Physical Discipline in the Theater: Biomechanics

This is the first in an ongoing series of posts that address the use of various physical techniques in a performance context as they relate to Synetic’s work. This is not meant to be instructional, but rather an exploration of how movement technique can be used to create theatrical or cinematic moments, moods, atmospheres, and ultimately tell stories. As with everything on this blog, discussion is welcome and the author makes no claim to be an absolute authority on these disciplines – this is meant to address the application of physicality to the theatrical experience. Without being boring. I mean, we’re jumping around like maniacs every night, how could this be boring?

In training and rehearsal for Synetic productions there is not a whole lot of talk outside the context of physical improvisation, dramatic text, and discussion of the immediate needs of an individual production. Little time is spent discussing theory. Paata and Irina both detest what they like to call “too much philosophy.” So we don’t discuss it much. It might be nice, however, for fellow theater-artists as well as audience members to understand some of the sources of this work.

However certain words get thrown around regularly that, while in a sweaty, music filled rehearsal space may seem simple descriptors or paths with which to get to the next piece of a scene, actually have a deep grounding in some old and wonderful traditions of the theater. Company members who have been around for a while are used to terms like plasticity, biomechanical, and “it’s more psychological.” Some of the roots (and I mean some) of these come from the work of Vsevolod Meyerhold, a contemporary of the more famous acting teacher, Konstantine Stanislavsky.

Boxer doesn't "get" technology, he just hits it.

Boxer doesn't "get" technology, he just hits it.

I make no claim to be an expert on Meyerhold – except that I’ve spent a lot of time working with shades and elements of his technique. Anyone who has seen a Synetic show, and especially worked on one, might find something familiar in the words of Garin, one of Meyerhold’s actors:

  • “Biomechanical training might be compared to a pianist’s studies…Mastering the technical difficulties of the exercises and etudes does not provide the student with a prescription for the lyric energy necessary, let’s say, to perform a Chopin nocturne…yet he must master the techniques in order to master his art. Technique arms the imagination.”

I got the quote from Jonathan Pitches’ Vselovod Meyerhold, by the way, which is a cool book that you can read most of online at Google books.

I’m not going to get into a treatise on Meyerhold’s entire theory (I can’t, I don’t have the knowledge base), but I can take a shot at the basics and how they connect with Synetic.

First of all, the fundamental principles of Meyerhold’s acting technique appear to oppose the now-traditional “Stanislavsky Method” and the Method popularized by the Group Theatre in the 1930’s. While the Method works primarily with personal memories and internal life to find motivations for action, Meyerhold’s biomechanical technique is, well, more physical. The idea is that the physical action can produce the internal life and vice versa, in a sort of feedback loop. Clarity of expression is more important than a successful access of memory and expression of whatever that memory can lead to. To achieve this clarity of expression and understanding of the emotional connection between body and mind, actors went through what I might dare to call drilling of various “etudes”, or series of poses and movements that stretched an actor’s physical and emotional capacity.

Marissa Molnar and Philip Fletcher in "Romeo and Juliet" (photo credit Raymond Gniewek)

Clarity of Expression?

To those of us that have sweated long hours out practicing the Long Run or the Walk Against the Wind – and then have had to fill them with emotion, this is feels kind of like rehearsals. My description of Meyerhold’s training technique is extremely cursory, not mentioning his work with mask, commedia, music, and his ideas on montage (he was a major influence on none other than Sergei Eisenstein, and that connection to the cinematic nature of Synetic’s plays is worth returning to).

I’ll come back to Meyerhold later, after I’ve discussed and researched him further. Paata wanted to make sure I mentioned the guy at some point, and cites him as an influence. He also makes sure to always tell me that we do not ever hold one teacher or theorist as Scripture…just as much as we may work biomechanically, we may have need for something resembling Stanislavski at other times. Bias is unhelpful.

I’ll finish with one of Pitches’ descriptions of an exercise of Meyerhold’s in which the students prepare a three minute version of a Shakespeare play, taking only three minutes to prepare.

  • “… physically explicit gestures which summarise the essence of the play…without the need for lengthy speeches. The exercise effectively forces you to externalize the text, to think of it in pictorial or emblematic terms and to strip it of any subtext or embellishments. In fact, what you are creating is the beginning of an etude.”

Sound familiar?



~ by synetictheater on July 27, 2009.

2 Responses to “Physical Discipline in the Theater: Biomechanics”

  1. Ben–I’m so happy that you’re posting a blog on this kind of work. I am forever intrigued by physicality of theater, and thus my use of it in my storytelling work. I’ve found a cool new company out here in LA who is doing similar (but never as wonderful as Synetic;). They are called No Man Apart…a good substitute until I can come east and get my Synetic “fix.” By the way, I suppose the name of the blog is from an Einstein quote…”nothing happens until something moves.”
    Keep up the good work! Oh, I got this through Facebook, so what is the url for the blog itself?

    Elaine Muray

  2. Elaine, in case you never got your answer–

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