Tag Archives: Paola Coletto

When you forget that there are no grades

In the physical theater class I just finished taking, I had two good days out of the eight sessions. The other days weren’t bad or un-fun; they were full of hard work and mixed feedback from teachers, like workshops are supposed to be. But I want to explore what made those two good days so good.

The first good day was when I had a bad cold. I’d been taking cold medicine that suppressed the cough and possibly my higher cognitive functions. My body wanted to stay in bed instead of catching an early train to Wicker Park. I went anyway — I was there to absorb whatever I could, even if my brain was too fuzzy to understand.

The second good day, our teacher Marc had us run a relay race, and I was supposed to be a wheelbarrow for the fourth lap.

I was not a good wheelbarrow. Somehow, probably because my abs aren’t strong enough, I ended up sprawled on the ground, winded, unable to talk or move due to a crazy-sharp pain in my back. Five minutes later, I was back to normal, except that I thought — maybe it would be ok if I didn’t nail every Lecoq movement. Maybe it’d even be ok to look like this guy:

Our teachers looked for two main things when they watched us go through these movements: technical precision and presence. I was getting so wrapped up in mastering the technical movements that I was missing the bigger picture of being present with the audience.

Paola theorized that this overthinking — in improv parlance, “getting stuck in my head” — is because I was a good student for 17 years of school. And now I teach Latin.* My default is often to be concerned that I’m getting everything right.

She said something like, “Alyssa, sometimes you try to understand before you do. You are trying to get an A, and you forget I am not giving grades. This is not good. You stop and say you are confused? Do not tell me you are confused! Confused sounds like you should know already and you feel bad because you don’t. Instead, say you don’t know, and do something anyway. There is nothing wrong with not knowing as long as you do something. Understanding is for later. ”

The wheelbarrow day and the cold medicine** day, I had no energy to judge myself. I’d given myself permission not to understand, not to master everything, not to get an A. I was there; that was all. I was shocked when I got better feedback on my work those days than at any other time during the session. Apparently, just being there was better than whatever I was doing before.


*What’s more, I teach introductory Latin, where the students don’t yet have enough mastery to exercise creativity in their translations. An answer is right or wrong, and there is nothing subjective. Or subjunctive, either, because they haven’t learned the subjunctive mood yet.

**This is probably why some performers drink before shows. Buzzed people tend not to be too critical of themselves, which is good. However, they also lack self-awareness and timing, which is bad. Your teammates need you open AND sharp.

Trust Falls and Red Noses

I sat in on one of Paola Coletto’s Red Nose workshops a few weeks ago, just to watch. The performers were practicing trust falls.

I’ve led versions of trust fall games in the interest of developing trustworthiness in the catchers. But one thing I’d never thought to look for in a trust fall was the facial expression on the faller.

In the Red Nose class, Paola had the performers pair up and take turns falling backward into one another’s arms. She pointed out when a faller clenched up her jaw, or forgot to breathe, or shut her eyes. Then the player unclenched her jaw, or breathed, or opened her eyes, and tried again to fall without letting that falling feeling hijack her whole face.

Then, Paola asked the players to take turns standing in neutral while the class cheered. If you’ve ever done this, you know that it’s a confusing emotional roller coaster to be on stage without having anything to say or do.

If you haven’t done it, think of that moment between the time you step on stage and the time you get a suggestion from the audience. You don’t have a character yet, you don’t have anything you’re supposed to say or do, and your body is trying to deal with the fact that people are looking at you.

A priest recently told me that the scariest part of preaching was the time between the end of the Gospel reading and the beginning of the sermon — that is, the time it takes to walk ten feet from the side of the stage to the center of it and say, “Please be seated.” It’s only a few seconds, but it’s when the adrenaline hits, and there’s nothing to do but be looked at.

Think of spreading those three or four seconds out to a full minute, and that’s how it feels to stand in neutral wearing a red nose. It feels like falling.

Which is why it makes total sense that a player’s “I’m falling” face is usually the same as her “I just walked on stage what on earth am I supposed to do?” face. Clenched jaws, held breath, and closed eyes are coping mechanisms a player uses to shove down feelings she doesn’t want, to close off and protect herself from the audience. At least, they’re mine. And I don’t have any idea I’m doing them unless I make a conscious effort to pay attention.

