Tag Archives: acting

Taipei masterclass in Psychophysical Training with Phillip Zarrilli

I’m in Taiwan  for the premiere of  my script ‘The 9 Fridas’ at the Taipei Art Festival, directed by Phillip Zarrilli with Mobius Strip theatre company in association with Hong Kong Rep’. As part of his residency as guest director for the festival, Phillip Zarrilli led a three day intensive masterclass with the cast and local actors and students on his approach to Psychophysical actor training, translated and assisted by his former students Ying-Ni Ma and Chien-Lang Lin (LongLong). I observed the workshops, taking photographs and notes, which I reproduce, below. But first, some context and an introduction to Zarrilli’s psychophysical training from his website: www.phillipzarrilli.com

body, breath, activation, performance

Phillip Zarrilli


This training process introduces participants to a psychophysical paradigm and approach to awakening the actors’ bodymind in performance. It begins by focusing on the development of the contemporary actor’s interiority, i.e., how the actor might discover, awaken, shape, understand, and deploy ‘energy’, awareness, focus/concentration, and feeling to the ‘matter’ of performance—the impulses, structure, contours, and texture of the tasks or actions that constitute a specific performance score shaped by particular dramaturgies.

Phillip Zarrilli - start of Kalarivanakkam. Taipei masterclass.

Phillip Zarrilli – start of Kalarivanakkam. Taipei masterclass.

The process described here has been developed since 1976. It is a unique combination of psychophysical exercises drawn from traditional Asian disciplines of body-mind training, ‘transposed’ through a practical studio-based language that allows the principles informing these traditional trainings to become immediately useful to the contemporary actor. While the exercises are ‘traditional’, the pedagogy is contemporary.

The work begins with pre-performative psychophysical training to prepare and awaken the bodymind through Asian martial/meditation arts – Chinese taiquiquan, Indian yoga, and the closely related martial art, kalarippayattu. Bodymind connections are practically elabored through the exercises as are a sense of activation through breath in movement, the development of focus/concentration, circulation of energy through the body and awakening the bodymind to partners, ensemble, and the performance environment. 

Over long-term practice, this work ideally enables participants’ bodies to ‘become all eyes’, i.e. to develop an intuitive awareness necessary for performance. 

At first the training concentrates on basic psychophysical training through repetition of exercises and introduction of underlying principles. We then begin to ‘apply’ a few of the principles-in-practice through structured improvisations. Coordination of breath with movement and specific of external focus are put into ‘play’ within these simple structures which start to take the shape of ‘performances’.

Notes and Quotations from Phillip Zarrilli’s Taipei Masterclass 2014:

With opening breathing exercises: Focus on initiation, process, and completion.

Phillip Zarrilli leading one of the opening breathing exercises. Taipei masterclass 2014.

Phillip Zarrilli leading one of the opening breathing exercises. Taipei masterclass 2014.

Good martial arts practitioners and actors are similar in having 360 degrees awareness and of all in the room. The title of Zarrilli’s book and a reference he makes in the workshop about Kalarippayyattu is from a Malayalam folk term: ‘When the body becomes all eyes.’ Opening exercises start initiating this 360 degrees awareness.

Co-ordinating breath with movement. Spine is lengthened, working from dantian (2 inches below navel) through to the top of the head.

Zarrilli’s work is about ‘the active imagination’ and ‘opening sensory awareness’. When working with ‘forcing each others extended arm’, the use of the image of a full calm pool of water at dantian with small stream running from it up along shoulder and arm and then out into the room – an inner relationship to the image is created. All about activation. Working with very specific points of focus.

The space between each breath is very important to Zarrilli, which is why he asks us to pay attention from the space of completion to the start of inhalation. That ‘space between’ is where he believes acting happens – the empty space – everything and nothing, filled with potential.

‘In martial arts you could be using lethal force.    In theatre, you can ‘die’ on the stage.  What enlivens us when on stage? There isn’t an answer. Think of acting as a constant question – there isn’t an answer; rather, there is what is possible and what emerges in the moment.’

