A Lesson for the Teacher

Martin Challis recounts  a disturbing and rewarding
experience training actors


This is an account of an acting class I ran recently as a guest teacher in March 2004 that became confronting, controversial and explosive. It is an attempt to put the class into perspective and to reflect in an open forum.  As a teacher, I feel it is imperative to see every class as an opportunity to learn more about one's own teaching practice and to further an understanding of the material being taught. This class became my lesson.

I was invited to teach three classes for the Zen Zen Zo training ensemble known as the Internship.
Zen Zen Zo are a physical theatre company in Brisbane, established in 1992.  Part of their program for 2004 is an internship ensemble made up of ten actors paying for an ongoing training program. 

Their intern training is an attempt at presenting a rounded out view of …the realities of life in Australia as a creative artist. The program offers a suite of classes and workshops – one being the "Meet the Masters Series", which was my reason for being there.   

Zen Zen Zo describe themselves as an ensemble "…striving to recapture the ritualistic power of theatre by combining a striking visual and physical language with raw energy and emotion."  

As a 'method' acting teacher the company directors envisaged that I might add to the lexicon of the training by facilitating greater emotional release. My charter, in three weeks, was to facilitate the embodiment of text in the context of emotional truth. This is an account of that class and the conclusions drawn from what became the most adverse reaction of any class I have ever taught. This account is an open reflection working to reach greater understanding from these events – it is not my intention to slander or vilify a training program, it is my intention to point to the obvious and if nothing else to highlight the position I take as an actor trainer.


I began the class at 9.00 a.m. promptly. I spoke to the group of the importance of coming to the room with an understanding of what should be brought to the work space and what should be released in order to create the greatest possible potential for our time together – we should ask ourselves what we could bring to the work such as clarity and commitment and we should put our attention on releasing unwanted energies and distractions that caused an 'else-where-ness'. I encouraged the group to have an open mind to the work and that I wanted to bring a part of my work to them that would be relevant and useful – I explained that I was prepared to not plan the class but to listen to them and for the exercises most appropriate to emerge from the opening discussion.

Each of the group took a turn to speak. I was surprised with some of the apparent resistance to "the work" as they referred to what they had heard or remembered from brief encounters in classes from the past. Others in the group said they were very open to discover the work although a little nervous. Later it became clear to me that all those in the circle that had expressed openness to the work did not have the adverse reaction that was to follow.

As the opening discussion closed I decided to take the class towards an understanding of two key principals: the first was a connection to a "place of readiness" – did they know what their place of readiness to work felt like, how did they get there, how did they know if they were ready to work? The second principal I wanted to work for was an exploration of 'stimulus' and 'response'. If our moment-to-moment life on stage is a set of responses to stimuli, how do we become more aware of those stimuli and more conscious of the stimuli we wish to have stimulate our behaviour?

An example of preferred stimuli is that which encourages an organic response that is consistent with the given circumstances in which we find ourselves on stage: a stimuli that might motivate a need for example – the need to be understood by the other actor.
An un-preferred stimulus to behaviour might be the concentration of effort to utter the text in a certain way in order to "get it right".  

To deepen an understanding of the process of stimulus and response we must first explore our moment to moment experiences – we must work to become more aware, more conscious of this moment, this Now.

To explore this we began with the exercise – connecting to impulses. Impulse being concerned with spontaneity – that which is not pre-meditated but discovered. Following and allowing moment-to-moment impulses and spontaneity in behaviour is not anti-thetic to form. This is not about Content being king. Content and Form must form a harmonious marriage in our 'art' making. To serve one and not the other may lead us to a limited experience.

The First Exercise:

Stand in the space, eyes closed, let go expectation, let go pre-determination. Begin to utter to yourself your moment-to-moment impulses – what are you aware of – what are you feeling – what do you want.

Second phase: continue with eyes open. Third phase – continue, include physical impulses as you continue your Stream of Consciousness.

I observed the class – connecting to impulses, one student became vulnerable as she explored what it felt like to express herself without any effort to get something right. Some members shared that they felt a little more aware, a little free-er for having done the exercise. Others were not sure.

Second Exercise:

One at a time stand in front of the group: express moment-to-moment impulses using the words – I'm free to… I gave the group permission and encouraged them to be free to follow impulses, whether it meant running into the auditorium or sitting down – if they said, "I'm free to not do this exercise" the response from me was "good". Every impulse was encouraged (nothing unsafe of course). "I'm free to not be free…I'm free to have doubts…I'm free to not have doubts" All offers were accepted which meant we were practicing acceptance and not judging any impulse.

As the exercise progressed each person became more and more vulnerable – some from doing the exercise and some from observing their colleagues. Some took the opportunity to purge pent up angers, some to go on an impulsive journey making genuine self-discoveries. From the outpouring of this vulnerability came two strong reactions – relief and judgement.

Some felt relief for having expressed themselves creating greater self-awareness brought from their sub-conscious on the crest of the waves of impulse. Others however felt exposed and judged – and turned this judgement toward their facilitator in anger. This was an enormous surprise for me, and a huge wake up call. I needed to examine the clues – why hadn't I seen this coming?

Watching them work individually I had seen (in some cases) actors making discoveries, sharing vulnerabilities, purging pent up anxieties, opening themselves to impulses, letting go resistances.  Some of the others clearly saw something else – they saw their colleagues being "made" to do or say things – they saw a violation or a manipulation by me as I encouraged them to express their thoughts and feelings impulsively. They identified with the 'information' coming from the exercise and seemed not to enjoy the same sense of discovery I had encouraged.

