The Invisible Body and the Suzuki Method of Actor Training

(Originally written for Drama Box's ezine Jun 2013)

Written by Nelson Chia

The Suzuki Method of Actor Training was developed by Tadashi Suzuki together with his company The Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT) around the 1970s, when he decided to move his theatre company from Tokyo to the mountain village of Toga in Toyama, Japan. It is a training system that uses a series of physical exercises (known as “disciplines”) to cultivate certain very important aspects of the actors' body. In this short article, I shall attempt to articulate the method's focus on the actor's body, and its development of the “invisible body”.

Culture is the Body

In his seminal article, “Culture Is The Body”, Tadashi Suzuki differentiated two types of energy -- animal energy produced by humans and animals and non-animal energy such as electricity, petroleum and nuclear power. He asserted that a society sustained by animal energy is quite different in characteristics to one sustained by non-animal energy. The latter, which is modern and industrialized, is often thought of as the more civilized one. However, in the opinion of Suzuki, "a civilized society is not necessarily a cultured one... a cultured society is one in which the perceptive and expressive abilities of its people are cultivated through the use of their innate animal energy. Such animal energy fosters the sense of security and trust needed for healthy communication in human relationships and the communities they form” (para 1).

In other words, culture, according to Suzuki, resides in the body that produces animal energy rather than man-made entities that are used to build civilization. When we apply this differentiation to the theatre, we realized that most contemporary theatre are modernized and rely heavily on non-animal energy in almost every aspect of its production. In comparison, traditional performances such as Noh theatre, while also modernized at certain levels, maintain a higher reliance on animal energy in most aspects of its production.
For Suzuki, the shift towards non-animal energy is in fact detrimental to the art of theatre. He explained that when automobile replaced walking, when computer replaced the need for direct seeing and hearing, and "when modernization has severed our natural organs from our essential selves, entrusting an increasingly larger portion of their workload to non-animal energy," the consequence is a dramatic downsizing of the potential of the human body and its various functions, and the weakening of the communication between people that is based on animal energy. This trend, he regretted, "has also taken its toll on the expressive skills of the actor" (para 6).

In an effort to address this situation, Suzuki has strived "to restore the wholeness of the human body in performance, not simply by creating variants of such forms as the Noh and kabuki, but by employing the universal virtues of these and other pre-modern traditions." He believes that by "harnessing and developing these enduring virtues," we could create an opportunity to "re-consolidate our currently dismembered physical faculties and revive the body's perceptive and expressive capacity." It is only by having a commitment to do so that we may "ensure the flourishing of culture within civilization" (para 6). The above points, in a way, sum up Suzuki's views on the loss of animal energy, the dismembering of our human faculties from the body, the destructive effect of such conditions on the actors' art, and the value of certain virtues of pre-modern theatre in recovering this loss. More importantly, they provide us with an understanding of Suzuki's emphasis on the actor's body in his method of actor training.

The Invisible Body

In articulating his theory of acting, Suzuki outlined three important factors in his article “A Fundamental Technique and Theory of Acting” that constitute the actor's art. They are, firstly, to have a point of view, secondly, to have an audience or a sense of the “other” and lastly, to have an awareness of the “invisible body”. The actor's point of view refers to the fundamental essence of acting in which actors convey the desire to make people re-evaluate what they see. The “other” refers to the audience or from the actor's perspective, the sense of an observer. The “invisible body” refers to the primary physical functions that his method of actor training attempts to develop.

As mentioned, the Suzuki Method of Actor Training is carried out using a series of physical exercises (known as disciplines). Its objective is to develop three crucial aspects of the actors' body. They are, 1) energy production, 2) breath calibration, and 3) centre of gravity control. These three aspects are also the fundamental, key physical functions of any human beings because “as soon as we have problems with any one of them, it becomes difficult to maintain our health and participate in modern society.” According to Suzuki, this is due in part to the fact that these particular functions exist in an inter-dependent relationship -“the more energy the body produces, the more oxygen it needs, which in turn intensifies the breathing. When the breathing intensifies, it challenges the body's balance, or centre of gravity control” (III, para 1).

However, in spite of their importance, these functions do not generally receive a lot of attention. Hence, they are collectively referred to by Suzuki as “the invisible body”. It follows, therefore, that the main objective of his training system is to firstly, “grow our capacity in each of these functions independently”, and more importantly, to “deepen and fortify their interrelation.” If we are able to expand our capacity in producing energy, in taking in oxygen and maintaining our centre of gravity, more variety of movement will be available to us. This, in turn, increases the stability and sustainability of our lives (III, para 1).
When applied to the stage and to actor training, Suzuki explained that
[t]hrough disciplined, integrated development of these three parameters, the body gains strength and agility, the voice acquires range and capacity and an awareness of the “other” grows. Such work develops the expressive potency needed to transmit the actor's point of view. It follows, then, that the core requirements for the art of acting lie in disciplines created to deepen an awareness of these three crucial, interrelated, “invisible” phenomena (III, para 1).
In other words, the Suzuki Method of Actor Training is created to target the cultivation of physical attributes that are crucial but often neglected by actors on stage. Following this thought, I usually find it useful to then regard the embodied skills - pure movements and steps in traditional theatre, characterization work and delivery of lines in modern drama, etc. -- that we may acquire in order to perform a in a particular style or genre as elements of the “visible body”. While this skill-based body is unique to the kinds of performances that the actor does, the “invisible body” however, is one that is universally necessary for all actors if they were to transcend beyond the regurgitation of skills. In short, a truly powerful actor is one that possesses substantial capability in both the “visible” as well as the “invisible” body. It is the fluid control of energy, breath and centre of gravity (and hence stability, gravitas, and presence in performance) that allow the actor to gain range and become truly creative on stage. For that reason, it is asserted by many who practice the Suzuki Method of Actor Training that although its methodology is often misunderstood by many as merely rigorous physical work, it is in fact a training system that addresses the art of acting in an undoubtedly direct way.

Works Cited:

Suzuki, Tadashi. “Culture is the Body.” and “A Fundamental Technique and Theory of Acting.” Suzuki's Philosophy of Theatre. Tadashi Suzuki. Suzuki Company of Toga. Web. 2009.
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