The American actor-in-training today can choose to study many disciplines that are based in physical expression. Body awareness and alignment, mask work, clowning and circus skills, physical characterization, spatial relationships, ensemble work, improvisation, games, mime…. So many forms of movement training exist today, and so many specialists work in these related fields, that the opportunity to connect the craft of acting with the movement of the body has never been richer. For many students, however, the source of the training that they are undertaking remains a mystery. Decades (even centuries), continents and cultures separate young American actors from the genesis of the movement techniques they are so happily and devotedly absorbing today. So what are some of the main lineages represented in modern movement training for the stage? Where do they come from, and from whom? And are there important divergences in method or purpose between these differing approaches?
Before we tackle these questions, a brief digression: What does not constitute movement training for the actor? A dizzying multitude of body-training systems exist, ranging from yoga, Pilates, gyrotonics, tai chi, capoeira and other martial arts to athletics, gymnastics and formal dance, all of which exercise and offer technical challenges for the body, and many of which include a performative component. We have, however, come a long way from Henry Irving’s 19th-century regimen of dance and fencing classes as preparation for the physical rigors of the stage. It is generally agreed that these body-training systems have little or no bearing on the central premises of actor-training. Many teachers in our acting schools and conservatories have even questioned the usefulness of the word “movement” as a description of the work happening in the studio. Fearing unnecessary connotations, several have chosen “physical acting” as a more accurate and integrated term.
Regardless of their differing emphases, all modern theatrical movement systems for the actor agree that the imagination is the engine of the actor’s physical life. This essential truth stands as both corrective and warning to performers who believe that yoga, dance class or a visit to the gym prepares their bodies adequately for the craft of acting.
The question of how to access the imagination, and how movement training might serve the search to release it, inspires a fascinating breadth of methods and pedagogies. The teaching of Jacques Lecoq (1921–99) remains one of the primary sources of movement training in this country and in Western theatre at large.
Lecoq’s influence has been seen in the work of seminal modern theatre companies such as Complicite, Theatre de la Jeune Lune and Théâtre du Soleil, and of such artists as Peter Brook, Julie Taymor, Yasmina Reza and Geoffrey Rush, to brush just the tip of the iceberg. In training institutions in the U.S., hundreds (perhaps thousands) of acting teachers continue each day to explore the “territories of theatre” that Lecoq popularized for the actor at the famous school in Paris that he ran for almost 50 years. Many such teachers trained with Lecoq himself; others came to Lecoq’s work through collaborations with his previous students.
Christopher Bayes, now head of physical acting at the Yale School of Drama and one of this country’s best-known teachers of the art of clowning, was a member of the now-defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis for five years, where he first came into contact with Lecoq’s legacy. “I’ve been hugely influenced by my exposure to Lecoq’s work,” says Bayes. “How to think about the actor’s performance, the architecture of the space, explorations of style—these are three elements of theatrical training where Lecoq blazed the trail.”
Lecoq’s investigation of the physical imagination stressed the importance of external forms—architectural, musical and theatrical. His criteria for training were based in anthropology, the study of gesture, and the anatomical study of the body in an aesthetic context. He had a passion for the regles du jeu theatral—the rules of the theatrical game. One could say, however crudely, that Lecoq worked “from the outside.” He asked his actors to meet the rigors and demands of form and trusted that inner truth would follow; hence his strong emphasis on movement analysis. In Lecoq’s seminal work The Moving Body, Lecoq wrote: “People discover themselves in relation to their grasp of the external world. I do not search for deep sources of creativity in psychological memories.” Consequently, the base condition for Lecoq’s actor is physical neutrality, a state that is achieved through careful adaptation of the body to bring about a kind of preternatural openness or availability, leaving individuality and personality behind.
In Lecoq work, form explicitly precedes content. Moving through Lecoq’s program, a student delves into the study of commedia dell’arte, in which, as Lecoq states, “fixed external movements and the mask create the internal character”—again, the form coming first, the inner response in its wake. Even Lecoq’s beloved clown, the most personal and intimate of his theatrical manifestations (and the messiest), is an immediately recognizable formal icon, red-nosed and topsy-turvily attired. The actor’s innermost revelations as a clown are contextualized by the theatrical genre in which they are framed.
