27 October 2009

Psychological Gesture & Leading Center

When I first started to study acting professionally--I’d been a college and amateur actor for some years by then--I started with classes at the HB Studio. I didn’t know anything about the studio except Uta Hagen’s reputation as an actress and teacher, so I selected classes based solely on what sounded interesting and potentially useful. For the most part, I lucked out, and one of the classes I took that first term was Aaron Frankel’s How to Do Homework. It was a course Aaron devised that was intended to teach actors what to do to prepare for the first rehearsal, what acting homework on the script to do between getting the role and the first cast meeting. It was so valuable and interesting that I took the course twice and took careful and copious notes (which I still have). I eventually “stole” the course so I could teach the technique myself. (I’ve never told Aaron that, and I don’t know how he’d feel about my having absconded with his curriculum without his acquiescence. I’ve also wanted to write the technique up and publish it as an essay somewhere, but I haven’t finished the article yet.) Like most good acting programs, the homework course is a collection of practical techniques and practices from which actors can choose, selecting those that work for them, refining them, personalizing them, and practicing them until they’re part of the actors’ preparation processes. Among the techniques are two that proved especially fascinating and useful: Psychological Gesture and Leading Center. They are, in fact, Aaron Frankel’s takes on concepts of Michael Chekhov (1891-1955) and François Delsarte (1811-71), respectively.

Actors who’ve studied the Michael Chekhov technique or read his books on acting theory will know his Psychological Gesture, commonly known as the PG. (See Michael Chekhov, To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting [New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1953], 63-84.) Chekhov’s own description of the PG states:

Imagine that you are going to play a character which . . . has a strong and unbending will, is possessed by dominating, despotic desires, and is filled with hatred and disgust.

You look for a suitable over-all gesture which can express all this in the character, and perhaps after a few attempts you find it . . . .

It is strong and well shaped. When repeated several times it will tend to strengthen your will. The direction of each limb, the final position of the whole body as well as the inclination of the head are such that they are bound to call up a definite desire for dominating and despotic conduct. The qualities which fill and permeate each muscle of the entire body, will provoke within you feelings of hatred and disgust. Thus, through the gesture, you penetrate and stimulate the depths of your own psychology.

Michael Chekhov’s Technique (the word he used to distinguish his practice from Stanislavsky’s System and Strasberg’s Method) is often regarded as mystical, and the actor-director-teacher did have beliefs that are hard to understand or swallow, but the PG, particularly in Aaron Frankel’s application, is as practicable as anything in Stanislavsky or even Uta Hagen, one of the most utilitarian acting teachers I know of. While classic Stanislavskian actors rely on psychological manipulations to create their characters, and Chekhov’s earliest students worked through a physiological approach to acting, Chekhov felt that the PG united the realms of psychology and physicality. (Students of Uta Hagen might recognize the PG as related the principle of the “release” gesture that generates emotions and psychological reactions, but Hagen’s gesture is performed on stage while the PG isn’t.)

The OED defines gesture as “A movement expressive of thought or feeling.” A psychological gesture, then, is a movement that expresses the psychology, the state of mind, of the character, a symbolic representation of the character’s feelings. The gesture’s seldom actually performed on stage, though it may be. (In Realistic productions, it would be rare.) It’s merely an archetypal physicalization, a simple movement, that serves as a metaphor for the character’s psychology as the you see it. Underlying the character’s stage movements and gestures, it’s an image you hold onto during the scene to help shape your performance. It’s a secret for the actor; neither your fellow actors, your director, nor your audience should be aware of it, but they can sense that something’s working within the character that isn’t on the surface. (Aaron used to say, “You’re up to something.”)

Actors determine the PG pretty much the same way they make all their decisions about a character. If inspiration strikes as soon as you begin reading the script, then you may not need to search further. Otherwise, you analyze the character for objective, motivation, stakes, circumstances, and so on--all the acting homework you usually do. Then you devise a physical gesture or movement that embodies the character’s psyche for you. Let’s look at a few examples for illustration purposes. Here are some PG’s I chose for the characters in Waiting for Godot.

  • Estragon: Rubbing (or touching) some part of his body.
  • Vladimir: Looking to heaven (i.e., skyward).
  • Lucky: Carrying burdens.
  • Pozzo: Cracking a whip.
  • Messenger (Boy): Running away home.

These are only my own imaginary PG’s, of course, since I never played any of these characters. Actors clearly have to select PG’s that affect them and help them play their roles. Like any adjustments you make, PG’s must come from images that connect to you. Then, of course, the PG must be tested by experimenting and improvising during rehearsal. If one doesn’t work, you rethink the choice and devise another PG. You know you’ve found the right adjustment, the right PG in this case, when it works to your artistic satisfaction.

It’s also useful to invent more than one PG for your character, an outer gesture and an inner one. (Chekhov, in fact, taught that actors can find PG’s for individual scenes and even separate beats if necessary. I’m going to stick with the overall character PG for now. The smaller PG’s should all be related somehow to the overall one anyway.) Many characters have a persona with which they face the world (sometimes known as “mask”) and one that’s private (“face”) and the actor can have a PG for each of these facets of the character. For instance, Alan in Picnic: outer PG - casual salute; inner PG - hands clasped--or holding something--straight down. I once played the part of the Hessian colonel who opposed George Washington in the Battle of Trenton in a play by Bill Mastrosimone. For my outer PG, I chose a fist thrust into the air to symbolize my military prowess and drive for spectacular victory on the field. For my inner gesture, I chose the fist clenched at my stomach because I posited that I was really afraid, not of injury or death but of failure and ignominy.

