Actors on the Move
10 performers analyze the training regimens that animate them on stage
The interviews in this collage of voices—actors and actor-trainers who are devotees of a range of movement techniques—were conducted by the American Theatre editorial staff. Some are presented entirely in the artist's voice and others incorporate the reporter's framing comments.
RICHARD CRAWFORD and ADRIENNE KAPSTEIN,
actors and directors; co-founders,
Movement Theater Studio NYC, Brooklyn.
The method: Lecoq
The Training: École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, Paris; Rose Bruford College, London (Crawford) and University of Edinburgh, Scotland (Kapstein)
CRAWFORD: "Lecoq is a way, a path—not a 'technique'—that asks the actor: What do you have to say? Tragedy, commedia and bouffon all have a different approach, but the overarching theme in Lecoq is 'actor as creator.' The process helps you develop your own voice, not just as an actor but also as a theatre artist. That rounded training is lacking in the U.S. The empowerment of the actor to understand more than just the role he is playing is not often embraced here, and in New York there is a palpable hunger for physical-theatre training.
"In New York City the writer rules. But in Lecoq, the writer becomes another voice in the group. We don't always start with the text, but if we do, we don't necessarily sit down and analyze it. Rather we ask: How does the writing move in space? What images does the text provide?
"The aim is to use your body as a way to approach emotion. It's pointless to have a wonderful inner life if your body doesn't know how to show that, and vice versa."
KAPSTEIN: "The Lecoq method demands that you think in multiple ways. Le jeu, which means play, is something I use all the time—finding the spirit of play and using games with actors to build ensemble. The big secret that's not such a secret is: If the actor is having pleasure on stage, the audience will, too.
"We use the neutral mask a lot because it is such a truth-teller. You put it on and people can see all the idiosyncratic things you do with your body, things you should be aware of so that you can heighten them or shed them depending on a role. I like to do a lot of object work, too. I'll take a piece of newspaper and crumple it and watch it struggle to regain its shape. I'll then ask students to find that dynamic in their own breath, bodies and gaze. I will ask them to become the quality of that newspaper. In this way we can find the spirit of Tragedy, for example.
"Lecoq is a way of bypassing the psychological—it engages the actor with his or her body and breath so that the delivery of text can provoke an emotional response in the audience. It's not that Lecoq avoids the psychological, rather that if the actor is present and playing he can use this approach to create a psychological effect. It goes back to the idea that everything moves (my former company was called SaBooge, a play on ça bouge, meaning 'it moves' in French). When my eyes opened up to the idea that everything moves, it became a wonderful jumping-off point for inspiration—how empowering that is!"Back to Top
BEN CUNIS, actor, resident fight choreographer, Synetic Theater, Arlington, Va.
The method: Parkour
The Training: B.A. in drama, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.; Primal Fitness parkour gym, Washington, D.C.; Urban Evolution parkour gym, Alexandria, Va.
"Parkour is a physical discipline in which the artist, or traceur, attempts to negotiate obstacles in his environment in the most efficient way possible. Jumping, running, vaulting, climbing, balancing and quadrupedal movement are all part of parkour. Where martial arts are the fight impulse made systematic, parkour is the discipline of the flight impulse. Parkour may often be viewed as an extreme sport in the media, but traceurs tend to emphasize the focus, philosophy and discipline of the form over the 'extreme' aspect.
"I encourage Synetic actors to train in parkour movements because there is an emphasis on gaining knowledge of one's body in space as it relates to dangers (falling, colliding with objects, losing balance) and applying that knowledge to move through obstacles with ease and safety. To me, parkour is about understanding the relationship between your body and the physical world, and enjoying it. Learn to fall, roll, land, climb and interact with the physical world so that you can perform better in your run, play or dance piece. The real joy of parkour is that it changes how you look at your environment—everything becomes a potential playground!