It’s not as simple as relaxing your jaw. Because when you relax you jaw, you find that you’re holding your breath. And when you take a deep breath, you notice the tension has all moved to your hands, which are now balled into little fists. You release your fists, but now your hands are shaking and your fingers are numb. The tension doesn’t really go away, it just moves from one place in your body to another. By the end of one minute of this, some players are laughing uncontrollably; others cry; others have to sit down so they don’t pass out.

And then, the next class, you do it again, but you notice all of these things yourself instead of having someone else call them out for you. Once you feel them for yourself, you can play with those feelings.

So that’s the benefit for the faller: to learn to recognize that feeling so that you can manage it on stage without throwing up a wall between yourself and the audience. Or just without throwing up.

“You already wear a mask!”

The part of physical theater classes that made me most skeptical was mask work. Masks freak me the heck out. But after working with a neutral mask in Paola’s workshops, I think I better understand how they’re useful tools.

One is supposed to be male and the other female, but I never can tell which is which. My hunch is that the female is on the right.

When you put on a neutral mask, you can’t tell a story with your facial expression. All the communication has to be in the rest of your body. The mask leaves no room for timid or halfhearted playing. You have to fully commit.

After class one week, Paola asked me what sort of performances I was working on these days. I told her I was doing a little improv in the suburbs, but mostly I was preparing for Easter Vigil at my church. She asked for more details.

I told her that we tell several stories from the Old Testament, and we have to stick to the text exactly, but we have freedom to move, dance, and sing.

She asked, “Are you mostly moving or mostly speaking text?” This year, I’m mostly moving.

She asked, “And this is for how many people?” It’s a big auditorium; we’re expecting around 2,000 people.

“This is perfect! You bring all the mask work with you. You cannot use your face; only a couple people are close to see your face. All you have is movement. This is how you serve the text, whether you speak it or not. In front of 2,000 people, you already wear a mask!

You won’t see me wearing a (scary, right?) neutral mask in the readings, but you can bet I’ll be pretending to wear one, especially during Israel’s Deliverance at the Red Sea.

Your body trusts your brain. Even if your brain is wrong.

A paraphrase of something one of my physical theater teachers said today, as best as I can remember it:

Your body trusts your brain completely. This is why, if you’re in bed at night and you start thinking about something scary, your heart beats faster. Even if that scary thing is only a lie in your brain, not a fact in the real world. Your body can’t tell the difference between truth and lies.

Basically: If you think you’re no good, your brain tells your body that, and your body closes up a little. Then your brain gets the message that your body has closed up a little and thinks, “This is PROOF that I am no good!” and then your body closes up as a matter of course.

This is why, as Paola and physical therapists and even my pastor’s wife have all told me, your history is written on your body. Your body remembers your physical injuries, yes, but it also remembers your hurt feelings and disappointments and anger and grief.

In this fabulous TED talk that you should watch in its entirety,* Harvard professor Amy Cuddy shares her research on the effect of “power posing” not only on how people are perceived but also on their testosterone and cortisol levels. (Basically, standing like Wonder Woman for two minutes at a time chemically raises your confidence and lowers your stress.) She argues that when you “fake it till you make it” you actually fake it till you become it.

Cuddy says this:

It’s not about the content of the speech. It’s about the presence that they’re bringing to the speech. … They bring their ideas, but as themselves, with no residue over them.

So your thought patterns shape your body language, your body language affects your hormones, your hormones impact your emotions, and your emotions feed into your thought patterns. It’s an endless body-to-thoughts-to-body feedback loop.

The goal of the class is not therapy. Paola has made it clear that she has no interest in how we’re doing emotionally in the outside world. But to be a strong performer, you must have confidence and presence. Our goal is to work out the places in our bodies that hold tension; it’s a constant fight to stay alive in neutral, to get rid of that distracting residue Cuddy talks about.

