My research into a particular means of rehearsing with actors and text began in 2000. It emerged out of a training methodology I had been investigating since 1989 called Pulse, where performers kinaesthetically embed and integrate a selection of Performance and Compositional principles in order to improvise with a shared performance language. Once performers have trained in these principles they can apply them to a narrative text where the emotional inner world of a character is revealed through physical metaphor. The hidden story implied by the text emerges through action. This paper describes the Pulse training and the four phases of the Pulse rehearsal process working with narrative text: Intuitive Investigation, Immersion, Mapping and Rendering.

In the late 1980’s I was a guest at a two-week workshop at The Whitney Museum, New York. The leader of the workshop was a friend of mine, Lawrence ‘Butch’ Morris a renowned jazz composer and cornet player who had been working for several years on a vocabulary of signs and signals he used to communicate with an ensemble of improvising jazz musicians. Using these gestures he was able to spontaneously conduct and compose from the podium. His work became an improvising structure called Conduction.

Conduction (conducted interpretation/improvisation) is a vocabulary of ideographic signs and gestures activated to modify or construct a real-time musical arrangement or composition. Each sign and gesture transmits generative information for interpretation, and provides instantaneous possibilities for altering or initiating harmony, melody, rhythm, articulation, phrasing or form (Morris 2008).

As I observed this process with its delicate codes and invisible lines, I wondered how an ensemble of theatrical performers could achieve the same harmonic complexity and aesthetic coherence in a spontaneous improvisational form.

This workshop prompted me to ask a series of questions. How can an ensemble of actors improvise together like an ensemble of improvising musicians? How does the conductor get an actor’s attention? For theatrical performance to take place, must light and sound elements also be improvised? What are the Performance Principles and then the accompanying signals that need to be communicated to the actors? Could actors be the creators and the creation at the same time?

These initial thoughts led me to engage in a performance investigation that has influenced every aspect of my work as a director, performance maker and actor trainer. So while friends inform me of celebrations in New York for the twenty-fifth Anniversary of Conduction, I am reminded of the beginnings of Pulse.

The Evolution of Pulse

On returning to Australia, I began to develop my own set of signs and signals to adapt to a theatrical context. Unlike Morris however, I did not want to be the focus of the event. I wanted to remove the conductors’ presence and yet still have control over the structure and aesthetic of the piece. I wanted the performers to internalise the director.

I began to work intensively on the fundamental actions of running, walking, standing and falling as notes that could be played solo or together, feeding in the idea of working from impulse, but focusing on the group composition and what the emerging score needed. Eventually patterns began to appear of a ‘self-organizing collective behaviour.’ The investigations of Susan Sgorbati, an improvisational dancer/choreographer informed me at this time.

In discussion with a neuroscientist, Sgorbati was told that ‘the neurons in the human brain form patterns that reflect thoughts and sensory responses. There is no central command informing these patterns. The neurons are self-organizing and their patterns are emergent phenomena’ (Sgorbati 2007:41). Sgorbati works with three key concepts: Self-organization (structuring without a choreographer), Emergence (potential outcome) and Complexity (recognising a pattern which leads to a new outcome) (Sgorbati 2007:42). Exploring these ideas through hours of repeated investigation, a structured, non-linear narrative, improvisational form surfaced. I called it Pulse.

Pulse Training: Embedding the Principles

When performers begin the Pulse they have no idea what will emerge. United by a set of Performance and Compositional principles they respond to external sources and internal impulses. Working from a place where the unconscious and conscious meet, they attempt to synthesise inspiration with technical understanding. The only framework that exists for them is the shared language of Pulse.

This shared language is developed through repeated practical investigation. An ensemble begins from a still point in the empty space and the Performance Principles are introduced through the framework of four fundamental actions: running, walking, standing and falling. Side coaching during and debriefing after each Pulse connects these principles to the kinaesthetic experience. Using the four actions each performer becomes aware of, begins to recognise and eventually applies the Performance Principles of: sustaining action, development, climax, Jo Ha Kyu, repetition, contrast, patterns and clusters. In order to respond to the group each performer is constantly in the centre of their own performative action (in the micro) and yet aware of what the whole piece needs (in the macro). This dual awareness is the beginning of the emerging ‘composer’ within the performer and it is how a dialogue between the co-existing ‘performer/actor’ begins.