In the training: ‘Put your awareness in the soles of your feet – the back knee is bent – lengthen the lower back, don’t collapse the spine and stay more upright. This work is very good to learn you have a spine. Urban environments, our posture is often terrible – the spine is the most precious thing – crucial – so understanding something about how the spine works and have a sense of having a body is extremely important for everyone – for our health, not just our acting. This is not a criticism – this is just showing the benefits beyond acting.’

Phillip Zarrilli - elephant pose in Kalarivanakkan sequence. Taipei masterclass 2014.

Phillip Zarrilli – elephant pose in Kalarivanakkan sequence. Taipei masterclass 2014.

‘For training, as in acting, I don’t want to see intention. I want to see what’s happening, now.’

Work with minimum tension.

‘One reason why I use martial arts in actor training is because the whole body needs to be engaged and active, even if you are not using the whole body when acting.’

‘Every movement is circulating prana, ch’i or ki and generating what comes next.’

When doing taiqui:

‘What’s available to your awareness? Every time I shift position, I am keeping residual awareness and the ‘down’ is still with me as I move up. I keep the awareness of where I have been…the residual is with me.’

‘You don’t want to call attention to it. Don’t think about what you ‘should’ be feeling.’

‘There’s no right or wrong, but the potential from what we’ve learned.’

Why do the training?

‘It makes a foundation to create more cohesion amongst the actors I’m working with. There are so many approaches to training – how can we find a shared language? This is one way.’

Awareness of feet:

‘Sense your feet – where they’re in contact with the floor, this will help you get out of your head – if you can sense the feet, you will be thinking less about it and your awareness is multiple – in the feet and out front.

Acting is complex with what we’re doing with our awareness and consciousness. This is not theoretical, it’s practical, but people often don’t think of acting this way.

Open awareness simultaneously being aware of the soles of the feet, both can be operating at the same time – sense the foot as it slides and opens. Invitation to open your awareness in your feet, literally feeling it as it crosses the floor.’

‘How I’m teaching you is not traditional training. My teachers never mentioned sensing the feet and it took me about seven years to realise it. I’m a pragmatic Westerner and we don’t have seven years for you to train and learn this, so I’m drawing your attention to it.’

‘Keeping connection strong with the feet. Don’t make an effort to create friction. Over time the connection becomes stronger.’

‘Sense the completion. We want to experience the breath with the movement – we want to sense the initiation, process, and completion of each breath. Slow down. Be attentive. Breath is the most essential thing in life – when is the moment the in/exhalation initiates? It continues… it comes to a point of completion.

‘It’s all a question – there isn’t an answer and there’s not one way. Enter that space of possibility of listening and allow yourselves permission to take the time. When you come to a moment of stasis sometimes one of the most interesting things is when there’s quiet and stillness. Not always, but sometimes within that quietness, the possibility that something’s going to happen is interesting – if I really open with my awareness, when will that moment arrive. Don’t be afraid to inhabit that moment of silence…it’s filled with possibility. It can be. It’s a matter of trust. Something is going to happen.’

‘From my perspective, what becomes interesting is when there’s a moment when something is going to happen – and it’s usually the moment just before, when you come to a moment of pause and you’re just about to do something else. Sometimes movement is interesting, sometimes not. The moment when you come to quiet – a moment when you’re just about to turn to the partner – it’s clear there’s something that’s going to happen –if people are inhabiting the moment just before – to me, that’s where acting happens. It goes back to this notion of a question or a possibility.

These were exercises from pre-performative training

‘As soon as a movement comes into the space, it’s there – and you have to be responsive to what’s happening, with everyone, in order to support whatever’s happening out here. You’re not alone, it’s a collective responsibility.

‘It doesn’t have to be big…you don’t have to rush around the space.

‘Drop into your awareness.’

‘Avoid what I call ‘wandering eyes’ – always have an awareness where your partner is – but you can’t start scanning the space looking for your partner because it shows intention and its not part of the task….If you need to locate your partner, use indirect focus, not wandering eyes.

