Recently, when facilitating a physical theatre workshop for actors someone asked “What does presence, actually, mean?”
Whilst the question seemed simple and obvious at first, a long pause followed. We were slightly surprised by our inability to give a simple response straight away. Then, an interesting discussion developed.
Presence, someone said, was being aware of what’s happening around you. It is the ability to concentrate fully, said someone else. Holding stillness. Taking space. Being OK with doing nothing. Not grabbing the focus. Not grabbing (!) Feeling connected. Not thinking, feeling. Being happy to be on stage. Having the pleasure to perform. Going with the flow whilst staying engaged. Being able to embody the character. Breathing. Not having tension or fear. Being able to dance between the levels of energy in the context of a character. Being attuned. Keeping in the rhythm. Being OK with being seen. Seeing. Being playful. Being open to whatever happens. Being in touch with the body. Embodying fully. Reacting truthfully. Going with an impulse. Being aware of the space around you. Feeling alive. Sharing life. Being generous.
We concluded that, whilst somewhat intangible, actor’s presence belonged to the physical realm, the body. And, as the body, it was also a unique, individual feature. I immediately recalled one of my teachers at Lecoq school saying to me – you can’t perform with a dead body. It was nothing, but true. One cannot be present or radiate with life when the body is, literally or metaphorically, dead.
The dramatic art is – and always has been – a hugely physical activity. In order to embody a character and convey the world of a specific play and the character(s) who live in that particular world, we move, use our voice, gesture and emotions – the body is our main instrument whilst taking the audience on a journey with us.
When we say “this actor was great” what we are often celebrating is their unique and memorable presence to which we connect. The space vibrates when actors stay truthful, engaged, playful and complicit and share that with us. We are also often mesmerised by those who have mastered the skill of full physical embodiment. Our hearts fill up with joy and admiration when we see an actor performing with the quality of movement/voice/emotional landscape/physicality that belong to the character and not necessarily to themselves. Being able to truthfully embody the beauty and physical life of another being is the essential aspect of the actor’s craft. When we have an ensemble of actors performing in this way (or the whole creative team creating a production in this state/ethics) we leave the show inspired and full of life because we feel that we have truly travelled.
On the other hand, what happens when we are bored? When we leave a theatre play feeling like we just wasted a few hours of lives? Or even worse, feeling depressed and deadened? Putting our personal likes and dislikes aside, what have we actually experienced then?
In “The Empty Space” Peter Brook discusses a range of aspects characterising what he calls, The Deadly Theatre (if you have not yet read this masterpiece, go and get a copy right now). In Deadly Theatre, Brook highlights, actors may be extremely skilled, the shows may be expensive and programmed at prestigious venues – all this is not a criteria to create a convincing life on stage which grants a meaningful experience for the spectator. When death permeates the production, the audience have a nagging sense that something fell flat, something did not take off, the space didn’t vibrate. When this is the case, the connection between the actors and/or the audience is broken, inconsistent or, worse, non-existent. The cast is not present. No presence equals no life. Boredom and indifference follow.
So, can we actually learn presence or is that a special talent that only a few can master?
We are all, in fact, born present. As children, we’re full of life. Our first experiences are bodily – through movement, touch and observation we discover the world. But as we mature, we somehow disconnect from that natural state of flow. Some of us are by nature more playful, open, trusting, some others struggle. So, what can be done about that?
Jacques Lecoq was the master in guiding his students onto the journey of embodiment which is essential to the actor’s craft. Tout Bouge (Everything Moves) and We Become What We See are the principles of Lecoq’s pedagogy and research through which he encouraged and inspired his students to observe, experiment with and embody life around them (colours, materials, elements, animals, buildings, furniture, humans – anything you want, in fact) and use these findings as inspiration to create a truthful, lively and imaginative art, not only on stage, but also in film, literature, painting, photography, architecture.
By exercising our imagination, engaging our bodies and experimenting with our physicality we are able to begin the process of embodiment. The more we practice, the more we are consistent in sustaining our presence, concentration and connection whilst creating and performing. Through exercising our emotional palette, widening the range of movement, observing our impulses we arrive at a better understanding of our energy and what, as performers, we communicate to our audience. This, of course, requires discipline and will not happen overnight. However, by stretching our physical boundaries, using our intuition and being curious, we are able to remove obstacles which stand in the way between our minds and performing truthfully, generously, playfully.
More about embodiment in the next blog!
The Playful Body: Physical Theatre Class (Mondays, 8-9.30 PM at Space 238 in Bristol)
£12 (full) £10 concession £40 for 5 sessions and MoveGB