Approaching Acting Theory, Practice and Professional Knowledge
How do actors learn to act? How do they cultivate their ability to create tangible characters? How do they radiate presence and significance on stage? These are some of the questions that I have been asking myself over the past twenty years of teaching and coaching actors. In this essay, I explore how Chekhov’s principles of radiation and atmospheres can be used to work on the actor’s presence on stage. Presence, significance and radiation were three concepts identified by Chekhov when introducing the Staccato/Legato movement exercise.
Staccato/Legato is a foundational exercise that helps the actor develop a deeper kinesthetic awareness of body-in-space through directed and purposeful movement, and the coordination of breath and voice. Practising Staccato/Legato awakens in the body a deeper connection to surrounding space that is both sensorial and imaginary, and which prepares the actor for Chekhov’s Atmospheres, a technique for creating fictional but tangible spaces in the world of the play. My goal is to introduce into this essay these three main concepts, as Michael Chekhov did in his own practice in the 1930s, and, also, to illustrate how these three concepts have been transformed after practice into concrete, tangible experiences through which actors can articulate their acting.
The approach to acting that I have developed through my career brings together two very different techniques: Michael Chekhov’s psychophysical technique, which emphasises using one’s imagination instead of the affective memory of method acting, and the actor training developed by Phillip Zarrilli, which draws on the principles and practice of yoga and martial arts. As an actor, these two approaches became the foundation of my personal technique, as well as the lenses through which I view the work of others.
With my students in the physical theatre branch at the conservatory Real Escuela Superior de Arte Dramático de Madrid (RESAD), I began to document and research this integrated practice, in order to understand why these two approaches worked so well together in performance. My words here reflect on the personal knowledge my students and I have derived from this practice, and examine how that knowledge has been acquired (Garre 2003, 2013). I believe this practice may open the perspective from where an actor may look at the imagination in her acting work.
Staccato/Legato: Three Concepts in One Exercise
Staccato/Legato has its origin in Rudolf Steiner’s Eurythmy. The exercise consists of doing a series of lunges in six principal directions: right/left, up/down and forward/backward. Each sequence is repeated several times, with the individuals in the group working together in unison. The sequences of the lunges are performed in two different ways: staccato and legato. Performing the lunge in staccato involves doing rapid, explosive movements in which each new direction is clearly separated from the next, thus creating the effect of a slight accent. Legato lunges flow slowly and smoothly, without any interruptions between directions. By contrasting the staccato and legato qualities of their physical movements, actors become aware of the energy or internal force of the movement, while it is being executed. By doing this exercise, actors reinforce their awareness of movement in space through the projection of gesture and voice—they say out loud the name of the direction, “right” . . . “left” . . . “up” . . . , etc., as they release their bodies into each lunge.
When teaching this exercise to his students, Chekhov defined the three main concepts I mentioned earlier: presence, significance and radiation. He refers to the degree of visibility, purpose and luminosity that the actor achieves while acting in a state of inspiration. By becoming aware of radiating meaning through her presence, the actor nourishes the appropriate mental/psychological state that is necessary for acting. He further explains that through the practice of presence, significance and radiation, the actor prevents the appearance of gratuitous movements and actions, the “unnecessary ‘dancing’ business on the stage” (Chekhov 1939: S1/21).
Through training in Chekhov’s psychophysical exercises such as Staccato/Legato, the actor develops an expanded awareness that allows the emergence of presence, significance and radiation in the moment of performance. These three tangible aspects of acting come together to recreate a corporeal psychology that is expressed through the body, voice and imagination of the actor. Chekhov’s assistant, Deirdre Hurst Du Prey, recalls how he often emphasised that the purpose of his method was to cultivate a creative and personal relationship with the material the actor works with (19). For Chekhov, this cultivation was essential for the actor’s professional identity as an artist.
How Does Chekhov Develop the Professional Identity of the Actor?
Chekhov begins this process of cultivation by focusing on the actor’s attitude towards her own body. It is true that many young and inexperienced actors have body image issues: some are overly critical, whilst others are too vain. Chekhov’s answer to this was to develop sensibility and objectivity related to the pleasure of the body in movement. This process is gradually learned over time through three phases:
In the first phase, the actor distinguishes between the subject (“I”) and the object (“my body”). The body can transform on the stage because the actor’s relationship to it is not an ordinary “sitting in the body” (Chekhov 1939: S1/9), as if the body were “lying lazily and heavily on the earth” (2000: 58), but rather the body is an active tool which depends on the actor’s will to remain vibrant and present on stage.
