A Moving Performance

Physical theater workshops enhance performance through movement

Physical theater performer Kali Quinn talks with Duke students during a recent workshop on campus.
Physical theater performer Kali Quinn talks with Duke students during a recent workshop on campus.

For Kali Quinn, theater is not about what you say but how you say it.

Quinn, a physical theater performer and instructor at Brown University, is spending three weeks at Duke as an artist-in-residence with the Theater Studies department. Her residency will consist of a series of movement workshops and a performance of her one-woman show, "Overture to a Thursday Morning."

The workshops, which began on Sept. 6 and will continue on Sept. 13 and 20, will help the students in Jeff Storer's Theater Studies 290 class convey the drama in Anton Chekhov's play "Uncle Vanya" through movement. The students will incorporate Quinn's techniques when they stage "Uncle Vanya" later this fall.

Physical theater refers to a variety of movement-centric performance arts, from clown to acrobatics. Quinn says such performance styles can be incorporated into conventional theater productions, maximizing the audience's engagement.

"Physical theater is not just about the work but about images that do something perpendicular to the words," Quinn said. "If I did something with my body that was parallel to the text, I could be on the radio. If my body is more connected to the text, however, there's a reason for people to visually connect with what I'm saying."

Quinn became interested in physical theater while an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, where the small size of the theater studies program necessitated integrated movement and spoken word classes. After completing graduate work in physical theater at the Dell'Arte School of Physical Theater in California, Quinn embarked on a multifaceted career as a musician, actress, clown and educator.

"I think I went to graduate school for physical theater because I had so many different interests as an undergraduate," Quinn said. "As an art form, it really gives you a chance to express yourself in so many ways. There also aren't that many physical theater ensembles, so I feel like I'm extending the legacy of this art form." Storer said Quinn's experience with clown techniques in particular will push the students to rely on more than just the written lines to convey the humor of "Uncle Vanya."

"I was looking for somebody who could not only help actors develop character through movement but also push them to understand humor through movement," Storer said. "We're not going to be using wigs and makeup for anything, so the students' characters will come out from their movement."

Quinn's first workshop opened with a series of exercises designed to draw out specific movements and sounds that students could add to their characters' "physical vocabularies" to complement their lines. Such movements included pauses designed to create suspense and audible breaths to convey surprise or fear.

Third-year student Jaya Powell, who plays two roles in "Vanya," said Quinn's first workshop was liberating.

"I've been struggling with my role because I don't have many speaking parts and [was not sure] exactly what makes me necessary in this play," Powell said. "At one point, Kali had me sing the lullaby I performed at my audition as an exercise. It was amazing to watch how my singing affected everyone. The most important thing Kali taught me is that you don't have to speak to be important. The physical ways in which you act are extremely important as well."

Kali Quinn will perform her one-woman show "Overture to a Thursday Morning" on Sept. 13 at 8 p.m. in Brody Theater. For more information on this performance and "Uncle Vanya," visit the Duke Theater Studies website.

The Theater Studies department and Kali Quinn will also offer a public movement and physical theater workshop on Sunday, Sept. 15, from 3:15 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. in the Rehearsal Studio (127 Bryan Center).