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  • Writer's pictureJOE WOODWARD

Touch Me, I Surrender, I'm Detached

Updated: Jan 8, 2023

Image by 1tamara2 from Pixabay

Whatever happened to Jerzy Grotowski's sacrificial "holy actors"? Perhaps they must be found in order to reinvigorate the power of touch in acting!

What is on the mind of a student of acting and drama when entering a workshop? Is it the notion of exploration with others? How to be an effective actor / communicator / artist? Even how to become famous in an ego sense? NO!

Probably none of the above!

What is most on the mind of many students of acting and drama when entering an acting workshop or beginning intense working on rehearsal scenes is the notion of "consent"! and the fear of being touched; fear of exposure!

Consent, Detachment and Surrender

The PH D Dissertation on Gregory Hippolyte Brown (2019) on "Blurred Lines Between Role and Reality: A Phenomenological Study of Acting" explored "how acting roles might influence an actor during times on set shooting a movie or television series as well as their personal life after the filming is finished."

The dissertation considered: "Blurred lines between a fictitious acting role, character embodiment, and an actor’s on and off-screen realities were explored during this investigation." The dissertation discussed the complex relationship between the role, the real and aftermath. And this is the elephant in the room for student actors, directors and teachers.

I suggest an integrated approach to rehearsal and workshop processes is necessary to facilitate an artistic process that will be both safe and artistically sustainable and even necessary. It implies stated and implied agreement on consent while offering the sometimes paradoxical and dialectical need for personal and artistic detachment while surrendering to a process.

The Private Self and the Object

Like it or not, once within a performance space either on a stage, on a street or the screen, the actor is no longer a private person.

The privacy of one's own emotions and sensibilities is not something that can be taken to the performance space. In effect the actor objectifies an entity, a character or an ideal; depending on the style or purpose of the performance. So this needs to be totally clear for the student actor as it is for the professional actor.

Any action that is NOT part of the role, function or objectivity of the performance in its duration has no place. So an actor using the facility for performance and preparation for performance in a way that is personal, personally gratifying or in any way extraneous to the performance is potentially a betrayal of trust and has no place in theatre or the screen.

The actor in effect sacrifices the personal self for the audience to witness an objective self relating to the demands of the production.

However, there is complexity in all this revolving around the personal dramaturgy that embraces the relationship between the actor and the act. This is complex and cannot be simply argued in terms of "consent" or fixed rules on engagement that some theatre companies and film processes might suggest.

A further complication is the dramaturgy of the director that is brought to bear in the development of a work.

So while the separation of the private and objective self is an essential element in a production, there are perplexing and paradoxical aspects at work.

Presentation and Representation


We can pretend that, as actors and directors, our personal desires, agendas and experiences of life have little to do with what we create. PRETEND! is the operative word! In effect these desires, agendas and experiences and, add in our genes and DNA, have all to do with what we create on a stage. Because these are so invasive in our work, in some respects we must work to see them as obstacles to effective performance. However, by obstacles they also provide much of the energy needed in preparation and presentation of performance.

In Brechtian style theatre and other forms of political and social concern theatre, the actor is sometimes encouraged to allow their true feelings to be made known; allowing their own predispositions to obviously permeate the way the presentation is made. The actor, is still presenting an object unless there is a break in performance and the actor steps apart and talks honestly as the actor with the audience. This happens rarely. However, it can be effective if used sparingly.

In most screen work and for a majority of stage work, actors are representing characters who are often very different from themselves. Even when they appear to be close, the actor attempts to create a psychologically consistent character with a life that is believable; with objectives, intentions, actions, motivations etc that lie within the framework of the production. In short, this representation is an object quite separate from the individual person playing role.

Creating this representation is complex. The actor will use much of their experience of life and "what if" questions and highly developed skills of observation and processing of relationships to be used as tools for this sculpting and shaping of a work. Just as a painting by an artist utilises so much the artist, so too much the objective reality of a character may well be drawn from the actor. However, like the painting, the act on stage or screen is an object quite separate from the actor.

This simple fact of utilising tools to create representations or presentations in front of audiences is probably one of the most contentious areas of modern perform arts. It is one that requires most care and careful consideration from directors, actors and all those concerned with producing a work before an audience.

Routines, Rituals and Boundaries

Very necessary consideration then needs to be given to providing processes that safeguard creativity and safeguard the persons charged with creative output.

There are boundaries all around us. Maps provide geographical boundaries. There are hierarchical boundaries in business, professions and sport. The demarcations between one point and another are very real and usually put there for some good reason. Over-stepping boundaries can be a major concern. The Berlin wall created a boundary between two ideologies. Trying to straddle the two could get you killed. Boundaries are not always there for the best interests of people. They may well be there to protect elites and power structures.

However the very notion of a boundary is useful. In creative activity it can be the saviour of one's sanity and the protector of one's physical and emotional health.

As a general rule when students enter my classes as they have done over the past twelve or so years, they step in with silence into a circle and adopt a neutral stance. They are to take in what is around them and try to ascertain the mood of their colleagues. When there is a sense that everyone is focused and ready for work, they begin on impulse a random walk through the space. In many classes, they can adopt some of Meyerhold's stick balancing exercises to further train their minds and emotions to step beyond whatever emotional baggage they bring with them to the class and focus on ONE point at a time.

