Tag Archives: martial arts in actor training

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: