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Dr. Margaret Coldiron
Helsinki TEAK Symposium on Theatre Training 9-11 January 2014
Starting from “Neutral”:
Creating a Curriculum for Intercultural Theatre Training
As a “preliminary theme” for this symposium, Esa suggested the question of the “neutral body as
elaborated by Mark Evans:
The actor understandably desires a body ready to work, able to generate varied, multiple and
fluid meanings, in effect a body which, within the parameters of theatrical taste at any
particular time, can perform as ‘natural’ and able to engage in an uninhibited manner with
their environment so as to create the illusion of ‘naturalness’. In this sense, the Occidental
actor desires a body that is understood in theatrical terms as ‘neutral’ (Movement Training for
the Modern Actor, Routledge 2009, p. 69).”
This and the abstracts that followed provided a great deal of food for thought and in the spirit of
enquiry (or ‘interrogation’) suggested by Simon Murray I’d like to preface my reflections on training
actors in ‘World Performance’ by examining, in a rather meditative manner, some of the
problematic terminology we are coping with. There may be more questions than answers.
When I decided to use the title 'Starting from Neutral,' the first problem I had was to try to
explain what I mean by that. Of course if you drive a car you know that starting from neutral means
that the car isn’t in gear, that there is potential for movement (forward or backward) but being in
Neutral is a liminal state. One might even say it is (in automobile terms anyway) ‘pre-expressive,’
but let’s leave that rather loaded term aside for the time being. Starting in Neutral a good way to
see if the engine works, if the battery is charged, whether all the other bits are operational. It
represents a place of safety, an opportunity for meditation, a situation in which one can
contemplate what comes next. Where will I go? Forwards or back? How fast, how slow?
Dr. Margaret Coldiron
Helsinki TEAK Symposium on Theatre Training 9-11 January 2014
But of course we’re not talking about automobiles here, we’re talking about human beings,
human bodies, actors—expressive bodies that by choosing to be ‘in neutral’ are choosing to
express nothing. (Or does the Neutral state actually express something—the state of Neutral,
perhaps? Yes, of course it does—if the Neutral state were imperceptible we would have no need of
it.) Some feel that we are all so conditioned and defined by our culture that it is unrealistic to
imagine we could find such a thing as true 'Neutral'. However, when I ask my students in the Mask
class to 'find Neutral' or to “start from Neutral” they seem to know what I’m talking about. I am
asking them to shed their individuality, their quirks and tics and the physical characteristics that
identify them to others and to themselves.
So maybe with both automobiles and people, Neutral represents a liminal [threshold] state that is
full of potential and promises transition to something very different: movement, character,
expressiveness, action. The Neutral state may be something like the creative state of apparent
inaction that Zeami (the ‘father’ of classical Japanese Noh drama) refers to:
The actor must rise to a selfless level of art, imbued with a concentration that
transcends his own consciousness, […] Such a process constitutes that inner
force that can be termed “connecting all the arts through one intensity of
This state is also referred to as mushin or ‘no mind,’ which my colleague Jeungsook will examine
more deeply in her presentation.
While Zeami writes of “selflessness” at the heart of the Neutral state, Mark Evans suggests that
training for the performer’s body “cannot start outside of our previous embodied experience, and
that that experience is culturally structured and constructed.” This seems to imply that, however
we strive for ‘selflessness’ in neutrality we cannot escape the identity that is embedded in our body
and mind by our ‘culture.’ This coincides in some ways with the principles put forward in traditional
‘Method’ training, that one’s own personal experiences are the means by which we come to an
Rimer and Yamazaki, p. 97.
Dr. Margaret Coldiron
Helsinki TEAK Symposium on Theatre Training 9-11 January 2014
understanding of character. (I recognise that this reduces a varied and complex collection of
theories and practices to a rather crude generalisation, but I think you all know what I mean.) Does
this mean that there is no real Neutral? Must we be forever bound by the culture into which we
were born?
