Acting The Part: A Process in Learning a New Motivation for Dance

By Emmaly Wiederholt

September 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

This past winter I was required to degenerate into a screaming fit onstage. As part of Christine Cali’s Move Thru Me, a contemporary dance piece fusing dance, live music, and theater, the choreography called for me to speak elatedly at the audience and to disintegrate quickly into anger and extreme distress. I felt I lacked the technical know-how to approach the task; the tools I needed to scream crazedly at the audience were not to be found in my regular dance classes or even from the occasional dance workshops I’d taken from various choreographers who blend dance and theater. I didn’t understand my motivation: why was I standing there screaming? I decided to investigate further, and signed up to take a beginning community acting class at the American Conservatory Theater. I wanted to discover what techniques actors use to approach theatrical tasks that I didn’t have access to in my dance training. It became for me an experiment in dance and theater and how they can inform one another.

The first part of my acting class was devoted to monologues. My monologue was from Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things in which my character Jenny confronts the manipulative protagonist Evelyn. Jenny is timid and quickly loses her confidence, and while being coached in my monologue Patrick Russell, the instructor, encouraged me to raise the stakes as Jenny. Although the play didn’t specifically say so, perhaps this is the only time in Jenny’s shy life she’s gathered the confidence to defend herself. How would that change how I portray Jenny? In monologue after monologue Russell coached the class to raise the stakes. One classmate was encouraged to assume his character is speaking of his most heartfelt and touchy subject instead of simply talking to a therapist. Another classmate, instead of playing a hassled receptionist, was urged to experience the receptionist at the end of her emotional rope. In essence, we were to find more to bring to the role. We had to create a motivation beyond what was explicitly written in the text.

The class soon delved into scene work. I was assigned a scene from Ted Tally’s Hooters in which Ronda and Cheryl argue over Cheryl’s nonchalance with men. While being coached in the scene Russell encouraged me and my scene partner to have a clear objective for each character before any dialogue even began: Cheryl wants to go on a casual date and not feel tied down, while Ronda wants to spend quality time with her friend without men around. Once the scene was in motion it became important to listen and respond to each other. As Cheryl, it was important for me to pay attention to Ronda’s tone of voice and the intention in her body and respond accordingly. It was more essential to be adaptive to how the scene progressed than to say a line the way I thought it should be said. In this way listening and responding enabled us to lose ourselves in the scene beyond simply pretending to be someone else.

To recap, I gleaned this from my acting class: raise the stakes, begin with a clear objective, and listen and respond. These are very apt tools in tackling the crazed screaming I had hitherto been so baffled by. By generating a distinct fear in my psyche I can raise the stakes and have a clear objective for myself as to why I’m screaming and what I hope to achieve from it. I can listen and respond to my on-stage environment to cue how to direct my screams. But beyond informing me how to better approach acting tasks, I found these concepts relevant and useful to dance itself, whether overtly theatrical or not. Raising the stakes teaches me that it’s simply not enough to do a step. I need to envision circumstances or reasons for executing the step that go well beyond what’s simply being asked of me. Beginning each movement with a clear objective of how and what I want to achieve is vital to unambiguous concise dancing. Lastly, listening and responding to my body, to others around me, and to my environment is fundamental to generating an adaptive physical awareness. While this is not a new way of thinking about dance, my revelation of the applicability of acting to dancing illuminated the connections between the two art forms and how practicing one can inform the other.

The Bay Area has a wealth of interdisciplinary choreography that grays the boundaries between dance and theater. I spoke to a few such choreographers about their perspective of the role of theater in dance. Eric Kupers, director of Dandelion Dancetheater, sees the goal of dance training as not merely becoming a good dancer, but transcending dance to a place of truth and expression. For him the most important components of a performance piece are the melding of creative spirits, the crafting of space, and the interplay of energies between performers. Kegan Marling, who shared a residency at CounterPULSE with Kupers this past spring, felt that simply being human lends itself to a natural talent for theatricality. He is drawn to working with dancers who feel uninhibited enough to bring an expressive and emotive component to their full-bodied physicality.

Laura Arrington, who recently finished a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts, opined that “something often missing from dance training is empowering dancers to know who they are; to be fearless, to push themselves, and to understand themselves as performers and people, not just as vessels for reproducing someone else’s ideas.” She is attracted to working with people who are unafraid of trying anything, who are not daunted at the possibility of failing, and who are willing to be pushed. So while an understanding of theatricality and how it relates to dance can enable dancers to more deeply root themselves in technique, choreography, and performance, it can also be attractive to choreographers seeking dancers to work with.

I had been under the impression from my many years of dance training that dance and theater were distinct disciplines, and that the combination of the two was a phenomenon occurring in contemporary dance only in past decades. Ten short weeks in an acting class made me realize that dance and theater are similar and incredibly related genres. I found acting to be less alien than I had expected; in fact it was every bit as physical, thought-provoking, and fun as I know dance to be. I do not believe the lessons and experience I gleaned from my acting class relate solely to me but can be applied more generally. All dance artists can benefit from exposure to acting and theater.

Thus dance and theater can inform each other not only in performance but in personal artistic development as well. Whether a dance artist’s inclination is toward purely classical or technical work or toward contemporary theatrically infused work, elements of acting and emoting inevitably come into play. All expressions and modes of dance, even the most abstract, have an atmosphere that must be conveyed. I encourage my fellow dancers to seek out and not shy away from theatrical experiences. They are incredibly relevant and informative to dancing in any context. The art of dance is the art of theater.

This article appeared in the September 2011 issue of In Dance.

Emmaly Wiederholt is the founder and editor of Stance on Dance. She danced in the Bay Area for six years before pursuing her MA in Arts Journalism. She currently lives in Santa Fe, NM.