"Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of humanity.
It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality."
Ian McEwan in The Guardian after Sept. 11, 2001
About ten kilometres from the coast of the Saronic Gulf in Greece lies Epidauros, known as the symbol of one of the highest levels of Western civilization. Epidauros was the sanctuary of Asclepios, the god of healing. It was also the site of the most famous theatre in antiquity. It was a place of pilgrimage and a retreat for those seeking to purify and heal themselves in body, mind and spirit. Actor, Healer, Priest were not seen as distinctly separate roles. Theatre invoked the great universal themes of human destiny and was seen as a medium of catharsis and healing for both actor and spectator. Patients became spectators but also created and performed poetry, dance and drama.
The separation between art and the search for transformation of consciousness - both individual and collective - is relatively recent in Western contemporary culture. This is not so in the arts of many surviving (and reviving!) traditional cultures and the best in the arts of our time continue to endeavour - explicitly or implicitly - to deepen consciousness and heal the spirit.
Great art, great theatre, even today has the capacity to suspend, even if temporarily, selfish ambition and wilfulness and open our awareness beyond our personal limits. In that clearing of awareness may come, as Ken Wilber writes, a flash of "higher truths and subtler revelations".
Authentic Movement and Acting: The Art of a Practice, the Practice of an Art
An investigation into the place of Authentic Movement practice in the work of the theatre artist reveals obvious parallels. Authentic Movement provides a natural and fertile practice ground for the essential processes of the actor's art.
Epidauros reminds us that the art of theatre, the healing arts and the spiritual journey originate from the same longing for wholeness in the human psyche. Authentic Movement, as originally conceived by Mary Whitehouse, was the result of her synthesis of principles and practices of Modern Dance and Jungian depth psychology. She was also influenced by the spiritual teachings of Taoism and the I Ching.
Whitehouse described Authentic Movement as "moving from within" and as "rescuing the formless into form". The origin of the word 'theatre' is the Greek 'theoria', meaning to 'make apparent'. The rendering of inner experience into visible form through the medium of the body - movement, voice, speech - is the defining common base of Authentic Movement and the art of acting.
What is 'Authentic'?
Authenticity is the intention of the mover in Authentic Movement. It is also a basic requirement and challenge for the actor. What is it we actually mean, and how do we know it, when we experience ourselves as 'authentic,' or when we ascribe authenticity to something or somebody else? What is ‘authentic’?
The word 'authentic' arose from the Greek 'authentikos' referring to someone or something possessing unquestioned or unquestionable authority. Unquestionable because the authority is rooted in observable action, fact, reality. The word can also mean 'murderer' (because there is tangible evidence), 'master' (because there is intentional authority), 'doer ' (because there is tangible action). These associations are shocking at first sight and seem to be the antithesis of everything we associate with Authentic Movement. But, of course, they are important elements in theatre and the concepts reveal the many underlying meanings of the word ‘authentic’.
We know 'authenticity' because there is tangible evidence for our eyes, ears, our senses. "It makes sense" - we say. Or: "I know it in my bones". The experience of authenticity is sensory/physical both for the one who ‘does’ (the actor/mover) and for the beholder (witness/audience).
Form and Frame
"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."
James Hillman: The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World
Rendering into the visible requires form to contain and frame experience and to focus the attention of those beholding it: audience or witness.
When performing a scripted play, the actor's reality is both pre-scribed (literally: 'written before') and uniquely subjective. On the one hand, he must surrender to the reality of story, character, text - the 'world' of the play. On the other hand, he must be informed and guided by his own genuine feelings, sensations, impulses, if he is to bring to life with vibrancy, resonance and truth the persona and destiny he must temporarily inhabit. It is through this embodied identification that he is enabled to lift the written word from page into per-formance (literally meaning 'through forming'). By lending, moment-by-moment, his total being to both written content and his own subjective experience, he embodies the word into the tangibly kinaesthetic, sensory, and emotional reality of movement and voice. He becomes form of feeling, his body and voice the frame and mirror of his mind and thoughts -- meaning is made tangible through action. (1)
In Authentic Movement, the mover follows his kinaesthetic and vocal impulses with full awareness but with non-selective and non-evaluative spontaneity. At the same time, he must observe specific guidelines. The guidelines ensure safety as well as define the form of Authentic Movement as a discipline. Similarly, in the art of theatre, the script and staging of a play define its form and aesthetic. Authentic Movement practice provides an analogous environment in which the actor can practice respecting previously agreed upon guidelines while simultaneously attending and yielding to his own subjectivity and sensory/kinaesthetic impulses.
Body-Based Discipline: a Virtue of the Practical Intellect
Current perspectives on the actor's art require a qualitative shift away from psychological/emotional analysis and prescribed forms of exercises or training. As in the discipline of Authentic Movement, the concept of ’practice’ describes more accurately what actually takes place.
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 Greek root 'praktikos' means 'to pass through'. Practice is conscious and precise action in which previous knowledge, insight and skill are consistently applied by the practitioner within the guidelines of a discipline. Through conscious practice and mindful repetition, the knowledge, skill, insight, (and sometimes even guidelines) refine, deepen, and undergo necessary adaptations as internal and external conditions change.
Authentic Movement and the art of acting share the creative capacity of a fertile paradox, where clearly defined guidelines provide form and containment for a practice, the virtue and richness of which lie in its very nature of unpredictability.
Both Authentic Movement and the art of acting are body-based disciplines. Mary Whitehouse stressed the importance of the work of the artist being rooted and discovered “in the body, not perceived in the head". The acclaimed French actor, Jean-Louis Barrault said that emotion to the actor is like sweat to the athlete. Jonathan Wolken , artistic director of Pilobolus Dance Theatre, admonished his performers to "motion, then emotion." The director Eugenio Barba sees the body as the physical aspect of thought: the thought of the actor must "tangibly cross through matter", to manifest as body in action.
