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Understanding Viewpoints



Since we have an upcoming Viewpoints: Next Step workshop, we thought it best to provide you with a bit of an introduction to the technique, and this Dramatics article has done a wonderful job of doing so. Do give it a read and feel welcome to ask us any questions about Viewpoints or our upcoming workshop. Enjoy!

Using observation and movement to make bold acting choices

Written by Tatum Hunter



DOES GOOD ACTING come from clear objectives? A strong backstory? Big emotions? Ask a performer who uses the Viewpoints method, and they might say you’re asking the wrong questions.

As a method of actor training, Viewpoints encourages actors to focus less on their characters’ psychology and more on observation and movement. Building your knowledge of different training approaches will help you understand what supports your best work. Following is an overview of the Viewpoints method and why so many theatre artists incorporate it in their process.


HOW DID VIEWPOINTS ORIGINATE?

While the Viewpoints have long been part of dance and theatre traditions across the world, choreographer Mary Overlie was the first person to use the term Viewpoints to refer to six integral elements of onstage performance: space, shape, time, emotion, movement, and story.

Today, the best-known practitioner of Viewpoints is Anne Bogart, whose New York City-based SITI Company uses the approach to devise and stage theatre. Bogart met Overlie in 1979 when both taught in New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing. Inspired by her colleague’s innovation, Bogart began using Viewpoints theatrically in her work as an actor and director.

WHAT ARE THE VIEWPOINTS?

A gesture is a behavorial or expressive shape with a beginning, middle, and end. Photo from a 2018 ITF workshop by Susan Doremus.

In 1987, Bogart met director Tina Landau while working at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. The two collaborated extensively during the next decade, expanding Overlie’s original six Viewpoints to nine Physical Viewpoints and five Vocal Viewpoints. This is the method Bogart brought to SITI when she co-founded the company with director Tadashi Suzuki in 1992.


Physical Viewpoints

  • Spatial Relationship: The distance between things (objects, bodies, etc.) onstage.

  • Kinesthetic Response: How performers respond to movement from other people, objects, or design elements.

  • Shape: The outline of a body in space.

  • Gesture: A behavioral or expressive shape that has a beginning, middle, and end.

  • Repetition: When performers recreate something they have done or seen.

  • Architecture: A performer’s physical environment.

  • Tempo: How fast or slow something happens onstage.

  • Duration: How long a movement lasts.

  • Topography: The onstage pattern or design a movement creates.


Vocal Viewpoints

  • Pitch: The highness or lowness of a sound.

  • Dynamic: The loudness or softness of a sound.

  • Acceleration/Deceleration: Speeding up or slowing down a sound.

  • Silence: The absence of sound.

  • Timbre: The texture or quality of a sound, distinct from its volume or pitch.


WHAT SETS VIEWPOINTS APART?


Theatre in America is predominantly naturalistic, meaning characters move, speak, and behave realistically. Importance is given to characters’ psychology, which causes many actors to focus on their feelings during scene work.

Bogart and her collaborators broke with this form. First, they placed greater emphasis on actors’ observations than on their feelings. Second, they prioritized evocative movement and metaphor over naturalistic storytelling.

Ellen Lauren, founding member and co-artistic director at SITI Company, says Viewpoints helps her ensemble members step outside themselves and view a theatrical moment from all angles.

“We never talk about our feelings,” Lauren said, discussing SITI rehearsals. “Bogart will say that the space isn’t right, or maybe a company member will say that the time or the gesture isn’t right. The Viewpoints are used to clarify the story. The idea is that all these things are integrated.”

Lauren believes the practice of Viewpoints requires a lifetime commitment to sharpening your powers of observation and deepening your emotional responses. “We can never practice noticing enough,” she said. “Use your powers of observation to notice the world around you: the people, the objects, the empty space. We can even observe time — how quickly or slowly things are moving and how they exist together. Our culture is always telling us some things are more important than others, and Viewpoints tells us, ‘No, they’re not.’”

SITI Company performer and teaching artist Tina Mitchell echoes the idea that Viewpoints gives equal importance to all elements of a production, including each artist. When rehearsing, an ensemble using Viewpoints is likely to be more collaborative than a traditional cast in which performers and designers defer to the director’s vision.

“It’s always a back-and-forth, as opposed to the actors waiting for Anne to come in with an idea. That leads to a more dynamic experience onstage because the audience sees more than one person’s idea of what the play could be,” she said.


HOW DO I START?

Interested in using Viewpoints to deepen your theatre practice? Below are tips from Lauren and Mitchell on how young performers might employ this approach.

Put down your phone

Sometimes, our reliance on technology detracts from our power of observation. Find time each week to unplug and notice the composition of the world around you. How are the people and objects around you arranged? Where is the empty space? What rhythms do you notice? What draws your eyes, ears, nose, and hands? What emotions do these observations create?

Viewpoints practitioners are encouraged to find inspiration in the people, spaces, and objects around them instead of trying to generate interesting ideas on their own. “Once your eyes are open to it, you see Viewpoints everywhere,” Mitchell said. “Like a flock of birds in the sky, or the New York traffic organizing itself to run smoothly, or people on the subway responding to each other. How people hold themselves in the world has become fascinating to me.”

Find a like-minded group

While Viewpoints can certainly help you improve as an individual actor, it is, at its core, a group effort. Viewpoints can be used to build a closer ensemble, make adjustments to characters and scenes, establish a physical vocabulary for the world of the play, or discover unexpected choices. Some ensembles use Viewpoints-focused group improvisation to explore themes, characters, settings, or relationships.

“We are in a world where we are so disconnected from one another. Viewpoints breaks that down,” Lauren said. “Theatre is better than that, and an older practice than that, meant to revive the senses and help us live better.”

Get on your feet

According to Bogart and Landau, the quickest way to tell if an ensemble is making progress on a scene is to notice whether they are talking or moving. Movement is the key to finding interesting choices.

“A lot of people don’t like to use their bodies for expression. It’s a very vulnerable thing,” Mitchell said. “But once they get into the work, they realize how useful it is to get up and start trying things.”

Forget about right and wrong

One of the goals of Viewpoints is to use accidents. This means that no matter what choice an actor makes, the ensemble should affirm that choice and incorporate it. For Viewpoints practitioners, there is no right or wrong. This belief opens up an actor’s range of choices, so performances become more dynamic.

Mitchell said her Viewpoints students are often surprised by what occurs when they stop trying to make the “right” choice and start trusting the ensemble. “Coincidences happen onstage without you even knowing how. When actors give over to that, they don’t have to be in control all the time,” she said.

Lauren says Viewpoints is more than an artistic method; it’s a way of seeing the world. “It’s fun, it’s joyful, and it’s kind of mind-blowing when you realize you can’t do anything wrong,” she said. “Real Viewpoints practice is so delightful, and the answers exist in the other. That’s a really good thing to practice in this world.”

Resources

  • The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition, by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau

  • SITI Company website Mary Overlie

  • Six Viewpoints website


[Original article can be found here]