Actors and Performers

Movement Directors in Contemporary Theatre

An extract from Movement Directors in Contemporary Theatre: Conversations on Craft by Ayse Tashkiran

Earlier this month Methuen Drama published Movement Directors in Contemporary Theatre: Conversations on Craft by Ayse Tashkiran, which charts the growth of the movement director in contemporary theatre through a series of in-depth interviews with leading theatre practitioners.

In Chapter 12: The Body Has Its Own Way of Speaking, Ayse Tashkiran talks to Ann Yee, a movement director and choreographer from the
US who works across theatre, opera and musicals. 

Read an extract from their interview below:

AT: Choreography is perhaps clear, as it is usually related to the dance aspect of a piece, but what is movement direction for you?

AY: My job as a movement director is three-fold. One aspect is to facilitate the experience of the performer to achieve their best physicality for what is required of them. A second aspect is to create and build any physical sequences or sections of choreography in the piece, choose and direct the movement vocabulary of the piece and to support the ensemble with a warm-up to sustain them for however long and gruelling that run is. And a third aspect is to be in tune with the vision of my collaborators – the director, the writer, the composer, the designer… the list goes on.

Recently, a theatre asked me to choose my billing. Their suggestions were movement director, movement, director of movement or choreographer, and I didn’t know what to choose. I had recently seen a billing: ‘Movement Direction and Choreography by …’ When I read that, I asked myself, ‘Where’s the line drawn between the two?’ I consider choreography as quite broad.

All movement directors work differently, as do the directors who are helming the piece. Sometimes we are involved in the initial design and dramaturgy conversations and sometimes we aren’t. Sometimes we come into the dialogue last minute, when the director or lead collaborator sees a need for more nuanced or bold movement choices that can’t be achieved without someone with more expertise on board. What we are always responsible for is the body. I talk about the body having its own intelligence … that there is a physical instinct we can tap into without ‘thinking’ about it first.

In the production of Julie at the National Theatre, there was a sequence that we were working on when the director turned to me and wondered aloud whether or not I had given the actors enough information to head into an improvisation. At that point, I didn’t have any more words for them, and thought to myself, ‘We’re going to have to start and see what happens.’ Once it started, more words came, more prompts came, I got up, I was in it, I was out of it, and it just happened. If you don’t have the right words to say, trust that the body has its own way of speaking. I was working with an ensemble that had developed a phenomenal kinaesthetic connection: we had cultivated it together. They came into the project with their own individual histories; I provided them with tools and a structure. Within that structure, we shared our histories and we created our own shared intelligence. You can’t underestimate that. When I started to be affected then I was able to affect them, and we created something that we knew was special and exactly what needed to be made. That was the vital step along the way within the process – trust – without which we could not get to where we needed to go. They trusted me to sculpt. What is that? Is that movement direction, is that choreography, is that direction? How does that work? I don’t know. But I do know that it requires a lot of tools.

AT: What do you think is particular to actors when you’re working with movement with them?

AY: Actors are amazing creatures, and it’s a joy watching them interpret material and discover character and story. Some of them are so keyed in to imagination and immediacy of response that in working with them, I understand more and more what the word ‘art’ means. However, sometimes they don’t think their body is their first point of call. It just doesn’t feel like their ‘go to’ place for confidence, even though that’s their instrument they just don’t look at it that way. They say, ‘It’s my psychology’ or ‘I have access to my emotional life, but I don’t know what to do with my body.’ Not every actor struggles with it; loads of actors thrive on the movement work. But I would say when there’s a challenge it’s because they don’t think that their body is as much of an instrument as it actually is, or there’s a fear in it. All of us understand fear that sits in our bodies – that is universal and human. Even though there is psychology and emotion involved, all of it is housed in the body. I separate emotional, intellectual and physical intelligences into categories, but that’s more for me to be able to talk about them. All of it lives in the body, and it’s much more complicated than categories or even the word ‘intelligence’. It’s not about having the answers for an actor – in every situation I genuinely feel like I have to make a discovery I’ve never made before in order to guide the actor to their performance. That’s how it feels, like my job is brand new with each production.

AT: What do you think you respond to, or activate, within the creative dialogue with directors?

AY: I consider what they’re curious about and if I’m curious about it too, and what they want to make. A fundamental creative aspect for me is their fearlessness in interrogating the piece: I value vision and courage. As far as what I activate within that dialogue for them … one director I work with often said this to me: ‘I’m working with you because you will make this the best piece it can possibly be.’ That was very nice to hear.

I was having a conversation with a music director and a producer who said, ‘There are two things that you need in a director: one, they need an artistic vision, and two, they need an ability to read a room, assess a room and lead the room.’ I’m still navigating this to find out what rings true for me. Artistic vision is subjective; it’s not for me to decide if someone else is an artist, but I can decide how I think and feel about their art. The second pre-requisite – ‘read a room, assess the room and lead the room’ – that three-fold list is an example of clear leadership. However, what I’ve learnt is that it isn’t solely about leadership in the rehearsal room, it’s also the way that director works with their collaborators and the stage management. It’s also about how that piece exists within the building, whether it’s the National Theatre or the Old Vic or the Lincoln Center or Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I really respond to directors who respect and understand that they and their project are part of a much bigger picture and that there are many, many people facilitating the vision. They manage to do this in a way that never compromises the work but brings out the best in everyone involved and therefore makes the most interesting work.

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