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Discuss the approach to acting and actor training in the work of one of the
directors considered in the course up through Brecht.

JACQUES COPEAU

In terms of influence and continued inspiration, Jacques Copeau͛s innovations in


actor training and development are probably second only to Stanislavsky͛s
system. Certainly in France his ideas are extremely prevalent, and were a key
influence on many of the greatest theatre-makers of the twentieth century.

Curiously ʹ and quite distinctly by comparison with other figures on the syllabus ʹ
Copeau͛s aim in actor training was not to move towards a ͚new͛ theatre, so much
as to rediscover and reawaken a theatrical vitality that had been lost to what he
referred to as ñ  , a typically French word that translates roughly as ͚ham
acting͛. Copeau felt that the commercial theatre needed to be stripped of its
tricks, and acting brought back to a greater level of sincerity.

It is a great irony that Copeau͛s theatre in Paris ʹ the Vieux-Colombier, founded


in 1913, is now one of the principal houses of the Comedie-Francaise. Copeau
had opened the Vieux-Colombier with a call ͚to young people, to the educated
public, and to everyone͛ to come to his theatre to see theatre loosed from the
chains of the tradition he was so eager to counteract. Among his aims for the
theatre, laid forth in his quasi-manifesto ͞ 

       


      were to present numerous productions every week
ʹ allowing actors to play a wide variety of roles, including French classics by
Moliere and Racine alongside new and recent plays, all performed on a stage
stripped of all but the essentials. A frequently cited quote from Copeau͛s
collected writings says that all he needed was ͚a bare platform͛.

Given that in France at the time the only site of actor training was at the
Comedie-Francaise, Copeau also proposed that a school be formed to train actors
within the Vieux-Colombier. This was chiefly overseen by Suzanne Bing, Copeau͛s
long-term collaborator, who would likewise be responsible for the actor-training
curricula in Pernand-Vergeless and with the Compagnie des Quinze.

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For Copeau, the hamminess and artificiality of the theatre he was so eager to
counteract was directly linked to its location within the urban landscape of Paris.
Throughout his career he was drawn to the countryside as a site of artistic and
personal refreshment and renewal. As early as 1910 Copeau was spending
extended periods of time outside Paris at his house, Le Limon, and this idea of
͚retreat͛ to the countryside recurs throughout his life. The most famous example
of this was when, in 19 , Copeau abruptly disbanded his Paris company - he and
his entourage decamped to an old house near Beaune, in Burgundy, in an effort
to re-establish the acting school at the Vieux-Colombier. This ͚retraite͛ in many
ways echoed that of Moliere nearly three centuries before ʹ a move away from
Paris during which the aim was to get to the very heart of what acting and
theatre can mean.

A key tenet of Copeau͛s approach was that the ñ  was key ʹ there were no
star turns, and emphasis was placed on collective, collaborative exploration.
Concomitant with his aim to simplify the theatrical space (as evidenced in his
work at the Vieux-Colombier) was a desire to foreground the human actor ʹ ͞a
rediscovery of man as the single essential in theatre, both as subject (content)
and as medium (form).͟ (Angotti, 1973).

The list of innovations, exercises and ideas that Copeau and Bing developed in
their various enterprises reads almost like the standard curriculum of physical
training for contemporary actors. It is quite staggering to think that
contemporary ideas ranging from improvisation, neutral (noble) mask work,
animal exercises and several ideas about physical exercise training can all be
traced directly back to Copeau.

Actor Training ʹ Concepts


Within the broad range of exercises for and approaches to actor training that
were developed by Copeau and his colleagues, some are of particular interest;
physical training, improvisation, animal work, neutral mask, and play are all
discussed below.

As well as his interest in voice and speech (which was from the very beginning a
key element of any actor͛s daily work with him), Copeau was eager to find a
physical complement to be a part of his actors͛ training. Although he flirted
briefly with Eurhythmics, it did not provide what he was looking for, and so
instead he turned to the teachings of Georges Hebert. Initially at the Vieux-
Colombier school, exercises were developed and encouraged along the lines of

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those set out by Hebert͛s ͚natural gymnastics͛, but they only really gained efficacy
when the daily regimen was tailored to the actors͛ strengths and needs by Jean
Dorcy. Later, in Burgundy, physical exercise was supervised by Jean Dasté in his
own extension of Dorcy͛s regimen, and it seems very likely that this
concentration on physical agility and alertness rubbed off on Dasté͛s protégé,
Jacques Lecoq. But this physical discipline was only the beginning of the work;

First we must give him an obedient body. Then one draws out of
gymnastics the concept of the interior rhythm, then music, dance and
masked mime ʹ the word, to elemental dramatic forms, to conscious play,
to scenic invention, to poetry. (Copeau 1931).

Evans lists ͞several sessions aimed specifically at developing the students͛


physical skills and powers of expression͟ from the Syllabus of the Vieux-
Colombier in the early 190s. These included everything from dramatic work,
dance, ballet and even circus training exercises. It is interesting and heartening to
consider that while Copeau was making his investigations through rigorous
physical training in France, Meyerhold was likewise reconfiguring the physical
actor by means of his biomechanics in Russia.

