Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
Several decades ago, a Ukrainian-Israeli engineer and physicist by the name of Moshé Pinchas Feldenkrais said, “Nothing is permanent about our behaviour patterns except our belief that they are so.” During his life, he came to be known for developing a unique system of science and aesthetics aimed to improve human functioning by increasing self-awareness through movement, popularly known as the Feldenkrais Method.
During the pre-coronavirus time, our understanding of what makes theatre “theatre” included audience coming to a space to watch actors perform on stage. Both, the performers’ and the audience’s physical presence was key to get a wholesome experience. In a way, that had become, what we thought to be, a permanent behaviour pattern, until the current pandemic strode in and challenged the community to reconsider the social contract a physical space holds between performers and the audience. Can theatre take place in the absence of presence?
In the months that have followed, knowingly or unknowingly, theatre practitioners have been doing what Feldenkrais meant: undoing our understanding of theatre and in the process, creating a whole new world of possibility within it.
When Sita Mani, a physical theatre artist and lecturer at Columbia University School of Arts, went home after a day’s work in March, happy with the students they had chosen for the Class of 2023 for their three-year graduate actor training program, little did she know she wouldn’t be able to return to teach in a physical space for a very long time.
Her first response, and a very human one, was one of shock and panic.
But her second response, she says, was one of curiosity, about what could be done with this situation, “It’s like one side had dealt with the fact that, ‘Well, I have to do this.’ No one’s giving me a choice. I started to see it as an opportunity to ask myself what it was that I was doing,” she shared at a recent Unrehearsed Futures webinar.
Mani, a Feldenkrais practitioner, spent several years training in, and doing, professional dance and movement. She performed as a musical theatre dancer in India before studying modern dance at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in New York. She then began exploring physical theatre and went on to work with Fay Simpson (who came up with the lucid body technique) for eight years. During that time, she also went to massage therapy school which led her to discover Feldenkrais in her journey and thus began her fascination with the human body and breath.
Unbeknownst to Mani, she was gathering a ton of information that set her up perfectly to work with actors. Meditation and Feldenkrais began to become a container for her work, where the idea is that the more awareness one has, the more choice one has. She deeply believes Feldenkrais is the thing that makes people aware and change. Mani’s work in movement involves close contact with human bodies in the same physical space, whereas a teacher, embodied learning and physical touch are huge components of the training process.
When the lockdown began, the incoming class of 2023 at Columbia decided to defer by a year. This left Mani and the other permanent faculty members to decide what to do with the second and third-year students. Before going into further details, Mani explains what she thinks goes into training an actor physically. One is, she believes, training the instrument: the body and the mind. The second is the artistic process. For her, the two are separate, crucial somatic trainings for an actor and it is important to separate them, at least in the teacher’s mind.
In terms of training the mind and body, it involves cultivating a physical intelligence. It means understanding your instrument in a way that you can make it to do what you need to do, to work with it and not against it. “Conditioning is not only like finding ways to keep an actor fit so that they can do what is physically demanded of them in any kind of situation or any kind of work that they may choose to do, but also conditioning the nervous system because we do intimacy work,” shares Mani.
She does conditioning for sensual contact and aggression with her students before they move to their stage combat classes. “Most of us don’t understand what happens to us when our bodies come in contact or even in proximity to another human. I have also found that you need to condition yourself to be able to make a choice while you’re in a responsive state because you want to be affected and yet you don’t want to be so affected that you’re out of control,” explains Mani. She describes her work with students as building a foundation for a physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, artistic being to then take on other techniques.
When Mani was denied the ability to be in the same room as her students, the words of Feldenkrais rang true for her – “If you know what you are doing, you can do what you want.” Having studied about this, practised and found it to be true, she believed that if she knew what she was doing and the other person was with her, she could find some way to teach within the given circumstances of the pandemic.
Feldenkrais on Zoom
Mani decided to go ahead and take a Feldenkrais class on Zoom in the spring semester. The first years had had six months of training previously with her, which made the job relatively easier in terms of the teaching vocabulary used. She also worked closely with the teacher who teaches Alexander technique at Columbia and they both found that doing Feldenkrais and Alexander helped students be in their bodies for the rest of day on Zoom. The students loved it too.
“Everybody is lying on their mat in their little square (on Zoom). Doing Feldenkrais and Alexander helps them stay with awareness and also it helps them be in their own space. With 18 students lying on a mat and someone giving them instructions, it allows them to try different things,” she shares, while adding that the medium of Zoom makes it look like students feel a little more sense of permission to rest when they want, to try something a little different. In this way, the learning deepens.
However, it is exhausting for the teacher. “I feel like I have to zoom into every square and check on someone and give them some feedback and make sure I’m keeping the room going. I was drained in a way that I had never experienced,” Mani says, “I’m slowly starting to find ways to think about how to deal with that since the upcoming year at Columbia is completely set on Zoom.”
So, she found Feldenkrais was possible on Zoom. She also tackled some new conditioning exercises such as some yoga stretches and breathwork, though she cautions it was a little risky. She’d rather teach a person new movement when she is with them. “Physical risk conditioning was out of the question. It requires me to be there to be able to put hands on the person, to be able to watch them and sense them and feel them and stay by them and hold a space of the two or three students that work together. So anything that is nervous system conditioning for discomfort and system disruption, I don’t think it’s a good idea to teach over Zoom,” she believes.
According to Mani, while she found she could teach for three hours on Zoom and stay connected to the students, it was not so vice-versa. When students had to sit and listen to someone else or watch others do scene work on screen, attention and focus became hard to achieve. “It’s exhausting. The mind wanders. It’s not you. It’s the platform and the conditions,” she says, adding that going forward she will not be taking classes for such a long period and instead spend an hour and a half working together, warming up, discuss and a little Q&A with them.
