Martial Arts and the Actor's Craft
by Lewis Manalo
"My more than twenty years as an actor have caused me to look at it thusly: an actor is a dedicated being who works very hard - so damn hard - that his level of understanding makes him a qualified artist in self-expression, physically, psychologically, as well as spiritually, to captivate."
You don't have to look to China to see that today's top actors are making martial arts an integral part of their craft -- and we're not talking about simple stage fencing. Robert Downey, Jr. can't stop singing the praises of Wing Chun. Christian Bale showed off the Keysi Fighting Method while performing his fight scenes in The Dark Knight. To prepare for her role in this year's action film Salt, Angelina Jolie trained in MMA. And the martial skill isn't confined to those in front of the camera. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and film director David Mamet is a black belt in Brazilian Jiujitsu. With so many actors making the martial arts a part of their own art, it was only a matter of time before an acting school made those fighting skills part of a budding actor's training.
At the New Studio on Broadway, part of New York University's undergraduate Drama Department, Grandmaster Arnulfo "Dong" Cuesta has been brought in to teach a course in Doce Pares Eskrima, a system of Filipino martial arts similar to that used in The Bourne Trilogy and 300. The owner of a school in nearby Jersey City, GM Cuesta has roughly forty years of experience in the Filipino martial arts and is one of the top instructors in the system.
Bringing in GM Cuesta was the idea of NYU faculty member Orlando Pabotoy. Having met when GM Cuesta was a martial arts consultant for an off-Broadway production at the Ma-Yi Theater Company, Pabotoy knew that GM Cuesta had something special to offer the New Studio's professional theater-training program.
"The Physical Acting component to the training is a layered approach," Pabotoy says. "We are training people to be craftsmen/women and not just products for an industry."
The training utilizes clown work, mask work, and commedia dell'arte as its primary tools, and the martial arts are offered alongside yoga and dance classes as part of the movement dynamics curriculum.
"The martial arts are beautiful for training because it puts things in a practical perspective," Pabotoy says. With martial arts being used so often onscreen and onstage, Pabotoy hopes that the New Studio's students will graduate with "the fundamentals... in place before they engage in the industry."
But he also sees the martial arts as having a purpose for the actor outside of fight choreography. In addition to the physical benefits that the martial arts give everyone, Pabotoy sees the training as giving the actor the ability to deal with the rush of live performance.
"Live theater has a high adrenaline factor," he says. But through padded sparring training, the martial arts students "begin to find harmony with their adrenalines and they begin to 'listen'... as a result they can see everything a little clearer and begin to discover that you can listen and see things without having to stop and get composed."
Even if students choose not to participate in all-out sparring, the course contains training exercises akin to the One Step Sparring of Tae Kwon Do and the chi sao of Wing Chun that have similar benefits. GM Cuesta's students appreciate how different the martial arts are to their other classes. "[It's] unlike any of my other classes," student Azriel Crews says. "It's very physical, like dance, but requires a lot of focus."
Another student, Hannah Rosen, agrees. In martial arts "the feeling can be more aggressive, and the movements are very different," she says. "I still have to get the hang of tucking in my tailbone," she adds, referring to a physical posture that's nearly the inverse of the turn-out some students have been training for years in dance classes.
Teaching a group of students all at the same pace, with standards that they all must meet for their mid-terms and finals, requires a very different method of teaching than that of a conventional martial arts setting.
"It's a very fast pace of teaching," GM Cuesta says, explaining that the main difficulty is to cover so much material in such a short period of time.
Adapting a martial art for a college course requires a lot of development. Issues such as how much material to cover, how fast to cover it, all have to be researched. But there is an additional difference when teaching the martial arts specifically as part of an acting program.
Though GM Cuesta and Orlando Pabotoy hope that students will be capable of using their new skills in self defense situations, the classes don't have the seriousness of "traditional" martial arts classes. They deliberately chose to make the martial arts training playful.
"[At the New Studio] we look intensely at the approach of playfulness, to push the level of where playfulness can live everywhere in all our different dynamics of training," Pabotoy says. "Play for us is the life force. Even when we are confused, we have to learn to play in confusion, in the hopes that someday it may turn into curiosity of what else can live in all situations."
The idea of play seems to drive the students to excel in their martial arts training. GM Cuesta's "enthusiasm and joy within the art really transfer to me as a student," Alexander Gibson says. "When I work with him I can't help but feel more motivated to immerse myself in the moment of what I am doing."
"I really enjoy learning the new moves," Azriel Crews says. "Particularly the twirling."
Hannah Rosen agrees. "One of the funnest things is stick twirling," she says. "I also really love disarming my partner."
GM Cuesta is enjoying himself, too. "[I'm] happy to see them enjoy it," he says with a smile. "They're trying hard."
Orlando Pabotoy has ambitious plans for how the training will progress. "The students will continue in their second year," he says, "using elements they learn from Eskrima to apply it to Stage Combat with a specific focus on choreography in collaboration with an animation class. The goal is to begin to create dialogue between the two disciplines and hope that when the students collaborate in the creation of motion-based scenarios (in this case combat) with the medium of animation that they continue working with each other outside of class."
An actor who has martial arts in his or her toolbox already has an edge. Films like Avatar are paving the way for motion-capture martial arts in feature films, and video games have been offering martial artists and actors motion-capture work for the last several years. Keeping in step with the industry, the New Studio's innovative program is positioned to set the pace for the future of acting programs around the country.
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Written by Lewis Manalo for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM