Liberate Your Acting with Movement Training

Liberate Your Acting with Movement Training

In PerformInk’s series The Craft, we invite professionals in the educational field to discuss the benefits and the history behind the craft they teach. To read past blogs click here.

By Laura Sturm

As a young actor, the first time someone told me I needed to take a Movement class, I thought, “Why? I can move. Why should I spend money on that?” Like many actors, I had no idea what the benefit of Movement training could be. Eventually, I bowed to my teacher’s advice and took the class. The first couple of sessions I was skeptical, but went along with the instruction. Around the third class, however, I had a revelation. All of a sudden, I realized that the connection to my body was the piece that was missing from my acting, and if I started doing that movement work consistently, my skills as an actor would grow immensely. And they did! The movement work changed my acting so profoundly that I decided that I wanted to pass the gift of that work on to other actors, which is why I continue to teach it, many years later.

Why is movement important to actors? All of us can and do move on a regular basis, right? But moving in front of an audience is different. Have you ever had an audition where you felt completely uncomfortable in your body and didn’t know what to do with your hands? Movement work can help that. Also, freeing the tensions in your body helps your emotional connection and expression. When you let go of your tensions, the emotion you feel is free enough to flow through your body and actually get expressed instead of dammed up and stuck. Another benefit of movement class is that you become comfortable making large physical choices that are organic and impulsive. Ultimately, you will learn to play like a child again and free up your acting by doing it. You will sharpen your physical specificity and increase your physical vocabulary. All of that sounds pretty important, doesn’t it?

What if I’m not a dancer?

As I mentioned, I started movement training as a result of my acting training. I am one of only a handful of movement teachers without a dance background, although I believe that is changing. There is a misperception that a dance class is movement training. Let me say this – Dance classes are amazing! All actors SHOULD take at least one dance class, if not many more. (Ballet is particularly helpful with period style work.) Additionally, any kind of movement that you do is good for your acting! That being said, dance class is not movement training for actors. You don’t have to be a dancer to do well in movement class (I am a great example of that!). Although, dancers, hear this: movement is great for actors who do have dance backgrounds, as it utilizes movement skills dancers already have and introduces or encourages the skills and habits that will improve their acting. It’s also great to break some dance habits that may be inhibiting your acting work.  

What do you teach?  Let’s have the technical stuff first …

The core of the movement work that I teach is based on Williamson Technique. Loyd Williamson, who founded the Actors Movement Studio in NYC, developed his technique originally to complement the Meisner Acting Technique being taught at The Neighborhood Playhouse. His work teaches students how to release tensions in their body and trains them to respond organically and impulsively from the core of their body to stimuli in the moment. It integrates extraordinarily well into any level and type of acting training (not only for Meisner actors!), and helps actors to free their bodies from the tensions that block or check their honest emotional responses. It also assists actors in developing confidence and freedom in their body and in making strong physical choices.

Williamson’s work utilizes components of Laban’s Movement Analysis (LMA). Rudolph Laban was a dancer/choreographer as well as an architect and painter. He had a scientific mind, and created a system to systematically analyze the way people move. LMA is extensive and detailed and has a number of branches. I have found that the specificity of LMA can sometimes put actors into their heads a little bit; however, that specificity is vital for the work to have variety and interest for the audience. Since one of the core principles of the Williamson work is to leave the brain behind and follow the body’s impulses instead, I limit the amount of LMA that I utilize in my classes. The two main Laban concepts that I use extensively are his Dimensions and Kinesphere, as well as his Efforts.  

The first level of the work I teach, which I call “Basic Movement,” focuses on releasing tensions and inhibitions, utilizing Williamson’s concept of “Shape/Flow” with elements of sensorial imagination work and Laban’s Dimensions/Kinesphere. One of my favorite parts of the work, and one of the things students connect to the most, is the idea and repetition of the phrase “I HAVE NO APOLOGIES!”  Outside of the Shape/Flow, we explore many other exercises such as alignment, breath work and intimacy, and starting to use the Dimensions to physically create, sharpen and define characters.

The second level is what I have called “Advanced Movement,” or “Laban Movement,” but it is basically an introduction to the Laban Efforts and then instruction on how to apply those to text in order to increase specificity and variety in the acting work.  

Nitty-gritty – what does all that technical stuff mean?  Give me details!