"Text is just one piece of human vocabulary. I believe parkour on stage communicates a sense of great urgency. The more extreme the technique, the more urgent the impression. For example, instead of sidestepping an imaginary weapon, we dive and roll away from it—the size of the movement expresses to the audience the amount of danger the character sees in the weapon. Or instead of using the stairs, Romeo might run up the wall and deliver his text having balanced himself upon the balcony. We ask what effect the physical embodiment of his exuberance will have on, 'And I'll still stay, to have thee still forget, / Forgetting any other home but this.'
"I should stress that the skills we use are always in service of telling the story. If the applied movement doesn't create the right effect, it gets cut. Parkour, in performance, is synthesized with a host of other techniques taught by our founders, Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili. We don't say, 'Now we will perform parkour, then we'll try some mime work and then ballet.' Techniques must exist seamlessly, simultaneously, and all be subservient to character and story.
"We use specific techniques for body awareness and safety reasons. We drill quiet rolls, because they are the transference of vertical impact force into horizontal movement—instead of absorbing the impact through the joints and muscles in the body, the energy is redirected through reshaping of the body and a brief engagement of muscles. This allows a performer to fall or land from height safely but also continue the flow of momentum if they are attempting to travel continuously.
"Our productions always have elements of danger. Parkour training is a safety net. The philosophy is that a person trained in parkour is more likely to know their limits and how they relate to objects, and therefore is a more safe and trustworthy performer.
"Parkour originated as a modern discipline by David Belle but has origins in the Méthod Naturelle training system developed in the early 20th century by Georges Hébert. Hébert was dismayed by what he saw as a lack of strength in French soldiers and developed a method that centered on primitive movements: pull, push, climb, walk, run, jump, lift, carry, attack, defend, swim. His mantra was, 'Be strong to be useful.' Jacques Copeau adopted Hébert's system as a part of his actor-training program, and Jacques Lecoq also made use of it—in other words, the fathers of modern physical theatre were in league with the systems of the grandfather of modern parkour!"Back to Top
HEATHER HARPHAM, actor, New York City
The method: Action Theater
The teacher: Ruth Zaporah, Santa Fe, N.M.
"In the early 1990s, I took a five-month workshop with Ruth Zaporah. My background had been acting and writing, and what thrilled me about Ruth's work is that it seemed to synthesize those two processes: It was both generative, in the way writing is, and it was expressive and spontaneous and performative, in the way acting is. I was bowled over by the breadth and depth of inner resourcefulness that the work demanded. You couldn't fall back on physical clichés. You couldn't lean on the things that had brought you some success in the past. It asked you to be physically daring.
"Ruth never prescribes particular movements. She isn't ever asking you to leap or land, or to collapse the space between your knees and your shoulders. But she will ask you to go to an inner space and bring it into your body so you're not a talking head—bring it into your fingers. She will take what students were presenting, and then ask them to go deeper, to find more subtlety, more nuance.
"Now, all of this talk presents the work as an individual would see it. But a large part of the work is done as an ensemble that plays together musically. You might come in and stand in a circle and do breath work; you'd be creating a musical composition using rhythm or your breath—patterns, percussion—just with breath sound. Then you're playing with timing, position, dynamic shifts. Eventually, ultimately, you're playing with content, but not necessarily with a traditional story—rather with conditions, situations, that happen on stage.
"One primary way I use this form is to improvise to generate material. It inverts the relationship between body and page. You're not writing and then figuring out how to put it up; you already have it up, and you're transcribing off the body onto the page. I tinker a lot after I've got it. But it's a question of composition; once you've created the piece, the bulk of your staging work, in a certain sense, is done.
"In another realm, it's incredibly helpful to actors who are working with traditional texts to shake up their expectations of themselves and others. It blows open the scope of expressivity for an actor to be pulled way out of their normal range, way into non-naturalism, so that when they come back to scene work, it's with a fresh feeling. If you can learn to be truly present moment to moment, which is what Action Theater demands of you—if you can bring that elevated awareness back into your text-based work—you'll be dynamite, you'll be alive."Back to Top
MARGUERITE MATHEWS, actor
co-founder of Pontine Theatre, Portsmouth, N.H.
