Thoughts on Performance and Performance Technique
for Individuals Engaged in Group Magical Work
© Robert Allen
“All codified performance forms contain this constant principal: the deformation of the daily technique of walking, of moving in space, and of keeping the body immobile.”
—The Paper Canoe, Eugenio Barba
A common movement exercise for actors learning to control their bodies is to nominate one person in the class to walk “naturally” about the room. In turn the other actors will follow this person, forming a single file behind the first. Each person will imitate, and amplify the essential “character” of the walk of the person immediately in front of them. If this is done right, the last person in the line will have the most exaggerated gait; they will act with and express the most affectation. At the same time, something true to the physical style of the first will have been isolated and refined, made to stand out. In this way the first, by observing the last, can learn about their own physical habits, their unconscious tendencies controlling how they move in the world. This self-knowledge is not a small thing if you are an actor, or a magician.
But you don’t have to be an actor to appreciate this information about yourself because this understanding is available to all of us. All that is required is that we learn from watching ourselves, and others.
We begin by an admission. We admit to ourselves that we never think about walking, or standing, that we believe we are essentially doing nothing when we walk, or when we stand. In point of fact, we act as if these simple actions are not special, not imbued with any specific intention or attitude, or life. Yet, a little observation will confirm that the walk of everyone is oddly animated with physical karma of an almost infinite variety. Sit in a café where you can observe other people walking by and you will begin to understand what I am talking about.
There are the bouncers. These are people who tend to bob up and down when they walk, each step never quite making solid contact with the ground, the calf muscle never releasing the tension in the heel and the Achilles tendon. Others will give the impression that they are almost falling, collapsing into a ditch with every step. These two tendencies account for people who give the impression of being “wound up”, or by contrast, barely alive. People can further be divided into those who use the legs and feet to pull their bodies up and out, or those who use them to push the bulk of their weight forward. Assessing someone’s character on the qualities of their walk is not that different from reading auras, or alternately, analysing handwriting samples. Though, based on years of working with actors I would argue it is potentially more telling and more accurate.
What everyone has in common is the subtle fact that the core of their body is constantly changing its tempo and its apparent direction in the act of walking, even when one believes one is maintaining a steady pace and walking in a straight line. This stopping and starting, or slowing and speeding up will be minimized when you begin to walk faster, but it will still be there in some degree.
This wave-like phenomenon happens because the weight has to shift from one foot to the other. In order to execute the walking action a person will begin by reaching one foot forward. This initial gesture will not involve any initial transfer of weight—the plumb line of the body, which can be viewed as the actual location of the body, will not move. Only when this foot is more or less in place, ready to receive weight, does the centre of the body allow itself to fall forward, off of one point in space and onto another. Actually, it is the job of the lagging foot and leg to push the body off its centre so it can fall. Similarly, when the body arrives, aligning and establishing a new and balanced position over the leading foot, it stops or slows as it waits for the lagging limb to be brought forward. This second foot now becomes the leading foot as it passes through the newly established vertical axis, reaching forward in space, and making ready to receive the weight of the body in its turn.
If you watch a walker only for the forward movement you might see the rhythmic, almost staccato-like sequence of moments when their body actually moves a little faster. These moments will be separated by a counter-movement of relative slowness as the legs and feet prepare for the next burst of going.
So what is wrong with this? For the civilian, we must admit, very little. But if the magician conceives, like the actor, that their actions should be an expression of their inner will and purpose, well…basically, remaining unconscious of this dynamic is bad magic! To the extent that your physical state mirrors your psychic state, to walk, heedless and insensitive is to be without will and awareness. And this betrays that the body is not really moving of its own power, rather it is being moved by the extremities—the most environmental and most superficial aspect of the person. The real person, which is most deeply identified with the centre of the body—the physical core located behind and a little below the belly button, is passive!
In theatre, in bad acting, we see this all the time. This is where the actor scrunches up the face, clenches the fists, flails the arms and hands, and makes loud noises meant to express emotional distress, but nevertheless gives the impression of being perfectly at ease. In this case the emotion reads as fake because it only plays on the surface while the deeper layers of the psychophysical package that is the human being are never engaged. And this is observable in every aspect of the life of our hypothetical bad actor so that even a simple walk across the stage or the simple choreography of standing still, or sitting in a chair is unconvincing. In doing anything, they are in fact doing nothing.
