Tag Archives: Taiwan

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:


So this is Taipei…


Taipei viewed from the University of the arts

Taipei viewed from the University of the arts

There is sun and great heat and tropical plants and Mandarin in the air alongside the song of crickets. There are no sheep, or the blessing of Welsh rain – although I’ve been told to expect a typhoon or two in the next six weeks. In my fridge I have fresh lychee, longan (‘dragons’ eyes’), and green tea with grapefruit. There are smiles everywhere. As Phillip Zarrilli put it last night after we were showered with greetings coming out of the MRT (underground):  ‘In Taipei even the drunks are friendly.’

Phillip Zarrilli with the Mandarin translation of 'Psychophysical Acting,' ATHE Outstanding book of the year.

Phillip Zarrilli with the Mandarin translation of ‘Psychophysical Acting,’ ATHE Outstanding book of the year.

We are given a celebrity’s welcome by the Taipei International Art Festival, Mobius Strip Theatre company and members of the cast who have worked with Phillip before. We are then whisked to the studio where Phillip is presented with the Mandarin translation of his award-winning ‘Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach after Stanislavski’, translated by Taiwanese actors and former students Longlong (Chien-Lang Lin) and Ying-ni Ma. The book will be launched at the festival alongside Phillip’s production of my performance text The 9 Fridas. 

Chih-chung Cheng participating in Phillip Zarrilli's workshop for Taipei Arts Festival

Chih-chung Cheng participating in Phillip Zarrilli’s workshop for Taipei Arts Festival

On our first day Phillip begins an intensive workshop in his approach to psychophysical acting using Asian martial arts with a mixture of students and professional actors including the cast of The 9 Fridas. Last night we saw the Well Spring theatre, where we will perform, and met with the company and design team to discuss the set and costumes.

Phillip Zarrilli, Ys Lee, YY Lim, Cordelia Yang, Faye Leong and Alex Cheung

Phillip Zarrilli, Ys Lee, YY Lim, Cordelia Yang, Faye Leong and Alex Cheung

After all our skype interventions – conversations and even the first reading of the play in Mandarin – it’s great to finally meet Alex Cheung and Faye Leong, co-artistic directors of Mobius Strip Theatre Company in person. We’re all excited to be finally together, training together and beginning this intensive creative process together.

Phillip Zarrilli, Alex Cheung and Faye Leong, co-artistic directors of Mobius Strip Theatre, Taipei

Phillip Zarrilli, Alex Cheung and Faye Leong, co-artistic directors of Mobius Strip Theatre, Taipei

l’m grinning my head off. No wonder everyone is smiling at me.

Playing the Euphonium for Little Miss Sociopath’s Pageant, or what Kaite did this week.

I have always secretly loved ‘catch-me-up’ round robins – those annual missives  that coyly condense achievements into two sides of A4, whilst desperately trying not to look smug. I’m afraid this post will resemble that kind of mix and match, for it’s been a remarkable and diverse week, but perhaps not quite in the league  of some of my stateside clan (‘Dorito bagged four hoops this season, whilst Haagen-Daz has embraced the Euphonium as her special skill for the upcoming Little Miss Sociopath Pageant’).

I’m delighted to be awarded a Literature Wales writing bursary, announced late this week. The grant will enable me to dedicate a sustained period to writing fiction. Although known as a dramatist, I’ve published short prose in the past, and am currently revising a first novel.  This award will give me guaranteed ‘fenced off’ time away from whatever it is I do to keep the wolf from the door, to experiment and explore the long prose form. The list of bursary recipients and information on how to apply for future bursaries can be found at: http://www.literaturewales.org/services-for-writers/i/124046/

I’m grateful to Literature Wales for this vote of confidence along with some financial support in these cash-strapped times. I’m used to reading about grants for the arts being slashed, which makes the announcement of twenty-two writers in Wales working through through the medium of English and Cymraeg sharing £81,000 in bursaries for 2014/15 even more cause for celebration. Hurrah. And thank you.

Further celebration this week involved the wonderful Disability Arts Cymru (DAC) and their skills week, where members of their Unusual Stage School have a series of masterclasses and workshops.

Augusto Boal's exercise: making a machine. Photo: Brian Tarr.

Augusto Boal’s exercise: making a machine. Photo: Brian Tarr.

This photo by Brian Tarr shows me apparently conducting the members of USS in one of Augusto Boal’s exercises from the Arsenal of the Theatre of the Oppressed: ‘Machine of Love/Hate’ (‘Games for Actors and Non-Actors’). I was fortunate to have trained with Augusto in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and have used his techniques in applied drama, devising processes, and for conflict resolution across Europe. For the past ten years I’ve been focusing on performance writing whenever I’ve led masterclasses, so it was wonderful to work physically and practically with these beautiful techniques again.

Disability Arts Cymru continue to provide outstanding support, guidance, and training opportunities for actors with physical, sensory, or intellectual impairments. As I said during a lecture at the end of the day, I felt like I had come home – back to Boal’s work, where I started my theatre practice, and to DAC and disability arts and culture.

I’m increasingly concerned about the dilution of expertise and knowledge into catch-all terms such as ‘diversity’. Of course I embrace diversity and promote it in my life and work, but there are particular challenges and prejudices people with impairments face – especially in these difficult days of cuts, the Bedroom Tax and its ilk, criticism of being ‘scroungers’, and the related rise in disability hate crime. An organisation like DAC, who are part of that community and have great understanding, experience, and specialism built up over decades should continue this expertise and not be asked to broaden the scope to a more general ‘diversity’ catchment. I know that this is the way policy is leading, directed from above by politicians, but it seriously worries me that specialist organisations will be weakened this way, and potentially at a time when their clientele will need them most.

The other event this week which I am proud of and certainly will be anything but coy about announcing is my delight and honour to be made DAC’s patron. It is my privilege to be a figurehead for this sterling organisation. I have been part of Disability Arts Cymru for twenty years, and my relationship with Maggie Hampton and Sara Beer goes back to 1986 when we all worked with Graeae Theatre Company, and were part of the Disability Civil Rights Movement. I hope I manage to serve them and the disabled and Deaf people in Wales and beyond, well.

Whilst we are on politics and the fight for civil rights, 陳佾均 Betty, the Taiwanese translator of my performance text ‘The 9 Fridas’ (whom I wrote about in my previous post) has been keeping me informed about the protests for democracy currently occurring in Taiwan. Our discussions began with reference to Frida Kahlo and her political commitment throughout her life – famously appearing in a wheelchair pushed by Diego Rivera, fist defiantly raised, placard in the other hand, less than a week before her death. We were discussing the necessity of finding parallels between the text and contemporary Taiwanese life, and so she broached the issue of the Sunflower Movement.

I was embarrassed and ashamed to tell her I had only the slightest knowledge of this massive civil rights campaign. There has been little coverage on UK radio and TV and after a cursory search I could only find one article in The Guardian online Comment is Free. Betty has sent me a few links, which I reproduce, below. Please look and read, and don’t be as uninformed as I was. Thank you