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  • Sara Dylan

Being in Our Body by Sara Dylan

Sara Dylan, an actress and singer-songwriter from Belfast, shares her illuminating perceptive on the process of connecting with our body in our lives, artistic practice, and during performance.

This talk was given as part of the Sing From Your Soul online singing course, which ran from March-April 2021.

This is a really interesting topic. When you’re coaching, you find yourself saying to people, ‘Get out of your head’. That can probably be a bit confusing because we think, ‘Well, what does that really mean? What is this being in the body?’ What I think it’s pointing to is where our attention is. If we are thinking very hard about what we’re doing, a lot of the time we’re not really present with it. We may be judging ourselves and getting into self-critical thoughts. Or maybe we’re just really trying to do something. When we practice, a lot of the time we are specifically trying to do something. Performance is our opportunity to take a different approach.

There are lots of different things that we can be putting our attention on at any given moment. All sorts of things are vying for our attention. Some things are outside of us, some are inside of us. Being in the body and putting our attention there when we’re performing, rather than giving it to our thoughts and our more analytical mind, tends to lead us to be more present in the moment. Of course, if we’re trying to just think about what we should be doing with our body, that’s not the same thing. There’s all sorts of mental tricks and traps that we can end up in. But if we’re really sensing into feeling what’s going on in our body, that’s more likely to help us be really present and in the moment with what’s going on.

I would suggest that in performance, that’s when we have to have a bit of faith. When we get to the point where we’re performing, we’ve done some preparation. We might have learned words, or we might have learned music in various stages. And even if we perform something that’s incomplete, there’s a certain preparation that’s gone into that. When we get to the point where we stand up in front of a group of people (or perhaps nowadays we’re online), things change a little bit in that moment. It’s a little bit mysterious. There’s a lot that I’ve looked into about this – how the performer and audience dynamic works. But, as the performer, that’s when we have to have faith. We have to forget about the preparation that we’ve done. I mean, not completely forget about it, it’s there, but we need to trust that it’s there, and bring our attention somewhere else. If we’re really focusing on our thoughts, or on our technique, or even if we’re really focusing on our body, some of that may be useful, but I would suggest the place where we really want to get to is a state of flow.

We’ve heard sports people talk about a state of flow, and I think we’ve all had some experience of it. There are a few things required to be in a state of flow. We need to have some technical skill. We need to be at a point where we’re not having to think of every individual element, and we also need to be in a certain state of mind. And sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. As a performer sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. But the more time we spend there, the easier it is to find. When we do get into a state of flow we’re not focusing on any of the individual elements anymore.

A good analogy that relates to this is learning how to drive. When you first start to drive, it’s absolutely exhausting. I remember doing driving lessons and feeling like falling out of the car at the end of the lesson because every small element of driving required so much of your attention. You need to think about what you’re doing with the steering wheel, the pedals, the gear stick, and you’re checking your mirrors. You give your full attention to all of these things while you’re doing them, and then there’s all these other things to focus on as well (like the road!). I think with learning any new skill, it begins with all these individual tasks but eventually it becomes one complex task, where we no longer need to give so much of our attention or get caught with any one thing. Instead, we can get into a state of flow. That’s the ideal. With performance, I think the body, and focusing on what’s going on with our body, can certainly be a doorway into that. In fact, I’m not sure in terms of performance, certainly in terms of acting, that it’s possible to get into a state of flow without attending to our body in some way.

Interestingly, this topic came up as a part of some feedback I was giving to young performers recently. Sometimes you can really see in a performance that there’s so much thought going on but what’s happening is that it’s all coming from the neck up. Sometimes you can see that the performer’s body is quite stiff and held. It’s just that the person is concentrating so hard. But to give a performance that’s really truthful and connected, where it feels like it’s springing spontaneously from your soul, well that’s going to be a whole-body experience. All of the performance arts that we study, they’re modes of expressing emotion. Whether it’s poetry or prose, whether it’s a song or playing an instrument, there’s emotion behind it. And the best performances, for me anyway, are the ones where it seems like you almost forget that the person’s learnt their lines and spent ages rehearsing; it just feels like the performance is springing spontaneously from them. When that happens, it’s going to be embodied.

Something that comes up a lot as an actor is our use of movement and hands. The big question is what do I do with my hands? And how do I know where to move, and when to move? What’s interesting about this is that we’re all actually masters of this. Day to day, we move around the world and a lot of the time when we’re talking, we use our hands. A lot of people are very expressive with their hands. But as soon as we start to think about it, because it’s not something we do consciously, we’re like, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ My suggestion regarding this would be that our practice isn’t just when we’re performing; we want to be using all of our lives as our practice. So, thinking, ‘Well, okay, I’ll be in my body when I perform. I’ll bring my attention to my body when I’m performing’. That’s probably too late. We want to start doing the groundwork sooner than that and particularly if we’re dealing with emotions.

