The Nature OF Physicality In The Performing Arts And Acting Dissertation

Type of paper: Dissertation

Topic: Theater, Actors, Body, Performance, Movement, Disability, Human, Actions

Pages: 10

Words: 2750

Published: 2020/09/20


Performance is a difficult thing to define in specific terms; depending on the production, the demands or capabilities of the actor, and the nature of the piece, different actors and actresses use different elements to perform in various ways. Performing is, in essence, to do or show, to be and to know what you are being – in the context of performing arts such as acting, to ‘perform’ is to embody a character that is decidedly unlike the actor themselves, and to adopt their words and mannerisms according to the script and the demands of the performance itself.
Physicality is an integral component of performance; as the primary means by which human beings communicate, it is the instrument through which the thoughts, intentions and emotions of a character or scene is conveyed to an audience. In order to achieve an expert level of performance, the human body must be honed just like the vocal instrument of an actor; in this essay, the importance of physicality for performing arts, as well as the way it is enhanced through fitness or hindered through disability, is explored. In this way, physicality is shown to be a complex, multifaceted and sophisticated tool to use in the creation of theatrical art and performance.

Performance and the Human Body

The human body is an integral part of performance – it is the ultimate instrument by which emotions, actions and story can be conveyed in a work of performing art. As human beings, we have the capability of talking and moving at the same time, using movement just as much as our voice and speech to tell others what we are doing (Farnell, 1999). Body movement is often likened to action, “the dynamically embodied signifying practice of a human agent” (Farnell 1999, p. 343). To that end, when we make an action with our bodies, we are sending a message that is coded socially, politically, culturally and more, communicating to others.
The human capability for movement has long been an important component for human sociology and social interaction; whether through dancing, choreography or ritual, stylized human movement has been used to convey a large number of social and cultural meanings (Farnell, 1999). Farnell (1999) describes dance, for example, as “social action as dynamically embodied practices, in which people talk and/or move in structured symbolic spaces, integrating action signs and vocal signs in numerous ways, in varied con-texts” (p. 365). Other activities such as sport, musical performance, and so on are also used to convey human action sign systems that convey meaning to those who watch them. As the human body moves in a certain way, those within that culture that is already familiar with the signifiers that movement entails are able to assign meaning to that same gesture, and thus a connection is made (Farnell, 1999).
Movement is a powerful tool for performance, as body language and gesture are just as telling in terms of communicating ideas as the words that come out of our mouths (Farnell, 1999). We learn the basics of how to do this during childhood, picking up movements and meanings through social cues and developing habits. In order to best focus those efforts in a directed way through acting and performance art, it is necessary to train oneself to find the best ways to use and move one’s body to achieve the desired effect for an audience.
A fully-equipped actor for performance is able to use their method of physical actions to convey the human spirit on stage (Whyman, 2008). On stage, our outer actions and forms are direct expressions of our inner emotions; what we put forth on stage through movement and voice are the symbolic representation of what the character is feeling and going through. Stage action is internal emotion expressed through outward physical action – even staying still as a character on stage can speak volumes about said character and the way that they are reacting to a scene (Whyman, 2008). On stage, there is no such thing as a hidden emotion or movement; if the audience does not see it, it does not exist. To that end, physicality is incredibly important for conveying the emotions and thematic thrust of a character, as it is the only way to tell the story to the audience apart from the voice of an actor.
In order to best use one’s instrument, an actor has to be able to expand the possibilities of what they can do with the human body as best they can. Undergoing training to expand one’s knowledge of their body and their individual tics is integral to their ability to act. Often, we are not aware of the things our body is doing, from tapping our feet to twirling our hair, and cracking our fingers and so on. Physical activities and tics like that happen subconsciously, but speak volumes about the way you carry yourself. Instead of ignoring these tics and letting control of one’s physicality escape you, it is necessary to learn how to make yourself aware of them and master your sense of movement so that you can completely control the message you send to someone else.
Experimentation and movement are an important part of physicality and acting. It is a very kinaesthetic process, as it is difficult to instruct – all an instructor can truly do is allow an actor to ‘feel out’ the way they move, usually through a series of exercises that permit them to expand the ways they move their body. Actors, at all times, must be able to convey dramatic intention with their instrument (i.e. their body), which can only come from fine-tuning it to make themselves as expressive as possible.
Over time, this same physical training and acting preparation can have certain psychological effects on this human being, making them even more prepared to use their bodies to act. The imagination is just as important an instrument to the actor as the body; however, as the body’s capabilities increase, so too does the actor’s toolkit of potential movements and ideas for utilizing them. This has the psychological effect of combining the “psychical” with the “physical,” actors linking their movements with the real life of their imaginations (Whyman 2008, p. 64). The more an actor focuses on their movements and physicality relative to that of others’, the more it is possible for these same actors to imagine themselves in the lives and bodies of these other people. Changing your body can go a long way to convincing yourself (and an audience member) that you are a different person. This kind of psychological game is the essence of performance, and the way by which audiences are immersed into the lives and worlds of a play and its characters.
One of the biggest hurdles that actors can run into when attempting to perfect their physicality is the emphasis on ‘naturalistic’ acting; it is easy to get the impression that all you have to do is act ‘natural,’ say the lines like you would say them, and that counts as a performance. However. Actors must be able to transform themselves, which requires a tremendous amount of discipline and training – even when trying to look natural. Becoming aware of how your body works relative to others’ is a vital component of physical acting and movement; actors frequently must look at the ways other people carry their bodies, looking at the vast swath of humankind around them and studying the different ways people move and hold themselves. The art of imitation and adaptation is accomplished thoroughly through the study of movement and physicality in acting.
The process of using movement to expand on this understanding of one’s physicality is fairly straightforward and common. First, physical tension must be released, as that can prevent actors from fully investing themselves in the process. Next, it is necessary to free their breath, permitting them to completely loosen up and surrender themselves to the process without any anxiety or tension. By relaxing oneself as much as possible, an actor allows the invention and imagination they possess to take over, making it easier to use voice and body to express them. Next, bad habits have to be broken – actors who stand with poor posture, with sunken chests and locked knees, must be able to learn how best to adapt themselves into a healthier, more neutral posture with which they can adapt into many other different kinds of characters. While many actors are a slave to their habits, the best actors find ways to transcend their own limitations and transform themselves into someone else through a variety of techniques and tremendous amounts of training.
Physical expression and movement is one of the greatest ways to convey a sense of truth in performance, whether through naturalistic movements designed to make a character look as though they are really feeling these emotions, or through intensely stylized movements that enhance the theatricality and spectacle of a given work. Performance and physicality are the keys for the audience to try to make sense of a play or other work; as such, the messages must be conveyed correctly and accurately, which can only be done through a sheer command of one’s physical body. Meaning is assigned to every actor’s movement on stage; if an actor does not control their body properly, they can inadvertently give off body language or gesture that betrays the character’s intentions or that of the scene. The best actors can completely control their every movement, making every gesture, every blink of an eye, drip with significance. Regardless of the style of play or performance, physicality is the key to conveying this truth to the audience.