Meditate on the simple notion of moving. It does not take long to begin to sense that real movement—movement with purpose is an act of great power and magical intent. The universe changes when this happens in truth. And this fact is not lost on the talented performer, the natural or highly trained actor, or the powerful and effective magician who appreciates the almost insupportable demands of being and doing. After all, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”
There is a very simple and powerful exercise that can easily be experimented with by an individual or a group. Even just thinking about it can be helpful, especially in terms of how these ideas might influence and transform the simple floor patterns, gestures, and physical attitudes that make up most rituals. It belongs to a method of actor training called Suzuki, and was pioneered by the internationally acclaimed theatre director and teacher, Tadashi Suzuki. In the Suzuki method the actor focuses almost exclusively on how to access and cultivate the expressive power latent within the body.
The exercise I am about to describe is called Slow-Ten. Why it is called this is a little unclear, though it is performed at a purposefully slow tempo. At this tempo the tendency to slow down and speed up as one walks is very pronounced. In point of fact the exercise is little more than walking slowly in a straight line from one end of the room to the other, turning to face the direction one came from, and then walking back. This is usually performed with some sort of appropriate, recorded music. (Not any music will do. In my experience classical, minimalist music works best. The duration of the piece has to last long enough to complete the full circuit, it needs to produce a steady state of ‘going’ that the actor can use to feed her physical and psychic effort in this respect, and it can’t be too culturally specific. Tycho drumming, or music by Philip Glass, or Steve Reich are generally good sources to explore.)
These are the elements of the exercise:
- With knees slightly bent and the spine held erect and straight from the tailbone to the top of the head begin walking. The eyes stare straight ahead. This is not a blank stare; rather, it is an act of the imagination. It should be about seeing a distant and significant destination, transforming the walk into a fateful journey. This destination is usually conceived as being very far away, the journey an effort requiring untiring endurance, and the act of going a matter of great necessity.
- Care must be taken to always keep the head at the same height; it must never be lower or higher than it is at the start of the exercise. So no bobbing up and down, an otherwise natural tendency when people walk. Keeping the knees bent will help with this.
- Also, the pelvis must never speed up or slow down, or stop or start as the feet and legs shift underneath the body, even despite the slow tempo. Once the actor begins to move, care is taken to keep the core of the body moving forward at the same constant speed. This is usually the great difficulty in the exercise because it requires a massive effort by the muscles collected at the tops of the thighs, in and around the crotch, and in the lower abdomen. In particular, the actor is required to keep the pelvis moving forward even as the leading foot is itself still reaching forward. Similarly, the centre of the body must not arrive too soon over the front foot before the back foot begins to draw in or the actor will be forced to speed up and slow down depending on whether they are approaching the standing leg, or leaving it. This creates a sensation during the ‘in-between’ moments, which are basically any part of the stride where the pelvis in not aligned over one foot or the other. This sensation is one of being on the edge, even unsupported. During this part of the negotiation the desire to cheat by speeding up or slowing down is very strong and should be resisted.
- It is also important not to allow the hips to sway or the weight of the body to shift from side to side. This effort is on a par with maintaining a constant tempo in that the core of the actor is required to work internally, against the apparent laws of physics. The goal is a straight line through space.
- The actor is free to make a simple gesture with the hands and arms, usually to one side of the body or the other. This gesture, once chosen, is maintained through out the walk. It can be anything, but often is either about carrying an imagined object or making some sort of ritual gesture or sign. Both hands are used because we want to engage the whole body. The gesture itself should be very precise, as if to say: if this is not executed exactly right it will be wrong. In lieu of a creative choice the default gesture is for the actor to imagine they are carrying two poles, held horizontal to the earth at the sides of the body. The effect would be more or less the same if the student were actually carrying a bucket of water in each hand in such a way that the buckets did not touch the sides of the body, hips, or legs. If this option is chosen care must be taken to never lose the sense of carrying and controlling the parallelism and horizontality of the imagined poles. The object is to sustain a kind of life in the arms and hands. In other words, they are not allowed to become unconscious (forgotten) or unimportant.
- When the actor reaches the furthest point of the actual, physical limit of the working space care must be taken to turn in such a way as to maintain the speed of the pelvis and height of the head already established. This is usually done by not bringing in the back foot while turning the torso to face the opposite direction, transforming the act of turning into just another step forward. Similarly, the focus of the eyes and the imagination must be maintained and negotiated in such a way as to sustain the sense that one is still moving forward, towards the one chosen goal despite the obvious and gross change of direction.