I reminded myself about the exercise I had given: I had asked the class to observe moment-to-moment impulses and use the words, I'm free to… and in some cases, I want…. and, I feel…. 

I asked myself why the exercise had caused such an out-pouring of emotion – as I had often encouraged students in other classes to do this exercise, and in every other case it had been a liberating and free-ing experience.

In giving the group permission to follow impulses and express true feelings and desires had I popped a cork that had been holding in a great deal of pressure?

This was a group of physical theatre "interns", training rigorously in a system based on methodologies informed by the Japanese Suzuki Method of theatre training, Viewpoints – ensemble physical impulse work and Ashtanga Yoga. They were also part of a show in rehearsal, four weeks from opening, having had several months of part time rehearsal behind them.

Aside from my own self-examination, introspection and reflection as a teacher constantly in pursuit of refining a pedagogical process I must turn my attention toward the company that embeds itself with and has interpreted these philosophies

My intuition is that the work of Zen Zen Zo, or at least how it is presently being interpreted by this group of people, is that it is fundamentally denying the creative artist's primary impulse.

Do I speak sacrilege? In my heart I have no alternative. This is my perception. Unwittingly or otherwise it is my intuition that, Zen Zen Zo training has taught its actors to derive the stimulus to creative behaviour from effort, control and exertion. This constant denial of the natural impulse and organic expression of this impulse creates an inner tension that in some cases may be of cataclysmic proportions.

I do know that Zen Zen Zo includes sense memory and image work in their training ­ I also recognise the Viewpoints work is about stimulating a physical impulsive response to stimulus within the context of the form provided. However I feel this is not enough to counteract what I suspect to be that which creates the fundamental tension.  I also suspect that the founder of the Suzuki Method ­Tadashi Suzuki, may have in mind that his training methods have the potential to cause the body to transcend itself through the rigour of practice and be released into the Zen state of... " the mind of no mind" – where true impulse resides. However the current application of this training that I have experienced though meeting the Intern group leads me to conclude this is not being achieved, rather, the opposite.

My responsibility: I believe I unwittingly released a pent up energy that had been suppressed by; a) the nature of the work practiced in the company and b) the individuals perception of that work and their perception and expectation of the work I was bringing to their training program.

The anger and personal attack expressed in the debrief at the end of the session is a direct correlation to the intensity of the vulnerabilities expressed during the exercise. It is clear that as the vulnerable side of some of the participants opened up to not long after this their protective side judged this and became quite angry at the perceived manipulation.

However this was not the response of all. Half the group expressed anger and distrust. The other half were receptive to the experience and seemed not to feel judged or be judging of themselves. It occurred to me that all those who had expressed openness to the process at the beginning of the morning felt the experience was in some way rewarding. While others who were less open minded and cautious had a variety of adverse responses. I had facilitated a session where for a time the resistant group allowed themselves to express vulnerability (only one of many outcomes from this exercise) only to have their protective sides give them a huge slap at some point during the class.  

I have learnt a great deal from this experience. I must acknowledge that my work is not for all. And perhaps I could have chosen a different approach based on the opening discussion. But I ran the lesson on the basis that what the group needed would become apparent – I wanted to encourage impulses and I followed mine.

One student commented that my work had nothing to do with Art. For him this must be true and I must accept his position. For me: no impulse – no spontaneity – no art.

I feel battered but at the same time, fortified by this experience. And have come to some conclusions and decisions:

  • I am not at this moment able to take my work to Zen Zen Zo or any other group whose process (I feel) sits at fundamental odds with mine. To do so would seem hypocritical and counter productive.
  • There is little point working in an environment in an artistic sense, which is clouded by closed mind and chronic resistance. The debate probably needs to occur but not within the training room.
  • I suspect the form of training practiced by Zen Zen Zo creates a pressure that is anti-thetic to creative organic behaviour on stage
  • On a personal level I must be more discerning in the future but never shy away from the controversy that may spring from taking a firm stance
  • My work is me and I am my work

In conclusion: I do not wish this to be interpreted as a person saying, they are wrong and I am right. Perhaps it is as simple as – the two art-forms are different – one is called physical theatre, the other 'method' acting.   However what I sense and feel is this:

Creative impulse stifled by the desire to achieve Form in art making is a critical denial that artists are instruments or channels through which the magic and infinite majesty of the unconscious can be played.  

To embrace the harmony that can exist between Form and Content is remembered by us as great work.  In pursuit of this we must not allow one to dominate the other. To allow impulse and spontaneity to occur within the context of an artistic form be it dance, acting or music (this is not excluding non-performance arts) is essential if we wish to honour the possibility and potential to transcend the ordinary and touch the extraordinary through the work we practice.


If you are interested in finding out more about Zen Zen Zo, their website is . I have sent a copy of this article and offered the right of reply but as yet have not heard from the company.

©2004 Martin Challis

For more commentary and articles by Martin Challis, check the Archives.

Martin Challis is an actor and director "down under" in Australia.
He recently  commenced a coursework Doctorate in Creative Industries
developing projects such as The Raw Theatre and Training Company.
He's also the director of the Studio For Actors and Ensemble Works. 
And... he has a sailing boat!

All articles are archived on this site.
To access the Archives

© 2004 AVIAR-DKA Ltd. All rights reserved (including authors' and individual copyrights as indicated). All copyrights, trademarks and servicemarks are protected by the laws of the United States and International laws Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
For permissions, contact sc4contact