If you haven't heard of Russian theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold's biomechanics, a method of physical training for the actor, it's not surprising. Meyerhold's teachings were banned for many years during the Stalinist regime. Yet biomechanics is regaining popularity among today's theatre experimentalists.In the early 20th century, Meyerhold, originally an actor at Constantin Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theatre, began to formulate techniques that, he believed, served the actor better for performing in a variety of non-naturalistic theatrical forms than did Stanislavski's more psychological approach. In his own school and theatre, Meyerhold developed exercises--influenced by Kabuki, commedia, clowning, and circus--that helped actors prepare physically to approach stage work from the outside in. While he never veered from the master's belief in justifying actions and playing objectives, he taught his actors to recognize and shape their physical impulses, which would naturally lead them to appropriate emotions. This departure from Stanislavski's theories was promoted by many, including filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and playwright/director Bertolt Brecht.But eventually Stalin decided that Meyerhold's ideas were too revolutionary, and he was executed in 1940, his teachings banished. With Meyerhold's name never uttered, Stanislavski's approach reigned supreme, spreading to America through such teachers as Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, and others. Ever since, we've mainly learned variations of Stanislavski, and Meyerhold's system has remained obscure.Although Meyerhold was "rehabilitated" in 1955, it's only been since the breakup of the Soviet Union that we've started to learn more about biomechanics. Two master teachers in Russia carry on Meyerhold's work and occasionally teach workshops abroad.I dropped in on a San Francisco biomechanics workshop taught by Gillian Chadsey, who has been training for years in the system. I've seen her do some spectacular acting, particularly in a Shotgun Players production of Caryl Churchill's The Skriker, in which she had a ferociously physical, seven-page monologue and played 13 different characters throughout. She uses biomechanics regularly in her work.The point of biomechanics is for the actor to be in control, specific, and precise: to understand how her body moves in space, to be conscious of rhythms and dynamics, to be in balance, and to be aware of relating to co-actors, audience, and outside stimuli. There are many exercises to help the actor achieve these skills, some extremely physically challenging.
Chadsey started us off with a few deceptively simple exercises. We walked around, looking at the room--floor, ceiling, space in between--and at the other students, absorbing all stimuli. Then we did the same exercise with a particular goal (as in an objective), yet still maintaining full awareness of our environment and how we were moving through it.We also followed the complete trajectory of simple actions: How does the rest of your body feel when you move your right ankle? asked Chadsey. What is your facial expression? "Our bodies will try to find the easiest, most efficient path to complete an action," she pointed out. "But then we tune out. We don't think about how we're sitting in a chair onstage." Biomechanics teaches you to be so fully conscious that when you sit down, you know exactly how and why.We balanced long sticks; we tossed balls in the air. Chadsey counseled us to find the rhythm in the action but not to make it automatic. Exercises got harder--yoga-like backbends, slithering across the floor in a variety of postures--and proved to be a major workout (I admit I didn't do the more rigorous tasks--er, bad back, don'tcha know). We also partnered up on various exercises, aware of each other while executing a seemingly simple physical action."Actors have gotten very stuck in the psychology of their characters, in what they as individual actors bring to their characters--which takes us out of the present moment," Chadsey told me when I asked her why she thinks this type of work is so important for today's actor. "We don't respond with our bodies anymore; it's all about text. But you can't have text without movement."What about, for example, certain characters in Beckett, who are immobilized, even buried up to their necks? Beckett's plays are very physical, countered Chadsey. "An extreme physical position will automatically inform the way a character speaks. Beckett isn't all language; that's the easy way to look at it."
Filling the Shell
Luckily I had a chance to see biomechanics in action only a week later, in Art Street Theatre's chamber production of a charming, funny original musical, Io--Princess of Argos! In this stylized one-act based on Greek mythology, the four performers were meticulously in control of their movements, even when not dancing.The show's writer/director, Mark Jackson, said the entire company has been studying biomechanics for the past few years, and does biomechanics exercises as a preshow warmup. "Biomechanics is a very economic way of moving," he said. "The principle is to use your body to communicate to the audience and to your fellow actors in the most precise way possible. A biomechanical etude [the little pantomimes that Meyerhold developed along with his exercises] strips a movement down to its essence, then expands it." Meyerhold was all about finding the most clear, theatrical, and truthful way to communicate onstage.When you first start learning biomechanics, said Jackson, it feels like dance, and in fact the four actors in Io all have dance experience. "Actors who have studied only Stanislavski say that biomechanics feels odd at first. They're being asked to do what their teachers told them not to do, work from the outside in. The myth is that you can separate the two approaches. But in fact you can act simultaneously inside-out and outside-in."He added, "Working outside-in ups the ante. The risk is that you'll appear as an empty shell. So you have to do more internal work to match the external work." Jackson said his lead actress, Beth Wilmurt, who plays Princess Io, has never had any trouble connecting emotionally, so the biomechanical work helped her gain control over her emotions. Indeed, I've rarely seen a musical comedy performer with such well-balanced skills.I asked Chadsey to describe common misconceptions about biomechanics. "Many people think it's a staging technique that's mechanical," she responded. "I think they make the same assumptions about Suzuki and Viewpoints [both of which Chadsey's studied], that it's a way for a director to stage a play. But it's really a tool for the actor to be both the artist and the object of his art at the same time, to have a complete body awareness."People also tend to think biomechanics is about creating gesture for the stage.
Typical biomechanical exercises comprise gestures that look like Egyptian hieroglyphics. Said Chadsey, however, "Biomechanics is about finding the natural impulse of the body, then tweaking it a bit, turning it, making it a little larger, because this is theatre, not real life."Does it work for film? Absolutely, declared Chadsey, who's done film work herself, "because in film you have to constantly re-create what you just did to match the master shot. Directors will say, 'Go back and do that again,' and actors freak out, because they have no idea what they did or why." They might be busy doing a sense memory about their grandmother's death to achieve the needed emotion for the scene and are therefore not in the present moment, not physically aware. Proponents of biomechanics believe you can reach the required emotional state through movement--and also be completely in the moment and personally expressive.Here's a simple biomechanical exercise. Throw a ball in the air. Pay attention to the moment that happens right before the action: the windup. Pay attention to the action itself, the throw. Pay attention to the end of the action, the catch--which is, in fact, the beginning of the next action. Throughout, maintain awareness of rhythm and of everything around you. "Being aware of the impulse behind an action, knowing when an action begins and ends, and paying attention to those moments, makes you conscious and in the present rather than being in the previous moment or the next moment," said Chadsey.Russian master teacher Gennadi Bogdanov will teach a biomechanics intensive in the Bay Area, July 16-27. Call Gillian Chadsey at (415) 701-1542. (I haven't heard of any biomechanics teachers in Southern California.) Recommended reading: Meyerhold, Eisenstein, and Biomechanics by Alma Law and Mel Gordon, published by McFarland & Co. in 1996; and the chapter called "Meyerhold and Biomechanics" by Robert Leach in Twentieth Century Actor Training, edited by Alison Hodge and published by Routledge in 2000. BSW