Updated: Jan 20, 2021
It's all a matter of timing. And trust. Oh, and taste and lenses.
But any actor knows that the death of their desire, will and skill is the notion that they should have to reduce anything to be effective on tv and film.
They might not be able to move around when in a close shot, of course, but once they are constrained then something ELSE has to start moving. Moshe Feldenkrais once said that "movement is life" and if you think about it, of course, it is true. It is an elusive obvious and the levels and registers of 'movement' are almost INFINITE!
For nearly thirty years now, I have been extolling the virtues of MOVEMENT for actors. This, though, is an almost meaningless statement. Movement is fantastically varied in form, sensation and effect and so the fact that 'movement is life' needs unpacking! . What I do believe that I have learned over the last 30 years is that movement has to inform whatever an actor does; in terms of their stagecraft, their vocal production, their thinking about the other character and many other more subtle things to do with how they bring the basically inanimate black and white marks of the words on the script to LIFE.
I was introduced, unwittingly to the Feldenkrais Method, which now is my day job, at the world-renowned school of movement, mime and theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. One of Lecoq's most elegant and widely used tools for the actor was what is commonly known as the 7 Levels of Tension.
The levels have not, as far as I know, ever been formalised. It is almost like an oral tradition. I was taught this beautiful exercise by Lecoq himself and so then feel that I am privileged by some sort of closeness to the source, but I have also been taught it by a couple more brilliant teachers, notably, Simon McBurney of Complicité fame and Giovanni Fusetti, who have influenced my thinking about it and I have also been exposed to John Wright's version of it which is interesting but, for me, a little too specific and limiting in its terminology.
The exercise fundamentally proposes that a human being acts under a number of clearly differentiated levels of muscular "tonus". These are literally differing levels of muscle contraction. So, if you are "chilled" your muscles will be relaxed and if you are het-up or worried, the muscles through your body will be more tense. The fact is that most of us do not feel, sense or understand these differing levels of tension.
People do not, basically, know what they are doing! It's a hard realisation but in my experience of working with people in theatre, movement and therapy, I know it to be true. People have a pretty sketchy grasp of how they act, how they move and how their intention is often at odds with their execution.
This is one of the reasons why we like watching drama and like reading fiction. The writers and actors have been trained to organise experience, so that you receive a clear picture of what is going on as opposed to your own life, which is very hard to assess or understand!
Next year I will be teaching 7 Levels of Tension as part of my Play On season of classes at Wildcard Studios in central London from January to April. ( Release and Control) In celebration of that fact I am going to now spend some of my precious Sunday evening extolling the virtues of the fabulous French actor Phillipe Duclos from the hit crime series Spiral, or of course, in French, "Engrenages". The link is that in a scene in episode 6 of the current season (7) he is given free rein to act in a way that most actors are never given the opportunity to act on TV or film. He goes BIG! But of course, to be able to go big, you have to know what you are doing otherwise you will appear to be indulgent or just a mess. Phillipe Dulcos who has, interestingly, a string of theatre credits to his name, clearly and beautifully knows what he is doing.
The scene takes place towards the end of the episode. The police team that he invigilates have crossed a boundary into illegality and he has just been seen defending them to a senior officer in the previous scene.
Our heroes, Laure and Gilou have to confess their wrong-doing. It is then that this actor really shows his "chops" and in doing so, makes full use of levels of tension.
He manages to go through the whole gamut of tension levels in one scene from the almost collapsed level 1 when he contemplates the news to almost the apoplexy of Level 7 when he reacts angrily to being disrespected. It is fabulous acting from a fabulous TV show and if you have not seen it, then I heartily advise that you find a way of doing so.
It is a cliché of acting that you have to make everything smaller for film and TV. Not necessarily true. It all depends on frame size and the size, frankly of your heart! Actors who act big have to be contained by the director and not the other way round. Do you think Jack Nicholson thought he needed to tone it down in The Shining or Daniel Day Lewis was worried that his character of Daniel Plainview was over the top in There Will be Blood?? In fact, I once read a wonderful article in the Guardian when There Will be Blood was opening entitled something like "What happened to Big Acting?" and the journalist remarked that on the day that Day Lewis filmed the infamous "milkshake" scene that there must have been very little acting going on in the world that day because Daniel was doing enough for EVERYONE ELSE!
To really go big you need a huge amount of ability to release and when that has happened you need a huge amount of awareness and control to make sense of it. My first mini-season of Play On, at Wildcard's spaces in Balderton St WI in the new year are on just that Release and Control. Using Lecoq's framework and the 7 Levels of Tension, I will lead the group through some wonderful embodied processes which will, doubtless, help them to act that bit bigger...when necessary.