In World Performance, ‘culture’ is a term that comes up a lot. What do we mean when we speak of
‘culture’ in relation to performer training? Is it (as my computer’s dictionary tells me) “the ideas,
customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society?” Or do we mean something more
than that? Does it have anything to do with “place” or “nationality”? Does it have to do with
inheritance, upbringing or previous training? As an expatriate living away from my ‘native’ culture in
a multicultural city, I wonder whether my own cultural conditioning is altered by my circumstances?
Moreover, I am a specialist practitioner in a performance form (Balinese Topeng masked dance
drama) that is multiply foreign—foreign to my home culture and to my adopted culture; foreign to
my training and even more foreign to my students. In trying to reconcile such a diversity cultural
influences, perhaps aiming for Neutral is not such a bad idea.
I am interested in Mark’s use of the term ‘Occidental,’ a rather lovely word that has fallen
out of general use and seems somehow charmingly quaint. ‘Occidental’ is a very rich term that
refers to ‘the countries of the West, especially Europe and America.’ It comes from a Latin root
meaning ‘going down’—like the setting sun. Whereas ‘Orient’ (a term coined by the West to refer to
the East) also comes from a Latin root meaning ‘rising’ and presumably refers to the rising sun—
rising in the East, setting in the West. The East full of hope and potential, the West in decline,
going down, gathering gloom. Oh dear….
Dr. Margaret Coldiron
Helsinki TEAK Symposium on Theatre Training 9-11 January 2014
The East is where we look for the sun, for light and for enlightenment—spiritual insight. This isn’t
really just messing about with words, there is something here that says something about the way
the Occident approaches the Orient, seeking a new dawn, enlightenment or perhaps just a new
light by which to see our own work. In my end of the business, people speak rather sneeringly
about “Orientalism” implying [asserting?] that this Occidental hankering for the light of the East is a
false dawn, something we (in the declining West) have invented to serve our own needs, but I think
this is both unfair and naïve. It is in fact, another incidence of the West calling the shots, painting
the picture from its own, flawed, perspective. It is Occidentalist. Non-occidental performance
traditions often seek or require a state of receptiveness in the performer that akin to the neutrality
I’m talking about, and it is through this state one can attain the highest level of art or spiritual
What’s the point in this pursuit of ‘Neutral’? In the passage that sets our theme, Mark
asserts: “the Occidental actor desires a body that is understood in theatrical terms as ‘neutral’ […]
so as to create the illusion of ‘naturalness’.” This notion of what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘real’ or
even ‘truthful’ becomes very problematic in our work on World Performance. Students brought up
in a culture that seems bound to ‘Realism’ find some of the highly stylised forms they are asked to
embody on our course offensive. “It’s not natural” they cry. But is ‘naturalness’ or ‘reality’ a good
thing in a theatrical context? Michel St Denis, the great actor, director and theatre pedagogue,
thought not. He said: “Theatre is not life, theatre is theatre. […] To reveal life the theatre cannot
use the means of life. It has got to use the means of theatre.”2 Mark doesn’t say that Neutral helps
the actor be natural on the stage. No, Neutrality is an unnatural state that prepares the performer
Michel St. Denis Theatre: The Rediscovery of Style, New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1960, p. 55.
Dr. Margaret Coldiron
Helsinki TEAK Symposium on Theatre Training 9-11 January 2014
to create the theatrical illusion of ‘naturalness.’ If one moves beyond the realm of psychological
realism and an aesthetic that gives primacy to that which is perceived as ‘natural,’ all sorts of
possibilities open up for new ways of approaching training for performance.
I want to talk a bit about our course and our struggles--philosophical, artistic and even physical--to
develop or define a system of training for contemporary theatre makers that is able to make use of
the rich panoply of theatrical cultures, styles, techniques & insights in the wider (non-European)
world. In embracing other (non-“Occidental”) theatrical cultures, we hope that our students will find
new ways to embody character and narrative and ways of making theatre that challenge ‘the
primacy of the text’ as it is understood in conventional British ‘legitimate’ theatre.
