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?
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
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.
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.
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)
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’.
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.
Dr Tom Cornford
Lecturer in Theatre and Performance, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
Practitioners: Nazlıhan Eda Erçin, Agnieszka Mendel, Ben Spatz
Director: Nazlıhan Eda Erçin
Videography: Gary Cook
Date: 15 June 2017
The title “Motion Capture” suggests there’s importance placed on the motion of the performing body.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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:
- 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?
- 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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
I am an actress (Diploma GNT Drama School, MA East 15 Acting School) 
I am an actress, somatic movement educator (Cert IBMT, RSME)
I am an actress, somatic acting-movement educator and researcher (PaR PhD, RCSSD)
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. 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.
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. 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. I identified dualism and universalism in actor training within the general philosophical problem of logocentrism.
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). This statement – pointing to both pragmatic and ideological indices – was introduced in the lecture, and I was interested in then discovering whether any of the students would be able to consciously attune to their ‘sensational facts’ – to the feeling of the body as it gave and received weight, followed a point of contact, rolled, fell or found itself upside down. Once the session moved from lecture into practice, I therefore led the students through a warm-up which began by adopting the idea that the floor is a ‘partner’ so the students could initially work alone, concentrating on rolling, sliding and pushing movements before developing into slow falls into the floor and rolls back to standing. Students then transitioned to working with a partner, learning how to support and take weight, slide and fall through a series of simple structures. Further work on resisting or yielding to one’s partner was explored before the students were invited to improvise a longer duet, drawing on their understanding of the foundational principles of the physical laws of momentum and gravity that govern and generate their movement.
At this point in the session, I drew on Viola Spolin’s technique of ‘sidecoaching’, in which I called out ‘just that word, that phrase, or that sentence’ that would keep the students ‘on focus’ (Spolin, 1986, p.5). Phrases or questions were designed to encourage the students to attune to their ‘sensational facts’ as they improvised (also making an explicit connection between the lecture and practical component of the session). Questions such as ‘which parts of you feel soft or fluid, which hard or dense?’ and statements such as ‘notice your breathing pattern’, ‘sense your weight’ and ‘let your weight settle and accept support’, functioned as prompts for the students to consciously focus attention on the stirrings of somatic, bodily knowing. At times I asked the students to deliberately slow down as a radical shift in speed invites an even more heightened sensitivity to the tactile-kinesthetic exchanges. Encouraging the students to move with this kind of conscious attention to the subtleties of what Sondra Fraleigh calls ‘our body-self’ (Fraleigh, 2000, p.57) laid the foundations for the reflective writing that was to follow. The students were beginning to register the immediate moment of experience and were operating as active participants in the process.
I was aware of the challenge of the final reflective writing part of the experiment and curious about how the students might capture in words aspects of their experience of encountering Contact Improvisation for the first time. Fraleigh notes that ‘finding the direct and intuitive way to describe movement, affect, and our sensate proximity to others is at first daunting’ and the process of describing one’s immediate experience requires the student ‘to voice what is not initially discursive, but kinesthetic in nature’ (Fraleigh, 2015, p.21). In asking them to reflect on their experience and bring it to language, I encouraged them to write quickly and intuitively, ‘not listening to their internal critics’ (Fraleigh, 2000, p.56). The period of reflection also included a more speculative piece of writing, in which the students were asked to note down some initial ideas on how they might transfer what they learnt in the session to their work as actors and directors on other modules. This was to enable me to gauge further whether, and how, this movement form might be appreciated as a mode of actor training. David Zinder notes that the form ‘is one of the best ways…for actors to keep up improvisation/creative skills’ and that the form ‘is a must for anyone interested in any aspect of the physical approach to theater’ (Zinder, 2002, p.95, original italics). The more recent Actor Movement: Expression of the Physical Being (Ewan and Green, 2015) outlines some of the ways in which Contact Improvisation fosters ‘freedom through movement’ and confidence for the drama student (Ewan and Green, 2015, p.24). The reflective writing component of my experiment would hopefully add the students’ own views on how Contact Improvisation might be able to be applied to their studies in acting and directing.
