Movement Improvement - Bringing Life to Performance Through Motion
Bringing Life to Performance Through Motion
By Justin Mayer
“The body knows things about which the mind is ignorant.”
There is no performance that can not be enhanced by movement. Having a complete understanding of your physical form is integral to the success of any actor. Just as any musician must know their instrument, or any artist their medium, you as an actor must know your body inside and out. It does not matter if you do not consider yourself a “movement” actor. Nor does it matter your level of mobility. These techniques can help any performer add intention and life to their characters through their own unique physicality. In this article, we will discuss some of the ways that you can begin to integrate movement into your work, or hone the movement that is already present. We begin with how we think about movement - and how we move when we’re not thinking about it.
It is very trendy to speak of the metaphysical - especially in artistic circles. This article is not here to continue that trend. When we talk about mindfulness, it is in a completely practical and secular context.
Mindfulness, as we will define it here, is simply having a passive awareness of your thoughts and movements. Check in with yourself from time to time. “What is my neck doing?” “Am I holding tension anywhere?” “How did I physically respond to this situation?” There isn’t a set list of questions. The concept is what is important. Try taking inventory of yourself by way of gentle reminders at first. Try a scheduled notification or alarm on your phone, or any time you look at the clock or do any other routine action. Do this just enough to get into the habit of letting your physical presence be part of your baseline awareness. Once the habit is formed, you can do away with the reminders.
During these mindful moments, simply breathe regularly, and beginning with the top of the head and working down, take note of how your body is feeling. Make mental notes of any tension or any positioning outside of what you consider to be your neutral posture. You don’t need to do anything to “fix” things during this time. The goal is to be aware of these things so that you may utilize those movements later on. That being said, this can be a useful time to return to neutral if your postural habits are in any way detrimental to your health. If you aren’t sure what your neutral is, then we will cover that next.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to take part in a “lie down,” please take this enthusiastic recommendation to do so. The process is exactly what it sounds like: you lie on the floor or a firm surface, supporting your head with a book or thin pillow to keep your spine aligned, then slowly and gently let go of any physical tension you may have. This can be done with the knees bent or straight, arms at your side or on your stomach. If lying on the floor is not possible, this can be done sitting as well. The core concept is to let the floor or chair support you, so your body does not have to work at all to keep you lifted. This is a very effective way to get to know what it feels like not to be using effort in your body. Once you internalize that feeling of minimal effort, try to maintain it when you gently come to standing or are preparing to perform.
There are many ways for someone to find their neutral, but however you get there, memorize it to the point that it can be your default. That neutral is the canvas upon which you can build a character. Character is inefficiency. More on that in the following section.
When we say, “Character is inefficiency,” all we mean is that if you perform only in neutral, you will look and sound like a very relaxed person, but might not be very interesting to watch or hear otherwise. Sometimes, when actors are playing in neutral - especially in neutral mask - they take on a slow and laborious affectation as though they were performing in slow motion or pressing through an infinite, viscous mass. This is not neutral. This is merely slow and very boring for everyone involved.
It is important to remember that “inefficient” does not always mean ungraceful. It is “inefficient” how a ballet dancer moves across a space in pure terms of “getting from one point to another,” but it is ineffably beautiful at times. “Inefficient” is not used pejoratively for our purposes. It is merely any movement outside of neutral. A car is inefficient out of neutral because there are gears providing resistance, but we can't drive in neutral, so don't play in it either.
When we play a character with physicality, it is as though we are inhabiting a mask. In mask work, it is our job as an actor to “fill the mask,” that is to say: expand into it, so to speak, and not let it transform us. It is inert. We must give it life. This is where we use inefficiency.
Adding inefficiencies to a character adds color and life to them that otherwise would be lost to an audience. Imagine Long John Silver with both legs, or Richard III with perfect posture and the use of both arms. Being able to employ these physical characteristics is vital to good characterization, but starting from neutral can help you use them without hurting yourself in the process. Failure to start from, or return to neutral can make eight shows a week into fine practice for real life problems. Use your best judgement, and listen to your body. If it hurts, don't do it. No performance is worth real physical suffering. With that in mind, let’s discuss what to do with this inefficiency when you have it as part of your toolbox.
Once you have the subtleties and nuances down for your character, don't be afraid to play a take or a moment in rehearsal with big, melodramatic, exaggerated movements. It might surprise you what discoveries you can make. Of course, these over-the-top gesticulations can be tapered back and tailored to the tone of whatever you are doing, but as an exercise, it can lead to great discoveries. Use your best judgement, and trust your director.
Another important element to focus on is “why” a character moves in a certain way beyond obvious physical characteristics. Say, hypothetically, you are asked to play The Joker. An iconic role to be sure, and one famous for having unique and often exaggerated movement. For this performance, it does not matter if this role will be on film, TV, voice acted, or even in the stage production, Batman Live - a very real thing that we, as a species created. All that matters is, as Meisner put it, the “truth in imaginary circumstances.” So, here you have a sometimes murdering, sometimes laughing hysterically clown person, and you need to find the truth in these big movements. Well, you needn't plumb the depths of your psyche to explain why your character commits comical crime. Find the game in the movement - the, “this character moves like this because,” and then you will have filled the mask. Viola! Instant subtext. From here, the acting has a foundation to be built upon.
Now that you have body awareness, a neutral place from which to add or subtract, and you’ve given yourself the freedom to make big choices, what happens? The acting, of course. Acting is the same, no matter the context. Let the acting inform the movement, and let the movement enhance the acting, but most importantly: let neither get in the way of the other.
Here is where your ability to live as a passive observer will help as well. Take time to see how other people move, compared to your natural habits. You’d be surprised how many wonderful characters you can discover just by watching. Add these nuances to your mental library, and use them as an infinite palette of possibilities.
This article is not an acting lesson, so we won’t dive too deeply into that process - especially since there are so many processes to choose from. But we will close with some notes on where and how to take training to the next level with movement.
Firstly, we strongly recommend learning The Alexander Technique. It’s something that simply can’t (and shouldn't) be taught by reading alone. Look for a certified teacher in your area, and take as many classes as you can. It’s a marvelous way to improve your movement, and can even help with day-to-day habits you might not even have noticed.
Workshops of any kind will be useful to you. Not only so you have a chance to go play with new people, but you might just learn a thing or two while you’re at it. If it’s an intensive, even better. There are tons of options out there, and as long as you do your due diligence before taking any class, you’re likely to gain something very valuable, even from a newer or smaller group.
Yoga is a great way to build core strength, flexibility, and body awareness. You can do it at home or in a class, but do it if you can.
If possible, take a dance class as well. Not only will it help with rhythm, which is hugely important in acting, but you’ll improve your movement, gain confidence, become stronger, and build your sensitivity to the movements of a partner. This last benefit alone is worth the price of admission.
Lastly, it may seem obvious, but take care of yourself physically and mentally. It’s very easy to get lost in the unending hunt for the next role or the “big break,” but your happiness and health are so much more important than anything a job can bring you. Get rest, allow yourself recovery time, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. You are your instrument, and instruments are to be cared for, inside and out.
Now, go play!
Justin Mayer is an actor, specializing in movement. He has performed in regional theater across the United States, with additional performance and training in France and the UK. He has trained at AADA, RADA, and The Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theater, and has provided motion reference and facial capture for Sony Interactive Entertainment.