Though the Leading Center, which I’ll describe next, is an actual physical adjustment the actor makes to portray the character, the PG is only internal. Furthermore, once you’ve found the correct PG and rehearsed with it for several weeks, you may never have to contact it again except when you need to refresh the image, say just before an entrance or at the start of a difficult scene. (A warning: It’s been my experience that this kind of adjustment becomes ineffective if you reveal it to anyone else. If the PG stops working for you, you need to devise a fresh one. Revealing it can also tempt other actors to watch your work to see the technique applied, distracting everyone from the job at hand. It’s best to keep the PG a secret at least until after closing night.)

The Leading Center device is based in part on the “Zones of the Body” and the “Realms of Space” which Delsarte defines. (See Ted Shawn, Every Little Movement [New York: Dance Horizons, 1974], 32, 35-47.) Delsarte divides the body into three general areas or centers: head, heart, and gut. These correspond to the regions of the body above the shoulders (“head”), from the stomach to the neck (“heart”), and the belly and groin area (“gut”), and are, respectively, the centers of intellectuality, sentimentality, and visceralness/appetites. One of these centers guides, or “leads,” each of us, and theoretically all our gestures and movements emanate from that center. (The LC shouldn’t be confused with the center of gravity of our bodies, which may be a related phenomenon but isn’t the same thing.) Michael Chekhov also takes up this notion: “Imagine that within your chest there is a center from which flows the actual impulse for all your movements.” The center, however, can be shifted--dancers learn to move theirs permanently through training and practice; injuries cause us to move our centers, and changes in body shape such as weight-gain or -loss can affect the placement of our centers. Although Chekhov puts his imaginary center in the chest, the placement of our LC determines how we move and therefore changing the center’s location will change our physicality.

Delsarte went on to subdivide the major centers into head-heart-gut, too. For instance, the hand is generally in the “heart” area, and the palm, which is soft and can be used to caress, is a “heart” region. The index finger, however, is a “head” part because it’s used for pointing; the fist is a “gut” part because it’s a weapon used in anger. All the centers can be subdivided this way: the cheek, for example, is the “heart” part of the head and the nose, a “gut” part because it’s used for sensory input. On rare occasions, both in life and in fiction, an LC can be placed within the body, and there’s also a fourth “center,” rarely seen in real life though possible in fiction: above the “head,” like a halo--a kind of “spiritual” center for saintly and other-worldly characters. (The LC can be allied with the PG for obvious reasons: a gesture that begins or ends--Delsarte maintained that gestures get meaning not only from the body zone from which they originate, but also the spatial zone in which they end--in a “head” area will help establish an intellectual character, say a Hamlet or a Portia; a “gut” PG might help create a Kate or an Othello; a “heart” PG might generate a Romeo or a Juliet.) An actor doesn’t have to subscribe to Delsarte’s pseudoscience to make valuable use of this technique for physical characterization on stage.

A way for an actor to create an instant physical characterization is to give your character an LC different from your own real one. My own LC, for instance, is the back of my knees. If I shift it to my arm pits, I become Stanley Kowalski. For that Hessian colonel, I put my LC on the end of my chin, which pulled my body up and my head a little forward. (I literally “led with my chin.”) You can imagine, say, an Inspector Hound with an LC on the tip of his nose: he would almost literally sniff out the truth. You can find a center that will make you limp or walk with some other impairment or one that makes you move like John Wayne; it will be different for each person. There are other ways, of course, to create a physical characterization, but developing an LC does it almost instantly and makes all your movements and gestures organic, coordinated, and harmonized with each other--all of one piece, as it were.

The LC is one of the most practical applications in Aaron Frankel’s homework system because it can be used immediately to transform an actor’s physicality. (Though Aaron derived the idea of the Leading Center from Delsarte’s theories and some of Michael Chekhov’s ideas, I’m not aware of anyone else who’s applies the concept this way. At least I’ve never come across any published description of Leading Center in this context.) In class, the teacher should guide the students to find their own centers by observation and trial and error. (You can do this alone by carefully noting which part of your body seems to be the generation point of your walk and other large movements such as sitting, bending, and so on.) To test this discovery in class, the students will use trial and error to move the center around until the one that most closely resembles their own natural movements is determined. Once the actors know their real centers, choosing ones that are different will instantly change all their physical movements and gestures. In some instances, choosing an LC that contradicts the character’s obvious traits can create a dramatic performance: Ophelia, for instance, can be seen as a “gut” person (her wantonness during her madness reveals her “gut”-ness) trying to behave as a “heart” person and is eventually destroyed because of the conflict. You can see, I think, that an actress who successfully develops this as part of her character work would make the audience feel, without knowing exactly why, that . . . She’s up to something.

A note of caution: I’ve found both of these techniques useful and very valuable, especially in rehearsal when I was still developing the character. Like any new technique, you need to give it a try before accepting or rejecting it. To appraise it effectively, you must commit to it fully when trying it out. The point for both, however, is that they are practical techniques and must be tried and discarded as the work on the role progresses. Aaron’s class was ostensibly for preparing for the very first rehearsal, so it’s all about doing work at home before you meet your castmates and director in a working environment. After that, decisions you make alone should be tested in rehearsal and only retained if they work the way you need them to. Slavishly sticking with a choice made on your own at the start of rehearsals is seldom a productive tactic. Neither the PG nor the Leading Center should be considered permanent and immutable.

1 comment:

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