During the second phase, the actor learns to enjoy “having a body” with which to express all kind of emotions. Thus, the actor nourishes the relationship of her body to what she is doing and experiencing (the dramatic action and her emotions) whilst performing, and this allows her to discover a certain distance between herself and what she does.
Finally, the third phase turns “having a body” into “I am a body.” In fact, here Chekhov eventually reduces this “I am a body” to a further, and more essential, notion of “I am.” This is an expression of being which can be found in the Hindu practices of yoga and meditation and which points to a total unity of body and mind in a nondualistic bodymind. For Chekhov, the result of developing this “I am,” this integrated feeling of one’s awareness and body as centred and present on stage, is that actors become “artists in the highest sense of this word” (1939: S1/9).
The Actor’s Experience of “I am”: Presence, Significance and Radiation.
In order to understand this sense of “I am,” Chekhov suggests the Staccato/Legato exercise to examine what he called “psychological” presence, by first embodying and then abandoning a way of being present to oneself as an actor while doing the exercise (1939: S1/21). It is not about expressing presence to the audience, but, instead, about the feeling of being present (or dropping of that feeling) to oneself and with others. Chekhov says: “Do not imitate with your body this presence on stage—it is very wrong and kills our inner life when the body tries to replace the functions of our spirit” (Chekhov 1939: S1/21).
Following this practice of modulating “psychological presence,” Chekhov develops what he calls radiation: the ability to be both present and to radiate that presence until they become just one and the same thing (Chekhov 1939: S1/21). For Chekhov, “there is nothing within the sphere of our psychology which cannot be radiated” (Chekhov 1953: 12).
Finally, both presence and radiation lead us to the notion of significance: “If we are present on the stage, if we are radiating, we are significant without trying to persuade the audience that we are significant” (Chekhov 1939: S1/21; originally underlined). Here, significance does not mean doing something extraordinarily meaningful in order to convince the audience of the importance of what is being done, but rather it is the realisation that, when actors are present for themselves and for the audience, they are able to suggest meanings (for further understanding of this term, see also Chekhov 1985: 129). Therefore, being present, radiating and being significant happens through the awareness of feeling and sensation, and does not require any excess effort. It is the awareness of the sense “I am” being aware of itself.
For me, the fact that the psychological aspects of acting are being essentially related to becoming present on stage has several implications in theatre practice and teaching actors. To begin with, the term “psychophysical” is so much more than the simple correspondence between the physical and psychological manifestation of emotions, or the psychological traits and the physical features of the character. Rather, Chekhov describes a specific “attitude” the actor has toward her own work, which supposes an expansive and empathic artistic awareness that looks beyond the quotidian, away from the fears and biases of daily life. More than once, Chekhov describes this attitude towards what is being performed as emanating from a higher realm of human consciousness. This “I am,” concludes Chekhov, can only be achieved through concentration and a harmonic and integrated bodymind.
The Actor’s Experience of Being Present: A Question of Awareness
Phillip Zarrilli’s approach to bodymind training focuses on cultivating the experience of energy in the body through breathing and movement, which helps the actor to be present on stage. When practising the fixed movement sequences of yoga, tai chi and the South Indian martial art, Kalarippayattu, the actor is already working on techniques that will be recognised and further developed through Chekhov’s Staccato/Legato exercise.
The actor manages her attention during each movement in the sequence, remaining centred, balanced and concentrated for as long as necessary until the action is completed. She discovers and controls the energy of each impulse in an effective way, as it unfolds in a concrete time and space. Lastly, through concentration, she keeps her attention focused, both internally and externally, at all times. She focuses some of her attention on her breathing, whilst also following the direction of the movement as it unfolds. She also develops an “outside eye,” a sense of what the others see as she acts. She directs her awareness both inwardly and outwardly at the same time, in a kind of intersubjective state or dialectical commitment (Zarrilli 2009:96). The way to achieve such a state of consciousness is through practice, through repetition, perseverance and time. The actor needs time to listen to the sensations that breathing awakens in the body, that the moving body generates in relation to the space and that this concrete living space recreates in the body.
Therefore, an actor’s awareness of her own presence is related to her capacity to receive and remain open to her perception of space and the sensations that the body discerns in relationship to space. This capacity eventually evolves over time, through a process of discipline and training that is a continuous repetition of principles and goals. Through ongoing training, the actor needs to allow herself the time to really understand how to use and experience the principles of presence, significance and radiation in performance. In time, the actor’s ability to perceive this bridge between imagination and perception, between body and space, begins to nurture in her a confidence in her creative capacities, since she can fully articulate with self-awareness and purpose whatever she wishes to communicate on the stage.
