At Maggie Flanigan Studios I teach the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints, two seemingly disparate physical training methodologies, which when studied together, provide actors with a well-rounded movement practice. Developed by Japanese Director Tadashi Suzuki the Suzuki Method of Actor training hones an actor’s physical awareness and precision, imagination, vocal power, will and strength, by looking at three essential elements of the actor’s toolkit, breath, energy and the center of gravity. In direct contrast, the Viewpoints training, first articulated by Mary Overlie and further developed by Anne Bogart and the SITI Company, are used to create physical improvisations that can be used to investigate character and create dynamic stage moments. A powerful ensemble building tool, The Viewpoints give the performer an awareness of the power of their physical expression, an understanding of how to approach physical characterisation and the tools to simultaneously be performer and choreographer of their own physical score. This last semester was my first at Maggie Flanigan Studios and the discoveries I have made during this time have been invaluable.
A couple of months ago a student of mine had a huge breakthrough in Suzuki class. For months he’d been trying to find a way to break his habit of muscling through every exercise with a huge amount of tension in most all of his body. A natural athlete, he had no trouble with the physical duress and stamina required of Suzuki training, what he needed to find was ease. Week after week I kept telling him to relax his shoulders, or fists, or not muscle his way through the text and small progress was made from week to week. Then one day, towards the end of the semester I asked the class to choose one thing that they individually needed to work on during that particular session, and as the class progressed I noticed an incredible shift in the student in question. All of a sudden the tension in his shoulders was gone, there was ease in his movement, strength but vulnerability in his voice and he transformed from someone trying too hard, to someone being: being himself and letting himself be seen, and it was beautiful. It was as if an entirely new person was standing on the stage before me, the transformation was that palpable. At the end of the class I asked him what he had been working on and he said ‘authenticity’. I was floored. I have been obsessed with this notion since that day and keep questioning why his finding himself in the work, suddenly made all of his habitual physical defense mechanisms disappear. And I think there’s a huge lesson to be learned from it.
I remember as a young acting student, I always felt the need to please, to do what I thought would please the teacher and was always trying to second-guess what the director wanted. In class, at times it can feel like who you are or what you’re doing is never good enough. Class after class you try your best, put yourself on the line, put your blood sweat and tears into the work and still your habits are pointed out constantly and the ongoing criticism starts to seem personal. What a good acting teacher is trying to find is the true essence of who you are. They’re trying to cultivate a clean slate, both physically and psychologically, which can be developed, layer-by-layer to create a persona outside of ourselves. But that clean slate isn’t a blank canvas, it is full of your individual life experience, your successes and failures, your heartbreak and joy, your trauma and elation, all of the unique experiences that make you who you are. By becoming a blank slate you are allowing those experiences to be accessed and shared as you choose, without fear and without judgment, and that requires a huge amount of courage.
As a movement teacher it is important for me to acknowledge that no two people are alike, that no two bodies are exactly the same and although the work that I teach may have a strict form, it will fit different bodies in different ways. For me, I am intrigued by how the same form can be expressed differently on different bodies. I look not only at how different physiques tell their own unique stories, but how the souls that embody that physique fill the form and bring the person within to the forefront. I’m not interested in training clones that can perfectly execute movements, I’m interested in cultivating a sense of authenticity to allow my students to find how their body speaks, how they themselves speak. And with this sensibility it is my hope that by developing an acute understanding of their authentic physicality they will be able to discover their own physical clean slate from which they can build a fully realized character.
We develop habits early in life to hide our authenticity. We develop learned behavior, whether it be physical, vocal or psychological, as a response to our upbringing and how we have learned to be in this world. Once we are aware of these habits and can point to them, it gives us a practical way in to start shedding these things that shield the world from our authentic self. The clean slate can only be achieved once these habits disappear. But what is the best way to get rid of these habits? Is it just a matter of repetitive training, like a dog learning new tricks so that eventually you shed what isn’t serving you? Or once we come to this realization is there a way to stop fighting against the negative, ‘I should do this, I should do that,’ and find a more positive way to uncover your authenticity?
The Suzuki Method of Actor training is a series of very strict physical forms, which are impossible to perfect. It puts a mirror up to an actor’s physical, vocal and psychological habits and insists that you face the very essence of you who are, dig deep inside, examine what you find and use this information to find your true potential. The training can be extremely daunting and from the outside, or depending on the way it’s taught, misconstrued as just a crazy series of ridiculously strenuous exercises. But there is way more depth in the work than appears on the surface. Once the forms are learned, I find it is imperative that the actor finds the freedom within the form, that they bring themselves to the work in order to develop their own potential within this framework of enormous physical and psychological obstacles. They need to find how the form speaks to them and develop their own point of view in the training.
There is a lot of debate in the West as to the value of the Suzuki training for Western actors. The method doesn’t seem to align itself with the tradition of the Stanislavski system of psychological motivation or the physical or vocal training that encourages release and relaxation. Yes Suzuki training does seem rigid, it does seem like there is no freedom or flexibility or room for ones own point of view, but I don’t believe it has to be like that. Like any training, I believe that you take what is of use to you and leave that which doesn’t serve you. If you take a deeper look, the value of the Suzuki training and the parallels it draws with Western actor training traditions become clear. One big misconception is that Suzuki training introduces tension to an actor’s body, whereas in fact it is designed to make the actor realize how and when the tension appears when their body is in crisis. Once this realization is made, the actor finds ways to release this tension or channel the tension into useful creative energy. What is acting then, but representing people in a state of crisis? Drama would not be drama without conflict, without crisis. Therefore it is imperative that an actor understands how their own body reacts in moments of crisis, free themselves of their habitual reactions to this crisis in order to become the clean slate needed to represent someone else’s crisis.
It has been an incredible gift to work with the students at Maggie Flanigan this last semester. Of most value is the fact that after my class, the students go next door into their acting class, and through the application of what they have learned in the Suzuki training they start to make connections with the Meisner work that they are being taught by Charlie. They then come back to my class, share their discoveries with me, in turn giving me a new perspective on the work and a deeper understanding of how these two techniques can compliment each other.
I’m not quite sure what that one student was actually doing in the class in question, what does it mean to focus on authenticity? And don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that having this as a focus was a miraculous shortcut to getting rid of his physical habits. It took a huge amount of work, investigation, struggle and reflection for him to get to this place. My answer is that by bringing himself to the work, he was finding his own voice within the form and allowing himself to be seen. And through his physical instrument we saw a wonderful confluence of different training methods as he applied his knowledge of Suzuki, Meisner, Viewpoints and Linklater. But ultimately, it was through his courage to bring himself to all of these forms that we caught a glimpse of his humanity; a strong but vulnerable human being who was allowing us to see him, who was communicating with truth and honesty and the result was powerful and touching. There is something to be said for letting go of trying to please, letting go of the notion of right and wrong, giving yourself permission to fail and letting the world see your authentic self. If only we all had the courage to do it.