When I refer to the ‘composer’, I mean the aspect of the performer that allows them to effect total commitment to action, while simultaneously selecting and organizing the material they are creating. This involves a ‘tight-rope’ balance between spontaneity and control. Adrian Cairns, in ‘Zen and the Art of Acting’, refers to the actor’s split attention,’ where he playsbeing a character at the same time as watching himself’ (Cairns 1986:26). The objective consciousness is watching the subjective consciousness. This internal dialogue is a fundamental aspect of Pulse and must be achieved before an actor can progress to working with narrative text.

The layering of this kinaesthetic experience embeds a shared understanding amongst the ensemble and the momentum of the work takes the performers to the next level. Now the performers are made aware of the formal elements evolving, such as solos, duets and chorus. The notion of the ‘composer’ is explored further through the introduction of Compositional Principles: silence and stillness, units of action, recurring motifs, architecture of space, depth of field, juxtaposition, layering, development to climax, dynamic tension, signifiers of emotion and performative gestures. By beginning to work in a non-literal realm where any creative action is appropriate, the performer will begin to, not block or control, but edit and compose their artistic response to impulses. They begin to understand the process of composition. The mind joins the physical and sensory responses and begins to store material that can be brought back at any time. As proficiency develops both Performance and Compositional Principles are applied to language as well as action. The act of composing has begun.

Stephen Phillips and Katherine Hicks
Pulse Intensive, June 2006
Photographer: Carl Nilsson-Polias

Pulse as a Process for Narrative Text

Pulse in the text-based rehearsal context becomes a shared rehearsal language, a shared vision of collaboration and a shared physical aesthetic (the way bodies move in space and the composition of kinetics). It is a process map and a set of working tools which can be applied and abandoned as the needs of the working material became transparent. It is a working premise not a fixed method of rehearsing, more a mutual understanding and a framework of how to proceed.

In the Pulse rehearsal environment the theatrical elements of sound and light are essential. They assist the actor to work with the awareness of space and form and help nurture emotional responses. This environment allows the actor to drop self-consciousness and to immerse deeply and quickly encouraging access to an inner life. The actors describe it as working with an altered consciousness that allows them to take imaginative risks. Daylight or fluorescent light, working with scripts in hand and stopping to intellectually dissect aspects of the text means the actor must continually move from the ‘subjective’ to the ‘objective’. This process does not allow for the deep penetration possible if working from a sustained state of ‘flow’ horizontally through the narrative. It contributes to an actor feeling exposed. They are working from self rather than responding from an emerging persona.

There are four phases in the Pulse Rehearsal Process: Intuitive Investigation, Immersion, Mapping and Rendering.

Intuitive Investigation

Intuitive Investigation is the sensory and intellectual research necessary for the group to embark on the journey together. It is in this phase that ‘indexing’ or a collaborative list making of the piece takes place. A functional thematic score is developed collectively to help deconstruct the overwhelming plethora of ideas and textual rhythms contained in the narrative and to break the script into sequences or units for rehearsal. Components of the score will involve whatever is pertinent to the genre of the piece. The score serves several functions for this process. Firstly, it creates a shared understanding and material to feed into the Immersion Pulse before the actors know their text. This assists in their absorption of the emerging world. Secondly, in the Rendering phase, I use the score directorially to give me an overview of the function of each sequence in the organically emerging framework.

Immersion: Internalizing the Score and the Text

This phase of the process involves the actor physically ‘diving’ into the textual and aural material. As the text is fed onto the rehearsal floor the actors intuitively unearth subtext while absorbing the unfolding world of the narrative. Sources that may be fed into the Pulse include; research material, the thematic score, light, music, sound and the written text of the sequence. The director can also feed in the shifts of rhythm in the text, the beginning and end of beats, turning points and climaxes, the description of action and themes, as well as the function of character. In this way the nature of the dramatic structure and the writer’s pre-occupations will emerge through physical gesture and action. The actors experience a kind of ‘kinaesthetic script analysis’ where the spatial and rhythmic landscape of the narrative is embedded. During this layer of the process the actors’ create physical responses that are often unwittingly prospective and retrospective images from the storyline and a resonance of the entire narrative begins to inform the characters’ relationships.

