Physical Discipline in the Theater: Fitness and the Artist (and everyone else too…) Pt. 1 of several
Ok, so I suppose it was inevitable that I’d address this subject. As I mentioned in previous posts, one of the most striking things about Synetic is the physical condition of the performers, their fluid movement, and the apparent effortlessness of their movements…or, oppositely, the sheer physical effort they go through in front of the audience, letting the exertion be seen, a part of the story that is told every night.
Obviously Synetic’s work operates at a physical level where fitness is both a cause and effect, a necessity for and a result of the work. So it may seem superfluous to be touting the need for fitness in our acting communities – “well, you have it easy, you have the motivating factor of YOUR SYNETICATOR JOB to make you stay fit.”
Invalid argument. One could just as easily say that one gets the job because one already is fit, already lives a certain lifestyle, and has the tenacity of mind to work through the physical challenges involved in continuous training, even to take joy in that work.
I won’t go into the details of the health benefits of physical fitness – and those alone should suffice to supply argument for exercise. We are having an obesity epidemic on our little blue planet, a level of physical activity that is absolutely dismaying for the physical AND mental health of our youth, our aging, and everyone in between. This is obvious, so to say “get up and move around!” is a pretty well supported piece of encouragement.
So why do actors, in particular, need to be fit? Fitter, even, than your average, healthy adult? To have an understanding of their physical capabilities beyond “I think I can/cannot do that”?
There’s definitely a school of thought, a dangerous one, a foolish and a prevalent one, that implies that the main purpose of exercise is to look fit. To be sexy, to be worthy of an US Weekly “best beach bodies” paparazzi shot, to keep up appearances, because we want to display something. And if it gets people off their butts and moving around, sure, it’s not totally useless. You can say “you’re an actor? Of course you need to be fit because everyone wants to look at sexy actors. Candy is great.”
I will be the first to admit – a good looking body is really…good looking. I’m all for ‘em. But this attitude relegates the fitness of the artist to the level of “candy-ness”, an attitude I don’t like to employ (er…). Physical beauty is an awesome motivating factor, yes, but it can’t be the whole deal, can it? Of course not.
There is something in the human experience, in our genes and our blood and the chemicals in our brains, that demands movement, that drives us to action. We have evolved for activity. We are not designed to deal merely with the comfortable, but we are built to also deal with challenge and enjoy it. We have a built in drug in our bodies that makes us happy when we exercise, how could enjoying movement not be a part of us?
So action, physical movement, is an integral part of the human experience (one that has lessened, but is still essential to the very structure of our bodies and minds), a deeply rooted element that is simultaneously a need and a drive.
Aside from the joy, peace of mind, and fulfillment one experiences when exercising this drive, when fulfilling this need, aside from the vigor of life that is possible when one stays aware of this drive and allows “play” to remain a part of their life, the actor who does not acknowledge the place of fitness in his or her life and art and is denying an essential part of that which an artist seeks to express – that is, the human story. “Hold the mirror up to nature”?
On top of this, we can readily admit that the theatre, however realistic a style might be, is not a place of pure realism. It is a heightened place (Synetic, admittedly, more than others), where we see stories told and characters portrayed in ways that would not encounter in real life. We go to the theater to see the journey of living things – even our most morbid, nihilistic, or oddly experimental plays rely on the breath of the actors, the intensity of emotion in their eyes or breath or words or bodies, to keep us connected to the essential action of theater. Fitness puts brightness in our eyes, chutzpah in our movements, and breath in our lungs that fills our songs and stories with life. The actor is called to bring a play to life, doesn’t it make sense that physical vigor might help this job…beyond just looking good for them celebrity mags and headshots?
I’m not saying fitness is the cure-all for the bad actor (and I’ve probably acted badly while in pretty darn good shape), but as a personal trainer for three years I’ve watched people who have managed to make fitness – movement! – a part of their lives, and seen that they are happier, sharper, and more vibrantly alive than before that happened – and they take joy in the movement itself.
The audience comes to see life in front of them. Let’s oblige them.
P.S. I’ll explore this in a later post, but I think it’s worth mentioning the work of George Hebert, which has in part inspired the MovNat fitness method promoted by Erwan LeCorre and much of the training for the growing movement in Parkour and Freerunning. In the early 20th century Hebert created a method of “Natural Gymnastics” that was centered around primitive movements: pull, push, climb, walk, run, jump, lift, carry, attack, defend, swim. I’ll come up with a post once of done more research, but preliminary reading shows that his methods were carried out by Jacques Copeau and Jacques Lecoq, two of the most influential twentieth century teachers of movement in theater – mainly used as a way of maintaining a spontaneity, a physical playfulness in their actors. Very interesting for me, and ironic, as I came to theater and parkour separately, and continually find links between them.