Back in 2009, I worked on a production of The Winter’s Tale that was my first full-length production in years. I was 34 years old, and I found out two things that were amazingly helpful. One was that I still had a sense of all the technical skills needed to do the job of directing: my training from undergrad days hadn’t left me, even though I hadn’t used it in a long time. The other was that in the intervening time, I had learned a hell of a lot more than I knew when I was 21 about talking to people, working with emotions, establishing authority, and other adult stuff that I really think can only be learned with life experience.
What I didn’t expect would come in so handy was the fact that I was at that moment in my first year of RSM training. When I entered rehearsals, I’d just finished up my third week-long intensive, and found that I had a ton to bring to actors.
Many actors are no doubt familiar with the idea of moving a ball of energy around in your body, and seeing what it feels like to walk around as if being pulled by that ball, placed at different body locations. I.e., leading from your head, or your chest, or your pelvis, or your knees. This wasn’t a new concept to me. But in that training, we were also seeing what it was like to inhabit different parts of ourselves and try to listen to someone else tell a story. And what happens when we embody the physical characteristics of our clients, and how much someone who doesn’t even know the client can learn about that client just by following us and walking in the same way.
More specifically: we did an exercise in which we paired up, then one of the pair told a story about something important to them, and the other listened. The listener started by organizing ourselves in our shoulders – leading from them, holding energy in them. It made me feel aggressive, forceful. It made me lean forward in my chair, in the way that many people think “listening carefully” looks. And two things happened: I couldn’t really hear what the other person was saying. And the other person didn’t feel like I was listening.
When we instead organized from our hips – sat relaxed in our chairs, settled into our seats, had our feet on the ground – I felt at once more receptive. I could not only clearly hear what the other person was saying, but was more interested in it. She, responding, told her story more animatedly and with greater comfort. A simple shift in body position – and all of the mental and emotional shifts that come with that – changed the entire interaction radically, and for the better.
In the other exercise, one of the pair adopted body postures of a practice client that they were seeing at home. They would walk around the room, and the other half of the pair walked behind them and imitated what they did. Then, the person in front – embodying the client – would call back to the other person, asking questions about his or her life. Incredible revelations came with this. One person spontaneously knew that their partner’s client’s father had recently died. Many of us, while followers, answered questions in similar words to what our partners’ clients had said in sessions. The body, we were learning over and over again, holds such deep truths that even just imitating someone third-hand, we can learn astounding things about their lives.
Needless to say, this was amazingly useful when I got to rehearsals. The actor playing King Leontes figured out that the insanely jealous king leads from the head, and he found that it helped Leontes make more sense to him: why he doesn’t listen to his most trusted counselors, why he is so dedicated to his consuming idea, is because his heart is buried and his head is so far out in front he’s in danger of falling forward. Just try and listen, to be receptive, to trust yourself or anyone, when you’re letting your forehead lead you like an arrow.
Hermione – the Queen – is pregnant at the start of the show, and the actress easily found herself leading with her belly. The combination of pride and vulnerability that this brought to her physicality did more than just make her convincing as a pregnant woman: it allowed her first to blossom as the gentle and patient mother that the character is, and then to feel the full weight of the betrayal as it nearly literally punches her in the gut.
More than even most theatrical training, RSM has given me insights into how to shortcut emotional truth through physicality. I watch some actors work so very hard to get themselves into an emotional state, and burn themselves out doing it. What I’ve learned is that there are ways of accessing those feelings through simple body posture and movement. It’s been an incredibly useful set of tools that I didn’t fully expect would be transferable, and I’m terribly grateful for it, especially now that I’ve gotten as interested as I have in movement-based theatre.