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Making Sense, Getting Through
The Word’'s Body

By Judith Koltai

During our work together Cheryl L’Hirondelle, a Cree woman actor/singer, tells me that the Cree’'s original name for themselves is "Nehiyaw" (pronounced Nay-hee-aow). She tells me the word means "exact speaker" and quickly adds that this has nothing to do with using words correctly with grammatical or syntactical exactitude. To be an "exact speaker" is to fully commit to the experience you speak from, certain of your faithfulness to what is true for you, certain of your trust in the other to listen and receive you without having to convince or demand attention. James Hillman described this certainty in his colleague Harry Corbin who "spoke from within his speech,

he was his words"(5). Arab scholars used the term "the certain body" when speaking of text.


Our certainty of truth (or falsehood) resides in the tangible experience of the body: both the body of the speaker and the body of the listener. In the art of the actor we use the word 'embodied', we speak of 'presence', we are 'touched' and 'moved' by a good 'per-form-ance'. The original meaning of these words is revealing. Per-form: to make the formless visible through form. Presence from the Latin 'praesension': 'to perceive beforehand'.  Perceive, from the Latin 'per-cipere': 'to receive' 'to be flooded' or inondated'. Embody: 'to incarnate', 'to make flesh'. Experience is described by action-word, by what actually happens.  Human experience is revealed to the audience through the form and voice of the actor whose flesh is already (beforehand) surrendered to the perceptions of that which is spoken.


To be present is to suspend the desire to be elsewhere. For the actor to be incarnate in the presence of another (the audience) is to suspend the desire to be elsewhere than in the presence of that other. To embody is to consciously and willingly surrender one’s whole being to the experience of the moment and to be consciously and willingly seen in one’'s most intimate experience. Through this sacrament is revealed the shared centre of being: "the human heart not as a private hidden place but the deepest point in ourselves where, paradoxically, we are closest to ourselves but also closest to others" (Steindl-Rast).  



The origin of language is bodily experience. Everything we know is ultimately based on our bodily sense. Language grew out of the need to communicate what we know/experience. Recent linguistic research findings indicate that language has developed as a kind of mimicking, literally, with the vocal apparatus, the experience of the speaker (Dissanayake 169). Language makes the human condition manifest, it does not produce it.  Embodied words form an uninterrupted continuum with sensory kinaesthetic experience somewhat the same way as one bone forms a continuum with the other through a joint - an 'articulation'. Isn’t it remarkable that the word 'articulation' means 'to distinctly pronounce' and 'to make apparent' (the same meaning as the translation of the Greek 'theoria': 'theory', 'theatre'), and that it also describes the structure that enables movement between two bones? Distortions occur both in movement and

in speaking when there is disturbance between the articular surfaces: the anatomical surfaces linking bone and bone and the sensory '‘surfaces’' linking experience and speaking.


Because experience is rooted in the perception of oneself and the world around oneself, the language of experience is first and foremost physical, spatial and sensory kinaesthetic. The words 'sense' and 'sound' have the same origin and we use the word 'per-sona' –- 'through sound' – to refer to character, personality: to who we are, how we make ourselves heard and seen in the world. When we speak of life experience, of relationship to others we cannot help but describe ourselves in physical and spatial terms: we 'hold our tongue', we 'swallow our pride', we 'stick our neck out', we 'bend over backwards' to please,  - even ideas are 'embraced' or 're-jected' (‘thrown back‘). And the list goes on. We know experience by knowing what we do.

Seeing the Secret


It is the "longing of the body into word" (Janet Adler, personal communication) that drives the creative impulse of poetic and dramatic language and is the experiential source of the language of theatre.


Jean Louis Barrault said, "Le verbe est originellement une pantomime buccale": The word is originally an oral pantomime (109; author’s translation).


