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Exit Descartes: Reimagining Theatre Training Through an Embodied Lens

“I want people to pay attention to what happens in the body,” my teacher, the remarkable writer/performer/teacher/activist Robbie McCauley, told me a few months before her death: “Pay attention to tension. Pay attention to release. Pay attention to feelings. To be able to speak what is happening through their bodies, be able to transmit what's happening through their bodies.”

“What you pay attention to grows,” says adrienne maree brown in Emergent Strategy. Living and teaching through this COVID era has caused me to radically reevaluate what I am paying attention to in my teaching.

My pedagogical reevaluation revved up while I attempted to teach my college Alexander Technique course in a hybrid form in the 2020-2021 school year. Alexander Technique is a method of self-development that unpacks, mends, and expands our patterns of movement, posture, breathing, and response to stress. It is often studied by performers to help us get out of our own way and perform at our peak. It is also typically conveyed through hands-on guidance. But I never came within six feet of my students, and I did not even see some in person—so what could I possibly do with them? I decided my job was to give them a little respite from fear, stress, and tension for two hours each week. A little attention to their embodied selves. We lay down, played with balls, took long walks, leaned against trees. I realized after the fact that I was giving them some things to pay attention to beyond the crises surrounding them, and it seemed to help. I feared the tree-hugging lesson was a bridge too far, but they loved it.

Starting a rehearsal period with the cognitive work and only later adding movement is an example of a tacit belief—in theatre and society at large—in the separation of mind and body.

It got me thinking about ways of creating a culture of care in theatre training by empowering students to attend to the substance of themselves—their bodies—in the world. Perhaps paying attention in this way is not just a strategy to get through hard times, not just “self-care,” but also a strategy for creating great art. To heighten, as Robbie put it, our ability to speak what is happening through our bodies. This requires a journey of trying to pay attention. I am tying a rope around my waist and jumping…

From Cartesian mind/body dualism in American culture and theatre training…

To dualism as a tool of oppression…

To embodiment in theatre training and care for our own living, breathing bodies.

My hope is that the bridges that connect these seemingly disparate topics will become apparent as I jump.

Jump!

“Isn’t it funny that we start a play by sitting around doing table work?” one of my students mused the other day as she let go of habitual, unnecessary tension in her neck, shoulders, and ribs. She’s studying the Alexander Technique on the advice of her acting teacher, because of a tendency to stand stiffly. As her breath flowed more freely, she had the epiphany that maybe it wasn’t all her fault that she struggled with movement in acting. Maybe it had something to do with the accepted methodologies of Western theatre production and training in which we start with (pay attention to) text analysis and progress—last of all—to the embodiment of character and story. Easing up not only helped her fit better into the system but also exposed the system to her in an “Emperor has no clothes!” kind of way.

Be careful calling the Emperor out! I was once fired from a production I was hired to direct because I skipped table work and started with text-based movement exploration. It never occurred to me that my approach would be radical.

Starting a rehearsal period with the cognitive work and only later adding movement is an example of a tacit belief—in theatre and society at large—in the separation of mind and body. Or, more accurately, the hierarchy of mind (analysis, concept, idea, etc.) over body (movement, staging, sensory/kinesthetic experience, etc.). For nearly a century, actor training in the United States has centered the psychological analysis of scenes in terms of the character’s objectives, actions, wants, and tactics.\

How did we get here? Western culture, from Plato through to the present day, has codified a split between body and mind/spirit. René Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician, is a convenient scapegoat. With his (in)famous statement “cogito, ergo sum” (Latin for “I think, therefore I am”), he concluded that the very thing that, to him, makes us most human—thinking—is fundamentally a disembodied process. Descartes’ ideas have affected our culture so profoundly that they are essentially invisible. Resmaa Menakem asserts in My Grandmother’s Hands: “Many of us picture our thinking brain as a tiny CEO in our head who makes important executive decisions.” We maintain a largely unconscious, separation between the gross corporeal realm—the realm of movement/balance/posture, blood/sweat/tears, not to mention poop and childbirth—and the clean, pure realm of consciousness.

A woman cutting a girl's hair.

From Bernfeld's Alexander Technique studio in Portland. Photo by Andrea Leoncavallo.

American psychological theatre training grew in this soil and under the shadow of Konstantin Stanislavski. Movement teacher Judith Koltai gives background in her essay “The Pleasure of the Text: Embodying Classical Theatrical Language through the Practice of Authentic Movement”: “Most of the methods that have influenced contemporary theatre practice were articulated in the post-Cartesian period and, one could speculate, were marked by the philosophical background of separation between mind (soul, emotion, spirit) and body.”

Descartes’ “mind over matter” philosophy shows up in the implicit belief in the universality of dramatic structure typified by the Western “well-made” play and the use of script analysis tools as the way in. It shows up in the structure of university theatre departments where, in my experience as both a student and a teacher, the tenure-track positions typically go to acting faculty, while movement teachers are more likely adjunct professors (cough). It shows up in the power hierarchies between teacher and student, director and actor—the teacher/director at the “head” of the class, pouring their wisdom/concept into the student/actor “body.” It even shows up in the discomfort I feel when I use my class as an opportunity for students to rest, take up space, and question their beliefs about “hard work” and “getting it right,” rather a space for drilling them on Alexander Technique concepts and content.

Another feature of the link between the diminishment of the body and white supremacy/patriarchy is the culture of extreme overwork.

