Inside the Skin of the Actor
Monday, April 1, 2013
by: Andrew Dawson

Section: Performers

The performing artist needs to develop a very high level of physical awareness in order to understand his capabilities as a performer. The finest performances are those where there appears to be no effort, where we do not ask questions, but believe in the world that has been created for us.

I became interested in theatre through dance and movement as a teenager. I studied dance in New York and theatre in London and Paris. But it has always been the physical theatre that interested me, rather than classical acting.

I first came in contact with the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education in the 1990s while I was studying theatre in Paris with Phillip Gaulier and Monika Pagneux. During the morning sessions, Monika would teach a movement class where we would lie on our sides on the floor, and open an arm in an arch to the ceiling, (now a familiar Awareness Through Movement® lesson). It seemed like magic to me as my left side seemed to grow and transform. Monika didn’t mention Moshe at first, but I was hooked. I sensed the enormous impact the Method was going to have on my life. A couple of years later, I enrolled in a training.

During my training, I also created and toured a theatre show - a fun, high-energy version of The Three Musketeers, with only three performers playing all four Musketeers, as well as all the other characters--including chickens and horses! It was a revelation to me that whilst my two fellow performers run around the theatre and stretch to warm up, I would lie on the floor and do an Awareness Through Movement lesson. I flew through the performances with a greater presence on stage, jumping higher than I had ever before and even appearing taller, and I never even broke out in a sweat.  
"Working with actors is interesting, as they are not only looking at their own self-image but that of the characters they will portray."

Since then, I have juggled my working life between the Feldenkrais Method and theatre work. Little by little, the Method has infiltrated my thinking and influenced the type of theatre I want to make. Over the past few years, it has led me to explore the balance between science and art with Wellcome Trust in London. The result has been several projects created in collaboration with neuroscientist Professor Jonathan Cole. Together, we have melded a unique fusion of art and science through personal narrative within a dramatic form, most notable “The Articulate Hand.” This performance examines the beauty and grace of hands that are impaired in some way: from spinal cord injuries to loss of proprioception. I have presented this piece in India and at the World Science Festival in New York. I have also performed short aspects of the work in three talks at TEDMED in San Diego, including teaching the audience an Awareness Through Movement lesson for the hand.  

"The Articulate Hand" provides a bridge between the layperson and the medical profession. For the former, it provides a fascinating insight into neurology; for the latter, it puts flesh on the dry bones of theory. The work mixes live performance with interviews, recordings, old movie clips, and music. I weave a tissue of empathy between the audience and those who have lost a means of communicating in the world around them with their hands. Their loss of agency in their hands reminds us of how we take our hands for granted; the skills we have with them can so easily be lost.

As an actor, I am increasing intrigued by the way we inhabit our bodies. Working with actors is interesting, as they are not only looking at their own self-image but that of the characters they will portray. If their own image is not clear, then taking the step into someone else’s shoes is going to be tricky.

It was said of Mel Blanc (the voice of Bugs Bunny), that you could watch him in the recording studio and if one was to turn off the sound, you could tell which voice he was doing as his whole body, his whole self was that character. Such great actors are comfortable in their skins and experience no conflict between their self-image and the character they are playing. The portrayal becomes effortless and is a pleasure to witness for the audience. Working with actors through the Feldenkrais Method gives me the opportunity to help them feel that their skin fits, making them more comfortable in their process of inhabiting a character.

For the UK Feldenkrais Guild, I have made some short films promoting the Method:

Andrew’s interview on CNN

World Science Festival

The three TEDMED talks can been seen here:

Explore your own hand with this brief lesson:

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