Observing a Teacher of Observation

It’s August 8th, one month since I completed a week-long master class with Norman Taylor at the Movement Theater Studio in New York. I was originally going to write a blog, but every night after recording the multitude of exercises we had done that day, I was too drained to compose something other people would have to read. So instead I offer a series of reflections here, a casting back on four inspiring days in July with a teacher I’d not hesitate to call a master.

-Sarah Sanford


Norman and some of my fellow master class participants.

First, a very brief history of Norman and my experiences with him: he studied at École Lecoq for two years, then did the pedagogical year, then went on to teach alongside Monsieur Lecoq for about 20 years. Now he’s at École Lassaad in Belgium and frequently comes to New York to teach master classes. Norman was my Movement Analysis teacher at École Lecoq from 1999-2001, and this is the second master class I have taken with him at Movement Theater Studio.

At the UArts MFA/Pig Iron School program where I teach, we share a common experience base in the themes of movement and improvisation; Quinn Bauriedel, Emmanuelle Delpech, and I all went to Lecoq and studied with Norman. So while I am the Movement Analysis teacher, the principle and practice of looking to movement as a key source of inspiration in making theatre run through us all.  

I suppose you could say that the way Norman taught movement analysis runs through us all as well. To be sure, Norman is the instructor who has stuck with me the most over the years, the one I try hardest to channel. Teaching is something I have been doing since 2001, and it is something I think about A LOT - whether it’s how to build a class, how to present material in new ways, or how to structure exercises so that students are making real discoveries, not receiving knowledge from on high. Norman, who seems forever childlike but I’d reckon is in his early ‘60s, makes all of this look insanely easy. (I was reassured to see that he had a stack of notes in the corner of the room, which he referred to all of 3 times during a four-hour class).

That thing about ease reminds me of something Giovanni Fusetti, another brilliant instructor brought up through Lecoq, once said to me. I asked him about a teacher’s expertise and claim to authority. In response he quoted Norman: “We don’t know things better; we know things more.” A simple but profound distinction, from which I extract the idea that experience and humility can coexist in a teacher. That they each, in fact, enable the other.

And this - this blend of humility and experience - brings me to Norman’s presence.

Some of Norman’s superpowers 
In the studio, Norman is both visible and invisible. Visible in that he commands a room, inspiring play and rigor through a delicious mix of silliness and gravitas. Invisible in that ultimately it is not he but movement that we all end up marveling at.  

As a teacher, Norman reveals. Part of this is that he’s able to strip away what is unnecessary and then slowly construct. He’ll catch you in a moment of banality and ever so subtly coax you into the extraordinary, thus revealing something that was perhaps always there, just waiting to emerge.

He can elicit a kind of simple eloquence from students - but even as I write that I want to emend it. Rather: He is able to focus everyone’s eyes on the simplest things, and through our looking, the poetry and eloquence of those things are revealed.  

To beat a dead horse: he enables seeing.  

And indeed I have heard Lecoq’s teaching described the following way - “He didn’t teach you how to move. He taught you how to see movement.”   

Making sense of that
Okay, that quote is nice but why and how is that a pedagogy? I find this incredibly hard to explain to people who ask, “What is Movement Analysis?”, but here goes. To speak about the world, an artist needs first to be able to see the world for what it is. And the first thing you notice when you look at the world is that everything moves. To learn about something in nature, we observe how it moves. To discern how someone I love is feeling, I observe how they move - their tension, their rhythms, the space they project. We do this in life without thinking, but at the school we do it to become professional creators. Observing is essential.

To observe, you need curiosity and openness
To teach observation, you need curiosity and openness
“We [teachers] don’t know things better; we know them more.”

Coming into confidence as a teacher has meant coming to grips with not knowing stuff. Luckily, I’ve learned it’s way more fun to ask questions than make statements. When you’ve got some experience under your belt - when you know something “more” - you ask better questions.  

