Ithaca College Quarterly 2005/1
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Show Me How You Feel

Paula Murray Cole '87 teaches actors using a method based on an ancient Sanskrit theory.

by Zachary Loeb '06

Rasa Boxes

When preparing a meal, the chef must think not only of the ingredients but also of how to prepare them, how the flavors will mix, how to best cook them, and how to present the dish most appealingly. In the same way that a culinary school would teach aspiring chefs, the RasaBoxes exercises seek to train actors -- to treat each emotion as an ingredient to be fully taken in by the actor, so that its flavor can be tasted and digested by the audience. One of the main movers behind this unusual technique is Paula Murray Cole '87, a visiting assistant professor of acting at IC.

After graduating from Ithaca, Paula earned her M.F.A. in acting at the Meadows School of the Arts. She has worked as an actor and director and led workshops at many venues around the country and abroad. She is the codirector of education for East Coast Artists, a theater company headquartered at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. She is also one of the country's chief d dd developers and proponents of RasaBoxes.

The actor-training technique was adapted from a theory of emotion detailed in an ancient Sanskrit manual on performance (circa sixth century BCE to second century CE*) called the Natyasatra. Rasa, from the Sanskrit language, literally means flavor, essence, or "juice." It also refers to specific "emotional flavors" or states that are shared between performers and audience. There are eight primary rasa states: sringara (desire, love), hasya (humor), karuna (pity, grief), raudra (anger), vira (courage, energy), bhayanaka (fear, shame), bibhatsa (disgust), and adbhuta (wonder). A ninth rasa, shanta (peace), was later added to the Natyasastra's system of primary rasas. These emotional states, and the way in which they mix and coexist, underlie all behavior.

Rasa Boxes

In the RasaBoxes exercises, participants move through nine boxes of equal size drawn on the floor (hence the "boxes" in "RasaBoxes"). Each represents a rasa state, with shanta always in the middle. Participants spend time l learning to embody each state. For Paula, what makes RasaBoxes so worthwhile is that the technique "integrates rather than separates acting, voice, and movement."

The RasaBoxes method also incorporates modern ideas such as those of French playwright, actor, and director Antonin Artaud, who demanded that actors be "athletes of the emotions," capable of hopping in and out of a scene's needed sensibilities with the same dexterity that an athlete uses when moving between the bench and live action. The Natyasastra gives very specific instructions on the portrayal of each emotion; RasaBoxes uses an improvisational approach that allows for each actor's individual expression.

The roots may be ancient, but the RasaBoxes tree is vibrant. "Some of the best theater I've seen," says Paula, "is [from] people going into RasaBoxes for the first time." The modern technique was developed in the early 1990s by NYU theater professor Richard Schechner. Paula learned it directly from him and since then has been a key player in the evolution of the exercises, along with Michele Minnick, the associate artistic director and codirector of education for East Coast Artists. "We have combined Richard's original exercises with our own experience and knowledge," Paula says, "coming from acting technique; movement analysis; voice, breath, and body work; and performance theory."

The rasa approach to emotions, she points out, can be seen in many other places, including -- surprisingly -- neurobiology. "It's almost as if modern science is just catching up with ideas contained in this ancient text," she says. For example, she cites the work of Columbia University biology professor Michael D. Gershon, whose research into the enteric (bowel) nervous system shows that it can react based on its own impulses, instead of waiting for the brain to tell it how to react. Thus the ancients' belief in "gut feelings" may be grounded in reality.

Rasa Boxes

This reinforces the rasa idea of emotion as happening independently of thinking, of radiating from a human's core. Contemporary research into emotion suggests that things such as the facial exe pression of emotion is universal -- hard-wired into our evolutionary mainframe. Whether you're from Greece, Canada, Tibet, Texas, or Mexico, a smile is still a smile and a frown is still a frown. It is this universality of emotion that RasaBoxes taps.

IC theater arts professor Norm Johnson was among the first-time participants at the recent RasaBoxes Tr aining Intensive. Workshop held at Ithaca College this summer. Although he had seen its positive effects upon freshmen who'd studied with Paula, it took time for him to adjust to the technique's emphasis on emotion rather than character. "On the surface it is almost polar to what I've been taught and been practicing," he says. Yet he says now that RasaBoxes is "an incredibly valuable tool" for an actor.

In addition to holding workshops all over the country, Paula teaches RasaBoxes to all incoming musical theater and acting majors at IC. But not all her students are actors. Paula and her colleague Michele Minnick are developing a pilot program for medical students, to better help them identify emotional cues being exhibited by patients. She has shared RasaBoxes with drama therapists to show its potential therapeutic applications. Landscape architect Maggie Daly, while working on her master's degree at the University of Oregon, took part in a workshop, hoping to "see what kind of form making would emerge." She plans to use the RasaBoxes technique as she designs new works.

Paula has made extensive use of the technique as an actor herself. In playing Ophelia in a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, she "often used the rasa karuna (pity/grief/anguish/compassion)" to fully immerse herself in the role. A description from her rehearsal notes reads: "My knees sink to the ground, my belly tightens and rounds my spine/my throat tightens/my breath heaves/my head bows. . . . The experience is as if it were happening to me; karuna is moving me according to its demands. I am simply and completely connecting with the rasa." [box]

The next Ithaca College RasaBoxes Training Intensive will be held June 12-24, 2006.

* Before Common Era; Common Era

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