Euro-American theatre training, historically, has been very much focused upon the EuroAmerican experience and canon, with little attention or regard for the rich theatrical and
performance cultures of the rest of the world. The hegemony of Stanislavskian psychological
realism in the teaching of “acting technique” and the domination of a linear and implicitly Darwinian
notion of theatre history that measures theatrical cultures by the texts they produce, that begins
with the Greeks and moves through European history without reference to the world beyond,
appears to be rather narrow and provincial in this 21st century, globalised world. So much of
current Euro-American performance theory and practice derives from non-European (principally
Asian) sources, but these vital sources are largely unexplored in contemporary performance
training. Not entirely, of course. There are hybrid practices like Suzuki training and Phillip Zarilli’s
exercises to ‘make the body all eyes;’ some training courses use disciplines like tai chi, but these
are add-ons, not core training.
East 15 Acting School is the first major professional actor training institution in the UK to
institute a training that attempts to break free from the Euro-centric norm. The BA in World
Dr. Margaret Coldiron
Helsinki TEAK Symposium on Theatre Training 9-11 January 2014
Performance is described as a ‘hybrid’ course combining academic research with practical theatre
training. Over the 5 years of its existence it has sought to create a practical pedagogy that usefully
incorporates elements of non-European traditions with the kind of theatre training contemporary
theatre students expect and require.
The Course
The stated aims of the World Performance course, according to our course handbook, are as
1. To produce graduates with a broad understanding of the range of world performance, and the
relationships between different cultural forms
2. To produce graduates with the ability to write, devise and create work independently
3. To equip students with an understanding of key theoretical and critical approaches to analysing
performance in the world context
4. To enable students to place and evaluate performance in its historical, geographical, and
cultural context and to compare work arising from different contexts
5. To enable students to develop and apply performance and creative skills in their own work
6. To equip students with skills in research and the communication of ideas through the use of
written, presentation, and performance approaches and materials
7. To prepare students for the world of work with a range of tools for planning, organising, and
promoting their creative projects.
How do we set out to fulfil this rather ambitious list? We try to do so through a curriculum that
endeavours to strike a balance between what I refer to as ‘book learning’ and practical, experiential
learning. The first year is foundational: students follow year-long modules in “Performance Skills”
with classes in movement, voice and acting. Alongside these classes, which are standard for any
conservatoire course, they take World Theatre Studies, Music in World Performance and Western
Theatre in Context. These modules combine formal lectures with practical workshops and
seminars. In World Theatre Studies lectures the students are introduced to Theatre Anthropology
and the work and ideas of Eugenio Barba, Grotowski, Meyerhold, Phillip Zarilli, Jacques Copeau
and Zeami. The practical work (4 hours per week) consists of intensive sessions with Jeungsook,
which you will encounter yourselves a bit later. The work is assessed through ‘practical case
Dr. Margaret Coldiron
Helsinki TEAK Symposium on Theatre Training 9-11 January 2014
studies’ in which students in small groups investigate a World Performance form and then perform
a scene from a “Western” drama adapted in the style of the given performance genre. (My most
vivid memory is of a rendition of the climax of Titanic, performed in a municipal fountain in the style
of Vietnamese Water Puppets.) Music and World performance has lectures on music making in
various cultures from around the world, including the Western tradition and a wide range of popular
forms. In practical classes the students sing and play instruments and all are incorporated into the
school Salsa band. (The extracurricular East 15 Choir is usually made up primarily of World
Performance students who give concerts that include everything from Russian liturgical music to
Zulu war chants and drumming.) They are assessed on a group research project that is another
case study and present a performance based around their findings. Western Theatre in Context
consists of fairly conventional theatre history lectures and practical seminars focused on examining
key texts. These sessions begin with student-devised adaptations of episodes from the epics: The
Iliad, The Odyssey, The Ramayana and Mahabharata and then move on to reading plays aloud,
text analysis and eventually scene study. Assessments are based on two major research papers
and a group presentation. Final Term of Performance Skills culminates in a small production
project of a short play, directed by a member of staff.
