July 28, 2016

Thrashing About in the Woods

A reflection on my journey into Psycho-Physical acting

In the woods of Western Massachusetts lies a retreat center committed to communal living, artistic exploration, and minimizing their environmental impact. It was in this setting that I attended a 12-day acting intensive based on the psycho-physical techniques of Jerzy Grotowski.  The class, entitled “Acrobatics of the Heart”, was directed by Steve Wangh, a professor emeritus at NYU’s Experimental Theatre Wing and the author of two outstanding books (Acrobat of the Heart and The Heart of Teaching).


My decision to attend was a bold one for a number of reasons.  First, I came to theatre through the word.  I love the literature, the language, and the story of this art form.  I’m a writer and a word nerd.  As a director, I’ve already worked to expand my focus into the visual.  But to dive into the body work of the actor was pretty far afoul of my usual artistic path.  All I knew of this technique and its iconic pioneer (Grotowski) came from theatre history classes and textbooks.  I wasn’t personally convinced that physical training had the capacity to connect me to the art in a meaningful way.

I had my share of anxiety as well.  I’m probably not the only theatre artist who would confess that a large part of my path toward theatre included a deliberate avoidance of middle school sports and the giants of the gym.  I found the stage because my intelligence and sense of humor were firm legs beneath me in this arena.  The idea that I might need to use my body to explore this art form I love transported me to the days of dodgeball, floor hockey, and musty locker rooms.  It felt like a violation to let P.E. on the stage. 

It’s also worth noting that this workshop took place at a retreat center that had an entirely vegetarian kitchen.  I am not a vegetarian.  That’s an understatement.  I’m sort of anti-vegetables.  I hate them.  More than I hate musicals or when people say “irregardless”.  So, I knew it was going to be a struggle.  I packed a few pouches of beef jerky like I was smuggling in contraband.


The retreat center was about what I imagined: beautiful setting, dormitory style living, and a lot of unfamiliar rules designed to keep us and our natural environment healthy.  The people were kind and enthusiastic about the workshop and their art in general.

At our first group session, we each introduced ourselves and said a few sentences about whatever we wanted.  The main instruction, was that we were to make sure we didn’t plan our comments in advance.  No thinking about how we’d impress the group while others were speaking.  We each said our name and had to wait fifteen seconds.  It was in those fifteen seconds that we could think of what we wanted to say.  That was a struggle already, but it was such a perfect introduction to kind of presence and in-the-momentness we’d be asked to practice for the next to weeks. 

When it was my turn I said “A friend took this intensive and told me it was transformational for him.  Transformation is a big word, and I’m honestly pretty scared. But I’m not sure if I’m more scared that it will be transformational or that it won’t be.”


In the experimental theatre scene of the 50s and 60s, Jerzy Grotowski was a hugely influential figure.  He called for a physically engaged stage artist and his work was known for its sinewy actors and acrobatic blocking.   That’s about all I knew before arriving at this workshop.

I was interested to see what all the fuss was about, but in those first days, I was what you might call a hopeful agnostic. I had never had a “personal encounter” with the kind of theatre that was being pursued by these teachers and students.  While I might have been one of the more experienced theatre artists at the camp, I was totally green when it came to this psycho-physical stuff. 

After a promising first night of personal connections and open-hearted sharing, the first days of workshops involved a lot of physical work.  My doubts about my own physical capacities were quickly confirmed.  I’m apparently a sub-par undulator.  Despite many assurances that being a perfect physical specimen was not the goal, I still felt like I was the kid who finishes the mile run last in gym class.  Two days of this kind of body-wrenching, unfamiliar work took its toll on my psyche.  It didn’t help that I was barely eating the various green goops that were being served over quinoa or cuscus. Also, sleep was elusive on the tiny dorm bed nestled between not one, not two, but three very loud snorers. 

I arrived on Sunday evening, and by Wednesday morning I had decided that if I had another bad 24 hours, I would leave.  I needed a carrot.  And not the kind they were serving instead of French fries; the motivational kind.  But I acknowledged that you have to move to get the carrot, so I decided to work harder than I ever have on what could be my last day as an acrobat of the heart. 

