Image: Raymond-Kym Suttle
Raymond-Kym Suttle graduated with his MA in Dance Studies in 1996 after originally training as an actor. Since graduating, he has worked as a dancer, choreographer and burlesque artist before moving to Los Angeles to pursue his film career further. Here he talks to us about his work so far, including his use of semiotics – discovered during his studies – in acting.
Tell us about your time at Trinity Laban.
I originally auditioned for the Transitions Dance Company (MA Dance Performance), but was offered a place on the MA Dance Studies on a scholarship. I had some professional choreographic experience – though for theatre rather than dance – so thought this would be a good opportunity to develop. It was great having access to rehearsal spaces, real dancers and a theatre space to work in. Discovering the field of semiotics was a revelation and one that I’ve grown to love more and more as I observe it in action every day in the people around me.
Ultimately I got a lot out of my time at Trinity Laban, but it also reaffirmed my sense that one should never conform to someone else’s ideals – stick to your guns and create what feels right for you.
Thanks to my MA, I’ve been able to teach choreography and dance at prestigious venues such as the Skyros Centre in Greece.
I now perform regularly under the banner of ‘male burlesque’, as my alter-ego Major Suttle-Tease, though what I do isn’t pure or classic burlesque by any means. I combine dance with stand-up comedy, song and inventive clothing removal performed to complex pastiches of music, recorded dialogue, projected imagery and sound effects.
I embed strong socio-political messages in my work – although my work is fun, there’s a serious point I’m making. My hope is that I’ll reach people who wouldn’t usually go to a serious play, and present them with something meaningful to get them thinking.
You originally trained as an actor; why did you decide to do a Masters in dance?
It’s a good question, because after I finished my BA in English & Drama I swore I was never going to study again!
I’d always been an actor who dances, and still am. I’ve also done a lot of physical theatre in which actors use their bodies and props to create an environment or a mood. I have always been aware of the power of the human body to convey things that the voice and words cannot – and vice versa.
The primary benefit of being both an actor and choreographer is that when creating movement as part of a play, I have an understanding of what actors are comfortable with – actors are very different to dancers. Dancers, in my opinion, are better at taking criticism because they’re used to being told/shown what to do and how to do it, whereas that’s not the case with acting. One of my strengths is finding a way to make actors feel like they’re part of the choreographic process so that it’s acting through movement, rather than ‘dance’, because a lot of actors have a strong belief that they’re not dancers and therefore freeze at the word ‘choreography’. When you help them to see that everything they do on stage is choreography you get great results. For example, I was asked by a director to create the transformation of 8 actors from courtiers into a pack of blood-thirsty hunting dogs. That result was one of my best reviews to date, with my choreography described as being “reminiscent of the great Pina Bausch”. Ironically, at the time I got the review, I’d never heard of Pina Bausch (!) so it took me a while to realize how much of a compliment that was!
Image: Raymond-Kym Suttle
Your methodology for acting based on the semiotics work you did during your Masters sound fascinating! Please tell us more.
I aim to help actors become consciously aware of the processes that most actors use instinctively, because they’re using them in every day life: body contact, physical appearance, facial expressions, and other non-linguistic aspects of speech.
Many great actors use these indicators unconsciously – they instinctively know what to do but couldn’t explain to you exactly what they did, why they did it, or why what they did works. It’s my belief that knowing why you did what you did is more useful than just using instinct and hoping for the best.
To begin with, I get the actors to sit at a table, with their hands flat on the table and feet flat on the floor, and deliver a highly emotional extract of script, with no particular emotional force, just focusing on making sense of the words. They are instructed not to gesture with their hands, not to do anything deliberately with their facial expressions, not to move/shift in the chair/tuck their feet under them, etc. They are told they can do whatever they like vocally.
Most people, in this first stage give me clues as to where their emotions ‘bleed’. It may be an involuntary lift of a finger off the table, or a tap of a foot, or a lift of the chin. This emotional ‘bleed’ may well be anxiety, or it may be a response to the text. Wherever that ‘bleed’ is noticed I then make them aware of what their body does unconsciously to release tension (physically or emotionally).
I then ask them to do the scene again, this time concentrating on finding a moment, just one single moment, when they feel the strongest desire to change one of the semiotic indicators: one hand gesture, change their orientation use a head nod/shake, etc.
We gradually build and build until when we get the actor out from behind the table, hopefully they are now highly aware of whether whatever gesture they’re doing is absolutely necessary, or if they’re making choices in an attempt to be ‘interesting’ rather than emotionally true.
There’s a lot more to the process and it’s not effective on every actor but it’s a useful tool for becoming conscious of how we do what we do and what works to make something seem convincing.
What are your future career plans (dance, acting, and more!)
I moved to the USA primarily to further my film-making career on both sides of the camera. I have a feature film script that is semi-autobiographical, that I converted into a stage play to help me sort out some issues I was having with the chronology and details of the plot, as well as to see how some characters needed to change. I produced the play in London and that was very useful when I rewrote the film script. Ironically I now have a producer in LA who’d like to see a stage version of the new script, and someone who saw the play in London would like to do a translation into German and direct it in Germany.