Stand in a semi-circle. On cue, stomp your right foot, then clap your hands, then thrust your right hand in the air while speaking a letter of the alphabet, clap your hands again, then stomp your left foot. Then the person next to you does the same with the next letter of the alphabet. And so on down the line. Seems easy, right?
The exercise was part of the class when three members of The Lion King cast worked with Kathy Clawson’s musical theater students at UNM this past Wednesday. Michael Hollick, Ben Lipitz and Syndee Winters shared their knowledge and experience with the UNM students, and Ben led the exercise. Just so you know, the students couldn’t do it. Truth be told, it’s an exercise that all but sets you up to fail. Why?
Well, there’s the physical sequence, which is an order of magnitude harder than rubbing your belly and patting your head. You have to speak in the middle of it. You also have to pay attention to the progression of the alphabet to know which letter to speak. And, to really get it right, you and everyone else in the group does the whole thing to a constant rhythm — stomp, clap, speak, clap, stomp, next — without blowing it. That means you have to have your individual part down, then contribute it to the group’s effort.
That’s what performers do every day. The good ones make it look easy.
Really, it’s what all of us do every day in our own jobs. We execute repetitive physical sequences while speaking, while listening, while seeing, right? But have you ever tried to do your routines when someone’s watching you? We just upped the stakes again, didn’t we?
In the semi-circle, everyone’s watching everybody else. And in this example, half of the class was watching the other half of the class. Lots of eyes there.
Why this exercise? What does it teach?
Being in the moment. To do so as an actor, you have to become so comfortable with the physical aspects of your performance that it takes no thought. You learn to stomp, clap, speak, clap, stomp so well you could do it in your sleep. Then you are open to all incoming stimuli. You are ready to listen to your partner on stage. You are ready to truly interact with them and what they offer. You are ready to tell the story the audience came to see. It’s no longer work to do all that; it’s art.
We should all be able to do that, shouldn’t we? If we could be more receptive to those around us, we’d have a much easier time in the world. We’d have fewer misunderstandings. Our jobs would be easier. If we could focus beyond our own tasks, our own schedules, our own issues, we’d be better prepared for whatever came our way. If we could, our lives wouldn’t take so much work; our lives would be more artful.
Terry S. Davis
Photo: Ben Lipitz from the cast of Disney's The Lion King leads UNM musical theater students in an almost impossible exercise.