The physical training primarily consists of specific movements, stretches, and contortions of the body that are designed to be “provocateurs” and “containers” of emotion and imagery for the actor.   The idea is that the physical exertion and the stretching of the body can illicit (provoke) emotional responses within us, and that once those are there, we can use those same movements to embody (contain) the ideas that come to us.  For example, the undulation of one’s foot might elicit a memory of playing in the wet sand on the beach.  This might lead to joy or nostalgia that would inspire the actor, to begin using the hand motions to start playing in the sand, maybe building sand castles.  This may, in turn, lead to memories of a family member, which would lead to physical movements of gathering or embracing for those loved ones we’ve lost or who have become distant.  This can continue on for quite some time.  The physical provokes imagery or emotion, and then becomes a vessel for us to bear and experience whatever is being elicited.  


One of the things I kept hearing the teachers say to their students was “use it in the work”.  When they were frustrated, tired, coughing, or confused, the teacher encouraged us to let those factors impact the way we were working.  This is an interesting aspect of the training because, in my experience it’s entirely unique.  The current dominant strategies for dealing with emotional baggage within the actor fall into two camps:  “Milk it” or “Ignore it”. 

“Milk it”
Many American acting teachers (especially in the late 20th century) encouraged the mining of emotional memory as source material for acting.  Some would even encourage reliving emotional moments on stage in order to produce a desired effect.  “If you need to cry, think of when your dad died.”  As one might imagine, this could lead to a sort of hysterical acting, and then eventually, an extinction of the emotions connected to the source memory.

“Ignore it”
This is the “professionalism model” that encourages actors who are dealing with emotion to “leave it at the stage door”.  It purports that an actor has a job to do, and that job is to pretend. Real emotion should not get in the way.  As you might imagine, this leads to controlled, polished, but often stale performance. 

This idea of provoking emotion and finding a container for it seems an exhilarating middle ground.  Paying attention to emotions provoked by physicality makes the work alive and present, but the capacity to place it in a container and “bear it” gives a healthy alternative to being flooded or emotionally dried up by the overuse of emotional source material.   

On that crucial Wednesday morning, I had my first brush with this phenomenon.  I worked harder physically than I ever had, throwing myself fully into the physical training we had learned.  Sweat was dripping off of me. I was exhausted.  Then, I caught eye contact with another actor in the room.  I was dealing with anger and frustration, thrashing and punching at the air to fight my foes, most of which were internal voices berating me for not being able to understand this work.  And when I caught her eye, I put them all in her face.  I personified my enemies in her and fought her with my learned movements. In response, she gave me a tremendous gift, she didn’t back down.  She fought back. For several minutes we fought our demons by “fighting” with each other.  I worked even harder, pushing my physical limits as my emotions demanded.  It was abstract, there wasn’t any clear imagery attached to what we were actually doing, but I was using my body to both provoke and contain emotion.  It was satisfying and a little thrilling.  What I didn’t know at the time, was  that I just getting started.


In our next session, the director of the workshop, Steve Wangh, led our class for the first time. And it was here that he opened two doors for me into the work.  First, he told us to create our own movements (which are generally referred to as “plastiques”) and secondly, he told us to imagine that we were not in control of what movements we were doing; that an outside force was manipulating us to do these actions. 

It was under these parameters that I had my first full encounter with this work.  Through a series of physical promptings I was led through a series of images that told anew a story I’ve been living for 20 years.  It was extremely moving and revelatory.  And even though it stirred up serious emotion, I found myself using physical “containers” to express what was causing the tears, and to even make new discoveries within the sadness.  I walked away from that session knowing that I had been changed, artistically, emotionally, and maybe more. 


The interpersonal element of the workshop was a bit of a surprise to me.  To be totally honest, I expected to find a strange group of people with whom I’d have trouble connecting.  But I was very wrong.  There was not one person, in a group of 30+ students and 5 staff, with whom I didn’t feel a strong kinship by the end of the camp. 