The method: Decroux
The teachers: Étienne Decroux; Thomas Leabhart, Pomona College, Claremont, Calif.
"Decroux's technique places the actor at the center of the creative process. The actors make all the decisions about what's going to appear on the stage—the text, the set, the props, the costumes. Decroux's idol was Edward Gordon Craig, and Craig didn't even want there to be people—only puppets. Decroux tried to make people use their own bodies like puppets, to have that much control. It's Brechtian in the sense that you don't surrender to emotion. It's the complete opposite of the Stanislavsky point of view—that you feel like a tree, and so look like a tree. Instead, you observe a tree and analyze it scientifically and replicate that with your movement, and the audience feels the tree.
"I studied with Decroux for two winters, and then with Tom Leabhart for another two winters. At the time, Tom had been away from Decroux only a couple of years, so the syllabus of exercises was the same. The ritual of class was very important to Decroux. When Decroux was ready to receive us he would ring a bell three times. You would go down the stairs one at a time to his basement studio and shake hands with Decroux and look him full in the face. Then you'd be given a rope, and you would do pulls to open up the chest and increase the movement of the arms in the sockets.
"In one such pose, Winged Victory, you would relax your body, put strong tension on the rope, lift the rope above and behind your head, and push the weight of your body forward on the balls of your feet. How you put the ropes away involved using your body in a particular way, too. Decroux was always teaching articulation: moving the head without the neck...moving the neck without the chest...moving the head, neck and chest without the waist...all down the body. In Giving Back the Rope, you would do a rotation to the right, then an inclination to the right and back, with your bust (which was your chest, your neck and your head, soldered together as one unit); then you would do an Eiffel Tower, which was moving the entire weight of the body over to the right foot; you would rotate that Eiffel Tower to the left; and then bring your weight over to your left foot, which would trigger your right arm moving forward in space; and Decroux would take the rope from you. Nothing could jiggle, nothing could be random. It had to be absolutely crisp and precise.
"Decroux had declared a hundred-year war on the theatre, and he felt he was in the beginning stages, stripping it down to an essential place. But he encouraged the next generation to bring in text and other elements. When Tom started making his own work, one of his first pieces was Table, Chair, Glass, a meditation on someone struggling with the idea of taking a drink. In Decroux's pieces, like The Carpenter, the primary drama was the struggle of the muscle on bone in the human body, and Tom extended that, taking it into the metaphysical realm.
"My early work was very much like what I saw Decroux do. Then I fell in love with a few 19th-century New England writers, and I began to hunger to do their material on stage. I started using toy-theatre elements, rolling panoramas, video projections, puppetry. In my company, it's the actors who make everything. We construct our puppets so they have a distinction between the chest, the waist and the hip, because the real heart of drama, for Decroux, was the chest opposing the hip. The Decroux techniques are not always visible to Pontine's audiences, but I use them all of the time. How I set an object down, how my eye gazes on an object, how I let the audience feel the development of desire or repulsion: that is all straight Decroux."Back to Top
DAN LAWRENCE, actor, New York City
The method: Rasaboxes
The teachers: Richard Schechner, New York University;
Paula Murray Cole, Ithaca College, Ithaca, N.Y.
In between scenes while performing Laertes in the Gallery Players's production of Hamlet in Brooklyn, the young classical actor Dan Lawrence juiced up his body to achieve a "rasic" performance. "Laertes appears early on in Shakespeare's play and then he disappears. When he reenters, he is already in a high emotional state," the 26-year-old Lawrence recalls. "He's ready to kill. While I'm off stage for an hour, I can go through my script as much as I want, but the real question is: How am I going to enter that emotional state physically? I definitely used rasabox training for that.
"Before I entered the stage, I started with the gestures. I brought in breath—and sounds, when I could. Obviously I wasn't shouting off stage, but I was preparing myself physically so that when I burst onto the stage, I was already there mentally. For me, rasabox training is a fail-safe system when something is wrong and I am not connecting. I have this physical way to jump-start my emotions."
