“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.
“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.