Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Basics of Acting Technique: Part Five

This chapter focuses on some of the more popular movement and physical theatre techniques that are taught in the United States. 

**NONE of these techniques are complete in the full scope of building the actor's craft.  They are ALL supplementary in nature, helping an actor build tools that will strengthen the actor's instrument.**

Viewpoints is an improvisation-based technique that provides actors with a tool box and vocabulary for exploring a play through movement and gesture.  It was developed in the 1970’s by choreographer Mary Overlie, who was on faculty with director Anne Bogart at The Experimental Theatre Wing of NYU.  Bogart and Tina Landau (playwright/director) then adapted it for actors in the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

The Viewpoints Method is deconstructive in nature.  It allows performers to work on isolated issues that lie outside the standard narrative framework of modernist acting.  Viewpoints is primarily useful in helping actors build awareness, helping groups establish cohesive ensembles, and (most practically) in helping directors create staging with actors. 
“Instead of beginning with the idea of making theater, this approach begins with taking theater apart.  The Viewpoints process reduces performance to a code. This code acts like a flexible measuring device, much like a transit and rod used in surveying for mapping land. The Viewpoints, like the transit and rod, were devised to reveal structure… The structure we see through the Viewpoints is made in six basic windows of perception that are used to create and view theater.”  - Mary Overlie
There are Six Viewpoints - space, shape, time, emotion, movement, and story.   Bogart removes emphasis on emotion and story, because they are generally fundamental to an actor's mindset.  There are a host of exercises that include:
  • Improv games.
  • Moving around a room in different modes, methods, and tempos (paying attention to architectural and spatial relations
  • Examining and mirroring movements of others, and engaging in different types of movements with the whole body and specific parts (the aim being to let the body move the way it wants to and to strengthen the connections between feeling and action).
The main principle of Viewpoints is to give actors a fuller understanding of their place in the our world - and by extension, the world of the play.

The Suzuki Method was created by Tadashi Suzuki, a director, writer, and theorist based in Toga, Toyama, Japan.  He created the Saratoge International Theatre Institute (SITI Company) with Anne Bogart, and his techniques are typically taught in conjunction with Viewpoints.

Suzuki is an eclectic, hybrid approach to performance, which derives much of its structure from the classical forms of Japanese Theatre - Noh and Kubuki. 

"Noh" or "Nogatu", derived from the Sino-Japanese word for "skill" or "talent", is a major form of classical Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century.  Many characters are masked, with men playing male and female roles.

"Kabuki" is a classical Japanese dance-drama.  Kabuki theatre is known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers.

Suzuki training is a rigorous physical and vocal regimen which centers on the relationship between human beings and the earth.  Actors are encouraged to foster this relationship by sending and receiving energy to and from the earth, using a series of exercises that include rhythmic stomping and ultra-slow movement.  Many of these exercises are focused on the lower body, and the best way to describe them to a lamen would be to say they're like slow-but-constant-moving yoga poses.

The goal of the training, which requires a high level of physical exertion and bodily control, is to sharpen the actor’s perceptive abilities and to realize the body’s full potential as a tool of theatrical expression.

Alexander Technique is a movement discipline with a focus on posture and physical self-perception, which aims to help students recognize and overcome harmful habitual limitations.  It was developed by Frederick Matthias Alexander in Australia in the 1890s as a personal tool to help him alleviate breathing problems and hoarseness that he'd developed, enacting Shakespeare's works.  It has extended as a widely regarded tool for public speaking, but has great application to acting as well.

Alexander surrounded himself with mirrors observed himself diligently after losing his voice and being told he was untreatable by doctors.  He learned that he was stiffening and elongating his neck in preparation to speech and began work to correct his posturing and develop physical relaxation.  In little time, he regained his voice and found that his oratory abilities vastly improved.

Alexander Technique has been used to treat everything from stuttering to post-surgical rehabilitation and post-traumatic stress disorder.  It is a hands-on technique best taught in private or small-group lessons.  The teacher analyzes the student’s everyday movement patterns (sitting, standing, walking, bending, reaching, etc.) - and helps him to overcome old, detrimental habits by releasing unnecessary muscular tension.

There are no set movements or exercises.   It is primarily a system of psycho-physical communication, so that students are urged to take a second and evaluate every movement in their everyday lives, giving their muscles the command to relax.  In this way, Alexander Technique is meant to be practiced throughout the day to build new habits of movement.  The lack of prescriptive exercises allows this practice to take place while doing any other activity - which is a large part of its appeal to actors (it can easily be used to address vocal or physical performance issues onstage, without breaking character or blocking).

Thanks so much for taking the time to look this over.  There are obviously lots of ways for actors to connect to their surroundings as well as physical and vocal instruments, so that they are better able to use themselves in their work.  Many teachers also suggest energy-based martial arts like Tai Chi, which help an actor to build what Yevgeny Vakhtangov (Stanislavski's protege) referred to as plasticity - the mental, vocal, and physical prowess and flexibility that is necessary for actors. 

SPEAKING OF WHICH...please stay tuned for next week's conclusion to this series, where we'll discuss the Russian movement and teachers that began this whole process of the craft of acting.

Please share your thoughts about your personal experiences in building your actors instrument.  Seriously.  This blog is best when it's a conversation - that way, we learn from one another.  :O)

To read other parts of this series, click here:
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four


  1. I have known people who have studied kabuki and loved it. And my teacher used to constantly reccomend alexander technique as a supplement to training ie in improving movement. Is there a particular school that you would recommend to improve "ones instrument" as you often say IE. MOVEMENT? And which one maybe of more use for ones acting if it is not the same? Thanks for your enlightening explanations especially viewpoints
    I knew nothing about that particular technique-thank you.

  2. ive studied Alexander Technique and the Suzuki Method. For me, they are good tools to have access too. Every character is different for me and some techniques work better for certain characters. I think having Cerebral Palsy, where my muscles stiffen a lot, makes these techniques useful for me at different points in my process

    1. I didn't even think about how these type of physical theater techniques could help someone with conditions that affect the body. Fantastic!

  3. I did a show where we used Viewpoints to develop a physical identity for our characters in the early rehearsal process. It also allowed us to create a physical relationship with the space as well as our fellow actors. Thanks for making these techniques so clearly distinguished here.

    1. I never took a Kabuki or Viewpoint workshop but I have taken an Alexander Technique weekend workshop and became more aware of the excess energy I was using which came out of tension. I think sound and movement techniques are excellent supports to any kind of acting technique, be it the Strasberg, Adler, Meisner, Michael Chekhov, or whatever else a student finds to help them open up their imagination, self-awareness and intelligence. Exploration of the different techniques will help in discovering your strengths and preferences as to how you want to work and enrich your craft. -MA

  4. Thanks for this information. I have heard of the Alexander Technique, but not Viewpoints or Suzuki. I would be interested particularly in trying Viewpoints and think it would aid in establishing a "home" in the space occupied on stage.

  5. I got to see some Noh and Kabuki when I lived in Japan. The concentration and focus was amazing, and the audience were hyper-aware of the smallest details of what the performers were doing with their bodies and (in Kabuki) their faces.

    And as far as I know, just like ballet and opera, both of those Japanese theater styles require years and years of training before you even try to perform in public.

    Unlike western theater, where a some people (cough, cough... movie stars...) think nothing of stepping onto a Broadway stage without any training or experience at all...


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