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. When teaching actors Zarrilli emphasizes how the training prepares the individual to act through:

  1. the gradual, long-term process of attuning of one’s body-mind;
  2. opening one’s sensory awareness;
  3. learning how to be attentive, focused, and able to concentrate;
  4. discovering the relationship between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ work of the performer that is not driven by psychology; and
  5. assisting the actor in discovering an approach to understanding and ‘doing’ acting as a vital, embodied, energetic process through the shaping and direction of one’s ‘energy’ (ki/chi/prana-vayu) and focus.

The pre-performative training must be practiced daily for at least two hours so that each individual might begin to have the opportunity of an embodied ‘discovery’ of the above principles, applied to and shaped by the unique nature of each specific dramaturgy and aesthetic the actor encounters. Like the martial artist, through this process the actor should always optimally be ‘on the edge’ of one’s ‘breath’ or life-force, and on the edge of possibility—not knowing what is next. The practice of martial arts and acting never provide an ‘answer’, but should always be considered as a ‘question’, i.e., where am I here and now, and what am I encountering here and now in this specific environment. What does this environment/situation demand of me?

Zarrilli runs a private studio (Tyn-y-parc C.V.N. Kalari/Studio) in Wales where he regularly offers training, and conducts intensive short and long-term workshops and residencies throughout the world – including the Grotowski Institute (Poland), as part of the BEYOND project with Emio Greco and Co (Amsterdam), Helsinki Academy of the Arts, Seoul International Theatre Festival, National Theatre of Greece, Tainan-Jen Theatre Company (Taiwan), TTRP/ITI (Singapore), Gardzienice Theatre Association, Norwegian Theatre Academy, and many university actor training programmes such as Trinity College (Dublin) and Indiana University (USA). For many years he ran the MA/MFA programme in Theatre Practice within the Drama Department at Exeter University which focused on daily practice of psychophysical training, and where the principles of the training were applied to performances directed by Zarrilli as well as students’ self-directed/created performances. For many years he also Director of the Asian-Experimental Theatre Programme at the University of Wisconsin—an innovative programme founded by the visionary A.C. Scott in 1963.


While on a Fulbright Fellowship to Kerala, India in 1976-77, Zarrilli immersed himself in learning the preparatory body-exercises of the kathakali dance-drama actor/dancer that had so inspired Grotowski. He soon learned that the underlying source of these extraordinary exercises, and the full-body massage that is an integral part of the training, was in the kalarippayattu (Kerala martial art) tradition. Zarrilli them immersed himself in the study of this unique Kerala martial art under the guidance of Gurukkal Govindankutty Nayar of the CVN Kalari, Thiruvananthapuram. Between 1976 and 1993, Zarrilli lived in Kerala for a total of seven years, and immersed himself in kalarippayattu training, and eventually also in hatha yoga. The first Westerner to seriously study kalarippayattu, in 1988 he was gifted the traditional pitham (stool) representing mastery by Gurukkal Govindankutty Nayar.

When the new CVN Kalari Sangham was founded in 2004, the Tyn-y-parc CVN Kalari in Llanarth, Ceredigion, Wales (UK) was certified as an official kalari of the Sangham under Zarrilli’s guidance as gurukkal. Inaugurated in 2000, the Tyn-y-arc CVN Kalari was the first traditional kalari operating outside of Kerala. In addition to his primary long-term training under Gurukkal Govindankutty Nayar, Zarrilli also studied under C. Mohammed Sherif (Kerala Kalarippayattu Academy, Kannur) and Raju Asan (adi-murai). Zarrilli’s seven years of practice and research culminated in his writing the first authoritative study of kalarippayattu, When the Body Becomes All Eyes: paradigms and practices of power in kalarippayattu published by Oxford University Press (1998/2000).

The Llanarth Group/ International Directing

When he moved to the UK, Zarrilli was the founding Artistic Director of the Llanarth Group (from 2000). Llanarth Group productions are international in scope and bring together a variety of artists to collaborate on particular production projects. The work is always informed by the application of psychophysical process through Asian martial/meditation arts as the basis for developing a common language and process of performance. The Llanarth Group is based at the Tyn-y-parc Kalari/Studio in Wales under the direction of Phillip Zarrilli.

