Hip to be square
Rasaboxes bring powerful emotions to the stage
It looks like a typical stage movement class: We’re in a studio. Students wear loose clothing. They are engaged in strenuous, committed physical activity. An instructor watches closely, giving gentle side coaching from time to time.
But this is a rasaboxes class, so there are a few departures from the norm. A large grid has been taped out on the floor, creating nine distinct “boxes” or playing areas, each one bright with colored chalk graffiti. The students on the grid are fully alive physically—rolling, reaching, tightening, and relaxing. But they also appear to be fully alive emotionally, freely crying and laughing. They are moving and they are learning to engage their bodies, breath, and imagination with rasa, an ancient Sanskrit performance philosophy, put forth in a modern context. And while these rasaboxes players happen to be advanced high school students participating in a workshop in New York City, the techniques they’re learning can have immediate, positive results for acting students of all ages and all levels.
“Every (rehearsal) day starts with, ‘Can we play in the boxes?’ ” writes Jennifer Miller, a drama teacher at Magic Valley High School, in Twin Falls, Idaho. “My kids can’t seem to get enough of them.”
Rasa can be a difficult concept to translate into English. Essentially it means “taste,” “flavor,” or “juice,” but rather than referring strictly to the flavors of food, it embraces “emotional flavors” as well. Rasas are described in The Natyasastra, a dramaturgical treatise and guide to all forms of Indian performing arts, including music, dance, and drama. Written between 500 B.C.E. and 300 A.D., The Natyasastra contains information about acting, costumes, make-up, and props, as well as dance, music, poetic composition, and play construction. It also describes the ancient Sanskrit rasic system of practicing and appreciating performing arts. In the rasic system, emotion is a tangible element, as knowable and transmutable as the flavors and presentation of a meal. Audiences inhale, ruminate, taste, and are nourished by performance, the same way that they might enjoy a delectable feast or savor a fine wine.
The nine rasas, or “flavors of emotion” explored in the rasic system, are hasya (mirth, mockery, laughter), karuna (empathy, sorrow, grief), raudra (annoyance, anger, rage), sringara (love, sweetness, pleasure, rapture), vira (daring, gallantry, courage, heroism), adbhuta (curiosity, wonder, awe), bibhatsa (aversion, disgust, loathing), bhayanaka (nervousness, fear, terror), and shanta (peace, harmony, bliss).
Ancient ideas, cutting-edge technique
The rasaboxes performance exercises were devised in the 1980s and ’90s by Richard Schechner, a prominent stage director and professor of performance studies at New York University. An Asian theatre expert, Schechner traveled extensively throughout India, where he had opportunities to observe and participate in a number of different performance forms which all had one thing in common: rigorous psychophysical training.
Over several decades, Schechner developed his own psychophysical training exercises for actors, known as “rasaboxes.” The exercises have been shaped since into techniques devised by Paula Murray Cole, assistant professor of acting at Ithaca College, and Michele Minnick, who serves on the theatre arts faculty at Towson College. The exercises synthesize aspects of The Natyasastra with contemporary emotion research, particularly Paul Ekman’s studies of facial expression and Michael Gershon’s research on the enteric nervous system. The resulting suite of techniques—which include voice, movement, and breathing exercises, combined with practice and play on a large, taped grid—are flexible, fun, and very effective.
In rasaboxes, actors practice immersing themselves in different emotional “flavors.” And just as food flavors can encompass a range of intensities, from faint to pungent, rasaboxes allows actors and student actors to explore a range of emotional states, from tiny and tentative to full-blown and fully committed. If a director has an actor who needs to “get to a fever pitch” and “enter stage right in hysterics” (think of Lady Capulet after Tybalt’s death, or Romeo’s scene with the Friar after he’s been banished), then rasaboxes can help get the actor where he or she needs to be emotionally—and fast.
Nick Hutchinson, a drama director at Skyline High School in Salt Lake City, Utah, says his rehearsals have gotten much easier because of the rasaboxes techniques: “I can tell my student actors to ‘give me a full-blown emotion at a stage ten,’ and they’ll jump right into it. Then I can dial back the rasa if it’s too much. Before that, I would always get too little from them, especially in scenes which demanded a lot of emotion, and then I’d have to keep asking for ‘More! More!’ ”
Mike Moroz, a drama teacher at Couchian Secondary in Duncan, British Columbia, says, “The rasaboxes changed the way I communicate with my students. We have a whole language for emotion that we didn’t have before.”
In rasaboxes training, students begin by exploring the rasas individually, familiarizing themselves with the essence of each. Eventually they start playing with degrees of intensity contained within each flavor, from a wispy melancholy to deep, passionate tragedy in karuna, for example, or smirking distaste to outright revulsion in bibhatsa. In later trainings, they can begin to mix the rasas, layering sadness with anger, fear with desire, disgust with mirth. The boxes become good territory for exploring text—trying the same line of a play with different rasas and degrees of rasa, for instance, or rehearsing a scene with different, unexpected emotional flavorings. The rasas also become a way of exploring character motivation and expression. Actors develop their characters using the language and techniques of rasa, operating out of raudra (anger), or vira (heroism), or sringara (desire), and experimenting with how those flavors affect their characters’ choices, behaviors, and actions throughout a script. In fact, there are as many different ways to use rasaboxes as there are directors and actors.
Kelly McFadden, an elementary music teacher in Richland, Washington, uses rasaboxes to help her first- and second-grade students read text aloud for music programs with fuller expression and breath control. “There is a dramatic difference,” McFadden says, “between students who simply ‘read the part’ and students who ‘express the part’ (with rasas).”
