On Gravity and Pulling Our Own Strings

Not too long ago, my good friend Asa wrote me in response to my blog post on The Mass Ornament. His email was chock full of insights and new questions, and while this isn’t the place to respond to the entire letter, I did want to quote him on a particular passage (hope you don’t mind Ace!). Reflecting upon questions of self expression when suppressing one’s individuality in performance, I asked— Just who is pulling the strings?— somewhat rhetorically for I already had an answer in mind (the manipulating force, of course!). But Asa flipped my question on its head by answering it literally, writing:

"Thinking about the prime example of a puppet and puppeteer, I now see two string pullers: the puppet, and the puppeteer. The puppeteer is doing some pulling, but the puppet pulls in a sense, too. I mean, if we don’t think of pulling as a volitional thing, an exercise of will, then the puppet is definitely pulling on the strings, if only because of gravity."

And he’s so right. When I read this, I felt like I had just spent twenty minutes searching for my glasses, only to discover they’re on top of my head; of course the puppet pulls its own strings— it’s got gravity on its side!

If this sounds like a trivial observation, it kind of is. But that’s no slight at Asa. Gravity’s ubiquity effectively belies its significance. Fortunately the theatre has a knack for shining a spotlight on what we normal take for granted. There are entire theatrical forms and performance pedagogies rooted in the human body’s relationship with gravity. These methods seek to draw gravity’s strengths out for themselves by making this relationship more active and precarious, be it through acrobatics, perfect stillness, or even standing up perfectly straight. But in order to manage this precariousness effectively, consistently and compellingly, the performer must also confront a different two-way pull lying within her/his own body.

Because one’s body, like gravity, is always there, it just as easily can be taken for granted. Bad posture, idiosyncratic ticks, misplaced muscular tensions— these derivations from a neutral, vertical body develop over long stretches of time until they are so ingrained that they pass by as if normal. And subjectively speaking, they are normal. After all, you have nothing to compare your own bodily experiences to, so what you know is what you know. Case in point, most people (myself included) will feel like they are falling forward when they actually stand up straight for the first time because they are so used to leaning back with their weight in their heels. In this moment, the now vertical person has engaged in a two-way pull between a non-volitional state (that habituated leaning back) and a foreign, usually uncomfortable new pull forwards and upwards. To stand up straight this person will have to actively pull against her/his sense of normalcy.

           Not recognizing these kinds of habituated, non-volitional pulls in our bodies become a problem onstage for both theoretical and physiological reasons. To the latter, I give you Frederick Matthias Alexander: F. M. Alexander was an orator and actor who, in the 1890’s, found his voice growing progressively hoarser following each performance. As Alexander depended on his voice for not just his art but also his wages, this was a problem. Unfortunately, no specialists could identify the source of this problem, so Alexander surrounded himself with mirrors to observe himself while he spoke. For the first time in his life, he noticed his own tendency to tilt is head upward and back as soon as he opened his mouth. Surprisingly (to him— though if you’re with me so far you might see this coming), when he tried again, this time consciously telling his head to move down and forward, he found that his head moved even further upward and back than before! Like a puppet who suddenly discovers he/she has strings, Alexander had to spend months discovering whole new ways of communicating with his body— the result of which became the foundations for Alexander technique.

I’m going to cut off the story of F. M. Alexander and his technique right here because it’d make this already long post much longer. But I will add this: when Alexander finally managed to correct his personal habits (tilting head included), he found that his voice never grew hoarse again, and in fact became much more powerful.

Which brings me to the former, more theoretical reason why unconscious body movement can be problematic onstage: in performance, you have to make choices. If you’re not making choices then you’re not active and if you’re not active, you’re not interesting. I first picked up this lesson as a freshman in high school from an 11th grader who I consider to be my first theatre mentor, Sam Zetumer. One day, on the bus home from school, he told me that acting, at its simplest, was like binary code: you’ve got to give a 0 or a 1, anything in-between won’t cut it. Do something or do nothing, he said, just don’t kind of do something. This advice has since been like a gravity to me; it’s so obvious that I almost immediately forget about it until one day when I fall flat on my face and all I can say is, “Well duh!"

So these are hard lessons to apply even if they’re easy to say. I didn’t begin to grasp how to make concrete choices in my body until years after I first received this advice. It began by noticing the aspects of my own body that had always existed unnoticed. I’m still searching. I recently discovered that I unnecessarily grip with my lower back muscles all the time. Right now my right hand sometimes does this weird, swimming motion involuntarily when I’m onstage trying to move “profoundly" without knowing why I’m moving “profoundly." And I still don’t think I’ve found true verticality. These (and other) idiosyncrasies I’ve found will take many more years to satisfyingly curb. I compare this game tug of war with my own body to exploring a dense jungle; not only does it take a great deal of time and effort to cut away at the overgrowth and find the path, but when you final take a few steps forward, the vines behind you will have already begun to grow back.

This unending struggle can be a good thing. The ongoing pull can keep you interesting, keep you active.

In the streets of Prague yesterday I saw an artist selling his drawings, including a picture of a marionette attempting to cut its own strings with scissors. It was a powerfully symbolic image, but all I could think about was what would happen to this marionette when it finally severed its strings. Those strings held it upright. They were the key constraint to its animation. They were all that stood between it and another, even stronger pull— gravity. After it freed itself from its strings, the marionette would most likely fall to the floor as a lifeless, crumpled mass.

Fortunately, traditional Czech marionettes have a wire running through the head into the handle— far more difficult to cut. The day after tomorrow, I start a month of work with Czech marionette carvers and manipulators. I’m going to make my own marionette! What will it look like? You’ll just have to wait and see! Plenty of more to come soon…

The Watson has officially begun!