Atmospheres: Communicating with the Audience
The atmosphere is what impacts the movement and imagination of the actor. However, it is also being affected by the actor’s presence and behaviour on stage. A strong ambience can seem ineffable and transcendent and, at the same time, be a real palpable quality of space for both the actor and the audience. The atmosphere is the way an actor fills the dramatic space with her imagination, making it a real and meaningful space.
A synergy of presence, significance and radiation is being developed both in Zarrilli’s training and in the Staccato/Legato exercise. It stands upon the students’ growing spatial and corporeal awareness, the same awareness that will root their exploration of Chekhov’s technique of Atmospheres. They begin by doing a series of movement improvisations and compositional tasks in order to grasp that tangible quality of an essence, or emotional tone, which penetrates the space of the performance. They imagine a layer of air surrounding them, so that they can explore the sensory world of the play. Placing their awareness outside themselves—up, down, front, back, right, left, all around—opens them up to a palpable experience of Atmospheres as a meaningful relationship between the imagination, the body and the space around them.
Moving into Practice: García Lorca’s Blood Wedding
Two preliminary improvisations that may help the actor towards their own exploration of the play, its atmosphere and their acting are outlined below. These movement improvisations consist of doing simple tasks, such as walking, standing and creating, or transforming, spatial relationships. Eventually, students will apply everything they have explored in their training towards the concrete creative process of staging García Lorca’s Blood Wedding.
The first improvisation is built on an exercise that I learned from David Zinder (2002: 64). The actors start walking slowly through the space, gradually increasing tempo and peaking in a run, before gradually decreasing tempo and coming to a complete stop. Together they explore their pacing, paying attention to their use of weight, gravity and strength through four basic qualities of movement: molding (heavy with muscle opposition), flowing (heavy but smooth), flying (light and unopposed) and radiating (light but strong). Once the actors can articulate these qualities of movement and their control of tempo, I lead them through their process of applying this work to the creation of concrete atmospheres. For the actors, the surrounding air is substantial and has specific qualities. Actors perceive these qualities, but now they do so as “outside” themselves, as if the surrounding air had density and moved with its own particular strength and quality. It is not about imitating but rather about relating to these qualities, being affected by them. The question is how this knowledge is being transferred into their own relation to space, the use and the sense they make of inhabiting it.
The second improvisation starts with The Flow exercise, from the SITI Company’s Viewpoints training (Bogart 2005: 66). The Flow introduces different points of awareness, based on certain spatial and temporal premises. This exercise evolves towards free improvisation, while still emphasising spatial relationships and composition patterns. Eventually, the actors fully commit to what they are doing in the here and now, deepening their sense of spatial and temporal composition. They awake a keen sense of both creating and doing at the same time, enjoying the continuous flow of creativity. It is then that images come into play, once the actors are immersed in the continuous flow of improvisation. In such a state, the actors’ awareness becomes extraordinarily expansive and they feel free to play with anything that emerges from their imagination. Different dynamics and physical sensations evoked by their imagination become the source of their working material (text or action) at each coming moment. The atmosphere is the tool with which each actor explores the sensorial world of the play, transforming the surrounding air into a rich and creative “dramatic” substance. The actor is imagining the play when embodying the sensations that arise from its physical places, concrete scenes or characters in the here and now.
The actor’s discovery of Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding begins by working with the senses and movement in space, whilst improvising. The stage becomes a real instrument for the actor. By limiting their options of movement within the framework of improvisation, the actors are able to experience the power of the images in the atmosphere around them. They notice how images alter their relationship with the space, their movement, the other actors and the audience. They do not think about how to create a pre-supposed atmosphere of Lorca’s play: it is happening in the here and now, evolving through the spatial relationships being created. Through her imagination, the actor creates an “in-between” reality that necessitates its own experience. Sounds, colours, smells, light, temperature, places, substances, etc., multiple sensations appear and intermingle with spatial awareness, providing new possibilities for action. Awareness of space becomes a conductor of creative responses. The actor learns to make the dramatic stage concrete, to articulate movement and presence through space, thanks to sensorial and perceptual information.
Psychophysical preparation of third-year acting students for playing the characters in Blood Wedding.