The tripartite structure is one I would like to pursue further, as there were clearly useful links between aspects of the lecture – including viewing and discussing footage – and the students’ own practical experiments. There was a palpable sense of play, experimentation and enjoyment in the practical work, with a few students choosing to work in quite a dynamic register in following momentum and falling. Given that these students had never encountered Contact Improvisation before, nor had they had any significant grounding in physical training or exposure to touch as a medium of learning, I was impressed by their openness and curiosity. Additionally, the writings have given me some useful insight into the students’ responses to their introductory encounter with this form and the ways in which they were able to begin to transition from bodily to linguistic knowing.
Sample student responses
Calm – a bodily calm rather than my mind, I felt I had to be quite focused mentally
Heavy – I was surprised at how much weight my body could give over to my partner
Relaxed, open, spacious, released
Flowing & fluid – when we came to improvise the duet, I was surprised and impressed by how much myself and my partner flowed into and around each other
I felt very relaxed. Yet physically challenged. Basically it felt like a good workout
From a directing standpoint, I find the idea of experimenting with CI during my rehearsals interesting. I would be intrigued to find out whether it would open up my actors’ physicality and make them more fluid (especially in their interactions with the other actors) as I suspect.
Ewan, Vanessa and Green, Debbie. (2015). Actor Movement: Expression of the Physical Being. London and New York: Bloomsbury.
Fraleigh, Sondra. (2000). ‘Consciousness Matters’. Dance Research Journal. 32 (1), pp. 54-62.
Fraleigh, Sondra. (2015). ‘Why Consciousness Matters’. In: Fraleigh, Susan. (Ed.) Moving Consciously: Somatic Transformations through Dance, Yoga, and Touch. Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.
Novack, Cynthia, J. (1990). Sharing The Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.
Spolin, Viola. (1986). Theater Games For the Classroom: A Teacher’s Handbook. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press.
Zinder, David. (2002). Body Voice Imagination: A Training For The Actor. Routledge: London and NY.
 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.
In What a Body Can Do (Routledge 2015), I asked why there aren’t more functioning laboratories dedicated to exploring the intersection between martial arts and performer training. This interdisciplinary connection has been hugely productive in Europe throughout the twentieth century, not to mention the much longer-standing relationships between martial and performing arts found throughout Asia. But it is hard to think of even one institution in Europe or North America that aims explicitly to innovate theatre, dance and performance training practice by placing it in dialogue with martial arts and physical culture more generally. While many individual practitioners and scholars do excellent work in this area, institutions tend to be oriented towards one domain or the other. And we still tend to see martial arts as cultural entities rather than fields of knowledge.
What would a laboratory of martial and performing arts look like? In order to create substantive interdisciplinary interactions, care would have to be taken to create the kind of ‘third space’ described by Pil Hansen and Bruce Barton in their article on ‘Research-Based Practice’ (TDR 53.4, 2009): a space in which specific flows of martial and performing arts would collide without either one being subordinated to the other. BodyConstitution, a project developed by the Grotowski Institute in Poland and funded by major grants from EEA/Norway, is the closest I have seen to such a laboratory. The project is ‘programme of research in practice at the Grotowski Institute,’ which has involved numerous formats of exchange, including four annual seminars (2013-2016), each about a week long, drawing together a wide range of international performers, teachers, and participants. I was recently a guest at the final BodyConstitution seminar and want to use that experience as a starting point to highlight the value of the project as a whole. (For more details and reflections on the 2016 seminar, see Jen Parkin’s post below.)
As his book on Nikolai Demidov is on the brink of publication, director-scholar Andrei Malaev-Babel visited the UK to share his revelatory practical and historical investigations into the long suppressed Russian master pedagogue. I don’t use the term revelatory lightly. Nikolai Demidov’s work radically challenges our conceptions of Stanislavsky and the creation of his System. A collaborator and provocateur of Stanislavsky’s, Demidov approached acting from within the rich milieu of spirituality, philosophy and science that was the Russian Silver Age.