Lecoq’s sophisticated and challenging work takes the student through a rigorous repertoire of physical and imaginative skills based in the universal poetic forms that Lecoq believed were timeless. His graduates then carry with them into their future creative lives “various references recognized in the body,” as Lecoq states—references that include clowning, commedia, character mask work (as first developed by Jacques Copeau), melodrama, even Greek tragedy. The body of a Lecoq student has been exposed to multiple formal, structural and stylistic demands. It is not by chance, certainly, that many Lecoq graduates have made remarkably adventurous directors, designers and authors.
“Lecoq’s work asks actors how to live in their bodies and communicate physically with an audience,” suggests Bayes, “not as a private experience to be viewed through a peephole, but as a public event, to be crafted and given away.” This physical training awakens the imagination through composition, construction and the studied pursuit of artifice.
Lecoq’s early years in the theatre were spent working with one of the giants of the contemporary stage, Giorgio Strehler of the Piccolo Teatro, in Milan. It was there that a young Carlo Mazzone-Clementi—already deeply affected by Copeau’s research into “the study of the expressiveness of the body” (as Michel Saint-Denis describes in his Training for the Theatre)—met Lecoq (as well as Dario Fo), becoming Lecoq’s assistant for eight years. Fast forward two decades and across the Atlantic to Northern California, where, in the rustic timber town of Blue Lake, Mazzone-Clementi founded the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre. Now 35 years old, Dell’Arte has made a major contribution to the teaching of theatrical movement in the U.S.
Joan Schirle, Dell’Arte’s director, explains that the school continues to be guided by “Lecoq’s commitment to a non-psychological approach to acting, as well as the mask as a metaphor for all actor-training, and a teaching based on the dynamics of movement ‘through the re-enactment of everything that moves, whether in life or on stage’ (from The Moving Body).” At Mazzone-Clementi’s request, successive generations of master teachers at Dell’Arte have been graduates of Lecoq’s Paris school, including Ronlin Foreman; Avner Eisenberg, known in his stage persona as Avner the Eccentric; and Jim Calder, now of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Further afield, Mazzone-Clementi’s vision of the theatre, cousin to Lecoq’s, spreads its influence: Robert Francesconi, of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, studied with Mazzone-Clementi at Humboldt State University, and has been making movement mischief at UNCSA since 1978, where he is currently assistant dean.
The impact of Lecoq’s extraordinary body of work cannot be overstated. In his own words, he established for actors and artists “a permanent reference point that will stay with them for the rest of their creative lives.” Schirle puts it simply: “Like Lecoq’s pedagogy, we create a path of exploration for students to amass a vocabulary that allows them to make great theatre.”
Space, rhythm and the use of time, intensity, density and flow—all these technical ingredients, parts of the language of Lecoq’s classroom, were codified and examined in minute detail by the Hungarian dance theorist Rudolf Laban (1879–1958), whose body of work constitutes a second major source of movement training in the U.S.
Though Laban himself worked primarily in the field of dance, many of his students found that his articulated principles could be of tremendous value to the actor. Yat Malmgren, of the Drama Centre in London and American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and Trish Arnold, legendary British movement teacher and longtime collaborator with Kristin Linklater at the Massachusetts-based Shakespeare & Company, are two of the most influential theatre practitioners to work with Laban’s methods in the U.S. Laban Movement Analysis, or LMA, an interpretative system that separates the essentials of movement into component parts, is in certain ways akin to Lecoq’s studies of movement and plasticity as they relate to space and rhythm.