The primary active principle for the mover/actor in Authentic Movement is to intentionally attend to, recognize and follow physical/vocal impulses. Rather than being inventive, the actor/mover practices being receptive to the thought, emotion, and imagery that arise spontaneously from physical/vocal action. This opens the possibility of bypassing habitual
forms of thinking, voicing and moving.
Activated by sensation, the creative imagination is free to receive and respond to unexpected information. Fresh associations divert the mind from reaching for the obvious or stereotypical. The conscious intellect becomes available to new imagery, which may reveal more mysterious, subtle and multi-faceted aspects of the human condition evoked by a character or play. When movement is informed by sensation rather than habit or stereotypical attitude, the seemingly ordinary fills with the vibrancy of the lived moment. Actor and audience are held in the blessed grace of "theatre which dances".
Voluntary Disorientation and the "Dilated" Body
The creative act requires a preliminary regression to a more primitive level. This invites tolerance of the chaotic, seemingly disorganized and formless manifestations of the imagination. Arthur Koestler called this "the creative pre-condition”. At this stage of investigation, search and desire for finalized result must be suspended. This does not mean loss of precision, rigour and conscious intentionality. It is the precision and clarity of intention in the search, which, in Barba's words, "prepares the void in which an unexpected meaning can be captured."
In Authentic Movement the actor practices following an oncoming impulse with faithful precision without any expectation of content, meaning or result. Proprioception and perception are activated to an uncommonly sharpened level in a state that Barba likens to that of a person advancing in the dark. A kind of dilation of the sensory/kinaesthetic self occurs: what Barba called the "body-in-life". It is also referred to as 'presence'.
This tangible vibrancy and dilated state of body has nothing to do with exaggeration of feeling or emotion. Rather, a stronger sense of these is a consequence of the unusually enlivened sensory/physical state in both mover/actor and witness/audience.
The simultaneous requirements of conscious attentiveness and spontaneous following of impulse are present both for the mover in practice and for the actor in rehearsal and performance. Both must maintain clear awareness of themselves and their surroundings, respect guidelines, forms and formalities without this awareness impeding the spontaneously arising "feeling meaning". Following practice, both disciplines invite or require recall and articulation of experience. These provide the raw material from which the act of creative forming can proceed.
Yuasa Yasuo describes the process of conscious witnessing of one's own spontaneity as the bright light of reflective consciousness illuminating the deeper layers of the self where the pure experience of the "lived body" becomes available to perception. The "person…is both keenly aware of his or her actions and oblivious to that awareness itself". Thought, feeling, and perception are in a state of active, interactive and fruitful equilibrium. The practice of this quality of awareness enables the actor to respond dynamically to even the smallest shift in her sensory perception of the present moment while remaining within the required framework and structure of performance.
Personal and Universal. A Gifted State
"No one is separate from another; how difficult
That is. I move, and the movement goes from life
To life around me And yet I have to be
"Always remember that you are absolutely unique.
Just like everyone else"
The actor in performance and the mover in Authentic Movement have this in common: that in moments of profound personal intimacy both are in public and in relationship to one or more persons who are witnesses to this experience. Both theatre and Authentic Movement require a gathering consisting, with equal importance, of those who are seen and heard and those who see and hear. As in Authentic Movement where the witness, by attending to her own sensory/kinaesthetic experience internalizes the mover, so in the theatre, the audience's experience is active and kinaesthetic rather than merely passive and visual. The actor's task, Barba writes, is "to make this dance of the senses and mind of the spectator possible".
The practice of Authentic Movement enables the actor to be in relationship to the audience's experience as witness, rather than to their judgement, and to welcome and internalize the witness's need to see and experience. In the empathic and benevolent relationship of mover to witness, the actor can permit herself to consciously and willingly be seen.
There is, however, an important difference between the actor/audience and mover/witness relationship. While the witness in Authentic Movement endeavours to consciously own his interpretations and projections, the spectator, as audience member, may come to compassion, insight, and release from the confines of personal history through unconscious identification or projection. In performance, the actor can accept (but not internalize!)
interpretation and projection from the audience, since these are directed towards the character she embodies rather than her own person.
In the contained and safe space of the theatre, as in Authentic Movement practice, the collective story behind the personal story is revealed; it both encompasses and transcends individuality. The uniqueness of personal history is acknowledged, received and – ultimately - coherently placed in the larger, timeless perspective of universal human destiny.
The mysterious and seemingly paradoxical relationship in which mover and witness, actor and audience, are simultaneously fully alive both to themselves and each other is a moment of grace, in which the hidden coherence between individual and collective consciousness is made apparent. It is grace not invented or imagined but lived through in its unquestionable and fully embodied authenticity.
When this fullness of life resonates in Mover and Witness, in Actor and Audience, both disciplines fulfill their potential of transforming communion. We are called, in Henry Miller's words, ...to relinquish, to surrender, so that our little hearts may beat in unison with the great heart of the world."
- End -
This article was published in the journal Contact Quarterly, Summer/Fall 2002, Volume 27 Number 2. Copyright Contact Quarterly. All rights reserved for authors. Author’s permission required for reprint.
To contact the author: Judith Koltai, 1244 Woodway Road, Victoria, B.C.,
V9A 6Y6, Canada Telephone: 250-384 0838 Fax: 250-384-8304 e-mail:
(1) This paragraph is based on reflections upon personal communications between myself and my inspired and inspiring colleague and friend, Mr. Andrew Wade, (Head of Voice, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon Avon, England) around the question: "how does meaning change when I speak it out loud?"
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Forms of Feeling, Frames of Mind
Authentic Movement Practice as an Actor's Process
By Judith Koltai