As Malaev-Babel explained in a seminar at the University of Exeter, Demidov was a practitioner of yoga and his approach to acting is permeated with a sense of breath, of clearing the mind-body receptacle for inspiration, and what he termed a ‘culture of calm’. Despite all the hoopla about Sulerzhitsky and his time with the Doukhobors – a schismatic group of Christians that were purported to have taught Suler yoga – Demidov is clearly the person who introduced yoga to Stanislavsky. And not just the books by Ramacharaka (William Atkinson), but through first-hand experience.
Demidov was also a trained psychologist, and therefore the only acting teacher of the early twentieth century to have a certified medical insight into the psychophysical processes at work. In fact it was due to the efforts of medical specialists that Demidov’s book on acting was first published in Russia. As Malaev-Babel mentioned, this was because the scientific community believed Demidov was a man ahead of his time. What Demidov was researching with the many actors he worked with was a new understanding of the creative process, the foundations of a new creative psychology.
(photo of Nikolai Demidov with Konstantin Stanislavsky courtesy of Andrei Malaev-Babel)
When I was writing ‘Encountering Ensemble’ (1), I came across an obituary of Joe Chaikin, written by his collaborator Jean-Claude Van Itallie. Van Itallie writes of his first meeting with Chaikin at a rehearsal of The Open Theatre:
‘I go to an old industrial building near Eighth Avenue on 24th Street. … I enter the big dilapidated loft. Unbidden, I sit in a detached row of empty falling-apart theatre seats. Some 10 people drift in – mostly young, mostly from downtown.’ (2)
Some scrappy kids in a dilapidated room. Doing things they did not understand. Making it up as they went along.
I read of Stanislavsky feeling that he should contribute to the growth of ensemble in his new company by helping clean the floor. He had no idea how to do it. I read of Copeau, a conservative Catholic, bewildered by the permissive energy of his youthful cohort of collaborators. Both of them, quite lost.
Odin Teatret emerged from a coming-together of Drama School rejects. Their training began with an assortment of acquired exercises.
Some of this might be apocryphal. Some exaggerated. Yet there is a truth here. Scrappy kids in dilapidated rooms. Continue reading
For the first edition of TDPT I wrote an article called ‘The Pursuit of Pleasure’ (1:1). It focussed on the rationale for locating pleasure at the core of a performer’s training practice. Put simply, I suggested we structure our work so that it fills us with delight. We should, I suggested, seek intrinsic delight in all our work, however challenging, rather than ‘suffering’ in the expectation of an anticipated outcome. Learning, I suggested, is an intrinsically pleasurable experience. It is useful to acknowledge that.
When I wrote the article in 2010, the training I run, ‘Self-With-Others’ (www.ensemblephysicaltheatre.wordpress.com), was well-established and formed the basis of an MA course in Huddersfield. Since then, three major developments have taken place that have caused me progressively to reconsider – and ultimately recommit myself to – the centrality of pleasure in my work.
The first of these is that I left the academy to return to a freelance life as a trainer, director and performer.
The second is that I developed a significant international practice directing, teaching and running residencies in diverse and complex contexts – urban and rural, professional and non-professional, culturally traditional and progressive. This has offered me a rich opportunity to explore my understanding of training with a range of participants from very diverse backgrounds and with hugely differing ambitions and expectations.
The third is that I decided to set up my own School: The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre. The School offers a ten-week intensive training. It is unattached to any institution and unfunded by any cultural, educational or government organisation. We run the School in low-cost economies (last year and this year it is in Greece) and we keep administrative costs to the minimum. This means fees are as low as we can make them. Still some are excluded on the basis of cost, inevitably, but there is perhaps a greater diversity – culturally and economically – than would be the case if costs were higher. I’ve written elsewhere about my rationale for setting up The DUENDE School, and the pedagogical and ideological lineage I see it as being connected to: http://bit.ly/trainingthenextgeneration.
As I now reflect on last year and prepare for the next iteration of the School, and as I recover from an intense visit to India, I wonder again about pleasure.
