Brian Michaels

Thinking with the body

“Put another way, you learn cumulatively by being in your body in the world. This epistemology then is one that does not separate mind from body or experience from learning. The mind develops through the body’s experience in the world.”

(Paul Stoller, The Power of the Between, University of Chicago Press, 2009)

My focus, experience and understanding of theatre and the acting process has always been physi-cal, using “the body’s experience in the world” as the central element in the creative learning pro-cess. The intellectual bias of traditional acting forms and acting schools has always relegated the body to an instrument which needs to be trained, controlled and used, and placed at the disposal of the mind/head/brain. The hegemony of intellect and psyche often reduces and distorts the totality of human experience, by placing an emphasis on that which can be verbally described and communi-cated. Non-verbal experience is neither easy to talk about nor analyse, but a major part of our ex-perience as human beings is non-verbal, and cannot be transferred into the rational forms of analyt-ical discourse. The refusal to deal with and understand body conscious-ness, and the creative po-tential of the body in the acting process, leads to a narrow emphasis on psychological processes in the actor’s training, compounded by the sub-ordination of emotional experience into psychological systems.
Some 17 years ago, in co-operation with my colleague Prof. Nadia Kevan 1) I started to search for possibilities of “thinking with the body”. This in turn provided the experience needed for creating a non-verbal approach to character. Slowly we developed an approach using elements of Alexander Technique, in which Prof. Kevan is an internationally recognised capacity. The proven success of this approach – the actors who were exposed to this training experience, acquired a greater vitality, directness, and physical imagination, resulting in exceptional productions both in Germany and elsewhere, began to trigger a process of reflection and re-thinking. But given the mistrust, and the inability of acting schools and teachers in Germany, to deal with non-verbal processes, the space and possibilities to expand and explore this approach were often limited. This work is not about what the body can do or the techniques that can be learnt in order to develop the body as a tool 2), but about understanding the body, and consciousness of the body as a source of non-verbal knowledge.

1) Professor for Body Consciousness, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen
2) This understanding of embodied knowledge is often applied in the Anglo-Saxon context.

For a long period I tried to determine what was the best form of physical work which could become the first stage of the process on which I was working. I looked at a number of practitioners whose work is very body-based- Suzuki, Grotowski, etc- without ever having the feeling that this kind of work connected to what I was looking for.I think there was too much purpose and artifice in what I found, and I needed something that had no ideological connotations, no signification beyond the action itself. I finally decided that walking, and variations of walking, this most fundamental of hu-man activities, was the best way of preparing the actors, the best way of connecting them to the earth, to allow them to experience the world through their feet, from the bottom upwards.This ap-proach would mobilise the perceptive capacity of the body, and allow the actor to be in the world.Perception of the world, experience of the world is not necessarily an intellectual cognitive process.The mobilisation of the body as the centre of perceptive experience, re-structures the rela-tionship between mind and body, and allows the brain to expand and diffuse immediate bodily ex-perience.The hierarchical control of mind over body is revoked. The world is a different place when the body is the instrument through which we encounter the “otherness” of being.The knowledge and experience that diffuses itself throughout the body encourages and liberates new creative possibili-ties.The actor needs to trust, and to be familiar with this creative potential.The walking work-at dif-ferent speeds, extremely fast, extremely slow, with eyes open, with eyes closed, forwards, back-wards ,interspersed with sudden stops and absolute stillness-done for a period of at least 45 minutes, would gradually connect the actors to their bodies, and allow them just “ to be there “ in space. There is little or no interaction between the participants. Each actor has to bring his body into being first, before he or she consciously encounters a partner.The precise forms that I used on any given day, would depend on my perception of the specific group that I was working with , so this part of the work was determined by an organic dynamism, and has become in itself a creative body experience. In turn this leads to an extremely high level of concentration, after which I used the description and consciousness of the anatomical bone structure(Alexander Technique), in order to expand the actors’ awareness of their bodies in space “in the world”. There then followed a period of deep relaxation which allowed the actors to deepen and intensify their body experience and then to explore a previously defined context (see below). This could be the world of the play, the histori-cal and cultural context of the author, and the possibilities of character. The exploration undertaken by the actors is very personal and fuses their specific creativity with the material of the play, allo-wing them to explore from the inside.These are the essential elements of the non-verbal approach to character and context. The literary artistic reference for this work is the 13th century Sufi mystic and poet Jalal ad-Din Rum. He was born in Balkh in Afghanistan and taught for most of his life in Konya, Turkey. He is also the founder of the Order of the Whirling Dervishes. Rumi’s ability to describe the totality of human experience is unique, rooted in the tangibility of the here and now. He is the most popular and widely read poet in the USA today.

