When I was at the Shakespeare Theater Association conference in January (back when one Went To Things), three different people recommended Steven Wangh’s An Acrobat of the Heart to me. When something like that—something that isn’t new and trendy—pops into my world a number of times, I pay attention. So as soon as I got home, I checked it out of the library.
This is one I’m probably going to buy to reread and have in arm’s reach. I read it slowly, stopping to contemplate and digest each section before moving on. I told Katherine, early in the process (reading this book was a process!), that Wangh was answering a lot of questions I’ve spent the past few years asking, and where he didn’t have answers, he helped me articulate the questions better.
The book, like many acting books, takes the form of a class where students are doing the various exercises, encountering problems, talking through them with the teacher. This format sometimes irritates me; in some of these books, the students, especially the women, are stereotyped to the point of being utterly offensive and frustrating. Wangh’s students felt like real people. Because he saw them as whole people, his words seemed respectful rather than glib.
I’ve been working around an observation I’ve made now that many of the actors I work with the most closely have been practicing their craft for over twenty years (and so have I), which is that something shifts around that point in an artist’s life. I should write more about this at another point, but two bits of it are relevant in my reading of this book: First, that in actors, I observe this shift as an integration of the inner and outer work, and second, that two of the core questions I’ve been asking are: Can an actor get to that space before the twenty-year mark? and How can I support them during that transition, which can be disorienting and upsetting?
My senses prickled when I read Wangh’s description of the experience that led him to the work described in this book. He took a life-altering workshop with Jerzy Grotowski. He writes, “I was working so hard with my body and with my imagination that my thoughts and emotions seemed to take care of themselves…For the first time in my experience on stage, I felt fully ‘present’ in my body and in the work.” This sounds, to me a bit like how actors describe their work after that transition. I wanted to know more—how had Grotowski provoked this experience? Was it sustainable in Wangh’s work on stage? Where was Wangh in his development as an actor previously? These questions didn’t get answered, particularly (Grotowski’s process defies description, I think). But I felt, from the first pages, that I was on the trail of something I’ve been trying to name for ages.
My work as a director has become more and more embodied in the past several years. Although I am just watching a lot of the time, I feel my breathing sync with the actors’. I say “we” as if I am on the stage alongside them (“We’re going to hide this moment. We’re going to make a lot of noise right here.”), and I honestly do feel like that is true. In recent years, I’ve been doing less and less “table work,” because I feel like we lose track of our bodies when we’re doing it; I still do a lot of text work, maybe more than I used to, but it’s integrated with movement, from the beginning. These more embodied ways of thinking about every part of the work are speaking to me in ways I couldn’t understand earlier in my life. Wangh writes:
…an actor who has learned to “listen” to his body will find that character “actions,” “intentions,” and “objectives” arise organically within the work itself, without the actor needing to sit down and do “table work” to figure them out.
It made me think of working with college and high school students, which I do about once a year. How can I help them be grounded enough in their bodies that they can listen to them and with them? Some ideas seem deeply practical and easy, like asking everyone to find a safe place in the room and then asking them to feel what in their body identified that spot as safe. Others seem more difficult to create and explain to very young artists; not that I won’t try, but I do remember my poor college professor trying to talk about Grotowski with me when I was 19, and although I was a bright student and working hard to understand him, I was simply not ready to work at that level. The time he had a group of us over to watch My Dinner with Andre, I fell asleep on his floor.
One of the things that struck me about Wangh’s work, over and over, was his emphasis on trust. Trust of partners, trust of body, trust of gut. Just one example: “…you will often find out as you work that your preconceptions about what your characters would or would not do dissolve when you trust the work…Remember, what you are doing here is experimenting, allowing your own reactions to surprise you with the information you need about how to play each line. For that process to work, you must trust what happens to you without worrying about whether it seems ‘right’ or ‘logical’ or ‘appropriate’ for the character.” I’ve been thinking a lot about trust and its implications for the work of the theater lately. Does it start with trusting our own bodies? Or trusting the space?
One exercise I loved, and I think would be useful for Shakespearean actors, was to begin movement, anything at all that one can do without thinking too hard about it, like a kata or something, and let your mind relax. After a few minutes, the instructor tells the participants to change what their body is doing every time their thought changes: “If your mind is racing, you might literally run around the room. If you feel depressed, you could try huddling in a corner. But each time your mind changes course, you must let your body change with it.” This reminds me of something truly excellent classical actors do. They move every time their character’s thought changes—but only when the thought changes.
Another thing I want to make sure I bring in the next time I’m working on Shakespeare was a quote from An Actor Adrift by Yoshi Oida: “The intellectual content of a text is studied everywhere; our task was to concentrate on the aspect of language that had become sadly neglected over the centuries: the vibratory power of its sound.” My favorite Shakespearean actors are the ones who know what they are saying, but also invest deeply in the physicality of the language. Do we ever think much about how our words literally vibrate each other’s bodies?
One thing I’ve working on doing better is helping actors handle material that is difficult for them, that hits on some emotional third rail of theirs. The obvious example here is intimacy work. I’m hoping to pursue certification in that work, not because I want to be an intimacy director, but because I see the power of those frameworks to make all of the work healthier and braver. Although we think of intimacy first, for many people, the things that upset them are in entirely other areas. Sometimes, when we discover them in rehearsal, it’s as much a shock to the actor as it is to me. In a few different exercises described in this book, the actor hit one of those spots, and in each instance, Wangh helped them make “a container” for it. In one example, they planned every moment of physical movement for a difficult scene, reaching for extreme precision to provide boundaries and safety around it. For another, he had them break the moment down as slow as possible, freezing, even, when it felt too difficult. I appreciated these sections because they gave me some clear ideas of things I might try the next time I’m in one of those situations. I always need more tools.
Wangh offers a lot of exercises in this book, but many of them are hard to picture. Apparently there was a project that was going to create a partner video a couple years ago, but it doesn’t look like it’s out yet.
I love when I read something so intriguing and stimulating. It makes me wish even more that I could be in rehearsal!