Acting and Movement Through Disability

Art thrives through limitation, and performance is no different; some of the greatest actors of all time have struggled against disabilities to take full control of their bodies and give compelling performances. Actors can struggle through invisible diseases like dyslexia, asthma, diabetes and other things, or work through physical disabilities like lost limbs, paraplegia, autism, stroke, and so on. These actors have a particularly difficult job, as the toolkit that they have is ostensibly limited due to the disability they have been given. It is extremely hard, for the most part, for characters with disabilities to play characters without disabilities; many actors have to share the disabilities of their characters. RJ Mitte on Breaking Bad, for example, is an actor with cerebral palsy who must incorporate his condition into the role of the cerebral palsy-stricken Walter Jr. Dwarf actors, like Warwick Davis and Peter Dinklage, must do the same thing, incorporating their physicality and shorter stature into the roles they play. Despite these limitations, many of the best actors are able to overcome them to completely sell their roles and captivate audiences.
One of the most highly acclaimed performances by a disabled actor in a film is Harold Russell’s touching portrayal of a disabled WWII vet in the 1945 film The Best Years of Our Lives. Harold Russell was a real war veteran whose hands were amputated following an injury during wartime, finding them replaced with steel hooks. Still, despite this, Russell demonstrated a remarkable sense of dexterity with his hooks, working that ability into the film itself (Bergan, 2002). Russell’s disability turned out to enhance the character of Homer in William Wyler’s film, as the fact that he could achieve so much with his hooks was leavened by the character’s own inner turmoil about being able to reintegrate back into peacetime American society.
When watching The Best Years of Our Lives, it is possible to gain a complex sense of Homer’s psychology simply through the way Russell uses his hands as part of the rest of his body. Homer, through Russell, is able to dextrously do the same tasks as everyone else, such as opening cigarette cases, offering cigarettes to people, and even playing the piano in a rudimentary way. However, Russell’s cheery, chipper demeanour gave way to dramatic scenes in which he agonized over his hooks and what they might mean for his girlfriend Wilma, turning his disability into a powerful acting tool. In one dramatic scene, Russell uses his hook to smash through a window to scare off a child who is leering at him.
Without his disability, scenes like this and many others in The Best Years of Our Lives would not have nearly as much import and significance. In a way, his hands became symbolic of the many kinds of ‘war wounds’ veterans came back with after the war, and the ways they can hold soldiers back from going back to normal life. Having won two Oscars for the role, Russell’s is the perfect example of an actor who can make the best of a physical disability and channel it into a powerhouse performance (Bergan, 2002). Even in this way, actors can take disabilities and make something entirely new from the unique ways their bodies are constructed or operate.
Having full knowledge of one’s body can help you play a disabled body, as understanding the ways each part of your body works makes it easier to shut one part of it off. Disabled performers themselves are quite savvy about challenging, changing and overcoming stereotypes about their disability through their work. Able-bodied performers performing the roles of the disabled is often seen as problematic, as it deprives disabled actors of what few chances they have of acting out their disability on screen (Kuppers, 2013). However, with the proper training, actors can find ways to play a disability.
Finding this kind of ability comes through proper training, of course, and the understanding of every part of their body that allows them to cope realistically with shutting off one part of it. An able-bodied actor playing a paraplegic, for example, must not only not move their legs, but find ways to get around their world in the same way a real paraplegic might (Kuppers, 2013). Movement is therefore affected, in this example, by focusing more substantially on the upper arms as the source of one’s strength; actors playing blind people must learn to focus on their other senses to get around and navigate their surroundings as well. This kind of comprehensive and selective compartmentalization of the senses and limbs can only happen when an actor has supreme and total control of their body and how it works.