The second year moves on to more case studies and skill building in modules which
include Ritual and Religious Performance, Mask Work, Non-Western Character Types, Commedia
dell’Arte, Storytelling, Stand-up Comedy, Scriptwriting and a Media module which culminates in a
short film. In the final term of the second year the students work intensively with two visiting artists
representing a non-western or intercultural performance practice. To date these have included
practitioners of Chinese Opera, Balinese shadow puppetry and dance-drama, Indian Kathakali,
dance and drumming from Ghana and Japanese Butoh as well as contemporary intercultural
theatre directors from Brazil and India. In Term 2 students have an extracurricular ‘Devising
Festival’ in which they create, rehearse and present their own work in any form.
Dr. Margaret Coldiron
Helsinki TEAK Symposium on Theatre Training 9-11 January 2014
The final year of training is designed to develop student’s performance skills for public
presentation and help them to take responsibility for their own creative development. As well as
having lectures, seminars and workshops to prepare them for professional work, they have 3 major
performance projects: a project in Applied and Political Theatre, devised under the supervision of
a professional director; an Intercultural Performance Project in which they work with an established
director on a text and a final Devised Project which the students, who are divided into 3 or 4
companies, devise and produce themselves (with mentoring support from senior staff.) All of these
projects are presented for public performance to a paying audience.
It is expected that graduates of the course will pursue a range of possible paths as a result of the
training as performers, directors or collaborative theatre-makers.
On paper, it’s a very good course. It generates excitement among colleagues, but it isn’t
perfect and these are some of the problems:
Intake – Economic requirements mean that we must take 40 students per year and not all
of those who decide to take up the offer are suitable for the course.
Student expectation vs. Curriculum – Although some have a real interest in broadening
their horizons and discovering new things from different cultures, many just want to be in a
‘normal’ drama school course.
How does one cover THE WORLD in 3 years?
2 alternatives: Smörgasbord3 vs. deep (but still too brief) encounters.
The Wikipedia treatment of this word and its etymology is most interesting: “In an extended
sense, the word is used to refer to any situation which invites patrons to select whatever they wish
among lots of pleasant things. ..The term is also used as a metaphor to indicate any diverse group,
synonymous with a vast array of possible choices.”örgåsbord
Dr. Margaret Coldiron
Helsinki TEAK Symposium on Theatre Training 9-11 January 2014
Smörgasbord – Y1: Hula, African Dance, Jing-ju, Balinese Kecak; Meisner,
Chekhov, Strasberg; Y2: African and invented Rituals; Shakespeare; JingJu; Kathakali; 2 weeks of Commedia; Stage Fighting; Butoh etc. etc.
Now the training is more focused:
Y1 – Core of the work is with Jeungsook to build focus and
concentration and to give students an approach that will help them in
whatever material they encounter.
Year 2 work covers a whole term in order to build mastery.
What are we trying to do? What do we hope to accomplish?
We don’t deny culture and culturally ingrained modes of being, behaving and communicating, but
we believe that performers have a capacity for extending their range of expressive modes and
languages. 3 years is not enough—5 years would be better—7-10 years would be ideal! But that is
really just a dream. We’d like to be able to train them ‘thoroughly’, but we are working in a system
that does not allow for the kind of time we need. There is a difference between undergraduate
education and vocational training. A trained professional actor has a coherent technique and can
do what is expected of him/her in a professional situation. I don’t think our students have this
capacity on graduation. However, they are likely to be more adaptable and able to take on new
things, to think out of the Stanislavskian box, as it were. All the work we do takes practice, focus
and dedication—which is very difficult for twenty-first century students who are used to instant
gratification. Also, we have too many students and too little time. These traditional performance
forms are based on the guru-sisiya model, in which one or two disciples live and work with their
teacher, receiving instruction on a daily basis, but we have 40-45 students in cohorts of 20+ with
only 24 contact hours per week. Nonetheless, many students gain a great deal from the training
they receive, and many of our students have gone on to explore more of the world as touring
Dr. Margaret Coldiron
Helsinki TEAK Symposium on Theatre Training 9-11 January 2014
actors and as teachers, so perhaps, in our little way we can begin to open minds to the world and
open the world for growing young artists.