The Body

Many images come and go. Some stay with you for years and refuse to go away. These are the images you have to take seriously. These are the images which are trying to tell you something either about yourself or something more general. Over the years I have slowly begun to realise that my personal development and the development of my work for the theatre are one and the same. When I become clear, so does my work.

In real time, in live theatre, the most exciting art of all, the body will always betray the actor no matter how apparently ‘good’ he or she is. For example, if the actor is playing the role of Macbeth in a traditional setting, he may be able to remember his lines and he may have a strong and beautiful voice but if we, the audience, can see by the size and shape of his gut and the weakness in his legs that he most probably has never ridden a horse and neither could he swing a broad sword with any real intent, we will be doomed to sit in disbelieving, disenchanted silence in the crowded seating bank for the duration of the production. Countless times I have heard an actor’s voice expertly expressing an emotion and I see behind it a body that is strangulated, rigid and expressionless; a body held to ransom by that actor’s own personal physicality and limited range of movement, bearing little or no resemblance to the imagined body of the portrayed character expressing the given emotion.

In spite of everything we impose upon ourselves in an attempt to make life more pleasing, we will always be fundamentally physical beings. We can stop walking, watch hours of television, use e-mail and carry a mobile phone but we can never until death escape the structure that encases our minds and our souls, if one is so disposed to believe in such things as souls. It is the separation between the mental and the physical, the cerebral and the visceral, the internal and the external that we have to be very careful of. Most actors are just talking heads and most dancers are not even headless bodies as many have had the sense and power of their own natural physicality taken from them by the pursuit of an external manifestation of perfection. They have neither body nor voice.

When I work with a group it should be clear that everyone is ready to undertake the process of training. If the body is not at a certain level of preparedness, injury will visit it. When prepared, we work to unblock blockages, sensitise areas of insensitivity and slowly remove physical habits or impositions that have been accumulated over the years. Eventually, and this can take many years, one will arrive back at a place where one’s body is open, free of mannerisms, sensitive and capable of working in unison with the mind.

Grotowski wrote that an actor cannot become another person until the actor can truly and fully be themselves. I agree with this. How can we inhabit the physicality of a character we must play when we cannot fully inhabit our own? We in the world of the theatre are obliged to discover our true natures, our true bodies and our true voices.

When I work to develop how a character might move, dance or talk, I look first at the physical structure, the appearance of that character. For example, is he tall, small, heavy or light? Does he move sharply or roll from one gesture to the next. How much tension does he hold in his muscles while resting? What element dominates his physicality: fire, water, wind or earth? What is his or her natural tempo, what is his rhythm? How does he breathe? I no longer have any doubt that the external shape is a clear projection of the interior nature of a person.

I also work with sensation and energy. How do I feel when I visualise a certain type of person, either being that person or being in their company? Where does tension manifest in my body when I concentrate on this imagined character’s corporeal image: in the throat, the neck, the abdomen or pelvis? I see and then feel my way around the characters who will eventually occupy the landscape of the piece. These characters then become the building blocks of our productions.

A certain set of pre-existing physical characteristics automatically dictates how a person will move in space. Moving even more fully exposes the interior working of a character. When we walk down the street we are all unconsciously sending thousands of signals about who we are and passers by are all unconsciously picking these thousands of signals up. With a well trained eye and a sensitive nature one can read a person without hearing a word spoken. In this way words become secondary. The voice and its quality are secondary to that of the body and its quality. The voice is dependent on the body. In a sense, the body is the voice. Most actors’ faces are the most expressive and dextrous parts of their anatomy, closely followed by their hands. The rest of their instrument is very often left firmly behind in the shadows. However, we can teach the less developed regions of our anatomy with the parts which we use more expertly. By relaxing the face we can in fact effect the relaxation of the body. By making a fist and squeezing it softly we can teach our abdomens to have the correct tone.

With the importance of the face in film and television, the lure of big money and the nature of our existing education system, it is tempting and easy to leave the body behind, but I would encourage you not to. Some day, sometime, somewhere you will encounter a performer who has both aspects of his or her being highly developed, but in equal measure. And when you do, you will never forget the experience.