By Emily Davis
Editors’ note: We are republishing this article, written in 2013, along with the addendum below from the author.
In looking back at this version of myself from seven years ago, I am particularly struck by the newness of all those ideas. Creating work with pleasure and time and space was a new model for me then. Now it seems like I’ve always done it that way. Everything I did seven years ago, I had to do consciously, with my full attention. There was a sense of “Here I am working slowly. Here I am working gently. Here I am working with pleasure.” Now I just do those things. Like a good Awareness Through Movement® lesson that just becomes part of a person, I have integrated these “new” ways of working such that they are part of me and my company. Because of these changes, we are now a particularly nimble and flexible organization.
I think a lot about pathways – about how, when working with a student in one to one sessions, there are movement pathways that say “yes” and ones that say “no.” When we begin, the arm wants to go THIS way and so that is the way we go. This is how I proceed in my theatre making, as well. I waste no time on pathways that say “no” – I just go where there’s a yes.
Being able to find new pathways has been particularly important this year when the entirety of theatre was benched. Because theatre was canceled, the whole field was “no” but I had ideas about an audio drama podcast that we could make while separated from one another. That was a “yes” and so, in a time when there was no theatre, we still managed to make some. I see that kind of adaptability as a direct result of my experience of the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education, a flexible model in the way that Moshe Feldenkrais was after flexible brains. We fall. We roll. We get back up and make something new.
The Feldenkrais Method first began to move me in a workshop for my art. I was studying mask work and my teacher, the incomparable John Wright, did a lesson with us at the start of every day. The lessons were inspiring and my performance work in the class felt like the best I’d ever done. I have no doubt that my progress in the art was due to the lessons we did and the attitude they inspired.
The moment that epitomized the experience for me was when John saw me struggling and touched me on the knee, saying rather ruefully, “You work so hard.” It was the very first time I had thought to reconsider the value of struggling so much. Shifting my relationship with “work,” in the exercise, shifted my relationship to the work I was attempting in performance and it transformed me.
Since starting my training in the Feldenkrais Method in 2009, I have seen my self-organization shift and change many times. I’ve been moved again and again by the way reducing the effort, doing less and paying attention can improve everything.
I have found it impossible to not take these principles into other aspects of my life. It has had an impact on my teaching, on my relationships, and my art. Last year, I began to think about how to better incorporate these ideas into my corporation (I cannot help but notice that the root of those words is rooted in the body. Corporeality is everywhere.) I began to wonder how to organize my organization in the Feldenkrais® way.
I run a small off-off Broadway non-profit theatre company – emphasis on SMALL and NON-profit. I started it in 2001 and it has always been a great deal of hard work for very little reward. I felt like I was banging my head against a wall and I could barely work up the energy to imagine doing another show. With all the discouragement that comes with this sort of thing, I was very near to throwing in the towel altogether when I began to approach making theatre as if it were a Feldenkrais® lesson.
I’d been toying with ideas about this for a while, but it took an experience with another theatre company to clarify it for me. I took a workshop with one of my all time favorite companies. From the moment I saw their work – a decade ago – I wanted to do what they did, discover their secrets. I’d always thought I’d give up my own work in a second to be a part of theirs. The workshop was a window into their process and it was exhilarating, illuminating and inspiring, but I discovered something; I didn’t want to do what they did.
They were interested in really rubbing up against the hard stuff, facing the difficulties in the group, and those within it. They seemed to want to look closely at the walls and sometimes run into them. While watching the group struggle, I realized I had no interest in running into walls or examining the difficulties anymore. I didn’t want to focus on the problems in a group (because, as Dr. Feldenkrais said, when we focus on a problem, we get a very good problem.) I wanted to focus on what was working. I wanted to focus on where we could go and on making more and more choices instead of reinforcing our compulsions.
It seemed to me that how we work with people can be just like how we work with ourselves, that focusing on the difficulties in a collaborative environment must inevitably lead to more difficulties. I left that workshop recommitted to my own work and with a kind of internal mandate to do things differently.
Here are some of the things we remind ourselves again and again: reduce the effort, do only what is easy/pleasurable, go slowly, rest between movements.
This is how they showed up in my theatre/organizational practice. First, I noticed what I was already doing, where I was working too hard, where I was over-efforting. But I also noticed what was easy, what was pleasurable and I decided to make our next show using what I was learning in training. My first course of action was to find performers that I could develop this with. I thought about who was easy to work with, with whom I could feel myself and create at the highest level with pleasurable rapport. At the time, there was only one person who fit that bill, so I asked her to make something with me. We got together in a room and made lists of what we wanted in a piece and before too long, we had an idea that fed our curiosity. We then took our time putting it together. We went slowly, paying attention, unconcerned with the end result, not trying to ACHIEVE the thing, just discovering it.
I would like to pause here to say that this runs counter to almost everything we learn in theatre training. We’re taught to push, to go to our limits, to drive toward performance, to set our sights on the show and go full speed ahead. Most shows are created in bursts of intensity, a few weeks of daily rehearsal.
In contrast, we took ten months to make this show, resting when we needed to, taking time to absorb what we learned from rehearsal to rehearsal. It was the most pleasurable way of making work I have ever experienced.
Now that the show has been made, I am attempting to find ways to make the promotion of it as pleasurable as its creation. This raises a lot of questions for me. How do I imbue the drudgery of administrative tasks with the same ease and pleasure of making the art?
What I have discovered so far: I start with what’s easy. I notice what I am already doing and see if there’s a way to reduce the effort. If there is an overabundance of effort somewhere, I ask myself, “Is there a way to find support?” Or perhaps do it just a little bit less? Or to adapt it so that I can manage it? And I am giving myself permission to go slowly, even under the gun of grant deadlines and fundraising goals. The business of making theatre has almost always been fast and furious and in slowing that process down, I have found many pleasures I had been missing in my push to drive it all forward.
I have also found myself willing and able to overcome many challenges that I had previously found insurmountable. The spirit of awareness and curiosity that the training cultivates in me has helped me do things as variable as designing marketing materials, learning new software, negotiating prices, and talking with people who make me nervous. I am more and more comfortable with the things I previously thought of as stuff I couldn’t do. The differences in the process of learning how to stand my hand over my head and how to organize a tour aren’t all that different really.
In this last year of my training program, I have noticed myself thinking I should be farther along, that I should have more of the answers by now. I wonder often how I could possibly graduate in four months when there’s still so much to learn. But, when I take the time to step back and think about it, what is at the heart of the Feldenkrais Method is learning how to learn and that’s somewhere to start and a way to go forward. The process of learning will likely continue to sink in and infuse everything I do.
Finishing the training will be a beginning and a continuation, I think. It will mean following the spirit of curiosity and inquiry that is inherent in the Feldenkrais Method, everywhere it leads, starting in the body, into the art and into the organization of my organization and beyond.
Emily Davis is the Artistic Director of Messenger Theatre Company in NYC for which she writes, directs, and performs.
Emily Rainbow Davis writes and directs for Messenger Theatre Company, which she co-founded and runs. Her blog and podcast, Songs for the Struggling Artist, has over 60,000 views, around 10,000 downloads and her new audio drama, The Dragoning was recently nominated for an Audio Verse award. For more information and to reach Emily: http://www.feldenkraisarts.com and https://www.emilyrainbowdavis.com