Some might consider Physical Acting a tautology or a dog chasing its own tail. Isn’t all performance physical? Made up of bodies, space, sets, costumes, props etc? Of course, so why do we need such a term?
Physical Acting differs from acting in that the main focus is not on the interpretation of a role or character in a narrative, but on the materiality of the actor’s body and what can be done with it as a medium. Just as a painter paints with colour, Physical Acting paints with the body. The emphasis is not on the predetermined structure of a play, story, or other dramatic source. It is not about beginning with a realist representational mode of acting, rooted in Konstantin Stanislavski’s thinking and practices. Rather it pertains to a long stream of performance in a wide range of historical and contemporary practices and contexts: from circus through dance-theatre to mime. Physical acting includes approaches by practitioners such as Vsevelod Meyerhold, Jerzy Grotowski, Ingemar Lindh and Włodzimierz Staniewski, and is a key aspect of numerous Asian and non-Western forms, such as Kabuki or Kathakali. It relies on presence, being oneself on stage, exploring and exploiting the body’s full capacity, and working with others in space as a primary mode of investigation.
There is a risk in seeing Physical Acting only in relation to what it isn’t, given that realist or character-based acting is globally so dominant. It is also important that we do not conflate Physical Acting with Physical Theatre, a name for performance that focuses on the body and devising but which is not widely adopted across the world. It is obviously so much more, and much more widespread than this rather Anglo- or even UK-centric term. Physical Acting can also be a vital part of any and every approach to acting, be it naturalist, Brechtian, expressionist, etc.
The term brings us back to the starting point of our bodies and voices in empty space, before the integration of any written text, dramaturgy, design, or other performance frameworks, which is why we consider our A-Z approach as “foundational.” As such, Physical Actor Training has a vital role to play. We all need foundations and to be reminded continually of their existence, don’t we? If not, on what else are great achievements and beautiful things built?
It was a mini-United Nations of sorts—though definitely more harmonious, despite the differences. The participants in our Physical Actor Training – an online A-Z (PATAZ) project hailed from five countries, from one end of Europe to the Middle East, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. Other countries could be added if we include the specialisations of the trainers (Polish, Russian, and Italian theatre) as well as everyone’s personal and cultural heritage. A glance at the surnames of all involved testifies to the intercultural endeavor that it was. Training not just to become a better actor but also a better individual, meeting others in and through the cultural practice of actor training.
Having actors from such a wide array of countries was important because it served to refine not just the big picture of what to say, the ‘message’, but also the subtler shades of how to say it, the ‘style’, which in this case was based on the physicality of the performers. Though our shared working language was English, the main medium of expression was the body, which also includes vocality, the way the voice is used rather than the language of the text alone. In a very active and real sense, then, the wealth of cultures helped to sharpen the focus on the doing in the space, not only for the trainers and trainees, but for the filmmakers as well, who often moved around and in between the participants as we worked.
The international dimension also involved cultural expectations, specifically different conceptions of what it means to ‘have’ a body, indeed to be a body: how to relate to your body and to others’. Such questions range from technical matters of negotiating the physical distance between bodies, to ethical issues regarding how and where to touch—even ‘to look at’—bodies. These issues cropped up often during the process. The interview with Nouf Alzamel in particular, the trainee from Kuwait, sheds some light on this, on how an Arab mother of two children found the experience liberating on both an artistic and a human level. Revelations such as Nouf’s—and others like it—were an eye-opener for the rest of us, who gained alternative perspectives of what it means to work with and on the body.
Ultimately, having such a diversity of countries and cultures made the training process more dramatic: we were compelled to express ourselves and exchange training skills in ways that reached far beyond our own narrow bubbles of expectations, be they technical or socio-cultural. And it was a joy to do so, because it meant that we had permission to play, which is, of course, at the heart of all acting.
We created our collection of over 60 films with a lot of planning, two short periods of filming four months apart with the whole team, and a year of editing. Nothing can replace the intensity of live studio practice, but in working out how this might then be viewed online and be of use and interest, we needed to do a lot of hard thinking, supported by some bold imaginative choices. Creativity was not just for the workshops. Every one of our films has its own approach and atmosphere and presents and distils specific training/acting principles.
Here are the key discoveries that arose from the process:
1. Narrowing down what constitutes Physical Acting was vital, for everyone interprets it in so many different ways. As trainers, Frank and I needed to follow our own processes while also making these accessible for those encountering them for the first time. The A-Z structure forced us to do this, but this is still very much our approach to training, our alphabet, coming out of years of experience. What might your approach look like and what terms might it include?
2. Find a balance between filming your everyday practice and facilitating the editing process, otherwise this can become an insurmountable task. A lot can be done in the edit, compressing long workshop sequences into digestible chunks, but it is very time consuming. Audio voice-over commentaries, reflecting back on the footage, can help the viewer put isolated pieces of the training jigsaw back together again, enabling the bigger picture to emerge.
