Lecoq – Complements and Criticism

By Ira Seidenstein

March 23, 2011

Let’s give credit where credit is due. Copeau and Stanislavsky changed the world of theatre and acting. Everyone else follows in their giant footsteps even if the followers were reactionary. Lecoq in his 2002(published in English after his death) book acknowledges that he was particularly influenced by Copeau by being in the troupe of Copeau’s daughter and son-in-law. The second major influence that Lecoq acknowledges is that of Noh Theatre of Japan. Not in that book, but oral history told to me by a lifetime friend of Lecoq is that for the last 15 years of Lecoq’s life he became somewhat obsessed with Noh Theatre and went to Japan each year to see it and learn more about it.

The Moving Body 2002 Jacques Lecoq page 4
 “Through Jean Daste I discovered masked performance and Japanese Noh Theatre, both of which have had a powerful influence on me. In Li’Exode (Exodus), a performance using mask and mime created by Marie-Helene and Jean Daste, every actor wore a ‘noble’ mask. which we nowadays call the neutral mask. I also have a vivid memory of a Japanese Noh play, Sumidagawa (Sumida River), in which we mimed the movements of a boat while our voices evoked the sounds of the river. We drew our inspiration from Jacque Copeau, who had been Daste’s teacher, as we performed in Grenoble and the surounding region. I discovered the spirit of ‘ Les Copiaux’ their ambition to make theatre that spoke simple and directly to unsophisticated audiences. Copeau became a reference point for my work, alongside Dullin who belonged to the same theatrical family. Our youthful enthusiasm foudn its echo in the school Dullin had founded in Paris.”

I was a student at the second Lecoq based school at the time in the world. That school was started by the man who was one of Lecoq’s secret weapons, a muse, whose name was Carlo Mazzone-Clementi. When Carlo was finally ready to start his own school, he asked Lecoq for recommendations of teachers who had trained at Lecoq’s. There were three recommendations. Two of those were teachers at Carlo’s school while I was a student. The third was a total scoundrel who Carlo interviewed but rightly forbade from teaching even a sample class in the school.

Some of my very dearest friends are graduates who completed the 2 year course with Lecoq and some also completed the extra year he taught for what he calls “pedagogy”. Besides those friends, there are a few of my favorite theatre practitioners in the world who studied with Lecoq. Each of those fine artists certainly have a range of other teachers and influences however. Although Lecoq is only one of those, they are forever associated only with Lecoq and that is a fallacy. There are in fact a number of fallacy associated with Lecoq and his method. To really understand the value of the Lecoq method one needs to actually understand those fallacies as well.

Also, one of my closest friends in the world has a parent who was Lecoq’s muse and teacher in visual arts. The two families, the artist’s and Lecoq’s spent summer vacations together. Whenever I meet the artist we have an ongoing dialogue that includes him offering me more oral history regarding Lecoq ‘privately’.

I helped my dear friend Ole establish his Lecoq based school in Scandinavia. Ole studied with Lecoq and Monica Pagneaux and completed the course 1976-78. Later he did a year of the ‘pedagogy’. January 3, 1976 Ole and I met for the first day of Carlo’s school in California. We have been close friends ever since. In 1978 Ole had an opportunity to teach a weekend workshop in Stockholm. Coincidently there was a great mime-clown/juggler who had established a short course in mime, clown, juggling, performing and social activism – his name was Michael “River the Mime” Lynch. River hit a golden opportunity to teach all around New Zealand so he moved there with his wife and had the biggest influence on clown in New Zealand. He performed and taught in virtually every village as well as large towns and cities.  So he left his golden treasure of a physical theatre school in Stockholm and Ole happened to be there to pick it up and run with it. The first year he had an actual full one-year course was with me as his co-teacher 1979. The curriculum was the standard Lecoq. However, Ole knew that actually though I am trained in the method, I do not agree that it actually works as well as it is rumored to. So, I taught each subject that Ole asked me to but I taught my own exercises and gave feedback in a very different light than that of almost all of the Lecoq based teachers.

