Soul of the American Actor
Interview with "The Soul of the American Actor"
Volume 6, No. 1, Spring 2003
The Williamson Physical Technique:
The Physical Process of Acting
by Loyd Williamson
I did not create this technique; I watched it emerge. The route that led me to this method of training actors' bodies has been very personal. Because I did not study in a conservatory environment, I never had the broad education in international styles of bodywork and in vigorous vocal study that accompanies many acting classes. My personal approach to physical technique came from New York City acting training in the 1960's and early 1970's, when study of the various versions of the American Method preceded all other forms of study. In fact, for many of us in the New York training schools, the acting was (and is) everything. All other study was peripheral, even haphazard. In my classes with Harold Clurman, he would often bemoan the lack of work in voice, carriage, and diction in our New York actors.
Dance is an integral part of the professional theater, and to me, at the time I began acting, completely at one with the art of acting. At that time, dance in New York was at the highest level of performing arts, and fine dancing had the same clarity and truth as did fine acting. Because of my respect for its integrity, dance became the venue through which I studied physical technique. From ballet training with Maggie Black, I learned the physical mechanics required of the body for a professional level of performance: alignment, freedom of the entire respiratory system (which supported remarkable sound), muscular fluidity. Anna Sokolow, the original movement teacher for The Actors Studio, Lincoln Center School, and the Juilliard Theater School, was a mentor, who, to this day, remains the mother of my artistic soul. From my work in Dramatic Movement for Actors with Anna, I discovered the aesthetics of movement, the expressive beauty of another art. For Anna, movement must grow from an actor's inner experience. She taught actors how to awaken that inner experience by listening with their entire bodies to other artists: musicians, composers, poets (and for me, painters, singers, and dancers).
The relationship of the body to acting and dance guided me to one concept: The actor's body, his sensory contacts with other actors in his imaginary world, his connections and expressions, his experiences and behavior, are all part of one self-contained instrument. There should be no separations of any of its parts.
I am often asked, "What is the relationship between the body and the voice? How do you integrate the two?" The body and voice in this technique have no separation. They are already one instrument that is activated by the same source with one result: the production of behavior. Integration is not an issue. As a physical specialist, I am sometimes asked by directors or other colleagues to "just deal with the actor's body." I believe experiential life and physical life, acting impulses and physical impulses are all a part of this single relationship. Sensory contact, experience, and behavior are all parts of one event occurring in one indivisible place, the actor's body.
Interestingly, this physical technique relates to each of these art forms, acting and dance, from opposing points of view. In acting, the body is a support system, and the technique came from seeing how the body functioned when acting. Since acting is the root of this physical technique, the actor's physical life needs to facilitate essential aspects of acting. The acting situation demands a physicality that is as spontaneous and instinctive as the acting. Physical technique should be a servant to acting; enhancing, inspiring, and yet unobtrusive. (This physical technique does not teach acting technique; furthermore, if an actor does not have an understanding of the craft of acting, this physical craft has nothing to be supportive of.)
In dance, the opposite occurs: Dance serves the actor's body. Certain approaches from ballet supply actors with an effective physical technique. Yet my early physical training with Anna Sokolow showed me that the physical technique of dance could actually parallel the physical process of acting: the actors discovered their own inner life experiences, through the master teacher's use-of dramatic themes, through music, and dramatic images. For Anna, movement was the master artist's expression of the actor's inner life. Beautifully choreographed motion taught us how to express inner life experiences. We went beyond the ordinary, the mundane. All the rich inner life came flowing out into something beautiful and more fully realized than we thought possible.
The body has many tasks in acting, but perhaps the highest and most sacred of them all is processing the life that flows though actors' bodies when they are acting. The physical instrument is entrusted with the artist's creation. Imagine that a rare event occurs: The actor's body falters in processing his creation. We, the audience, then, may miss out on an experience that might have stayed with us through our lives. The actor creates the world in which we live during the play or film; the job of the body is to process the life that flows from that world.
The processing begins as the actor begins making contact through his five senses with the people and the place surrounding him. He must have an almost animal focus allow that sensory life to permeate his entire body. The phrase we will use is: "the actor's inner life is activated by his sensory contact with the outer world." That activity sends the life out of the body into behavior. Processing is taking in, activating, and sending out. An actor with an effective physical technique will spend his life working to process more effortlessly. Imagine the smell and touch of a special rose in your hand. Because of the smell or touch, perhaps your breathing flows deeper into the torso, or your pulse rate changes slightly: The smell and touch of the rose are the stimuli that affect the respiratory system (breathing), the circulatory system (pulse rate), and the muscular system (physical freedom and deeper relaxation). The activation of the inner life has begun. Processing has begun. The activation of the body's inner life can be very gentle, but no matter how gentle or simple, this activation will produce the flow of behavior.