The actor has to learn about and access embodied knowledge and embodied reality. For cultural anthropologists, like Paul Stoller, the study of, and research into embodiment has been the basis of their work for decades. But in my experience the PWST in Bytom Poland, is the only institute that references embodied knowledge in the context of artistic training. The study of cultural anthropolo-gy is a major part of their training as Dance Theatre Actors.I have been able to expand, develop and refine my approach since star-ting to work at the PWST Bytom.
In November/ December 2013, I had the opportunity of directing the Diploma production for the PWST in Bytom, and it was there that I first encountered young student performers who not only knew how to use their bodies, but who were open to, and were able to understand non-verbal phys-ical work in the approach to character, and in the discovery and perception of theatrical form. Giv-en their training as dancers with the Modern Polish Technique (its modernism very strongly rooted in Polish regional and Polish Jewish Chassidic traditions), and their understanding of cultural an-thropology with its wealth of non-rational, non-analytical experience, I encountered young artists for the first time, who were equipped with an understanding of body consciousness and who recog-nised the potential of accessing embodied knowledge. In a very short space of time we were able to find a common language, resulting in an explosive release of creative imagination. I provided them with the context that they needed to explore Shakespeare’s “As you like it” – helping them to understand the possibilities of the play, and its characters, and perhaps more importantly to enter into and experience the world that Shakespeare lived in. This approach demands a precise and detailed context in which the performer can move and explore, if this isn’t provided the results of the work will be arbitrary.Working like this on a daily basis enables the actors to live and move in this world. The extensive non-verbal physical work is then followed by an extensive exchange , in which each participant describes his or her experience. This part of the work can last for 2 or 3 hours depending on the number involved. The positive experience of working on this production introduced me to Bytom, and Bytom to my way of working – which has proved to be compatible, inspiring and innovative, and is the reason why I am working there today.

