It’s 2:20 on a Friday afternoon. Classes are winding down for the week, but inside the Theatre and Dance Department’s black box studio, the energy levels are just ramping up. The Jackson Five is blaring and 10 students are warming up for class—but not by pulling out notebooks. Instead, they’re juggling balls, rings, and pins, stepping across a tightrope, and practicing handstands.
Welcome to Physical Approaches.
When class starts, students grab padded gym mats, which they arrange in two long lines. They find a spot on the mat and start stretching, then segue into partner balancing acts: essentially, practicing handstands using their classmates instead of the ground as a base. They take turns in each role and as spotter. “You just gotta go for it,” Professor Robert Rosen tells a student who is reluctant to “fly” in the partner handstand.
Despite their current abilities, most students started the semester with no physical theater experience. Indeed, for a few, Physical Approaches was their first theater course. “Only one person could juggle at the start of class,” says theatre major Alana Horton ’13 (Northampton, Mass.). “The scariest things for me were things I told myself I couldn’t do as a kid: a handstand and a headstand. Those were terrifying at first.”
But for avid breakdancer James “Flo” Zhou ’13 (Edmonton, Alberta), acting was what made him the most nervous. Zhou, a philosophy major and Japanese minor, says his classmates’ diverse skillsets helped everyone learn more. Or as he puts it: They all struggled together.
Regardless of what students fear, creating a safe space in the studio is the key to success, says Rosen, an actor, director, and cofounder of Minneapolis’s internationally acclaimed Theatre de la Jeune Lune. “Nobody’s judging,” he adds. “We move beyond that and try to push people to do things they didn’t think they could do.”
“It’s freeing to feel as if I can create something out of nothing—to see that it’s both that easy and that hard.”
The challenge of physical theater is to create a performance without a text. Various activities included interacting with classmates while wearing masks with only pinpricks for eyes and expressing with one’s body concepts ranging from a color to a commute. “It’s freeing to feel as if I can create something out of nothing—to see that it’s both that easy and that hard,” Horton says. “I’m so used to one mode of learning that it’s amazing to see myself learn in different ways. I’ve challenged my own expectations of what’s possible and am learning not to be afraid to create work.”
As for Zhou, what he’s learned is this: If you give people the skills and tell them to have fun, the product can be amazing. “And if you mess up?” he asks. “Maybe that’s a good thing.”
Zhou is part of Macalester's Davis United World College Scholars.