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Week 8

8. Ensemble Building: Musicality

Of course, there is an ancient link between musical and theatrical ensemble in the form of the Chorus in Greek Theatre. This was a link of profound importance to Copeau, who wrote: ‘ The chorus is the mother cell of all dramatic poetry ’ Joseph Chaikin writes of the need for his actors to share an ‘ inner rhythm ’ and one of Chaikin’s collaborators in The Open Theatre, Lee Worley, in describing ensemble, uses a metaphor that combines both bodily and musical perspectives: I always think of (it) like music, like a jazz ensemble. A pulse holds it together- the heart pulse rather than the individuation of the head impulses.

The idea of a shared musicality between performers is at the heart of many approaches to ensemble.

Meyerhold, originally trained as a violinist, saw musicality as core to performance. He wrote:

The actor needs a background of music in order to train him to pay attention to the flow of time on stage.

Rudlin points out the importance of musical training in Copeau ’ s work:

Students at the Vieux Colombier School learned choral and solo singing, reading music and the basics of an individual instrument.

For both Meyerhold and Copeau, musical literacy in performers was not primarily about developing ‘ musical skill ’, but about understanding the structures of music –rhythm, harmony, dynamics, phrasing and melody. They saw the elements of musicality as a language through which performers learn to construct individual performance in relationship to others –as a musician constructs performance in relationship to a collective.

Meyerhold wrote:

A performance organised in a musical way does not mean that music is played in it, or that people sing constantly behind the scenes; it means a performance with a precise rhythmic score, a performance in which time is rigorously structured.

Stanislavski was also clear about the value of a ‘ technical ’understanding of music (as opposed to an acquiring of musical skills):

How lucky to have at one ’ s disposal bars, pauses, a metronome, a tuning fork, harmony, counterpoint, properly worked-out exercises to develop technique, a vocabulary in which to describe artistic concepts, to understand creative problems and experiences. Music has long since recognised the importance of such vocabulary. Music can rely on recognised basic rules and not, like us, on pot-luck.

This emphasis on musicality in the way practitioners have discussed their work suggests their attempts to find a concrete vocabulary to communicate the underlying slipperiness of ensemble-ness. It draws attention away from individual character concerns and towards a relationship. It also suggests a differentiation between a knowing-with-the-head and sensing-with-the-heart, that the foundation of inter-performer communication is not to be found only in the technical skills of performance, but in deeper understandings – just as the techniques of playing music need to be brought to life by a deeper understanding – ‘musicality’. Not only do performers need to learn to have a physical and verbal conversation, but they also have to know how to make that conversation swing. A focus on musicality also reveals a concern with ‘the music’ – the overall effect of the relationships between the individuals – rather than simply with the individual ‘ musician ’(which is where the focus lies in star-orientated, ‘celebrity’ theatre). It emphasizes that the central concern of performers should be coherence and the internal logic of the whole performance rather than any individual’s desire to shine (or the desire of a star-seeking audience to witness such shining).

In the early stages of the training, music offers a safe environment for improvisation.

One of the strongest expressions of musicality as both an inherent principle of theatre and a vehicle towards recovering its essence can be found in Vsevolod Emilevich Meyerhold’s (1874–1940) work and writings, to which we will add some aspects of other theatre-makers’ discourses and processes for complementing and comparison. It was, according to Edward Braun, ‘the concept of “musicality” that characterized Meyerhold’s style and set him apart from every other stage-director of his time’.

Harlow Robinson adds the following differentiation:

This ‘musicality’ was both literal and figurative: an important part of Meyerhold’s theory of biomechanics was rhythm, finding a technical musical foundation for the movements of actors on stage and the movement of a whole production. Meyerhold also used musical terminology to describe more exactly the pace, movement and gestures of any staged work, and even referred to his schema for a production as a ‘partitura’ (score). Meyerhold not only emphasizes the importance of a musical approach towards theatre to provide a form or coherence to something that cannot easily be captured (‘uncontainable’), but importantly he already introduces a notion here, which we will see to gain more and more currency in the musicality dispositif in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: the idea of a contrapuntal or polyphonic relationship of the different elements of theatre.