3. Don’t forget the FUNdamentals. These are things that you think everyone knows or remembers but of course they don’t! It’s always worth getting back to basics.
4. Film documentation is of course different from the live training, but this doesn’t make such a resource any the less valuable. It helps you reflect on your practice, can be shared with others, and stimulates the creative juices. Ways of approaching it are as limitless as your imagination and inventiveness, so make sure to keep these alive as you struggle with the technology!
5. Don’t underestimate how long the process can take as you work out the right shape, rhythm, and content for your film/s. Be aware that the thrill of the process will carry you away and you will end up doing a lot more than initially envisaged.
6. When I first started training, I was curious how I would stay focused in the studio. It might seem obvious, but as the A-Z advises, get into the habit of putting your bags, shoes, phone etc. securely and tidily away. I find it easier to work on my physicality if I am focused and do not have personal belongings to distract me.
7. Work in a space where you feel safe with people you feel close to. Some of these A-Z exercises, especially if you are doing them for the first time, can be quite personal and daunting. Always try your hardest to work in a secure environment.
8.Encourage and support each other. It’s great if I make progress with a difficult exercise, but it is even better when my peers celebrate this success with me! Use each other to make yourself go further.
9. Stay open when training. I found it hard learning something new or unlearning what I had previously known. By being open, I discovered that reflecting on my own training became much easier. In order to challenge yourself and grow it is vital to be open in both mind and body.
10. My most important lesson is to be playful. Engage the imagination, work in the space with friends and play: this will take you a long way.
The relationship between the performer and the digital camera has a rich and complex history. The role that the camera plays, not only in the documentation of training and performance, but also in the creation and manipulation of live work is evolving rapidly due to technological advancements, especially with high functioning, unobtrusive, audio-visual recording systems.
The camera can (almost) record it all, documenting the successes, the failings, the blood, sweat and tears of performance-making and training. Only in the post-production process do the cuts come in, which usually means discarding the gritty, messy, reality of the process – the guts of the work – to forge a polished, final product.
In the A-Z project, we placed the camera and the actor together in the studio, as equal participants in the process, co-performing in dialogue, negotiating the space and the material together. Some elements of a ‘point and shoot’ set-up made it to the final cut, but mostly the lens was a great deal more inquisitive and active.
We did not have a typical video production schedule and process either. We were working within tight time frames, with limited equipment, exploiting these challenges to find a method and structure that would mirror the reality of our trainer/trainee processes in real time, with both camera and performer figuring things out along the way.
Filmmaker and A-Z editor Stacie Lee Bennett questions trainee Mara Morgantti-Minchillo
How did it feel to be recorded during training?
I would usually be much more aware of being filmed, whereas in the A-Z project for the most part this became a seamless aspect of the process. For me, it was fascinating how much of an embodied filming experience it was, rather than feeling that we were ‘presenting’ something to the camera, to be recorded. Through the Digital Studios I got to experience different ways of observing the body; for example, noticing where an impulse came from when filming it from the perspective of a GoPro.
Why do you think we were filming like this?
Rather than thinking ‘How can I demonstrate this practice so that it can be copied or followed?’, it was a process of forming a new relationship with the audience to help them experience it along with you. We ventured into exploring ways of capturing the feeling of the work as much as Paul or Frank’s step-by-step guidance. As trainee actors, we questioned which senses each particular exercise focused on, to then communicate that to the camera through a detailed investigation with and in our bodies.
Did your relationship with the camera alter in the process?
The fact that Stacie filmed mostly up close meant that her understanding of the work – especially as she is a dancer – made the relationship between actor and camera flow. She attuned herself to the rhythm of the physical acting techniques with which we were working. It definitely altered my initial view of the camera as an alien object, where I thought that filming would inevitably impact on how we participated. We were with the camera, with Stacie, co-existing in the space. The camera and its various appendages became something that the actor learnt to work with, just as we experimented with items of clothing, fruit etc. Exploring with the camera encouraged us to find new, interesting things.
Did the work change in any way due to the presence of the camera?
For me, this was strongest in how voice and text were influenced by the camera. We found creative ways to interact and negotiate, manipulating the camera playfully and allowing it to take on a life of its own.
See Technology and Text Work in the A-Z to watch this process in action.
This selective list is to support the online A-Z and includes books, chapters, articles, websites and materials that we hope are widely available and accessible, though some are not open access. We include both general resources as well as specific ones that relate to each A-Z term, for which we include the brief introductory text included in each film. Together, these should give viewers further contextual understanding of the exercises and material presented, more background information on the formative past experiences of and key influences on the trainers (Paul Allain and Frank Camilleri), key examples of their own publications, as well as suggestions for further research and reflection. We have also tried to focus on resources published by Bloomsbury which are available as part of Drama Online.