The dichotomy of acting training

There is an old dichotomy about acting training. Gordon Craig stated that acting could not be taught.

…But what can be taught, is this: how to walk from one side to the other, but that is moving – that is not acting. You can be taught how to move arms, legs, and torso with expression, that is not acting, that again is moving… All that comes under the heading of movement… You can be taught how to move your soul – or rather, how to allow your soul to move you – but this is still not acting. That all comes under the heading of movement.

Gordon Craig [1]

Acting is moving! Gordon Craig made it very clear, and practice proves it. Acting cannot be taught, but movement can! But what type of movement? Gymnastics, sports, dance, mime? And how do we teach it? How is the body looked at by students, teacher, directors and the public?

The body – as a medium of movement-based theatre

The discourse about the body, the ‘Leiblichkeits-discourse’, which has been going on since Plato via Descartes and Heidegger, and from Merleau-Ponty to Cassirer to our time, seems to have arrived at the following point: ‘I am the Leib, (the suffering subject) but have a body (Körper) that is an object)’. The Leib, the subject of perception, is also the Körper, (body), and the object. The body is both subject and object! By training, through beauty operations, etc. the body is further objectified. Objectification of the body is precisely the aim of ‘old’ theatre training, where ‘the body is tamed, disciplined, and formed to serve as a signifier[2] and becomes an artefact, as is the case in classical ballet, in jingju or Indian classical dance…

There is a triple relationship between the private body, the stage body of the actor and the character shown. The private body, the ‘Leib’, is always on stage as well, underneath, with the ongoing physical processes inside. The performer’s socialised body, the stage body, as an objectified, tamed and skilled body, gives life to a third body, the stage character.

The problem of the disconnection of body and voice

In daily life, movement and gesture have hardly any affiliation with the voice. We shift our bodyweight, show gestures and speak independently. The main vehicle of communication for most actors today is language. There is dissociation between the spoken word and the body in our culture.

Everybody affirms the connection of body and voice, but in theatre classrooms, the connection hardly exists. Rarely are there any real, conscious pedagogical links between physical and vocal training and stage work. And everywhere, voice training is not really connected to the body and movement. Voice teachers do their work, movement teachers and directors do theirs. In practice, the voice-body dichotomy is still ruling theatre training. Voice training and body training are by tradition separate topics, and voice teachers are notorious for ignoring movement. (Maybe there is a practical solution – various physical exercises could be accompanied daily by the voice.)

In 1942, Decroux craved that his ‘new’ actor, (the mime-artist), should not speak on stage for thirty years! In this time, the psycho-physical skills could develop fully.[3] Decroux must have feared the dominance of the talking heads, actors who focus mostly on their voice and neglect body expression!

The 1960s saw the beginning of a movement to connect body expression with vocal expression. The practice of Joseph Chaikin with the ‘Open Theatre’, Jerzy Grotowski, Eugenio Barba, Andrej Serban[4], Alfred Wolfsohn[5] and Roy Hart[6], as well as others, have proved that a powerful and manifold voice develops from and with the body. They considered mind, body and voice to be a unit. This happened mostly in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when the time was right for it – the personal body and its freedom was a focus of society.

Grotowski’s voice work was built on the actor’s inner life: their experiences and associations, the way from the inside to the outside. The Romanian director Andrej Serban, as a former student of Radu Penciulescu, chose the way from the outside. He considered the voice less as a vehicle for self-expression, but as a vehicle for communication, based on the desire, the necessity to reach out to the world and to communicate with others. This is not done by the meaning of the uttered word, but by the sound of the voice, coloured by its emotional load.

But both methods – from the inside (imagination) to the outside (Grotowski, Barba, Hart) and from outside (technique) to the inside (Serban) – take a lot of time to learn and need real devotion to the work, and are hardly studied in contemporary theatre academies, where mostly articulation and the volume and musicality of the voice are valued. Reconnecting the voice and the body is one of the important tasks of movement-based theatre.

