“Move like you’re stuck in Jello.”
I’m in the middle of a movement studio in London, thousands of miles from home: a college student studying abroad at the British American Dramatic Academy. For the past hour, we’ve been throwing our bodies through the space; moving like we’re deep in mud, on ice, in the desert, like fireworks. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’m aware of how strange we must look, like electrons whizzing around an atom, contorting our bodies into whatever we think being “fireworks” must look like; but I’m hoping I fall on the “graceful” or “captivating” side of the spectrum. Or at least that my teacher likes what I’m doing. At this point, I’m almost too sweaty to care.
“Move like you’re on fire.”
Instinctively, I stop, drop, and roll. (Somewhere, some Officer Safety is doing their own happy dance that they conditioned me so well as a child…) I’m the only one who does so. The rest of the class begin moving at a frenzied pace, limbs waving all around. At first, I feel silly, but in that moment, I realize both impulses were “right”. My classmates and I heard the teacher and acted on impulse, making a dynamic choice (in my case, a change in levels, in theirs a change in tempo) to physicalize her direction. In a movement workshop, all expressions are valid.
As Elizabeth Swados reminds us in her book, At Play: Teaching Teenagers Theatre, “A beautiful movement isn’t always graceful or in slow motion. Nor is ‘beauty’ always beautiful… A movement grabs our attention when it has purpose – and oftentimes that purpose is no more than getting from one place to another.”
It is this idea that I wish to impress upon my students when I make them move in my drama class. I don’t care how they are at dancing, how graceful, or even how coordinated. I’m looking for them to be expressive. To be brave and to make choices. Ideally, those choices will be engaging to watch, but even that takes a backseat during a workshop. At this moment, we’re just exploring the full range of motions that our bodies are capable of. “Interesting” and “captivating” can come back into play later, after students have some idea of what they’re capable of executing in the space. By boiling movement down to purposeful moving from point A to point B, students can focus more on where they’re going than how they look as they travel.
As a teaching tool, movement can offer us a range of possibilities for how to attack the work. It lets us get pent-up energy out of our systems, and forces us to be more playful with our bodies, while simultaneously helping develop skills of self-discipline and awareness. Movement helps make stronger character choices, and leads to making innovative staging choices.
Sometimes it can even be a way at getting at the material that’s difficult to talk about. During the last AATE conference, I attended a workshop on talking to students about race-related violence where we were asked to examine three words: safety, justice, and freedom. Big words to define, we soon realized. It seemed while many of us were comfortable throwing them around in conversation, when we got to the heart of these issues, and the difficult personal stories that went along with them, the right words got harder and harder to find. The workshop leaders asked us to turn the stories into movements, finding non-verbal, and non-miming ways to express ourselves. In short pieces that we shared with each other, I saw people acting as walls between other people, people getting pushed down in slow motion, but also hands linking together, and helping to lift each other up. The physicalization of these stories was emotional and evocative, reminding me once again why in theatre it’s so much more powerful to show than to tell.
Movement can also serve as a distancing tool. The workshop leaders explained that even within their own team of collaborators there was division, as some of their students had family members who were cops, and others had been arrested. By focusing on the bodies in space without words, the group was able to listen to each other, and to make the stories more abstract, and less personal.
In studying movement we learn how to pick apart a text or story and access underlying emotions and ideas we wish to convey to the audience in more nuanced and creative ways. Movement teaches us that through our bodies we can become anything we wish – a wall, an idea, a firework. By asking students to explore the full range and capabilities of their bodies traveling from one point to another, the work becomes purposeful, and thus, beautiful and “right”.