As a part of our Master’s series , here we take a brief look at the ways of Étienne Decroux.

Decroux’s ways are a way of preparation of the actor rather than rehearsals. The importance of preparation has been well elucidated by Richard Schechner as he says that ” Rehearsal is a way of setting an exact sequence of events. Preparations are a constant state of training so that when a situation arises one will be ready to “do something appropriate.” Preparations are what a good athletic team does.” (Schechner 1977)

One must live, one must suffer, and one must struggle before expressing oneself
artistically. One must have something to say. Art is first of all a complaint. One who is happy with things as they are has no business being on the stage. (Decroux 1978)

Étienne Decroux

ETIENNE DECROUX (1898 – 1991)

“Born in 1898, Decroux had worked as a mason, a hospital orderly, a factory worker and a dock worker before he was 25. He enrolled at Jacques Copeau’s Ecole du Vieux Columbier at the age of 25 in preparation for a career in political oratory.
Without losing his political orientation, Decroux became a man of the theatre.”

“Having studied at Jacques Copeau’s Theatre School in France, Decroux became a cinema and theatre actor and collaborated with, among others, Antonin Artaud, Charles Dullin, Louis Jouvet and Marcel Carné in the movie ‘Les Enfants Du Paradis’. He dedicated the second part of his life to the creation of a theatre which takes the actor as the centre of the creation process and considers the actor’s body as the principal instrument. He created numerous pieces, investigated into the body’s expression for many years and gave classes at the school L’Atelier in Paris, Teatro Piccolo in Milan and the Actors’ Studio in New York. Moreover, he directed his own company and toured Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Great Britain and Israel.”

 

I desire theatre in which the actor . . . is an instrumentalist of his own body, and everything he does, he does as an artist, and not just as an exposition of his personal nature. (Decroux 1978)

Corporeal Mime is not a secret study, yet it has never been a popular form.
Decroux’s “puritan revolutionary” personality discourages the merely curious, and his art seems esoteric to many. Decroux’s “small, strict holy order” remains outside the mainstream because he is less concerned with entertaining spectators than with transforming students – mind and body – into his image of the Promethean actor or ideal Everyman.

” Promethean art [is] an art in which man does things. Man was not content to live in a cave. He is the rival of God in that he makes things. He makes statues. It’s as if he said to God, “The man you made is not beautiful. I’m going to make another. The cave you made is not beautiful. I’ll make a monument.”(Decroux 1978)

What exactly have I done? One day a student of mine said to me, “The day you said ‘head without neck’ you found your whole system.” I wouldn’t have thought of that definition, but I think that’s it: the head without the neck, the neck without the chest, the chest without the waist, the waist without the pelvis, the pelvis without the legs . . . So we consider the keyboard as something that should inspire us. Nothing should happen in the body except what is desired and calculated. (Decroux 1978)

The Method

According to Decroux, the actor whose actions are based on impulse or emotion is embarrassing or ridiculous . The actor’s personal nature manifests itself spontaneously and easily in facial expressions and hand gestures, according to Decroux; therefore, face and hand gestures must be suppressed.

Geometry is the substance of reason for Decroux. To have the body “regulate its step to that of thought” means that all movement must be inspired by geometric principles. The body segments must be isolated and “played” like a keyboard.

Head, neck, chest, waist, pelvis and legs can be isolated and “played” in three dimensions – sagittal (side-to-side) inclinations frontal (back-and-forth) inclinations and rotations.

Each part is trained to move in all three ways and in combinations called single, double and triple designs (dessins). A single design is movement on one plane or dimension; a double design is in two dimensions; and a triple design is in three dimensions. For example, if the head leans to the left, or if head, neck, chest and waist all incline left, this is a single design. If the head leans right and then rotates in either direction, it is a double design. If it leans right, bends forward and then rotates right, the head creates a triple design.

The resulting combinations, or attitudes, can be arrived at by moving each part separately or all at once. Moving from one attitude to another, the Corporeal Mime actor creates an itinerary (itinéraire) or moving statuary (statuaire mobile).

Preparatory Exercise & Meditation

” When an actor in shorts is lying on the ground, it’s a whole nation lying down. And when he slowly rises up, you see the play of his muscles. After that he comes and goes, lifts things, throws them. He’s self-reliant man, and there’s his rapport with Promethean art.”- (Decroux 1978)

1. A simple exercise demonstrates the transition from inaction to “rising up,” or from mental sleep to wakefulness.

2. You sit in a chair. You are asleep.
Still sleeping, you stir. The head shifts to center.

3.The eyes open, but you do not see.
You see, but do not register what you see.

4. Registering what you see, your interest is aroused.

5. You take action; stand.

Decroux’s concept of the rational actor who rules his body with his will is epitomized in his work on the Meditation, an improvisation piece whose subject is reasoning itself. The improvisation begins with a transition from vacuity to wakefulness similar to the preparatory exercise that has been described. In the Meditation, however, the actor begins standing and distills the entire sequence into one instant of transition from inaction to attention. This moment represents the awakening of thought.

Thought awakens in the eyes and head. The head then begins an investigation, a research of logical movement possibilities. For example, if the head inclines to the right, it then returns to rectilinear and repeats the movement, or it executes a symmetrical inclination to the left. The neck follows to the right or else contradicts the head and inclines to the left. The choices are limited by the logic of geometry.

Growing interest produces expanded physical involvement. The chest is pulled into action. Perhaps the head and neck explored only the sagittal plane, and now a second “idea,” originating in the head, pulls the neck and chest into an exploration of the frontal plane. The possibilities of two dimensions are explored. The chest must be able to move with as much force and weight as the head. Normally fused to
the waist, it struggles to articulate while the waist stays fixed.

Perhaps the head has led the neck and chest into an inclination to the left and forward. Holding this “idea,” it begins a new exploration in rotation, still inclined to the left and forward. Continuing to rotate, the waist is engaged, and finally, pulling the legs and hips to an extreme rotation, a new plateau is reached, a new starting point.

The search begins again. The head starts out in a new direction, following a new thought, constructing a new geometrical design. An itinerary begins to unfold, a map carved out by the moving statuary. Seeking a harmonious line, a uniformity of execution, obedience to the logic of mind, the body struggles to keep step with thought. Moments of stillness are juxtaposed with moments of shock and reverberation. An action may repeat and accelerate, then unfold in a new direction. It is like an animal searching for food or a Greek statue trans- forming in stone. The whole process has taken perhaps three, perhaps ten, minutes.

All texts are from “ETIENNE DECROUX’S PROMETHEAN MIME” by Deidre Sklar

 

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