The aims of movement-based theatre training

The future actor must prepare his body and voice for the stage, to become flexible, strong, and well-coordinated. ‘Only the day the actor is not coming any more with his body on stage, he can stop to train his body…’ This is attributed to Etienne Decroux, the father of modern mime. But times have changed. Since the 1980, we also see theatre ‘…where the real process of “performance” replaces mimetic acting.’[7]

Grotowski, in ‘Towards a Poor Theatre’, states that training also has its metaphysics. I consider each simple exercise to be embedded into two different contexts: A purely practical-artistic context of current theatre praxis, but also into a wider cultural-philosophical context. Both are based on attitudes towards nature and the aims of movement in theatre, about the dreams, approaches, dogmata and paradigms of contemporary art and of pedagogy, and the needs of practising.

Dramatic movement and functionality

According to Vsevolod Meyerhold and his biomechanics (1922), ‘art should be based on scientific principles, the entire creative act should be a conscious process.’[8] Have we, in the 21st century, reached this point? Has the creative act become a conscious process based on scientific principles? I have grave doubts about it – there is still a deep gap between practice and theory of theatre and science. But do we still crave scientific theatre training? Has the so-called ‘psycho-physical education’ of contemporary theatre really had a satisfying scientific impact? The few books dealing with the matter of practice show no or very little scientific impact, and academic research moves easily away from the necessities of practice.

As a child of his time, influenced by Taylorism,[9] Meyerhold understood movement and gesture to be based on the principles of economy of effort, and gesture being linear and geometric and called his system biomechanics. His contemporary, Ippolit Sokolov,[10] suggested biomechanics was non-scientific, being ‘the industrialisation of gesture’. (The human body at the time was voluntarily perceived as a machine. Cubistic and mechanical art were contemporaries). Meyerhold mentioned more than a hundred years ago that the following basic qualities are necessary for biomechanics:

  1. Precision
  2. Balance
  3. Coordination
  4. Efficiency
  5. Rhythm
  6. Expressiveness
  7. Responsiveness
  8. Playfulness
  9. Discipline

But precision, efficiency, expressiveness, responsiveness, playfulness and discipline are not skills to learn! They are rather work attitudes or qualities, making professional training possible. Only balance, coordination and rhythm are skills that may be schooled. But movement-based theatre today still needs these basic qualities, as well as the skills mentioned by Meyerhold and his analyses of movement. Meyerhold’s biomechanical studies are still inspirational today.

Attitudes towards theatre training

Artists, as teachers that are daily immersed in practice, often have a hostile attitude towards scientific research of their artistic work. As an artist, one is willing to neglect, reject or even despise scientific hypotheses, research and theories. Researchers, on the other hand, oversee mostly practice – daily training and its details. Academic logic looks for straight results that can be verbalised. It is ignored that training consists of important details and of much intuition and tacit knowledge, ‘insider-knowledge’ and ‘body-feeling’, easily neglected or not seen from the outside, and difficult to verbalise. Along with this comes the argument that scientific theories and models cannot be simply applied in everyday learning practice for theatre or dance. But principles – found through research – may sometimes be considered and applied. I must confess that not a single exercise I ever invented is inspired by contemporary theoretical work! It was always born from the physical needs of the day, on stage or in the classroom!

Much has been written about the work methods of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Etienne Decroux, Jerzy Grotowski, Eugenio Barba and Jacques Lecoq. They are the ‘big five’ of physical (or better: movement-based) theatre on a highly professional level, having influenced the theatre of the last century. What has survived of their pedagogical work, and how and what of their exercises and practices have been passed on and are still relevant today? The theatre of the ‘big five’ belongs to last century’s movement-based theatre, and has hardly any considerable professional hold any more on the contemporary stage if we do not count new circus as movement-based theatre. (The post-dramatic theatre with its raw bodies is still at the centre of contemporary fashion.)

Therefore, I see it as a necessary task to collect, to document, to comment, to analyse and to publish the techniques and exercises of movement-based theatre since the 1960s, and to discuss its didactics, as seen from the grassroots, in the classroom.

