- Skills for Actors: Body Language Skills, and: A Moving Presence: Ruth Zaporah and Action Theater
Are acting instructional DVDs completely bizarre? For those who have never enrolled in an acting class, perhaps acting instruction makes as much sense in DVD format as yoga instruction, do-it-yourself home repair, or cooking lessons. For trained students of acting, however, the DVD medium may appear nonsensical since the television screen fails to transmit the somatic specificities of an acting classroom, such as the interpersonal energy produced by live bodies. Yet, one could apply this same comparative logic to the numerous books published every year on the art of acting. Does The Actor’s Art and Craft, by William Esper and Damon DiMarco (New York: Anchor Books, 2008), truthfully convey the week-by-week progression of Sanford Meisner’s training program if you can read the book in roughly two hours? Can Jerzy Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre, even with its guide to physical exercises, help an actor reproduce the boot camp of the theatre laboratory? Regardless of their ability to transmit embodied knowledge to students of acting, acting manuals in book form serve the purpose of translating a physical practice into discursive form. In this form, the art of acting becomes packaged for use in an academic classroom but, through that act of translation, it loses its relation to the body, which, arguably, is the art’s most complex dimension. Acting DVDs retain this relation, despite the digital reproduction of the body on the screen. Thus, while acting instructional DVDs produce a low-grade alienation effect because of the present absence of live classmates and an instructor, an effect that one might accurately term bizarre, the DVD medium allows for the possibility of reproducing an acting lesson that emphasizes the embodied component of stage acting and offers easy-to-follow, repeatable exercises for students with or without prior acting experience.
Two recently released acting DVDs showcase some of the positive and negative aspects of this medium. Body Language Skills belongs to a series, entitled “Skills for Actors: Master Classes in the Media Arts,” produced by First Light Video Publishing. This 47 minute instructional video guides viewers through a series of body language exercises intended to help performers to develop character types and to communicate more effectively with gesture and movement. Choreographer and body language specialist Patti Columbo acts as the lesson instructor for three on-screen actors and, by extension, for the video’s spectator(s). The structure of the video lesson loosely resembles the structure of a live class. Columbo and an actor run through a simple upper and lower body warm-up before launching into the meat of the lesson, which deals with characterization. After a brief introductory exercise consisting of little more than toe-touching and light stretching, the actors work to develop specific characters from the outside in, i.e., by constructing the semblance of drunkenness, arrogance, frustration, timidity, exhaustion, fear, and pensiveness through the manipulation of their postures and precision of their gestures. The lesson culminates in a section on “Situational Exercises” where Columbo and her actors analyze the body language dimension of speaking at a podium (public speaking), auditioning (acting for stage, film, or television), and casual social environments (flirting). It is in this section that the intended audience of the DVD broadens from actors to students of public speaking, but also to any person seeking to increase his or her confidence in social situations.
Whereas Body Language Skills presents one slice of the actor’s craft in a no-nonsense, expository manner, A Moving Presence: Ruth Zaporah and Action Theater offers something completely [End Page 178] different by welcoming viewers into the Synergia Ranch near Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a montage of footage collected during one of Zaporah’s intensive workshops. Roughly one hour in length, the short film showcases Zaporah’s process for building actors’ skills in the...