Writing in Hodge, 009, Rudlin discusses neutrality as a key component in the
actor͛s arsenal ʹ ͞the point of departure of an expression͟. He quotes Copeau at
length;
An actor must know how to be silent, to listen, respond, keep still, begin a
gesture, develop it, return to stillness and silence, with all the tones and
half tones that those actions imply.
This ͚neutral͛ state is considered positive rather than negative ʹ a state of alert,
prepared readiness. Suzanne Bing developed various exercises utilizing slow
motion (another innovation!) to force attention onto the body͛s activity,
significantly heightening the difference between activity and neutrality. Copeau͛s
eagerness to interrogate this neutrality also led to his covering the face of an
actress who was experiencing difficulty in ͚letting go͛ ʹ this simple idea led in turn
to the development and very widespread use of the neutral mask in his training.

Originally referred to as the ͚noble mask͛ (in reference to the blank masks worn in
public by French nobility wishing to hide themselves from the eyes of  ),
the neutral mask developed and became an integral part of Copeau͛s work with
actors. He developed a very careful, ritual mode of putting on the mask ʹ
͚entering͛ the mask ʹ which is very reminiscent of the respect accorded to the
masks used in Japanese Noh theatre. Both systems allow the actor time to focus

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on and commune with the mask before being ͚ready͛ to begin work. Rudlin
discusses various stages of and exercises employing mask work, which give some
insight into their integration into Copeau͛s training.

The exercises and training with neutral masks led later to an engagement with
half-masks inspired by Commedia dell͛Arte, which had fascinated Copeau at least
since his process of working on M
 
 ñ  in 1917. Copeau hoped to
develop a new kind of actor-centric popular theatre in which performers were
extremely close to their characters, developed very personally, to the extent that
they would be capable of extended improvisation-as-performance, as the
Commedia itself had been.


Improvisation was a key element of Copeau͛s work with his actors. Despite its
sounding quite natural and established as a part of contemporary training and
practice, doubtless thanks to the seminal achievements of Joan Littlewood and
Ariane Mnouchkine, among others, the idea of improvisation was quite radical
when Copeau began integrating it into his practice. Stanislavksy investigated the
possibilities of improvisation in his final years, via his ͚Method of Physical Action͛
ʹ although this was in the mid 1930s, long after Copeau had started incorporating
it into the exercises at the Vieux-Colombier.

Copeau was very much drawn to the idea of play, and the freedom of imagination
that children possess. Throughout the various readings on his work, there is
frequent recourse to his fondness for children and their imaginative capacities,
and it seems that much of his work with actors was an attempt to loosen up their
creative faculties and release them to a state of naïve (in the positive sense) self-
expression. Play became an essential tenet of the work that he and Bing did with
actors. It was to happen, admittedly, within a relatively disciplined approach, but
Copeau͛s thinking was that play liberated the actor͛s imagination, and allowed for
spontaneity without artificiality.

Suzanne Bing is also responsible for the idea of ͚animal work͛ ʹ the observation
and imitation of animals, which allowed the student ͞to engage the whole body,
to escape from their habitual self-consciousness, and to use observation and
analysis as their way in to their ͚role͛. ͞ (Evans, p.68)

What is most striking to me about Copeau͛s influence and legacy is that he


himself taught so many great  ñ
of acting ʹ it feels almost as though he
was the torch-bearer, the pace-setter, who then stepped aside and allowed those

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younger, hungrier to come up from within the ranks and continue to shine. The
catalogue of theatrical greats who come Copeau͛s lineage is a testament to this;
it includes Michael Saint Denis (his nephew, responsible for various schools and
training programmes in France, England and the United States), Charles Dullin
and Louis Jouvet, (two prominent theatre directors of the mid-twentieth century
in France), and Etienne Decroux (a great proponent of modern mime, who went
on to teach Marcel Marceau). A second generation student (via Jean Dasté, who
was his colleague and mentor) was Jacques Lecoq, whose own teaching system
for actors, heavily indebted to the the innovations of Copeau and Bing, is one of
the most influential in contemporary European theatre. Likewise Jean-Louis
Barrault, arguably the greatest director in twentieth century France, was taught
both by Charles Dullin and Etienne Decroux. In the late 1960s Ariane Mnouchkine
was a student of Lecoq, and his influence, and certainly that of Copeau and his
writings, has flowered quite beautifully in the works of the Théâtre du Soleil in
Paris. Here is a company that is based fiercely on collaboration, with frequent
recourse to mask work, and whose pieces are invariably devised through group
improvisation. Mnouchkine herself acknowledges the debt to Copeau, citing him
as a source of ͚extraordinary things͛.

The impact of Copeau͛s actor training is akin to the qualities he hoped it would
produce in actors ʹ sincere, direct and quietly, actively present. Rudlin͛s
conclusion is excellent ʹ ͚Copeau͛s real legacy, however, has been to put the
playfulness back into plays, and the quest for sincerity back into playing them͛.
(Rudlin, p.60)

!#!#$% & '


& , Vincent L. (1973) ͞Return to man: Jacques Copeau and the actor͟ in
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, Vol.  .3 London & New York: Routledge

 Jacques (1931) 
  Paris: Nouvelles Editions.
Ev
(, Mark (006) ½ ñ
  London & New York: Routledge
, Alison (009) Ôñ !  nd Edition. London & New York: Routledge
, in Hodge, 009

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