While most students have little idea of where this ritual can take them, most students will feel that it helps them concentrate and focus on the class work. However, in effect they are using boundaries of their own creation to shape their connection with their work as student artists, as artists and as participants in a collaborative venture. They use a routine to separate from whatever emotional thing has them captured in a kind of emotional straitjacket at the time. Of course, some students find ways to evade this. Some will deliberately come late to class to avoid this seemingly unnecessary routine; others will ask if they can sit out and sulk because of their narcissistic obsession with their own emotions. Others just resist the whole notion of "surrender" to the larger objective of their work and find ways to subvert the routine.

Mind you, such students should never be cast in theatrical productions.

Limitations on the Ego and Scaffolds for Release

Routines, rituals and boundaries are limitations on the ego. But they are also scaffolds for release of real creative energies. While an actor is dependent on a director, the actor cannot truly create truthful or meaningful performances. While a director needs to intervene at all points in a process, that process is obsolete and is simply a platform for a mimesis; a stale reproduction of what has gone before.

Routines, rituals and boundaries are the essential elements in truly creative, innovative and responsive process for creation and presentation. So we ask "what is the actor's process?" What is the director's process? Steven Berkoff argued that sometimes it takes time to work out process. But without it, there is nothing.

The key to effective performance is the ability to objectify and detach. It means that all involved need to accept the boundaries that separate the personal from the objective. It means a process of making concrete and describable boundaries between the personal and the objective need to be evident, clear and enforceable. If that means directors, actors with-hold personal interactions in the work space; then so be it!

When an actor steps into the workspace, they become objects of the work; objects of the role and the task at hand. In short, there is a degree of sacrifice that must be offered.

Sacrifice and Offering in Performance

In the real world we know that when people have a really close connection with each other, then much of this is irrelevant. The intuitive and the impulses that drive creativity might well be over-ridden by the bonds that might be achieved by artists working with each other over long periods of time. The Beatles, for instance didn't need to question each other for "consent" in making jokes about each other. On the other hand, a teacher and a student need to acknowledge the boundaries of physical contact just as a doctor and patient need to recognize those aspects where touch needs consent. The same applies between actors, actors and directors and even between performers and audiences.

Where boundaries have been blurred, we can see many highly publicized cases over recent years where people have really suffered. We can see that it is possible the familiarity one party had with the other was not necessarily reciprocated. I believe this may have been the result of blurred professional lines between the notion of the OBJECT becoming confused with the PERSONAL. The liminality within the boundary itself can be of utmost concern. The question arises as to where one point ends and the other begins; especially during a performance. However for strategic purposes in setting up strictures for working on developing and presenting creative product, strict processes need to be in order. Our work doesn't need the kind of events that occurred where one party's assumption about the boundaries for functioning both on and off stage was quite different to the other party; think of the Craig McLachlan and Geoffrey Rush incidents.

The Space Substance

There is a simple exercise we do to reinforce the boundary between the Object and the Personal. It begins in a simple circle, sometimes marked out with bamboo sticks, where students / actors practise crossing over into the space substance to simply contact it. (See Viola Spolin's "Space Substance" exercise). It requires the actor to focus outside the self; to imagine and interact with the space as if it were a substance of incredible qualities. The space walk itself starts as the actor steps across an imaginary line; a point of departure from the personal self into the objective self of the space. Then the actor returns to that personal space on crossing back over the line away from the space.

The Compelling Sculpture Exercise

Then another key exercise I use is the Compelling Sculpture exercise. This exercise derived from a workshop run by an amazing Dancer whose name I have forgotten. She used the bamboo in a different way to the way I use it. However, the roots of the exercise are the same. The actor stands while in the circle of peers and begins with neutral stance. They take the bamboo stick and at some point respond to the music and enter the space. The crossing from personal to objective space must be a deliberate act. However, there is liminality in the fact that the entrance cannot be preplanned and must be a spontaneous act at the time of action. The actor compels attention by filling the circular acting space with variations in tempo, duration, body shape and finding moments of sculptural extravagance to shape one's body in the space. There are moments of compelling sculpture that must dissolve and then allowing the actor to find an extravagant exit from the space. There is no room for introversion or physical anxiety. It is out there.

Rituals for Detachment and Safe Process

Each of these rituals form a small part of a larger process to alert, illustrate, practise, protect and release the actor and the actor's potential for creative work; whether in performance or in developing material for shaping into performance. Rehearsal rituals for student actors, community and professional actors are an essential element in forging strong processes for creative output. Some professional actors will admonish such a suggestion. Many, if not most, amateur actors feel such work is a waste of time as they already have all the answers and processes they need!

I suggest we come back to Grotowski's concept of the "sacrificial" and the need to sacrifice ego in order to reveal something more objectively discovered and created than that which is the result of ego and technique. It requires rituals and processes that separate the personal from the objective. It requires the ability of a Director to be objective in offering observations of an actor's work. It requires that actors treat each other actor with total professional and objective respect going beyond the personal relationships that might or might not build.

Finding the objective line in a creative process is far more than having an officious Stage Manager or Managerial officialdom intrusions in a process. It is establishing ingrained and embedded processes that reinforce and make explicit the necessary detachments, scaffolds, routines, rituals and boundaries for the working up of an artistic and creative product.

Artificial use of consent strategies and the current trend of having someone watch over the "intimate" scenes on camera and stage are worthy attempts to assure a process of psychological and physical safety for all participants. This, however, is an unfortunate bi-product of where there have been no strategies in place to achieve the personal/objective boundaries within processes of working. Not all actors and directors are "holy" and not all adhere to any notion of ethics or ethical behaviour. This is a situation we must change.

Joe Woodward

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