Creativity on Stage
BEFORE WE HAVE WORDS, WE HAVE MOVEMENT AND GESTURE TO EXPRESS OUR NEEDS, DESIRES, AND EMOTIONS. YEARS AGO, WHILE WORKING AS A DANCE CHOREOGRAPHER FOR A NEW MUSICAL, I NOTICED AN ACTOR STRUGGLING TO EXPRESS THE GRIEF HIS CHARACTER WAS FEELING WHILE SINGING A LAMENT FOR HIS DECEASED FATHER. ON INSTINCT, I MURMURED TO THE DIRECTOR THAT THE ACTOR SHOULD OPEN HIS EYES AND LIFT HIS ARMS. AND IT WORKED.
Before we have words, we have movement and gesture to express our needs, desires, and emotions. Years ago, while working as a dance choreographer for a new musical, I noticed an actor struggling to express the grief his character was feeling while singing a lament for his deceased father. On instinct, I murmured to the director that the actor should open his eyes and lift his arms. And it worked.
The director had been unable to help the actor find the truth of the moment through standard psychological acting techniques—recalling a time when the actor felt grief, or imagining a circumstance in which he might feel grief. Yet the physical manifestation of that moment caused a marked emotional and psychological shift not only for the audience, but also for the actor. What had been just a vocal riff suddenly became a heart-wrenching wail filled with the pain of loss.
It was then I realized I could help actors tell their characters’ stories through movement. Now, as a theatre movement coach, I use various methods to coach actors in physical characterization, including the Michael Chekhov Technique. Chekhov believed in engaging the imagination to create character, with an emphasis on the psychological gesture—expressing psychological moments through physical movements.
For instance, when one of my acting students had difficulty finding the lightness of celebration in her response to another character’s good fortune, I suggested she first jump for joy literally, then repeat the line while internally jumping for joy. Moving from physical gesture to psychological gesture allowed her fully live in that moment, and the scene became hers. Each of these “Ah-ha!” moments trains actors to play scales; but rather than notes on a piano, they are playing notes of emotional expression.
Several years ago, for example, I had the opportunity to help a mute character create song using a clowning technique. One of my theatre students confided a secret role he had been playing: that of the HokieBird. Now, the Virginia Tech mascot doesn’t speak, and his physical vocabulary is fairly prescribed. But my student wanted to me to coach him in finding a unique approach. Clowning was the natural correlation.
Clowns are characters who teach you how to see a performance, almost from a child’s viewpoint. They have their own logic but no history, so they must problem-solve in the moment. My student practiced clown exercises to such a point of mastery that he discovered how to conduct a section of the football stadium in an impromptu performance of a song. Using only physical gestures, he guided each group to sing a single note on command and, as he conducted, the participants slowly realized they were joining with a quarter of the stadium in singing an entire song.
In the end, the HokieBird learned, as all my students do, that, at its core, creativity is problem solving. Actors—whether Shakespearean performers or mascots—identify the challenges of each moment and then work through possible approaches. Usually the “right” way to play a moment is the one that ignites actors’ imaginations and touches their hearts. Such insights allow them to connect with their characters and, ultimately, their audiences.
Cara Rawlings, an associate professor in Virginia Tech’s School of Performing Arts, is a certified stage combat instructor as well as a movement coach.