Direct focus – outward and clear. When we use indirect focus we can be moving more towards acting – it takes us into the territory – if I’m not looking directly at something, what I am I looking at? It’s a question. With martial arts work it’s about open focus, direct focus, as it should be. We’re using the awareness we’re developing in this training even if were using indirect focus – I still have this 360 degrees awareness.’

Phillip Zarrilli correcting the lion pose from Kalaripayyattu

Phillip Zarrilli correcting the lion pose from Kalaripayyattu


Zarrilli talked of ‘Told by the Wind’ – a 53 minute performance when he acts with Jo Shapland and for much of the time he his back to audience and his co-actor. The Llanarth Group. Extract on vimeo:  http://vimeo.com/20741448  They never look at each other all the time they are on stage together – the full 53 minutes. He would often have his back to the other performer, but he had to know where she was the whole time – they both were using a lot of indirect focus – and opening their auditory awareness.

Basic principle is to get people to be simple. In his experience the people who choose to do this work finds it useful, for very different purposes. ‘Today we’re working with so many varied ways of making performance, this provides a baseline for inhabiting, being inside.’

The 9 Fridas trailer and information:


Deaf and disabled actors wanted – RSC and National Theatre general auditions

Those who know my work within disability arts and Deaf culture, or have been following this blog for some time, will know my position on casting and the (mis)representations of disability on stage.



Cast of 'In Water I'm Weightless' by O'Reilly, National Theatre Wales/Southbank Centre 2012, part of the Cultural Olympiad

Cast of ‘In Water I’m Weightless’ by O’Reilly, National Theatre Wales/Southbank Centre 2012, part of the Cultural Olympiad

I’ve posted up various provocations about ‘cripping up’ (non-disabled actors impersonating various physical and sensory impairments) and the necessity of playwrights to, as Lisa Hammond put it, ‘put crips in scripts.’ Now my heart sings (or I’m at least encouraged) to see the National theatre in London giving out a call for disabled and Deaf actors for general auditions in January 2014.


Time will tell if this is lip service, but meanwhile…. the deadline for application approached on Monday 2nd December 2013…..  So what are you waiting for? Go apply!

Deaf and Disabled Actors – General Theatre Auditions 2014

The National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company in association with a number of freelance Casting Directors from across the field of theatre are opening applications for general auditions with Deaf and Disabled actors in January 2014.

Applicants should be professional actors identifying as Deaf or Disabled, who have either undertaken vocational training, or have undertaken paid stage work in the business.

Successful applicants will have the opportunity to perform a monologue or duologue from a modern or classical play of their choosing in front of a range of theatre casting directors, and to attend a Q&A with a panel of theatre industry professionals.

Application deadline: Monday 2nd December
Successful applicants will be informed during the week of 16th December
Auditions will take place on Monday 6th January (10am-8pm) and Tuesday 7th January (10am-6pm) in Central London (please specify any non-availability over these two days in your application form)
Q&A: Tuesday 7th January 6.30pm – 8pm

How to Apply

Download the application form from their website (link, above)

Email your completed application form, acting CV and headshot to rscntauditions@gmail.com by Monday 2nd December
Postal applications should be addressed to RSC NT Auditions, Casting Department, National Theatre, London SE1 9PX
For applicants without email access please contact Charlotte on 020 7452 3448

The National Theatre Studio is fully accessible, however please inform us of any additional requirements you may have on the day on your application form.

If you have any queries please contact Charlotte on 020 7452 3448

RSC Logo National Theatre Logo

Thunder Gate and Encounters

Kaminari-mon Gate, 'Thunder Gate', Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo.

Kaminari-mon Gate, ‘Thunder Gate’, Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo.

A morning free, so we travel to Senso-ji Temple and bask in the beauty and clouds of incense. Rebuilt many times since its founding in 628, Senso-ji is the oldest temple in Tokyo and dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy.


