What Actors Get Wrong About Being a Triple Threat

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Photo Source: Walt Disney Pictures. Pictured – Lin-Manuel Miranda performing in Mary Poppins Returns

Dr Experience Bryon is a performance practitioner and senior lecturer at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. A self-described scholar, pedagogue, performer, and practitioner-researcher, she is author of “Integrative Performance: Practice and Theory for the Interdisciplinary Performer.”

Training to be a triple threat is rigorous and challenging. Acting, singing, and dancing are often taught as separate disciplines, with contrasting – even contradictory – techniques. In response to this, Experience Bryon developed the Integrative Performance Practice (IPP), which provides tools for working across disciplines. Backstage sat down with Bryon to learn about her ground-breaking work and how it can help performers.

What is IPP and what inspired you to develop it?
This practice was developed as a response to a problem I encountered as a student of opera singing, acting, and dance, wishing to be able to do it all at the same time, with excellence, and with no compromise to either. 

Many of the ways we train as singers, dancers, and actors are at odds with each other. For instance, there are different points of centre in the body and different types of breathing for each of these disciplines. We found that rather than negotiate the problem of the triple threat – which is basically triple-tasking – there was another way.

I turned to the latest in cognitive science and developed a way that starts with presence and the initiation of one task, which allows for the emergence of voice, movement, and acting as one. So, rather than a dancer dances, or a singer sings, or an actor acts, we realised that, in truth, we do a bunch of stuff in a middle field that turns into the act, the song, or the dance. The awareness and practice of this set of doings is key: It’s not linear and it’s not exclusive. It is about systems and it is inclusive. And it really, really works – which is incredibly exciting.

Importantly, IPP is not a technique but rather a practice. A practice that can help you integrate the many techniques that an artist encounters as part of their living tool kit.

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Why is it so important to distinguish practice from technique?
Practice is about our way of doing – I call it the active aesthetic. There is no such thing as not doing. We are always doing something, even if it is just breathing, as there are different ways of breathing. All these doings will condition us, mind, body, and behaviour-wise, and therefore technique-wise. If I sit at the piano with a bunch of performers and I say, “OK, let’s warm-up and play an arpeggio to get us ready,” the artists will inhale and begin to sound. By the time the sound has started, it is too late. So many more things happened already that are a part of the practices in the room. Perhaps they want to please. Perhaps they tense to minimise their sound because they wanted to mask bad pitch. Perhaps they feel the voice of their old singing teacher tell them to release the tongue. Perhaps they are wondering if their child is getting on with the babysitter. These are the things that are really being practised. We get good at what we actually practice. What sits outside the tasks of the intended technique we call “company.” Being responsible for and able to respond to ourselves in the task is key to this practice.

In an audition situation, performers might bring a lot of ‘company,’ as you call it, in the room. How would this practice help in that scenario?
The three-part breath that we use, which helps to isolate the iliopsoas muscle system (in addition to allowing one to do such things as a cartwheel and sing a high C at the same time) also takes us out of the fight-or-flight response that can occur with audition nerves. However, nerves are nerves, and in taking on a practice of simply noticing the company you bring into a room you can begin to do something about it. This practice is in no way about getting rid of your company but rather about integrating it into the task. Sometimes it’s your company that makes you unique. It’s important, however, that we don’t tell too many stories about company – we just notice and witness it in an “isn’t that interesting” sort of way – not in an “Oh my God – I am shaking, I am really going to mess this up” way. You might first breathe and notice: “Isn’t that interesting: I’m nervous and my heart’s palpitating.” Or: “Isn’t that interesting: there’s that girl who’s always at the same audition as me.” We just notice, and we breathe and return to awareness, rather than any narration of our thoughts or our feelings. It is from this awareness that we do the tasks we have chosen to do with whatever we have with us today and in this moment. 

In your book, you talk about the ‘active aesthetic’ as being central to the work. What is it?
Roland Barthes once wrote that “an author only returns to his work as a guest.” He meant that it is in the act of reading or the act of witnessing the play that the meaning happens, not on the page as a stuck and contained thing. This lets us really understand that the practice – the way of practice – is the alchemy of the performer. Meaning happens in the act of the doing. It’s not in the what or even how of doing. I am really excited about this because the concept is now being applied to the practices of emergency responders who need to work with SA [Situational Awareness], and also for medical practitioners to look into the ways they consider what is actually occurring in clinical practices. A nice crossover between performance practice and other disciplines.

What habit do you find most common when working with performers on IPP?
I find a lot of people have been taught to do the product rather than be truly present in the process. And even if they haven’t been taught it explicitly, they’ve taught themselves to do it, to please the teacher, or to get it right, or even just to get it. And in this practice, there’s no getting it. Because, when you’re in the flow of doing, it’s the act of doing that’s important. It’s not arriving at some aesthetic end...be that a tone, a feeling, or a gesture…tones, feelings, and gestures happen as emergent properties of other tasks. If one attempts to do a feeling, for instance, they get tension and pushing – not that desired feeling at all...not [something] artistically interesting or particularly helpful towards an integrative practice. Remember, it is what we actually practice that we actually get good at.

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Do you have any advice for performers finding footing with their own practice?
The thing about learning performance disciplines is that you train, you devote yourself to that training, sometimes you devote yourself to that teacher or school – this needs to happen, but you don’t actually become an artist until you then let these all go, and work out what your technique is, what your practice is, how you learn, and how you work with and not against your company. I think every technique is useful if you use it well for you. And I think that it’s important to cultivate that sense of awareness and that sense of sacredness in the act of doing a task, no matter what technique it is. And then, don’t be afraid to adjust it to suit your body, your mind, your spirit at the present moment with the material or context of the task at hand. When you are getting criticism, in addition to hearing it, look at who’s giving it to you: What is their active aesthetic? Is it useful for you in the service of your work or not? You most often know when you are learning the right thing because somewhere, deep inside, you know it already.

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