So, now you’ve read about the technical stuff.  Kind of heady, right?  Of course, reading about something is, by definition, heady. On a more practical level, if you’re still asking “What is this crazy Williamson Movement Technique?” I will explain it in a less “heady” way. Here are more details about the three items that serve as the core of the movement work that I teach:

  1. Laban’s Kinesphere and Dimensions – The kinesphere is the invisible “bubble” that we walk around in – literally the “sphere of our movement”.  It can be large or small, depending on our mood and our surroundings.  Or, the size can vary based on the character we’re playing – some characters want to hide out and not interact, and draw themselves into tiny kinespheres.  Other characters have enormous kinespheres – a king can have someone put to death at a moment’s notice. Or, you know that guy who walks into a party and you actually feel his presence so much, it physically pushes you back a few inches? That guy can be annoying or awesome, but you have no choice but to notice him!  

We all have a habitual kinesphere toward which we naturally gravitate. In order to play characters that have larger or smaller kinespheres than our own, we have to make adjustments. Knowing the size of our own habitual kinesphere shows us the adjustments we need to make to play different characters. In our modern world, especially here in Chicago, we are very good at shrinking our kinesphere to remove ourselves from other people’s space or to keep our own space protected (hello, CTA?). Extending our kinesphere is a little more challenging. To do this, we have to look at what makes up the kinesphere – the Dimensions. To define that “bubble” we need to physically extend Vertically, Top and Bottom; then Horizontally, left and right; and lastly Sagittally (it’s a scary word, but it just means depth – think about Sagittarius drawing his arrow), Front and Back. If we work on extending each of those Dimensions (Top of Vertical, Bottom of Vertical, Horizontal, Front Sagittal, and Back Sagittal), our kinesphere grows!

What is our habitual Dimension? Do we spend a lot of time slumping, or coolly leaning back and observing everyone? Then we might have an affinity for the Back Sagittal Dimension. Are we dreamers? Always in our heads and frequently not paying attention to the rest of the world? Or, do we stand up straight and tall so the world perceives us as competent and intelligent? Then we might be in Top of Vertical. What about salesmen, comedians, superheroes, opera singers, and yes, kings – using large gestures and taking up space with NO APOLOGIES? Horizontal. The Dimensions are great ways to find the unique physicality of each different character, as well as to identify where we spend most of our own time.

  1. Shape/Flow – Several different types of movement systems utilize movement to music, which is a powerful and amazing practice. However, the Williamson work adds a tiny bit of structure to the movement to music, and that structure actually makes it easier to stop thinking and really allow yourself to flow freely. After grounding ourselves in the Dimensions, when the music starts, we start to flow from one Dimension, or shape, to another – hence the name. Focusing on breath, making a little sound (as simple as a sigh) and adding in touch, we flow and luxuriate in the experience. We leave thinking behind and allow ourselves to just follow where the music and our bodies lead us. And most importantly, we say, out loud, so it vibrates through our entire bodies, “I HAVE NO APOLOGIES!”  

Then, we add in some imagination work, using the five senses. Perhaps, we might be in a castle. What can you feel in this fantasy castle? A velvet cloak draped across your skin, a bear skin rug underneath you? What do you hear in this place? The sound of the wind in the trees, a mandolin being played outside your castle window? What do you see in your imagination in this place? Silver swords hanging on the walls, red and green embroidered tapestries? What do you smell? Some sort of delicious meat roasting on a spit, the scent of roses from a bush growing outside the window? What can you taste in this fantasy place? Can you take a messy bite of that meat, maybe unapologetically smearing it all over your face, not worrying about getting greasy or dirty? Or maybe you take a luxurious sip of that delicious honey mead in the pewter jug in front of you.

In some exercises, we incorporate an imaginary person or an animal to join us in this fantasy place, with whom we can play. Also we explore how various types of music influence different types of movement. The best part about the Shape/Flow work is that there is no right or wrong – the only “wrong” is not moving at all. This freedom from the fear of failure enables students to let go of their inhibitions and really start to play. The ability of actors to play is one of the most important things that comes from this work. Our culture teaches us from a very young age to “be mature”, “be quiet”, “be polite”, “act like a grown up.” All important things necessary for living in our crowded world, but not good in your acting!!! (Does Stanley Kowalski worry about being mature, quiet, polite and grown up? Not one bit.) So, the Shape/Flow helps facilitate our sense of play and encourages freedom of movement. No one is watching, so you can luxuriate in the fantasy, your senses, your breath, touch, and the ability to be free!