The compound is filled with temples, statues, and Shinto shrines. We walked amongst the predominantly Japanese visitors and worshippers, enjoying the fact this religious sanctuary is in the midst of the former red light and entertainment district, with old theatres lining the streets behind the temple.  I realise after our intense weeks of working at Babylon Theatre there is something else to Tokyo other than a black box studio…. but the theatre is never too far away…

Warm-up in Okamura Yurijo's workshop, Theatre Babylon Tokyo

Warm-up in Okamura Yurijo’s workshop, Theatre Babylon Tokyo

Refreshed, we head for Theatre Babylon and the continuation of the exchange The Llanarth Group have with Tokyo company Ami Theatre. Phillip Zarrilli led a three day workshop last week; now Okamura Yojiro, playwright, actor, and artistic director of Ami Theatre leads some sessions.

Jo Shapland and Rino Nakajima of Ami Theatre

Jo Shapland and Rino Nakajima of Ami Theatre

Okamura Yojiri has developed his own methodology of actor-training, focussing on the pre-performative and pre-expressive. After initial exercises combining speed with extremely slow movement, and emphasis on making eye contact, he creates an arena wherein encounters between two participants take place.

The encounter space prepared by Okamura Yojiro, with Alejandro translating

The encounter space prepared by Okamura Yojiro, with Alejandro translating

The encounter is in silence – two participants at diagonal corners approach each other slowly, maintaining eye contact throughout, then passing by. I deliberately over-simplify the instructions here, for what can be an intense and imaginatively rich experience is difficult to reflect in reportage.  The intention is to enter the space without prejudice and preconceptions, to follow instructions and be alert to the changing dynamics and images each moment of the way.

Some local performers and Professor Mari Boyd’s students from Sophia University also participate and find the work engaging and engrossing. I’m impressed with their commitment to the exercises and how articulate they are in feeding back after their encounter.


The Llanarth Group travelled to Tokyo thanks to Wales Arts International and The Daiwa Foundation,

Shinto shrines and performance workshops

Shinto shrine

Shinto shrine

There is a Shinto shrine across the road from the capsule apartments where we stay in Tokyo – ancient stone statues of local deities all pocked and weather-worn, topped with cherry red hats and bibs. Fresh flowers, fruit, and an opened plastic bottle of water adorns the altar and the bell clangs often as people pay respects as they pass.

Another Shinto shrine is on the single track road winding through the individual homes and a housing complex near to Babylon Theatre Tokyo, where we work. Each day walking to the theatre is a reminder of how close the ancient, spiritual and sacred is to the surface of this fast, digitalised, ostensibly modern life.

For the past three days Phillip Zarrilli of The Llanarth Group has been leading a workshop in his approach to actor training with Ami theatre, our hosts, and students from Sophia University. It is part of the cultural exchange supported by Daiwa and Wales Arts International between the two companies: we present ‘Told by the Wind’ later this week and then Okamura Yojiro of Ami Theatre will share some of his company’s process with us.

Phillip Zarrilli and Okamura Yojiro, Babylon theatre Tokyo.

Phillip Zarrilli and Okamura Yojiro, Babylon theatre Tokyo.

Zarrilli uses South and East Asian martial arts and yoga to train actors, starting the workshops with breathing exercises focussing on initiation, process, and completion.

The first non-Indian to be honoured with master status in Kalarippayattu, the martial art of Kerala, Zarrilli claims good martial arts practitioners and actors are similar, in having 360 degrees awareness and a sense of everyone in the room. He quotes a Malayalam folk term about the practice: ‘the body becomes all eyes,’  which goes some way to explaining why he uses the training with actors to start initiating this awareness.

His work is all about activation, awareness, the active imagination, and focus – and one of the first of many parallels between West and East approaches to performance appears: he quotes Zeami, the fourteenth century co-creator of Noh Theatre, encouraging the students to take the opportunity to get inside their bodies through the work and not just in their heads. Such training and body awareness allows respite from the ‘squirrel-like minds’ – busy, busy – of the young actor; a wonderful energy, but totally unfocused and a mess. Okamura San listens quietly to the translation, smiles at the mention of Zeami, then nods his head.