Dualistic thinking is incredibly persistent. Too bad it is inaccurate. “There is no such fully autonomous faculty of reason separate from and independent of bodily capacities such as perception and movement,” George Lakoff and Mark Johnson pronounce in their tome Philosophy in the Flesh. Menakem again: “The body is where we live. It’s where we fear, hope, and react. It’s where we constrict and relax.” Barbara Tversky, in her book Mind in Motion, puts it succinctly: “Action molds perception.” We cannot escape our embodiment.

Jump!

But this is not just a philosophical argument. The artificial split of “mind” and “body,” and the hierarchy of the former over the latter, are tools of oppression. White supremacy culture identifies Black, Indigenous, people of color, LGBTQIA+, disabled people, and women with the body. White, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle class or wealthy, and Christian or secular men are identified with the mind. I will add that I am examining this through the lens of my own identities as a white, Jewish woman and mother who is cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied (currently though not always), and a product of a Wyoming childhood and higher education in New York and Boston.

Dancer and professor Hui Niu Wilcox, in her article “Embodied Ways of Knowing, Pedagogies, and Social Justice: Inclusive Science and Beyond,” cites the work of Elizabeth Grosz when she asserts that “the Eurocentric, patriarchal power in Western knowledge production is maintained via the willful disembodiment of white male scientists (known for their brilliant, objective minds), and via the equation of women and those in other marginalized groups to bodies (deemed as passive objects incapable of knowing or reason).” It is not much of a stretch to replace Wilcox’s “white male scientists” with white, likely male theatre directors/professors.

Three people doing an acting exercise.

A workshop for actors at Riot Act Theatre in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Photo by Brian Guerrero.

Another feature of the link between the diminishment of the body and white supremacy/patriarchy is the culture of extreme overwork. As my friend and colleague Cristi Miles explains, the perspective she encounters in her students is a “capitalistic, gotta get it done, got to achieve, my worth is only in comparison to all that I accomplish” attitude. Many student actors think nothing of sacrificing sleep, food and exercise (body stuff), in a culture that pays only lip service to their health and well-being.

Jump!

If we want theatre that is humanizing to those who study and create it, as well as electric to those who attend it, maybe we can start where we live: in our bodies.

What if we heal this false rift between mind and body in our theatre making and training? If we want theatre that is humanizing to those who study and create it, as well as electric to those who attend it, maybe we can start where we live: in our bodies. “What we practice at the small scale sets the practice for the whole system,” adrienne maree brown contends. We can create embodied practices, a term I gratefully borrow from Judith Koltai.

Embodied practice happens in theatre training and making—and not just in movement classes. There is a push among some theatre teachers to pay attention to their students’ real, specific, fleshy, bony, embodied, lived experience. Honoring students’ whole selves can lead to a culture of care in which students are no longer encouraged to damage themselves for their art. I’ve had two recent opportunities to experience these benefits firsthand as a student.

This past summer, I attended Nicole Brewer’s Anti-Racist Theatre: A Foundational Course from the comfort of my own screen. Despite the virtual medium, I found it to be a fully embodied practice, beginning from the premises that we all have needs, our needs are important, and she expects that we will take care of ourselves. What a beautiful shock to enter a space where I was accepted as a fully embodied and autonomous person with the agency to attend to my own needs while respecting others’ needs! One “need” Ms. Brewer did not seem compelled to meet was the (“cognitive”) need many of us feel to understand, to be certain, or to get it right. After explaining a prompt, she forestalled the inevitable barrage of clarifying questions with the instruction: “if you don’t understand, do what you think I said.” This practice interrupted both the narrative that the important work is analytical and the perfectionist impulse to “get it right.”

Before the rise of the Delta variant of COVID, I also had the opportunity to attend an in-person Viewpoints and Suzuki intensive with PETE (Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble). As expected, the work was strenuous, but what struck me was the way the four teachers (Jacob Coleman, Rebecca Lingafelter, Cristi Miles and Amber Whitehall) used the rigorous exercises to examine and celebrate not-knowing and failure. Where text analysis would invite a (false?) precision in getting the beats of the scene just right, speaking a section from a new translation of The Cherry Orchard while performing Suzuki Sitting Statues allowed the words and my lived experience to collide in my outpouring of voice and emotion.

Two people doing an acting exercise on the floor.

A workshop for actors at Riot Act Theatre in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Photo by Brian Guerrero.

A caveat: embodied practice isn’t intrinsically empowering. It still needs to be approached with an anti-racist and humanistic agenda. I offer it as another lens though which we can view our training and our profession to create better, safer, and more holistic practices. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the influence of intimacy direction, with its emphasis on consent, on my thought processes here.

Wilcox, in her article about embodied knowing and teaching, suggests: “Through integrating and rethinking embodied ways of knowing, we encounter ourselves and our students to critique Eurocentric, male-dominated modes of knowledge production and, ultimately, to envision alternatives.”

I got excited then scared the other day. Two students in my Alexander Technique class told me the course is encouraging them to completely rethink how they approach schoolwork and what they want to do next semester. In short, they are no longer willing to suffer for school or art. I am thrilled for them and terrified that I’m somehow doing them a disservice by encouraging them to practice autonomy in a world that doesn’t value it. These are lessons I am still trying to learn for myself, twenty-plus years on from college. But buoyed by my experience with Nicole Brewer, with PETE, and with Robbie, I realize I get to keep creating a space for students to pay attention to the truth of their embodied selves.

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