Rhythm in Acting and Performance: Embodied Approaches and Understandings by Eilon Morris
To start, Eilon Morris informs the reader that they will not find a simple definition or universal concept of rhythm in this book. Instead, through a well-balanced dose of theory and practice as research from his years in rehearsal and training rooms as a theatre practitioner, percussionist, educator, and scholar, Morris adeptly unpacks the complex relationship with rhythm in training and performance. With risk of sounding overly effusive, as an acting instructor this is a book I have been wanting for years. Its value comes from Morris’s approach. While he may at times seem to prize an empirical rather than the rational interaction with rhythm, he does accept that analyzing rhythm for performance requires deconstruction of its use in performance both from embodied and logical experiences: “this book offers up a collection of ways in which rhythm is approached and worked with. This includes some of the ideas, metaphors and associations attributed to rhythm, as well as the practical means by which performers have looked to develop rhythmic qualities in their work” (24).
“Part One—Establishing a Pulse” contains chapters 1–2. The first one begins with an etymology of rhythm from the ancient Greeks, and incorporates the term’s use by many European and Russian artists. Chapter 2 delves into the history of foundational studies in rhythm, especially from the twentieth century onward. Morris calls for an awareness of the Western lens in analysis of rhythm; yet, it is difficult to deny that influence and background in the featured practitioners. Both chapters serve as an introduction and at times feel ambitious and sporadic, jumping from rhythm in movement, to writing, to emotional inspiration, but they relay the density of the topic and its myriad of performance aspects.
“Part Two—Stanislavski on Rhythm” consists of a single chapter focused on Constantin Stanislavski’s work, especially his focus on physical action. Here, Morris attempts to untangle the various ways that Stanislavski, and those who continued his work, defined tempo and rhythm. This chapter marks the inclusion of exercises to demonstrate ideas in practice; they continue through the fifth part, supporting Morris’s belief in the embodied approach to understanding rhythm. While including exercises in the book is vital to his pedagogical focus, they will be most useful for those familiar with rhythm work. For example, even being trained myself in a Grotowski-based approach, I am still unsure that I could recreate the plastique exercise (159) from his description, but others are more clearly fleshed-out and articulated.
Parts 3–5 focus more concretely on current modes of working with rhythm in rehearsal and training rooms throughout Europe, Australia, and the United States. Morris pays particular attention to the ways in which these modes blend into one another, and how readers currently engaged in an explorative practice of rhythm, time, dynamism, and so on can approach practical work from complementary perspectives. “Part Three—Structure and Spontaneity” contains four chapters, each framing a conversation around a particular practitioner’s work: Suzanne Bing, Vsevolod Meyerhold, John Britton, and Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, respectively. Overall, this part examines the connections between “notions of risk-taking and liveness” with structure in both ensemble and individual sense of rhythm (135). A short introduction before each chapter situates the relationship to the overarching theme of the part. Morris’s detailed attention to structure and guidance through this multifarious conversation is admirable. I appreciate the inclusion of important female practitioners’ voices, especially Bing’s, whose work tends to lose focus to her artistic partner Jacques Copeau.
“Part Four—The Ecstatic Performer” frames the conversation through the lenses of the works of various practitioners, with an additional chapter that considers work done in scientific and anthropological studies of rhythm’s effects on the psychological state. Chapters 9–11 discuss the work of Jerzy Grotowski, Nicolás Núñez, and Morris’s own work, respectively. The latter two’s past experiences with Grotowski’s work resonates strongly with “the unification of perception and action” focus of this part (196). “Part Five—A Plurality of Voices” concentrates on voice and language in performance. Chapters 12–15 contained therein discuss the perspective of many voice experts, including Judith Adams, Karen Christopher, Bruce Myers, Kate Papi, Chris Coe, and Frankie Armstrong. Each successive pair receives a focused chapter, including conversations in script work, breath, and musicality, respectively. As a movement-focused artist I read this section with rapt attention and curiosity and look forward to deepening my understanding through further investigation of the included artists’ works.
As I read on I began to understand the differences among parts 3–5 as concerning: physical body and space (3), consciousness and visceral relationships with rhythm (4), and vocal and textual focus (5). However, in some ways these categories all fuse and the work defies simple categorization; even Morris’s elusive categories of structure and spontaneity and ecstatic performer find elements leaking from one practitioner to another. Overall, a strong physical/movement emphasis pervades this study, as it is Morris’s background and focus. Artists working in a physical approach to acting and training are undeniably at the heart of this conversation. He [End Page 85] commendably chose artists who deeply attend to the whole actor and whose work integrates body, voice, mind, and emotions with equal concentration. This book is filled with discussions of awareness, listening, impulse, discovery, energy, and more; Morris asserts early in the book that rhythm is but one ingredient in the larger recipe of performance.
Rhythm in Acting and Performance is most appropriate for those at the graduate level and for working artists, instructors, and scholars who want to further their exploration of performance and the richness of its many facets. It will be a great addition to the conversations of acting instructors and artists in performance, but also for scholars looking to enrich the engagement of students in discussions of performance analysis.