body, breath, activation, performance
This training process introduces participants to a psychophysical paradigm and approach to awakening the actors’ bodymind in performance. It begins by focusing on the development of the contemporary actor’s interiority, i.e., how the actor might discover, awaken, shape, understand, and deploy ‘energy’, awareness, focus/concentration, and feeling to the ‘matter’ of performance—the impulses, structure, contours, and texture of the tasks or actions that constitute a specific performance score shaped by particular dramaturgies.
The process described here has been developed since 1976. It is a unique combination of psychophysical exercises drawn from traditional Asian disciplines of body-mind training, ‘transposed’ through a practical studio-based language that allows the principles informing these traditional trainings to become immediately useful to the contemporary actor. While the exercises are ‘traditional’, the pedagogy is contemporary.
The work begins with pre-performative psychophysical training to prepare and awaken the bodymind through Asian martial/meditation arts - Chinese taiquiquan, Indian yoga, and the closely related martial art, kalarippayattu. Bodymind connections are practically elabored through the exercises as are a sense of activation through breath in movement, the development of focus/concentration, circulation of energy through the body and awakening the bodymind to partners, ensemble, and the performance environment.
Over long-term practice, this work ideally enables participants’ bodies to ‘become all eyes’, i.e. to develop an intuitive awareness necessary for performance.
At first the training concentrates on basic psychophysical training through repetition of exercises and introduction of underlying principles. We then begin to ‘apply’ a few of the principles-in-practice through structured improvisations. Coordination of breath with movement and specific of external focus are put into ‘play’ within these simple structures which start to take the shape of ‘performances’.
training to physicalization of action by applying those principles to psychophysical scores as diverse as The Water Station—a highly poetic non-verbal score by Japanese playwright/director Ota Shogo, Genet’s The Maids, Beckett’s plays, or the recent work of Sarah Kane or Martin Crimp.
[Ota Shogo is an internationally known author and director whose work has been described as actualizing an “aesthetics of quietude”. The physical score for The Water Station is a series of often poetic physical tasks/actions requiring the actor to actualize a heightened sensory awareness of space and time. Zarrilli directed The Water Station at Esplanade Theatres on the Bay in Singapore in 2004 with an international (mostly Asian) cast of nineteen. With any text, the point of departure is the initiation of impulses from which subsequent physical action/tasks arise.]
The physical scores take the work directly in rehearsals, and, when possible, to full performance.
The psychophysical approach to acting outlined above builds most immediately on the visions and key principles and insights of Stanislavsky, Grotowski, and Artaud. It was the Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938) who, as part of his life-long practical research into the nature and processes of acting first developed a ‘psychophysical’ approach to Western acting focused equally on the actor’s psychology and physicality applied to textually-based character acting. Stanislavsky described how the actor’s “physical score”, once perfected, must go beyond “mechanical execution” to a “deeper” level of experience which “is rounded out with new feeling and … become[s], one might say, psychophysical in quality” (1961:66). Thus, “in every physical action … there is concealed some inner action, some feelings” (1961:228).
This work explores the ‘inner action’ of vibration/resonation, not from a psychological/behavioral point of departure, but from a task-based physical point of departure where, following the vision of Artaud, the actor ideally becomes an “athlete of the heart” who creates and enacts a “metaphysics” “at the nerve ends” and “through the skin”. Here, the actor gains a “physical understanding of [the embodiment of] images” (1958). Like any good psychophysical process, reaching such a state of psychophysical actualization is only accomplished through long-term training.
Basic principles ...
"One cannot work on oneself ... if one is not inside something which is structured and can be repeated, which has a beginning, a middle and an end, something in which every element has its logical place, technically necessary. All this determined from the point of view of that verticality toward the subtle and of its (the subtle) descent toward the density of the body. (Grotowski 1995:130)
"...t'ai chi is corporeal reflection on shadow and breath. It stresses clarity in vacancy-movements which are exact, clean and pure, while inseparable and indecipherable" (Blau, 1982:125)
"A real, well-prepared and perfectly executed pause (long or short) is what we call inner action, since its significance is implied by silence." (Barba, 1995:80).