A few thoughts:
1. Almost everywhere I work, people tell me that the devaluing of pleasure (and passion, playfulness, laughter) is a problem they see as being especially critical in their own culture and education system. Repeatedly performers and teachers suggest: ‘We really need this work in Singapore/India/Australia/Greece…’. Perhaps there is always a sense that people elsewhere are having more fun and working in more enlightened ways.
2. Almost everywhere (this thought is not unconnected to the thought above), people have learned to distrust – even to despise – the value of their own pleasure. People fret about ‘self-indulgence’ and continually, sometimes obsessively, seek extrinsic rather than intrinsic validation of their choices. Frequently they seek to validate artistic choices by judging them against non-artistic criteria. I wonder how much this is a reflection of an international/ideological devaluing of the status of art as something of intrinsic worth, and its replacement with an ideology of art-as-instrument, and artist as primarily a servant of extrinsic social objective.
3. The deeper we dig into pleasure as an intrinsically valuable objective in our work, the harder the search becomes. In the end – as the intensive experience at the School lays bare – if we acknowledge that we are pursuing a particular path because we want to (because it yields us pleasure), then we have to take unconditional responsibility for our own actions and choices. We are not training because we have to, we are training because we want to. In exploring, unapologetically, who we could be, guided by open acknowledgement of our desire, we discover our genius, our contribution, our ‘social’ role. This demand for absolute self-responsibility leads almost everyone to a place of personal crisis. Almost everyone breaks sometime during a training. Pursing pleasure is not always enjoyable. The centrality of pleasure in my pedagogy allows the person who is breaking both to smile inside her crisis and to chart a sustainable route beyond the encounter with despair that seems inevitable during a journey of growth.
4. Almost everyone (including me) gets sick of the word ‘pleasure’. It ends up feeling twee and reductive. The two core questions of my training ‘What did you like?’ and ‘Why did you like it?” become a little annoying. People start to ask instead: ‘What did I notice/enjoy?’ or ‘What excited me?’ This movement beyond the core word of ‘pleasure’ is personal to each performer and I welcome it. I also – when things get tough – encourage them to return to the basic formula for personal and interpersonal reflection: ‘What did you like?’
5. The centralising of the details of pleasure within reflection and feedback shifts the paradigm within which we work. We are not working, we are laughing and playing. I encourage unconditional acceptance of oneself and of others. This is not about complacency or arrogance, it is about reality. Unconditional acceptance of self and others in a reflective process, requires us to discuss what actually happened within and between us, not what we think ought to have happened. It leads to analysis of real (inter)actions rather than discussion of how one wishes things had been different.
6. The ‘permissive’ environment of training is, I suspect, the single most important thing I offer. I have a rigorous pedagogy and I know the conceptual and theoretical context of my work. That’s important. Nonetheless, perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to have the confidence to get out of the way, to encourage performers to laugh and enjoy themselves and to learn rigour and discipline for themselves. If they do that, they will mostly learn what they need to learn. I need to intervene only when occasionally it seems necessary.
The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre in Athens last year saw 19 women from 8 countries collaborate for 10 weeks with great joy, enormous discipline and significant results. The first principle of the work, which became increasingly complex and challenging as each student dug ever deeper into her work, was ‘Pursue Pleasure’. Not ‘Have Fun’, but ‘PURSUE Pleasure’. It is an active hunt for intrinsic enjoyment. As I reflect on the process and recruit a new cohort of students (there will be some men this year!), I wonder about my own pleasure. I sit quietly and wonder if I want to run the School again. After all, I’ve done it once, and there are always other things to do…
The answer is an instant and unequivocal ‘yes’. That’s important. Without my passion, based in my own joy, the work will be form without energy. The School offers me (and my colleagues) a place of growth and research. The curriculum will evolve for its second iteration based on a simple sense I (and my core collaborator) have about what worked – what yielded pleasure to us and to the participants – and what felt a little soulless…
In 2010 when I published in TDPT I was well aware of the problematic nature of pleasure. Since then my perspectives have both become more and less complex. The more one commits oneself to pleasure, the harder it becomes, because that commitment strips away all excuses and all self-pity. Yet, paradoxically, things also seem simpler. The more simply I pursue genuine personal pleasure – in an exercise, a production, a training programme, a career-choice – the better my work will be. The difficulties of surviving outside The Academy notwithstanding, nothing since 2010 has really challenged that core principle.