Courses given in the Summer Semester 2015

1) Improvised Scenes with Second Year Actor-Dancers – 11 Students

Introduction to a new body-centred approach to character using Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” as the foundation.
First step: Reading and discussing the text, followed by an extensive discussion about content, character and possible interpretations.
Second step: Introduction to Shakespeare’s world. Study and discussion of social, political and cul-tural (theatrical) developments between 1590 and 1610.The book used here was James Shapiro’s “1599” – probably the most informed and insightful text written about Shakespeare in the last 30 years.
By using these two elements, it was possible to develop a detailed context, which enabled the students to begin their non-verbal research into character, into the play and into the development of the theatre in Elizabethan London. The non-verbal body centred work described above, allowed the students to build up an inner knowledge and understanding of the relevant themes, giving each stu-dent the opportunity to be specific in exploration and to discover his or her personal approach.
After each lesson, experiences were exchanged and discussed in detail. After 4-6 lessons – each lesson lasted 2-3 hours –, the students were able to understand what was
meant by external, impersonal forms of acting. They learnt to trust and listen to their bodies in a completely new way. Of course, the brain and mind lead imagination still played a major role, but the balance between mind and body changed, and a new equilibrium was found, as the students gradually discovered the body as a creative source, that they hadn’t known until then in the acting process (embodied knowledge). At the same time, their perception of themselves – their bodies – in space, enabled them to perceive their partners in a new way. They learnt to listen to each other, both verbally and non-verbally. All of them discovered the enormous value of working together as a collective, and understanding that the discovery and development of their own character, can only be successful in the context of the theatrical collective.
We did not work on staging. We worked exclusively on the deepening understanding and research into character. They also learnt how to work independently, using the tools that they had got to know during the lessons. For the first time, they were not thrust into pre-determined forms, and asked to fulfil specific ideas. They learnt to trust themselves and their partners in this process, and discovered that their creative potential was indeed far greater than they had previously believed.
The exam at the end of the summer semester showed clearly how confident, competent and cou-rageous they had become. There were no costumes, no make-up, no set design and no directing. They themselves chose the character that they wanted to play (each student had developed at least 2 characters from the play), and they chose their partners as well-there were always alterna-tives, so the choice was real. In order to make these decisions, they used their intuition and percep-tion of the collective situation. The material that they used was the text and their understanding of character, everything else that happened was developed during the exam itself. This was a very demanding task. The students had to show absolute trust in themselves and their partners. They had to shed all remnants of external forms, and speak and listen to each other without artificiality. Despite the fact that this particular group had endured a number of setbacks in previous exams that they had taken, they showed no anxiety, and were able to present them-selves in the best possible manner.
The other professors, who were present at the exam were astonished at the progress made. The response was in every sense positive. For a number of the students involved, it was a new begin-ning. They had found a new optimism.

2) Directing,Choreography and Consultation – Fourth Year – 10 students

The aim was to develop a critical reflective discussion about directing and choreography. The ten students involved had just finished two major projects – a dance theatre piece called “Ego – Work-ing Title” with the Dutch choreographer Jens van Daele, and an acting project Albert Jarry’s “Ubu Roi” under the direction of the very well-known Polish director and actor, Jerzy Stuhr. Initially I had hoped to use the experience of these two productions to begin a reflective discourse on both direct-ing and choreography. After a relatively short period, it became clear that this was a group of young people who had had little or no experience in this kind of reflection, and all attempts at open discus-sion constantly lead to the participation of perhaps 2 or 3 of those involved. There was no lack of interest, but too many were unable to express themselves in a critical reflective manner. The lan-guage question here was not decisive- a large number of the group were able to speak excellent English, and those who were not proficient could express themselves in Polish -their contributions were then translated. (My Polish has improved to the extent that I can now roughly follow discus-sions.)
I then decided to adopt a different approach, and chose to use the short political play “One for the road”, by Harald Pinter as material to be used for practical directing work to be done by the class. This indeed was a much more productive way of dealing with the situation. Very quickly, work be-gan on 3 or 4 different projects – some of them combining dance and acting, some of them purely dance based, and one, which was to be-come a theatre-performance show. The students were the directors and choreographers, and of course, the performers as well. The students developed their own ideas about how to use the material, showed me and the other students what they had pre-pared, and in this way a praxis orientated discussion evolved. All ten of the students participated fully.
In fact 7 different contributions emerged – the shortest was 5 minutes long, the longest 15. They managed to combine them in a very intelligent and creative fashion, so that a performance lasting around 70 minutes was produced. Each one of the 7 director/choreographers found their own way of dealing with the material, picking up on the themes that they found important and relevant. they developed the choreography, decided which part of the texts to use, made their own costumes, set design and lighting(all very simple). All of these aspects of the work provided us with the material for our discussions.
The end product turned out to be so convincing, that it is the intention of the group to continue per-forming the piece in Poland and elsewhere. I will try and arrange a performance in Germany – pos-sibly with the help of the Polish Institute and theatres with which I have co-operated in the past.
(On September 12th 2015, a group of students from Bytom will show the performance work, I de-veloped with them last year as part of the “Bayer-Kulturprogramm” in Leverkusen).
The reception was very good, and the audience, including all teachers were very positive about the performance.
September 30 2015