Acting and Fitness

Fitness is another element of performance enhancement with actors; by staying in good shape, actors can have the strength and agility to perform any number of feats that the role may demand. For many, it is an aesthetic issue; the television, film and theatre industries have created immensely high standards of beauty and fitness for actors, to the extent where actors must simply get into supermodel-level shape just to be considered good-looking enough to get the part. Apart from that, however, maintaining a certain level of physical fitness is integral to the job.
When an actor is out of shape, they are not as flexible, are not as capable of achieving appropriate levels of energy, and are not as dynamic with the movements they can make. To that end, physical fitness allows actors to have even more options with conveying thoughts, ideas and emotions by ensuring they are strong, fit, fast and limber. Actors must maintain a strong sense of health and fitness in order to ensure that they fulfil their potential as an instrument for their work and their director.
Action film roles, in particular, put a tremendous amount of pressure on actors to be physically fit and train in martial arts or stunts to pull off some of the high-intensity fights they may get into. For example, the James Bond film franchise asks a lot of its constantly rotating lead star, as they must get into fistfights, chases and more while also making it look graceful. For the film Skyfall, in particular, 007 star Daniel Craig was trained by trainers such as former British Royal Marine Simon Waterson, using his military techniques to help a variety of stars get fit for larger roles (Collias, 2012). Trainers such as these use a combination of rigorous physical training and diet (including supplements) to beef up actors in order to get them to look better and perform better for their larger, more physically demanding scenes.
One particular factor to consider in the pursuit of fitness in addition to performance is that actors, unlike athletes, have to consider aesthetics as part of their appearance as well. They way they hold themselves helps to create a certain look that the director or filmmaker would like to see in their actors, and so fitness must be supplemented with movement (Collias, 2012). Work like CrossFit and plyometrics are used frequently to help achieve this combination of fitness and aesthetics, as trainers adapt exercise routines to improve efficiency for the actors they train. When utilizing fitness as a substantial component of an actor’s movement and physicality, there is a fine line between bodybuilding and cardio that must be achieved, in order to reach the precise look needed for a role.


The importance of physicality in the craft of acting cannot be overstated. From the need to understand one’s body to the ability to change it, enhance it, and train it to do whatever you want, physicality allows the actor to use their most powerful instrument in the course of their work. As one of the most important instruments by which an actor can convey the full spectrum of emotion and drama of performance, the human body must be cared for, exercised and practiced upon just as any craftsman utilized their own instrument.


Bergan, Ronald (2002-02-06). "Harold Russell; Brave actor whose artificial hands helped him
win two Oscars". The Guardian. Retrieved from
Birringer, J. H. (1998). Media & Performance: along the border. JHU Press.
Collias, N. (2012 Nov 20). The James Bond builder: Skyfall trainer Simon Waterson. Retrieved from
Farnell, B. (1999). Moving bodies, acting selves. Annual Review of Anthropology, 341-373.
Kuppers, P. (2013). Disability and contemporary performance: Bodies on the edge. Routledge.
Whyman, R. (2008). The Stanislavsky system of acting: legacy and influence in modern
performance. Cambridge University Press.

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