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Learning while teaching

It is a bit of a cliché that you learn from your students. As soon as a teacher says that you wonder if they are JUST saying it. It makes the teacher sound humble. It is true however that when I am teaching at my best I am learning the most. Not all students are equal and people come to me for myriad reasons, from chronic pain, to posture, neurological impairment to improving a skill. It is the latter that I want to focus on today.

One of the services I offer is what I call a "combo" ( or Acting Plus) which features hands-on one-to-one Feldenkrais and actor training. I was an actor for 20 years and taught movement for actors at conservatoire level at the Oxford School of Drama for 10. Acting is a skill. It is a skill that can be improved at any point, although a lot of actors in the UK stop learning in any formal sense after their initial training at drama school. From the evidence of what I am experiencing, working with actors privately, now, this is a shame because of the fabulous revelations and break-throughs actors can have with a combination of my actor training tools and Feldenkrais. I'd like to see more actors come and experience what I have to offer. Susie Kimnell, the subject of today's blog, even calls it "a magic formula" for preparing herself for a film or play.

Susie Kimnell, actor and writer.

I must stress quickly that of course it is not magic; it just feels like magic. There is definitely no formula and that is one of the things that makes it feel like magic. Susie, whom I taught at drama school, has come to me a couple of times in preparation for roles and after this session, she tweeted almost immediately without being specifically asked to do so, with such enthusiasm that I can't help reiterating it here. "Ed Woodall's work is vital for my preparation as an actor. The combination of Feldenkrais and acting is magic formula. The two hour sessions are fundamental; incredibly effective, transformative work that releases something untapped".

Susie came to me this time with a very specific request. She is playing a man in a play and wanted to get some insight into how to do so better. (The first session she had with me last year was on accessing grief). What is funny about this request is that I have no idea really how to "teach" someone this cross-gendering skill but more and more I realise that, a bit like my teacher (Feldenkrais), I do not try to teach. Feldenkrais even said to his last batch of 300 students at Amherst that he would be the "worst teacher that they ever had"! It is vital for the student to learn but not for the teacher to teach. In fact, there is probably a direct relation between the lack of teaching and the boost in learning.

Susie is a particularly interesting person to teach and it turned out that the subject of gender that we were dealing with was much more interesting than I imagined that it would be. She is clear in her objectives but is totally open to being surprised or upset by her own realisations in the sessions. The truth is that she really knows how to use her time. Private lessons don't come cheap and so that is a good habit to adopt! In a post- #metoo world there are already a lot more women playing men in plays and I think it could be an interesting area for me to specialise in.

There are some obvious points and platitudes about the difference between playing male and female but what I discovered with Susie was that I cannot ever make a generalisation for one actor or another; the shift in their mind from one gender to another is entirely personal. (In an age of gender-fluidity it could be argued that gender-swapping is political but that is not my concern today). Susie had some really suprising things to say about what it feels like to be a woman and the challenges that face female actors more, we concluded, than male actors. I say we didn't make generalisations but actually we made MASSES of generalisations! It was great fun and really liberating. Gender is in reality very complex and messy but in this context we could afford to be "typical".

Susie is preparing a role in The Merchant of Venice and the male she is portraying, a character called, Salanio, is what you might call a typical male. Of course, we are dealing with characters and story-telling and in that respect we dealt in archetypes, and physical indictors that let the audience be clear about the gender of the character being portrayed. Gender like character itself must not be heavily applied; as soon as the actor betrays a lack of belief in themselves as that gender or character they start to push and it becomes unwatchable. Susie is not going to fall into that category. She has a highly tuned "antenna" for truthfulness.

As an acting teacher, I have no rules, but I do rely on a number of principles and tools. One is the very Feldenkrais-y idea of difference. Feldenkrais once said, and I paraphrase, "the only way that we learn as human beings is by distinguishing the difference in one thing from another". It is true. So instinct led me to ask Susie to allow herself to be a boy, not a man and then asked her to be a girl and then a woman. All the time I must add not expecting a result or asking for a show of behaviour but just allow the idea of that person to inform her movement. The results were astonishing. Susie's ability to slip almost effortlessly from one state to another was a joy to behold.

I am not going to detail the whole session but it went into her becoming the man, lying on the floor and doing some light but highly instructive "bodywork" (Feldenkrais) then using #integratedacting processes of abstract movement to explore the inner life of this man. At one moment I suggested she show some aggression at which she baulked. It was a cut-de-sac. Testosterone is typically male; men have more of it. It makes them fight each other physically more than women do. So we ended up doing what Feldenkrais might call an "elusive obvious" and I taught her to box! I am no expert but I know enough to give her some basic "feels". As the penny dropped and she slapped and punched away at one of the soft cushions I carry with me to help people be comfortable in hands-on touch (!), she started to derive a real joy in feeling the power and aggression of what she is then able to transmute into her version of the merchant she is playing. Susie even said to me, "I bet you didn't foresee teaching me how to box!" and of course I had not. As I gain experience and confidence in teaching, I have less and less of a plan. It is exhilarating and even more so when I have such a skilled and honest playing partner.

I am much looking forward to seeing her in action with a really talented cast in this production in Peckham later this month.

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