Falling to Pieces: Contraction for the Actor
Hi, Jeff here from M2C2. Previously, I talked about the beginning of Psychological Gesture in the Chekhov Technique and how you can use expansion to create a feeling or build characterization for your work as an actor. In case you missed it, I do recommend you go back and read it first. You won’t be super confused if you opt not to, but it might help.
Just as a quick review, the Psychological Gesture is the Golden Key of the Michael Chekhov Technique. It’s what actors such as Jack Nicholson, Anthony Hopkins, and Patricia Neal have used to extraordinary effect in their work.
Basically, the concept behind it is pretty simple. Psychological and Physical Action are one and the same and each can be used to build on and access the other. Again, your psychology and your body are one and the same and cannot and should not be thought of as separate, unconnected entities. When you are sad, there is a physical response to sadness. Your stomach contracts, tears might begin to form, your body feels heavier. When you are happy, your body might feel as though it is expanding, your face widens, your heart leaps with joy.
Look at the idioms we use for happiness and sadness.
When we are a happy we
· Burst with Joy
· Jump or Leap for Joy
· Be footloose and fancy free
We might be
· On cloud nine
· In seventh heaven
· Over the moon
· Or Walking on Air
When we are sad we might be
· Down in the dumps
· Down in the mouth
· Closed off
Or we might
· Have a heavy heart
· Fall apart
· Fall to pieces
· Have a sinking feeling
The english language is already very good at giving directionality and describing our feelings in a physical way. The Chekhov Technique is not inventing anything new with its concepts of expansion and contraction. It simply reminds you of the stuff you already know.
Most importantly, executing a psychological gesture is intended to awaken sensations and feelings within the actor to easily and quickly access truthful emotion, characterization, and objective for the actor to use in their work. It is a healthy, creative, and, yes, fun way to find connection with even the darkest material the actor is asked to work with.
Let’s try this:
Find a spot in the room you are in where you can freely move your arms while standing still. Your “Circle of Concentration”.
Now I invite you begin crouching down, bending your knees, and bring your head to rest on top of them or as close as you can without straining.
Grasp each arm around your legs and imagine that you are continuously shrinking into yourself.
Again, only do what you are physically able. Do not strain or hurt yourself. Continue to breathe.
Even after you have reached the limits that your physical self is able to do, continue to imagine yourself getting smaller and smaller, shrinking into yourself.
Now, continuing to keep the mental image of this contraction, I invite you to return at your own pace to your home stance (how you stand normally).
Keeping the image of contraction, begin to walk around your space.
Find things to do in this space.
Grab an object and use it how you see fit.
How is your worldview affected within the contraction?
What feelings and sensations are conjured within this exercise?
When you are ready, stop, unwrap it, and put it away.
Many of my students are glad to be rid of contraction when they are done with it. It is not uncommon for sensations of sorrow, depression, or pensiveness to be awakened within the actor during this exercise.
That being said, I have had actors claim to feel a sense of comfort or safety through contraction as well. As with all Psychological Gestures, the sensations awakened with the actor are determined entirely by that actor’s creative individuality. It is possible to contract into someone lovingly (it’s called cuddling). Just as it is possible to expand into grief.
What’s important is that the actor be able to note what the gesture does for them so that they can reuse the gesture for their future work. There is no right or wrong here. Your Creative Individuality will always determine how you find a truthful approach to the work.
That being said gesture does not exist within a vacuum and the actor can begin to play with how the gesture can affect their psychology by experimenting with the strength and quality of the movement.
The Strength of the gesture is determined by the tempo, rhythm, and resistance that the actor chooses. In other words, how fast the gesture is executed, whether the gesture is short and sharp or smooth and connected, and whether the gesture has a feeling of heaviness or lightness stirs our willpower in general. For example, a strong sense of urgency and need can be awakened by a fast, staccato, and heavy expansion.
The Feelings that are stirred by the gesture are determined by its quality. The Quality of Movement determines whether the gesture is executed with a quality of molding, flying, flowing, or radiating and can make each effort feel vastly different. The Three Sister Sensations of Feeling (Falling, Floating, and Balancing) also work to diversify the effect of the gesture. I hope to explain Qualities and Sensations in future blogs.
Finally, of course, the Kind of movement that is being performed awakens within the actor a specific corresponding desire or objective. It should be noted here that this is why Expansion and Contraction are not listed as Archetypal Psychological Gestures as they are not linked with a specific tactic or objective. They are useful in discovering emotional truth, but they are very different from Archetypal Gestures like Push, Pull, Rip, Embrace, Lift, or Smash. The later have strong implications of doing something to the “other” on stage with you. Expand and Contract are generally limited to the actor’s self.
In any case, using Psychological Gesture, the actor begins to become sensitive to the creative impulses occurring both from within the actor’s body and psychology and from external tangible and intangible sources such as the actor’s scene partner and the imagined Atmosphere of the scene.
With continued practice, the actor can become very sensitive to their creative impulse allowing increased nuance and subtlety in performance and giving the actor an enormous range from which to find truthful internal and external action on stage and in film.
Continue to play with Expansion and Contraction. Don’t forget to try the movement with different qualities, sensations, tempos, rhythms, and resistance. Let me know in the comments what, if anything, you got out of these exercises and, of course, any questions you may have about them.
Please share this blog with your colleagues and friends.
Until next time, I’ll see you guys later.