This paper is a reflection on the use of physical expression in the devising process of Love Loss Life, a 2015 Rhythm Room production www.rhythmroomdublin.com.
Rhythm Room was set up in 2009 by Nicola Kealy and Mischa O'Mahony in response to the need for an accessible training space for actors with an intellectual disability.
Our work is inclusive, which means that we work with non-disabled and disabled actors. The work we create focuses on the abilities of all our actors and their unique views of and approaches to this tricky business we call 'life'. These views and approaches inform the theatre we make.
Rhythm Room seeks to make the art of theatre accessible to everyone and to take this a step further by creating unique productions. We are committed to constantly bringing quality integrated theatre to the stage and enabling performers from all backgrounds to reach their full potential.
Love Loss Life by The Rhythm Room Ensemble (2015). Directed by Nicola Kealy (Axis Theatre, Ballymun, 5 January) Photo Credit: Tony Murray
A lone girl moves in an empty restaurant, her arm lifting and arching through the space around her; beneath her movement is a story. A table is set for two, yet she is alone. Forlorn, she sits and rests her head on her hands.
Discovering that her lover left her for another, Alice’s heart shattered, plunging her into deep and dark despair. The shattered pieces of her heart floated into the atmosphere where they fell into the possession of the heart keepers: The Joker, The Mother, The Warrior, The Dancer and The Lover.
There they will stay until she discovers the strength to find them and put her heart back together.
The following is a reflection on the devising process of Love Loss Life – a play about one girl’s journey to mend her broken heart. There is an accompanying video:
Love Loss Life was created over two years with a group of actors with intellectual disabilities. It began with a need to express what was happening in participant’s lives: parents dying, breakups and unrequited love, a yearning for relationships both romantic and platonic and, greater still, a need to be heard and understood.
These emotions and desires charged the rehearsal room and, to understand what was happening, we began to move, talk and move. This work became our process and took up the first-year devising Love Loss Life. It equated to roughly thirty per cent talking and seventy per cent movement around the themes of love and loss and what they meant for the actors, as well as where or how they expressed themselves in the body. Jacques le Coq states that “The body knows things about which the mind is ignorant” (2000, p.9).
As a theatre director and facilitator, I was trying to access the actor’s knowledge about their emotions through the physical movement of their bodies.
For the group, working ‘physically’ was, as Dymphna Callery puts it, “A way of enriching the ensemble and accessing a common physical vocabulary, a route towards collective creative energy” (2001, p.19). Through this work, we began to see physical interpretations, understandings and expressions of the feelings of love and loss. Gestures, movements and tableaux (living pictures) emerged, giving voice to what was happening inside the body. In other words, we were creating a physical text.
Love Loss Life by The Rhythm Room Ensemble (2015). Directed by Nicola Kealy (Axis Theatre, Ballymun, 5 November). Photo: Tony Murray
As a director, I was particularly interested in the actor’s physical relationship to the “empty space” (Brook, 1968) and to the other actors in this space. In examining the themes of love and loss through physicality, I was looking at the power dynamics between actors, for example, how do young lovers look as they wait for each other? Who holds power? Who is leading and who is following? And how does that dynamic present itself in the body? (See accompanying video).
In terms of working with actors with an intellectual disability, the physicality of the work was central in assisting the actors in expanding their range of physical, imaginative and vocal expressions. This was central because up to their participation in Love Loss Life few opportunities had presented for the actors to express their feelings of love and loss. Opportunities for people with an intellectual disability to express their emotions are limited in our society because societal attitudes appear to have a presumption that their ability to feel and understand complex emotions are limited or even non-existent.
The actors had been limited by the lack of a safe space to talk about their feelings and have these feelings authenticated. They had been limited by other people’s fears, encountering, for instance, placed barriers against discussing or expressing feelings around the need for intimate relationships in their lives. I believe this fear starts as an awareness of difference from the norm, i.e., this person is not like me, they don’t look normal and they talk differently, how can I communicate with them? If I can’t speak with them then I won't speak at all, I will avoid them because I feel uncomfortable and a bit scared – scared that they might try to talk to me, and I won’t understand them.