As a director and actor, Zarrilli’s most recent production (2015) with The Llanarth Group  is playing ‘the maids’—a collaboration with Gaitkrash (Ireland) and Theatre T’yut (Korea). Told by the Wind (premiere 2010) was co-created with UK-based award-winning playwright, Kaite O’Reilly and Jo Shapland. The production previewed at the Evora, Portugal Festival in 2009, opened at Chapter Arts Centre (Cardiff), and continues on tour to Exeter Phoenix and the Grotowski Institute, Poland in 2010, and to Chicago for the Chicago Theatre Symposium in May 2011, and a further short UK tour in 2015.

In 2017 he directed ‘…semblance…sequel…: Beckett’s Pasos and Play in association with the National Theatre Company, San Jose, Costa Rica. In 2016 he directed the world premiere of Kaite O’Reilly’s Cosy at the Wales Millennium Centre. In 2015 he directed Ota Shogo’s The Water Station with an international cast of ten for Nordland Teatre, Norway. In 2014 he directed the world premiere of Kaite O’Reilly’s the 9 fridas with Mobius Strip (in association with Hong Kong Rep) on invitation of the 2014 Taipei Arts Festival. This production then toured in 2016 to the Hong Kong Rep International Black Box Festival.

Other productions have included the critically acclaimed world premiere of Kaite O’Reilly‘s The Almond and the Seahorse for Sherman Cymru (Cardiff and tour, 2008). His productions of Samuel Beckett’s plays in Los Angeles (2000, 2006, 2008), Austria (2001), and Ireland (2004) have won critical acclaim and awards for ‘best actress’ and ‘courageous production’ in Los Angeles.

In 2002 he collaborated with Kaite O’Reilly and Theatre ASOU (Austria) on a semi-devised performance, Speaking Stones, that opened in Austria in September (2002) received its English premiere in Wroclaw, Poland on invitation of the Centre of Studies on Jerzy Grotowski in 2003, and was again performed in Aflenz, Austria in 2004. In 2004 he also directed Ota Shogo’s The Water Station for TTRP at The Esplanade Theatres on the Bay in Singapore. During 2005-06 he directed Genet’s Die Zofen (The Maids) in Austria and performances of The Beckett Project on a US tour in March and September. In 2007 he directed Martin Crimp’s Attemps on her Life with TTRP at The Esplanade Theatre on the Bay.

Zarrilli is also noted for his work with Indian dancers and choreographers. In 2010 he was commissioned by Sankalpam to co-created with Artistic Director, Stella Subbiah, Corpo-realities 2: ‘…sweet…dry…bitter…plaintive…’—a production exploring the inner acting (abhinaya) dimensions of bharatanatyam. In 2006 he completed a new solo piece, The Flowering Tree, with Gitanjali Kolanad (Toronto premiere). In 2003 he adapted and directed the seventh century Sanskrit farce for the UK-based   bharatanatyam dance/theatre company, Sankalpam, with performances at the Purcell Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall (Royal National Theatre, London), and throughout the UK. In 2000 he co-created and directed Walking Naked with bharatanatyam dancer/choreographer, Gitanjali Kolanad, opened in Chennai and toured internationally until 2004 with performances in Mumbai, London, Seoul, New York, Toronto, etc.


Zarrilli is also a prolific author. In 2000 Zarrilli published the comprehensive introduction to the distinctive and colourful dance-drama of Kerala in South-West India, Kathakali Dance-Drama: Where Gods and Demons Comes to Play. Psychophysical Acting: an intercultural approach after Stanislavski, Zarrilli’s long-awaited book on the process of training actors through a psychophysical approach based on Asian martial arts and yoga was published in 2009 by Routledge Press (London). The book includes a DVD-ROM by Peter Hulton. It was awarded the ATHE 2010 Outstanding Book of the Year Award at the ATHE convention in Los Angeles. Zarrilli is currently working on a new book under contract with Routledge Press, (toward) a phenomenology of acting. He has published numerous journal articles.

The books that he has edited include Acting (Re)Considered (2nd ed 2002), When the Body Becomes All Eyes (1998), and Martial Arts in Actor Training (1993). He recently was lead co-editor of a special issue of Theatre, Dance and Performer Training that focused on ‘Intercultural Acting and Actor/Performer Training’.

In 2013 Zarrilli was designated Emeritus Professor of Performance Practice at Exeter University. He continues to be active in higher education and regularly gives key-note addresses based on his research, practice, and writing. Between 2010 and 2016 he was a Research Fellow at the International Research Centre, Interweaving Performance Cultures, at Freie Universitat (Berlin).