While teaching on Zoom had a myriad of challenges, there were many benefits too. Mani took more of one-on-one tutorials with students where she was able to tackle some exercises which involved nervous system conditioning for discomfort and risky yoga stretches and breathwork.
“I give them little tasks. They do it with me. We talk about how they’re experiencing it. They go off and practice it and we talk again after a week. That way I feel like I can be responsible for them moving into disruption. And it’s disruption of the nervous system, which is such a huge part of the training,” she says. While this is tiring, it is also helpful. Using such a platform, she found there is a greater takeaway for students when more work is done over one-on-ones or in smaller groups rather than doing it only in large groups.
Scene work on Zoom
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many of the seasoned acting teachers at Columbia, who are aged above 60, took a step back. It was a lot for them since they could not imagine a world where people can do scene work without being in the same room together.
This created an opportunity for teachers to collaborate with each other. With technical support for teachers from the National Alliance of Acting Teachers in North America on how to teach over Zoom, students were able to perform scene studies on the videoconferencing platform. “We can have just two windows up on Zoom and everyone else disappears but can watch what’s happening,” Mani explains. She adds that the benefit of the situation is that since it is very challenging to feel connected to a person students are not in the room with, it forces them to deepen concentration. “If you want to do it, if you have the desire, it forces you to cut out your own internal monologue and the rest of the world, and really stay with the person,” Mani believes.
What guided her through this time are her colleague Ron Van Lieu’s words: Acting is breathing and believing. “When he says that, he means so much,” she says, “I’ve been thinking on this. I’ve cultivated exercises around a deeper understanding of the imaginary muscles we need to have to be able to believe to the degree that one can transform in the moment. It is a really, really, really huge opportunity here on Zoom because on if you are forced to go deeper if you want to do the work. Otherwise, you’re going to sit on the surface of it.”
There were students who resisted this. Many others jumped in. There were things lost in terms of people getting bored and irritated on Zoom, but in all Mani witnessed growth in all her students without an exception in this co-tutoring process.
One of the things that helped was having a shared vocabulary of techniques and tools of Alexander and Feldenkrais methods. “I could say, ‘Have you engaged this? Have you engaged that?’ There’s a technique I use in terms of when emotions are getting heightened. They need to that it works with the nervous system and feet, to continue breathing and bring the attention back,” she shares.
Mani also focused on the concept of “returning using the technique”. The idea was to get the student’s mind off of how difficult it is to connect over Zoom and instead, focus on their body on engaging with the material so that it looks like how they would in a room, so that they could forget the things that got in their way in a room, on their screen. “Suddenly they’ve forgotten and they’re lost in a conversation the way you and I are right now, looking at each other and so interested in what we’re saying. We are not thinking whether we are doing a scene, but we are doing a scene,” says Mani.
What about the physiological response that happens when two people are in the same room, what happens when that information is denied which adds to the scene? According to Mani, with the use of the online medium, there is less coming to feed a performer. But that is what theatre practitioners are good at: working with what they have at the moment. As a teacher, she pushes her students to cultivate that ability, especially now. Even those who resisted doing scene study online, got excited when they could see that it worked. Many expressed that they finally felt what they had been craving and missing since they had not been allowed to be in a room together.
“Now, none of them are going to tell you that it’s as good (as performing in the same room). And I’m not going to tell you it’s as good. But it is possible to continue training in this way. And the things that we are capable of strengthening will serve us, I believe, when we get back in rooms. That’s what I’m saying. I don’t think this (Zoom training) is a substitute. I have great hope and deep desire for physical theatre to come back as soon as possible.”
And when it is possible to get back into spaces and train with social distancing, Mani believes it will be a good challenge to connect with someone without touching them. Touching another body is believed to be the easiest way to connect but there is also the question of it being the easy way out and not making the performer (as a character) work for what they’re try to get or communicate. “It will be an obstacle, right? It is just another theatre task. When we get back into rooms, we’ll start from pursuing the character’s intentions when they are six, seven and eight feet apart, and then take it from there,” she explains.
The way ahead
When the acting program students at Columbia were given the option to return to rooms, they refused to do so for fear of putting their elderly parents and teachers at risk of infection. That left Mani and her colleagues to figure out how to conduct the next academic year online. For her, it is a struggle as she feels the need to be close to people to help them train. “This is something I’m learning. How do we contact each other?”
But Mani also believes that it depends on how we choose to see the situation. “With an year to live in a state of challenge, fear and not knowing what comes next, you are developing your humanity if you choose to see it that way, and if you see it as how you are looking at your experience, you’re constantly training for what you need to be an actor,” she says.
America is not dealing with one, but two pandemics at the same time. “We’re dealing with Black Lives Matter. We’re dealing with how our students feel, how our white students feel, how our colored students feel, how our faculty feels, what that means for the syllabus,” she says, adding that it is not just about teaching them a new syllabus. She believes it is a great opportunity to rip everything up and learn to breathe and go one step at a time.
“Rather than trying to make the old thing work in a new situation, we’re talking about updating the kind of text we use. We never want to get rid of Shakespeare, or Ibsen, right? But we can’t have just one Black writer, or one BIPOC writer. We are all reading and looking for ways to collaborate with others. We’re doing shorter classes on Zoom. At the end of the semester, we’ll together again to try to figure out if Zoom went okay or if we need to adjust things,” she elaborates.
What’s important to remember, Mani believes, is that there isn’t a right answer to any of this. We’re progressing through the unknown. It’s what we do every day, but it is even more heightened now. And this means that the actor, the theatre artist and artists, in general, are living in conditions that cultivate their skills, which is a big win too.