Musicality, Meyerhold argues, is a powerful device for the actor, and helps the collaboration with the director enormously: It is ten times easier for me to work with an actor who loves music. Actors should be trained in music, while they are still in school. All actors like music ‘for setting the mood’, but very few understand that music is the best organiser of time in a production. Figuratively speaking, the actor’s acting is in single combat with time. And here, music is his best helper. It doesn’t even need to be heard, but it must be felt.


1. Exploring Character with Music

One of Meyerhold’s unique methods of developing characters with his actors was to provide them with a piece of music that he felt encapsulated the rhythm, movement and mood of the character at that point, sometimes for each individual entrance or scene.

1. Choose 5 characters from different plays and find the music that would describe the character from your point of view. When working on the play you may suggest this activity for all actors to explore their character through musicality.

This way of using musical accompaniment and incidental music transcended its conventional function to set a general mood for the scene or a transition between acts. Meyerhold tailored the excerpts (or commissioned new pieces) to provide both a kind of subtext for the actor and a rhythmic manifestation of that subtext and thus a form to use as guidance for speech, movement and gesture. Cast member Erast Garin describes this as ‘acting to music’ which in consequence ‘turned the verbal material into an original recitative’: ‘The rhythm of the Chopin étude provides each character with possibilities for a completely different free arrangement of movement and speech.’ This technique of using music for character creation and as a dramatic dialogue partner was certainly inspired by Wagner’s use of the orchestra, which Meyerhold was very familiar with, not least due to staging Tristan and Isolde in 1909.

2. Exploring Ensemble Through Music

· Search for different compositions, songs, albums that would work in the different parts of the classes that you developed in previous weeks: improvisation, dance in pairs, groups improvisation, performance improvisation, scene rehearsals. Find and save at least 3 compositions for each of the above-mentioned classes.

· Find music for different genres of performance: drama, comedy, tragedy, suspense, oriental, meditative. Find at least 5 compositions for each genre.

· Create your Playlist. You may create it at any convenient for your platforms. Send the Playlist to the Insitute.

Recommended to explore for inspiration:

Stravinsky, Annouar Brahem, Riley Lee, Abel Korzeniowski, Alfred Schnittke, Christopher Young.

3. Music and Emotions

Many of us turn to music to express something we are feeling that is harder to say in words. We use music to go along with a particular mood or pervasive emotional state or to alter our moods. We play music on our devices; we make music, or we go and listen to live music. Even if we are not feeling any particularly strong emotion, a piece of music can trigger it in us. How can you use this relationship between music and emotions for your acting?

Exercises Example:

Exercise 1: Working with Music without a Text

Advance Preparation: The teacher shall compose a soundtrack with a variety of different pieces of music and bring in a device to play it.


A. Moving to Music

· As each piece of music is played, the students listen and begin to move

with the feeling of the music. This can be walking, running, dancing, doing an activity, or any type of expression. As the music shifts and a new piece of music plays, allow your spine, or whatever other part of your body responds first, to initiate movement (but make sure to move through the small muscles along the spine). Allow the changing tempo-rhythm of the music to affect you also.

Exercise 2: Working with Music with a Text

· Using a monologue or scene you select or have previously worked on a little, find a piece of music that expresses to you what the character is experiencing. It is not important that the song have words, or if it does have words, that the words of the song are relevant to the topics of the play. All that matters is that the piece of music that you find or create captures something about the feeling of this piece of text for your character. Play the music and move to it as above.

· As an additional part, you can speak some words or the entire text with the music playing quietly in the background. You can work with the rhythm of the music or against it.

· If you have a scene partner, you can go through some of the action of the scene first with music you have chosen, second with music your scene partner has chosen, or, alternately, with a piece that you select together that expresses the dynamic between the characters.

Task: Taking as examples the above-mentioned exersises, create a block of exercises that would guide actors/students from a solo individual work to the group improvised performance thorugh the exploration of musicality.

Complete the tasks 1, 2 and 3. Send to the institute your reflections, findings and discoveries.

Format: pdf/docx with links

Deadline: 25 June


Musicality in Theatre p. 59-100

The_Improvisation_Studies_Reader p.27-31; 87-100


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