As Immersion progresses through the narrative the actors experience an accumulation of shared history, physical motifs, an emerging kinetic world and an increased substance to their relationships. The pace and fluency of the work accelerates as the actors move further into the narrative and inhabit the emerging world.

Grant Cartwright, Tim Potter and Carl Nilsson-Polias
YES, adapted from a film by Sally Potter, 2007
Photographer Jeff Busby

Mapping: Externalizing the Text

Mapping involves the actors working through the narrative, thought by thought in ‘extended time’. The focus is now on verbalizing the text and using it to stimulate the physical imagination in a non-literal way. Mapping serves to create visual imagery for the physical map; to wed the thoughts represented by language to the actions, emotions and sensations experienced; and to give the actors a kinaesthetic experience of the text, the ideas and their relationships.

The intention of this layer is to explore the integration between the verbal and physical world of the narrative. In this process, as Mapping proceeds a character intuitively emerges. The actor does not consciously ‘build’ a character, it is the physical actions of the actor that enables the character to evolve. We are what we do. By the end of this phase ‘the character has found the actor’.

Even if the actors know their text by this stage the director and the other actors still feed the text into the Pulse. This enables all ensemble members in the room to be focused on the same moment. Familiarity with every thought in the narrative is each participant’s responsibility and not just that of the actor speaking it. When a thought is fed onto the floor it gives the speaking actor’s acting partners a chance to be changed by it in the moment before the actor speaks it. This means they are ready to receive whatever physical interactions may happen to them, they can physically provoke their speaking partner to help him/her find the impulse to speak and they get to experience the content of the thought twice. Feeding text is a group responsibility. The director will initiate it but will ‘pass the baton’ many times to serving actors in order to conduct the other elements in the room. The director takes back the feeding when they need to implicitly direct through their delivery, usually through pace or volume, for example, leaving space for moments to develop or keeping the actor in an action by feeding a stream of thoughts quickly.

Emerging always through Pulse theatrical investigation is an emphasis on the body. The actor’s body paints the space through direct physical experience and memory. In this way the body becomes content, image and witness. Actors thinking with their bodies and not calculating with the mind allows for surprising meetings on a rehearsal floor and a restrained emotional landscape of unspoken feelings in any narrative text lends itself perfectly to a physicalisation of this undercurrent; the character’s inner world, their hidden story.

It is the actor’s task to approach each moment using the Pulse Principles once they have been stimulated by the meaning of a thought in the written text. They work from impulse choosing from, for example, contrast, juxtaposition, layering, repetition or complicity. Consequently the actor’s limited, familiar and logical physical and emotional response to meaning is subverted. An expected congruence between the verbal and physical enactment of text and any attachment to psychological behaviourism is broken. Each character’s actions are heightened and unpredictable. What is more important to me than seeing characters as social constructs exhibiting masking behaviour, is that the audience experiences what fundamentally drives them through seeing them kinetically engaged. The Mapping phase creates the material that will serve as the framework of the staged outcome.

Rendering: Finding the Form

Rendering becomes a combination of sifting through and selecting thematic physical, visual, aural and spatial imagery from the Immersion and Mapping Pulses. Sound sources, which were offered in the previous phases, are distilled and made into a sound score. Spoken scenes are staged by placing selected physical images where they are effective, usually where they occurred in the Mapping phase. During Mapping, the actor worked from the ‘inside-out’, responding by impulse to an external stimulus, i.e. a line of text. Often a physical sequence is dislodged from where it was created and placed elsewhere with alternate text. If this is the case, it is the task of the actor to find the bridge between the action and the character’s intention by working from the ‘outside-in’.

This phase is a combination of physical, emotional and sensory retrieval for the actors and of selecting and composing for the director. In this phase the actors and director are consciously employing Compositional Principles such as architecture of space, depth of field, layering (especially for the overlapping in transitions), simultaneous imagery, recurring motifs and juxtaposition in the shaping of the whole.