As Lecoq asserted in his explorations of neutrality, LMA reveals physical idiosyncrasies to be combinations of a multiplicity of choices; thus, to overcome habit and develop a creative body, the student must radically expand his or her range of potential movements. Laban accomplished this goal by identifying the gamut of physical possibilities with almost fanatical precision, and creating or refining exercises that access these possibilities. If the study of Laban first feels like learning a new language, that’s because his work offers the actor an entire grammar of movement, complete with structural foundations. Every physical word, paragraph and piece of punctuation is remorselessly deconstructed with a view to mastering this new language. Eventually, dedicated pursuit of Laban principles leads to fluency—and with fluency comes an almost limitless expressivity.
Malmgren’s work at ACT, examining the principles and dynamics of movement through Laban’s carefully defined “basic action drives” (which brought physical energy and a baggage-free freshness to the Stanislavskian pursuit of objectives), inspired major American theatre artists. Sabin Epstein, currently the head of performance skills at the National Theatre Conservatory in Denver, noticed a relationship between Malmgren’s teaching and the directing style of William Ball at ACT. “Ball directed at times as if he was directing spoken opera—the emphasis was on the shape, rhythm and dynamic of the action—the creation of the picture and the realization of the theatrical moment,” notes Epstein. “The actor was left to find the inner connection to the action as he or she engaged and surrendered to the gesture. It was tightly choreographed and structured, and, in that sense, the actor worked from the outside in.”
Epstein also adds, “I’ve incorporated many of Laban’s principles into my teaching for years, and they have provided a quick, readily accessible vocabulary for working with actors in class and in rehearsal. Everyone seems to understand effort and how it is related to process—and how, by changing one element, the entire shape of the action and its intent can change.” In the meantime, Trish Arnold, originally a dancer with the Royal Ballet in London (whose connection with Laban’s methods came about as a result of her collaborations with Sigurd Leeder of the Jooss Ballet), began to synthesize dance forms with pure movement in the work that she eventually shared with Shakespeare & Company.
Merry Conway—movement teacher emeritus from Shakespeare & Company, the Stratford Festival and the Denver Center Theatre Company and currently teaching independently out of New York—was mentored by Arnold and describes some of the central principles as follows: “Trish infused Jooss’s release-based swings with breath work specifically for actors and utilized Laban’s dimensions and use of movement qualities. The training helps actors to develop their instrument in a primary way, creating a basic understanding of the relationship between different parts of the body, and the body’s relationship with time, space, weight, gravity and impulse.” During her long tenure at LAMDA in the U.K., Arnold studied with Lecoq, and was entranced by his use of the mask in his teaching. Her subsequent incorporation of both neutral and character masks, animals and the elements into her methods was evidence of the high esteem in which she held Lecoq’s work. Arnold’s legacy has spread from the major drama schools in London (where many of her former students are the heads of movement) to institutions across the U.S., including departments at the University of Connecticut, Bard College and Brandeis University. Conway also notes that all of Linklater’s certified voice instructors have been exposed to Arnold’s work, making her contribution to the teaching of American actors ever-expanding—an influence that fuses the strains of both Laban and Lecoq’s teachings with sensitivity and great wisdom. Trish Arnold is 92 years old, and currently lives in London.
The practices of Lecoq and Laban, in their own ways, demand that the actor travel away from the self—toward the formal, the technical and the overtly theatrical—to inspire the creative spirit. The third major source of physical acting and training in the U.S., the legacy of Jerzy Grotowski (1933–1999), takes a different view.
The legendary Polish director and pedagogue, who visited the U.S. many times over the course of his life and held a residency at University of California–Irvine in the 1980s, proposed an alternative path toward inspiration—the via negativa, or “road backwards”—“not a collection of skills,” as Grotowski wrote, “but an eradication of blocks.” For Grotowski and many of his torchbearers working in this country today, the training of the actor begins with a thorough and uninhibited investigation of personal physical presence. “When an actor throws an arm into the air,” he once said, “the movement itself is not as important as the impulses that run through the arm.” Those impulses are unique, individual, uncodifable; they belong to no tradition, no convention, no genre. Actors studying Grotowski’s methods are drawn away from recognizable theatrical precedent towards personal imagination, memory and even ancestry, in the pursuit of a complete stage presence—an exposure of the actor’s core. It so happens that Grotowski developed rigorous physical practices in his exploration of these ends, including the famous Cat exercise which lives on in the work of Andy Robinson, head of the MFA in acting at the University of Southern California. Robinson met and worked with Grotowski at New York City’s La MaMa ETC in the 1960s and later at Irvine. “The Cat is the central exercise of my work with the students,” Robinson explains. “Each action provokes a flow of thought, feeling, sensation and often deep memory that feeds the dynamic momentum of the experience. The Cat pushes us to the edge of our physical abilities and provokes responses from all levels of our being.” Both personal truth and the actor’s imagination are released via a thorough penetration of the individual’s “muscle library”—inner responses to muscular activity that have been stored up over a lifetime, and are waiting to be accessed.
