Exercising dramatically

I'm not against exercise. Well, not for others. I can't say I'd make a happy jogger. I am definitely not one to pay to go to a gym in order to subject myself to treadmills, stationary bikelike apparatus, weights, and other diabolical contraptions theoretically designed to make one strong and fit. The very thought of them makes me feel weak and wan.

Which has what to do with my foray into the world of amateur dramatics?

I have long believed that art - as opposed to sports - has to do with economy of effort. That "less is more." But it seems I've got it all wrong. At my acting class, each session begins with warm-up exercises, as if we are preparing to play football.

We stretch everything. About the only parts of us we don't stretch are our ears and noses. (Though when we hold one ankle up and push it hard against our hindquarters, one way to prevent unseemly wobble is to hold onto your ear with your other hand. So I suppose, yes, we do stretch our ears.)

What has stretching to do with Ibsen? Why, I ask myself as I extend my fingers in the general direction of the floor, or giraffe my neck toward various points of the cosmos, why?

We form a circle and walk around, fast, slow, short steps, vast strides, backward without looking, forward on our toes, on our heels. We don daft hats to act like the sort of person who'd wear that sort of hat. We form teams and enact a tug of war. Without a rope.

Next it's mouth-exertion time: wide open, shut, wide open, shut. Tongue out left, tongue out right, tongue forward. We follow with rapid-fire tongue twisters - "Peggy Babcock" 10 times without fault, "Red Leather, Yellow Leather...."

Then we chant a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan: "To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,/ In a pestilential prison, with a lifelong lock,/ Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,/ From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!"

That consonantally testing ditty resolves itself into a procession through the alphabet making baby sounds: "ah ah ah ah, bah bah bah bah, cah cah cah cah, dah dah dah dah ... nah nah nah ... quah quah quah," all the way to "zah zah" Gabor.

All this appears to be common practice these days. What we used to do would, I imagine, amaze the drama teachers of today. We'd arrive at a rehearsal with a copy of the book, walk on stage, and start to act.

We would not lie around on the floor and visualize a certain animal, then sit up and move around as that animal, then turn into a human being again, but with our animal's characteristics. We never did that. We started out as human beings and discovered our animal characteristics as we went along.

I have yet to be convinced that all this exercising produces fine acting. It does sort of loosen you up and shake off some of the dust of self-consciousness. Makes you less shy about the essential absurdity of acting.

But I find it hard to imagine Laurence Olivier or Sarah Siddons, before dazzling their audiences with lightning-bolt renderings of Richard III and Lady Macbeth, electing to dance in a circle holding hands with the rest of the cast singing:

The wonderful thing about Tiggers

Is Tiggers are wonderful things,

Their tops are made out of rubber

Their bottoms are made out of springs

They're bouncy, bouncy, bouncy, bouncy

Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun

But the wonderful thing about Tiggers

Is that I'm the only one! WOOO!

I can't see it. But maybe they jogged.

*A weekly series. The song is from Disney's 'Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too.'

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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