The physical map of each sequence must be in fluent ‘dialogue’ with the spoken text. Through Pulse the physical landscape has not become more important than the text, the viewer still has to hear and comprehend the verbal narrative, but the physical life of the theatrical world is no longer just an underscoring of the verbal meaning. It has equal weight of expression in the space. The hidden story of a character’s inner turmoil is physicalised and when juxtaposed with the spoken text, may reinforce the verbal meaning or cast doubt.

Meredith Penman, Grant Cartwright, Tim Potter Carl Nilsson-Polias and Terry Yeboah
YES, adapted from a film by Sally Potter, 2007
Photographer Jeff Busby

The Simultaneous and Vertical Uses of Immersion, Mapping and Rendering

Immersion, Mapping and Rendering are rehearsal tools, which may start out being applied to the narrative in a linear way and then are adapted to respond to the needs of the evolving material and the limitations of time and space. Each phase has a different function and the director chooses when and how to employ them.

According to the type of material being dealt with, sequences demand different approaches. For example, when a monologue or duologue needs ensemble participation I would employ Immersion and Mapping simultaneously. The speaking actors are Mapping and the ensemble takes care of the space employing the awareness of Immersion.

Rendering or repeating a unit of action to enable the framing of a composed moment may be employed inside the Pulse to physically retrieve compositions whilst remaining in ‘flow’. This tool is employed so the actor does not stop or come out of the work and is able to continue moving forward afterwards. In the investigation and development of the physical world the actors are predominately activating their ‘composer’ and as such the material may not have reached its performative potential. As the director I may ask the actors to repeat and Render a unit of action. This repetition gives the actor the opportunity to invest more performatively bringing commitment and other expressive layers to the image. A unit of action might be created in a Pulse, Rendered, then thrown back into the Pulse to find its application in space. As the actors now know the sequence they can be performatively committed to it, allowing the ‘composer’ to again be activated, only this time working for a different intention.

The ‘Actor’ and the ‘Performer’ Co-exist

When they are training in the Pulse Principles a performer works from ‘self’ to create improvised material and access ‘the composer’. An actor however, is one who is transformed by a generative source, such as text, into another: a character. The performer meets the actor when Pulse interrogates a narrative text. The ‘self’ or the performer/composer and the ‘transformed self’ (character) begin cohabitating. It is during the investigation process that the extremity of each state is compromised in favour of the extra-dimensions possible with the coalescence of the double.

In each layer of the process, the performer/actor moves continuously and fluidly between perception and reception, impulse and form. They internalize the audience in order to experience themselves as part of the image they are making, as well as literally taking themselves through a physical journey. When the work is in performance and repeated nightly, it is the intensity of this physical effort and the consequent emotional impact on their instrument that assists in the illusion of transformation. The viewer witnesses the process of transformation as it is occurring.

The staged outcome of the Pulse process involves the memories and fantasies as well as present-time actions of a character being played concurrently. Imaginary and existing figures share the same time and space introducing the viewer to a world where there is no unity of time and space and all contexts are fluid. Sequences contain metaphorically layered meaning due to this ambiguity. This is what makes the visual presentation of paradox possible. In this work the open stage of the empty space offers the viewer simultaneous focus points. This makes the viewer inherently involved in the process of composition. Each viewer will decipher alternative readings, not so much of the stage action itself, but of the metaphorical meanings it is possible to extract. The viewer’s interpretation is subjective and personal.

When a group of creative artists begin the Pulse process they enter the unknown. All they have is an empty space; words on a page and a shared language of process that will help them reveal that which is hidden.


Cairns, Adrian (1986). ‘Zen and the Art of Acting’, New Theatre Quarterly Vol.2, no.5, 1986 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Morris, L.B. (2010). 25 Years of Conduction (Press Release) (accessed 4/3/2008)

Sgorbati, S (2007). ‘The Emergent Improvisation Project: Embodying Complexity’, Contact Quarterly Vol. 32, no.1, 2007