Such fear and indeed stereotyping can be illustrated by Michael Gill’s (2015, p.1) reflections on a childhood experience of witnessing a family with their intellectually disabled daughter at the local fair. Drawn away from his delicious hot dog to stare at the young girl, it was only as an adult that he could reflect on and understand his behaviour: “Only looking back as an adult was I able to realize that my staring and othering of this girl and her parents was a result of my own learned fear of difference and disability. The girl’s parents were trying to let their child enjoy the fair – the same thing my parents wanted for me”.
This fear is not something that goes away, in fact, it grows with the person; when they reach adulthood the things that are often hard to talk about, for example, intimate relationships, become impossible to comprehend in someone considered to be other than normal. If one has difficulty talking to someone with a disability about mundane things, then it stands to reason that talking about their inner lives, hopes, dreams and fears is out of the question.
The actors involved in Love Loss Life wanted to be able to communicate their feelings about love and loss, not as people with a disability but as people, and to have those feelings heard and understood. They had something to say and the play was their vehicle.
The following are some of the actor’s reflections on love and loss:
“Love is Sex; Love is protecting the people that you love.”
“Loss is when people are gone from our life – we miss them.”
“Life is precious.”
“I love life because I like going out for lunch.”
“Love is love, chocolates and flowers.”
“Loss is death, a tragedy of sadness.”
“Life is a wonderful thing to have, everybody that you love, everybody who is in your life will always be there for you.”
“The way the person purses the lips, chest to chest, body to body – lips to lips, eyes to eyes; the beautiful desires of our hearts.”
Love Loss Life in rehearsal, October 2015.
The principal drive for the creation of Love Loss Life was an overwhelming personal need to publicly recognise that people with intellectual disabilities experience love and loss like non-disabled people. I wanted to communicate this understanding on behalf of the group by creating a piece of theatre that spoke about life and what it means to be human; Love Loss Life was not a play about disability, it was a play about hope and endurance.
In working through the body, we were able to access new forms of expression and encourage the development of existing ones. One of the ways to gain access was through music; generally, music that was not well known to the ensemble – consequently creating individual freedom of movement (as opposed to physical movement and feeling associated with a favourite song). There were moments of immense joy and a sense of awakening as this part of the work developed – particularly a willingness to participate not only as a mover but an observer. The work was challenging but the actors attuned to the meaning over time; the creation of Love Loss Life was a slow process that aimed to capture what was being offered naturally by the actors and bring it into a deeper level of awareness and understanding.
In his book Impro For Storytellers (1999, p.275), Keith Johnstone talks about breaking free from the role of Plato’s “mature citizen” and “experiencing ourselves differently” through play, for instance, dressing up, wearing masks and painting our faces. He says that “Plato’s ‘mature citizen’ would ‘pull himself together’ and ‘snap out of it’, but if we had the courage and the incentive to ‘go with it’, other creatures might emerge, and in the right circumstances this could be construed as exhilarating and liberating.” This ‘freedom’ was what I sought to achieve through the movement work with the ensemble – to find and encourage the release of a new language that came from the body.
Love Loss Life by The Rhythm Room Ensemble (2015). Directed by Nicola Kealy (Axis Theatre, Ballymun, 5 November). Photo: Tony Murray
Julian Hilton writes that “Movement signifies life, energy, consciousness” (1987, p.93). If we can feel ourselves present in our body, alert to the way it moves, contracts and expands; if we can build an awareness of tension and relaxation in response to feeling; if we can ask, for example, how does the body feel when I am sad? Is it heavy or light? If I am angry, where does the tension lie? Then perhaps we can honour our emotions truthfully and with a deeper intention.
In writing the language of the body, we must assume that the bodies language is its movement and articulation. This movement is a physical expression of feeling, for example, I am in a nightclub dancing, I am happy, and my body shows it by filling with energy, lifting up and out, pulsing to the beat; I move in time to the music and I feel light, quick of step and alive. I don’t need to convey my happiness verbally; my body says it all.