Against authoritarianism
A lot of American acting programs focus on how to get the actor to be a finely-tuned instrument, to perform in different styles and be killer with a text, to be director-proof, to be versatile and employable. And that all has its place, certainly in a culture where film is often the ultimate goal.  

In class, Norman said proudly, “My main goal is to produce difficult actors, unemployable actors.” It’s bizarre to hear these words uttered in a theatre studio in New York City! So revolutionary, so subversive, so naughty! I began to think - what is an unemployable actor Someone who doesn’t do what they’re told? Someone who doesn’t fit a type? Someone who talks back, who argues about overall vision… yes, yes, and yes! For all those reasons, being unemployable is simply not practical for many of us. But I believe what Norman is offering here is a stance against any kind of authoritarianism. A belief in the human capacity for discovery, expression and play. It’s the artist’s job to constantly unleash those powers, not mute them. And if Norman is successful in this goal of creating unemployable actors, then actors will have no choice but to make their own work. Then, more and different kinds of work will originate from more and different kinds of people. Then, the face of theatre will change.

To build further on this theme of curiosity and openness and eschewing anything authoritarian: something that struck me in this workshop was how democratic Norman is. His passion for movement has allowed him to really see, with equal interest, every human being (because human bodies all do the same things), every moment (because there’s never a moment when nothing is happening), and every rhythm (because everything is rhythm and rhythm is everything). We are all, already, infinitely expressive. In his class, no one’s experience counts for more, no one’s “talent” predetermines success. Everyone moves, and therefore we are all the same AND we are all infinitely unique. If this is your starting point, everything that occurs during a class session - hesitations, glances, preparation breaths - is material that we can observe and learn from.  

But - and this is important - not everything is theatre. A ready body and a heightened awareness of space are necessary for theatre to happen. But those things are also within our reach, closer than we think! “Nothing we do in life has any value,” he would say provocatively “- but as artists we can give it value.” In a casual pose, just simply putting a centimeter of space between different points of contact (an elbow resting on a knee, a chin resting on a hand, a foot resting on a floor) adds tension and creates theatre. “Now she’s acting,” Norman would say of a student after this slight transformation. The simple poetry of this - that placing a human body in slight suspension instantly moves us somehow - is stunning to me.  

Don’t move how I move, move how you move, or, Don’t teach how I teach, teach how you teach
Norman returned to this anecdote a couple times during the master class - that, apparently, Lecoq went up to one of his pedagogy students once and said “Don’t move how I move, move how you move.”   

This is another simple but profound concept which takes years to really come into - even after 16 years of teaching, I’m not sure I can actually articulate how it is I teach. One of my pedagogy students once said, “I’m basically only copying what I’ve seen you, Quinn, and Manue do!” Now, while I know that’s not true, while I know that this student is actually doing it her way, and that it’s pretty much impossible to simply copy another’s approach, I know that it’s also pretty much impossible to wrap one’s own mind around what one is actually doing as a teacher until you've been doing it for a looooooong time. The impulse to teach as you were taught, is so primary; I know from experience that even negative or destructive methods can be received and passed on, whether or not you even agree with those methods. But Lecoq exhorted his students to resist this impulse: “Don’t teach how I teach, teach how you teach.” The same goes for movement - many of us are taught movement techniques in our childhood but those things can become traps because they are how someone else moves. I studied ballet and gave myself injuries trying to attain perfect turn-out. Another kind of authoritarianism, and a technique I had to un-learn.  

The quest to go out and make your own theatre, here finds its parallel in the quest to go out and be your own teacher. I am, as I have implied, still very much on this quest. It is the material I tackle and the students I tackle it with from year to year that gets me closer to an understanding.

If I had more time and patience I would go into that material, and especially all the wonderful things we worked on in Norman’s master class - push/pull, hesitation, acceleration and deceleration, the downbeat and the off-beat, applying the three fundamental movements of life to performing Shakespeare, applying the weightlifting movement to Edgar Allen Poe, the dynamics of the 4 elements, the emergence of the tragic chorus…but I will save those lessons for my classes!