Among the terms used by the Russian actor, director, actor trainer and theorist Konstantin Stanislavsky, the term perezhivanie is one of the most important. It means ‘experience’, in Finnish, elämys, deriving from the Russian verb perezhit, ‘to experience’, in Finnish, kokea. Unfortunately, perezhivanie was originally and erroneously translated into Finnish as ‘eläytyminen’ which means roughly the same as ‘empathizing with something or someone’. The idea of empathizing with something or someone is still a commonly met description of acting in everyday talk. And of course, the ideas of fictitious characters in a fictitious world, and the play between them, are key characteristics for theatre, in its conventional forms, at least.
But is acting in an artistic sense fundamentally about being someone else or doing something that is not actually happening?
My experience as a theatre teacher at the upper secondary level for more than twenty years tells me that things that actually happen in the studio are of much more value than the fictitious play taking place. Experience is precious.
Then, two important questions arise. Firstly: How to enhance experience?
Curiously enough, the Russian word perezhit also means ‘to survive’, and carries the connotation ‘suffering through a terrible crisis’. This is how Jouko Turkka seemed to perceive the process of becoming an actor. Also the commonly known trope of genuine artistic creation through suffering only supports this view. However, as Mark Evans writes, in the training of the modern actor, meanings are to become “fluid, leaky, slippery and playful”. This is exactly how we should perceive ourselves while training in the studio: fluid, leaky, slippery and playful. Fiction is only an excuse for us to become like that, to be ourselves in a different way for a moment.
So, if not through a terrible crisis, how to enhance experience?
And secondly, we need to ask, for the sake of transmission: How to articulate experience?
My answer to both questions is: through developing precisely articulated, embodied, ethically sustainable pedagogies of acting, or ways of training, that are in line with the latest findings in cognitive science and other branches of current inquiry, in line with current assumptions of what it is to be a human being. Stanislavsky made mistakes that he would not have made had he the knowledge available to us today.
As Jonathan Pitches writes at the opening of his book, Science and the Stanislavsky Tradition of Acting, Stanislavsky valued a “colloquial performance language based on experience and practice”, and followed the writings of Frederick Winslow Taylor in his aim to set the actor “explicit tasks to be completed physically”, eliminating “the chance factor” in artistic creation. These have been my aims, too.
My research in a nutshell
My research project has been about developing articulated, embodied, ethically sustainable pedagogies of acting for the needs of youth theatre education. As the pedagogies used in youth theatre education are almost exclusively derived from those originally developed for the training of professional actors, it was necessary for me first to “dive in” deep in the traditions of western actor training methods, most notably the traditions of the so-called psychophysical actor training, deriving substantially from the work of − again − Stanislavsky. I cannot think of a better opportunity for this kind of exploration than the research project “The Actor’s Art in Modern Times”, in Finnish, Näyttelijäntaide ja nykyaika, launched at the Theatre Academy Helsinki by Professor Esa Kirkkopelto in 2008. By then, I had already begun to find out whether there is a need for embodied pedagogies of acting at the upper secondary level, as alternatives for conventional paradigms of acting, and this was simply due to the fact that I had been interested in embodied or “psychophysical” actor training methods ever since I read Towards a Poor Theatre by Jerzy Grotowski at the age on eighteen. (So, that was a long time ago.)
My claim is: There is reason to look for alternative pedagogies for the needs of youth theatre education.
However, by the same token, there still seems to be reason to talk about the ways and the means actor training methods in higher education and in the training of professional actors, too, for the sake of update, at least.
Hence, my research takes place in the continuum from youth theatre education, via actor training in higher education, to the training of professional actors, seldom acknowledged in international discussion.
In short, my research proposes embodied pedagogies of acting, deriving substantially from the traditions of psychophysical actor training, to be considered as alternatives for conventional paradigms of acting. By ‘embodied pedagogy of acting’ I refer to an approach to acting and training acting that emphasises the centrality of the actor’s sentient body in the theatrical event, the notion of a human being as a comprehensive body-mind entity, and the diversity and complexity of subjective experience. By ‘conventional paradigms of acting’ I mean strategies that deploy personality, memories and emotions in order to create a sense of “real feelings” used in training and/or performance, and intentional boundary blurring between what is fiction and what is real, based on an assumption that if it feels real it looks real (which cannot be taken as given). The traditions of psychophysical actor training provide a basis for the development of embodied pedagogies of acting but there are however aspects in psychophysical training that must be critically and comprehensively considered. The case of the Turkka School clearly confirms this view. My research also argues that experience in the youth theatres and in youth theatre education is important for personal growth. I like to think that, while training acting, young people suppose they learn something about acting, and they probably do, but it is far more important what they learn about themselves.
