I have been making discoveries in the technique that have amazed even me, being in my own classes for an hour and a half each day, and the connection that I have with music—all forms of music from Sinatra to Bach, from Motown to Mahler, and yes even rap (though rap is static)—sends me flying into motion, and moving in the vocabulary of our movement variations. But I have never moved as now. The strength and freedom is greater than I have ever had. Remember the old variations that were a part of the technique? I have gone back, and incorporated them into a seamless flow of the current Open Choreography including the Standing Variations. It becomes akin to a Zen experience; working, stretching, strengthening every muscle group of the body, and it produces a wonderful balance and length of the spine. It is the stuff of a true master class for people who have completed all their training with each of the faculty who guiding their students in a mastery of the basics of the technique.
All of this enriched movement vocabulary and deeper experience of connection could have an awesome effect on the connection between actors, or on the connection with any form of human communication.
These experiences led me into contemplating the origins out of which this movement technique grew—the beginnings of this life-long journey. I’ve always known that it predated my New York acting training.
I began my formal theatre training in a university graduate program. But I went to graduate school by default. I was an English teacher and, because there was no one else to accept the job, I was advisor for the drama group. A little aside; I was given a scholarship for directing a High School production of Chekhov’s one act play The Boor. The only way my instinct knew to get people in contact with one another was through the body. Believe it or not, they began rehearsal by going to the high school track and running one mile and then came straight into rehearsal. They were fired up and connected. I could feel any tension, and the only way I knew how to handle the problem was to physicalize it out. Once they became used to that level of relaxed energy, the work ran on its own; however, when we traveled to other cities to perform, I had them doing calisthenics in our hotels—sit ups, push ups, swings, jumps, all accompanied by their own sounds—before we went to the theatre. The production won the regional competition, and placed third in the statewide competition. I even directed it physically. The whole thing was choreographed with split second timing for every movement. (No actor would put up with that now). The play was Chekhov in top form. In fact, the reason we took third in State, instead of first, one of the company missed one beat when hurling a vase across the stage, and they lost the rhythm of the piece at its climax. I suppose that physical work was the beginning of the physical vocabulary of what is now The Open Choreography. Another similarity is the incorporation of sound with movement, so that there is no separation between voice and body.
In this period of teaching High School I became aware of the crucial value of vulnerability, so I created an exercise called The Slump.
In graduate school my training was quite diverse leading me to become a member of the university modern dance company though I received my MFA in Scene Design and Lighting Technique, with a rather successful detour into directing. The training was invaluable because it nurtured my love of the visual art that is created by light and architecture. I learned to see a script and the visual beauty of a human being moving through that script. As a choreographer for actors this world served me well.
The first professional experience with performers’ bodies was not with actors, but with singers, opera singers. For a period of eight years, through a dear friend, I had total access to all rehearsals, dress rehearsals, and performances of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This gave me extensive contact with the physical techniques at work in the human body when producing sound at its greatest fullness. Before settling in New York, however, I remember assisting on a production of the opera Macbeth at Lyric Opera in Chicago. It was the fall after I finished graduate school. I would watch Grace Bumbry in rehearsal and performance, I could see, could feel in my own body, her body, and I knew that her voice was not going to last, which indeed it did not. Over the following years, I began to see the relationship between the physical life in these great artists and the sounds that they produced. I discovered that I could see what the sound I was about to hear before it left the body. My forays into acting began preceding this time in the plays of Lorca, Shakespeare (playing Troilus in Troilus and Cressida) followed by a year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as an actor and dancer, and the McCarter theatre in Princeton.
My formal acting training was under Sandy Meisner in his professional classes (not the Neighborhood Playhouse as is sometimes misstated). The “connection” work of the technique did not come from Sandy; it came from a desire to correct the disconnection that was going on in the Meisner repetition exercises and in the scenes. I could see where some of the actors were related to the material; it just couldn’t get out of the blockage in certain parts of their body. William Esper invited me to teach at the school of the Arts at Rutgers University where I met his assistant Katherine Gately. I developed my skill in handling actors in their performances by working with Katherine for eight years, both at Rutgers and in her New York studio. Katherine was followed by Maggie Flannigan, who invited me to work with her actors. Both Katherine and Maggie would take copious notes. Each of them have shared with me that they knew they were seeing something completely new that was expanding their teaching. This movement technique was a new approach to opening their actors’ connections with one another and with their world. It was a method for building a physical instrument. It was a physical technique that totally supported their work and was totally new. By my tenth year at Rutgers, Bill Esper invited me to work with his actors. With his support, the teachers of his staff followed.
The movement technique, as we know it now, was created to support actors when they were acting. As late as five years into my discoveries of the technique, I would suggest that we should integrate the movement technique into the acting. I would receive a sharp reply, “Movement class is for movement; acting class is for acting.” This technique came out of the needs of the actor when acting. I knew that all the work in movement class could be successful but if it was not reconnected to the roots to which it grew—the actor in acting class or performance—then it would never make sense to the actors. For the teachers of The Technique, participation in the acting class or the production is mandatory. I continued to coach singers and began my work in film.
As for the movement class, during my second year with Sandy, I had begun to teach Anna Sokolow’s classes at HB. I began to incorporate the first of the “sensory contact” exercises into the movement work. I also was still using the basic work that I used in the high school plays. When we would do jumps in class—and there were a lot of jumps in 4/4 time—they would use Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs in rhythm with the jumps: “When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache and repose is tabooed by anxiety, I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in without impropriety.” Occasionally I’ll meet up with someone from that era and the first thing they’ll mention—and we’ll both laugh—is the jumps with the patter songs.
From Anna Sokolow I absorbed depth, the profound connection with art. Most especially music, and its composers who created it. She taught me the meaning of art. And its effects on the human soul. Her favorite composer for her actors’ movement classes was Chopin. Her greatest passion was for Scrabin. Being of Russian descent, she loved all the Russian composers. She also had a deep respect for jazz. The decorum of her classes was simple: black tights only, no jewelry, utter concentration, and complete commitment to her every direction. There was no room for restlessness, and any one whose mind wandered off was asked to leave the class. I began my teaching out of that background. Every class that I have taught has been affected by this heritage.
The Technique itself, therefore, evolved from the needs of actors and singers. Now it has broadened to include any people who wish to enrich their communication with the people, places and the other life around them. Its tools are the physical opening of the body, so that the five senses are brought into full contact with that world. This opened instrument absorbing the richness of the sensory connections and the entire inner life of the actor’s body is transformed. When the inner physical life of the body is affected we call it experience. To experience something is to allow our sensory contact to effect our entire inner body. Experience is the source out of which behavior flows. This behavior enriches the contact, and contact enriches the experience, and so goes the cycle of communication.
I guess that brings us full circle with my life at Tamarack Lodge and having my times of solitude on the land, and coming to these amazing discoveries of my own connection with the world around me.