I win use a metaphor for the body that Martha Graham used, but to a different end: The body is a channel through which the actors process their connections with the world around them. Behavior is both the end of processing and the beginning. Behavior's function is unique. Receptive and sensually interactive, behavior is the key to continuous communication of experience between one person and another. For example, if you say something to me that enrages me, your comment will go to the depth of my inner life, affecting all my vita1 systems. The behavior - words and gestures - that comes out of my experience must be clear and true. However, if my behavior uses humor, disgust, threats, and so on, my sensory contact will be far more effective with you than one note screaming. My range of sensual behavior will force you to a new sensory contact with my experience. My range in this case, may take you to a new level of experience. Each time our behavior re-establishes the sensory contact on a new level, the meaning of the relationship moves on to unexpected discoveries.
If, however, the actor's expression of his love, hate, jealousy, or joy overwhelms his ability to maintain sensory (contact with the other actor - the classic example is shouting - then all communication will stop immediately, including the communication with the audience. Our behavior, when expressing an intensely felt truth, must leave us open to receive all experiences from the person with whom we are speaking. Because behavior reconnects us to the beginning of our channel, the actor's physical process becomes a circular channel, through which the actor processes physical life. Experience is the most important event in the Physical Technique: the activity of the body's inner life. The question is, what exactly is this activity that takes place in the inner life?
When our body can recognize the activity in the vital system at work in another person's (or actor's) body, our vital systems are exercising Physical Intelligence. Recognition is, therefore the central word in what is called Physical Intelligence: A physical recognition such as this bypasses intellect. Physical sensation in a vital and working part of our body can recognize physical sensation in the same part of someone else. If we see another person, and we feel that there is something about him that we do not trust, our bodies respond to the activity of the same part of the vital systems of that person that are withholding or distorting what we feel is honest communication - this feeling comes from our Physical Intelligence. Or shall we call it intuition.
Connection is the simplest and least intimidating form of Physical Intelligence. Connection, simply put, is the actor allowing his or her vital systems (inner life) to be activated by the surrounding world. As with any experience, connection must begin with a receptive body. Connection does not require reciprocation, but only reception and activation. An actor must be connected to every other actor in the play, but he or she can, and quite often must, connect with another actor who is connected to no one - not even himself. Second, after connection comes intimacy. When actors feel "chemistry" on stage, their connection is not only reciprocal; the activity of the vital systems is in perfect harmony. For Romeo and Juliet, intimacy is mandatory. The final component is empathy. An actor must be very serious about her art to have the courage to be empathetic. Empathy requires receptivity. If the actor is communicating with a beggar on the streets, she actually allows her own vital systems to become activated by the same conditions, in the same way that the beggar experiences those conditions. The actor does not just connect with the beggar, or become intimate, she allows herself to experience life as the beggar experiences it. The actor, to a certain extent, becomes the beggar.
Many of the greatest acting teachers discovered the importance Of stimuli germinating in the actor's fertile inner life; the actor's experiences then spontaneously flow into behavior. Meisner proposed what no other teachers had: that the actor should activate behavior by focusing on "the doing" and on "working off the other person." Sandy kept, "self-involvement" and "self-indulgent emotional introspection" as far as possible from acting. Experiential connections, Physical Intelligence, and sensory stimuli can be incorporated into this work without encouraging self-indulgence; they will, in fact, render self-absorption nearly impossible.
Experiencing the inner life of the other actor not only enhances the flow of actor to actor, but extends to the performance itself. An audience will experience in their bodies only what the actor experiences in his. The audience's body has its own Physical Intelligence that recognizes the inner activity of the actor. The audience wants the actor's experiences first, because the whole internal life of the audience comes alive only when they can experience the life in the actors. The internal activity of the actor's body is the source of gestures and or sounds. Vivid experience will produce vivid behavior that brings the body of an audience member to full life. Sandy said, "An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words." I would amend that to say, "An ounce of experience is worth a pound of behavior."
Even as a preteenager, I felt that how we respond to our world was as important as the specifics of the world that we were experiencing. Walt Whitman opens his mighty Leaves of Grass, "observing a spear of summer grass." We can see Venice and experience nothing. We can hear the person across from us as he is talking and find a universe in just the sound of the voice. In theater and film, the body must process major issues of life, whether comic or tragic. The actor's inner life grows from these experiences, and she is able to process more than she did before the performance began. Her experiences open her audience to those same abilities to process their world. The audience will become more alive to the world around them, and they will become expressive of their own experiences - because of the actor's art.