The theoretical framework of my research
The theoretical framework of my research consists of writings from several fields of inquiry: the traditions of psychophysical actor training, current international discussion on performer training, phenomenology, critical pedagogy, the educational philosophy of John Dewey, certain recent developments in cognitive science and their ethical implications by Fransisco Varela and Antonio Damasio, and the psychoanalytic theory regarding the concept of transitional space in the developmental process in adolescence by Donald Woods Winnicott. I find it most intriguing to find areas of experience compatible to theories presented in a certain field of inquiry. For example, theories of cognition as enaction seem to fit amazingly certain experiences in performer training, as if actions in the studio were experiments in a laboratory of cognitive science.
My research step by step
My research was formed through a series of smaller projects, each of which are documented in respective articles. I will now list the parts of the thesis and name the articles documenting each part.
Part I, focusing on the nature and the ethics of an embodied pedagogy of acting on the upper secondary level. Respective article:
“Diving In: Adolescents’ Experiences of Physical Work in the Context of Theatre Education”, published in the US, in International Journal of Education & the Arts, in 2010.
What is evident in the light of this part of my research is that the pedagogical situation seems to create space for transition: there are fleeting moments of transitional space, where moving towards new areas of self is possible. At its best, it becomes possible for an individual to be, to be different from what one usually is, or in a different way than usually. This, in turn, makes it possible for an individual to take a step in one’s personal growth. In the context of fiction individuals may test different subjectivities. Activities in the studio can serve as rites of passage: the actual space, those few square meters on the floor, stand for a space for transition.
Part II, focusing especially on the transitional aspect in the teaching of Jouko Turkka at the Theatre Academy Helsinki in the 1980s. Respective article:
“The Transitional State and the Ambivalences of Actor Training”, published in the UK, in Performing Ethos: An International Journal of Ethics in Theatre & Performance, in 2015.
In this part of my thesis the question of the ethics of training became central, due to the precarious features of the Turkka School. It was surprising that the question of the actor’s vulnerability had been an issue only for a decade or so in the international discussion. Perhaps there remains an assumption that if you are an actor you must take everything that comes with it, and other people are in the position to decide whatever this everything includes. There should be careful consideration on what are the possible factors threatening the actor’s integrity. This part of my research indicates that the traditions of psychophysical actor training nevertheless provide a basis for the development of embodied pedagogies of acting, particularly in their apparent engagement of the body.
Part III, focusing on developing embodied pedagogies of acting for youth theatre education. Respective article:
“Exploring Bodily Reactions: Embodied Pedagogy as an Alternative for Conventional Paradigms of Acting in Youth Theatre Education”, published in the US, in Youth Theatre Journal, in 2015.
The third part of my research suggests that applying embodied pedagogies of acting developed for professional actor training in youth theatre education provide an option for conventional paradigms of acting. Applying embodied pedagogies in youth theatre education seems then possible, in a way that corresponds to the aims of enhancing experience and personal growth. At the same time there are challenges that further developments must meet. A specific task for further developments is to delineate workable and applicable terminology for training acting in the context of youth theatre education.
Part IV, focusing on the impact of prior experience of acting in the youth theatres and in youth theatre education to student actors’ studies in higher education. Respective article:
“The Youth Theatre Movement as Part of Actors’ Education: A Finnish Perspective”, published in the UK, in Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, in 2015.
The fourth part of my thesis argues that prior experience in the youth theatres and in youth theatre education is important for both the student actors’ studies in higher education and their personal growth. However, prior experience can also be a minor hindrance for the student actors’ artistic development, especially regarding behavioural patterns adopted in training acting through conventional paradigms. This speaks in favour of applying embodied pedagogies of acting in the youth theatres and in youth theatre education. Rather than just adding one more method, embodied pedagogies are able to make the student conscious of choices one could make. Then, the student can choose to use any kind of mixture of embodied and conventional techniques.