I wanted to talk a little bit about some of the emotional work that we can do. A lot of the time, whether it’s when we’re acting or singing, we have to convey emotion. When I’m working with a student of any age, I may start by asking them what’s the character feeling, and then this develops into, how does that feel? What’s interesting is that a lot of the time we instantly try to intellectualise the feeling. If we know that a character is angry and are exploring how that might feel, instead of feeling the anger for ourselves we might use lots of synonyms for angry. We might explain very clearly why the character is feeling angry. But how does that actually feel? What does anger really feel like?

Now the thing is that when we’re dealing with unpleasant emotions, we spend most of our own lives trying to completely avoid them, if possible. If we’re feeling an unpleasant emotion, we want to distract ourselves from it or potentially just make it stop, which is natural. But as artists I think we’re being asked to do something quite different from that. We’re being asked to really explore those feelings. Otherwise, how can we really convey anger? How can we really take it on and let it safely pass through us if we’re not able to look at our own anger and be with it? That’s one element of it.

Another element of our emotions, which relates to our body, is the fact that we feel them.

There may be thoughts that go along with our emotions, lots of thoughts a lot of the time, crazy thoughts, incessant thoughts, but we feel our emotions. That means we feel them in our body. And strong emotions are a whole-body experience. When we’re really angry, we feel it in every bit of us, from our toes to the tips of our fingers and all through our gut. If we’re trying to portray someone who’s angry, a good way into that, rather than all the intellectualising, is to feel angry. But for that to happen, we’ve got to explore our own experiences of anger. This is one of the reasons why the arts are such a wonderful personal tool apart from anything else, because they can really help us explore and understand our own emotions, if we allow it.

As an actor, if I get really angry or upset there’s part of me that’s going, ‘Oh, I’m really angry. But what’s this really like? What does it feel like? Maybe I can use this.’ Sometimes I have gone through periods of writing the emotion down, giving it a name and colour, describing what it physically feels like, and suddenly things start to make sense, like the way people describe their blood boiling. I remember being really angry once and going, ‘Wow, it really feels as though my blood is actually boiling’. I understood it for the first time. And like I say, then when we go to try and portray and access the feeling of anger, it’s much more immediate to feel angry rather than trying to think about all of the reasons why our character is angry. But it’s a big ask as well. It’s tough.

I also think that these methods of exploring our emotions that I’m describing, in contrast to our instinctive avoidance of them, can really help us as human beings to process our feelings and allow them to pass through us. So, it’s a really useful thing.

Sometimes we may come against a piece where we’re like, ‘I don’t get it. I don’t feel it.’ When that happens, great: that’s where the work needs to be done. And it’s a lifelong process. It doesn’t just happen when we’re doing our art; it’s happening all the time. My suggestion, in terms of being in the body, is feeling into it. Accessing our emotions literally through the body.

What does the emotion feel like?

One other thing I would say about this is sometimes we may think a character is really devastated and that we don’t have that level of devastation within us. And as actors, believe me, there’s an awful lot in terms of method acting people can do to get themselves very upset. But we may have a tiny bit of sadness in our own personal experience that we can relate to. If that’s all we’ve got, that’s okay. It might just be a little bit but if it’s there and it’s real, and if we really feel it and connect with it when we say our line, it’s going to come across as truthful. It will be much more truthful than faking it. We use what we’ve got. And it doesn’t necessarily need to be exactly what we think the character is feeling, because every human being will experience the same emotion slightly differently, and every actor will portray a role slightly differently. It’s not like it’s an exact science. What we’re looking for is something real and we’ve all got that within us.

As children, by the time we’re five, we’ve all experienced the breadth of human emotion. Although we may think an experience that a character is having is so far out of our own experience that we can’t go there or portray it, we can connect with it in some way. Like I say, any small child knows what it’s like to be angry, to be frustrated, or what it’s like to lose something they care about. It may not be exactly the same feeling but it’s real. We’ve all got that. In terms of acting, I think the reason why drama is one of the high art forms is because as an actor you have to really see what it would be like to be someone else. And not just what it would be like to wear their clothes, but what it would be like to feel like them. If we were all able to do that as human beings it would probably be a very different world. That’s maybe quite a high calling but I think it’s available to us through practising these art forms, so why not go for it?

In terms of being in the body, it’s like getting to know ourselves and being okay with that. In terms of the being, I remember in drama school they spent a lot of time on this and said to us that you’re not a human doing, you’re a human being. At the time, I was like, ‘Okay, what on earth does that mean?’ But I think in terms of being, it’s about accepting things as they are and not trying to make them any different. There’s an element of surrender. I think in performance, alongside faith, there’s an element of surrendering to what’s going to happen and what wants to come through in that moment. And in terms of our own bodies and inner experience, when we’re feeling what it’s like to be us from the inside, being in our body is like just being there with what’s arising for us and not trying to change it into anything else. It’s a big ask but I think it has the potential to really deepen our expression as artists and our experience as people.

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