20 Questions….. Kiruna Stamell

Continuing the 20 questions series… I ask playwrights, performers, sculptors, directors, novelists, poets, dancers, short story writers and anyone else creative and interesting in between the same 20 questions, with various results. This time I ask the fabulous Kiruna Stamell to participate….

20 Questions… Kiruna Stamell

Kiruna Stamell

Kiruna Stamell

Kiruna Stamell is an actress with more than 13 years’ experience, as well as a classically-trained contemporary dancer.  In 1999 she got her first professional gig while at University, making her début in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. She used the pay cheque to come to England and study Shakespeare and Jacobean Theatre at London Academy of Music and Recognisable for her roles on the BBC’s ‘All The Small Things’, ‘Eastenders’, ‘Life’s too short’ and Channel 4’s, ‘Cast-offs’, she will this year be appearing alongside Geoffry Rush in Guiseppe Tornatore’s film ‘The Best Offer’. Her contemporary dance work has taken place between Australia and Sweden with choreographers such as John O’Connell (Aus), Sue Healey (Aus), Shaun Parker (Aus) and Christina Tingskog (Sweden), as well as Mimbre (UK) for a season at Watch This Space outside the National Theatre.


 What first drew you to your particular practice (art/acting/writing, etc)?

 I think it was a television programme in Australia called ‘Young Talent Time’. I love dancing and as I got older I developed an interest in debating and public speaking too. At high school my speeches moved closer towards performance and monologue. At university words and movement had an opportunity to really mesh when I got involved in the drama society and contemporary dance scene.

What was your big breakthrough?

‘Moulin Rouge’ directed by Baz Luhrmann, it bought me financial freedom to learn to drive and come to the UK. I was able to access new places and communities where my dwarfism was viewed positively and culturally enriching, rather than as a barrier to an arts career (which was the predominant view in Australia). It was an opportunity to get about without my parent’s help and experience a financial and cultural independence.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?

Finding meaningful and fulfilling work as an actress with dwarfism. It is the lack of security in being self-employed, that also makes that particularly hard. I could sell out and ‘exhibit’ myself in nightclubs because there is still a market for that in our society and live quite well off that income. However, I want to reflect the real world and change people’s prejudice’s not reinforce their already restrictive ideas. The representation of people with dwarfism in the mainstream media is mostly hostile and ridiculing, with the exception of a few roles.

 Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?

Peeling’ a play you wrote had a massive impact. ‘Stone’s from the River’ a book by Ursula Hegi, I wish they’d turn that into a film… maybe I should… Betty Adelson’s, Dwarfs from ‘public curiosity to social liberation’. I also have to mention ‘The Station Agent’.

They all highlighted the richness of the lives of little people and removed themselves from the horrible fascination many things written about us never quite get over and seem to get stuck on.

What’s more important: form or content?


How do you know when a project is finished?

When you begin to feel like you are putting more energy and passion into it, than you are getting out of it.

Do you read your reviews?


What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?

Just keep doing it. Toil away and find alternative ways to get your work out there. Don’t be too humble either, good work doesn’t always get noticed. Listen to feedback from people you trust. Pay attention to rejection, it gets you closer to being on the right path and working with the people who do appreciate your talent and want to be on your team.

What work of art would you most like to own?

There is a bookshelf that is really well designed by a French interior designer Olivier Dolle. It is shaped like a tree branch and reaches out from a corner of the room across a long wall. I’d like to have that for my books.

What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?

That it just happens, requires no effort, is not worthy of being a real job. All untrue.

What are you working on now?

Starting up my own company to produce a two-hander stand-up rom-com written by me and my husband Gareth Berliner. The show is called ‘A Little Commitment’. Also I am about to get stuck into some contemporary dance/theatre in Australia with choreographer Shaun Parker and another dance based project with choreographer Marc Brew.

What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?

I am happy for those original authors/artists to keep their names to their creations. If I had created them, they wouldn’t be the works they are… they’d be something else entirely.

What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

That an accounting qualification could really help. Or that having something you can dip into casually when you aren’t funded for your creativity can take the fear out of a mortgage.

What’s your greatest ambition?

