The Animal in the Actor

"The Centre of Gravity Connection"

In all things maintaining a balance is the key to a successful outcome. Acting is no different. Rehearsal Room workshops constantly reveal that an imbalance in the essential performance ingredients is almost as big a problem for the actor as an absence of the essential ingredients.

So, what are the essential ingredients?

Repeated constantly in the Rehearsal Room is the view that the fundamental responsibilities of the actor are to

  • tell the story and
  • be believable.

The 'being believable' component of the actor's craft also has two fundamental ingredients -

  • Creating the image of a complex character (driven by an unconscious "need")
  • Being able to actively listen and respond to the impulses that any interaction with other actors may produce from the ingredients of the story.

Responding to Impulse
The area of responding to impulse is one that different actors will handle in different ways. Actors who enjoy connecting to emotional memory will look for impulses that can stimulate that area. Actors who have an open intuitive approach look for impulses in many areas and on many levels. Actors who lean more towards the intellectual and less towards the intuitive will tend to look for logical impulses as opposed to instinctive ones. All these elements are reasonable components of the mix. However an imbalance that favours one area significantly more than another is also likely to upset the quality of the performance.

Too much connection to the emotional impulses frequently produces an indulgent and internally focused performance. Too much connection to a broad range of impulse response can create an erratic performance outcome, sometimes disrupting story. And too much connection to the logical can hinder and restrict, sometimes eliminate, impulse responses in both the other areas. So again balance is a critical issue.

Manipulating Impulses
The whole area of impulse response and its connection to the unconscious is a really interesting one. The Rehearsal Room has been exploring ways of manipulating these connections. Basic impulses are connected in the most primitive way to our primal instincts and therefore to the 'animal' in us. The most basic instincts are survival instincts. Survival is of course connected to the fundamentals of physical survival and our 'fight or flight' mechanism. But it is also connected to our psychological survival - the survival of our sense of self. Whenever survival is threatened or potentially threatened the initial mechanism that is available in response is 'the readiness to act'. The readiness to act is, in its most primitive sense, the impulse for 'fight or flight'. You only need to look at any animal preparing to defend itself or its territory, to see this impulse is fundamentally connected to 'centre of gravity'.

Basic Connections
In addition experimentation with raising and lowering our own centre of gravity reveals that this process is directly linked to the diaphragm. And our diaphragm is fundamental to our breathing.

So here are a series of impulse related elements that are integrally linked to all our most basic physiological functions. If all these factors are inter-connected it is obvious that one element can be used to support or stimulate the others. If moments of surprise or 'fight or flight' raise our centre of gravity then it is possible that, conversely, raising our centre of gravity can be used as a device to heighten moments of surprise.

If raising or lowering the centre of gravity affects our breathing then conversely our breathing can also be used to manipulate the centre of gravity. And breathing can be used as a great tool to support moments of surprise or any impulses generated by the unexpected.

Is It Cheating?
Purists might consider this sort of mechanical manipulation to be faking it. And to a degree that is true. However, it has to be acknowledged that the performance process is not a perfect one and that useful tricks for creating the illusion of truthful response are very handy devices for the actor to have at their disposal. In this sense the mechanical device of raising and lowering centre of gravity (through breathing) is a most productive and useful manipulation.

Complexity Entangled With Life Forces
The first useful factor about this trick is that it is well hidden inside the body, so only heavy over-use will reveal its presence. Subtle movements of the diaphragm and the centre of gravity can produce quite readable responses while their source is entirely hidden from the audience view. But the most significant advantage of manipulating this tool is that because movement of the centre of gravity and breathing are so directly connected to the animal instincts of flight or fight, then even mechanical manipulations alter the muscular, skeletal, chemical and consequently psychological framework of our physical reactions. So, a plethora of intuitive instinctive connections can result from one simple mechanical act.

A conscious effort to raise our internal centre of gravity can significantly increase the drama in the scene, the impulse response rate and the pace of dialogue (and perhaps much more besides). All this from one simple device. The Rehearsal Room is finding that use of this practice is a fundamental tool in the performance process.

July 2003

Originally The Rehearsal Room began exploring centre of gravity shifts as a tool for heightening the potency of an actor's moment of surprise as seen through the camera's eye in a CU or a MCU. It was noted that this significantly affected muscle tension in the face. More recently while rehearsing a play it was noted that increases in centre of gravity were an integral part of conflict and affected muscle tension throughout the body - it heightened the awareness of the animal impulses in the actor.

Exciting stuff!

Copyright © The Rehearsal Room 2003. All rights Reserved.



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