How should we warm up at the start of a workshop or rehearsal?
What is it that we need to warm up?
It’s obvious that performers need to prepare for the physical challenges of a workshop or rehearsal. If a session is likely to involve lots of movement, it is useful to start by increasing blood flow to the muscles and getting the joints working. But what about those times when the class or material doesn’t involve much physical exertion?
The movement teacher Monika Pagneux makes a distinction between warming up and waking up. It’s a distinction that I’ve found really helpful when structuring workshops, classes and rehearsals, because rather than thinking about increasing blood flow, flexibility and stamina, Pagneux’s term places emphasis on attention and awareness. Instead of oiling the cogs of a machine, Pagneux entreats us to open our eyes, take a breath and see what’s going on.
For me the best way of waking up in preparation for a class or rehearsal is to set myself (or my students) a task that coordinates mind and movement. At the beginning of each session I like to set a movement pattern that acts as a kind of heuristic puzzle, forcing brain and body to work together.
Complex, whole-body tasks like the one demonstrated in the video can’t be done automatically or mechanically. As such, they prompt students to become sensitive to the timing, shape and quality of their actions.
I guess one of the most important things to think about at the start of a session is where you would like to be at the end of it. A good warm up should lead us to the state of being that feels right for the task we have set ourselves. More often than not, the answer to the question of where I want to be relates to a feeling of embodied attention. While it’s true that any action can be practised mindfully, in my experience, it’s the more complicated patterns that force us to slow down, take stock and actively locate our experiences in our bodies. Copying a pattern like the one shown above demands an active process of investigation – a kind of kinaesthetically engaged thinking that I find helpful as a baseline for a wide range of performance work.
Where do you like to start? I’d love to see some ideas and exercises in the replies.
As I write this blog, my predominant emotion is curiosity: I am wondering how you feel as you read it. Specifically, I’m curious how you feel about Grotowski. He has always been a divisive figure in the world of theatre and performance, from his first days in the international spotlight in the early 1960’s. He seems to invoke either adulation, or outright rejection. Richard Shechner famously called him “shape-shifter, shaman, trickster, artist, adept, director, leader”. If you are willing to satisfy my curiosity, and tell me how you feel about Grotowski, then read on.
In the process of my own research and writing on this subject, I have been inviting participation and personal testimony from anyone who feels that some aspect of Grotowski’s work has had an impact on their own practice. If you would like to make contact and contribute, you can do that by emailing me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you a page of “prompt” questions. Alternatively, you can visit my Facebook page: Grotowski/Kumiega: Re-Write https://www.facebook.com/Grotowski.Kumiega/
My article “Contact Improvisation to Scene Study: Authenticity in Word and Deed” (2012) explored the use of C.I. (contact improvisation) in actor training. The following one minute video shows an example of a CI session between actors Jacob Dresch and Claire Edmunds during a training session concentrating on the use of counter balance.
Drawing on mime, modern dance and dance/theater explorations and expanding through 30 years of studio work with actors, this use of C.I. in actor training releases the physical/emotional honesty of actors. This is a training of energy and weight exchange in which the ultimate goal is kinetic and intimate responsiveness to a partner. The playful, dynamic and exhilarating shifts of counter-balance that characterize this work are reached through the practice of contact improvisation. Basic tumbling, energy exchange exercises and partnering dance lifts are its fundamental building blocks. Text may also be used in a contact session and this allows the spontaneous physical language of the actors’ bodies to parallel the spoken dialogue. Without consciously imposing objectives actors inter-relate spontaneously, dynamically and elegantly; and the outcome is an imprinted ability to deliver emotional and physical honesty in a scene. Counter-balance Theater (my physical theater company) uses this technique to train performers within the company, in classes at UCI, and in workshops for the wider public. The physical techniques in leveraging, complicit interchange and trajectory of motion, are used to create the imagery scored in the Counter-Balance scripts.