According to the rasaboxes physical-theatre system developed by the theorist/director Richard Schechner in the 1980s and 1990s—which was in turn interculturally drawn from a manual of ancient Sanskrit performance theory called Natyasastra—human beings experience nine rasas (or "flavors" of feeling), which correspond to nine types of sthayi bhavas (or emotions). The rasa called raudra, for example, links up to the sthayi bhava called krodha, which means anger or rage. Other rasas correspond to desire/love, humor/laughter, pity/grief, energy/vigor, fear/shame, disgust, surprise/wonder and bliss. Schechner's theoretical précis Rasaesthetics blends the Natyasastra's performance theory with contemporary emotion research, neuroscience and Antonin Artaud's Western call for "an athlete of emotions." Schechner specifies that acting "is the art of presenting the sthayi bhavas so that both the performer and the partaker [i.e., the audience] can 'taste' the rasa."
Schechner and his East Coast Artists colleagues Michele Minnick and Paula Murray Cole have developed a series of orderly training exercises that combine breath, sound and movement with nine of the Sanskrit rasas, helping actors safely and effectively explore a wide range of emotions. Having cut his teeth professionally at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in Garrison, N.Y., and Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., Lawrence was tutored by Cole, a theatre professor at Ithaca College and one of the many Schechner disciples who are certified to teach this training method. Rasaboxes has also been taught by Minnick, Rachel Bowditch, Fernando Calzadilla and Márcia Moraes in summer workshops offered at New York University. Introductory and intensive rasaboxes workshops have been offered at the Actors Movement Studio since 2005, as well as the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wa.
"Rasaboxes exercises start step-by-step and get more and more involved," Lawrence explains. "We make a diagram on the floor of these Sanskrit words, these archetypal emotions. Then we write out our own definitions of these boxes, developing a personal relationship with these emotions. When you enter the box, you create a gesture or a pose. Initially you stay in the box for no longer than a minute. You experience it for a couple of seconds, see what that feels like, then jump out of the box and go to neutral. A 'pose' can have a negative connotation in movement techniques; it can often be viewed as artificial. But rasabox exercises help you move past cliché gestures of core emotions."
The actor begins to learn that each box has a different breath associated with it. After breath comes sound, and still later movement. According to Lawrence, "Once you go into the boxes and you have the gesture and breath, memories start to happen. Stories begin to develop in your head. Eventually you bring in monologues, texts and scenes. That's the best part, because you're experiencing rasas with other actors. The script is the piece of music. And the rasa is the annotation: the tempo, the quality of brightness or softness, all the sensations."
One advantage of the rasabox method is that it allows an actor the freedom to improvise, as if leaping into a cold pool of water. "You're defeating your rationality and critical thinking right away," Lawrence says. "You're getting into your area of vulnerability a lot faster. It's about spontaneity and training yourself not to pre-plan things." Moreover, the lengthier an actor's involvement has been with each rasabox, the richer the flavors when emotions are shared with other actors in the room. "How do you experience despair and happiness at the same time, for instance, like crying through tears of joy? The whole idea is that we already have the ingredients in our body for these things, and there is a way to cook them, a formula, to bring about the emotions."Back to Top
ORLANDO PABOTOY, actor and director, New York City
The Method: Eskrima
The Teacher: Grandmaster Arnulfo "Guro Dong" Cuesta, PIMA Academy, Jersey City. N.J.
Stage fright can be compared to many things—an out-of-body experience, being dunked underwater, feeling naked. But how about getting smacked with a rattan stick?
"If someone hits you in the head, right away, your adrenaline goes up," explains Orlando Pabotoy, an actor and director who has trained in the Filipino martial art Eskrima, as well as studying clown work and commedia dell'arte. Adrenaline is also often gushing when an actor hits the stage, combat scene or no, and the physical effects of such a rush can be striking: decreased peripheral vision combined with erratic bursts of energy, and constrained hearing as pumping blood fills one's ears. It's a near-animal state of fear that makes it hard to give a fully rounded and responsive performance.