In describing his famous production of The Constant Prince, performed by Ryszard Cieslak, for example, Grotowski noted that “all the river of life in the actor was linked to a certain memory…to the most minute actions and physical and vocal impulses of that remembered moment.” Stephen Wangh, a one-time student of Cieslak and Grotowski who is currently on the contemporary performance faculty at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., describes Grotowski’s intention as “to help actors find emotional and imaginative sources for their work, and to locate ‘containers’ for these sources.” Wangh, author of The Acrobat of the Heart: A Physical Approach to Acting, further suggests that many of the central principles of Grotowski’s training are shared with other acting systems that have strong internal components; a powerful emphasis on listening, for example, connects Grotowski with the practices of Sanford Meisner, while preoccupations with memory, image and emotion cross paths with the passions of Lee Strasberg.
In the training bequeathed by Grotowski, then, the “cycle of the actor’s personal associations” (the Polish auteur’s phrase from his article “From the Theatre Company to Art as Vehicle”) is the cornerstone—an approach that contrasts clearly with Lecoq’s aforementioned refusal to seek creativity in psychological memories. Was it Grotowski’s influence on U.S. actor-training that caused Lecoq to remark in The Moving Body, with Gallic insouciance: “I have heard that in the United States, they [actors] are attended by a ‘shrink.’ In Italy, they go onstage and play—that’s my idea, too…”?
For Michael Chekhov (1891—1955), the actor, director and teacher whose many travels led him finally to Hollywood, the actor’s odyssey should transcend both physical and psychological limitations. “When I try to imagine what the theatre can be and will be in the future,” said Chekhov in Lessons for the Professional Actor, “it will be a purely spiritual business, in which the spirit of a human being will be rediscovered by artists.”
Chekhov’s emphasis on the mystery of art fell on willing ears when first he taught in this country in the 1930s; his students (including many Group Theatre members and, later, movie stars such as Yul Brynner) and his heritage remains in vibrant health today. Chekhov qualifies as a fourth major source of movement training in the U.S owing to the consistent emphasis he placed upon the body as the source of the actor’s inspiration.
Andrei Malaev-Babel—author and assistant professor of theatre at the Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory Training in Sarasota, Fla., and a leading member of the Michael Chekhov Association, which nurtures Chekhov’s artistic flame and certifies teachers in his technique—describes actors’ bodies as “the seat of their creative intentions.” He continues: “Actors are used to acting around their intentions. But the body hints at what they really feel like playing: impulses, 100 percent truthful and free.” True creative intention, according to Malaev-Babel, is “readable” in the body; sometimes through microscopic physical movements, sometimes not through external movement at all, but through “radiation,” one of Chekhov’s signature indexes of the actor’s presence.
It is the teacher’s task, according to Chekhov, to reveal these bodily instincts to the actor and encourage their liberation. The process involves an enlarging of the corporeal experience, the suffusion of physical action with the breath of the imagination. “By developing our body, then our imagination will become free,” stated Chekhov in Lessons for the Professional Actor. The consequence of working in his technique—fulfilling “qualities” of movement, stimulating the imaginary body, unlocking the character’s psychological gesture—is to synthesize “everything which our soul, being influenced by something, absolutely intuitively creates.”