Ultimately, the core of the actor/magician becomes an irresistible force, identified with that which goes, even as movement in space is an expression of the will of the body, and this physical will an expression of an even deeper reality.
It is a notable observation that the Suzuki method is obsessed with the simple actions of walking, sitting, lying down, and standing. By themselves they comprise the entire universe of physical movement. This sounds simple, but the work is geared toward making these simple acts complicated and difficult. Actors who have trained many years in the method will joke that you will know you are finally standing correctly if a few minutes of standing, seemingly not moving, causes you to break a sweat.
The point of this exposition is not to convince people they need to practice the Suzuki method of actor training. To do so you would have to move to either Toga Japan or New York City. Rather, it is given here because even thinking about this exercise can be a helpful meditation of sorts. For example, you may become curious about how you move in space, and this could lead to more awareness about how you manage your body during group magical practice. Ritual actions should be simple, direct, and not complicated by competing objectives. And yet, a little observation of oneself and ones ritual partners will confirm that the physical life of the ritualist can be especially susceptible to a class of objective that has clearly outlived its original justification. It lives on now as an automatic, or mostly subconscious habit. The ability to purge or override these habits requires self-awareness and self-control.
When I taught acting I would sometimes get a student who identified with their personal affectations. This meant they were militantly committed to keeping their peculiar physical habits out of fear of losing themselves. They would insist on stalking, or waddling, or tip-toing, or some other way of moving in space that meant nothing of any significance to what they were now trying to do in the moment. What they did not understand was that this part of their persona was the cheapest, least real thing about them. It was a tacked-on affectation. What they also failed to grasp was that their “truth” was something they could never avoid being or doing, no matter how hard they tried or how simple and direct they acted. It is simply not possible to stop being yourself.
On the other side of the equation I often got students who felt that any committed action was a mistake. And these attempted to act casually, avoiding any physical effort, wrongly believing this was somehow a more honest way to be in the world. In point of fact they were simply afraid to act with energy and precision. The solution to either condition is to know what you are doing and then to do it with your whole being. But this is only possible if you know what you are doing in the first place.
So, the next time a ritual requires moving via a specific floor pattern, or you are required to make any other movement or ritual gesture, even if it is simply sitting or standing, watch yourself. Ask yourself what it is supposed to mean, and whether your physical attitude might not be better adjusted to serve that purpose. The ability to make an assessment and an adjustment along these lines is not a small thing. It speaks to the desired effect of this writing—to experience an aspect of your physical body as a manifestation of your Khabs. It is also my hope that you will come to an appreciation of the power of even the simplest ritual choreography; this is often little more than making a clean line through space by walking. If we are truly interested in effective magical practice, everything we do should be the expression of that unclouded focus that is the hallmark of all real action designed to mean something and effect change.
There is something in acting technique called “text work.” Aspiring actors are made aware of it almost from the very first day of their training because it will be required of them for the rest of their careers. It is an especially valuable concept for group ritual work.
Good text work usually hinges on three things. The first is whether the words can be heard. This involves adequate volume and clarity of pronunciation.
The second is the clarity of purpose that informs the delivery. This is produced by a thorough understanding of why you are speaking, what you are saying, and who or what you are addressing—the focus.
The third factor is a bit more mystical and involves investing the words with a generalized quality of animated life or attractive energy that makes them easy to hear and appreciate. The main test for this has to do with whether the audience has to work to comprehend what is being said. Experience confirms that good text work is immediately ascertainable by even the most casual listener. The audience should never feel they have to do doing anything special—exert any sort of special effort to hear or understand what is being said. A large part of this third factor is usually accomplished by speaking so your words can be heard, by understanding what you are saying, and by managing the phrasing, or the tempo and emphasis of the delivery. Beyond this there is just something special that kicks in when the actor or ritual officer owns and is owned by the role they are performing.
It sounds complicated in theory. In practice it is a lot simpler because all three points can be reduced to one essential idea: energy. Use enough energy to be heard; use enough energy by way of preparation to imbue the text with meaning and focus; and be open to that flow of energy that expresses itself as the musical life of the words when you are actually speaking. Still, these three points are often pursued relatively, independently of each other. Nevertheless, it is not my intention to suggest or even describe all the elements of what can become a never-ending practice and training regimen. If you are inspired to seek out voice or acting classes for the reasons cited, more power to you. I simply want to suggest a few considerations, things you can freely experiment with in the privacy of your home that will make a positive difference during temple work when you might be expected to utter a command, answer a question, recite a speech, or give a lecture. For now, it is enough to appreciate that all of these considerations can be summed up in one piece of advice: use energy!