For Jennifer Miller, who works with at-risk youth at Magic Valley High School, the rasas provide a forum for her students to tackle a range of emotions and physical expression in a way that seems unthreatening. “Using these methods to explore physicality is incredible, and it’s so safe—especially on those days when everyone’s emotions are a bit close to the surface.”
What’s at play?
Psychophysical actor training methods are not new in Western theatre. Methods created by Meyerhold, Michael Chekhov, Suzuki, Lecoq, and Grotowski, among others, all use psychophysical exercises as part of their acting methodology. A psychophysically trained actor does not have to rely on emotional recall or other personal memories in order to connect with a character or scene. They do not have to “think” at all. Instead, they rely on physical stimulation—posture, movement, breathing—to approach a character or text. Richard Schechner designed rasaboxes in particular to help actors become more like Antoine Artaud’s “athletes of the emotions.” Just as a basketball player can explode from sitting on the bench at the sidelines and be ready to join in a game at a moment’s notice, rasaboxes techniques were created to make actors ready to leap from one emotional state to another, and communicate it instantly to an audience.
The science that inspired rasaboxes comes primarily from the work of Paul Ekman and Michael Gershon. Ekman is a psychologist best known for his pioneering work in the universality of facial expression. His research indicates that no matter what culture or country a human being comes from, he or she can recognize the connection between certain facial expressions and their emotional antecedents, suggesting that our smiles and grimaces have a biological, as opposed to a cultural, origin. Ekman’s “universally recognized expressions” include anger, disgust, fear, joy, and sadness, which are also represented in the Sanskrit rasas.
Michael Gershon’s research focuses on the enteric nervous system (ENS), which helps control digestion. The gut contains more neurons than the spinal chord, and its inner workings are essentially independent from the brain—it’s as if we have an entirely unconscious “second brain” in the belly. Gershon’s research opens intriguing questions about the mind-body connection. For Richard Schechner, Gershon’s research suggested a link between the sophisticated neurological processing that goes on down there and our own emotional lexicon—consider phrases like “I had butterflies in my stomach,” “I felt sick from fear,” “My heart ached,” “I had a gut feeling something was wrong.”
Rasaboxes techniques combine sensation with physical expression of emotion. Breath and engagement of the belly are also essential to the exercises. An actor exploring hasya (mirth, mockery, laughter) for example, may chortle or guffaw. She might fall down laughing, or convulse with giggles. She may explore placing hasya in different parts of her body (“mirthful feet” or “a laughing bottom”). She might find herself cavorting or acting like a clown. Observers watching an actor in hasya will inevitably also begin to laugh. Neither audiences nor actors necessarily know “why” they are laughing, but the laughter is shared and exchanged. The engagement of the rasa in the actor affects and awakens a corresponding rasa in the audience.
The power of being—together
Even for young performers who have little to no experience with the work, the rasaboxes exercises can be immediately effective and affecting. This is, in part, because the techniques focus on body, sensation, and breathing, as opposed to thinking and imagining. Not every young person can immediately “see” themselves as the warrior Macbeth, conjuring his dagger of the mind, paralyzed by fear and dread—much less convey the emotional complexities of that hallucination to an audience. But any student can alter his breathing and posture in bhayanaka (fear). When students learn that such simple adjustments in their physicality can create real responses in themselves and an audience, they often feel immensely empowered.
Rasaboxes exercises also give young actors, their teachers, and directors a vocabulary and forum to discuss emotions and emotional expression.
“My students used to have three emotions: sad, mad, and happy,” says Mike Moroz of his students at Couchian Secondary. “With rasaboxes, they have a whole new range of emotion and expression to explore, and also a way to talk about it.”
Moroz mentions that even the foreign-sounding Sanskrit terminology is an asset when dealing with teenaged actors. “Boys are sometimes limited by the emotions they’re permitted to have. Ask a teenaged boy to ‘Tell me about your deepest, darkest sadness,’ and you’ll very likely get nothing much at all. But I can certainly talk about karuna with my male students, and they’ll commit to karuna.”
Actors who use rasaboxes exercises are not necessarily required to “feel” the emotions they convey. While the techniques do communicate emotion, they do not have to transport the actor—only the audience. This idea is a departure from Lee Strasberg’s methods, which require actors to recall and recreate their own traumas and relive them in the context of a character. With rasaboxes, actors may or may not “feel” the emotions of what they are conveying. Actors are trained instead to immerse in and work with the sensations of the rasa. The emphasis is not on “self” and “self-consciousness,” but on “being” and “body immersion.” Rasaboxes can therefore help some students feel safer exploring emotional extremes, because they are not required to imagine horrors or recreate personal trauma; they can simply play in, move though, and explore expressing emotional states without a great deal of personal attachment. Also, at least in the initial stages of training, the rasa exploration is confined to a box. This can make the emotions seem contained, controllable, and therefore less threatening.
One side-effect of rasaboxes training with young people seems to be a sense of community, an unexpected kinship inspired by the free sharing of emotional flavor and essence. Students often report feeling connected and attuned to one another after a session in rasaboxes.
“A class that does rasaboxes winds up sharing energy in a very unique way,” Moroz says. His students recently toured a production of A.R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer to a neighboring high school in British Columbia. After loading their gear in a brand-new theatre, and becoming quietly intimidated by the prospect of performing their show for an audience of perfect strangers, the students had only one request before they started rehearsal. “They asked if they could tape out the grid and do a session of rasaboxes,” Moroz recalls. “It’s how they claimed the space and found each other. It’s what gave them the courage to perform.”
Elise Forier Edie is a professional playwright and director. She teaches classes in performance, playwriting, and theatre education at Central Washington University.
Editor’s note: Another article on rasaboxes, by Marcie Sturiale, appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of Teaching Theatre—and while it covers some of the same background explored here, Sturiale breaks down the exercise as it’s usually taught and offers some additional tips.