Kirsten Stephens

Moving in spite of yourself

Training

I never expected that mime school would reveal my personality problem so blatantly. Probably because I didn't know I had one. Yet shortly after my arrival at Marcel Marceau's school in Paris, I became sharply aware that my biggest struggle would not be technical, but internal. You see, I was by nature a patient, unaggressive person. I was not overly shy, just quiet and methodical.

Now, you might think quiet would be a good trait for a mime. You would be wrong. Because that demeanor affected my movement. No matter how hard I tried, movements that needed to be sharp or explosive always had a maddeningly soft edge. I lacked snap. And maybe a little crackle and pop too.

Looking around, I realized I wasn’t alone. And this should be of concern for all actors. I noticed that my classmates with more gentle personalities had a similar tendency, while those with more explosive personalities had a hard time making a movement soft and tender. It's not just a matter of speed, either. A movement can be fast, yet without punch. Equally, a movement can be slow yet convey an abrasive or pointy quality. Our movements don't always look the way we intend, which means they also do not communicate what we intend.

I found my solution in fencing class, which was a part of the curriculum. Mind you, this was the sport of fencing, not theatrical fencing (Marceau said it taught us to perceive distance). By nature a defensive fighter, I now adopted a very simple new strategy. I simply pointed the pointy end of my foil at my opponent and went after him or her as fast and as aggressively as I could. Whether or not I saw an opening made not a whit of difference. I attacked anyway.

More often than not, this resulted in me being stabbed, and I hope my fellow gentle personalities weren’t too traumatized by my indiscriminate yelling and charging. (I did say I wasn't shy, right?) I also especially rehearsed movements achieved by firing a particular muscle suddenly from a relaxed state, as if receiving a shock. And after a while, between the fencing bruises, imaginary electricity, and learning to shove my way onto the crowded Parisian Metro, my inner Viking emerged with the result that, with concentration, I could achieve a more aggressive edge to my movements.

For folks on the other end of the spectrum, perhaps ballet or yoga would help. Possibly even something like gardening. Anything that allows you to focus on a gentle or nurturing touch. And pay special attention to breathing with the movement.

At the very least, being aware that your natural tendencies, for better or worse, affect the way you move will help you choose roles (or understand why you get particular types of roles), as well as identify moments where your walk, reach, or head turn may require particular attention. And know that this is a continuous process. I still have to check that my snaps, crackles and pops aren’t turning mushy.