The word ‘'theatre’' comes from the Greek 'theoria' meaning to 'make apparent'. The actor’'s art, the art of theatre, is to make experience visible and audible -– to bring into light of consciousness what otherwise is unattended and hidden in everyday existence: the mysterious, multi-dimensional nature of human life. It does so through language born from the full range of experience, from the mystery sensed and lived in our embodied depths and from the inherent instinctual urgency to articulate this experience into the shared word. This language is laden with metaphor, with sensation, with precision and with nuance - it speaks in music and movement. Because of this we are invited to respond and resonate from a place in ourselves that encompasses both the personal and universal in human experience. We are awakened into a larger scope of consciousness of ourselves and of the world around us. As Edmund says in Long Day’s Journey Into Night: "For a second you see – and seeing the secret, are the secret" (O’Neill 153).


Implications for the actor’s practice and discipline


The preparation and discipline required for this perspective on the actors art challenges traditional methodologies of 'training', the division into the 'subjects' of 'movement', 'voice' et cetera and the viewing of the actor as psychological interpreter.


Since the early 1970's, this is reflected in the writings on the subject by numerous theatre artists and teachers. Eugenio Barba sees the actor on stage as "energy and presence" (77). And Barrault: "The irradiation of our physical being reaches far beyond our skin" (105) (Author’s translation). Litz Pisk wrote: "The actor does not move for movement’s sake…. He moves out of abundance and need. He is centred in his own nature and is bound in relationships to the centres of other natures"(9). Cicely Berry saw the gap between "the energy and excitement the actor feels" and the "life he gives the text". She invites transformation of the word into "thoughts in action"(11).


In 1970, the originator of the discipline of Authentic Movement, the late Mary Whitehouse, wrote: "The inner world of body comes alive

in two ways –- sensation and feeling. Sensation has to do with the exact feel of body condition and functioning; feeling has to do with the exact sensing of…the emotional overtone. If these two are connected through outer imitation, learned technique, and stereotyped meaning, the imagination which provides and forms material has no depth"(62).


It has become evident that what is required is a view of the human organism as conscious and autonomous wholeness, capable of Autopoiesis (self-recreation through consciousness), and tangibly accessible through the direct experience of the body. Rather than 'training', the words 'practice' and 'discipline' describe this approach appropriately.


The concept of 'practice' is a qualitative shift away from psychological investigation and prescribed 'exercises'. The Greek root 'praktikos' means 'to pass through'. Practice is conscious action in which previous knowledge, insight and skill are consistently applied

by the practitioner, yet are allowed (and, sometimes, invited) to undergo necessary adaptations as internal and external conditions change.


The word 'discipline', from the Latin 'dis-cipere' refers to practical guidelines as distinguished from dogmatic formulae. It also describes

a body of practices that are clearly defined yet may be altered to meet new conditions.


The recognition of the human organism as conscious and autonomous wholeness or 'holon' invites Embodied Practice. In this practice 'release', or elimination of 'emotional, physical and vocal blocks', is not seen as an end in itself. Rather than diagnosis, interpretation and elimination of 'blocks', 'tensions' or 'problems' the language of this practice is that of unfolding potential. The purpose of physical/vocal practice is not correction or the achievement of a static ideal state but rather the recovery of the dynamic ability of the organism to appropriately and continually respond, adapt and re-create itself  under ever-changing circumstances and conditions. This requires the ability to unconditionally attend to the rhythms of oneself, listening to inner and outer responses in oneself to sensations, thoughts and feelings which appear and resolve, and the willingness to follow their lead to new resolutions with a non-interfering witnessing consciousness.


Embodied Practice bears some resemblance to ascetic and mystical practice in its invitation and demand to sidestep and leave behind "the niggardly part of the ego" of the actor (Brook 105). The artist’s own subjectivity is invited to blend with and surrender to the subjectivity of the world of character and play. Rather than psychological interpretation, analysis and development of  pre-conceived physical, vocal and emotional character traits, the practice invites the actor into 'voluntary disorientation' as creative pre-condition. It does so, not by random 'exploration', but by following specific guidelines and committing to conscious and precise action "which prepares the void in which an unexpected meaning can be captured." (Barba 87).