I have thought more about this in the days since, and I’m pretty sure that what was strange about these people was that they (and I) jumped into this experience with open hearts.  As I learned more about each of them, there were things that I found unusual or very different from my own way of life, but I was already in love with them by that point.  We all shared such tremendous common ground that our differences didn’t matter. We were all artists, vulnerable, striving, and deeply flawed.  The first encounter I had with each person was to look into their eyes with no judgment.  Why did we not find each other strange or annoying?  Because we leaped into each other’s company with our humanity leading the way.  No political parties, religious affiliations, or other dividing labels mattered. We shared meals, living quarters, emotional experiences, doubts and fears, and late night campfires together.  These people tattooed themselves to me with laughter and tears. I can honestly say that this group of disparate folks from all over the continent, of various age ranges, sexual orientations, and world views are my people. It’s a connection like I’ve never experienced outside of my family.  I miss them dearly. 


As a part of the training, we were each asked have a monologue to work on over the course of the workshop.  I selected a monologue from a play entitled Red, by John Logan.  It’s a biographical account of modern artist Mark Rothko.  His paintings are generally large portraits that employ various layers of color.  Rothko’s character describes his work this way in the monologue I selected:  “I use a lot of layers, like a glaze.  Slowly building the image, like Pentimento, until the luminescence emerges and it’s done.” 

One morning, before beginning our morning session, I did what I should’ve done much earlier and looked up the word “Pentimento”. When I read the definition, I began crying (dictionaries do not typically make me cry).  Here’s what I saw:

As I have been doing this work, I find images emerging and they largely have to do with personal experiences and the ways I have changed over the years.  I’ve been painting on this canvas for some time now. There are hints of choices I’ve made (good and bad) in the past, and there are places where I have changed my mind, or circumstances have forced me to choose new shapes and colors.  The definition made me realize that we have one canvas in this life.  We may have a lot of starts and stops, redos, and undos, but we don’t get to wash the canvas. At best, we wash the brushes.  So, I am this painting, with layers of color, and hints of earlier images.  And it’s beautiful.  The changes, the mistakes, all of it.


In the wake of this experience, heck even during it, I was mindful of what I’d bring home and how.  I have not become a vegetarian and will never eat mung beans.  Ever. But there were certainly some poignant takeaways.

Of course, I found a new way to think about acting.  In my classes, I’ll bring some of this work to my actors.  I’m certainly not qualified to teach the material with any sort of authority, but I’m hoping to give them a taste of this thing.  This way of acting that both provokes emotions and gives them an array of vessels to contain them.  To take what’s inside and place it outside so it might impact them and the work. 

Yet, it’s about much more than that.  “Use it in the work” is a metaphor for how to live fully in the moment.  As I go through my life, I hope to be keenly aware of my emotions and how to contain them.  And by contain, I don’t mean, “keep them boxed up.” I mean hold them, bear them.  This mindset is not about working through difficult emotions but to acknowledging them and letting them impact us. 

            For example:
A student wants to talk to me after class:
-       I want to impress him
-       I want him to do well in my class and in his art
-       I am hungry
-       I am behind on my planning for my next class and feeling rushed
-       I am feeling sort of beaten down about university politics
-       I know exactly what to tell this student and I know it will be helpful

“Using it in the work” means embodying all of these internal things honestly. It means leveling with the student and myself. It probably means, scheduling a time when I can make his question and our conversation a higher priority.  And, finally, it means recognizing that I probably need a little self-care to get back to a place of calm and my best self.

On a personal level, as I write this merely one week after our last day, I’m still a bit tender.  As I re-enter a culture that’s so full of political rancor and division, I find myself feeling like an alien in this world.  I have had dreams almost every night that I’m going to have to advocate for the voiceless in my world.  I’ve had dreams about using what I am thinking and feeling in my work with honesty and boldness.  And I’m a bit scared.  When I started this workshop I was afraid that I would be transformed and more afraid that I wouldn’t be.  In retrospect, I think it’s safe to say that transformation has occurred. Now I’m scared that my transformation may start to impact my world, and more scared that it won’t.


Ted Hannan said...

Oh Dan so wonderful to read your thoughts post Acrobat. As I thrash about in my re entry to the Big Apple your thoughtful post helps me stay with the way those 12 days changed me. Missing you and the glint in your eye. To be continued...

Diane Call said...

So articulate and beautiful Dan. Your fresh experience of this work , and your insights ..so helpful. Can I refer my students to your piece here?

DAN BUCK said...

Of course.