A great step in this direction was already taken in the 1980s by Eugenio Barba and Nicola Savarese and the ISTA, resulting in the ‘Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology’, The Secret Art of the Performer,[11] a much inspiring book. But there, the training of the actor and the precise training methods were again and again wrapped in mystical smoke curtains, especially in favour of the masters of Asian theatre. Barba and Savarese dissipated the technical and physical clarities of Asian theatre and its various styles again and substituted it with orientalist metaphysics! As I see it – as a practitioner and researcher of the matter of movement-based theatre training over the years – it is less a question of masters and their existing or non-existing ‘secrets’. These secrets are a system of theatrical signs, imbedded into a particular culture, taught, practised, developed, spread and refined by many generations of artists. They are based on tacit knowledge, not on secret knowledge! That should say: based on practice.

There is also the lurking influence of some cultural paradigms that hamper the development of movement-based theatre artistically and pedagogically. These paradigms are part of the wider context of contemporary theatre and must be taken into consideration by the student, the teacher and the director. Paradigms that concern movement-based theatre include what should be done or not done in the classroom, how the student and the teacher should behave, and how the teacher should teach. No exercise works on its own, but only in the wider context of contemporary theatre and culture.

The blocking paradigms – to overcome

(I consider here paradigms as models, patterns, widely held basic assumptions (a priori) without ‘final scientific proofs’, in the sense of the science theoretician Thomas S. Kuhn[12]).

One of the most important practitioners and thinkers about movement in the last century, Rudolf von Laban, wrote 1950: ‘It is not so long ago that the fashion in acting suddenly changed from pompous gesticulation (the ‘oratory’ theatre, MTG) to a naturalism devoid of any movement expression at all…’[13]

Theatre, as well as all the other arts, expresses its Zeitgeist, the spirit of time and changes with it. The contemporary movement-based or psycho-physical theatre training seems to depend on the ‘fashions’ of contemporary mainstream theatre and their ruling paradigms! For research, I had to consider a set of these preconceived concepts defining and ruling the work with the actor’s body in contemporary theatre. Through them, the aim of the training as well as the exercises can be better understood.

The first and ruling theatre-paradigm haunting contemporary theatre is the paradigm of credibility.[14] A play, a movement or a gesture, a scene, a character, a behaviour pattern, must be believable or true in order for it to be accepted by spectators, actors and directors. Stylized theatre is still not widely accepted, especially outside urban areas. From the end of the 18th century, the truth of expression no longer depended on the truth of recitation, but on the believability of action. It was then that a paradigm shift happened: from the posing, oratory theatre to ‘truthful’ theatre.

The Romanian director Radu Penciulescu stated that action on the stage is not pretence, but something that takes place in real time. The actor performs real acts.[15] However, stage acts can also be understood as symbolic acts, representing something else. The audience may also be in-lusio, in illusion, involved into the play as well. A table on stage might be just a table, but with skilful actors playing with it, it is transformed into an altar, a trestle or a bed.

It is an old but still ongoing quarrel between stylised, action- and movement-based theatre (mime and classical Asian theatre forms) and naturalistic and verbal, psychological theatre. It is as well one of the great ongoing questions of art and literary science – an unsolvable question of realism and naturalism. The Indian nāyasastra[16] wisely referred more than two thousand years ago to lokadharmias the possibility of non-stylized behaviour on stage, andnāyadharmi as the possibility of stylised acting-dancing behaviour. The unfiltered natural, private body on stage is – so states the nāyasastra– not artistic.

For Eugenio Barba, nevertheless, the truth lies hidden – it is the secret truth of the performer, or the master and its professional secrets. This mystical attitude has made the exotic and orientalist cultural gap only deeper and has also added a commercial touch to Asian theatre techniques. Tacit knowledge is not secret knowledge! It is simply the knowledge and the skills of the techniques of the body.

The paradigm of ‘being credible’ blocks students as well as actors sometimes from experimenting with their craft, from being curious and keeping the physical condition or work more on physical expression, and being creative! The paradigm of credibility on stage has developed further into the post-dramatic paradigm of ‘reality’.

The paradigm of the ‘real’ body: For a long time, the body on stage functioned as a signifier, and the signified were dramatic characters, fictive actions and fictive emotions. In the contemporary post-dramatic theatre, the body represents nothing more than itself.