In his book, The Power of Now, Eckhardt Tolle (2001, p.95) presents the idea that “transformation is through the body”. In creating Love Loss Life, the actors’ thoughts, ideas, feelings and observations on love and loss transformed through the creative process into a story; a story that anyone, disabled or not, could recognise themselves in, a story about life. Love Loss Life would not have ‘come to be’ had the ensemble not entered this in-depth process – allowing ourselves to become immersed in the story through our bodies, minds and senses.
There was a wonderful moment in the rehearsal process when an actor slowly folded a piece of cloth; this action, though simple, held so much emotion and truth that in a way it was the very essence of the story we were telling. His hands held the cloth gently, and the focus given to the task of folding was slow and reverent.
It was as if time ultimately slowed down and everything that needed a voice spoke at that moment; as in, life is a journey and even when you think it’s not moving, it is; folding and unfolding, ebbing and flowing. In every fold a memory made, a hurdle faced, a great pain felt and always and sometimes imperceptibly the inexorable movement of life. (See accompanying video).
Love Loss Life, The devising process, Axis Theatre, Ballymun, circa May 2014. Photo: Tony Murray
Love Loss Life was not only a universal story but a personal one, suffused with real emotions and truths. There was great care taken to honour and hold these truths through the creative process, narrative and eventual performance.
To return to Alice, in Love Loss Life, this form of holding (gentle, focused, slow and reverent) became the core aspect of her healing and led to the eventual restoration of her heart. This part of the creative process in Love Loss Life is perhaps best summed up by Rudolph Laban (1980, p.19) when he says “Each phase of a movement, every small transference of weight, every single gesture of any part of the body reveals some feature of our inner life”.
In allowing time and space for the actors’ bodies to connect with their feelings and move them from cerebral and verbal expression to physical expression, and, eventually, to complete expression involving all three, the actors were able to reveal the complexities of their inner lives. They were able to tell their stories with truth and integrity.
Love Loss Life by The Rhythm Room Ensemble (2015). Directed by Nicola Kealy (Axis Theatre, Ballymun. 5 November). Photo: Tony Murray
In conclusion, what I have reflected on here is a small part of the creative journey involved in Love Loss Life.
I have always been fascinated by the moving body and my relationship to movement and emotion. This interest in movement and emotional connection is something that has informed all my work with Rhythm Room and has become a crucial part of our creative processes. It is something that works for us as an ensemble and allows us to go deeper and find authenticity in both the devising process and performance.
I feel that if we did not work through the body, many magical moments of opportunity could be missed, e.g., we may never have witnessed Brendan’s delicate handling of the cloth or found the depth and measure needed to express the pain of loss. We might never have known that Aidan had the power to make people laugh and that together we could make a whole theatre full of people cry and laugh and walk out into the night air with joy and hope.
Nicola Kealy, Artistic Director @ Rhythm Room
Nicola Kealy is the Artistic Director and co-founder of Rhythm Room. Nicola trained as an actor at the Gaiety School of Acting and has an ALCM Dip In Drama from the London College of Music. She studied Community Dance and Choreography with the Laban Guild and has a Master’s degree in Dramatherapy. Nicola has been working in Arts and Disability for the past 20 years and has written, directed and produced numerous plays for Rhythm Room. Nicola has worked as a Dramatherapist in the areas of mental health, intellectual disability and care of the elderly. She has been a guest lecturer in the School of Nursing, Psychotherapy and Community Health at DCU and in the School of Education at Maynooth University.
Brook, Peter (1968) The Empty Space, London: Macgibbon and Kee.
Callery, Dymphna (2001) Through the Body, London: Nick Hern Books.
Gill, Michael (2015) Already Doing It: Intellectual Disability and Sexual Agency, Minnesota Press.
Hilton, Julian (1987) New Directions in Theatre Performance, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Johnstone, Keith (1999) Impro For Storytellers, London: Faber and Faber.
Laban, Rudolph (1980) The Mastery of Movement, London: Macdonald and Evans.
Le Coq, Jacques (2000) The Moving Body, London: Methuen.
Tolle, Eckhardt (2001) The Power of Now, London: Hodder & Stoughton.