And what does ‘energy’ mean in this context? It simply means doing more. If you are in the habit of spending an hour studying lines, spend two hours; if you can hear your own words, assume other people in the room might not have it so well and speak louder so they can also hear; and so on…
Lets assume this is an actual class in vocal technique. The first thing you need to do is choose a bit of text to work with. This can be almost anything: a selection from the Book of the Law, something from a ritual of initiation, or some other ritual you are interested in. It should not be too long or too short—six to twelve lines is usually a good length. If you can find a short, self-contained speech so much the better, though an excerpt of something longer will work well enough.
You don’t need to memorize this text unless you really want to. If not, you should spend a little extra time silently reading through it, over and over, until the effort to follow the text with your eyes becomes almost nonexistent. You don’t want to have to expend energy on the act of reading while you are attempting to recite because you risk giving the impression that you don’t know what you are saying. This is important because we are ultimately concerned with how the event is experienced by others.
Once you find it easy to follow or remember the words, begin to read or speak the text aloud in what feels to you to be your natural voice. Make this as easy and unaffected as possible. You should persist in reciting this speech, repeating it more than a few times, at least until you feel you have a good idea of what ‘natural’ and ‘unaffected’ means. The two elements to pay special attention to in this regard are volume and tonal range. Both of these should be experienced as comfortable and requiring no special effort to achieve or maintain. To accomplish this will require you to monitor your experience while you are speaking. I recommend you do this first before reading the next set of instructions. When you feel you have succeeded in the above you may proceed.
A voice, anyone’s voice, has a natural range—an upper and lower pitch that a person can sound without needing to push or strain. The same goes for volume. There is a range from silence to the loudest sound one can easily make, again without straining or hurting the voice. Somewhere within each of these two ranges is a middle place, well positioned between the highest and lowest pitches, and between silence and the loudest volume. This sweet spot is a very advantageous place to work from for most speaking situations because it provides the most direct access to the whole rest of one’s range, thereby increasing ones expressive potential. It also, for reasons I am about to explain, possesses a quality of energy that goes a long way to making spoken text easier to hear and appreciate.
Referencing your earlier work with your chosen text, I want to make a few observations. During your practice, if you are like almost everyone else on the planet, you will have spoken the text in more or less the same tone throughout—not exactly a monotone, but close enough if we take your highs and lows and flatten them out a little. Fact is, you probably did not deviate very far from this average pitch. This was the working center of your vocal range. The same is also true of the volume you settled on. Unfortunately, this center was probably not the ideal center I was just describing, the one where you have the most expressive options. Most likely you settled on a center for both pitch and volume that is actually about two steps below your ideal center. And the reason you did this was because it was easier. You were, in effect, practicing bad vocal posture, a kind of slouch.
The human spirit is subject to its own kind of gravity, and unless the effort is made to act, purposefully overcoming this drag, there is a tendency to sag or collapse into ones own inertia. The problem with this is that this laziness is immediately apparent to others in the room. They may not necessarily be able to describe exactly what is missing, but there will be something lacking in their experience of the performance, something that needs to be there but is not. In essence, this lack of life translates into a quality of text work that requires extra effort on the part of the listener as they attempt to hear and follow the sense of the words. If you have ever seen and heard badly performed Shakespeare you probably know what I am talking about.
Of course, if you have been dutifully following my instructions you might now be feeling as if I set you up to fail. Which is what I did, but that doesn’t change the fact that this lazy vocality is what almost everyone does, regardless. When it comes to speaking in public, the novice will invariably choose the route that will ask the least from them. They don’t understand how this makes a cognitive appreciation of the text harder. Which is to say, if you want your words to be heard you need to get into the habit of doing two things to enhance the quality of your effort. You need to consciously speak using a pitch several notes above what feels normal, and you need to speak louder—loud enough so that it too feels to be several steps above your first choice. You need to use energy!