Part V: The practical part of my thesis.
The June 2015 youth theatre workshop comprising the practical part of my thesis, witnessed by the honoured opponents Cecilia Lagerström and Jonathan Pitches, was an example of applying an embodied pedagogy of acting in practice. In this workshop I applied the new embodied approach to performer training developed within the research project The Actor’s Art in Modern Times. I call my application of this approach Working with States of Being, in Finnish, something like ‘olotilametodi’. In the workshop demonstration I was hoping to be able to show how even a comparably short period of training can shift the performer’s focus into the body, specifically into experiencing and exploring bodily reactions, and how the actors’ focus turns to the here-and-now.
Part VI: the commentary.
In the commentary which forms the book at hand with the articles as appendices I summarise the progression of the research, discuss the findings, and make some conclusions. Additionally, I present the embodied approach to performer training developed within The Actor’s Art in Modern Times project, and my application of it, in detail, term by term, and compare them to the concept of psychophysical acting by Phillip Zarrilli. This account comprises, I hope, a “colloquial performance language based on experience and practice”, the concept that I began with today, desired by Stanislavsky.
Lastly, I will highlight some aspects in my research that I find important.
What does it mean to call an approach ‘ethically sustainable’, as I repeatedly do? It is an approach that takes ethical concern for real, at least, even if it cannot fulfil the requirements of the distinction. In the philosophy of John Dewey, the primary criterion of ethical behaviour is “willingness to accept responsibility for the full range of anticipated outcomes”. The outcomes of actions must be acceptable, or at least better than identifiable alternatives, for all involved. If we think about the Turkka School, this was obviously not the case. However, if I think about my own teaching, who am I to say anything about the outcomes of actions? What can I say? That they are mostly positive, I hope?
As a researcher, my position in this research is twofold: as a practitioner I am a part of the field I am researching. I am, as a researcher, asking the upper secondary students questions about their experiences and perceptions of training acting in classes where I am the teacher. This kind of research setting inevitably affects the research. However, careful distinction between the positions of the researcher and the object of research, a distinction that usually becomes possible temporally, may reduce the effects of the setting. There are also advantages. The position of the practitioner gives the researcher insight on how the world studied unfolds from the inside. The educational phenomenologist Max van Manen argues that the act of researching is an intentional act of attaching oneself to the world, in order to become a part of it: “to know the world is to be in the world in a certain way”. Being an artistic researcher is undoubtedly a very specific way to be in the world.
I find it obvious that especially in the artistic work of a professional actor, embodied ways to work and more conventional, text-based ones co-exist. Thus, research like mine does not seek to advocate an approach and overrule others but to add to applicable options, to widen the space for artistic creation. Moreover, options are possible only if one acknowledges the differences between options. This in turn calls for clear articulation of the ways of training chosen, not only their dynamics but also their aims and ethics; what kind of conception of a human being a certain way of training is built on, what kind of conception of art, or artist.
How has knowledge presented in my research emerged?
To put it straight: this research is not entirely mine. The knowledge gathered to form the doctoral thesis in question has emerged through sustaining collaboration, inquiry, negotiation, re-negotiation, testing, re-testing, and a reasonable amount of suspicion; in short, in communication with other people. These people are my supervisors, honorable external examinators and opponents, present here today, the members of the research project, the people of the University of the Arts, colleagues in pedagogy and in the theatre, colleagues met in conferences and colloquiums, editors and anonymous peer-reviewers in international journals, interviewees and participants in the workshops, and my students. Most importantly, I had an example of an article-formed doctoral research very close since my wife Virpi wrote hers on psychology, just a couple of years ahead of me. I had some kind of an idea what was to come.
Today, I think my emerged knowledge of my own body proves that this research was a journey worth to make. This knowledge is something palpable for me. Yet, I can only tell you how a certain subtle movement affects me, as it does, every time I do it. How that kind of movement affects someone else, how it changes the perception of that moment, and in what way exactly something that becomes conscious becomes conscious, remains unknown to me. This phenomenological fact is the basis for my actions in the studio, and, perhaps, in life.
I hope my humble study will provide with useful and applicable perspectives for performer training today, for both young people and professional actors, and even a transient glance at the elusive phenomenon of the subjective experience of acting.
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