The Viewpoints method of acting

Just as (at least according to the old saying) there’s more than one way to skin a cat, so there is more than one way to approach the craft of acting–and lessons in one new approach are about to be offered in Regina.

Probably the most famous method is usually called, capital letters and all, The Method. It’s based on a process of recalling emotion through “sense memory.” Actions and gestures on stage grow out of that recalled emotion.

But there’s a new approach that takes the opposite tack: instead of beginning with emotion, which leads to action and gesture, the Viewpoints method begins with actions and gestures, and uses them to generate the emotions that are at the heart of effective acting.

At the moment, there are probably only a couple of people in all of Western Canada who have been exposed to the Viewpoints method. One of them is Jeffrey Pufahl, whom you may have seen in the fall in Globe Theatre’s production of Cruel Tears, or last summer as Romeo in Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan’s production of Romeo and Juliet.

Jeff has strong Saskatchewan roots; not only is he an alumnus of Saskatchewan Express, his mother, Bonnie Schaffer, is coordinator of membership and development at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. Jeff went on from Saskatchewan Express to study voice at McGill University in Montreal, and eventually earned a Master’s degree in musical theatre from the University of Cincinnati.

Currently, Jeff is back in Regina directing Regina Lyric Light Opera’s upcoming production of Fiddler on the Roof–and while he’s here, he’s planning to offer classes in the Viewpoints method of acting to anyone who might be interested. He’s also hoping to use elements of Viewpoints as he directs the 40-plus cast members of Fiddler.

Viewpoints, Jeff says, was developed by Anne Bogart at the Saratoga International Theater Institute in Saratoga Springs, New York. It grew out of work she did with the famous dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, and also combines elements of Asian martial arts. Jeff had the opportunity to take workshops with members of Bogart’s company while he was in Cincinnati.

Viewpoints is a movement-based technique that’s all about awareness of the body, Jeff says. It helps actors develop “the ability to listen with the entire body,” to take in and use everything around them.

That ability is of enormous benefit to actors, Jeff says. “Once you begin training in Viewpoints you awaken your own ability and creativity to direct yourself as an actor,” he says. It allows actors to rely less on the director’s input and more on input from their fellow actors; to become less self-absorbed in their own performance and instead create that performance as part of a collective. It dismantles the traditional hierarchy of the theatre, where the director is also a dictator.

That might sound as if it would be problematic for an actor who wants to use Viewpoints to inform his or her performances in a production where the director is not using Viewpoints, but Jeff says even in that situation, Viewpoints can be of benefit, because “it awakens your awareness as an actor,” enabling you to react more truthfully and effectively to the performances of your fellow actors.

Viewpoints can be of use to amateur as well as professional actors, Jeff adds. He says Bogart herself created a play about people on the fringes of society in which she cast non-actors who really were on the fringes of society–the mentally disabled, dysfunctional people, people from group homes. Their performances, and the play itself, were built using the Viewpoints method.

In a Viewpoints session, Jeff explains, you begin by improvising, using music and movement. From that improvisation, the director and actors pull out movements and gestures which eventually develop into the choreography of the show. Often, the entire play is improvised without any text being spoken; then later, the text is added to the choreography that has been developed.

The course Jeff is offering to Regina actors will introduce the Viewpoints techniques of improvisation, and will result, by the end of the course, in a collaborative piece suitable for performing. It promises to be an exciting way for actors, both amateur and professional, to learn about a new way of approaching their craft. And, says Jeff, “It’s fun, anyway!”

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