At this point you can return to your text and make some practical experiments with speaking louder as well as from a higher tonal center. If you have a pitch pipe or access to a piano or other musical instrument, you can tap out a few notes and get a clearer idea of what a few whole notes up would sound and feel like. As you do this, continue to monitor your experience and appreciate how speaking louder and higher takes a little more effort, more energy. You may also become aware of how this makes you feel a bit more uncomfortable, awkward even. This uncomfortable feeling is actually a good sign. It means you are putting yourself out there and are taking some little risk; it means your speaking is finally rising to the level of being a bone-fide action. It is this energy that becomes part of what you are saying, and is interpreted by everyone in the room as: this is important; my words are the expression of a living spirit; and they are being said by someone who really believes in the truth behind the words.
Beyond this there is little to add other than resolving the ‘what and why’ of your words. “Interest” as a quality is imparted to words because you find them interesting. If you don’t, then your text work will betray this lack of interest. So, having passed the first hurdle of valuing and appreciating the importance of what you are saying, all that is left is to do proper justice to the words as you understand them, speaking them in a way that might keep you listening if someone else were speaking. This is where being able to watch yourself as you perform can become a very powerful and handy tool. If you followed my instructions above, you will have some idea of what this entails. Do not imagine that this self-awareness is a mistake. It isn’t. Every successful performer knows that the most important tool they have is their ability to watch themselves in performance and to adjust their effort dynamically.
The French impressionist painter Renoir famously said: if I want to paint an orange dog I keep adding orange paint until it looks orange. This is rare, good advice. It applies to almost anything, but especially to performance technique. We rely on our senses to tell us if our effort is good enough, if it requires something more from us. There are of course innumerable performance techniques, methods, philosophies, and bits of advice out there that are all about producing something more and better, physically and vocally. And for the most part they can work for you. But it should be pointed out that these are almost all the products of someone’s extreme dysfunction, of one sort or another, and ultimately are little more than an attempt to get back to the same basic thing I have been describing: how to get more energy into the game—louder when louder is important, or more physical clarity and precision when that is what we need.
In conclusion, I have tried to present some basic ideas that could be useful to almost anyone. And also to present a very simple way of thinking about some key elements of ritual performance that might support the action of the ritualist during a ritual. People should feel empowered to use or not use any of it as they see fit, because, in the final analysis, if we are unsupported in our work, it is our own fault. Finding support is ultimately about doing whatever works for ones self. This support (or ‘objective’, to use the acting term) can be as simple as giving oneself a good reason to speak, or move. It can be as simple as telling oneself that it is important to speak these words loudly and clearly because they need to be heard by all the orders of being that make up the spiritual universe; or that this diagonal line across the temple must be clear-cut, straight, and without affectation because it initiates a specialized line of force whose action is strongest in its purity; and so forth.
Hopefully there will be something in this writing that you will find suggestive and useful.
I am including a list of books, important in how I came to understand acting and performance, and whose ideas run through much of this essay. By including this list I am providing an outlet for those few individuals who are interested enough in these ideas to want to learn more. Except for Unbalancing Acts most of these books are in print and can easily be obtained via Amazon.
To The Actor by Michael Chekhov
Chekhov is a very important teacher and theorist of contemporary acting technique. In many ways his approach is the most universal and suggestive because he places the creative imagination at the center of his work. He was considered the most talented actor to come out of the Russian Art Theater. He was also something of a mystic and follower of Rudolf Steiner. He has recounted at least one, extremely profound mystical experience while performing onstage.
The Paper Canoe by Eugenio Barba
Barba is primarily a theorist. Nevertheless, his ideas are extremely suggestive and full of light. I consider his analysis of the performative act to be unparalleled.
The Actor and the Target by Declan Donnellan
This is a good book if you feel stuck or uncertain about how to ‘do it.’ Stop second-guessing yourself and just go for it, the universe is giving you everything you need in order to act, in the moment, with certainty and vigour!
An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski
I have included this book because it is the classic that almost all Western (USA) acting technique devolves from. It has some problems in my opinion, but if you want to get a classical idea of what acting is generally conceived to be, this is the book.
A Sense of Direction by William Ball
This is really not a very good book except for the chapter titled: Objectives The Golden Key. This one chapter more than makes up for everything else in the book that I find trite and painfully conservative… It is basically the genius of the previous book, An Actor Prepares, distilled into its essence. If I could make multiple copies of this one chapter and hand it out as if it were The Book of the Law I just might.
Unbalancing Acts by Richard Foreman
Foreman is a rebel-thinker. He is going to shake things up, disturbing the safe little concepts we might have already collected about what is possible and how something should happen. He is good as a reminder that there really are no absolute rules governing how to act.