The great modern dance pioneer Martha Graham once said, “The body never lies.” What she meant is that there are some physical truths in our bodies that reflect our real emotions and feelings. Being a former dancer, I love watching the way people carry themselves with Martha’s quote in mind. I notice the way people sit on the subway. How my coworkers engage with each other, if they are tired or nervous or excited. How people are with their significant others. How I am feeling.
How can we use our own body awareness to be better versions of ourselves? How can we adopt better stage presence and be better at public speaking, making friends, and sparking a connection with a potential client?
In preparation for our upcoming workshop with the brilliant team from Third Rail Projects — the troupe behind immersive theater hits such as The Grand Paradise and Then She Fell — IVY sat down with co-artistic director Zach Morris to learn more about stage presence and developing vulnerability and empathy in your personal life. Third Rail Projects is hailed as one of the foremost companies creating site-specific, immersive, and experiential dance and theater. Based out of Brooklyn and led by artistic directors Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett, the company is dedicated to re-envisioning ways in which audiences engage with contemporary performance. Third Rail Projects has been the recipient of several prestigious awards, including two New York Dance and Performance (Bessie) Awards for Then She Fell (2013) and Vanishing Point (2008), and the artistic directors were recently named among the 100 most influential people in Brooklyn Culture by Brooklyn Magazine.
Some people walk into a room and have that magic spark, that presence. How do you develop that?
Every human being has that spark, but I think that sometimes there are little physical considerations that really allow that spark to be as bright and as seen as it wants to be. That can be body language, understanding the way you are carrying yourself in space. Some of it is how you are physically presenting yourself to whomever you are speaking: which way are you facing, how are you holding your shoulders? All these things really contribute to how open you are able to be. There is a way to stand and be physically open to the people you are speaking to that shows a lot of poise and confidence. A lot of it is the notion of allowing yourself to be really vulnerable, to be really present.
What is your definition of vulnerability?
I think vulnerability, either in a performance or in a human-to-human context, has a lot to do with receptiveness. It has to do with the ability to really see, to really listen without having your pre-existing filters or judgements in place. That state of being able to see a situation, to fully understand it and allow it to hit you with having all of the walls that we sometimes have up is actually what creates vulnerability.
I also think that sometimes being vulnerable is considered “weak,” but I don’t actually think that is true at all. It takes a tremendous amount of strength to be vulnerable, and I think it’s something we need a lot more of in this current cultural moment.
Where do those walls come from? Why do you think certain people might be more or less vulnerable than others?
Often it comes from a place of insecurity or fear. It can also happen when we encounter a situation where we feel like a part of us will be co-opted. It’s something we are seeing play out culturally, politically, and socially. There are these groups that seem so diametrically opposed, but in fact they are not. Right now there are two groups of human beings, both looking out for their own interests, and somehow because there is fear, they are not able to truly see each other. This can blind us to the empathy we have towards another person.
When we aren’t vulnerable, we start seeing people as “others.” When folks are “other-ed” to us, they lose their humanity in our eyes. That sometimes will strengthen our walls. Make us think we need to build our walls higher. Vulnerability is that little chink in the wall, that lets us start to see through it and realize that the other side is not so scary. At that point, you can start to bring down your defenses and realize that you don’t necessarily need those walls as much as you thought you might have.
Performers Joshua Dutton-Reaver and Jessy Smith. Photograph by Adam Jason Photography.
How does theater help bring down those walls and facilitate vulnerability?
Theater and art and storytelling have always been an arena in which you are able to articulate the ineffable: you are able to talk about the things that are too big to talk about in real life. As a spectator, you see tragedies played out before you and can sympathize as a character goes through incredible turmoil into a moment of catharsis.
Art is practice for living. It’s an opportunity to look at these situations from a safe distance: what does it mean to look at such intense love? Such an intense tragedy? Art means being able to do that from the safety of your theater seat, from the safety behind the proscenium — and to explore some really big questions about what it means to be human in these contexts. Theater and art and storytelling at their best are able to sing to those parts of our spirits that ask, “how do we get through this crazy world?” Being human is hard. Falling in love is hard. Dealing with death is hard. Conflict is hard. Theater is a way of understanding the world around us.
I think immersive theater in particular allows you to be even more engaged with the circumstances, to find yourself quite literally inside a situation. The most powerful part about it is that it’s not a situation itself, since it’s within the safe space of a theater. You can experience these things — joy, excitement, fear, titillation — but there is a magic circle drawn around that precludes it from being real life. Theater can do that, because it has its roots as an art form in ritual — this idea that in every culture, we have building blocks for how we understand the incredibly complicated situations that define what it means to be human.