I’m not sure if it matters where in the loop you start, but for me, it’s easiest to start with my body. If I start with my thoughts, I’m stuck; I’m too good at talking myself out of things. If I start with my body, with things my instructors can see, then they can help. My brain isn’t trustworthy enough on its own.


*Watching this video has my husband “power posing” at random in our apartment. It is the best.

Walking in Neutral – or – Stay alive.

The last time I played “Standing in Neutral,” my class told me I looked like:

  • a person who judges people in public places
  • a teacher who isn’t friends with other teachers
  • a woman watching nervously out the window for gremlins

I wrote here:

That was four years ago. At the time, I was struggling with anxiety and depression. … I’m curious to know if my neutral has changed since then. The best way to find out is probably to get into a room full of honest strangers and ask.

So I was excited/terrified when Paola had us play a variation of Standing in Neutral* in our clowning class this week. I was afraid I’d be the same as I was back when Noah led the game.

Instead of just standing in neutral, we walked in neutral, and five people walked behind us. Paola told us that the leader was to think of these other five people as an extension of her own body — not to ignore them, but not to worry about them either.

And instead of just commenting on what sort of impression we made, she made each of us do it again and again until we were truly neutral.

After the first few people had failed, someone asked, “Paola, what are you looking for? How is it supposed to look?”

Paola** said, “This is like you ask me how you ride the bicycle. I write you the book on how to balance, how to ride the bicycle, but that does not make you do it. You do not learn to balance with words from other people. You know when you see, and you know when you feel.”

Then it was my turn, and I was resigned to failing a time or two at least. I walked across the room. This felt totally surreal. I was just thinking, “This is the strangest I’ve ever felt. I do not anything could take me by surprise right this moment, and also, I think I’m floating,” when there was this odd little gasp from several people. When I arrived at the front of the room to face Paola, the gasps turned into little groans.

Paola said, “Alyssa. You do this very well. In neutral, you walk like a queen. We all see this and soe we understand what I say about the bike. But then you disappoint me. You disappoint the whole room!”

“Oh no! What did I do?”

“You apologize! You apologize with your eyes. You are a queen, and then you use your eyes to hide being a queen. This is like you apologize for being alive. You were alive when you walked, and you died when you stopped. Stay alive.“***

I told this to my friend Steve tonight, and he said, “She’s right! You do that thing with your eyes!” (Someone please point this out to me the next time you see me do it so I can start breaking the habit.)

“Queen” definitely trumps “judgmental teacher plagued by gremlins.” Now I have to grow into it and quit doing the thing with my eyes.

*I now see that “Standing in Neutral” would be better called, “Standing in Natural.” Natural and neutral aren’t even close to the same, apparently.
**Italian is her native language; she tells us that her brain translates from Italian to French to English before words come out of her mouth. Imagine her words accompanied by lots of big hand gestures.

***Emphasis and Mountain Goats link mine.

On the hook

I’ve said before that Jet Eveleth is one of my favorite teachers. Here she is, talking about nerves and fear:

There are at least 19 wonderful things in this video, but I want to highlight this comment:

“I purposely do things that scare me all the time to learn how to manage my adrenaline so that I can be more authentic onstage. … Especially because I teach, I think it’s really important for me to constantly be scared so I’m empathetic with my students.”

Sometimes, after a Jet workshop, I’d ask, “I’d never done that exercise before; what is it from? Where can I learn more things like this? How can I get better at this?”

Jet’s answer was usually along the lines of, “I learned it from clowning. Paola Colletto is the best clowning teacher around. Take classes from her if you can.”

So I Googled Paola Colletto and found out that her classes were way out of my budget, in terms of both time and money. And I felt a little relieved. Well, that scary thing isn’t an option for me. I’m off the hook.

Until last week, when I heard through the Facebook grapevine that Paola was offering a class called “Physical Theater for Improvisers.” It’s in my schedule and my budget. That puts me back on the hook. I’ve talked with Paola, sent my registration check, put it on my calendar.

I’m purposely doing a thing that scares me. And now it’s time to panic.*

*My friend Steve asked when the class was, and I told him it doesn’t start for another 3 weeks. “So now is not actually time to panic. You cannot possibly panic for 3 weeks straight.” Watch me.