Actors and Performers

Different Actors, Different Bodies – an extract from Rethinking the Actor’s Body: Dialogues with Neuroscience

Earlier this year Methuen Drama published Rethinking the Actor’s Body by Dick McCaw, an examination of overlaps in the fields of actor training, embodied knowledge and neurophysiology. 

Read an extract from the book below:

Just as the notion of ‘the body’ is an abstraction, so too is the notion of ‘the actor’s body’. There are as many types of actor’s body and as many different kinds of acting as there are different forms of theatre: from pub theatre to West End or Broadway Theatre, from New Writing in the Royal Court Theatre, to immersive theatre, to site-specific theatre, to physical theatre. In all these kinds of theatre, the actor draws on his or her own bodily resources to create distinctly different kinds of performance. Within these different kinds of theatre there are different kinds of actor. John Gielgud would rely on his face and voice, acting, as it were, from his neck upwards; other actors make extravagant use of their physicality and can transform themselves into almost unrecognizable shapes (e.g. Michael Chekhov, Alex Guinness or Toby Jones). Some actors can play across much of the theatrical spectrum, including film and television; others are more specialized.

One opposition that will run through this book is that between a ‘psychological’ and a ‘physical’ approach to acting, the first represented by Stanislavsky, the second by his pupil Vsevolod Meyerhold. What do theatre practitioners and commentators mean by the terms ‘physical’ and ‘psychological’? We will discover that behind this opposition there is the equally fundamental (and also equally contested) distinction between an ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ approach to acting. Does the impulse or the emotion come from within the actor and then find outer expression in movement, or does the change of the inner state result from the performance of the movement? In both cases, the way the body is understood determines the ‘truth’ of the movement.

Meyerhold gives a historical dimension to this opposition by claiming that his more physical approach looks to an ancient tradition of performance. Richard Axton lists the names for ‘actor’ and ‘performer’ which were used ‘by writers in the period between the sixth and fourteenth centuries’, noting how it ‘is often impossible to distinguish between mimi (originally popular entertainers of the Roman “burlesque” theatre), histriones (professional actors), lusores (players) and scurri(ae) (jesters?).’¹

This passage offers an image of theatre and acting that is physical, comic and often vulgar: a theatre of the grotesque body.  Certainly, images on ancient pottery dating from the second century BCE found in Southern Italy indicate characters from Atellan Farces – which were most certainly scurrilous – that seem to look forward to Commedia dell’ Arte. It is precisely this tradition of physical, popular theatre that Meyerhold draws upon in his modernist challenge to what he regards as Stanislavsky’s outdated realism (the ‘old theatre’ referred to in the next quotation). Meyerhold refers to ‘the refined grace, the extreme artistry of the old yet eternally new tricks of the histrions, mimi, atellanae, scurrae, jaculatores and ministrelli’, adding that ‘the actor of the future should, or if he wishes to remain an actor, must co-ordinate his emotional responses with his technique, measuring both against the traditional precepts of the old theatre.’²

At about the same time (the mid-1920s) as Meyerhold was developing his Biomechanical approach to actor-training, in France Antonin Artaud was challenging what he regarded as the outdated realism of French literary theatre and demanding a ‘physical’ theatre which was aimed directly towards the bodily senses of the audience rather than their intellects. This ‘new’ theatre challenged the architecture and the audience of ‘traditional’ theatre and championed the expressive potential of the actor’s body. As the twentieth century wore on the traditional theatre survived the criticisms from Artaud, Meyerhold and others, and while the practice of physical theatre continued, it was always as an alternative to the more dominant form of realism. There are too many examples of physical theatre to cite here, but certainly the experiments of Jerzy Grotowski in the 1960s and the teaching of Jacques Lecoq in the 1970s and 1980s have each had a massive impact on the production of physical theatre. (Although working in a very different tradition to Meyerhold, Lecoq would also draw on the tradition of Atellan farce and Commedia in his conception of physical theatre.) I would argue that today the dominant mode of theatre production remains realist, text-based theatre. Much debate and evaluation of theatre in the broadcast and written media still focus upon character and how an actor can render such characters believable. For this reason ‘character acting’ is still central to professional actor training, and thus it is part of this study of the actor’s body.

There is broad agreement in literature on acting and actor training that the actor’s body is a double thing. An audience might experience sorrow and pain for the character’s body and all the injuries to which it is submitted, but ‘behind’ that body is that of the actor, whose transparent artistry makes minute adjustments of dynamics and rhythm, according to the contours of any particular performance. In physical theatre, where the actor is not necessarily playing a character, there is still a commitment to wholly embody a movement in order to maximize its expressive intent. In all these kinds of theatre one thing is clear: that the actor has to do things with their body which demand a specific kind of technique, which in turn requires its own kind of training. The actor’s work may not be as obvious as that of the dancer’s, the musician’s or the athlete’s, but it tunes and transforms the everyday body just as profoundly.


¹ Axton 1974: 18.

² Meyerhold 1991: 127.

Buy Rethinking the Actor’s Body by Dick McCaw at