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Week 5

5. Ensemble Building: Body and Mind

Stanislavsky reveals in his Collected Works (Sobranie Sochinenii), 40 years of experimentation and development of exercises in the connections between movement, sensory stimuli, and the mind. The idea was to train actors to respond consciously and on cue, while using some aspects of the psychophysical instrument that normally only respond unconsciously.

Various students and contemporaries of Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre, including Vsevolod Meyerhold, Leopold Sulerzhitsky, Evgeny Vakhtangov, and Michael Chekhov, were instrumental in the development of Stanislavsky’s System, and each developed his own unique approach to acting and staging theatre. All of these artists both learned from Stanislavsky and influenced his understanding of acting. One important area of experimentation was the role of the body in impacting the emotions.

After a long time of working closely with Stanislavsky as a student and collaborator, Meyerhold went in a very different direction. As Richard Brestoff describes in his book The Great Acting Teachers and Their Methods, “In realistic theatre, [Meyerhold] thought, the spectators were dreaming away their time. But he wanted the audience to be awake, excited and in the present. He wanted the audience to think about current political and social conditions and be aroused to action. He felt that properly presented physical action could arouse emotion in audience members through reflex.” This concept is often attributed to Bertolt Brecht, but Meyerhold was experimenting with it much earlier, developing his physically based system. (In fact, Meyerhold was one of Brecht’s theatrical influences.) Again Brestoff: “The Meyerhold actor was freed from the prison of natural behavior, but he paid a high price. His body had to submit to rigorous training, and tremendous discipline. This training was accomplished through a technique that Meyerhold called biomechanics.”

The primary signal system is that of the body. The architecture of the human body determines our fundamental movement patterns; for example, we creep, crawl, and walk upright. We are bipedal. We have four limbs and hands with opposable thumbs. Our senses are highly developed, and we have an advanced brain and nervous system. Our physical behaviors are determined primarily by our physiology. We reach, we examine, we evaluate, we observe, we sit, we feel, etc. The primary signal system communicates our most fundamental impulses, thoughts, and feelings without words. It is universal and communicates to others regardless of social, ethnic, or cultural influences. Basic emotions such as fear, hate, jealousy, love, and anger are universally experienced and universally understood. This universal signal system we shall call the language of the body. The popular notion of “body language,” by comparison, is layered on top of the primal impulses and can be environmentally and culturally conditioned: a physical signal in one social setting might easily be inappropriate in another. A man and a woman meeting for the first time in a professional setting in the West would shake hands, but in some countries in the Middle East and Asia, it would be considered inappropriate for a woman to touch a man she has just met, and a slight bow of the head would instead be the professional greeting. As a director, you shall encourage actors to be concerned with both body language and the language of the body. You need to teach them to master and communicate the primal states as well as the social and cultural behaviors relevant to their characters.

The body is our most controllable instrument; however, at the beginning of training, it is often difficult to discipline. While in life the body responds automatically to natural stimuli, there is no reason to react naturally on stage. Nevertheless, the body can be trained to respond naturally to imaginary stimuli. We call this process organic behavior.

Organic behavior means that our five senses and bodily organs are behaving just as they would in life.

At first, the body often offers physical resistance. You may feel like a fish out of water, not knowing how to move, when or where to sit, or what to do with your hands. Everyone has felt awkward on a first date or at a first dance; our feet don’t seem to obey us, and we fear stepping on our partner’s foot. Therefore, actors shall train in order to learn to simulate consciously on stage physical responses that are automatic and often unconscious in life. This is why physical training is so important for the actor. Just as a gifted violinist must acquire great skill and technique to play a Stradivarius violin, greatly talented actors need the highest level of sensitivity, cultivation, and technical training to fully realize their gifts.

Some valuable physical training techniques that can facilitate a suppler instrument for actors  include the following:

  • ballet — to master classical acting forms and build the strength of long muscles and the core

  • modern and jazz dance forms — for freedom of expression and understanding how to create abstract lines of physical communication in space

  • fencing, to build quick responses and precision of hand and foot action, as well as to prepare for classical fight scenes

  • yoga and/or martial arts—for balance, strength, flexibility, and mind/body/breath integration

  • Suzuki — to develop focus, stillness, grounding and a strong center;

  • stage combat — to safely navigate fight scenes

  • Viewpoints — to develop a dynamic and instinctual awareness of the theatrical

Movement training must be done repeatedly over a long period of time in order to create new pathways of opportunity and expression in the body, new neurological pathways in the brain, and responsiveness between mind and body and as a tool for ensemble building.

There are a variety of approaches to awaken the possibilities of mind and body and remove obstacles to the full flow of energy.

There already exist many useful techniques in current training practices for both dance and drama which can be usefully employed or adapted, including: exercises in touch and contact; pair and partner work, like mirroring and moulding; making tableaux and tableaux vivants; group games and fun challenges; trust exercises; mimed scenes and improvised scenes with words or sounds; slow-motion actions and accelerated action; playing things larger than life; abstract shapes; and themes based on efforts and effort/ shapes. Good use can be made of free movement to music or percussion or stimulated by an idea, theme or symbol, or at other times the session might be given quite a definite structure or be based around a set of given tasks.


Describe in essay

  • What formats of movement training you are familiar with other than traditional movement training such as ballet or gymnastics?

  • Do you specialize or familiar enough with any particular movement training?

  • Do you consider movement training as a tool for “fitness and health” only?

  • Create a list of what an actor’s physical training should achieve (e.g. The ability to develop a free, expressive, and spontaneous body, etc.)

Deadline: 3 June

Studying Materials


Mastery of Movement for the Twenty-First-Century Performer” (page 88) by Karen K. Bradley

“Mastering Movement” by John Hodgson

“Jacques Lecoq and the British Theatre” by Franc Chamberlain

Movement Directors in Contemporary Theatre: Conversations on Craft” by Ayse Tashkiran

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