... and practices are introduced, including:
• Work that begins and ends with the breath
• Working through the entire body, with emphasis on contact through the feet with the floor
• Embodying key metaphors for actualization of practice
• Developing a language of and principles for spatial awareness
• Developing focus, a state of concentratedness necessary for performance
• Developing dynamic ‘energy’ for application to performance through modulation
All the above are necessarily developed over the long-term
. Hopefully, you will glimpse the possibilities in such training. But it must become both intuitive, and available for application if it is to be useful to the actor.
Summary of key embodied/material metaphors
• ‘the body becomes all eyes’ (meyyu kanakkuka
, Malayalam folk expression)
• ‘standing still while not standing still’ (A.C. Scott)
• working ‘on the edge of a breath’ … ’at the nerve ends’ (Herbert Blau and Antonin Artaud)
• the ‘flow’ of ‘water’ (energy) through particular parts of the body
• surfaces/parts of the body as ‘alive’ to awareness/sight/absorption
Summary of application to performance/acting
• The training is at first a preparation of the bodymind - one path for “work on the self” at the level of ‘underscore’. This work on the self is a constant in psychophysical training processes. The longer one trains, the subtler should be the level of one’s ability to discern the nuances of one’s use of energy, the shaping and deployment of that energy in specific dramaturgies, and the ‘intuitive’ application of key principles in actual practice - all the elements that constitute a particular performance’s ‘underscore’.
• Deployment of the awareness developed in the long-term training to performance situations. How does one specifically and strategically apply these principles and the training to acting and performance problems in the studio?
1. The training is used as a warm-up for rehearsal or performance in order to prepare, awaken, and attune both individual and ensemble.
2. In text-based character acting, the workshops becomes a preliminary exploration of psychophysiological of states of being-doing in order to provide actors with an initial immersion into embodied states. For example, this is the case with explorations of “disgust” for actors playing Claire and Solange, or the “compression” of an impulse (such as a laugh) when a man plays Madame in Genet’s The Maids
. Utilizing the type of awareness developed in the training, in The Maids
, I ask the Claires and Solanges to play an improvisation in which the power shifts from one to the other - what is the psychophysical ‘feel’ of these shifts? Are you keeping your awareness open in these shifts? Another example would be shaping the physical action and physical scores of such characters as the Smiths and Martins in Ionesco’s The Balcony
as a beginning point in rehearsal process. Such task-based physical work gets actors immediately into a psychophysical rather than intentional relationship with the ‘characters’.
3. The training and its principles are also used when exploring psychophysiological states of being-doing through use of task-based images in order to generate a specific performance state to be sustained as part of the dramaturgy of a performance, such as the states in Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis
, Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life
, or Speaking Stones
(semi-devised performance with text authored by Kaite O’Reilly). Each such state must be specifically unfolded through an active embodiment of an image or state that may shift or change, but must be sustained through time. Some of Samuel Beckett’s performance scores have specific psychophysical tasks/states that must be maintained, such as Beckett’s Not I
where it is crucial for the actress to stay grounded, keep an awareness of her feet in order not to allow the voice to ‘ride up’. In Eh Joe
the actor must have a psychophysical basis for the task of ‘not blinking’ as he tries to ‘squeeze’ the Voice out of his head.
4. The work is also a constant source of body/spatial awareness to be drawn upon while acting so that one’s energy does not ‘collapse’ and so that the shape of tasks and actions does not lose its dramaturgical shape. In this sense the work is applicable to any/all performances scores. Tactics are provided through which one may deploy the ‘awarenesses’ developed in training may be readily applied to the complex, dialectical, shifting consciousness one inhabits while performing.
For a full elaboration of all these processes and issues, see Zarrilli's new book,
The Psychophysical Actor At Work
(London: Routledge, Forthcoming, 2007).
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