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August 2021: Thoughts on Movement and Performance by Esther Warren

I seem to have forgotten how to write. I did too much of it at a point in my life when I wasn't happy at all, and now sitting down at a keyboard fills me with dread. That, and I'm terrible for procrastinating, but let's not dwell on my own organisational failings too much. I never much liked writing essays, my hope is that this will take on the affect of the kind of directionless ramble punctuated by youtube videos that my friends are lovely enough to endure every so often.


I've been thinking a lot recently about physicality. Partly I guess because I'm helping with the tech for a production of Nick Hearn's Frankenstein, a play designed fairly transparently as a skill piece for the actor in the role of the Creature — is it any surprise that in it's debut the two leads shared the role, whenever the play has its stretches focussing on the Doctor himself it's immeasurably less interesting — just watching this guy doing his thing is pretty enthralling. But also because the most recent production I worked on (Black Dog's own The Curse of the Sapphire Blade) had some interesting wrinkles that brought notions of movement to the fore.


I will admit to not having been the greatest admirer of physical theatre in the past. I am undoubtedly a heathen, it's most likely the result of watching too many attempts at the form during my university days (and too few professional ones before or since). I guess I always thought that movement was just something that happened, and that attempting to manufacture it would result in exactly that, movement that felt manufactured. Of course, I'm a dummy and this is resolutely not the case, but that's true of most things I think.


I did an R&D session semi-recently with the great Greedy Pig Theatre Company (watch their new show The Fish Cage, tickets on sale now!!!) and like, the amount of text work we did sorta paled in comparison to the movement and physicality stuff. I always wanna pay more attention to the text because that's just how I am, but I realised later that actually having the time to focus on body and presence super clarified my understanding of who these characters were. Way outside of what I was seeing in the text extract we were working with. I dunno, the experience kinda shone a light on the ways that I'd been stuck in my head about performance.


Weirdly, the first place I go when thinking purely about movement in performance is never anything with actual people, it's always animation. Feature stuff is all well and good, but it's mostly short film where titans of pose and form like Jankovics Marcell, Bill Plympton and Richard Williams are free to work their magic. I'd recommend reading about the 12 principles of animation, but reading can be pretty dry and watching is way more fun. Pay attention to the timing of how Sisyphus moves from one keyframe to the next, how that contributes to the sense of weight and struggle, also think about how the animators choose to add and remove definition and how that might be used in your practice.


Look at the diver and how movement and stillness are contrasted, in the same action, even being at odds within the same body. The rules of animation are all focussed on how to make things look real. But theatricality and unreality are at least next to each other, even if they're not the same. I suppose realism is just the wrong word to be using, maybe conceivable is a better one. The last one, Prologue, is a bit of animation I admire more so than like, it's undeniably impressive, but feels like a study in withholding. Unlike the other two it refuses to allow the audience any access to its characters and I think kinda fails off of the back of that. I dunno what the point I'm trying to make here is, or if I even have one, it's just interesting I guess.


I think a lot about the way that the French actor Denis Lavant moves too. I remember a conversation I had with a real physical theatre enthusiast at university who insisted that there was no room for movement in filmmaking, my counter was to tell him to watch anything starring this guy. He's incredible, I think the point of studying him is to look at specificity and design in movement — he always moves differently, but he also never moves like anybody you've ever seen. His most well known films: Holy Motors, Beau Travail, The Lovers on the Bridge, Mauvais Sang all recognise this, there are just extended segments where you just watch this guy go, he's entrancing.


hard to figure out what it is exactly, a mixture of focus, intent and energy? Maybe it's that his characters seem to exist as contradictions, clearly capable of extreme control but allowing it to slip. A well tuned instrument that is always being played wrong. I think something that I struggle with is allowing myself to lose control, not just physically but in a whole manner of ways, something I need to work on maybe. It also helps that he has one of the most interesting faces in cinema, just one of the ones that you can't help but wanna try figure out how it all fits together.


Generally it's useless to watch movies to get any idea of blocking, they cut too fast and why bother doing anything interesting with the actors when the camera can do all the work. But like, going back to the American studio tradition of the 30s and early 40s is kinda a revelation. Check out how Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are blocked in this scene from His Girl Friday, how the film allows their presence and posture and use of props to sketch out the push and pull of the characters. Or this scene in John Ford's Stagecoach, and how it defines its characters through stillness and the important distiction between solitary and group momentum.


Anyway, that's all I've got. If you're wandering what the point is, it's really something for me to work out on stage. This is just where my head is at until then. It feels odd to be engaging with stuff in this way again. Maybe my thoughts will be more organised next time.

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Rehearsal shot from 'The Fishcage' by Greedy Pig Theatre

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