Thursday, February 25, 2021

Physical Empowerment rather than Impediment, through Acting

This guest post graciously submitted by Caroline von Kuhn

I am so honored to have serendipitously met Robyn Hussa and for her to be producing our Peer Gynt Project. This theatre project came out of my artistic and personal relationship with Neil Hancock, a talented actor from Stratford, England, whom I met when studying Shakespeare at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.

Neil’s exploration of theatre and film from his hometown of Stratford result in his strong imagination and a mastery of classical text, from which I continue to develop as an artist by working with him. We left our studies knowing we wanted to work together, my aspirations to return to London, his to journey for the first time to New York. With Neil’s beautiful reading of classical text and my obsession with Ibsen’s work, we set upon the epic Peer Gynt.

While the top teachers of RADA and the four-week Shakespeare intensive were hugely developmental for me as an actor, I actually gained the most from my work with Neil. Neil is a wheelchair user, as he was born with Cerebral Palsy, yet has not let that slow him down one moment as an actor, a writer, a young man.

Our first day of the course included a dance class and when our teacher entered the room, Neil cracked a joke with “I think I’ll sit this one out,” to which the rest of us politely, slightly nervously, laughed. Noel Butler, a top classically trained ballerina and choreographer, snapped her head in his direction and fiercely responded with “Don’t you dare say that. Never let anyone tell you that you cannot dance. You will join the rest of them.”

My classmates and I were so shocked by this confrontational challenge and even more by what followed. The way that Noel took her dance training to approach Neil’s movement in ways that differed from his life-long physical therapy and even more the way that Neil found new means of physical exploration. While this indulgent summer of studying acting gave me great skills of physicality, voice, text, I learned more from Neil than from my teachers.

While inspired by our dance classes, I found frustration with our scene study classes. Instructors often made the choice to stage scenes with Neil’s acting partner seated in a chair so as to have the other actor meet what they saw as Neil’s physical constraints. Ironically, he would be cast as a king but his “throne” a seat of limitation rather than empowerment.

Our exploration of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is an attempt to overcome this, to set up Neil to continue his exploration of acting and movement, letting him lead rather than be led. In our Peer Gynt Project, Neil’s Peer will be the most mobile character, his wheelchair a gift rather than an impediment. As our work develops, I learn more each week and the possibilities seem even more endless.

From Left: John Gould Rubin (co-creator), and Neil Hancock as Peer Gynt, Old Vic Theatre workshop, London, February 2011

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