"You can get stuck in a mechanical way of performing if you're always in the place where it's either live or die," says Pabotoy. "Do you stick to the lines no matter what, or can you react to things when they go differently?"
That's where the fast, fleet-footed combat drills of Eskrima, according to Pabotoy, can help train performers to find responses in the moment as opposed to safe, mechanized choices.
"It helps the performer to listen in that heightened place," avows Pabotoy, who is currently on the faculty of New York University's Tisch School for the Arts. "The common thing people are taught to do in that situation is to relax and to breathe. But what happens if you can find a way to live there, not relax—to breathe, sure, but actually live there?"
And though Eskrima has become a mainstream fighting style since it was used in the blockbuster Bourne film series, it's not all bash-and-crash. "It's extremely fast and highly rhythmic," Pabotoy explains. "It's not so much about hitting but about deflection and the process of hitting. There's a lot of flow in it."
Pabotoy has applied not only Eskrima's rhythmic flow but its specific cultural lexicon in his own directing and performing work: in productions of The Romance of Magno Rubio at New York's Ma-Yi Theater Company and Minneapolis's Theater Mu, and in a Midsummer Night's Dream at San Diego's Old Globe, in which Pabotoy's Puck occasionally sported an Eskrima stick.
Pabotoy does make Eskrima sound like good preparation to play a mercurial sprite when he says, "It gets you in a place where you're faster than you're thinking. Your body is doing the thinking."Back to Top
TOM PELPHREY, actor, Brooklyn, N.Y.
The method: Williamson Technique
The teacher: Janice Orlandi, artistic director,
Actors Movement Studio Conservatory
When Tom Pelphrey appeared last fall in Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's The Lion in Winter, he found—as he says he often does—that his training in Loyd Williamson's movement technique stood him in good stead.
"It sort of felt like a melodrama—there are all these massive needs and hurts and betrayals, and this big longing that's really larger-than-life," Pelphrey says of James Goldman's oft-performed play about scheming royals. "And I felt very free to express all those feelings in my body. I was doing gestures and moving in a way that I don't think I would usually do in a more naturalistic play, but the show called for it—and I never had a fear of jumping off the ledge. I think you can trace my confidence in that back to the movement technique I learned with Janice Orlandi."
At Rutgers State University in New Jersey, Orlandi imparted to Pelphrey a technique she learned from the training innovator Loyd Williamson. A performer and designer, Williamson noticed that actors—particularly young actors—who were encouraged to tap big, volatile emotions by Method-style training ran into trouble finding a way to express them, particularly with their bodies. He developed his movement training to release the tension of such unexpressed emotions into actors' bodies.
Pelphrey says he noticed much the same thing about himself as a young actor. "When you're a young actor, you don't know what to do with a lot of these feelings, so you become tense," explains Pelphrey, who achieved some fame on TV's "Guiding Light" and is a co-founding member of New York's Apothecary Theatre Company. "This technique allows you to have all these feelings you're not sure what to do with, but forces you to run them through your body. It teaches you to release them into these structured movements."
The program includes sections such as the "drunk salon"—an ensemble-wide improv with pretend alcohol—as well as the self-explanatory "animal work" and a period-style salon. The result, as Pelphrey says, is "a means to an end." Unlike the roles in The Lion in Winter, many naturalistic stage and film parts won't call for a lot of stylized or structured movements. But, says Pelphrey, "You slowly realize how you can use Williamson's training in your work—you start to recognize how your body feels when it's open and available versus when you're tense and shut down."Back to Top
JESSE PEREZ, actor, New York City
The Method: Creating a Character:
A Physical Approach to Acting
(first published in 1990)
The Teacher: Moni Yakim,
Juilliard School, New York City
"The first year at Juilliard, the focus is on physique. In the second year, they start exercising your mind and willpower, and that's where Moni Yakim comes in. When you engage the mind with the movement, all of a sudden you're working twice as hard.