In addition to the practice of self-witnessing, the actor needs the ability to be a responsive witness to others. S(he) needs to be consciously willing to be seen/witnessed - to include in his/her experience the "dance of the senses and mind of the spectator”(Barba 39), as well as the experience of those with whom s(he) co-habits the world of the play: his/her fellow actors. In order to be visible in authentic experience, the actor must be in relationship to the audience’s experience as witness, rather than to their judgement. Thus those who see and hear and those who are seen and heard together hold the dynamic balance of the collective experience, which includes and affects them all.


"The pursuit of the Good”


"Visible form is a show of soul….It is the way in which the Gods touch our senses, reach the heart, and attract us into life." (Hillman 44-45)


When fully embodying the text, the actor’s lived subjectivity in the moment resonates with the lived experience that gave birth to the text. Then:                        


"The consummation of authentic speaking would be permanent,

  transforming communion, through which values are discovered

  and the self emerges from solitude through conscious being

  with another" (Bozarth-Campbell 57)

To the question "what do artists have in common with the gods?" Bozarth-Campbell evokes Longinus' answer: "the conferring of benefits and the telling of truth"(21).


The renowned teacher of actors at the University of British Columbia, the late Dorothy Somerset, taught her students that theatre is "the pursuit of the Good" (quoted by Joy Coghill –- personal communication).


Authentic speaking is both a listening and a yielding, a fluid responsiveness to one’'s own experience and to one’'s environment. When text is embodied the actor speaks, moves, feels, from his/her own lived experience in the moment of speaking. The life of the actor and the life of the character in that creative moment are not two separate lives, one 'portrayed' by the other. Rather human experience is revealed through a kind of active and conscious surrender of the artist to the world evoked by the text –- a world in which the actor lives,

to which, through the conscious creative sacrifice, she/he lends his/her life (Judith Koltai and David Latham, personal conversation).


In the theatre, through the bodily presence of the actor on stage, human language is incarnate. Through incarnate language the truth is told and the rift of separation between word and experience -– the malady of contemporary culture - can be healed in both actor and audience. A potential for the art of theatre to restore its link to its most ancient origin: the art of healing the person and, through the individual person, community and society.


As Ken Wilber writes (as quoted by Steindl-Rast):                      


"…great art opens us to the riches and the glories

  of the realm that time forgot. [It] reminds us of it…

  and thus it undoes the agitated grasping in the

  heart of the suffering self and releases us."


This article was published in Canadian Theatre Review, Number 109, Winter 2002. Copyright 2002,

University of Toronto Press Inc.  Author’s permission required for reprint. Thank you.



1. Title of book by Bozarth-Campbell – see works cited  

2. Embodied Practice is a Canadian trademarked name held by the author.

3. Words of Dorothy Somerset as quoted by Joy Coghill  



Adler, Janet. Personal communication. 1997.

Barba, Eugenio: The Paper Canoe: A Guide to Theatre Anthropology. London: Routledge, 1995.

Barrault, Jean-Louis: Souvenirs pour Demain. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1972.

Berry, Cicely: The Actor and His Text. London: Virgin, 1987.

Bozarth-Campbell, Alla: The Word’s Body. Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1979.

Brook, Peter: “"Reaching for the Trapeze".” Parabola 15(1): 104-109. Coghill, Joy. Personal communication. Dissanayake, Ellen: Homo

  Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992.

Hillman, James: The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World. Dallas, Texas: Spring Publications, 1992.

Koltai, Judith and Latham, David. Personal conversation. January 2001.

L’Hirondelle, Cheryl. Personal communication. June 1995.

O’Neill, Eugene: Long Day’s Journey Into Night. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1969.

Pisk, Litz: The Actor and his Body. London: Harrap, 1975.

Steindl-Rast, David: The Mystical Heart of Religion. Audiotape lecture. Denver, Colorado, July 2001.

Whitehouse, Mary: "“Reflections on a Metamorphosis".” Impulse: Extensions of Dance, 1969-70: 62-64.

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