists who shared a core training (Self-With-Others) and yet brought distinct and individual skills to the company. From the start DUENDE was committed to international and intercultural exploration and to a core belief in the idea that principles of ensemble lie at the heart both of live performance and of the pedagogy through which the skills of performance might be passed from generation to generation. DUENDE is committed to honouring and extending lineages across generations and collaborations across borders.

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Post-conference reflection on disseminating praxical research in actor training

 

I am an actress (Diploma GNT Drama School, MA East 15 Acting School) [1]

I am an actress, somatic movement educator (Cert IBMT, RSME)[2]

I am an actress, somatic acting-movement educator and researcher (PaR PhD, RCSSD)[3]

I am an actress, somatic acting-movement educator and researcher currently working within three major London-based actor-training institutions (East 15, Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, RCSSD)

 

Praxical research in conservatoire actor training

The above schematic identification of my professional background and identity reflects the underlying structure of my short introduction to the brief workshop I gave for the TaPRA Performer Training Working Group on the seventh of September 2016 at University of Bristol.[4] The development of the aforementioned phrases does not aim only at summarizing a personal ongoing journey but also a contemporary phenomenon within modern UK actor-training conservatoire institutions. This phenomenon is the current increasing interest in the dynamic dialogue between academia and practice-based critical engagement, combined with the understanding of how the interrelation between various disciplines informs the shaping of contemporary actor-training pedagogies. In this brief reflection on my participation in TaPRA 2016 conference on the theme ‘Speech and Text in Performer Training’, I intend to communicate aspects of my present understanding of the dynamic integration between theory and practice in actor training through my own praxical research.[5]

I started my engagement with praxis through a practice-as-research (PaR) doctorate thesis on my process of becoming an actor-trainer based on my experience as a conservatoire trained actress and my simultaneous development as somatic movement educator. I grounded my critical awareness as emerging trainer-witness upon the shaping of an original somatic actor-training and creative methodology inspired by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s developmental process of embodiment. I modified Cohen’s Body-Mind Centering® (BMC®) inetsrubjective narrative and principles as I practised them through Linda Hartley’s Integrative Bodywork & Movement Therapy (IBMT) training.[6] The objective of my PhD research was a modern response towards scientifically-informed problematic binaries in actor-training discourses (including mind-body, inner-outer, self-other/s) as well as a common description of actors’ multiple embodied individualities as a single, universal and unchanged existence.[7] I identified dualism and universalism in actor training within the general philosophical problem of logocentrism.

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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.

References

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.