The Intersection Between Combative and Theatrical Arts: A View
Movement training for actors involves not only physical technique, but also changes in the student s internal state. Indeed, as I speak with colleagues from a variety of programs and methodologies, I am struck with how much time we spend in contextualizing and reframing movement classes and exercises to achieve maximum benefit for the actor. Adapting physical techniques to the capacities of actors and presenting them in such a way that they make sense for actor training loom large in our thinking.
Looking at the variety of movement schools/discipline/techniques that are taught in actor training programs across the country, I am tempted to say that one could incorporate almost any physical skill into a movement class and justify its pedagogical value. Juggling, mime, stage combat, meditation, breathing, improvisational movement, dance (classical and modern and jazz), bodywork (Feldenkrais, Alexander technique, Rolfing), yoga, aerobics, strength training, deportment, period styles, martial arts the list is long.
One key to effective training is not so much in what is taught, but how and why it is taught. Going beyond mere syllabus descriptions and actually observing how two dance teachers (for example) teach the same material, we see that each teacher achieves different effects. These differences flow mostly from how the teacher behaves and within what framework he/she creates a meaningful learning experience. The subject of a movement course is only the most trivial and surface part of the teaching/learning equation. The skill of the teacher largely determines the quality of the student's experience.
Ultimately, approaches to actor movement training are as varied as the people who choose to do it. In the end, the unifying and central question for movement training for actors is: Does this system teach actors something they need to know? If the teacher can justify the system's use/application to the actor's interests there is a much greater likelihood that the training will be usefully internalized.
Although my first exposures to Aikido and T'ai Chi Ch'uan were for my own interests, it took only a few weeks of classes and personal change for me to discover techniques, principles, and belief systems that had much in common with the art of acting. Although most actors are not much interested in the martial arts per se, I came to believe that certain aspects of those martial ways might have great impact on how actors work and thus achieve their artistic goals. As I acquired more skill, knowledge and experience in these martial arts, I found the courage to begin a gradual carryover to my actor movement classes, even if in a kind of guerilla way.
Among my first steps was the decision to use some simple physical exercises from Aikido as a way to demonstrate insights into the actor's process. In this I was fortunate, since shin shin toitsu Aikido is full of such exercises. Additionally, carefully used words and references that weren't loaded with martial implications helped me to convey the appropriate training lesson. I assured the actors that the outcome we were after was not martial expertise but their artistic skill and process development.
It was only much later, in a training program in which I was given the extra time, that I added brief martial arts training modules that took on more of the look and feel of a dojo or practice hall. This has always come in the final year of training, after the groundwork and familiarity with the actors' ways of working have been explored. (Typically, the primary training is in stage combat, juggling and circus arts, improvisational and animal explorations, Lecoq-based neutral mask, expressive mask and half-mask during the first two years of a three-year program.) Still, even within this more exemplary martial arts training experience, I am constantly packaging and correlating the martial material to the student's artistic goals so that even the least physically skilled actor can achieve some benefit from it.
Practically, this approach has meant that within my actor training program: 1) I do not confer belts or ranking diplomas to any actor, 2) the martial arts classes focus on relatively minimal skill development analogous to a beginner's class at a dojo, and 3) the study of the martial arts work constantly seeks a wider context than just self-defense, relating to such topics as active relaxation, balance, focusing, reframing, breath control, and the like.
This third point is critical to what I see as the possibilities of martial arts training as it intersects actor training. What is most important here are the needs and perceptions of my students. Those needs start with simple physical training techniques and physical development, but over the course of time other aspects of the student's capacities enter in to the teaching equation. Any actor training program that claims to be doing its job will sooner usually than later confront the actor's basic beliefs and values about him/her self. The artist's capacities flow from these internal beliefs and that is where true, new change and growth can take place. Martial arts training can provide a useful and powerful variation in our attempts to develop more flexible and responsive actors.
From a martial arts perspective, there has been an enormous change over the past couple of decades in the way martial arts are taught and the context in which a modern society can visualize their usefulness. Just to get to the point where one might use an empty-handed martial art effectively and spontaneously takes years of training that most people are not willing to commit to, and more fundamentally doesn't answer the problem of modern violent situations where a thief can shoot you down from a distance anyway. In other words, why would a human being in American culture at the beginning of the 21st century want to study a martial art originally created in a vastly different culture, language and time in human history?
There will always be young people (mostly men) who see a martial art as a kind of entry into adulthood, a sort of talisman that will save them from their fears about the world around them. Relishing the physical and psychological challenge in contests of courage, skill, and aggressiveness in the dojo has a place for some. But more generally, as responsible adults and citizens and artists, we cannot promote these more primitive values alone in a modern world in which physical confrontation is not acceptable in most people's daily lives. It can be too easy to reward powerful physical technique alone in a dojo where power, control and domination are the accepted highest values without reference to the psychological, social and even spiritual values that must enhance and contain them. Unfortunately, those of us who have been in the martial arts for a while know that not every black belt confers with it a humane, confident, and psychologically balanced person. Skill on a mat or in a practice hall with a weapon does not automatically translate into the living skills of a happy and socially responsible human being.
Aikido's Koichi Tohei has said that our task is to perfect ourselves. The advanced, inner teachings of many Chinese martial styles was not to subdue any and all opponents: it was to achieve a balanced way of living in which the physical, psychological, and spiritual could all merge. At their highest levels, the martial arts I am familiar with all arrive at this point where the self-defense aspects are part of a weave of many other ideas and insights for living as a warrior. Most martial arts training I have seen advertised within the last decade now focuses more on qualities such as self-discipline, confidence, physical fitness, and such. Within this context, we see that an actor can make his/her own use of the martial arts experience, just as a housewife, businessman, college student, or grandmother would.
Put another way from the perspective of the theatre I have never worked with a young professional actor who needed to learn how to fight or who made a practice of going out looking for arguments. National network news stories notwithstanding, the vast majority of us are never involved in serious physical confrontations. I have, however, met many young actors who trip over curbs, interrupt their responses to onstage perception, have difficulty focusing on class exercises, become stressed out, become depressed in the face of the severe competition and lack of opportunities in the acting world, and otherwise face many personal, internal issues that prevent them from accessing more of their artistic potential. These are the real battles of our students.
The list of benefits of martial arts training/techniques to the actor could be a long one. For a start, I would suggest the following:
As a martial artist, I am committed to teaching the most essential truths and practices of the arts I enjoy including both physical and psychological/spiritual insights and wisdom. As a movement teacher, I think that martial arts in actor training must, of necessity, be adapted to the conditions and purposes of that training. I believe that the key to the intersection of martial and theatrical arts lies within our wisdom as teachers in adapting ideas and techniques that support our artistic visions. In this way, we may be true to both visions of human experience while acknowledging their differences.
- Full-body physical training
- Improved balance
- Improved wholebody coordination
- Physical Flexibility
- Efficiency in movement
- Development of deep kinesthetic awareness
- Strengthened image placement, both within and outside the body
- Sequential challenges that allow the actor to face fears
- Improved present-time sense