Another modern Chekhov exponent, Finnish-born actor-teacher Marjo-Riikka Makela of the Chekhov Studio International in Los Angeles, explains: “All the exercises in the Michael Chekhov technique are psycho-physical, which means that they incorporate the actor’s whole being.” Bordering on mysticism, but based in clear and simple physical exercises that promote harmony, ease and self-trust, Chekhov’s ecstatic vision of the actor as artist has found its place in the mainstream of American acting methodologies.
So we have journeyed from the Western European influences of Lecoq and Laban, via the Central European explorations of Grotowski, to the imagination of St. Petersburg–born Michael Chekhov. Moving farther East, we find still more varied sources for the physical training of the actor—sources that have crossed continents to make their homes in America. Japanese master director and theorist Tadashi Suzuki, co-founder with Anne Bogart of New York’s prominent SITI Company, has imparted to generations of U.S. actors the Suzuki Method, opening up a conversation about energy—where it is situated in the body, how it can be generated, sustained, controlled and emitted—that has had a powerful impact on modern movement training.
Fay Simpson, author, artistic director of Impact Theatre of New York City and faculty member at Yale School of Drama, uses the chakras and the concept of chakra centers to diagnose the bodies of both actor and, eventually, character. Integral to her ground-breaking Lucid Body movement system, the chakras are “both therapeutic and practical, and give the actor tools to create a character with different physical impulses,” says Simpson. In the meantime, maverick teacher Per Brahe, of the National Theatre Institute and his own Studio 5 in Brooklyn, continues to draw inspiration from the intensely physical traditions of Balinese dance theatre, bringing to U.S. students a new crop of transformational Balinese masks every year, prompting what Brahe describes as a “huge response in the body” that acolytes find amazing and exhilarating.
It would be invidious, of course, to leave the “father” of modern actor training Konstantin Stanislavsky out of our discussion. The restless master devoted his last years to the articulation of his “method of physical actions” (from which Grotowski derived so much inspiration), a highly developed acting technique that considers the verisimilitude of the body’s engagement with action to be the fount of truth in the actor’s art. Stanislavsky’s was truly a tireless examination of “physical acting” that belongs in any discussion of movement for the stage. Before any of the pioneering practitioners that we have discussed, it was Stanislavsky who first determined that the integration of the muscular, the spiritual and the psychological—the unity of body, heart and mind with both form and content—was the ultimate arrival point in the training of the actor.
“The purpose of this method,” Stanislavsky stated, as recorded by Vassily Toporkov in Stanislavsky in Rehearsal—The Final Years, “is to penetrate, through the logical and correct fulfillment of physical actions, into those complicated, deep feelings and emotional experiences which the actor must call out of himself, in order to create the given stage image.” It is Stanislavsky’s prime example that lives on in the responses of those teachers who object to the segregation of movement, voice and acting in classrooms and studios today.
The divergent opinions and disparate methods that have grown from the lineages discussed here offer radically different entry points into the training of the actor. There is plenty of room for debate in classrooms and rehearsal halls—but the theatre is nothing if not endlessly, eternally protean, and Americans are nothing if not ingenious. From sources far and wide, buried in time and borrowed from all corners of the earth, teachers of movement today have taken inspiration from the great innovators to forge the actors and theatre artists of tomorrow. “Most of the major actor-training schools and universities have finally seen the light,” proposes Joan Schirle. “We are in a period of greater acceptance for movement training in the profession and in academia—which means there will be more of it. There is a vast synthesis of approaches going on, as the major pioneers of the 20th century have passed on, and their disciples add to their work, change it, morph it and give it new names.”
Forging ahead, the influences of Lecoq, Laban, Arnold, Grotowski, Chekhov and others will continue to inform teachers and practitioners who seek new experiments, new ideas and new physical experiences—and conformity be damned. The theatre exists, after all, to create new paradoxes and new conversations. “The field gains momentum,” concludes Schirle, “but not necessarily direction.”
David Bridel is a director, writer, choreographer and clown specialist. He is the associate director and head of movement for the MFA program in acting at the University of Southern California.