  1. Laban’s Efforts – To create the foundation of the Efforts, we start by physically exploring the three categories from which they are constructed – Weight, Time and Space.  
    1. Weight – A character’s Weight can be Strong or Light. An iceberg, a polar bear, an Evil Queen might be in Strong Weight. A butterfly, a feather, a ballerina, a heart surgeon doing delicate surgery might be in Light Weight. When we’re feeling powerful and commanding someone to do something, we might use Strong Weight. When we’re feeling playful and wanting someone to relax we might use Light Weight.
    1. Time – At what speed do we move? Do we move in Quick Time or in Slow Time? This concept is fairly easy for us to grasp. Recall what it feels like when you’re moving rapidly down the sidewalk, late for an audition, and some tourist is just moseying along and you can’t get past them? When Quick and Slow meet, there is conflict! Can’t you just see how much fun this can be to use in theater, where conflict equals drama?!
    1. Space – How do we move through space? Some of us move Directly to our task, others move more Indirectly, perhaps getting distracted along the way. In order to accomplish a task, it’s helpful to move Directly. On a sunny warm day, when we don’t have anywhere to go, we can move Indirectly. Also, how do we interact with someone?  If you want to ask someone on a date, do you just come up and ask them Directly? Or, do you beat around the bush and hope they get the hint Indirectly, and maybe even ask you first? Are you Direct and look people right in the eye to get what you want, or are you Indirect and avoid eye contact if you’re feeling ashamed of something?

After a lot of fun physical exploration, we can start to combine each of these components to make eight different Efforts – or eight different ways to move or interact with others:

  1. Light Weight, Slow Time, Direct Space – GLIDE
  2. Light Weight, Slow Time, Indirect Space – FLOAT
  3. Light Weight, Quick Time, Indirect Space – FLICK
  4. Light Weight, Quick Time, Direct Space – DAB
  5. Strong Weight, Slow Time, Direct Space – PRESS
  6. Strong Weight, Slow Time, Indirect Space – WRING
  7. Strong Weight, Quick Time, Indirect Space – SLASH
  8. Strong Weight, Quick Time, Direct Space – PUNCH

We can use the Efforts to find both the affinity for a character and different ways for that character to go after what they want. For example, Blanche Dubois might have FLOAT as her overall affinity, but she might use GLIDE to flirt with Stanley. Or when she is drunk, scared and desperate, she might SLASH out to wound someone else, like an injured animal.

As you can see, there are LOTS of fun ways to explore with the Efforts!

The tricky part is combining all the specificity of the Efforts and Dimensions with all of the impulsive freedom that comes from the Shape/Flow work. All of that takes practice, practice, practice! Practice getting more specific, and practice letting go, which is a lot harder than it sounds. Ultimately, the first level of the work teaches the actor to take their brain out of the work, and to work freely and impulsively, and the second level puts the brain back in a little – or at least in the preparation for the work. The combination of the two produces actors that are physically bold, open, responsive, and yet still specific!

Why do you teach Williamson/Laban?  And remind me why I should take a Movement class one more time?

There are a multitude of movement practices, and actors can learn something from all of them. Why do I teach Williamson/Laban? From my experiences, the Shape/Flow encourages play and impulsiveness in a way that I haven’t seen any other exercises do. Over time, the creative and spontaneous work that actors training in this kind of movement are able to bring to classes, auditions and rehearsals is amazing. As a director, there’s nothing more exciting for me than when I find an actor with movement training, because I know that they will bring so many fun physical ideas to the table, and my job will be to edit, rather than to have the responsibility to create everything from the bottom up. The Laban Dimensions and Efforts are amazing for helping actors with specificity and creating fun, organic physical character work. The Efforts can be particularly useful in monologue work to create variety and surprise, and thus an interesting audition that shows all the actor’s colors and one that people will not forget!

The best thing about movement class is that it’s fun! Isn’t the best learning when you are having so much fun you don’t even realize you’re learning? Get out of your head and into your body and become the actor you’ve always known you can be!  

About author

Laura Sturm

Laura Sturm teaches acting, movement, and period style. Sturm received her MFA from Northern Illinois University, is currently an adjunct faculty member at Oakton Community College, and serves as a private acting and movement coach (for more info on her movement classes email [email protected]). Previously she has taught at North Central College and several professional studios in Chicago since 2001, including the Actors’ Center and Act One Studios. As an actor, Laura has worked with Organic, Mary-Arrchie, Remy Bumppo, Victory Gardens, Boho, Stage Left, Northlight, Theo Ubique, Polarity, Raven, Bailiwick, and also at the Texas Shakespeare Festival. Directing projects in Chicago include Sheridan’s THE RIVALS and the world premieres of the zoo musical "TUXEDO LOVE and the sci-fi existential comedy "EPHEMERA. Recently Sturm was the Movement Director for an episode of the Chicago Fox TV series "The Exorcist," This spring she'll be directing the world premiere of Barbara Lhota’s PHANTOM PAIN for Organic Theater Company.