"Moni has you walk in space a lot. He tells you to walk as a blank slate. Then all of a sudden he'll tell you to lead with a certain part of your body: your elbow, your head. He asks how it feels, tells you to let out a sound. He starts engaging different parts of the body that can open up a well of imagination. When he starts beatboxing—dee-dee-doo, ba-da-deedee-de-deet—you know exactly what it means: Isolate the right shoulder, isolate the left shoulder, shoulders up, shoulders down.... The whole time, you're doing a little march as an ensemble in a tight clump. If you hit somebody, you've done the movement wrong.
"One of his exercises is called the Spanish Inquisition. It's a painful, hardcore exercise based in pilates and yoga and also willpower. You're stretching your body to its utmost. Afterward your body elongates and relaxes, and you're wearing your skin in a whole new way. Moni gives you tough love, but the man has a sense of humor. He hardly ever raises his voice, so you know when he does that he's pushing you for a very specific reason.
"Text comes in during the third year. Sometimes he has you engage with each other while speaking gibberish. You're exhausted at this point in the class, so as much as your mind is engaged, it's also free. Before he guides you there, he has you focus on each other, doing really violent movement. The rhythm might be 'pa-POW!' and you're doing a full turn in the air. He comes at you fast: 'pa-POW! pa-POW! Talk to each other!' You get used to 'pa-POW!' being the trigger that gets you out of your head. Afterward he tells you to stop and just stay in space. And right then, if you have text, is when he'll have you produce it.
"I just played Florindo, the boastful lover in A Servant of Two Masters, at Yale Rep. I went back to basics: leading with the chest, excercising muscles in my back, realizing how to look upward when I walked around, asking where my character's power comes from. Florindo is a funny character, but not to himself. Even doing commedia, I had to find the truth in this body. I did a whole monologue walking straight downstage till I got to the apron, and then ran all the way back crying and yelling. To do that eight times a week, you have to go back to your training. That's what Moni's about: the freedom inside the body when doing these extreme characterizations."Back to Top
PABLO SCHREIBER, actor, New York City
The method: Alexander Technique
The teachers: Tom Vasiliades, Alexander Technique Center for Performance and Development, New York City; Kaf Warman, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh
"I attended Carnegie Mellon, where the training is related to Lecoq and Marceau. It was later on that I began studying Alexander Technique, in 2007, just before taking on a role in Christopher Shinn's Dying City, in which I was about to play twins. I felt that I needed a way to make a subtle differentiation between the two brothers in the play, and I thought Alexander Technique would fit what I was looking for. Ten hour-long sessions during that rehearsal period is the extent of my formal training with an Alexander teacher, but this is work that you can do on your own, so I've continued it since then.
"Alexander is based on letting go of tension and aligning the body. It helped me to realize that the release of tension—learning not to hold it in—allows you to be free, in the moment of impulse, to receive whatever other characters are giving you, and to give back freely to them. That was eye-opening for me, because tension is my own biggest impediment to being open on stage.
"Over time, that kind of experience has come to me in several other disciplines. My wife is a yoga teacher, and I've learned that yoga has essentially the same goal: to be open to the moment, available to inspiration, even divine inspiration. That also comes in Buddhist meditation practice—releasing yourself to the floor and the Earth, opening the connection to the divine, which is essentially the self. It was the Alexander Technique that sent me on that journey.
"Desire Under the Elms [at Chicago's Goodman Theatre and on Broadway] was a play that required intense emotional commitment and an intense connection to the actress I was working with—a death connection, you might say, that spiraled into a mad pit of passion and desire. Every night we had to find a new reason to fall in love and jump off this cliff together. I showed up at the theatre an hour or two before performances to meditate, to focus on alignment and surrender of tension. If I'd gone on stage without this kind of preparation, I know I'd have been less available and unable to connect emotionally to the specifics of the circumstances. I'm about to go into rehearsal for Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries [at NYC's Second Stage Theatre], a two-character play that will require a similar kind of concentration. In a Broadway run, this has to happen eight times a week. It takes vigilance. It may be that any technique is imperfect, but Alexander has helped me go as far as possible."Back to Top
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