Movement Theatre Branch, RESAD, October-January 2017
Concluding Questions: Are Actors Enacting Perception While Working with Atmospheres?
Acting is commonly thought of as what happens to the actor. But it can also be thought of as what happens through her. Acting may happen in the continuous and active process of listening to both the imaginary space of the actor and the surrounding real space in the moment of the performance. The actor is conscious of and in control of this interaction. Acting may depend on the actor’s knowledge of the character’s circumstances, as much as it does on her own corporeal knowledge—the knowledge she gains from her body interacting with the physical space. The actor does not project pictures into that space. Images emerge for her as sensations. Neither do these images necessarily manifest cognitively, nor do they remain present in the mind at all times. Images are a form of entry into the tacit or practical knowledge of an actor, which is the same as saying the corporeal or sensorimotor understanding of them (Nöe 119).
Acting, as a creative act, does not arise from an impulse to communicate a specific meaning of a dramatic text. The meaning of an action or gesture may change as different images and sensations come into play. The relation of the actor to the material to which she must respond should remain free and in a continuous flow of transformation. The actor tunes her creativity and her imagination, as she performs her score of physical actions. During performance, the images do not interfere with the specific task of the score or the spatial composition that is being created. Feelings as sensations do, however. They are at the service of the actor here and now. They assist the actor in finding the creative significance of what she is doing. Presence, significance and radiation respond to this, and appear as concrete and tangible experiences through which acting practice is understood and articulated.
It is not a matter of expressing, as Chekhov said, but of feeling, of recognizing through feelings and sensations, what this experience of being present, significant and radiating is. Understood through practice, this very experience of radiation (which includes both presence and significance) is not dependent on the will or intention of the actor, but, instead, is a response to the exchange between the sensations of her body being in space and those she receives back from this space in her body. That is, the experience of radiation is directly related not to the ability to do, but to the ability that the body, in the first place, has to listen, to perceive and to inhabit the sensations that it generates through space. Imagination takes place at the level of perception: it remains in the act of understanding, receiving the sensory information that the movement provides before the intellectual or intentional interpretation that the actor may choose to make of those sensations.
The training of the imagination is a means of becoming aware of the role that perception, attention and sensation play in acting (Zarrilli 2015). The challenge I observe in this approach is to come to realize that the purpose of practice in acting is not to use or direct these sensations with a predetermined purpose on the stage, but to develop the actor’s creativity and imagination through them. It is about putting the actor at the service of her sensations, so that she can regain confidence in them, as Chekhov advises, for their potential (1) to make the actor present in the here and now of her performance, and (2) to activate her creativity and inspiration on stage.
The actor’s ability to be present, radiate her energy and assert her signification onstage demonstrate an actor who is fully involved and engaged in what is happening here and now—the reality of her performance. This essay has looked into the question of how these three ideas have been transformed after practice into concrete, tangible experiences with which actors can articulate their work and communicate with their audiences. As a sample of practice, it has also led me to new questions and possibilities from where to study the imagination in the acting profession.
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Garre, Sol. “Sobre el sistema de actuación de Mijail Chéjov”. Acotaciones. n. 11, julio-diciembre. (2003). 45-58.
—. Paradigms of Practice in Interpretación Gestual. Integrating Bodymind Training with Michael Chekhov’s Acting Techniques Within the Context of Training Professional Actors in Spain. Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of Exeter. 2013.
Nöe, Alva. Action in Perception. Cambridge, Massachussetts: MIT Press. 2004.
Zarrilli, Phillip. Psychophysical Acting. An Intercultural Approach after Stanislavski. New York: Routledge. 2009.
—. “The Actor’s Work on Attention, Awareness, and Active Imagination. Between Phenomenology, Cognitive Science and Practices of Acting.” Performance and Phenomenology: Traditions and Transformations. Eds. Maaike Bleeker, Jon Foley Sherman and Eirini Nedelkopoulou. New York: Routledge. 2015. 75-98.
Zinder, David. Body Voice Imagination. A Training for the Actor. New York: Routledge. 2002.
 I want to thank Stephanie Collins and Michael Stubblefield for their help with the edition in English and critical review of this article.
*Sol Garre (PhD) is senior lecturer in Acting and Physical Theatre at the Real Escuela Superior de Arte Dramático de Madrid, Spain. She was an actor before becoming a movement director and actor-trainer. She has lectured at Universities, given workshops in actor’s unions and drama schools, taught in Spanish theatre companies and the Michael Chekhov Europe Association training programme.