To change perceptions of difference and challenge the body fascism that’s become so pervasive in our culture. I hope in someways I do this just by being and getting on with my life and vocation. Maintaining integrity is so important to this goal.

How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?

Occasionally, I curl up and ignore the world for a day. I accept support from friends, family and the cultural community.

What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?

“I wasn’t expecting that… I wasn’t expecting that… [repeated several times]” Kimberly Wyatt, when surprised by my being able to actually dance, on sky’s Got To Dance.

And the best thing?

“Petite dynamo sparkles in energetic body of work.” A review of my first ever piece of choreography.

If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?

It’s a discipline, to which you must apply yourself.

What is your philosophy or life motto?

Each project should aim to be a personal best. This isn’t always going to happen but that should be the aim.

What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?

Getting a casual day job as a waitress or barmaid, if you have dwarfism is almost impossible.

What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?

I think it asks how much you really wanted ‘it’. 

For further information on Kiruna, see:

www.kirunastamell.net and www.alittlecommitment.com

LeanerFasterStronger: Researching a role: writer Kaite O’Reilly’s and performer Morven Macbeth’s perspectives.








The wonderful Olga Korbut. 

Two perspectives on researching a role: Playwright Kaite O’Reilly and performer Morven Macbeth:

Kaite O’Reilly writes:

Olga Korbut. 1972. I was too young to really appreciate the radical impact she had on gymnastics, winning four gold medals and two silver, performing dangerous leaps and flips never before presented in competition; yet I think she was in the back of my mind when I decided to write a gymnast character in LeanerFasterStronger.

The character, called simply Gymnast, is not Olga Korbut, nor any of the athletes I interviewed or researched. Rather, she is a composite, with added imagination run wild.

Of all the sportspeople I interviewed when writing the play, the gymnasts left the longest lasting impression. It is partly to do with the concentration, the focus, the maturity, and the daily passing through the pain threshold from an early age which perturbed and tantalised, adding substance, even gravitas to such slender, slight forms. All gymnasts I spoke with had grace and eloquence, and an unusual understanding of the body, its functions and how to surpass its apparent limitations. They also seemed astonishingly light – not just with the weightlessness with which they seemed to pass through the world, but in their energy, how they conversed, in their smiles. I found the juxtaposition of this lightness with a close but detached scrutiny of their bodies – as though they were ‘stepped out of them’ – fascinating and disturbing.

When I’m creating work that is researched and not fully from my imagination, I allow myself to respond to the stimulus around me. I won’t reproduce interviewees’ stories (this is problematic for me when I am credited as the writer of a fiction), but I allow whatever impacted or impressed itself on me to find its way through in the character’s language. It’s about perception and perspective – how these different creatures view the world, and themselves in it. This starts creating a world-view I can then individualise and make specific to that invented character.

Character is revealed in scripts through language and vocabulary, through action and interaction, by what others in the world of the play say about the figure, or how they react to them. I write a blueprint, an outline for the actor to fill, something which I hope is rich with clues and guidance on how to approach this particular individual – but it is then down to the actor to give the invention breath, and step into that skin.

Morven Macbeth writes:

One of the 3 characters I play in LFS is simply called ‘Gymnast’.  She has some of my favourite lines in the whole script but I was very aware of my need to do some focussed research on this one!

Scottish gymnast Louise Mearns very kindly agreed to meet me for a coffee to talk about her passion, what inspired her to begin gymnastics and how she feels, what she experiences now as a young woman still taking part in the sport having switched aged 13 from Artistic Gymnastics to competing in TeamGym.

What got her started was a combination of watching gymnastics on the telly, her brother’s physiotherapy sessions as child with cerebral palsy and her own love of ballet and tap dancing.  Louise said that she ‘begged’ her parents to let her try gymnastics.

We talked, myself, Louise and her boyfriend Kenney Collins (also a gymnast) for nearly two hours and certain things really stand out for me as I go through the pages of notes I scribbled down as we talked:








A Sheffield Theatres and Chol Theatre Co-Production

Wed 23 May – Sat 2 June 2012 http://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/event/leanerfasterstronger-12/