In a moment, I will explain to you what works in the Lecoq method and why.
However, as Dario Fo (see below) points out, actually the Lecoq ‘method’ or ‘pedagogy’ may not work so well. It is a fallacy that Lecoq trained actors are knowledgeable in  the following areas. They are not knowledgeable in areas such as: mask, clown, commedia, mime etc. If they did the whole 2-year program they would have been barely exposed to any of those (and other subjects). Each subject has approximately ‘one month’. Of that, the ‘full-time’ study is actually only 4 hours per day. That 4 hours is not necessarily fully engaged with the main monthly subject. When they are ‘involved’ in any subject say for a 2 hour class, they are not necessarily working on the floor (training). This leads to one of the positive aspects of Lecoq’s ‘method’. The students are desperate to ‘get on the floor’ and they have to present a short piece each week on the main subject. This is called “Auto-cours” (self-study). So rather than being actually trained in a subject, they are training in “auto-cours”. Good. But this is very different than being trained in any of the subjects that the Lecoq ‘method’ presents.

Now we know that on rare occasions, an individual may like a particular subject in the curriculum and after leaving the Lecoq school, that individual may really pursue one of the subjects and become knowledgeable or perhaps even skilled if they decide to train with someone else or decide to put their own hard work into a studio and practice.

So, the first thing that works and the main thing that works from Lecoq is auto-cours. Not necessarily the  Friday afternoon presentation of Auto-Cours and the Lecoq style feedback. This seems to lock the learner into a “Please Papa” syndrome. Where they are working not to learn a subject but rather are learning how to please the authoritarian figure. It is a syndrome of the Lecoq pedagogy that the teacher is set up as an authoritarian figure. That happens even though many graduates of the the Lecoq school are not a “French prick” as many deemed Lecoq. The particular problem with the Lecoq based authoritarians (even if they are very nice people) is that the learner has already been mesmerized to imagine that their teacher must really know(mask, clown, mime, commedia etc) because they trained with Lecoq. However, it is all a bit of a hoax when you actually add up the hours they trained in any subject during their two-years ‘full-time’ that was actually part time anyways.

More about what works…. but now…

But as Dario Fo stated in his own book “Tricks of the Trade” in a section “A master with whom I disagree”, there are things about the Lecoq way that do the opposite of what they claim. One deep and very profound critique by Fo is that unfortunately for the overwhelming majority of students at Lecoq, no matter where they come from (whatever culture or nation) they end up behaving on stage like clones or Lecoq looking actors rather than themselves in their own rhythms. It is like a wonderful director in NYC said to me recently, “I now know that if an actor says to me he ‘is a Suzuki trained actor’ then I know he (or she) can not act”. I would say it is the same for me with any Lecoq trained actor in that if they can really act then they trained in an acting school and not just at Lecoq or Lecoq based schools.

My first insight came during my early acrobatics classes at Carlo’s school. The young teachers taught the Lecoq way. Teaching as they had been taught. However, although hardly an acrobat at the time, I had just had an apprenticeship to a circus master who was also a clown. Although he had been a master acrobat and was the 2nd human to accomplish the triple somersault (from the trapeze to a catcher), he sent me to a master acrobat teacher who had an open class. Virtually all of the others in the class were youths who were the children of circus artists. Although acrobatics is not a ‘speciality’ in the Lecoq method, it (acrobatics) is a regular part of the course. So I did the acrobatics as my teachers told. However, I started to observe that there were mechanical errors in my classmates which went unnoticed and/or uncorrected by the Lecoq trained teachers. I was only starting myself, so I went to a nearby library and found three incredible books on acrobatics. I began to teach myself in my spare time. Very soon my progress was obvious to the other students. Several asked me how was I making this uncanny progress. I explained that I was studying these books and was teaching myself. So they asked me to start to teach them. Carlo too noted the progress and hired me to teach acrobatics and physical training for his summer stock (repertory theatre festival).

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