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From Cathleen – Nature, Embodied

January 30, 2012

Years ago, my first movement theatre instructor, George, taught me about “embodiment.”  In one favorite exercise, we would walk briskly around the theatrical studio, trying to avoid bumping into each other, at the same time focusing on our breath, and keeping an eye on the group being evenly dispersed around the floor space.  “Banana!” he would shout, and we would immediately heave our bodies into a gesture.  “Keep breathing,” he goaded us further, “And don’t stop…keep moving!”

Ensemble Member Cathleen O'Malley, perhaps embodying her frog form

My classmate is baffled, arms vertical, hip jutting out. “But bananas don’t mov…

“Don’t just LOOK like a banana!  BE a banana! Be banana-ey! Don’t think about it–just follow the body! Now—electric fence!”

I force a shiver up through my body, my fingers splay and spike out in all directions.  A shriek of laughter escapes me, high pitched.  Twitching and jabbing out in all directions, I work to release my thinking mind and, rather, follow my impulses, born from associations.  I am starting to get into it, catching the spirit, so to speak.

“Champagne!”  Effervescent, I send a trill of breath and sound, up through my throat, resonating high in my forehead, tones cascading and slipping along the scales.  My fingers are bubbles and I spin, off-balance for a moment on tiptoe, then catching myself in a soft landing of my heels before spinning off in the opposite direction, my head and neck loose as if connecting by a string.

Not the shape of the material, George reminded us, but the being of it.  Champagne-ness.

Little did I know at the time, my teacher was introducing (via a high adrenaline version) a tool that would be at the source of my work and training as an actor for years to come.

“Imagine,” George would propose, “there are, say, 800 million things in the world.  For as many things there are in the world, there are that many ways to laugh, or to move.”  And as we awoke to the world around us, we could see it.  People with material characteristics, just burbling under the surface.

Objects in nature—including animals and materials, like oil, paper or clay—have concrete attributes that lend to their essential nature, or—to speak in terms of theatre—character.  We see this in life—and our language reflects this propensity to metaphor.

The brilliant physical theatre pioneer, Jacques Lecoq

An unruly child may act piggish, or squirrely; celebs are hounded by the press; our personalities can be mercurial, our humor, dry, our movements, fluid.  Leaving a party, we may reflect that the group was warm, or that the conversation flowed.

One of Touchstone’s earliest influences—the French theatre master, Jacques Lecoq (1921-1999), who visited Touchstone in the early 90s—was one of the pioneers in the physically-based theatre movement in Western Europe, whose influence has extended into colleges, university, stages and studios across the United States.  He taught his students to observe qualities of materials, animals and the elements of nature to inspire nuanced and imaginative characters onstage.

This work lends a richness to a performance that has applications in a wide variety of theatrical genres.  Famous students of Lecoq include director and designer Julie Taymor (the evocative puppetry of The Lion King) and acclaimed British film and stage actor Geoffrey Rush.

The “embodied” approach to creating dynamic, engaging theatre was fundamental to Touchstone’s early theatrical work.  And now, some designers and architects are getting attention for working from metaphor in a similar fashion, creating dynamic public spaces inspired by natural structures–particularly trees.

These digital days, one can access virtually unlimited content and social connection without any physical contact with people or the natural world.  What was lost when we humans began taming the wilderness, or our own wildness for that matter?  Neuroscience is teaching us that our minds are less rational than we once thought and that our experience of world around us is more associative in nature.

As artists, let us take up the task of creating work that not only stimulates the intellect, but works upon the audience–richly imaginative and metaphorically-inclined minds that are inextricable from the bodies they inhabit.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 30, 2012 1:43 pm

    I believe the lovely portrait of LeCoq is by H.Scott Heist. Not sure. Scott is our Journalist in Residence for the Civil War Project. He’ll be documenting the entire creative process for a book/journal to be published at the end of the process.

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