‘The dramatic process occurs between bodies. The post-dramatic process occurs with/on/to the body… The actor is no interpreter because the body is no instrument!’[17]. Post-dramatic theatre often presents itself as auto-sufficient physicality. The dramatic body was the carrier of the agon, while the post-dramatic body projects the image of its own agony: ‘There is even to recognise a shift from represented pain on stage to pain experienced in representation.’[18] Actors really are purposely suffering, falling, hurting themselves, etc. on stage. This type of crude physicality on stage was influenced by the interpretation of texts by Antonin Artaud and Jean Genet.

Also often found in post-dramatic theatre is the deviant body[19]. (The sick, deformed, old, ugly or – as the opposite – the extremely beautiful; young and functional, sporty and special body.[20])

Closely connected to the paradigm of the ‘real body’ belongs the myth of the sporty, young, beautiful and functional human body.

The paradigm of functionality and neutrality: Everybody wants to have a healthy, beautiful and functional body. Such an efficient and effective objectified body is a ‘capital’, such a body is an object to form after one’s will. The first step towards an efficient body (moving in the correct, ‘right’ and functional way), is to work the body in a physically and anatomically correct way. This is researched by physiology and movement science – to move in the best and healthiest way, with the minimum of spent effort. Only a functional body is totally available and ready for a wide range of movements and gestures and for records in sport. Functional movement is also technically necessary for more complicated physical actions (as in acrobatics, fighting, dancing and athletics) with special demands on the flexibility and the strength of the spine, muscles and joints, etc. and on perseverance).

A functional body can endure things more effectively and can develop better skills. If an actor wishes to attain a high level of movement skills and control, he must work on the physiological functionality of the body. For that purpose, the adult body of acting students must often be re-educated! That implies working on the correct replacing of the centre, relaxing the shoulders, and removing ‘bad’ habits.

In classical Asian theatre techniques, functionality lies at their heart. They seem to even play with functionality. In their movement systems elements are added that are not necessary for expression, but only heighten the physiological and aesthetic tension of the actor’s body, that makes them more present on stage. These functional additions are mostly based on martial arts, such as specific body positions, spreading knees, ‘deep sitting’, precarious balance, etc. These seem to be ‘sportive’ qualities that are not necessary for dramatic expression.

The Paradigm of the free and creative body: The third paradigm to consider is: the body of the ‘Western’ actor must be a ‘free’ body. Free – in the sense of unhampered expression, no style, no restrictions, no rules! No non-natural movements! Especially no en dehors (turned out feet), no extra, gracious movements of the wrists, etc., no curves (aesthetic roundness of movement, grace), and no tracé (controlled ample movement, as the ‘old’ main rules of classical ballet or Chinese opera). These artificial rules are felt as ‘corselets’, as artificial restrictions of self-expression. The free and unbound body is by definition an artless body in the state of innocence. Anything goes. Movement lacks style and restrictions. Aesthetics seem superfluous and even dangerous to individual expression. The ‘free body’ is a body moving without aesthetic rules: a post-dramatic body.

But a body that moves without rules (and training them), is not skilled enough and differs not from everyday behaviour. It works of course in film, where the two-dimensionality of the medium itself, as well as the angle of the camera, the light and the rhythm of cuts create the drama and not alone the actor.

But – there is no ‘free’ human body with ‘free expression’. Human movement is always accultured: to its age and society, class and upbringing, lifestyle, gender, colour, environment, region and religion, time, profession and fashion. Connected to the paradigm of the free body is the paradigm of spontaneity: only a free body can be creative! This leads to the paradigm of individual, spontaneous creativity.

The paradigm of spontaneous creativity: For Stanislavski and Meyerhold, but also for Lecoq or Grotowski, action on stage should be spontaneous. Creativity was seen as the opposite of mechanical reproduction and repetition.[21] Creation must also be extended to repeated performance: each show must be spontaneously ‘recreated’, meaning to be reborn in the instant. All this is prone to overrule sometimes, given choreography, form, energy and rhythm.

