The Body as a Template: Seascape Movement Coach Danyon Davis on Lizards

By Annie Sears

For actors Seann Gallagher and Sarah Nina Hayon, getting into character involves more than putting on a costume; it involves putting on the entire physical life of a lizard. Edward Albee’s Seascape—playing through February 17 at The Geary—features two couples. One is human; the other is lizard. Portraying an animal presents unique challenges, which is where A.C.T.’s head of movement Danyon Davis offers his expertise.

Davis comes to A.C.T. after serving as head of movement at Stella Adler Studio of Acting, and he’s a former faculty member at the Neighborhood Playhouse, Circle in the Square Theatre School, and HB Studio’s Hagen Core Training program. Davis also assisted Moni Yakim, founding faculty member and head of movement at the Julliard Drama Division, for many years. We recently sat down with Davis to learn about bypassing one’s human physicality to access something more reptilian.

Actor Sarah Nina Hayon, wearing her rehearsal tail, listens to director Pam MacKinnon in Seascape rehearsal. Photo by Beryl Baker.

Where did your process start?
You have to look at the human body as a template. You only have a certain set of components, and all those components are connected to one another. You have to figure out a way of coordinating those essential elements, and then moving them in an animal-like fashion. We started with a compilation of lizard videos, and then looked at another reptile: the serpent. A snake is always led by its head. There are all these different ways in which the head can articulate, and then the rest of the body—the neck, the shoulders, the chest—can follow the primary impetus of the head.

What challenges did you come across?
The lizard moves very much like a quadrupedal animal, which makes it difficult because actors generally are not working on that horizontal plane with all four limbs on the floor. That makes it harder for them to connect with each other, make their choices visible, and produce sound in the way that language needs to be carried. To get out of that quadrupedal plane, we looked at meerkats. The upright nature of the meerkat offers a physical structure that is a little more like the human frame, which enables the actors to produce expression in the ways they’re trained, in terms of making their physical choices visible and their voice direct. But our lizards do find themselves on all fours sometimes. When that happens, I wanted a more immediate reference. It’s actually the fox. There’s a vignette by Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa from a series of shorts he did called Dreams, and in one particular vignette, there’s this wedding procession of foxes. There’s something about their quality of movement that I really like, a staccato quality. Sudden, quick, sharp movement. That corresponded well to what our lizards needed to accomplish. So it was those three elements: serpent, meerkat, and a little bit of fox.

Using words to communicate these concepts, as opposed to demonstrating, seems really challenging.
Try writing a book about movement! [Laughs] It’s impossible.

Come see these lizards in action on the Geary stage. Join us for Edward Albee’s Seascape, running now through February 17. Get your tickets today!

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