Dare to Wake Up the Instrument

I am fascinated about the parallels that exist between acting and the courtroom, especially when it comes to movement. With the proliferation of Eastern philosophies in the West today, lawyers nowadays seem to be open to the idea of viewing the courtroom as a stage and the events that unfold during the course of a trial as scenes in a play (perhaps akin to a Shakespearian tragedy).

When I speak of movement, it’s easy to think linearly under the umbrella of the same dull and hackneyed thought, “What do I do with my hands when I am standing in front of the jury?” Nor do I talk about movement in terms of gymnastics. But what is discussed here goes well beyond that.

Let’s step back and begin at the simplest place: the physical presence of the lawyer, specifically, the lawyer standing before the jury.

At its most elementary level, what is true about this is that the lawyer is occupying space, either filling it with energy or not. If there is sufficient energy, then there is an interest on the other side (i.e., on the part of the jury). If not, boredom or disinterest looms up. Recall some of the hilarious moments of “Seinfeld” where Kramer’s dumbfounded expression caused the audience to erupt into laughter. Compare that to the dorky economics teacher, played by Ben Stein, lecturing to a class of H.S. students in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” See the difference?

This point is driven home by the amusing yet provocative words of the legendary Russian actor and instructor, Michael Chekhov: “The moment you are not alive on the stage, you are dead.”

This is a statement that an actor can understand, because every actor knows the immense pleasure of feeling alive on stage, and the profound pain of losing the audience due to a lack of energy.

Energy is a loaded term. It means different things to different people. Let me define the word as I’ve come to understand it through my training in acting. It is defined as “the force that moves the body, a substance that is neither muscle nor bone. It is the life force.”

I realize that I risk losing a large segment of my audience if I become enraptured by this idea of a human being as an energetic force. It can easily be misconstrued as “junk science.”

However, in order to have a common ground to stand on, it is essential to have an understanding and an appreciation of this concept. Very simply, energy is the life-blood of every performing artist –from actors to storytellers to speakers to lawyers. It is the key that unlocks the artist’s untapped potential – the “open sesame” if you will.

If you are reading this blog, then I’m inspired to think that you are open to innovative ways of thinking (and working), even those that might be considered unconventional.

The idea of a human being as an energetic force is no longer an idea that needs defending. Western civilization has become more willing to accept spiritual and energetic influences on life. The mind–body connection is well-established.

Acting revolves around one primary point of reference: movement. There are obvious reasons why. The moving body is what the audience sees. It is our front line of expression. If we accept this as true, then it stands to reason that we need to become aware of our bodies as “instruments” and become sensitized to movement, not just the ones our own bodies make, but the ones made around us.

This explains why most acting techniques begin with body movement.

There are many ways to move, and many ways to perceive

“it starts and it stops, it is both action and reaction,
it forms and it destroys, it lifts things up and casts them down. It is essentially breath: the in and out of life.”

[The Michael Chekhov Handbook For The Actor, Routledge Press, Lenard Petit, Copyright 2010.]

Our instrument is:

“the same body that carries on a life; it eats,
and sleeps, it laughs and cries. Experience comes to us through our bodies as sensations. Our bodies record this as knowledge. We speak a language of experience we are comfortable with, using word pictures that are attached to movement.”

[The Michael Chekhov Handbook For The Actor, Routledge Press, Lenard Petit, Copyright 2010.]

If there is any doubt in your mind that our language embodies movement, consider the following:

“we say we are either moved or not moved by things. We get behind them or we throw them out of our lives forever. No one likes to feel pushed into things, and we are quick to dump this on people, but sometimes it is sweet to be pulled along until we are joined willfully, at which point we begin to flow and we are picked up by this flow so our spirits are lifted until they fall again, when we may be induced to tear away or fade away. Or perhaps the fall has happened because we have been torn apart. Our hearts go out to others, or they break, our chins drop, we rise to the occasion, and swell with pride, we shrink in fear, or firmly stand our ground. We feel others out, put our heads together and touch upon the problem, sidestepping the real issue until
we are able to draw conclusions and then finally rest assured, etc.”

[The Michael Chekhov Handbook For The Actor, Routledge Press, Lenard Petit, Copyright 2010.]

What’s universal about these statements is that “movement” lies at the very center of them. That’s why it is essential to become sensitized to the movements our bodies can make, not to mention the ones made around us, and the ones happening within us. It is often said that artistic people have a more “in tune” antenna than the average person.

On the outside looking in, our instrument consists of merely our body and our voice. But that is too primitive a way of looking at it. There is another element that is lurking inside and that is easy to overlook: the “creative individuality” of the performer. Creative individuality allows the performer to use parts of himself that are “so powerful, so beautiful, so wonderful.” Sadly, these creative powers and abilities often remain unused for two reasons: (1) the performer does not know about them or (2) the performer denies them for no other reason than shame.

In the words of Michael Chekhov:

“That’s why they [creative powers and abilities] remain unused and would remain forever if we would not open the doors, go fearlessly into this treasure house and search for them. The essence of our profession is to give. Constantly to give. What do we give? First of all, we give our body, our voice, our emotions, feelings, will, imagination, everything, we give to our character. Then what else? The whole and complete result of this giving … we give to our spectator.”

Acting makes a bold claim. It aims to ignite a spark inside the artist. That spark is called, “inspiration.” After all, few if any artists are content to work from an uninspired state. This is a sacred promise that any acting instructor worth his or her salt makes to their students.

Through training in acting technique, students who have begun their voyage into acting arrive at a place within themselves that is very new, yet very familiar. This creative place is fresh and available; and allows the performer’s true authentic self to shine through.

The importance of having a technique cannot be overstated. It’s what allows Broadway actors to repeat Tony-winning performances night in and night out. Talent alone is not enough. Good intentions are never enough. Dance and speech lessons are not enough. A technique is imperative.

Through acting technique, the performer “finds a creative state that is both pleasing to be in, and also full of the power of self-expression.” The Michael Chekhov Handbook For The Actor, Routledge Press, Lenard Petit, Copyright 2010. That’s when the performer realizes that he has “arrived.”

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