Spontaneous creativity is still a paradigm, even a cliché and a dream as well, and is hardly even questioned. By taking a closer look at spontaneous creativity, we may even discern different ideas about it! For Lecoq, the creativity of the performer must be serious and sincere but always playful, and not to affect him or her personally: ‘The actor/actress, playing a part in a tragedy, should get out of the theatre after work unaffected, and as fresh as a rose’[22].

Grotowski wanted more from the actor than creativity: he craved for an actor to be able to give himself entirely to the process, to exposes his innermost personality and become in this way a witness of humanity, sharing his personal experience with the spectators.

The paradigm of psycho-physicality: The paradigm: theatre is psycho-physical – is a new appearance,[23] made popular (at least for theatre research), through the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and got cemented by the findings of neuroscience. The Cartesian dichotomy between physis and psyche is finally given up. But Stanislavski and even Meyerhold still called the physical and vocal training external techniques, with internal techniques being the mental and emotional process of the actor’s role. Internal and external techniques were studied separately. The internal techniques were considered more important than the external training! Much has been written about the internal techniques of the actor (motivations, thoughts, emotions, and feelings). The ‘external’ techniques – how to produce actions, reactions, emotions and feelings visibly and audibly – still seem to be of lesser importance. But still, over theatre circles hovers the romantic notion: ‘if the actor feels, the audience can see and experience it!’

The paradigm of cultural appropriation: The sixth paradigm is also a very recent one. It concerns the post-post-colonial fear of appropriation, of mental and cultural colonisation.The actor and the director must avoid the use of elements of foreign cultures. From the seventies to the end of the last century, many Western actors and actresses travelled to Bali, Japan and India (and from the nineties even to China, Cuba and Africa) to learn theatre and dance and to get inspiration for their own work. Brecht’s contact with Mei Lan-Fang, Artaud’s with Balinese theatre, and Grotowski’s and Barba’s meetings with kathakai are famous. They have provided important impulses to the development of Western theatre, but lots of misunderstandings were involved!

Some people have managed to integrate parts of what they learnt into their acting and directing work, while some use it as theatre theorists. A lot of actors perform foreign styles and teach them as well. This has fallen into discredit, especially in the cultures that are related to it. To fear appropriation stops theatre people from being curious and learning seriously from other cultures, studying the principles of acting from elsewhere, and adapting and adopting foreign elements and pondering over the most exciting questions – what the basic human (biological and spiritual) rules of art and theatre are – and how they function, instead of simply copying them.

The actor is both signifier and significant: This paradigm is the newest one. It is a question about contemporary political correctness! On stage and in film, only a black actor can interpret a black character, only a transvestite can interpret a transvestite character, and so on.[24] The signifier and significant must be similar! Must the signifier have the real life experiences of the significant? This is a dangerous paradigm for acting, for mimesis. For acting is also understood ‘to be or to represent another person’. And one of the most important skills of the actor is to make any character come to life. The paradigm leads to ultimate typecasting. The professional actor must be able to ‘slip under the skin’ of any character and interpret it!

Etienne Decroux mentions in ‘Paroles sur le Mime’ 1963:

… le théâtre ne serais pas un art puisqu’il évoque la chose par la chose même: l’obese par un obese, la femme par une femme, le corps par un corps, le verbe par un verbe…

Etienne Decroux[25]

Pedagogical paradigms, like the craving for independent self-learning, have pushed the teacher into the background. To criticise the work of students is also not very popular. Imitation as a pedagogical device has been rejected for quite some time. Purely results-centred methods should be given up in favour of more experience- and process-aligned ones.

I consider all these mentioned paradigms as counterproductive and hampering ghosts of actor training and of all professional dramatic creativity. They block curiosity and freedom through prejudice. As artists and teachers, we must have the courage to question not only the norms, but also the created new paradigms, by analysing what lies behind that which is widely accepted.

In this chapter, I have staked out some of the boundaries of physical theatre training – and how paradigms can prevent theatre people from developing their capacities and skills. For over fifty years I have witnessed the rise and the fall of several once-popular theatre styles, such as the ‘downfall of mime’, Brechtian and Grotowskian theatre, the theatre of Julian Beck and Richard Schechner or Jouko Turkka in Finland, and other fashions of the day. But their achievements should not be lost!